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8 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
Wow, 28 December 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This film is an incredible achievement -- powerful and moving, making an old story feel new and relevant, and effectively capturing the spiritual theme of Victor Hugo's novel.

A quick disclaimer: If you don't like musicals, please don't bother seeing Les Miserables, and then go on to write a snarky review criticizing it for being "unrealistic" or "hokey." We all know that in real-life dramatic situations, people don't just burst out in song. If you don't like musicals, just don't watch them.

Les Miserables IS a musical. This is the best version (on stage or in film) that I have seen. It provides greater depth to the characters than I have seen before, the cinematography is beautiful and impressive, and the acting is wonderful.

Musicals are a difficult medium in which to act a part convincingly -- often the songs seem to intrude upon the story, popping incongruously into a scene. Les Miserables is more an opera than a musical -- there is virtually no dialogue outside the singing. The songs drive the movie, and most impressive to me, all the singing was recorded live on set in real time.

This method allowed the actors to concentrate on their acting, rather than lip-syncing, and the results are incredibly raw and convincing.

Director Tom Hooper's pacing, use of live singing, and choice of scene content maintains the spiritual focus of Hugo's story throughout the film. The impressive set design, location shots, and (mentioned earlier) cinematography all contribute to this effect. The reappearance of the candle sticks throughout the film maintains continuity and reinforces the story's spiritual theme.

Screenwriter William Nicholson created some controversy among theater purists by adding a scene that helps explain much of the story. IMHO the scene (in the factory) explains much and strengthens the story. Purists: this is an adaptation of a musical adaptation of a fictional work. Lighten up!

Hugh Jackman's command of his facial expressions, movements, and singing conveys an incredible range of emotion. The weight loss and dehydration he undertook to achieve the appearance of a starving convict produced such a gaunt & convincing character that I did not recognize him at first. I will be very surprised and disappointed if he does not receive at least a nomination for an Academy Award for his efforts as Jean Valjean.

Likewise, Anne Hathaway's Fantine, starved and desperate, is heart- breaking as she sells pieces of herself a bit at a time to save her child, until nothing is left but resignation and despair. Hathaway surprised many of us at the Academy Awards a few years ago, demonstrating her ability to sing and dance. It is notable that following their Oscar duet, Jackman lobbied for Hathaway to get this part.

Amanda Seyfried's singing (as Cosette) blew me away -- again, a surprising vocal talent from an established actor, and even more, Eddie Redmayne. Samantha Barks reprises her stage role as Eponine, singing beautifully and giving a moving performance. Although arguably the weakest singer in the cast, Russell Crowe provided a commanding presence as the darkly brooding Javert.

Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are slick and capable as the oily Thenardiers. During "Master of the House," they play out a meat-grinder scene that one can't help but interpret as a nod to their previous musical collaboration in Sweeney Todd. Like the Jackman- Hathaway connection, this is the kind of little tidbit delights us movie geeks.

The context of Les Miserables is the thin line separating the "middle class" from extreme poverty, desperation and starvation (e.g., the plight of the convict or the prostitute). This part of the story is powerfully conveyed in the film, and feels especially poignant and relevant in light of our current economy.

Having seen this season's other "epic blockbusters" (The Hobbit and Lincoln), considering acting, music, emotional effect, and content, I was far and away most impressed with Les Miserables.

Lincoln (2012)
8 out of 16 people found the following review useful:
turgid drama, 23 December 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

An historically disappointing film, with a great cast and great performances (Daniel Day-Lewis,Sally Field,Tommy Lee Jones and David Strathairn stand out in particular), but lacking in story, and moreover, integrity.

"Lincoln" spans the last few months of the War Between the States and Lincoln's life. Given the wealth and complexity of historical subject matter, the film focuses rather narrowly on Lincoln's supposed obsession with the passage of the 13th Amendment.

As screenwriter Tony Kushner would have it, Lincoln was willing to extend the War Between the States -- and if we are to believe the script, did so -- in order to pass the law in Congress abolishing slavery.

To Kushner's credit, Lincoln is scripted to express at least an awareness of, if not internal conflict over, the slippery slope he embarks upon with frank discussions of moral relativity. E.g., is it justifiable to violate the Constitution or States' Rights in order to do what he believes is best for the nation? The drama in the film revolves entirely around this issue.

Sadly, the film defends the position that the ends justify the means -- expediency over morality.

Other viewers will no doubt argue that Lincoln's cause was just and laud him as a progressive and a visionary.

The ethical shortcomings of the film are rather to do with what history the script excludes.

Specifically, there is no mention of what started the War Between the States. In the absence of an answer to this question, the naive viewer will suppose, ending slavery.

The fact is that the War was fought over the Northern States' blockade of Southern ports in an effort to control and monopolize trade; when the federal government chose sides (supporting the North), the War began. In short: it was all about money. Lincoln supported the Northern industrialists in blockading the Southern ports. Doing so was an abuse of Presidential power and in violation of the Constitution.

Moreover, the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) was made more than two years into the War, and was specifically intended to generate support for the War in the North, where public opinion had never been strongly in favor of of the War, and lately had turned strongly against it.

In this context, there is no mention of the Draft Riots in New York City (please look at

Another historical deletion is Lincoln's Liberia Plan (please look at Indeed, if one consults historical sources, one finds that The Great Emancipator's plan was to deport the freed slaves to Liberia. Not exactly what the film conveys.

It is distressing to see a film honoring expediency over morality, while glossing over historical fact and context.

One hopes that Day-Lewis, Field and Jones will receive Academy Award nominations for their stellar performances. But the film's content was disappointing.

Kona Coast (1968)
9 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
So misunderstood, 9 September 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Kona Coast is an all but forgotten relic of the late 1960's -- as are the members of the cast, Richard Boone, Vera Miles, Chips Rafferty, Joan Blondell, and Steve Ihnat. Several other reviewers have dismissed it as abysmal trash: low budget, poorly scripted, edited, and directed. The sound track is a period piece, and might have been lifted from an episode of "Mannix." Surely, to the naive viewer, the story is moronic and predictable, the music ridiculous (e.g., bongos erupting in every action sequence), the sequencing choppy and disjointed. Until the advent of DVD, it was virtually impossible to find an intact copy of the film, and to date, only 7 people have written reviews of it for IMDb.

But all of this misses the point. Kona Coast is high art, masquerading as trash.

In the opening sequence, we are treated to a sweeping panorama of the Pacific ocean as viewed from the boat of Captain Sam Moran (Richard Boone) -- the ship's wheel unattended until his bare foot lolls across it, steering in the most laissez-faire manner, as he reclines with a vintage bottle of Primo beer in his hand, laughing into the wind.

This scene is genius. So much is conveyed about the man: carefree, a wild and untamed soul, a free thinker and lover of life.

Each scene unfolds with a brutal frankness, abruptly, without logic or explanation -- so much like life itself. The rawness of this unpolished gem may appear to the naive viewer evidence of schlock; to the discerning student of film, this gut-wrenching directness, making the viewer uncomfortable, even disoriented, is the masterful work of a Fellini, or perhaps more accurately, an Ingmar Berman. The intensity of feeling is conveyed on a level too visceral to be transmitted on any rational basis.

Likewise, the use of minimal orchestration, a "1960's detective show" sound track punctuated by riveting bongo breaks during action sequences, keeps the viewer's mind distracted, so the viewer's raw psychic underbelly is left fully exposed to the powerful psychic impact of this confusing and at times disturbing masterwork.

Consider the complicated love triangle between Moran, Melissa Hyde (Miles), and the young girl infatuated with Moran, who eventually evolves into a surrogate for his slain daughter, but not until an uncomfortable Electra complex is played out between her and Moran. The tension -- sexual energy -- is palpable. In the scenes between Miles and Boone, watch closely for hinted-at but never shown sexual intensity.

The subtext to the film's surreality is of course Boone's long descent into alcoholism, which had all but claimed him by the time Kona Coast was made. Boone was a regular fixture in Kona in the 1960's; his swollen eyes, paunchy, scarred face, and whiskey baritone were for real. This gives the character of Moran a poignant realism. The viewer can not escape his hopeless, boozy ennui.

Vera Miles' Melissa also evokes a deep reaction: here at the height of her womanly allure, she is no ingenue, but a worldly woman constantly aware of the inescapable encroachment of old age and loneliness.

Also worthy of note is actor Steve Ihnat, who portrays the villainous drug lord, Kryder. Ihnat is given little to work with in Kona Coast, but he makes the most of it with an edge of demonic insanity that makes the viewer squirm. Devotees of the 1960's Star Trek series will find themselves waiting for him to scream, "LORD Garth!"

The action sequences are jarring, precipitous, irrational -- so much like the violence of life itself, absurd and exhilarating.

Most of all, this is an existential story. Sam Moran is a man confronted with the most terrible of losses: the death of his daughter, soon followed by the death of his best friend. His way of life and everything he believes in are suddenly in question. Every time he proclaims, "I'm Sam Moran. Who the hell are you?" -- (I lost count) -- he boldly reasserts his identity in the face of nothingness. Moran is the quintessential man of the 1960's: strong, independent, and absolutely free of doubt. He is a champion in man's struggle against nihilism.

Had this film been made in French or Swedish, it would have been heralded and remembered as a masterpiece. It is literally so bad that it is good. One might predict that with the advent of DVD and greater accessibility to the masses, Kona Coast will enjoy a renaissance, perhaps even achieving cult film status. Kona Coast is an unappreciated work of modern art.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
It's Formulaic, 24 October 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Viewer beware, this is yet another Nancy Meyers testament to the inherent goodness of menopausal women. Recall that Meyers has written (and often produced) a series of cloying films chronicling the trials and tribulations of implausibly wealthy, successful women, beset by men who are at best emasculate and ineffectual, at worst selfish and venal, and often, both: The Holiday (2006); Something's Gotta Give (2003); The Parent Trap (1998); Father of the Bride Part II (1995); Father of the Bride (1991); Baby Boom (1987); and so on.

In "It's Complicated," viewers will not be surprised to find iconic "chick flick" heroine Meryl Streep in the role of Jane, an implausibly wealthy, successful woman, divorced for 11 years from the father of her three now-grown children. The youngest (girl) is off to college, the middle (boy) is graduating from college, and the oldest (girl) lives with her fiancé. The son and the son-in-law to be are harmless puppies, naive boy-men who openly adore Jane.

Jane is, of course, beset by her selfish and venal ex-husband Jake, played with good humor and generosity by Alec Baldwin. Jake left Jane for the only character in a Nancy Meyers screenplay more execrable than a man, i.e., a younger woman: Agness, whose very name is unpleasant. Lest there be any doubt that older, wiser, good-hearted Jane is The Sympathetic Character and Agness is The Clutching Shrew, Jane is constantly in the process of preparing delectable food for others, while Agness's slinky costumes, snake-like undulations, bad make-up, and unsympathetic scripting transform the attractive actress Lake Bell into a repulsive harpy. Jane good. Agness bad. Got it? Jane's family lives in Santa Barbara, California, which looks a lot like Montecito, the most glamorous and exclusive part of Santa Barbara. A quick look at Jane's sprawling Spanish-style home lets us know that she is a multi-millionaire; learning that she bought the place with money from her divorce tells us that Jake has even more millions than she does. Why anyone would be interested in the personal affairs of people with this much money (besides themselves, of course) is utterly beyond me, but perhaps I lack imagination.

Jake is, of course, a schmuck. That is his sole purpose in life; he just can't help it. A successful law partner, he almost never appears without his Porsche and necktie. Jake is unidimensionally charming in a smarmy but self-effacing way, sort of a guilty pleasure for women -- oh wait, that was Jack Nicholson in "Something's Got to Give..." oh, and it is Jake, too. I guess in Meyers films, one schmuck fits all.

Jane's gal pals include a who's who of venerated best-girlfriend actresses: Mary Kay Place (best remembered as best girlfriend from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and "The Big Chill"), Rita Wilson (terrifically talented and terribly under-utilized in film), and Nora Dunn (a Meryl Streep wannabe). The girls are all concerned about Jane's celibacy, and encourage her to do something reckless and unwise.

As luck (or at least, Meyers) would have it, in the very next scene, Jake and Jane find themselves alone at the hotel bar in New York City where they have come for their son's college graduation. They immediately have drinks, a turn or two on the dance floor, and sex. Jane is riddled with guilt. So much guilt, in fact, that as soon as she is back home in Santa Barbara, she has sex with Jake again. Of course there is a moment of tension and humor when Jack -- err, I mean Jake, passes out and the doctor assures us he is okay.

So -- Jane's affair with her ex-husband Jake is all good, until he stands her up for a date because his deranged, harping 30-something wife Agness unexpectedly cancels an evening out because she is (she announces) "ovulating," and requires his participation in making a baby. That Agness -- what a selfish bitch! Jane is also beset by the emasculate and ineffectual architect Adam, who "really gets" what she was trying to convey in the 47 E-mails describing the Kitchen She Always Wanted. Adam is played by Steve Martin, whom Meyers fans may remember as the emasculate and ineffectual, though occasionally selfish and venal, Father of the Bride (I and II). It is difficult not to wince every time Adam is in a scene. Adam ends up the victim of another of Jane's lapses of judgment, not as the recipient of sex, but as her co-conspirator in smoking a joint before going to a graduation party for her son hosted by her oldest daughter and her fiancé. This, in case you are wondering, is intended as humor. It also provides an opportunity for the inevitable scene in which Jake stares, slack-jawed and sad-eyed, at Jane, after she has made it clear that she is done with him and has moved on (to Adam). Of course, Agness (boo, hiss) sees this and realizes that Jake is Still In Love With Jane Even After All These Years.

Suffice to say that Jane is now left with a dilemma -- Jake won't leave Jane alone, and blunderingly reveals to Adam online that he is naked in Jane's bedroom -- another "humorous" scene. Fat, naked, middle-aged men now appear to be a requisite feature of Meyers films ("Something's Got to Give" or SGTG). Apparently dumping men into swimming pools for no apparent reason ("The Parent Trap") is no longer adequate humiliation for the selfish, venal, emasculate and ineffectual.

The death stage of this film -- not unlike SGTG -- winds on endlessly, to its anticlimactic and ultimately disappointing conclusion, satisfying only to middle-aged female viewers, who are, after all, the target market here. This triumph of feminism was perhaps best illustrated by the audience (all over 50) departing the theater: women striding out confidently and happily, their defeated husbands trudging along four or five paces behind them.

Brilliant, 10 May 2010

This is an amazing allegory for midlife. Its themes are loss, disappointment, and pain. Director Aronofsky conveys this experience on a visceral level. Rather than grandstanding through lengthy monologues, he employs such subtleties as the effortful breathing of the main character, and in the opening sequence, keeping his back to the audience.

Mickey Rourke brings the main character, Randy "The Ram," to life on every level. His performance was worthy of an academy award. Watching him, one feels his frustration, his physical pain, and his deep desire to recapture his youth. Marisa Tomei's character "Cassidy/Pam" is a female parallel to Randy, and Tomei brings Pam to life as well, appearing all but nude in much of the film and somehow conveying the very unsexy desperation of her profession. Evan Rachel Wood gives a strong performance in a relatively small role as Randy's estranged daughter.

The Wrestler is brutal and exulting, tragic and triumphant. I can't recommend it highly enough.

0 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Elementary Good Fun, 13 January 2010

Guy Ritchie brings a fresh look to the legendary sleuth and introduces a new generation of viewers to "Sherlock Holmes." Based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories, not the cliché Basil Rathbone film series of last century, this "Holmes" is gritty, eccentric, difficult, and compelling.

Who better then to cast in the title role than Robert Downey Jr? RDJ has been a favorite of mine since "Chaplin," so it is indeed a treat to see him in leading roles (Holmes, & "Iron Man"'s Tony Stark). Quick, smarmy, clever, or brooding, it's hard to take your eyes off RDJ on screen -- nothing he does goes to waste.

Similarly, nothing in the "Holmes" screenplay goes to waste -- every tiny action and bit of dialog ties together, beginning with the opening sequence. Much like Doyle's stories, there are hints and clues strewn throughout the film, making Holmes' deductions feasible and the story's conclusion logical and satisfying. Of course, Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarty is introduced, and viewers know that we haven't seen the last of him.

Jude Law is a tense and frequently irritated Watson, not a hint of Nigel Bruce's bumbling but lovable counterpart to Rathbone's Holmes. The balance of the cast give similarly engaging performances, most notably Rachel McAdams as the mysterious Irene Adler, and Mark Strong as the nefarious Lord Blackwood.

Ritchie's direction is also one of the stars in this film. As he did in "Snatch," Ritchie plays with the viewer's perception of time and the sequence of events. This keeps the pace fast and furious, but the careful observer will note seemingly random events throughout the story, and be able to weave them together at the end. All this is done without giving too much away. This is a pleasing experience for the film-goer, who ultimately feels that he or she has been in the know from the beginning.

An intelligent action/adventure romp, "Sherlock Holmes" left us hungry for a sequel.

Avatar (2009)
27 out of 41 people found the following review useful:
Powerful on Many Levels, 12 January 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

My expectations going to see "Avatar" were low. I anticipated a special effects-driven, predictable action movie with little or no story. The visual effects are unquestionably impressive. The art design is beautiful, and the artistic concept for the terrain, flora and fauna of Pandora is consistent and appealing. The story is indeed predictable, at least superficially, sort of an extraterrestrial "Dances With Wolves" that may also serve as an allegory for the present-day US military and, especially, mercenary presence in the Middle East. But these things alone didn't make "Avatar" a box-office smash.

Director James Cameron utilizes long-time collaborator Sigourney Weaver to give the cast a credible, old-school science fiction foundation. As ever, Weaver delivers a solid and believable performance as Dr. Grace Augustine, the hardened and pragmatic chain-smoking scientist in charge of the Avatar project. The counterpoint to Weaver's Grace is relative newcomer Sam Worthington's Jake Sully. Worthington is recognizable to science fiction fans as the protagonist of the most recent Terminator movie. Jake Sully is a marine, the antithesis of a scientist.

With a damaged spine, Jake is confined to a wheelchair and can not afford corrective surgery. He agreed to come to Pandora with his twin brother, who was to participate in the Avatar project -- have his mind linked by machinery to a Pandora-indigenous humanoid body grown in a test tube and matched to his DNA. Jake's brother is killed before the film begins, and Jake agrees to takes his place (as they have identical DNA). Jake has really given up hope before the film begins. He can no longer be the only thing he has ever known or wanted to be: a marine.

Jake has, however, taken a step outside his cynicism and ennui by making the decision to take his brother's place -- he has agreed to enter into the unknown. This is the first step in what is to become the journey that defines him and is the real story in the film.

Humans are on Pandora to mine Unobtanium, a mineral concentrated underneath the home of the indigenous people, the Na'vi. The Avatar project was developed to allow humans to establish relationships with the Na'vi, breathing Pandoran air and looking like the Na'vi. It is hoped that the Na'vi will eventually agree to relocate in order to allow mining to begin. The corporate head of the mining project, portrayed effectively by Giovani Ribisi, is reminiscent of Paul Reiser's Carter Burke in Cameron's 1986 "Aliens" -- a wimpy minor bureaucrat bent on personal gain. He is assisted by the unscrupulous ex-Marine mercenary Colonel Miles Quaritch, given life by Stephen Lang.

Jake becomes involved with Na'vi native Neytiri, wonderfully voiced by Zoe Saldana, whose work in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films and "Star Trek" (2009) have already made her a familiar and respected actor. Neytiri is charged with teaching Jake the ways of the Na'vi, and Jake inevitably becomes enthralled with both Neytiri and the ways of the Na'vi, as he begins to understand the spiritual connection the Na'vi have with Pandora. This leads to war between the humans and the Na'vi, with Jake caught in the middle, ultimately choosing the Na'vi side.

I had fully expected all of this going into the theater. What I had not expected was finding my heart in my throat more than once, and feeling exhilarated most of the film's very quick 162 minutes. I was more than entertained by "Avatar." I was moved.

Cameron masterfully uses stunning visual effects and incredible music as devices to achieve this effect on the viewer, but by themselves, these ingredients (although perhaps necessary) are not sufficient. What moved me was the transformation of Jake Sully.

Jake's decision to go Pandora is his first step toward becoming something more than he was (his openness to possibility is a step toward hope). He embraces the Na'vi training and is determined to prove himself -- another step (courage, determination, and willingness to become part of something larger than himself, which is a definition of spirituality). He admits his complicity in the plot against the Na'vi -- a third step (integrity). He realizes that he must do something extraordinary to win back the trust of the Na'vi -- riding the terrifying great dragon -- and this is a crucial step (not only bravery, but insight, which is translated into action, and faith). Ultimately, Jake is literally transformed, permanently departing his human body to become Na'vi. He becomes physically and spiritually integrated with the life force of Pandora.

Jake's transformation is assisted and encouraged by Neytiri. After Jake regains the trust of the Na'vi, Neytiri acknowledges this by saying "I see you." Significantly, she repeats this later in the film, looking into Jake's human eyes. For the Na'vi, "I see you" means "I acknowledge your existence." The real meaning for Jake is that Neytiri sees him for who he really is, and more importantly, who he can become. It is no coincidence that the song at the end of the film is called "I See You."

The transformation illustrated so literally in "Avatar" is what each of us seeks in life -- a hopeful journey forward, through which we become more than what we were. The journey can be exciting, terrifying, and at times, can challenge us to go beyond what we believed we were capable of doing. Cameron's real achievement in "Avatar" is communicating that message without letting the audience know that he is doing it.

Especially at this time in history, with the economy depressed, world politics ominous and uncertain, and opportunities for the young seemingly absent, "Avatar" delivers a message of encouragement and hope in a medium familiar and acceptable to young adults. For this, Cameron deserves more than an Academy Award. He deserves the Nobel Prize.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Unexpected Ray of Sunshine, 17 October 2009

Somehow Christine Jeffs' Sunshine Cleaning slid beneath the radar during a three-year period rife with Amy Adams film appearances (Julie & Julia, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Doubt, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Charlie Wilson's War, Enchanted, Underdog). Having heard so little about Sunshine Cleaning, I was expecting a lackluster dramedy. I was surprised to find myself drawn into the opening scene and riveted for the length of the film.

Megan Holley's minimalist script is fluid, believable, and has great depth. The characters are defined within a few minutes, but continue to develop throughout the story. Amy Adams is given the opportunity to demonstrate her huge range in the role of Rose, and rises to the occasion. It is difficult to pull your eyes away from her. Emily Blunt also delivers a powerful and varied performance as Rose's younger sister Norah. She too commands attention on the screen. Alan Arkin is wonderful as their father, whose character was beautifully written by Holley: she avoids reducing him to a caricature (the embittered, failed businessman, the omniscient, kindly grandfather, or the comic relief), and Arkin makes him three-dimensional and complex.

The supporting cast in general is given somewhat off-beat, engaging roles, leading the viewer to wonder what each of them will do next. Jason Spevack is adorable but not cloying as Rose's son Oscar, Steve Zahn takes a break from comedic roles to create a believable character in Mac, Mary Lynn Rajskub is enigmatic and fascinating as Lynn, and Clifton Collins Jr. brings depth and integrity to Winston.

The cinematography is worthy of note -- shot entirely on location, the film's method gives it an earnest, working-class ambiance, somewhere between a documentary and a home movie, but in the best possible ways. It feels real.

Without giving away the plot, I will offer the observation that the script has very much the feel of a Tim Powers novel. Clues and hints are provided as the story unfolds, and the viewer is rewarded for paying attention to detail. The story is funny, tragic, poignant, and a bit haunting. It is also inspiring.

It is a bit surprising that Sushine Cleaning has received so little attention, compared, e.g., with Adams' Julie & Julia, which has received broad acclaim, perhaps thanks to a lighter touch (from Nora Ephron) that lends it a wider appeal -- but ultimately renders it lighter fare. Sunshine Cleaning is more cerebral and much deeper.

Adams and Blunt should receive award nominations for their performances in Sunshine Cleaning. Definitely see it.

Watchmen (2009)
0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Overscrutinized, 4 September 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

IMDb's extensive list of "Goofs/Incorrectly Regarded as Goofs," fact-checking, trivia, and other information people have contributed regarding "Watchmen" gives you only a fractional idea of how intensely this film was anticipated and scrutinized by fans of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel.

Unlike the other superhero movies of the last ten years, "Watchmen" is based on unpopular, unconventional, one-shot superheroes created by Moore specifically for his dark think piece on humanity, ethics, and obsession. Zack Snyder made the film with the same faithfulness to the source material that he brought to Frank Miller's "300," often using the frames of the graphic novel for his story board. For fans of the graphic novel, it is accordingly something of a dream come true...

EXCEPT -- that as he did with "300," Snyder oddly chooses to alter the story. Some abridgment of "Watchmen" was expected -- e.g., "Tales of the Black Freighter," the brilliantly parallel story-within-a-story, is omitted in the interest of saving time (although for fans, it is available separately on DVD). However, changing Veidt's plan from a fake alien invasion to making Dr. Manhattan look like a threat to humanity is a big change. I'm not sure it is a bad change; in many ways, it makes for a leaner and more clever story, which better explains Dr. Manhattan's decision to leave Earth at the end of the film. But it is a change.

Changes like this and the commercial fervor over the film no doubt induced Alan Moore to forswear the project, which is a pity, as it is his brainchild.

Technically, the film is a masterpiece. The effects are impressive, and very much the way I imagined them when I first read the graphic novel. The appearance of New York City, Mars, Veidt's fortress, and the Owlship are wonderfully true to the source material. Dr. Manhattan looks as he should. The changes in costumes make Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II look more convincing. Rorschach's mask works as advertised.

The acting was consistently impressive: Patrick Wilson's defeated Dreiberg, Matthew Goode's controlled Ozymandias, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's complex and disturbing Comedian, Billy Crudup's wonderfully detached Dr. Manhattan, Carla Gugino and Stephen McHattie's world-weary retired crimefighters, and of course, James Earl Haley's tour de force as Rorschach -- especially during the prison sequence. The supporting cast also gives strong performances, including those by Rob LaBelle (Wally Weaver) and long-time favorites Matt Frewer (as Moloch) and Danny Woodburn (as Big Figure). Malin Akerman does her best work to date as Laurie/Silk Spectre II.

As a fan of the novel, I was riveted by the film, and would strongly recommend it to anyone who read "Watchmen." On the other hand, I imagine the film is almost incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the graphic novel. It is also (like "300") geared for young adults and geeky middle-aged men (like me) -- middle-aged women will never get past the opening scene (the Comedian's demise). If you are a married man over 30 and want to watch "Watchmen" at home, I recommend that you also rent a Jane Austen adaptation or Meryl Streep film for your wife to watch in the other room. You will both be a lot happier.

Better than average vampire film, 4 September 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Okay, this is not great cinema, BUT... it is entertaining, and Joss Whedon gets high marks for creating a franchise (and a career for Sarah Michelle Geller). This 1992 film is also increasingly interesting as a trivia piece, not only for Whedon's involvement in one of his earliest works, but for its cast, which includes Rutger Hauer, then-teen-heart-throb Luke Perry, Paul Reubens, David Arquette, Hillary Swank (as a practical unknown), Candy Clark (of "American Graffiti" fame), and of course, Donald Sutherland, all backing Kristy Swanson in the title role.

Similar in some ways to the cult classic "Lost Boys," the premise is clever: a self-absorbed cheerleader discovers she is "the Chosen One" and must defend the world from vampires. Much of the dialog is equally clever, and the "violence" is so campy and intentionally fake that (with this in mind) it is hilarious. Reubens' death scene is unbelievably bogus and funny. The effects are likewise absolutely low-budget. All of this lends a certain charm to "Buffy."

"Buffy" really suffers most from bad editing, which gives the film a bit of a slow, clunky pace, which comes across feeling low-budget. The soundtrack is good, if now a bit nostalgic, and there are some precious moments (e.g., Swanson baiting vampires by wandering alone down a dark alley at night, singing "Feelings"). Overall it is a worthy addition to the blood-sucker genre, funny and better than average.

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