The LEGO Batman Movie


The Batmobile is getting a little bit crowded.

(2017) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Ralph Fiennes, Rosario Dawson, Siri, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate, Conan O’Brien, Doug Benson, Jason Mantzoukas, Billy Dee Williams, Zoë Kravitz, Kate Micucci, Riki Lindhome, Eddie Izzard, Seth Green, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Jemaine Clement, Hector Elizondo, Chris Hardwick, Ellie Kemper. Directed by Chris McKay

 

After the breakout success of The LEGO Movie in 2014, it became clear that one of the reasons for that success was Will Arnett’s delightful portrayal of Batman. Completely clueless and a bit of a jerk, it became clear that he deserved his own movie.

The movie he got is a face off between Batman (Arnett) and the Joker (Galifianakis) but not in the traditional sense. Jim Gordon (Elizondo) is retiring as police chief and his daughter Barbara (Dawson) is taking over but the pragmatic Barbara has some questions. If Batman is such a great crime fighter, why is Gotham so overridden with crime?

For Batman’s part, he leads a lonely existence, dining alone at Wayne Manor while watching Jerry Maguire and laughing in all the wrong places. His faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Fiennes) reminds Batman/Bruce Wayne that he has a responsibility – for one thing, to raise the orphan Dick Grayson (Cera) that he had adopted. Batman, for his part, didn’t realize he’d adopted the boy, thinking it was a joke. Grayson discovers Bruce Wayne’s secret and takes on the costumed vigilante identity as Robin, much to Batman’s annoyance.

But Joker has a plan; to release all of the monsters from the Phantom Zone and overrun Gotham. What he really wants though is for Batman to admit that the Joker is his arch-nemesis which the Caped Crusader just won’t do. But he can’t take on all these villains at once. He’s going to have to put aside his ego and admit that he needs help.

The movie is very family-friendly; kids will love it and adults won’t mind it either. While the “family is important” message will resonate with adults, kids might find it a bit saccharine; kids tend to prefer anarchy and chaos when left to their own devices. The nerd brigade will like the infusion of various DC superheroes as well as monsters and villains from across the pop culture spectrum (curiously there are no Marvel superheroes or villains, at least none I can remember). Adults will appreciate the rapid fire jokes that keep the movie jumping, not unlike a ZAZ film from the 70s. However, like most movies that throw a lot of jokes into the mix, not all of them work. A lot of them hit the mark though, like the whole lobster thermador thing. While the satire of the comic book genre is spot on, McKay and his cadre of five comedy writers also skewer movie conventions with Arnett’s portentous voiceover as the movie opens “Black screen. All important movies start with a black screen.” And he continues, hilariously, as the various production company logos come on.

The animation is simple but effective and makes clever use of the LEGO bricks that make up the world. McKay, a veteran of Robot Chicken, knows how to keep the action moving and there are some pretty spiffy action sequences. It does fall apart in the final act when there are way too many monsters and it becomes hard to follow. The palate is a bit darker than The LEGO Movie but it is still bright enough to keep the smaller kids delighted.

I don’t think this is as successful as The LEGO Movie but that may well be because we were so caught off guard by that movie. The bar was a bit higher for this one and if it didn’t quite hit it, it came damn close.

REASONS TO GO: Equally fun for children and adults alike. A fresh view of Batman and at comic book superheroes in general.
REASONS TO STAY: The humor can be hit and miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some animated action and a few rude jokes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fiennes is the third Oscar-nominated actor to play Alfred Pennyworth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deadpool
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dig Two Graves

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Marvel’s The Avengers


Marvel's The Avengers

Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson are a bit grumpy because they didn’t get a nifty uniform.

(2012) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Gwynneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany (voice), Alexis Denisof, Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, Harry Dean Stanton. Directed by Joss Whedon

 

Okay, take a deep breath now. It’s finally here, after five years of anticipation, of endless speculation, it’s here. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, assembled in one place. Comic book fans of all sorts have been squirming in their chairs for months waiting for this movie to make it into the multiplex.

The thing is, this isn’t a movie just for those who love superheroes. This is spectacle on an epic scale, with battles raging in the skies as well as in the streets of Manhattan. However, there is more to it with a bit of pathos as well as some sharp dialogue. For those wondering, you don’t necessarily have to have seen the preceding Marvel superhero movies, although it helps to have done so.

Loki (Hiddleston) has been released from his quantum exile by the Tesseract, a cube of immense power that SHIELD has been using to try to create a self-sustaining energy source. He immediately uses his spear to control Professor Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) who’s been consulting with SHIELD on the project, and Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Renner), an agent of SHIELD.

SHIELD director Nick Fury (Jackson) realizes that war has been declared on Earth by Loki – and he may have an army of alien beings behind him. The armed might of the world’s armies will be insufficient to stop what’s coming, so he is forced to recruit the most powerful beings on Earth to stop the threat – Iron Man (Downey), he of the powerful metal battle suit; Dr. Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist and expert on gamma radiation who when angered turns into a gigantic mindless beast that can tear about virtually anything without much effort, and Captain America (Evans), a soldier from World War II rescued from a decades-long sleep who was enhanced at the genetic level by a super soldier formula.

They are joined by the Black Widow (Johansson), an athletic spy and master interrogator and agent Phil Coulson (Gregg), Fury’s right hand – and eye in the field. They’re going to need all of them because with Hawkeye swinging for the other team, Loki is privy to all of SHIELD’s dirty little secrets.

The rest of the team is transported to SHIELDS heli-carrier, an airport carrier with gigantic helicopter rotors and the ability to turn invisible – yes, a cloaking shield! Eat your hearts out, Trekkers! In any case, Banner works on a device to track the unique but faint gamma radiation signature of the Tesseract. In the meantime, Loki is captured by Cap and Iron Man in Germany.

That brings Thor (Hemsworth) into the mix. Thor, Loki’s adopted brother, has noticed what Loki is up to and has had his father send him to Midguard (Earth) at some great cost. The intention is to bring Loki back to Asgard to answer for his crimes there. However, there is work to be done on Earth before that can happen – heading off the invasion that Loki has initiated, for one thing and the alien Chitaurs are not particularly interested in a gentle, benevolent rule. It will take the combined might of all of them to thwart Loki’s intricate plans and save the Earth from being subjugated by alien masters.

This is everything a superhero film is supposed to be; it captures the dynamics of each individual character and Whedon and writer Zak Penn extrapolate how the interpersonal relationships would work given their personalities and egos (which, to be fair, the comics have been doing for years). The result is a believably dysfunctional group of heroes who can be prima donnas and have their own agendas from time to time. Tony Stark (the alter ego of Iron Man) for example is highly suspicious of SHIELD’s motives and distrusts government, particularly after they forcibly tried to take away his work from him in the first two Iron Man movies.

Everyone gets to shine here, from the big guns (Downey) right on down to Gregg who has few scenes but makes the most of them. All of them, including Nick Fury (who hasn’t had much to do in previous films except for a good deal of expository dialogue) kick patooty, whether each other (as in  Thor-Hulk battle) or against the aliens (Cap gives the big green guy the orders “Hulk smash” and Hulk, grinning broadly, does just that).

It might have gone a little bit long (and waiting until the very end of the credits for the second extra scene might be a too much to ask) but all in all this is mind-blowing when it needs to be and visceral when it has to be. Watching Hulk smash is one of the great joys in life, as is seeing Cap’s leadership abilities come to life, or Tony Stark’s ego.

Nothing I say is going to dissuade people who want to see this from seeing it or those that don’t want to see it from avoiding it. If you don’t like superhero movies, if you find big loud action movies with Dolby sound and 3D glasses to be sensory overload, you’re going to be uncomfortable with this. HOWEVER if you don’t mind or actively love these things, you’ll be in your element here.

A note to parents: please don’t bring your kids along if they’re say seven or younger. The movie is a bit long for kids with short attention spans, it’s very scary in places and LOUD throughout. There was a moment when Hulk was roaring and I happened to be glancing at a little girl who couldn’t have been more than five years old covering her ears with a look of ABSOLUTE terror on her face. She had no business being there and you know it wasn’t her idea to go. Get a babysitter folks, or take them to see a Pixar film instead or be prepared to have an angry mob of people at the theater turn on you. This isn’t a little kids movie by any stretch of the imagination. If your kids aren’t able to handle a two hour movie at home, they probably won’t be able to handle it in a theater – and if you should know how easily frightened they are. The movie theater isn’t a day care center.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely well-choreographed action sequences. None of the heroes get short shrift.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a bit long for those with short attention spans.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence of the alien invasion sort, as well as a few fairly scary sequences. This is definitely not for children under, say, seven years old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie became the fastest to earn $200M at the U.S. box office – it only took three days to reach that milestone.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.The reviews are almost without exception positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men

STAN LEE LOVERS: The legendary Marvel Comics grand vizier shows up in his cameo during a montage of interviews of Big Apple residents being interviewed about the battle just fought on city streets.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Chasing Amy


Chasing Amy

This is what cool looked like in 1997.

(1997) Romantic Comedy (Miramax) Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee, Matt Damon, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Dwight Ewell, Carmen Lee, Rebecca Waxman, Welker White, Kelli Simpkins, John Willyung, Ethan Suplee, Casey Affleck. Directed by Kevin Smith

Director Kevin Smith became the critic’s darling after Clerks, then became the critic’s whipping boy after Mallrats. This is the third movie set in what Smith calls his Askewniverse, a small trio of New Jersey towns called, oddly enough, the “tri-town area” (which actually exists, and Smith actually grew up there), inhabited by stoners, slackers, libertines and jerks. In short, it’s the real world, without the annoying odors.

Ben Affleck lives in this world, or rather he plays someone who does. That someone is Holden McNeil, a successful comic book artist (Smith is something of a fanboy who is heavily involved in the four-color world of comic books) who’s best friend Banky (Lee) is also his writer and business partner.

Their superheroes are based on the exploits of two guys familiar to Smith fans; Jay (Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), and the book they draw has reached a level of success that has attracted the attention of MTV (look for Matt Damon in a cameo as a smarmy Empty Vee exec) who want to turn it into an animated series. There is a nice scene where they’re confronted by J&SB who are predictably none too happy that the characters based on them are doing so well.

At a convention, Holden meets struggling artist Alyssa Jones (Adams) and falls in love with her. It soon turns out that Alyssa is a lesbian, and perfectly content to be one. Hope springs eternal, however, and Holden eventually confesses his feelings for her. In a somewhat unlikely turn, she falls for him as well (and you’ve gotta love a movie where the lead actress is an unlikely bet to fall for Ben Affleck). That’s where things go sour.

Unlikely many romantic movies, this is a relationship between imperfect people who can – and do – say and do the wrong things. Smith has a gift for being able to expose you to differing viewpoints and enable you to relate to all of them, diverse as they may be. This is ostensibly a comedy, with some hellacious laughs in it (the bit in which acerbic gay black artist Hooper X (Ewell) tries to convince the frenetic Banky that Archie is actually gay is hysterical), but this is also a movie that forces you to examine your own viewpoints, especially as they relate to your own relationships.

We are all chasing Amy, the metaphor Smith uses for searching for the perfect partner, our life’s soulmate. Many times we find that partner, only to screw up the relationship. Then, forever, we are measuring our partners against The One that Got Away (this is particularly a guy thing, but it can be a girl thing as well). Too often, we end up messing up by trying to fit our partners within our preconceived notions of what they should be, rather than accepting them the way they are.

It might come as somewhat of a surprise to some that this is my favorite Kevin Smith movie, even more so than his more beloved Clerks. Then again, I understand from his Wikipedia page that many critics feel the same, although Clerks continues to be the movie Smith is most identified with. Maybe that’s why he is planning on retiring from film directing after his next movie. Still, Chasing Amy remains one of his best-reviewed films ever.

There’s good reason for that. There are times Chasing Amy is actually painful to watch, as you realize that with one thoughtful word said (and sometimes, one thoughtless word not said) things would be great between Holden and Alyssa. That they aren’t makes this a movie we can all actually relate to – and learn from.

WHY RENT THIS: Smith’s best film ever. A real world romantic comedy that deals with real world relationship issues. Relatable to most viewers who have ever messed up a romance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Smith can be an acquired taste. Lots of pop culture references dates this a little.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a fair amount of bad language, much of it related to sex. There’s also some sexuality and drug use as well as some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Smith was dating Joey Lauren Adams at the time and wrote the movie based on his experiences with her.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The DVD was released as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection and while there aren’t a ton of features beyond the usual DVD making-of and commentary fare, the director commentary is one of the best ever released. While the film has yet to get released on Blu-Ray on it’s own, it was released as part of a Kevin Smith Blu-Ray Collection along with Clerks and Mallrats. While the excellent commentary track wasn’t ported over to the Blu-Ray edition (because the rights to it belong to Criterion) there are some excellent features, including a 10th Anniversary Q&A session with the cast and a conversation with Smith and Adams long after their relationship came to an end that is sometimes poignant and awkward but is mostly funny and charming.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.2M on a $250,000 production budget; the movie was a blockbuster relative to it’s low budget.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: After.life

Top 5 Movie Superheroes That Didn’t Start Out in Comic Books


MegaMind is something of an homage to the superhero comic books that are as indelible a part of the American landscape as the Super Bowl and Disney World. Of late, the movies have picked up on the viability of the great superhero characters, from Marvel (Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men) to DC (Batman, Superman) and the independents (Hellboy, Kick-Ass). They’ve even gotten into the act of creating their own superheroes, some of which have had comic books created for them. Here are the best of them.

HONORABLE MENTION

Captain Zoom (Tim Allen) in Zoom (2006) didn’t benefit from being in a really good movie, but that’s the breaks. While the movie is a forgettable mess, the character had a good deal of potential as a kind of cross between The Flash and a kind of alcoholic, broken-down Yoda. Allen did his best here and in a better movie, Captain Zoom would have rocked. The Strobe (Thomas Haden Church) wasn’t the most likable hero you’ll ever find, not even among his own group, The Specials (2000) but he still had something likable about him. This low-budget movie about heroes who weren’t on the A-list was barely seen, either theatrically or even on cable but it deserved a better fate. More soap opera than superhero film, it was more of a study of life in the limelight more than a special effects extravaganza which might be why audiences stayed away. Finally, while not strictly about a superhero, Jingle All the Way (1996) contains Turbo Man, a TV superhero whose action figure became the center of attention for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad. Arnold even got to try the suit with all of its nifty gadgets. While played strictly for laughs, there weren’t very many of those as it turned out.

5. CAPTAIN EXCELLENT, PAPER MAN (2009)

Captain Excellent, played by soon-to-be superhero expert Ryan Reynolds, acts as more of a conscience for writer Jeff Daniels in this indie comedy. While his superpowers are essentially undefined, Excellent appears from time to time to counsel Daniels who is pretty much falling apart in real life. It’s an interesting role and an offbeat use for a costumed hero; quite frankly, I thought it quirky enough to make the list.

4. SHARKBOY, LAVAGIRL, THE ADVENTURES OF SHARKBOY AND LAVAGIRL (2005) 

Robert Rodriguez has become rather adept at CGI-heavy kid films like Spy Kids and this superhero adventure, which features pre-teen heroes shepherding a daydreamer of a boy to a far out world. The dream world sequences were filmed in 3D while the real world sequences were presented in regular 2D, which meant that audiences were taking off and putting on their 3D glasses throughout the movie which was a bit of a drag. However, Sharkboy was played by a pre-Twilight Taylor Lautner which by itself may have plenty of pre-teen girls scrambling to order this on Netflix.  

3. MEGAMIND, MEGAMIND (2010)

 It’s unusual for me to include a movie I just reviewed in the Top 5, but MegaMind is such a great character there was no point in excluding him. Of course, he also has a death ray pointed at my skull at the moment, so that might also have something to do with it. In any case, this is a hero who we can all relate to; someone who has been put down and pushed around all his life to the point where he just gives up on being liked. It is only when he is forced to find his inner hero that he discovers he is a hero for all of us. This may well turn out to be the best animated movie of the year.

2. THE COMMANDER, SKY HIGH (2005) 

Kurt Russell going back to his early Disney movies was always adept at playing the hero; giving him superpowers was a masterstroke of an idea. In this teen comedy, he is the most famous hero there is, married to a beautiful super-heroine and father to a son who may eclipse the accomplishments of his parents, but on whom the pressure has become so great that he can’t perform. This was meant to become a Disney Channel series but the movie never really generated enough revenue, so despite the terrific performance of Russell (and Lynda Carter as the school principal), this remains a movie that is all about what could have been.

1. THE INCREDIBLES, THE INCREDIBLES (2004)

I admit a soft spot in my heart for this movie, and many a fellow comic book fanboy knows why. This is a comic book superhero team done Pixar-style. It incorporates many elements of typical comic superhero teams, making them a family (very much influenced by the Fantastic Four) with an alpha male (Mr. Incredible, voiced by Craig T. Nelson), his wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) who ironically enough had Reed Richards’ superpower of super elasticity, their son speedy Dash (Spencer Fox) and force field-generating daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell). There are references to 60s spy movies as well as the comic book heroes of the 90s and before. It’s a terrific movie and the heroes are all heroes I’d follow in the comics, which really is the benchmark for any movie hero.

Push


Push

Neil Jackson shows Djimon Hounsou that he's a rising star.

(Summit) Chris Evans, Dakota Fanning, Camilla Belle, Djimon Hounsou, Cliff Curtis, Ming Na, Joel Gretsch, Maggie Siff, Neil Jackson, Scott Michael Campbell, Corey Stoll, Colin Ford, Xiao Lu Li, Paul Car. Directed by Paul McGuigan.

It is said there is no limit to the potential of the human mind. It is also true that there is no limit to the human desire to control and exploit anything with the potential of limitless power, and no limits to how far some would go to gain that power.

There have always been humans with special abilities. Telekinetics, called Movers. Precognitives, called Watchers. People who can exert control over others, called Pushers. People who can sense the location of others, called Sniffers. These are controlled by a sinister government agency known only as Division. One of the most fearsome agents of Division is a pusher named Carver (Hounsou).

A mover named Nick Gant (Evans) has been eking out a miserable existence in Hong Kong, far away from Division. He’d watched his father (Gretsch) murdered by Carver ten years earlier. His powers have never really developed properly. His disastrous attempts to influence dice games have landed him deep in debt to the sorts of people who aren’t about installment plans. On the positive side, Division hasn’t really felt a need to go after him seriously.

However, two Division sniffers (Stoll, Campbell) are waiting for him in his apartment after a run-in with some dice players. They’re looking for Kira (Belle), a pusher who escaped from Division’s medical labs with a syringe filled with a formula meant to increase the abilities of the psychically endowed, but usually winds up killing them. In fact, Kira is the only one who has survived the shot and could be the key to Division’s plans of assembling an army of enhanced psy-soldiers.

After the sniffers leave, Nick is visited by a precocious little watcher named Cassie (Fanning) whose mother remains captive in a Division facility, drugged into a stupor. She informs him that the syringe is the means of bringing down Division and to freeing Cassie’s mom. Oh, and the two of them are doomed to die. However, the good news is that the future is constantly changing and Cassie isn’t always accurate. The bad news is that a Chinese gang led by a much better developed watcher (Lu Li) is also aware of the syringe and what it could mean, and they’re gunning to find Kira and her precious cargo. Carver and Victor (Jackson), a mover far more advanced than Nick, have arrived in Hong Kong to personally supervise the operation.

Nick assembles a team of friends and rogue psychics to try and help save himself, Cassie and Kira from what is increasingly looking like a fatal ending. The odds are overwhelming, but the stakes are high…and time is ticking inexorably towards a conclusion.

This is a nice looking movie, which takes advantage of its Hong Kong milieu nicely. There are kinetic action sequences with plenty of CGI lighting effects and wire work. There is also Fanning, who tends to elevate every movie she’s in.

The problem here is that the script is overly complex and hard to follow. I consider myself a fairly savvy moviegoer and I had problems keeping up with who is able to do what and where they stand. The movie is based on a Wildstorm comic series, for which this material is better suited. The world created by McGuigan and the other filmmakers is over-the-top and convoluted, which works in a four-color medium but not so much on the big screen.

Evans, best known as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies (he must have a thing about comic books), is an attractive enough lead but Nick Gant is essentially Johnny Storm without the libido – or the flames, for that matter. While his powers progress nicely through the course of the film, his character changes wildly without a whole lot of explanation. Either far too much was left on the cutting room floor, or the script was not as well-written as it should have been.

The rest of the cast – many of them veterans of the Hong Kong action movies – range from competent to forgettable. The most surprising of them is Hounsou. He plays the movie’s main heavy with an odd lack of energy or fire. I think he’s going for menacing in a quiet way, sort of like a cobra ready to strike. However, he comes off merely wooden and bored and not nearly an object of fear that he should be.

I tend to be far more forgiving of comic book movies than most because I do love comic books, and I do love movies that are made from them. After 2008 gave us Iron Man, Wanted and The Dark Knight, I was looking for comic book movies to become more of a serious art form. This isn’t the movie that’s going to accomplish that. What McGuigan has crafted, however, is an unnecessarily convoluted but good looking movie that I can recommend with reservations, but looks to fall below the radar of the vast majority of the movie-going audience, and it doesn’t take a watcher to see that coming.

WHY RENT THIS: Exciting action sequences reminiscent of some of the better Hong Kong-made action films. Dakota Fanning is a solid actress who delivers a performance better than this movie deserves. Scenes filmed in and around Hong Kong are fascinating.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Convoluted plot that’s hard to follow. Script occasionally ignores it’s own internal logic. Hounsou isn’t nearly menacing enough as a villain and comes off as surprisingly wooden.

FAMILY VALUES: Somewhat violent, although no worse than most comic book movies. There is also some teen drinking here. Otherwise, suitable for most teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In order to deal with the bustle of the Hong Kong locations, director McGuigan decided to film guerilla style, out of peepholes and in the back of vans. In fact, during a scene where Kira is kidnapped at gunpoint with no crew members visibly in sight and no prior advertisement that there would be filming there that day, passers-by didn’t react or move to help.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Slumdog Millionaire

Watchmen


The Nite Owl stands before Archimedes, his high-tech flying machine.

The Nite Owl stands before Archimedes, his high-tech flying machine.

(Warner Brothers) Malin Ackerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Matt Frewer, Stephen McHattie, Laura Mennell, Rob LaBelle, Robert Wisden. Directed by Zack Snyder

Watchmen is perhaps the most honored and revered graphic novel of all time. Originally written by Alan Moore (who has refused to let his name be associated with the film version, although don’t let that fool you), in many ways it changed the way graphic novels – and superhero-based ones in particular – are perceived.

The year is 1985, although not the one we remember. Richard Nixon is still president, having been elected for an unprecedented fifth term. The Soviets invasion of Afghanistan has brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. And the American superhero squad known as the Watchmen has been forced to disband due to a government ban on masked vigilantes.

The film opens with one of the former Watchmen, a super-conservative psychopath called the Comedian (Morgan) being murdered. He won’t be missed much – he was a wretched human being. However, Rorschach (Haley), a strange and possibly deranged man whose mask constantly changes into a series of inkblot-like patterns, thinks there’s more to the crime than the attempted robbery story the police say is what happened. He thinks that there might be a killer going after the ex-Watchmen, so he visits his former partners – the second Nite Owl (Wilson), who visits the first Nite Owl (McHattie) and commiserates over the life of a retired masked crimefighter. The second Silk Spectre (Ackerman), who lives with the god-like Doctor Manhattan (Crudup) and whose mother, the first Silk Spectre (Gugino), was once assaulted by the Comedian.  Finally, there is Ozymandias (Goode), the world’s smartest man, who has gone public with his secret identity and has become a very wealthy industrialist.

The world has become a mean place, and gangs rule the streets of New York. Most people believe that nuclear annihilation is inevitable and act accordingly. The former superheroes are depressed, fatalistic and have issues of their own. The kindest is Nite Owl, who has grown a bit timid over the years, although basically a decent man. Rorschach is nearly psychotic, narrating a series of journal entries that make plain his belief that humanity is essentially a genetic cesspool that has more in common with vermin than with higher life forms.

Dr. Manhattan, a former nuclear physicist who became able to manipulate matter at will in a horrifying accident, is becoming less and less connected with the world and its inhabitants. His affection for Silk Spectre is almost all that keeps any sort of caring for humanity in his nature, but that all changes when he discovers that he may have caused cancer in those closest to him. Shocked and horrified, Manhattan exiles himself to Mars. With America’s most powerful nuclear deterrent out of the way, the path is cleared for the Russians to begin building to the inevitable climax of assured mutual mass destruction. Can the costumed heroes, once hated and reviled, pick up their masks and save the day one more time?

The original graphic novel was cerebral on the one hand and visceral on the other. There is brutal violence and explicit situation, all elements preserved in the movie. Director Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse have done a magnificent job of translating a work thought unfilmable to the big screen. The subtleties of the original graphic novel are for the most part, retained here. The movie is rated “R” and there is a good reason for it; impressionable kids shouldn’t be seeing this. There is graphic sex, realistic violence and adult themes. This is no Super Friends to say the least.

The cast is excellent, mostly comprised of character actors who have started to develop a reputation for solid work. Haley, who was nominated for an Oscar last year, might bag another nomination this year for his work as the tormented Rorschach. Dogged, cynical, bitter and brutal, he is constantly underestimated by those who oppose him but winds up on the brink of solving the crime at the heart of the story.

The world presented here is gritty and nasty. You feel like you’ve stepped into a sewer, and the film is darkly lit to go along with its dark tone. Special effects abound – in fact Dr. Manhattan is mostly a special effect himself. Far above the need to wear clothes, the bright blue Billy Crudup spends most of the movie with his package dangling for all to see. The fight sequences are pretty nifty as well.

However, this is a fairly long movie as action films go and there is a lot going on in terms of plot. Snyder tries to follow the storytelling methods employed by the original comic (which started life as a 12-issue maxi-series) by showing the various backgrounds and viewpoints of the main characters, which can sometimes be confusing. An excellent opening titles sequence really tells you all you need to know about the world of the Watchmen. Familiarity with the source material is a plus but not a requirement in order for you to follow the story.

I was hoping for something along the lines of The Dark Knight in terms of quality and it isn’t quite there, although it is very good. I wanted to like it more, but I still liked it plenty. In that sense, Watchmen is a victim of its own excellence. I doubt somewhat that any motion picture could truly equal the scope and the complexity of the source material, as hard as Watchmen tries. It must be said, however, that I think it captures those elements about as well as any movie could.

In that sense, I can easily recommend Watchmen for general audiences without any qualms, just in terms of overall quality. Parents should be aware that some of the scenes are extremely rough when it comes to language, violence and sexuality, which I believe I have harped on sufficiently here. For my money, I think that lovers of action movies, superhero fanboys and aficionados of complex, compelling cinema are all among those who should be watching the Watchmen.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s the ever-lovin’ Watchmen! Compelling performances by strong character actors make well-written characters seem real and vital. Terrific (although not groundbreaking) special effects keep the wow factor high.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the course language, extreme violence and graphic sexuality can be off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES: Not for children. Adult themes, graphic violence, nudity and explicit sexuality may be too much for even some adults.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Watchmen has been in development for almost 20 years at various studios. Among the directors at one time or another attatched to the project: Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The director’s cut edition includes 24 minutes of additional footage, mostly revolving around Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl who compared to his involvement in the original graphic novel gets little more than a cameo appearance in the theatrical release;

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Henry Poole is Here