I haven’t read a word or leafed a page of “Watchmen.“ This isn’t out of any contrarian strop. I can understand why folks become fervently obsessive with these works; I’m just not into the genre. But I don’t think it matters that I had no background with the books when I chose to see the ubiquitously hyped flick. Regardless of how lauded or important the source, a film exists as a completely separate artistic entity. One can argue that an acquaintance with the original inspiration helps with context but even this position is immaterial because a film must be viewed on its own merits. So I saw “Watchmen” with no preconceived notion and no specific expectation. But what is still surprising about the film based on the reverentially adored DC comic book series is how the transfer to the screen feels so pedestrian.
After a vibrantly choreographed fight sequence which culminates in the death of one of the Watchmen in 1985 and a vivid, slow-motion opening title sequence of flashbulbed World War II era photograph stills, the film settles into standard fare. The gist of the plot centers on a collection of formerly publicly vilified superheroes regrouping to solve the murder of their cohort, The Comedian (played by Robert Downey Jr. look-a-like Jeffrey Dean Morgan). There are themes aplenty; from the Cold War to imperialist capitalism to vigilantism, that a film with a more confident script and assured hand would have feasted on. But too often these critiques seem more like a suggestion than an examination.
The film carries a refreshing R rating, and it is admittedly a welcome change to view a multiplex cartoon blockbuster chockfull of cursing and nudity. But then, director Zack Snyder helmed “300,” a film which resembled an International Male catalogue with Tom of Finland serving as a wardrobe consultant. His 2006 box-office bonanza was asinine twaddle but its unflinching visual style was arresting and hardly spartan. “Watchmen” lacks the cohesive tone and the consistent visual dynamism of his predecessor. Too often, it takes a smoke (and mirrors) break. This is especially evident in a prison scene which is small, ordinary and unconvincing. If one was hoping to be swept into another world, then “Watchmen” disappoints.
One aspect of “Watchmen” that is most perturbing is the trite use of music. It‘s a soundtrack too familiar and too obvious. The decision to score a Vietnam battle scene with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries or play Simon and Garfunkel‘s “Sounds of Silence“ over a funeral falls flat, even if used ironically or plucked from the novel.
The cast delivers performances of variant quality. Patrick Wilson, a burgeoning notable American actor, plays Dan Dreiberg, the most contemplative and openly vulnerable of the superheroes, with a believable poignancy while he exudes a Batman-like swagger as his alter ego, Nite Owl. Rorschach, played earnestly by Jackie Earle Haley as though Danny Bonaduce was a member of Gwar, needs a chill pill or, at the very least, a Ricola.
But a few of the main characterizations are less convincing. As Silk Spectre, Malin Akerman looks like Xena’s little sister, with limbs like an Incredible, but her acting is hardly malleable. Topped by a Spandau Ballet haircut, Matthew Goode, so brooding in “The Lookout,” is a stilted Adrian Veidt, the former superhero Ozymandias who has become the wealthiest man. And Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan is annoyingly omniscient as he delivers every line like a stilted pontification. It doesn‘t help that in his CGI’d getup he regularly plods around with his tadger out so that he looks like a particularly horny Blue Man Groupie.
So, “Watchmen” is not a terrible film but perhaps in its own way this is a worse fate: not kitschy enough to merit midnight madness and not poor enough to be hokum; it’s just ho-hum.
As uninspiring as “Watchmen” is, with a budget that exceeds its grasp of magical moviemaking, it’s a treat to behold the vision of Henry Selick in “Coraline.” The director of stop-motion animation gems such as “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach,” Selick and his hearty crew have fashioned a meticulous work drawn from the Neil Gaiman novella, which I haven‘t read either.
The tale of Coraline, an intrepid young girl, voiced by Dakota Fanning, who discovers an alternate universe within the walls of her new home, is a precise, precious and ornate 3-D feast. She has moved with her family from Pontiac, Michigan to the remote Northwest so that her author parents can write untroubled by distractions. But even in these secluded surroundings, her mother and father (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) indelicately indicate that their only child, who is simply a kid being an inquisitive kid, is a bit of a bother. Sporting a look that suggests she started listening to Sleater-Kinney at a precociously young age, Coraline discovers a nook in a wall of their Victorian rental which leads to a passageway where her “other” parents, now doting and not distracted, lavish her with fanciful foods and presents. Their buttons for eyes are the first, most visible sign that their devotion may come with a price.
In her new environs, Coraline lives amongst notably surreal characters, especially the neighbors who live in the adjacent apartments of the massive house. Two eccentric actresses, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, bursting out from the top of their corsets and fawning over their pampered Scotties, entertain her with their almost indecipherable bickering, the interplay enhanced by the vocals of comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. In the alternate universe, they are transformed into cheeky mermaids in an uproarious scene perhaps more readily relished by adults. She also encounters Mister Bobinsky, a gymnastics performer of mind-boggling dexterity voiced with gusto by the mellifluously throated Ian McShane. Bobinsky is the ringmaster for a mice circus which performs a rousingly choreographed drill team song for the young girl. Coraline is befriended in both worlds by a wise black cat voiced by the honey dripped tone of Keith David.
The film is a stunning and exceedingly attractive achievement, enhanced by 3-D but not beholden to it. A kooky kaleidoscope of a garden is a shimmering blancmange of reds, oranges and blues. It’s also filled with beautiful, simple touches — the crystalline texture of snow, a shifting rug under Coraline‘s feet or tea leaves swishing in a cup are visual delights made all the more wondrous by the knowledge that these moments were created by the patient, hands-on care of artisans minutely shifting figures. Buoyed by Bruno Coulais’ soundtrack of jaunty harp music, the film is steadfastly clever while alternately and, in many instances, simultaneously creepy and funny. “Coraline” is an enchanting triumph.