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by Bill Gibron

9 Nov 2009

Will the real motion picture version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen please stand up? In the span of eight short months we’ve had the official theatrical release of Zach Snyder’s genius take on the title, as well as an extended Director’s Cut DVD and Blu-ray which provided more character context and clarity to what was already a masterpiece, and now a well-timed four disc release which offers what Warner Brothers is calling the “Ultimate Cut”. In truth, it’s yet another editorial go round for the film, this time adding in the animated Tales of the Black Freighter back into the narrative, just like Moore and Gibbons intended (sadly, Under the Hood is left as a bonus feature). It’s all so confusing. No matter, though, since what was already a great movie is yet again made even better by the inclusion of even more context.

Of course, no one will argue with you if you don’t find Snyder’s reverential take on the classic graphic novel anything less than spectacular. We will forgive your pro-Squid rantings and seemingly senseless ridicule of the film’s many artistic triumphs. Indeed, in a few short years, when critical opinion has been snatched away from the grinning maw of Geek Nation, Watchmen the movie will be viewed in a similar light as Watchmen the literary icon - as one of the most powerful, forward thinking, and visually stunning stories of the last 50 years. In the ten years since the artform moved into the 21st century, few movies can match Snyder’s magnificent adaptation, using everything that was great about the narrative and fashioning it into a devastating deconstruction of personal identity and the horrors of human nature.

The story should be familiar by now, but if not… When famed fallen idol (and former US undercover agent) The Comedian is killed, his former colleague in crimefighting Rorschach decides to investigate. His inquiries lead to a horrific conclusion - someone may be murdering masked vigilantes in an attempt to keep them from interfering in world events. Outside of true superhero Dr. Manhattan - a scientist transformed into a literal god when a radiation experiment goes awry - the former crusaders are the only individuals influential enough to prevent an oncoming World War III. When Rorschach is framed and sent to prison, it is up to his only friend Dan Drieberg, aka Nite Owl II, to rescue him. Along with new lady love Silk Spectre II, he will try to spring his friend. In the meantime, the Doomsday Clock ticks ever closer to Armageddon, and all paths appear to lead through former champion Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt and his massive multinational conglomerate.

At its core, Watchmen has always been about individuals questioning their value within a world that has long since turned their back on them. Some respond by hiding (Drieberg). Others choose outright revolt (Rorschach). A few play both ends toward the middle (The Comedian, Silk Spectre II) while others remain unsettled in their role as superman (Dr. Manhattan) just as others secretly strive for the infinite power they possess (Adrian Veidt). Together, they become a contradiction in terms, heroes who no longer act heroically, champions who’ve long since been defeated by a society unsure of how it wants to be depicted - scared and subservient, or strong and self-reliant. Heck, even former supervillain Moloch is seen denying his past. It all comes to a head when something no one can control, nuclear war, comes calling. It is in this very moment of international crisis when the internal chaos becomes even more uncomfortable - and uncontrollable.

Perhaps this is why fans felt the need for the Tales of the Black Freighter subplot. Aside from all the literary allusions inherent in the novel (including the mystery surrounding the creator of the comic), the main thematic thread deals with a shipwrecked captain, racked with guilt over what happened to his men and horrified by the notion that the mysterious ghost ship may be headed to his hometown to complete its demonic aims. Unable to resolve his concept of the actions (or lack thereof) he took vs. how he truly views himself, he is determined to save the day. Fashioning a raft out of the bloating corpses of his massacred crew, he makes his way back to dry dock, only to believe he is too late. A few murders later, and our hero believes he has vindicated himself. Of course, the truth is far more shocking and unsettling.

As this new cut provides yet another excuse to revisit the film, one thing becomes clear on multiple viewings - Watchmen is a solid work of cinematic art. Forgive Snyder all his slo-mo flash and motion picture panache: this is a movie that works on all the levels it’s supposed to and on several it only hoped to achieve. We marvel at the acting - especially Patrick Wilson as Drieberg, Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, and Billy Crudup doing his damnedest to emote from within Dr. Manhattan’s motion-capture CG mannerisms. In between there are effective turns by sensational supplemental players, as well as enough violence and archetypical action to satiate the confirmed comic book genre fan. But Watchmen has always been about more than just heroes fighting fate. Indeed, there is a significant message about what constitutes “saving the world” within all the interpersonal sturm and drang, a point that says more about how little we’ve progressed in the 23 years since it was first published.

If there is any justice, this will be the creative benchmark by which all future speculative sagas strive to mimic. Snyder’s style may seem obvious, but it really is built out of layers of aesthetic and technical brilliance. Just look at the opening credits. In a single song (Bob Dylan’s prophetic “The Times They-Are-a-Changin’”), our director defines the Moore and Gibbons’ entire parallel universe - a world where masked vigilantes rule the streets, where famous historical events are perverted to fit the reality of such caped crusaders, and recognizable reality seeps in to make everything appear too grim, too dirty, and too bloody. It’s the same thing that happens when The Comedian is buried, or when Dr. Manhattan recalls the accident that determined his fate. Snyder takes snippets of story, interweaves them with what we’ve already seen, and strikes a surprising balance between outright fantasy and full blown truth. The result is troubling, revelatory, and incredibly entertaining.

Of course, purists will be wondering if this latest addition to the Watchmen DVD options is worth your time. Well, that all depends. Do you already own the Tales from the Black Freighter/Under the Hood disc? How about the Complete Motion Comic? Want a digital copy of the original theatrical release (the previous Director’s Cut is not offered, oddly enough), video journals, and other exciting added content all in one convenient cardboard case? How about a few exciting extras including everything from previous collections as well as two new commentaries - one from Snyder and one from Gibbons? While not as totally tricked out as some would like (the missing middle version, sans the Black Freighter material, would have been a nice seamless branching touch), the director considers this his final word on the whole Watchmen phenomenon.

And what a magnificent statement it is. Few can argue with the near impossibility of bringing Moore and Gibbon’s excessively dense, creatively complex fiction to the big screen. It’s a fascinating example of individual free association, each reader interpreting it through their own perception of self and how they would react in the face of such frightening socio-political prospects. Some seem Rorschach as a psychotic neo-Con who’s like a less tolerant Travis Bickle. Others rightfully peg him as the last bastion of morality in a wholly immoral world. And some could care less. That’s why Watchmen remains an elusive, ever evolving experience. No matter how many times the film is fiddled with, there will always be more buried inside. Luckily, many of the most hidden elements await the viewer to discover, not the editor. That’s why Watchmen stands head and shoulders anything else in its genre type. That’s why it is a classic - no matter what version you view. 

by Katharine Wray

9 Nov 2009

Australian hard-rockers Karnivool have released avideo for their new single, “Set Fire to the Hive”, from Sound Awake, which hits the States on February 16th (having already been released to critical acclaim in Australia). Hopefully, Karnivool can overcome their alt-rock facial hair and be the antidote to alt-rock drudgery.

 

by PC Muñoz

9 Nov 2009

On his 2008 DIY solo album Obligatory Get Down, San Francisco Bay Area songwriter/indie artist Luke Franks strums guitars, gets squirrelly with the synth bass, rhymes “faded or jaded” with “love it or hate it”, contemplates the Almighty, shows big love for his beloved East Bay Area, makes like Prince at 1:44 into the track “Then Than”, and closes by tearing down the “fourth wall” and spitting some spoken-word which directly addresses the listener, over a busy electro-fried beat.

It’s an interesting alternative glimpse of Franks, who for the last four years has been buzzing in the Bay Area and beyond not as a maverick beat-heavy bedroom DIY artist, but as the leader and golden-voiced singer-songwriter of the Federalists, an indie/alt.country/classic-rock flavored outfit. Since 2005, the Federalists has been a powerful showcase for Franks’ staggering song smarts and spellbinding vocal style, which manages to be both completely original and warmly familiar at the same time.

The group’s newest release, The Way We Ran (Talking House) is their first album released in association with a label, and their first release under their new, semiotically-charged moniker Luke Franks Or the Federalists, or LFOTF for short. The new name came about as a result of the inevitable growing pains the group experienced while transitioning into a national-scene, road-ready project, and it fits. It is a koan of a name, a puzzle of sorts—a kind of linguistic doppelganger for the diverse, unexpected, and ever-evolving gifts Luke Franks possesses and coheres into a compelling, unified whole throughout all his projects.

by Rob Horning

9 Nov 2009

The narratives of subjectivity are supplied by the institutions that one encounters in society; these take the inchoate and infinitely generative biological, neurological, genetic stuff that is the raw material of identity and bound the set, permit it to take coherent, knowable shape. The institutional framework provides means to think identity out of the raw material. It reduces the infinite possibilities to a select finite set that suits the existing social order. It supplies a grammar, a syntax to the genetic stuff that makes it speak something comprehensible to the individual and his society. (Lacan’s and Althusser’s version of subjectivity—we route the inchoate stuff of self through social institutions so that they mirror/speak it back to us, and we obtain self-knowledge, the selfhood that society makes out of us.) This self then reproduces the institutions that made it, doing the work that sustains their power to shape subsequent generations. That is, until technological disruptions change the reproductive circuit.

In consumer society, marketing is the main discourse for impoverishing the narratives of self. It provides idealized prefabricated social imagos around which any given individual’s self can crystallize. But Web 2.0 platforms are taking over for marketing, or at least marketing is evolving through these platforms into something more integrated with the discourse of friendship. Marketing and friendship have become inextricably intertwined, so that having a friend is an inherently commercial operation. Worse, the same came be said of having a self—it will need to be grounded in commercialized, corporatized discourse before we apprehend it—our self-knowledge comes to us preloaded with the prerogatives of corporate consumerism, which has at that point transcended the need for overt marketing, as the marketing is interwoven with the ways, the language, the terms, the categories in which we know ourselves.

Social networks externalize those ways, integrate them as a seamless, coherent platform. The narratives of subjectivity are even more impoverished by the restricted classifications of digital data possible within these platforms, though it remains generative to the subject himself—it seems to solve the (false) mystery of self more completely than any technology heretofore offered—but the sad irony is that the technologies produce the mystery and the ersatz solution. The self we are compelled to produce online is winnowed, smaller, with less potential for growth and less curiosity, the more we produce it and add to the archive that will dictate our future choices.

Its permanently insecure subject and its economy of identity are geared toward reproducing not the capitalist system necessarily but its own peculiar consumerist modalities. The hyperpersonalization that emerged from capitalist individuation combined with a return of communal needs in the new form of the digital network. If you go to the most recent issue of Fibreculture, you can read all about that.

by Bill Gibron

8 Nov 2009

In the ‘80s it was called the high concept film. The basic premise was that studios, desperate for guaranteed, easily marketed moneymakers, would come up with outlandish, can’t-miss ideas, fuse them together with high profile talent, and pray that audiences would respond favorably to the predetermined package. Sometimes they did, but more times than not, the results were neither abstractly or cinematically significant. When indie films came in and swept the system clean during the ‘90s, it looked like the days of the high concept were all but over. Indeed, superstar power and go-to genres now rule the day - except in the case of Fox’s stilted Summer flop, Aliens in the Attack. Like the worst of the hair band decade, this movie is a single specious idea dragged out for 86 agonizing minutes.

When the Pearson Family head off to their vacation home for a little requisite R&R, several elements conspire to try and spoil their quality time together. Moody teenager Carter can’t get along with his seemingly perfect sister Bethany, or his doting, demanding parents. Even worse, his sibling’s smarmy boyfriend invites himself to the remote Michigan shindig, and then makes up excuses why he must stay…overnight. Uncle Nathan then shows up with his goofball clan, including geeked out twins Art and Lee, as well as irritating adolescent Jake, and grizzled grandma Nana Rose. The icing on the uncomfortable cake, however, is a squadron of miniature extraterrestrials, beings from the planet Zirkonia bent on enslaving Earth. Naturally, it is up to the young Pearsons to save the day (in this kind of movie, adults need not apply).

So indicative of decades past that it should come with a speech from Gordon Gecko and a mandatory bottle of New Coke, Aliens in the Attic suffers from several of the current artistic afflictions that make today’s family films seem like nothing more than glorified digital babysitters. Parents needn’t worry that their children will be adversely affected by the drivel on display here since it’s clear that any thinking person wouldn’t subject their offspring to such an IQ squandering effort. Clichés abound, as do questions of pure logic and reason. In order to keep the focus on the underage set, the film even makes up some unlikely sci-fi strictures, the better to keep anyone with the power to actually affect the outcome of things completely removed from the action. This is post-millennial slapstick at its worst - all pain, no attempt at wit or cleverness.

We’ve come to expect crap from director John Schultz. With a resume that reads like a criminals rap sheet, he’s the hack responsible for one of the worst excuses for cinema of all time - the African Americanized update of the Jackie Gleason classic The Honeymooners (oh…the pain…the pain…). True, the script is just as shoddy - Mark Burton (a UK TV talent) and Adam F. Goldberg (nothing of note) concocting a crude reassembly of Gremlins, batteries not included*, and Small Soldiers. In fact, if we didn’t know better, we’d swear that Joe Dante had gotten drunk, fallen repeatedly on his head, wandered onto a soundstage, and dreamed up this cornball cavalcade during one of his less than lucid moments. This is the kind of effort that makes direct to video cheapies like Ghoulies, Hobgoblins, and Munchies look like works of Ingmar Bergman…well, maybe NOT Hobgoblins.

It might have helped had the humans not been so outrageously ignorant. They stare at a rotary phone in dumbfounded disbelief, and even with their wealth of videogame oriented technological know-how, they barely find ways to thwart their three foot tall adversaries. The ETs themselves look like rotted reanimated bread dough, voices given over to tired archetypes and personalities. It is some of the lousiest CG this side of an independent Shrek knockoff. About the only interesting element comes late in the game, when Nana Rose is turned into a kung-fu fighting drone, obviously aided by lots of special optical effects. With an ending that’s neither inventive nor exciting and a bevy of simpleton laughs aimed at anyone too young to know better, Aliens in the Attic is an unbelievably bad film. It’s not incompetent, just inane.

All of which makes the tricked out Blu-ray disc currently available from Fox seem all the more surreal. Does a movie this limited in entertainment value really mandate an alternate ending, deleted scenes, gag reel, a behind the scenes Making-of, a series of star featurettes for Ashley Tinsdale (High School Musical) and Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond), and a new animated short focusing on the Zirkonians themselves? Heck, there’s even a music video, a Fox Channel Presents episode, and a digital copy of the film on a separate disc. One can easily name Best Picture Oscar winners that don’t get this kind of fancy home video packaging. While the company has every right to treat the title the way it wants (for the record, the sound and image are excellent in the 1080p HD qualities), it seems pointless to pile on this much content for a film few will care about.

Indeed, the main failing of Aliens in the Attic is within its intended demographic. When kids, easily wooed by even the lamest attempts at amusement, can’t cotton to what you’re offering, the results should be exiled, not available for purchase. Adults should probably care more, but in a social dynamic which sees DVDs as a means of keeping Junior and the gang occupied for a few seemingly stress-free minutes, anything is better than a blank big screen. Two decades ago, when Tinseltown excelled at ideas like this, Aliens in the Attic would be a fondly remembered bit of geek nation nostalgia. While clearly trying for the same sense of Reagan-era action and adventure, John Schultz again shows he has no business being behind a camera. This is one outer space spectacle that’s light years away from finding anything remotely engaging or interesting. 

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