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This is Not a Watchman Review

[published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

The world doesn’t need another Watchmen review. Everyone with access to a preview screening and a web page has already done one. The world is not short of opinions and the web doesn’t seem to differentiate between considered responses and emotional reflex put to words, though you can find some of the better ones here (thanks to David Hudson at The Daily @ IFC.com for wading through the onslaught to pick out the more interesting responses).

So this is not a Watchmen review. It’s a consideration of what the film is and how it got that way: perhaps the most faithful cinematic replica of a comic book experience every accomplished.

Here is my question: why would anyone want that? I have the graphic novel. I’ve read it a few times and can pick it up anytime I want to.

Nite Owl and Archie
Nite Owl and Archie

I go to the movies to be immersed, impressed, awed, engaged. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen feels like a film made to deliver a sense of comfort that everything is exactly as you remember from the graphic novel. The character stories and arcs are all there, along with the complex backstories and the alternate history of America. The signature images from the comic books are all on display: the marvelous costume designs (which in some cases evoke comic-book silliness and garish impracticality of yesteryear costumed heroes), Doctor Manhattan’s Mars Fortress of Solitude, Archie the Nite Owl’s ship. In an interview Alan Moore gave to Wired Magazine, he complained that no film could get the texture of Dave Gibbons’ artwork. Maybe, but I can’t image anyone getting closer.

Yes, Snyder streamlined the story and judiciously edited out certain subplots and side-stories (notably the “Tales from the Black Freighter,” which will be released on a separate DVD later this month and is promised to be returned to the DVD release – though fans of the comic will notice that the news agent and the comic-book fan are present in a few shots). And he even dared to change the details of Moore’s original ending, twisting it with an insight so perceptive that one wonders if Moore would have done the same had it occurred to him, so beautifully does it wrap itself within the self-contained mythology and the character dynamics.

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The last list of Lists for 2008 – The Year in Cinema

The reading of the Oscar nominations marks the unofficial (and long overdue) end to the season of Top Ten lists and year-in-review pieces and various awards bestowed by every group who wants to add their stamp to the passports of Oscar hopefuls. So as a postscript, I gather a few lists and remarks from Parallax View contributors and friends, along with those published by Seattle top critics, as a snapshot of the way see 2008.

Sean Axmaker

A Christmas Tale
A Christmas Tale

1. A Christmas Tale (France) (dir: Arnaud Desplechin)
2. The Edge Of Heaven (Germany) (dir: Fatih Akin)
3. WALL•E (dir: Andrew Stanton)
4. Let The Right One In (Sweden) (dir: Tomas Alfredson)
5. Wendy And Lucy (dir: Kelly Reichardt)
6. The Fall (dir: Tarsem Singh)
7. The Dark Knight (dir: Christopher Nolan)
8. The Class (France) (dir: Laurent Cantet)
9. The Secret Of The Grain (France) dir: Abdellatif Kechiche
10. My Blueberry Nights (dir: Wong Kar Wai)

I also saw six films at various film festivals that could easily have made the list, were they eligible under most Top Ten guidelines (i.e.: a theatrical release). Some of them have been set for a 2009 release, a couple still await distribution.

Four Nights With Anna (Poland/France) dir: Jerzy Skowlimowski
The Hurt Locker dir: Kathryn Bigelow
L’heure d’ete (Summer Hours) (France) dir/scr: Olivier Assayas
Of Time And The City dir/scr: Terence Davies
Still Walking (Japan) dir/scr: Hirozaku Kore-Eda
Ain’t Scared (France) dir/scr: Audrey Estrougo

Robert Cumbow

(in lieu of a list, Mr. Cumbow put together his Observations, Reflections, and Ruminations from 2008 for Parallax View here)

Jim Emerson

(Ten Best Favorite Movies, from his Scanners blog) Click on the link for the video experience.

1. In Bruges (comedy, gangster; on DVD)
2. The Edge of Heaven (multi-narrative drama; on DVD)
3. A Christmas Tale (comedy, family)
4. Pineapple Express (comedy, stoner/bromantic, crime, action, Ninja; on DVD/Blu-ray)
5. Wendy and Lucy (heartbreaker)
6. Let the Right One In (comedy, tweener love story, horror)
7. Still Life (comedy, romantic/industrial; on DVD)
8. Chop Shop (docudrama; on DVD)
9. Shotgun Stories (Southern Gothic; on DVD)
10. The Fall (comedy, Western/Eastern fantasy adventure; on DVD/Blu-ray)
11. Che (instructional documentary, with re-enactments)

John Hartl

The Edge of Heaven
The Edge of Heaven

(more or less in order)

The Edge of Heaven
Man on Wire
WALL•E
Waltz With Bashir
The Pool
Milk
Taxi to the Dark Side
Boy A
Frozen River
and the most interesting SIFF film I saw that hasn’t been released: Tony Barbieri’s Em

Robert Horton

(from his blog)

1. The Edge of Heaven
2. The Duchess of Langeais
3. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
4. The Dark Knight
5. Wendy and Lucy
6. Married Life
7. Priceless
8. In Bruges
9. Forever
10. Let the Right One In

Richard T. Jameson

2008 was one weird film year for a variety of reasons, and trying to throw a Ten Best list around it has seemed a fool’s-errand. This fool’s latest version of one, for the editor of Germany’s brave Steadycam magazine to post online, should be the last I hazard … though it, like its predecessors, ignores some half-dozen first-rate films seen at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival and unreleased as yet Stateside.

In Bruges
In Bruges

1) The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin)
2) A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
3) The Secret of the Grain (Abdellatif Kechiche)
4) I’ve Loved You So Long (Philippe Claudel)
5) Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
6) Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
7) In Bruges (Martin McDonagh) … hands-down favorite!
8 ) WALL•E (Andrew Stanton)
9) A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol)
10) Tell No One (Guillaume Canet)

Kathleen Murphy

1.  The Edge of Heaven
2.  In Bruges
3.  A Christmas Tale
4.  I’ve Loved You So Long
5.  Wendy and Lucy
6.  Let the Right One In
7.  WALL•E
8.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
9.  Vicky Christina Barcelona
10. Man on Wire

Andrew Wright

Let the Right One In
Let the Right One In

1. The Dark Knight
2. The Edge of Heaven
3. Let the Right One In
4. Burn After Reading
5. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
6. WALL•E
7. Redbelt
8. Encounters at the End of the World
9. Fear(s) of the Dark
10. JCVD

Select Seattle-area Critics

William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

(in no particular order)

U2 3D
Milk, W., Frost/Nixon
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
The Reader
The Visitor
Cassandra’s Dream/Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Iron Man, The Dark Knight
Valkyrie
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL•E

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times

(in alphabetical order)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frozen River
Man on Wire
Milk
Priceless
Revolutionary Road
Shine a Light
Tell No One
WALL•E

Tom Tangney, KIRO

1. The Edge of Heaven
2. Synecdoche, N.Y.
3. Boy A
4. I’ve Loved You So Long
5. Man on Wire
6. Funny Games
7. Towelhead
8. Wall•E
9. Rachel Getting Married
10. (tie) Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight.

Wendy and Lucy
Wendy and Lucy

Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Up For Sale, Up in the Air

[Published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

You could say it came as a complete surprise when, on Thursday evening, local TV station KING-TV announced that, according to unnamed sources, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer would be put up for sale. The P-I staff had no news of it and the Hearst Corporation, which owns the P-I, would not comment. It could have been a rumor, a hoax or just an incorrect story. At least that’s what many of us hoped. It wasn’t until Friday afternoon that news was confirmed and the news made public.

But if the announcement was a surprise, the closing of a Seattle newspaper was hardly unanticipated. Traditional print newspapers have been on life support for years and Seattle was the last city of its size to still have two competing daily newspapers. Both the Seattle Time and the P-I have both been losing money. The two papers appeared to be attempting to outlast the other and be the last paper standing. While the locally-owned Times has a significantly larger circulation (198,741 to the P-I’s 117,572 as of September, 2008, according to a P-I report), it is also deeply in debt and its sale of a number of newspapers in Maine (which are being sold at a significant loss) is running into problems. Many thought that the more financially robust Hearst would be able to hold out longer in the face of losses.

The Hearst Corporation says that if the paper is not sold within 60 days, it will either be shut down or turned into a web-only publication with a greatly reduced staff. A sale in this climate seems unlikely, as the economic downturn has reduced advertising dollars even farther.

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Skolimowski: “Barrier” ( “Bariera”)

[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies Film Series “Voices and Visions,” April 20, 1982]

Tight shot: a man’s back, naked, bent, straining; his bands tied behind him; his head, whether yearning forward or bowed in fear and trembling, unseen. The posture faintly evokes your basic bullet-in-the-back-of-the-neck, Darkness at Noon–style execution. The Latin recitation somewhere just offscreen imparts a suggestion of religiosity to the agony. The man strains harder, balances precariously, and tips out of frame — out of existence, we might as well say, for he seems to have been lost in the white, infinite void of the empty screen.

Jan Nowicki and Joanna Szczerbic in "Barrier"

Well, forget all that, because it’s wrong. Nobody’s getting executed or awaiting the zealot’s lash, and the infinite whiteness is just the bare wall of a room in a university dormitory shared by four premed students. They’ve also shared a ritual, over the years, of collecting their spare change in a piggybank, and now the time has come to see which of them gets to keep it. They could cut cards or play one-potata two-potata, but where’s the perversity in that? No, they turn it into a ritual ordeal, wherein each aspirant assumes the aforementioned position kneeling on the edge of a table, leeeeeeeans forward, tries to pluck up a matchbox, poised about two feet out, with his mouth, and (that’s not all, no, that’s not all, that would be too easy), having plucked it, seeks to resume his former kneeling-upright position as opposed to falling very painfully on his chin, nose, brow, or all three once they’ve been compacted into a single pulpy mass. First guy to succeed wins the piggy.

It’s that simple. In fact, quite often in Barrier things prove to be that simple, although we need a little time and a little looking-around before we can appreciate the fact. What seems weird, freaky, outré frequently turns out to be just the way things are in this neighborhood. That screaming of a soul in torment as the hero roves about a strange, shrouded white corridor? Well, you see, next door there’s a dentist’s office; and the shrouds, that’s no big deal — some students are supposed to come over later and clean the place up, and I mean, we wouldn’t want the antlers (huh?!) getting dusty….

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Art, Life and Politics

Art, Life and Politics

With the arrival of Sarah Palin, American politics has strayed deep into Wag the Dog territory, but it wasn’t until last night, as even ad hoc members of Alaska’s First Family were lined up for her speech, that I realized that if I were Levi Johnston, I’d be very, very worried. Squinting your eyes, you can just about see the future of Sex on Skates:

His Face Book profile (in which he says he has no plans to get married) has already been taken down. Next, I think he’ll be out drinkin’, prolly with Track or some other buddies, get bleary, blotto drunk, and wake up the next morning to find that somehow, although he can’t remember it, he has enlisted in the U.S. Army.

His protests will get him nowhere; in record time, he’ll find himself in a still-dangerous corner of Afghanistan where, suddenly, somehow a stray bullet will end his young life.

This casket will be photographed. His pregnant grieving widow will meet the plane, most likely still hauling around Trig, since that seems to be her job; his (would-be) mother-in-law will meet the plane; the honor guard will be there. God knows John McCain will be there. There’ll be talk of burial at Arlington Cemetery, although in the end, Alaska will win with its claims of unlimited fuel reserves for the Eternal Flame.

All of us who know and love Wag the Dog will recognize this as the Old Shoe moment brought to life. For the rest, there’s Netflix.

Topical Thunder: Why I Love “The Ringer”

I was tempted to title this posting “When the f**k did we get ice cream?” to honor one of the funniest, most surprising lines of dialogue from The Ringer, the underrated, frequently hilarious Johnny Knoxville comedy from 2005. Like many of the best lines in the film (and kudos to screenwriter Ricky Blitt for providing them in abundance), this one’s delivered by a character who is developmentally disabled. It has to be heard in context to appreciate the perfect delivery by mentally challenged actor Geoffrey Arend, but one of the main reasons it earns a big laugh is because it implies a certain degree of fast-thinking wit (and in this case, a gentle hint of oblivious distraction) in the character Arend is playing. Like most of Knoxville’s co-stars, Arend’s character (named Winston) is a competitior in the Special Olympics, and with his fellow athletes he’s a well-chosen foil for Knoxville’s character, Steve, a relatively normal (i.e. not “special”) underachiever who has reluctantly agreed to pass himself off as mentally challenged in order to fix the Special Olympics — the assumption being that Steve’s a guaranteed winner against a roster of “feebs” and “retards,” as the Special Olympians are crudely defined by Steve’s crass and classless uncle Gary (perfectly played by Brian Cox), who concocted the fraudulent scheme to pay off a high-stakes gambling debt.

Knoxville (center) with his highly capoable co-stars in "The Ringer"
Knoxville (front and center) and his very capable co-stars in "The Ringer"

I mention The Ringer, of course, because it’s the antidote to the poisonous “retard” humor in Tropic Thunder, which I wrote about in my previous post. Where the developmentally disabled are concerned, the humor in Tropic Thunder is not intentionally offensive, but anyone who sees the film would have to agree that it’s insensitive and unnecessarily cruel. Oh, sure, I get the joke…it’s just not funny. So why is The Ringer so praiseworthy in comparison? It all has to do with the attitude behind the humor, and the context within which the word “retard” is being used. It’s very easy to laugh at “Simple Jack” and the other (relatively brief) scenes of “retard” humor in Tropic Thunder, but there’s no escaping the fact that the attitude behind that humor is derogatory, dismissive, and damaging. There’s nothing positive or even remotely understanding in the film’s attitude toward the developmentally disabled. Now, you could argue this is Ben Stiller’s right as the film’s co-writer and director — that he’s free to be offensive with no apologies necessary. I’m OK with that, because I despise any form of censorship on the basis of political correctness. But when a popular comedy promotes a destructive attitude, or perpetuates a negative image of a minority group with no apparent consideration for the potential consequences, well…that’s when I start feeling uneasy about the “comedy.”

With regard to understanding, accepting and appreciating the developmentally disabled, The Ringer is everything that Tropic Thunder is not. From start to finish, Ricky Blitt’s screenplay and Barry Blaustein’s direction are based on progressive assumptions consistent with the pro-disability attitudes found in the comedies by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, who co-produced The Ringer. Warm-hearted, open-minded and altogether refreshing in its accurate and sincere embrace of the developmentally disabled, The Ringer presents its central squad of Special Olympians as smarter than we assume them to be; possessing skills and intelligence that defy our expectations (and those of Knoxville’s character); and prone to precisely the same emotions, desires, foibles, and faults of “normal” people. Granted, most the actors chosen to co-star with Knoxville are “high-functioning” (in the parlance of disability experts), so we’re not witnessing the full spectrum of mental retardation, but the movie’s message is clear: Underestimate these fine, respectable people at your peril. Knoxville’s character learns that lesson with appropriate humility, setting up a feel-good ending that’s well-earned and infectiously progressive in its attitude.

Tropic Thunder is never intentionally offensive toward the mentally challenged, but that doesn’t get Stiller & Co. off the hook. Even if its “retard” humor is relatively brief — and even though it’s implicitly understood (by most viewers, I hope) that there’s a “wrongness” about its underlying attitude — it’s still hard to escape the film’s not-so-subtle suggestion that mental retardation is a curse on humanity. That gives Tropic Thunder the stench of bad karma — the polar opposite of the big-hearted acceptance that graces every frame of The Ringer.

George Lucas: The Last Champion of Colonialist Cinema

Way back in the original Star Wars (before it was branded with a “IV” and subtitled “A New Hope”), it did not escape notice that at the end of the film, it was human heroes Luke Skywalker and Han Solo who got the glory while the non-humans – the wookie, Chewbacca, and the two robots – stood to the side to watch the royal blessing laid upon the Republic’s two great white hopes.

What does a wookie need to do to get a little respect?
What’s a Wookiee need to do to get a little respect?

After six feature and countless spin-off reiterations, not much has changed. The Jedis (mostly human, though at least those ranks are not completely Caucasian) roam around the galaxy like the master race, swooping in to save the lesser races with their gift of protection and leadership. There are a few token races sprinkled through the supporting parts, mostly providing exposition and exclamations, and only Yoda has any real authority or distinction among them. The droids are essentially happy slaves. These robots talk and offer opinions and often suggest emotions, while R2D2 and C3PO have distinctive personalities. They’re offered up as characters as real as the humans, but in the scheme of this enlightened era of interstellar unity, they are treated as servants or pets at best and cannon fodder at worst. Decades after Blade Runner and Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s a little arrogant to give a robot personality and self-awareness without suggesting they might be, in their own way, people.

All right, maybe that’s picking apart a little point, but the last two Star Wars features introduced the Clone Army, a race of genetically hatched humanoid soldiers designed solely to fight. They are treated, essentially, as organic robots, flesh and blood slaves sent to fight the Republic’s battles.

I’m sure Lucas never thought any of this through, which is really the point. What began as his paean to the innocent attitudes of the old sci-fi serials and the swashbuckling thrills of classic Hollywood adventures and pirate movies feels more and more like Rudyard Kipling’s imperialist adventurers in the stars. Keep Reading

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