Watchmen vs. Synecdoche, New York: Guess Which Won... Also, Bond Franchise Fizzled. Again.

I saw Watchmen many weeks ago and thought it pretty dumb. Still do. This week, I watched Charlie Kaufman's latest foray into the psyche of an artist, Synecdoche, New York. I dunno. I suppose it's possible you thought since Watchmen is all about ass-kicking, it kicked Synecdoche's ass. But there's a problem. A movie about ass kicking - in my estimation - should also kick ass. I think Synecdoche, New York kicked Watchmen's silly ass even as a film based on a graphic novel (note: I did not say Synecdoche, New York was based on a graphic novel, because it wasn't. Burn!).

Whenever someone asked me what I thought of Watchmen, and they saw my brow furrow as my mouth prepared a stream of vitriol, they'd ask, "Did you read the graphic novel?" And I'd reply, "Get FUCKED, buddy!" Actually, I said, "No." They'd cite this as the reason I didn't like Watchmen. That's fine.

But here's my problem. If you're going to recreate a work of art, it needs to stand on its own, and Watchmen did not. As with other adaptations, film is not the same medium as the graphic novel, and too often in "strict" adaptations of other works, the adapter fails to consider this.

The movie started. They killed one of the... ugh, superheroes? Anti-heroes? Crime fighters dressed like idiots? We’ll go with vigilantes... The vigilante called The Comedian was murdered at the beginning - and God did director Zack Snyder wish he had Robert Downey Jr. to play him (found a lookalike in Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but not a comparable actor by any means) - Snyder told The Comedian's back story (he's a giant asshole!), and I never had reason to care about his character again, assuming he'd been compelling enough to care about, which he was not. So...whatever. Instead of nailing each character this way, let's say none of these vigilantes were compelling, with the exceptions of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), Nite-Owl (the one that looked like Batman, played by Patrick Wilson), and the elder Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino).

If any character was a protagonist, it was Rorschach. Delightfully mysterious, voice gruff as hell but not comically so (take notes, Christian Bale), highly motivated and highly misunderstood, strange, a shape-shifting mask... I couldn't ask for much else from a compelling comic book character, and Haley brought this one home. Nite-Owl and neither generation of Silk Spectre were characters I particularly cared about, but Wilson and Gugino didn't bore me to tears. Silk Spectre's daughter, Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) did, however, bore me to tears (I'll get to her only worth while scene in a moment). Wilson's got acting chops, proven in Angels in America, and Gugino's got'em, too, but I'm gonna go ahead, be an honest pig and say I could stare at Gugino in her oh so skimpy Silk Spectre costume all day long. Goddamn! I can't believe she played an old, haggard has-been for most of the movie. Gugino gave the haggard has-been what depth she could, but I would've rather watched her purr at the camera instead of Akerman. Akerman's hot enough, I guess, but no Carla fucking Gugino. Goddamn.

Oh, there was one performance that never failed to steal the show, and that would be the dangling of Dr. Manhattan’s electric-blue penis. Just when I was ready to take Dr. Manhattan (an underutilized Billy Crudup) seriously, the camera zoomed out, and whoop! ELECTRIC-BLUE PENIS. DANGLING. My buddy wanted to congratulate the special effects team on giving the blue penis its... swagger. It was believable! Someone spent time on that! They had to! Hahaha, oh dear. Dicks. Seriously though, I’m sure that blue cock was less distracting in the graphic novel, because no one created a program to make it jiggle around correctly. He was just naked and anyone could accept that, if they’re willing to accept that he’s blue. But adding a CGI jiggle made this guy giggle.

Okay, now the stuff I couldn't wait to start bashing... the soundtrack and Zack Snyder, the "visionary" director. So ZACK, I guess it'd be brilliant to play a song called "The Times They Are A-Changing" during your opening montage that spanned many, many years, yeah? Some might even say "visionary," right?! By God, you're a genius! I was intrigued to hear Bob Dylan's jam at first, honestly. Perhaps I'd underestimated Mr. Snyder and his capabilities, and what his Watchmen would have to offer... Then I heard "99 Luftballons" by Nena as Silk Spectre II met Nite-Owl for dinner (both not 'costumed'). The song faded to the background, and then the scene ended. That's it. Now, let's think about this... First, here's the song. Listen for about 45 seconds to get to the bass line that permeated this scene:

I wish I could tell you what they discussed over dinner, but I can't, because that fucking bass line is distracting as all hell and belongs only in an 80's night club scene or some ironic action sequence or something - anything! - aside from a casual dinner. Not very "visionary," brother. Also, "The Sound of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel during a funeral scene? Whoo-eee, never saw that one coming! There were other soundtrack doozies, I promise, but the one I'll leave you with is Silk Spectre II's only worth while scene ('cause she's naked, breathing heavy, moaning, and not reciting dialogue that made my head hurt). She's nailing Nite Owl on some ship to somegoddamnwhere while "visionary" director played Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" over the scene in order to get a laugh, I guess. Sex = hallelujah. Hilarious! Look out Judd Apatow, you've got competition. No - you know what really could've been hilarious? A reprisal of "99 Luftballons," and it also might have actually MADE SENSE, thrusting in time or some shit.

When you recreate something, especially in a new medium, you want to bring a new audience or a new perspective to something that is already great. If lovers of the graphic novel have to defend the movie by saying you need to read the graphic novel, then Snyder failed. If he did such a strict adaptation that it didn't translate to film well, Snyder failed. Visionary my ass. Go make 300 again. Oh wait. You are. Visionary goon...

No, you want visionary? I give you Charlie Kaufman. I give you his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York. I give you his main character, theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Let's take a look at all of them together, because they fit cohesively (see antithesis of Watchmen).

I'm not going to pretend like I understood everything that happened, or what it all meant: Cotard's wife Adele (Catherine Keener) left him for Berlin with their daughter in tow. Cotard won the MacArthur fellowship, funding his most ambitious project to date: the city of Manhattan, staged. Literally, buildings and all. Working tirelessly on his show, mapping it against the background of his own curious life, he learned frightening things of his daughter, 4 yrs old last he saw her: she'd become tattooed, started modeling, discovered her sexuality through his ex-wife's friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh, a pleasure to watch here, so bizarre)... Caden accused Maria of raping a 4 year old child, but she corrected him. She's 11 now. Doesn't make Maria any less of a sexual predator, but it shocks Caden enough to step back.

Here's a good opportunity to explain what I didn't understand. Time is very ambiguous in Kaufman's movie (perhaps more specifically Cotard's world?) and there's an awfully weird thing going on with gender, too. In his 'real' life, Cotard pretended to be "Ellen" for a while, Adele's cleaning lady, and later he recast his "Ellen" for his play as himself. Role reversals galore ensued with the real life/play versions of people. I'm not even sure Kaufman knew what to do with all the role reversals and gender confusion and time ambiguity in his film, but... actually, I'm sure he knew what he was doing. But as a viewer, not understanding all this did not stop me from enjoying the film, as there's plenty else to grab at aside from confusion.

Cotard continued his life with failed romances and a play that had gone into two decades of pre-production with no end in sight. Scenes he’d written about his life for the play started messing with his life. After all, he’d married his lead actress (Michelle Williams) and loved his assistant Hazel (Samantha Morton) most of his adult life. So Hazel had to become a character in the play! And where’s the line between reality and the play?! And, and...?!

See, it all got very confusing. But Kaufman’s movies do not rely on plot to tell a story, or else he really would be the craziest son of a bitch writer in Hollywood. Even as I found myself lost in details, I’d find a theme to latch onto, a concept, a moment, a feeling... Kaufman’s films are cohesive but never traditionally so, making him one of the most creative artists in Hollywood today. Synecdoche, New York could be a very difficult film to digest if you get lost in the bizarre plot. Hopefully cues like Hazel’s house remaining perpetually on fire (literally), and the same people addressing Caden as Caden, Ellen, and as a homosexual with little to no concrete plot explanation will discourage that attention to plot detail.

Anyhow, Charlie Kaufman fans have another must-see on their hands, and Bond fans have at least a couple more years of grief ahead due to their beloved franchise getting fucked up. Again. Quantum of Solace bored the piss out of me. And it’s not even bad. It’s just nowhere near as good as Casino Royale, which excited me for Bond for the first time since the GoldenEye video game for N64.

For a spy movie, I expect a little intrigue. Don’t you? I expect to fear the characters’ potential futures, like something important is at stake. I want to care about my characters and see them find what they’re looking for in the nick of time. And, a lot of things happened in the nick of time in Quantum of Solace. Too many, perhaps. Why? What for? I dunno. I couldn’t care less.

Daniel Craig silenced many naysayers in 2006 debuting as Bond in Casino Royale. He was cold, hard, intriguing, mysterious, charming, not without the occasional one-liner. He was the best Bond since Connery, perhaps better in some ways, with only a fledgling Timothy Dalton fan here or there to disagree. And I just saw... none of that. It felt like a Pierce Brosnan Bond movie with less kitsch, but extra kitsch would have been a relief from this crap. It’s just... totally mediocre, and a totally unacceptable follow-up to a film that brought Bond back to life.

At least Quantum of Solace had a running time like, half of Watchmen’s, so I wasn’t bored as long. Oh, and a good movie to precede it, too, a great one. Watchmen, on the other hand, had nothing but a screenwriter begging fans to see his crap again and a wiggling electric blue penis.


Ashes Of The American Flag and Me And You And Everyone We Know

Last night as part of CIMM Fest 09, Chicago's Music Box Theatre premiered the new Wilco touring documentary, Ashes Of The American Flag, to a packed house with a only handful of empty seats. Two evening screenings were fans' only opportunity to see the doc on a big screen, and directors Brendan Canty (also the drummer of Fugazi) and Cristoph Green fielded a playful Q & A afterward.

Here's the film's trailer:

Simply put, no one's going to watch this who isn't already a fan of Wilco, I presume (I couldn't find Ashes on an IMDB search). The documentary was awesome when the band played awesome songs, and boring during less awesome songs. Once it's on DVD on April 18th, fans will skip to their favorite songs (uber fans may watch it in its entirety the first time through) and probably skip the often quirky interviews. I know I woulda skipped around a bit, because I hate the material on A Ghost Is Born, am indifferent toward A.M. and Being There, but die for anything from Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Sky Blue Sky. Although I categorized this as a Wilco fan only movie, some candid moments with the band could be enjoyed by any. Guitarist Nels Cline could be found backstage lying on a couch with ice on the back of his neck due to whiplash from live shows. A few vertebrae were dislocating (or something), he explained, because he never thought about his body while playing, let alone hurting it. Drummer Glenn Kotche soaked his hands in ice water backstage as his bandmates explained how he destroyed his hands every night playing drums with such vigor. These little details humanized this alt-country-folk-rock band (or however you care to categorize Wilco) while exposing the bandmates' passion, sometimes sacrificing themselves physically to perform music they love.

That said, if you want a Wilco documentary, check out I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, director Sam Jones's film about the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, arguably the band's most renowned and lauded album to date. Chronicling singer Jeff Tweedy and Co. from the songwriting process through recording and record label problems to its much-delayed release, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart is a must see for any supporter of the arts.

Next up, I watched Me and You and Everyone We Know, Miranda July's indie dramedy from 2005. July is Christine Jesperson, an artist who supported herself through a cab service for the elderly. Buying new shoes from a clerk named Richard (John Hawkes) caused her to track him down and get to know him. Richard, divorced, lived life bug-eyed with fear for whatever frightfulness might strike his life next. His two boys had cyber sex chats online at home while Dad's at work selling shoes. The neighbor left notes in his window for two teenage girls explaining what he would do to them if it weren't illegal after they hit on him one day. The girls considered losing their virginity to this guy.

My point is... how could you not be interested in the outcomes of these people's stories? They're all slightly insane, but July takes them all very seriously and all their stories give you warm fuzzies like when you pinch a baby's cute chubby lil cheek. Totally worth 90 minutes of your time on a rainy day.

Oh, and if you wanna know why the mentioning of 'pooping back and forth' will send me into hysterical laughter for months to come, watch this movie. Or, you could probably find it on youtube... but watch the movie instead.