Archive for the ‘books’ Category

So bad it’s good: Runespear

With the company of a friend or two, sometimes a terrible movie can be a whole lot more fun than a great movie.  It’s simply a cinematic truth.  How else could Mystery Science Theater 3000 lasted for a decade and developed a massive cult following?  Mystery Science Theater builds the friends right into the experience, of course, but they’re hardly pivotal for the bad movie experience.  In high school, a friend and I had a monthly tradition that included deep dish pizza and the worst direct-to-DVD movie we could find on the shelf (Hint: Lionsgate likely guarantees a winner).

Yes, it's from the authors of The Cybernetic Samurai.So I love watching B-movies: the ham-fisted acting, the amateur camerawork, the cheaper than cheap special effects.   But until recently, I never thought about reading B-…books.  Some things I am powerless to resist, though, and when I came upon Runespear in a used bookstore, I had no choice.  I had to buy it.  The cover was what piqued my interest, at first.  A giant man with an eye patch and a spear, whose torso inexplicably melds into a mountain range?  Tell me that wouldn’t wouldn’t grab your attention.  Considering it indirectly led to me buying the book, it may well be a pretty clever cover — but in my mind it conjured up a long history of cheesy paperback science fiction and fantasy, pumped out in such mass quantities that better representatives of the genres are lost in the noise.  Still, there’s something kind of fascinating about sci-fi and fantasy covers from the 50s and 60s, some winning mixture of camp and cliche and weirdness that makes them fun to look at, even if the books themselves are pretty terrible.

With a general interest in sci-fi covers suddenly triggered by Runespear, I flipped the book over to read the back, but man was I not even slightly prepared for the sheer ridiculous joy wrapped up in its brief plot description.  It’s like the perfect mixture of genre cliches and powerful goofiness — Nazis, Indiana Jones ripoff Rafe Springer, Norse mythology, and…British Professor Melbourne Shrewsbury.  The greatest name of all time?  Quite possibly.  Naturally, I had to buy it.

Reading it, on the other hand, was a different matter.  Could a book that looked so hilariously awful actually be fun to read, or would it simply be dull and painful?  I waited a few weeks before taking the plunge, but the results pleasantly surprised me.  The characters clung to adventure cliches and the writing occasionally dipped into bizarrely overwrought analogies, but for the most part it was descriptive and entertaining.  And every time I found myself criticizing the writing, I realized I probably couldn’t write an entire novel with the same degree of creativity.  Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.  My brain could also be permanently damaged from watching too many B-movies, but next time I see a mass market paperback with a hideously awful cover, I might have to give it a try.  And if you ever come across Runespear, buy it.  You probably won’t regret it.

Virtual Worldbuilding

Virtual Light

Did you know William Gibson is one of the most skilled authors of the 20th century?  It’s true!  “Sure,” you might say, “he did practically invent the cyberpunk genre.”  Yup, that’s pretty impressive.  He dirtied up technology, marrying the high-tech with the low-brow to create a whole world of fiction populated with cobbled-together Millenium Falcons instead of spit-shined Death Stars.  You might also note his ability to shrewdly predict the future path of technological development, resulting in almost eerie interpretations of the Internet and the dissemination of information decades before their time.  You could even harp on his fantastic sense of style — which at times reads like a sci-fi lucid dream — or how his fast-paced narratives often imply action without even having to show it.

Yeah, those would all be pretty good points.

But there’s another element of his writing, more overlooked, that deserves praise for so effectively bolstering up the stories Gibson has to tell.  I was suddenly struck by the intricacy and imagination of Gibson’s worldbuilding while reading his 1993 novel Virtual Light.  Having only read the short story “Johnny Mnemonic” and the Sprawl trilogy before Virtual Light, its slight departure from the tech-heavy cyberpunk of his earlier works was an interesting change.  Granted, Virtual Light still bears the markings of a cyberpunk dystopia, but lacks hacker heroes like Neuromancer’s Case and vivid depictions of cyberspace.  In all of his books, Gibson harnesses that knack for predicting technology’s path and uses it to build a unique world, unusually believable and more thoroughly thought-out than nearly anything else in sci-fi.

Virtual Light is no exception, only the results of Gibson’s worldbuilding are even more interesting than usual because he applies them to contemporary society.  The novel hits much closer to home, even if its near-future setting isn’t so far removed from his earlier works.  He creates a world where California has been ravaged by earthquakes and split into NoCal and SoCal (amusingly playing off the already-existing cultural differences between the two), while Japan has been similarly decimated by an Earthquake nicknamed Godzilla.  A cool setting, but hardly as amazing as the character J.D. Shapely who lurks in the shadows just outside Light’s corona.  Shapely is not a protagonist, an antagonist, a tag-along; he’s simply a memory.  But he was a man whose unique biology led to a cure for AIDS.  In 1993, AIDS was a hot-button issue, and Gibson took it upon himself to address the issue within the realm of science-fiction, creating a Martin Luther King-esque martyr for a cause that concerns every living person on the globe.

Gibson is obviously interested in exploring real social issues, extrapolating them into a future scenario and scrutinizing how they would eventually impact us all.  Shapely becomes a cult figure, worshiped by the poor, celebrated by the rich.  He weaves history, fake documentaries, and character observations of Shapely references throughout Virtual Light, none of which directly relate to the plot in the slightest.  They create such a real, powerful vision of the world that Virtual Light’s fictional society derives enormous complexity from such a tangential story element.

Like Shapely, another oft-referenced, never-seen character, Reverend Wayne Fallon, addresses a real social issue.  Fallon is an ironic extrapolation of the modern Joel Osteen, a character whose followers have advanced from worshiping on television to worshiping television.  It’s an amusing cyberpunk blend of religion and technology, but also a bit frightening; when people start looking for God in their television, you know the outside world is really going to suffer.

The scary thing is, Reverend Fallon’s flock aren’t all that unbelievable.  They hang out in the background as fuel for dystopian thought, while the majority of Virtual Light’s plot plays out in chase scenes and cop drama.  Interestingly, its conclusion steers much closer to the intriguing worldbuilding information Gibson packs into the novel, focusing more on class issues and social strife surrounding the future of San Francisco.  Reading the book days after leaving the city, I loved picking up on Gibson’s geographic references to real places, but ended up coming away with a new respect for his work thanks to the socially conscious blend of present-day class issues, future social problems and a dab of zesty science-fiction dystopia in a fictional 2005 that, even in 2010, edges a little too uncomfortably close to reality.

Based on Books: The Thin Man

While the Hollywood of the 1930s is hardly known for its raunch or bawdry, literature of the early 20th century is an altogether different animal. The rise of pulp fiction and the hardboiled genre in the 1920s meant popular literature was poking against the boundaries of polite society. And while the 1934 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s classic murder mystery The Thin Man tones down on some of the novel’s more indecent and suggestive dialogue, it perfectly captures the playful chemistry between the story’s leading couple.

Nick and Nora Charles, played by William Powell (in a Best Actor-nominated performance) and Myrna Loy, became one of the screen’s most successful couples after The Thin Man’s release. A few minutes into the film, and it’s easy to see why. Nick, a former private investigator, becomes embroiled in a murder mystery thanks to past associations, but he doesn’t tackle the caper with the tough guy mentality Humphrey Bogart would later popularize in the 1940s. Powell energetically bounces between flippancy, nonchalance and sharp wit, playing Nick as a devilish gentleman who has far more interest in drinking liquor and teasing his young wife than solving a murder. Loy does just as much to hold up her end of the couple, going toe-to-toe against her on-screen husband with comical facial expressions and banter aplenty.

In fact, the entire production of The Thin Man plays up Hammett’s underappreciated talent for comedy, resulting in an amusing twist on the typically serious detective genre. The film skews more on the side of entertainment than complex mystery, making a few minor adjustments to Hammett’s novel to for the benefit of the Hollywood presentation. Clyde Wynant (the titular thin man) actually makes an appearance at the beginning of the film, while he is only spoken of but never actually encountered in the novel. The first scene establishes Wynant’s character and his relationship with his daughter Dorothy, which ultimately leads to the girl meeting Nick and pleading with him to find her missing father.

In the novel, things aren’t packaged quite so neatly — Dorothy hasn’t seen her father since childhood, nor is she the pure-hearted innocent she appears in the film. Her brother receives similar treatment, having his role marginalized in favor of a one-dimensional, goofy persona purely in place for the laughs. Even so, once the film establishes its story to simplify things for viewers the plot moves along at Hammett’s brisk pace. Several portions of the backstory are excised for the sake of time, but everything comes together in the final moments in classic form, as Nick lays out the tangled, murderous details at a delightful dinner party packed with nearly the entire cast.

Hammett’s complex plot hardly seems to matter next to the electric relationship between Powell and Loy, who went on to star in five more Thin Man capers as the flirtatious husband-and-wife team. If the series had been established after John Huston’s genre-defining film noir treatment of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett’s penchant for devious mysteries may have taken on a more serious role in the film.

Thankfully, the Hollywood of the 30s took the laughs and ran with them, resulting in a rare balance between crime and comedy. In fact, any film made since 1934 combining the two genres may owe The Thin Man for writing the recipe of a perfect murder-comedy cocktail.

Based on Books: Masters of the Universe

Every so often, a story manages to brook the transition from written form to television to the silver screen.  Batman and Superman both began life as comic book characters, starred in a number of live-action and animated television shows, and eventually achieved success in Hollywood.  Masters of the Universe is not one of those stories.

In 1987, the popularity of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe had reached its fever pitch — the cartoon show and its spin-off She-Ra had just concluded, and the toy line from which the series was first born was still going strong.  It was time to take the muscle-bound, uncomfortably homoerotic hero to the big leagues.  Though this decision undoubtedly thrilled legions of 10 year-olds around the world, the resulting film was, not-so-surprisingly, a mess of bad acting, an utterly asinine script, and a hodgepodge of movie clichés.

The opening titles of Masters of the Universe look and sound as if they were ripped straight from 1978’s Superman, and the legions of ineffectual soldiers are dead-ringers for the black-helmeted crewmembers of the Death Star.  Even borrowing heavily from its betters, Masters of the Universe may have been a salvageable effort if it took place in the creative sci-fi/medieval fantasy world of Eternia.  Instead, everyone involved decided it would be much more fun to throw the heroes through a wormhole, drop them in New Jersey, and pair them up with a couple troubled teenagers (including a pre-Friends Courteney Cox).

If the relocation to Jersey wasn’t a clear indication, practically nothing in Masters of the Universe corresponds to the original He-Man comics.  Most of the major characters are represented, but other heroes like Stratos are nowhere to be seen.  And Orko, He-Man’s floating sidekick whose blunderings once served as comic relief in the animated series, is replaced by the film’s ugly Hobbit/troll mashup Gwildor.

Though Dolph Lundgren would’ve been a far better He-Man without ever opening his mouth, Frank Langella’s Skeletor may be the highlight of the film, simply because his make-up looks a little cool.  Considering how limited his facial expressions are behind Skeletor’s yellow-white skull exterior, Langella’s voicework outpaces the rest of the cringe-inducing cast…until the finale, anyway, when Skeletor transforms himself into some sort of Golden God and utterly ruins everything.

Kids may blissfully overlook the terrible acting and moronic plot, delight in Skeletor’s cliché blundering henchmen and be thrilled by the clumsy choreography of each painful fight scene.  They’ll even get a kick out of the real-world setting and the infusion of distraught teenagers, who rise to the challenge of helping a mostly naked man save his home planet and are rewarded with true love forever. For everyone else, Masters of the Universe is a textbook on how to make a bad children’s movie — take a terrible story, cast bad actors, and try to make it look as cheap as possible.  New Jersey seems to boast a population of about twelve people, but maybe that’s understandable — nobody else wanted anything to do with Masters of the Universe.

Based on Books: A History of Violence

“Ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations” — John Wagner’s foundation for the graphic novel A History of Violence, the story of a normal man caught up in a frighteningly real kill-or-be-killed world.  David Cronenberg’s film adaptation depicts the same extraordinary situation, but alters or cuts most of the extraneous plot points, resulting in a leaner film that is both more believable and intense than the original comic.

A History of Violence begins with a lengthy, continuous tracking shot, seemingly easing into the story with a relaxed nonchalance.  The same casual air continues for the first twenty minutes of the film’s running time, introducing us to Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife (Mario Bello) and children, a seemingly perfect family in an idyllic small town.

That all comes crumbling down when Tom kills two vicious robbers in self-defense, exposing his long-hidden identity to the demons of his past.  When those demons manifest in the form of the menacing Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), the Stalls are tossed into an incredibly tense battle for survival and sanity.  The slow build-up of the first half of A History of Violence introduces a cast of realistic, human characters, and the slowly-mounting tension continuously heightens the suspense.  The film gives us just enough information to understand each scene as it unfolds, keeping us guessing all the way through—is Tom really an experienced killer with a history of violence, or is he simply an ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary situation?

Cronenberg’s film deftly maintains a level of balanced believability that makes its story so gripping — despite the insanity of the circumstances, each character reacts like a real person, and it’s that subtle storytelling that elevates A History of Violence well past its comic book roots.  Wagner’s story possesses none of the subtlety of the film, immediately beginning with a random murder and delving straight into Tom’s fight in his diner.

From that point forward, it’s obvious that Tom’s hiding dark secrets, and the eventual revelation leads into a long backstory substantially different than the brief glimpse of Tom’s past we get in the film.  We discover Tom committed all his misdeeds as a teenager, alongside his friend Richie; in the movie, Richie (William Hurt) is a mobster, Tom’s brother, and the evil Tom must ultimately confront to end his cycle of violence.

Despite the Tom of Wagner’s graphic novel seeming like a more normal everyman than Mortensen’s character, the comic strings together explosions, shootouts, and insanely evil forces.  Even the film’s fantastic characterization is nowhere to be found — Tom’s son “Buzz” throws out lame catchphrases, and his wife’s quick acceptance of his bloody past is almost laughably simplistic contrasted with the emotionally-wrenching fracture that comes between Mortensen and Maria Bello.

Vince Locke’s rough art continuously felt like the bare minimum of functionality needed to convey Wagner’s story — only a few rare scenes stood out or managed to exaggerate the horror of Tom’s ordeal.  The black-and-white sketchbook ugliness may be in keeping with the story’s tone, but with Cronenberg at the reins, A History of Violence tells a better story and wraps it in a superior package of haunting cinematography and an understated score.   Where Wagner’s comic tells a contained story that leaves little to the imagination, the film’s ending can only leave us yearning for more, as if A History of Violence was a glimpse into the lives of real people that’s over far too soon.

Scott Pilgrim and the Cross-Genre Adventure

Scott Pilgrim finds his way

It’s not too hard to picture pop culture as a massive, interwoven tapestry of media — movies and television shows and books and podcasts all borrowing ideas and themes from one another, trying to offer consumers something familiar enough to be appealing but original enough to be captivating.  And one of my absolute favorite things in pop culture is when the creative types unabashedly reference their favorite works, with in-jokes or overt name-drops.

Brian K. Vaughan, author of the incredible comic Y The Last Man, wears his comic book geekery on his sleeve.  Every issue of Y is utterly packed with cheerful jokes that won’t make much sense to readers whose knowledge of the medium doesn’t match Vaughan’s, but it’s cool nonetheless to see such a good writer pay homage to his own influences.

More recently, the seriously bizarre (but hardly serious) action game Bayonetta has fun dropping cheeky references to other video games.  Bayonetta’s wacko plot may be a bit too out there for me, but hearing one of its characters emulate the Resident Evil 4 merchant was amusing, and Bayonetta’s own “Henshin A Go-Go” a delight.

In most cases, that’s as far as pop culture goes to plumb the depths of its own history.  Surface-level window dressings can be a ton of fun, but how often do such references have a genuine impact on the heart of a story?  Pretty rarely — which is one of the reasons Scott Pilgrim is so awesome.

Bryan Lee O’Malley doesn’t just work in commentary on music, video games, anime.  I mean, he does all that, and he does it well.  But that’s barely touching on what makes Scott Pilgrim such an original, interesting work.  Scott Pilgrim is a surreal blend of the real world and a goofy, magic-imbued fantasy reality, where Ramona Flowers can use subspace to travel through people’s dreams, where vegans are imbued with psychic powers, and where Scott isn’t just a twenty-something loser — he’s a twenty-something loser who always wins his fights.

O’Malley’s art trends towards the cartoony end of the comic spectrum, which is perfect for the offbeat, experimental mash-up of styles and genres present in his work.  Every great comic creates a detailed world for its characters to exist in, and the way that world is realized appropriately mirrors the style of the narrative.  Cartoony, oversized expressions would seem just as out of place in a post-apocalyptic thriller as minutely detailed characters would look in a lighthearted comedy.  Which isn’t to say that Scott Pilgrim is never serious — but in the world of comics, cartoony, iconic characters are easier to latch onto, and the more stylized they are, the more likely we are to buy into the world around them.

Scott Pilgrim levels up!

Which is important, because the world of Scott Pilgrim is unlike any other.  As they become more and more advanced, video games have been gravitating towards emulating Hollywood to the best of their ability.  They’re trying to adopt the language of movies: the way cinematography works, how scenes are composed, how characters interact.  Comics, on the other hand, have a very distinct style of storytelling, a way of handling time that is very much their own.  But Scott Pilgrim doesn’t quite play by those rules; it incorporates the trappings of video games at a conceptual level.  In a comic, there’s a way you expect characters to interact with their world, and in video games, there’s a way you expect the elements in the interactive environment to work.  But by infusing aspects of video games into Scott Pilgrim, O’Malley has birthed a cool mix of mediums, in which the expected logic of comics doesn’t work the way we’re accustomed to.

1-UpWhen characters die, they don’t die like they would in a comic; they die like they would in a video game, leaving behind power-ups or 1-Ups (or bunnies, in one Sonic the Hedgehog inspired incident). Video game iconography often pops up to establish a scene with a minimum of wordy explanation.  Game-esque “stats” are applied to objects and characters, like Ramona’s bat (+1 against blondes!) and Scott’s leveling up.  Anyone who’s familiar with video games will take these things for granted in a game, but O’Malley uses them to tell a story in a way that games never have.  Narrative in video games often disregards the way we interact with them — RPGs will throw tons of stats and levels and weapons at you, but those things almost never have any bearing on how the story plays out.  But Scott Pilgrim tells its story through those tropes.  Pretty cool, huh?

There’s plenty more video game stuff packed into Scott Pilgrim in the form of references like Clash at Demonhead, and some moments that break the Fourth Wall, which seems only natural for such an offbeat comic.  As interesting as the Scott Pilgrim comic is, it’s even more tantalizing to anticipate how Edgar Wright will take the video game elements and incorporates them into the upcoming film adaptation.  Odds are it won’t work in quite the same unique way, but who knows?

A Burden Shrugged

Come on, Atlas.  You can do it.It took me a solid five months, but I finally (finally) finished Atlas Shrugged at the end of May.  My enjoyment of the book definitely took a downwards turn in the second half; after Dagny left the valley, it was a slow crawl to an inexorable conclusion.  Ayn Rand came up briefly in my Editing and Design class earlier in the semester, and the professor joked that she was an author seriously in need of an editor.  And he was exactly right: Atlas Shrugged struggles under the weight of its own vision, a novel incapable of supporting Rand’s philosophy while simultaneously carrying an appealing narrative.

I’m curious how many people have actually dragged their brains through John Galt’s 80 page speech that endlessly extols the true virtues of man and condemns the mindless parasites of society.  I suppose, in a way, I’m almost proud to have read the entire thing, but by that point I was far past interest and moving forward on sheer stubborn determination.

Now that I’m finished with Ayn Rand, I’ve moved onto lighter, more fun things; I started reading the complete works of Dashiell Hammett, who’s probably most famous for The Maltese Falcon.  Not only is it great pulp fiction from the early years of the 20th century, it’s great fodder for Based on Books.  After Atlas Shrugged, Hammett’s tight, fast-paced narrative and sharp dialogue are a welcome, welcome change.

Based on Books: Watchmen Right and Wrong

Despite the inevitable dissent among Watchmen fans, moviegoers, and critics, one thing is fairly certain: Zack Snyder did not butcher, destroy, or otherwise mangle the source material in his effort to convert the most respected graphic novel of all time into something acceptably Hollywood. Camera shots, lines of dialogue, and important plot elements were plucked wholesale from Alan Moore’s creation. The harsh, bleak atmosphere of a Commie-fearing America remained completely intact; the vast majority of the novel was represented faithfully on screen, and a mammoth extended edition will integrate even more material that couldn’t make the theatrical cut.

Of course, complaints remain, opinions will forever be mixed, and Watchmen certainly provides its share of disappointing elements for all its successes. Read on to find out what worked and what didn’t in the cinematic world of Watchmen.

What Watchmen Does Right

Rorschach – Outside of the film noir, voice-over narration rarely really works, and far too often it feels like a contrived or lazy way to quickly convey important plot information. Watchmen is a wonderful exception.

Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) delivers his dry, gravelly account of New York’s descent into sin impeccably, dropping unnecessary articles to produce that trademark jarring, blunt assessment of the world. Haley’s portrayal of Rorschach brings the full brunt of the character’s cynicism and brutality to bear in a way I didn’t think would be possible for the film, reaffirming Rorschach’s place in the ranks of the all-time greatest characters in comic book history. And man, that mask — the constantly-shifting inkblot is simply mesmerizing in a way the comic couldn’t hope to match.

Nite Owl – In the graphic novel, Dan Dreiberg hardly seems like a once-upon-a-time superhero — he’s overweight, middle-aged, and more than a little awkward. On screen, he fares a little better — as portrayed by Patrick Wilson he’s younger, more vibrant, and not quite so heavy. The change to his character actually reflects a noticeable shift towards youth and vitality in Snyder’s Watchmen, and I’ll admit that something about his character is lost in the change.

In the end, though, dropping the paunch and a few weary middle-age years works for the character. Enough of the washed-up average joe remains in Wilson’s performance, and he delivers both a solid Dreiberg, bespectacled and tweeded out, and a kickass Nite Owl in a sleek, deadly costume, which makes for far more entertaining cinema than Moore’s out of shape hero.

Dr. Manhattan – I can’t pinpoint exactly why, but there’s just something about Billy Crudup’s soft-spoken delivery that enhances the appeal of any powerful character he portrays. Maybe it’s that dichotomy between Dr. Manhattan’s infinite, deadly abilities and his delicate, oh-so human voice. But Crudup’s performance alone doesn’t bring Dr. Manhattan to life — it’s the incredible special effects that truly transform him. That consistent blue glow that bathes the other actors in an eerie light and those milky-white eyes make Crudup’s character a dead-on match for Moore’s creation.

The Comedian – Edward Blake’s death in the first moments of Watchmen kicks off the story, sending Rorschach on an investigation that eventually leads to the unearthing of Ozymandias’ plot. Despite being dead for the entirety of the story, The Comedian regularly shows up in flashbacks, and it gradually becomes apparent that he is the lynchpin to the complex situation. As the film clues us in on the events Blake took part in over the decades that make up Watchmen’s backstory, it also peels away layers of his character, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan absolutely becomes The Comedian — smirking, malicious, bloodthirsty and cynical. He represents the spirit of Watchmen to the core, a depressing depiction of humanity who sees the worst in people — and in himself — and basks in the debauchery until it consumes him.

Tone – Alan Moore’s Watchmen remains consistently serious over its 12 chapters, telling an intricate tale with realistic characters and a plot more structured and deliberately, delicately paced than nearly any other comic book ever written. Even Rorschach’s joke about Pagliacci the clown reflects the graphic novel’s bitter sentimentality, turning comic relief into a means of showing how utterly hopeless life truly is. And while Snyder’s adaptation retains the adult plot and impending doom of nuclear Holocaust, the tone is noticeably different.

Ironically, the film version of Watchmen feels more like a comic book than its paper-and-ink counterpart, a change that undoubtedly irks the majority of Moore purists, to say nothing of the author himself. Pop music, a caricatured Nixon and raucous action scenes all populate the movie. And for the most part, they make it a considerably more enjoyable experience. By taking itself just a little less seriously than the original work, Watchmen manages to turn incredibly difficult source material into something entertaining and watchable, while leaving the adult narrative more or less intact.

Music – Watchmen’s soundtrack is as awesome as it is unexpected. The marginally less serious, comic book feel of the film allows for music that connects key scenes with a relevant piece of pop culture or simply fits the vibe of the moment. Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel are the last things that come to mind alongside a comic like Watchmen, but they add emotion and energy to scenes in a way that printed material, quite obviously, cannot. A more traditional, solely orchestral score would’ve been playing it safe, but the pop songs show a unique awareness of the historic periods the film moves through. And that part when Archie bursts through the Antarctic ice and carves a groove into the snow in time with the wailing guitar of All Along the Watchtower? Oh yeah.

Slow motion – Given that Snyder’s previous film, 300, was built upon a foundation of gratuitous slow-motion, I expected to see a repeat performance in Watchmen. The trailers painted a grim picture, but Snyder toned it down for the full feature, and by and large the slow motion remains in its appropriate place, improving the action scenes instead of slowing them to a ridiculous crawl. Each fight scene feels appropriately kickass, balancing Snyder’s trademark style with a welcome healthy dose of moderation.

What Watchmen Does Wrong

Ozymandias – He’s the smartest man in the world. The fastest man in the world. His grand, evil scheme is really a genius plot to save humanity. Unfortunately, Snyder’s Watchmen cuts Adrian Veidt’s screen time down to his essential scenes and crams his backstory into a portion of the film that robs it of its effectiveness. Matthew Goode simply can’t carry the character, and his portrayal of Ozymandias invokes none of the elegance, eloquence, or human appeal it should. And the dramatic revelation of his guilt hardly delivers the gut-punch of surprise it should — how could it, when Goode comes across as cold and arrogant and his black costume practically screams menace?

Silk Spectre II – Like Nite Owl, Silk Spectre II sheds a few years for the film adaptation of Watchmen, and Malin Akerman looks mighty fine in that black-and-yellow latex. Too bad that’s just about all she does. While there’s still enough left to Dan Dreiberg after his Hollywood makeover to retain an appealing character, Laurie Jupiter is stripped of all the little flaws that make her interesting. She no longer smokes; she’s no longer depressed or temperamental; she looks just as young and vibrant in the film’s present as she does in its flashbacks. And without those flaws, Laurie becomes the shallowest member of the main cast. I’m not sure if the majority of the blame lies with the script or Malin Akerman’s performance, but the end result is a flat, weak character.

Rorschach and the psychiatrist – We’ve already established that Rorschach exudes awesome in almost lethal doses, and the film adaptation brings him to life perfectly. That said, I was disappointed to see his time with Dr. Malcolm Long cut short; in the original story, Malcolm plays an important role in Chapter VI, and Rorschach’s blunt cynicism gradually breaks down the psychiatrist’s cheery optimism. We see the world through Malcolm’s eyes, and his own transformation at the figurative hands of Walter Kovacs’ psyche exposes us to the full brunt of Moore’s bleak depiction of human existence. It’s Rorschach’s finest moment, and would likely be the first scene I’d choose to have added to an extended adaptation.

Minor inconsistencies – When dealing with such a complex story and the time constraints of a film conversion, some things aren’t going to work out quite perfectly. A few remnants of the story remained intact when they really shouldn’t have, resulting in weaker scenes lacking the thought-out precision of Moore’s work. In the graphic novel, The Comedian discovers Veidt’s master plan accidentally while investigating the island housing the faux-alien giant squid. But in the film, there’s no such justification for his unearthing of Ozymandias’ intentions. Veidt’s giant lynx, Bubastis, was meant to be a holdover of his genetic experimentations in that same project, but that plot thread is entirely absent from the film, leaving the animal’s existence unexplained.

Rorschach’s confrontation with Moloch also suffers from the conversion, as much of their interaction is cut from the film. In the comic, Rorschach tells the retired villain to drop a note requesting a second meeting, should he remember any useful information. With that sequence of events missing, Rorschach’s convenient arrival at Moloch’s apartment, just in time for Veidt’s trap, makes little sense. And the office of the New Frontiersman newspaper only shows up in the film’s final moments, which makes Rorschach’s decision to give them his journal some 20 minutes earlier especially vague.

Nudity – The nudity in Watchmen is a tricky subject. On the one hand, the film deserves considerable respect for not flinching from male nudity and staying absolutely true to Dr. Manhattan’s comic book depiction. On the other hand, the significance of his nudity as a symbolic detachment from everyday society isn’t referenced, and I’m not sure anyone really wanted or needed to see quite that much blue wang. Even the sex scenes between Laurie and Dan appear goofy and poorly handled.

While artist David Gibbons drew plenty of scenes with nude characters, the inherent difference in detail between a comic book and a live-action movie shifts the focus considerably. When there are naked people on screen, it’s hard, if not impossible, to pay attention to something else, and the film simply couldn’t convey the same degree of subtlety as Gibbons’ art. That not-quite-so-subtle tone worked for nearly everything in Snyder’s Watchmen, but not so for the nudity.

Based on Books: Jaws

From the moment John Williams’ iconic score strikes its first ominous chord, no one would ever think of water in the same way again. The spectacular success of “Jaws” extends beyond the silver screen in a way few films can boast to match — not only did it launch the concept of the summer blockbuster, it penetrated the public conscience so completely that beach attendance in the summer of 1975 took a noticeable hit.

John Williams’ inventive use of minimalism, which was an integral part of the movie’s success, gave birth to a new style of suspense music that quickly became synonymous with impending doom. The same concept of minimalism pervades the entire production, making the shark’s appearance on-screen all the more terrifying when it finally happens.

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Based on Books: Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which chronicles the unusual life of Billy Pilgrim, bounces back and forth between farcical satire and a sobering, anti-war depiction of World War II and the 1945 bombing of Dresden. Unfortunately, the 1972 film adaptation is light on the farce, and the end result is a movie that gives us a little too much Billy Pilgrim and not quite enough of Vonnegut’s irreverent, quirky humor.

Billy has a strange problem — he has become unstuck in time. As a result, he floats freely from one moment of his existence to another, never knowing which part of his life he’ll be living next. In a completely unrelated (but equally bizarre) incident, Billy is abducted by the fourth-dimension-dwelling Tralfamadorians, who view time as a series of moments that occur simultaneously. Every moment simply exists — there’s no then or now, no past or future.

Billy’s time-jumping lays a perfect narrative foundation for the film to build on, resulting in a story that hops, skips and jumps between the important happenings in Billy’s life. The focus remains on Billy’s time as a soldier in World War II, which is the key moment in his life that the rest of the story builds around. Vonnegut’s goofy cast of characters show up, and creepy Paul Lazzaro and poor old Edgar Derby both get even more attention in the film than they receive in the novel.

The attention both characters get — the added dialogue, extra screen time — and their interactions with Billy highlight Slaughterhouse-Five’s biggest problem. The novel isn’t about Paul Lazzaro, or Edgar Derby, or even so much about Billy Pilgrim. Or, rather, the fact that Billy is the protagonist isn’t what makes Slaughterhouse-Five great — the appeal of the book comes from Vonnegut’s fantastic narrative, which relies far more on descriptive passages and amusing tangents and anecdotes than dialogue or character interaction.

Without Vonnegut’s authorial voice guiding the quick jumps between moments of Billy’s life, we don’t see him as the bemused, aloof character he is — a man who never seems to really care too much about anything. Except, perhaps, the philosophical teachings of Tralfamadore. And the omission of Kilgore Trout, a character whose wacky science-fiction novels seem to be Vonnegut’s way of poking fun at himself, leaves the film lacking just one more of the elements that make Slaughterhouse-Five such a quirky, insightful work of literature.

Even so, the quality of Vonnegut’s novel shines through on screen in spots. The inherent humor in the series of events that make up Billy’s war experiences is sometimes even better portrayed on film — his conversation with the leader of the British POWs is especially hilarious. Some of Vonnegut’s themes also make their way into the film — Billy’s wife Valencia does her best to stand for the absurdity of consumerism, and the tragedy of war comes across just as strongly as it does in the book.
As the film approaches its conclusion, the grim scenery of post-bombing Dresden evokes a stronger reaction than any moment leading up to that inevitable finale. Edgar Derby’s almost casual execution by firing squad, his punishment for taking a useless figurine in the aftermath of Dresden’s destruction, perfectly communicates the utter senselessness of war and its rules and guidelines.

But, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut: so it goes.