Picofarad #16 Movie reviews

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Watchmen (2009)

Review by Chris French

Directed by Zack Snyder
Running Time: 155 minutes

A while back, the TV show Mythbusters aired a segment testing the old saying "One cannot polish poo". They proved that one can in fact polish poo-- but the result of one's labor is no more or less than, well, polished poo.

At this point, most of you have guessed where I'm going with this. I'm trying to use the same level of subtlety Alan Moore uses.

Reviewing the plot would be redundant by this point-- everyone knows it's 1985, Richard Nixon is President-For-Life, the US won Vietnam (which, if one looks at how the Vietnamese have been living since 1975, isn't really an alternate-history), and, oh yeah, superheroes exist. Except, of course, they're not really heroic; one of them is a homicidal rapist, another is a sociopath, two of them have the personalities of baked potatoes (apologies to Colonel DuBois of Starship Troopers may be in order), and one is a vegetarian with dreams of ruling the planet (he's also white, blonde, and rich-- remember what I said about Moore and Subtlety? This is quite possibly the only movie in history where Godwin's Law needs to be invoked). This last is behind a Cunning Plan to bring about world peace by any means necessary, up to and including blackmail and mass murder-- OK, whoever's playing the soundtrack to Triumph of the Will needs to knock it off-- and the other characters mentioned, plus an ‹bermensch-- sorry, Superman-- analog, try to stop him. Since Alan Moore is writing this, not only do they fail to do so, but they in fact join in the conspiracy; the one who doesn't is murdered outright ("Night of the Long Knives" for one, please).

I almost feel sorry for Zack Snyder. Give him a decent writer-- like, say, Herodotus via Frank Miller-- and his movie is brilliant. Shovel onto him some sociopathy mixed with socialism, and one is left sitting in one place for two-and-one-half hours looking at slow-motion combat scenes, slow-motion post-heroics nookie, slow-witted scenes of people discussing plot points, a soundtrack which does not much echo what happens on-screen as pound the viewer over the head with a mallet while screaming "HEY-- I'M BEING IRONIC HERE", and what has been described in some circles as "epic amounts of Superhero Wang" (Billy Crudup here, shall we say, gives new meaning to the phrase "left on the cutting-room floor"). The actors are left with almost nothing to do but natter about nothing, and occasionally beat the living hell out of unsuspecting stuntmen; the token female hero is left with so little to do, she could be the textbook definition of the Joel Silver Rule of cinema ("women are extraneous to the plot, unless naked and/or dead"), save for a brief interlude as (to borrow a name from a review of a much-better series of novels) Whoreverine. Oh, and someone needs to tell Alan Moore what John Ringo told S. M. Stirling: Rape victims do NOT "get over it eventually", OK?

Before I go on, allow me to point out a fact which seems to have slipped past most of Alan Moore's fans: Alan Moore hates you, and thinks you're an idiot.

OK, with that revelation made, look at the message of the comic: Humans are too violent and stupid to run their own affairs-- they need to be led every moment of their lives from conception to final disposition by Superior Beings; and if several million of them have to be slaughtered for the benefit of the remainder (who may one day themselves become the next "several million") in order to make sure the rest of the sheep stay in the pen, well, whatever. Oh, and if one tries to stand up in the face of this, one gets squashed (or, in this case, ripped apart at the atomic level), so it's best to just sit down, shut up, and do as one is told. Now, considering the whole idea behind masked avengers and such is "the guy doing the heroic deeds could be anyone", using heroes to communicate a message of "why bother, you're going to fail" is not so much "irony" as "subversion of the trope"-- "subversion" in this sense used in the same way Communists talked about "subverting" the free world.

Now, I accept as fact that by the time this gets published, most folks who've read it have not only decided whether or not to see this, but have (or haven't) already gone and done so; there is a certain level of Rorschachian futility in my telling you to Avoid this film. However, allow me to invoke the words of another superhero, Captain America: "When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of Truth, and tell the whole world-- 'No, YOU move.'" So, I tell you: Avoid this movie.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Directed by David Fincher
Running Time: 166 minutes

It is first necessary to explain the New Orleanian institution of the jazz funeral. This is a celebration with singing, dancing, and a colorful procession down to the cemetery, playing all the way. Because the the dead guy's still dead, and what are you going to do about it, huh? Might as well have a party.

There are no jazz funerals in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but the attitude is what it's all about. The infant Benjamin (later played by Brad Pitt) is born, in New Orleans of course, as his mother dies, and his horrified father, seeing the geriatric baby, rushes off and abandons him on the doorstep of a retirement home. There, he's taken in by the matron, Queenie, who politely explains him away as the unhappy byproduct of a sister's "misadventure". He grows up in a mixed black/white/Creole/Pygmy family which naturally dispenses all sorts of helpful life advice, interspersed with the "departures" which are inevitable in a house full of elderly people.

Death pervades this film. Given that it follows the entire life of one man, there are certain people who you expect to die, and they do. Given that the first act takes place mostly in the retirement home, you expect some lossage there, and there is. But it goes way, way above and beyond the call of duty at hauling in extra victims. It starts with a young soldier in World War I and ends with Hurricane Katrina. There is a higher body count here than in most action movies.

But it isn't a film about death, but rather all the neat stuff you can do in the meantime. At 17, finally able to walk unassisted but still looking like everyone's grandfather, Benjamin signs onto the tugboat life with Captain Mike, himself so colorful that he threatens to turn the sepia-toned movie into a Technicolor spectacular. In due time he is introduced to drink and women. In Murmansk, he meets Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) who he falls for because she is "plain as paper" only in movie terms. She in turn falls for him because by now he has aged backward to the point where he has the body of Brad Pitt and the most bodacious-looking gray hair ever, and teaches him about romance and how to be a pretentious gourmand. There's an obligatory stop at World War II (lots more dead bodies), and then back to the US, where he completely botches his relationship with his beautiful dancer friend Caroline. But of course you know where that will eventually lead, not least because she's the star of the framing story.

It all sounds trite, but it isn't. It leans toward Forrest Gump territory, but retains its dignity. People leave, other people carry on. Because what are they going to do about it? Time for a party.

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