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by Bill Gibron

9 Mar 2009

So what is it? A hit? A flop? Something somewhere in the middle? At a mere $55 million in weekend box office, Warner Brothers (and those litigious hangers-on FOX) must be circling the spin wagons and preparing to pour on the positive publicity. Twenty years ago, making more than half of the notorious blockbuster number of 100 in one three day period would be almost inconceivable. Today, it’s a drop in a deep, debt ridden bucket. While the amount of money something makes is never a clear sign of aesthetic or critical accomplishment, Hollywood measures meaning in dollars and cents - and the sheep-like media, incapable of solid independent thought, publish said spreadsheet summarizations with schaudenfraude delight.

So what exactly does a $55 million take mean for the long-in-gestation adaptation? Clearly, when compared to the $100 million of Iron Man, or the $300 million of The Dark Knight, we are waltzing through middling motion picture territory. The revamp of The Incredible Hulk did about $55 million its opening weekend, as did the female niche effort Sex and the City: The Movie. Claiming that a similarly small and specialized fanbase should be ashamed for only half a hundred is ridiculous. Besides, Watchmen is nearly three hours (including previews and trailers) and walked into theaters with an incredibly hard “R” attached to its availability. Making $55 million with the local pre-teen crowd packing Cineplexes is one thing. Doing it with the 17 and up crowd deserves some kind of special consideration.

That won’t stop those who hate the film from filling their greenback ducts with bile and spewing a kind of planned propaganda about the movie’s destined destruction. Others will toss their hands in the air and wonder what more a filmmaker has to do to draw an audience. There will be revisions, considerations for Thursday Midnight screenings and IMAX attendance, but one thing’s for sure - the $55 million figure will become the benchmark of 2009, a number ready to be shot down by X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation, and Public Enemies. Still, one can try and gauge the impact this opening will have on the talent involved, taking into consideration more than the amount of cash that fills the coffers. Let’s begin with:

The Studio(s)

Warner Brothers/FOX

For Warners, it was all win/win initially. They had the director they wanted (hot off the phenomenal triumph of 300), the screenplay they needed (wonky, but totally workable), a cast they could bank on (no big names = no big salaries), and a pre-publicity buzz that made marketers drool with anticipation. With both messagesboards and viral campaigns loaded for bear, there was no way a Watchmen movie would fail. FOX must have thought so too, since they jumped in during post-production to claim their piece of the potential pie in court. Now, no matter what happens, Warners has wondered over into lose/lose terrain. If Watchmen doesn’t make $200 million, it will be seen as a failure - especially when it comes to profit sharing time. And if by some chance it surpasses all expectations and makes much, much more, the numerous hands reaching out for a cut will be painful to any earnings margin.

The Source

The Graphic Novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Of all the questionable outcomes, the impact on Watchmen as a literary entity remains the most complex. Surely, the semi-success of any film adaptation will draw readers anew to the original graphic novel, and those not put off by the format will find a work of incredibly dense and discerning wonder. Moore’s prose is plaintive and philosophical, wrapping up many intriguing ideas inside a seemingly simple story of revenge. Of course, the Cold War setting will seem dated, and the notion of Nixon as a three term President could put many off their measured morning in America coffee, yet there’s much more here than parallel histories and wistful “what ifs”.

Still, there is a drawback to such attention and that’s the dreaded “s” word - scrutiny. There will be some who come to Watchmen and wonder why the book is so beloved. Others will see Moore as a miserly old coot who happily cashes the checks his works incur while cursing the various mediums making said money. Some will take his adaptation complaints to heart and boycott anything but the written word - and that’s too bad. The film version of Watchmen is an exciting and rather special epic. While commerciality is perhaps the bane of Mr. Moore’s creative existence, it’s also not the final defining factor of anything’s worth. If it was, his cult would be laughable, not legitimate.

The Writers

David Hayter and Alex Tse

For Hayter and Tse, the ultimate realization of a Watchmen movie means much more to both of them than any bottom line balance sheet. The former has been down this road before (he worked on both X-Men films and The Scorpion King) while the latter is experiencing the first brushes with popcorn fame. In fact, Tse is already hard at work adapting Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man for future Snyder consideration. Since they were given the task of remaining faithful to the graphic novel, and will be seen as doing same (one missing squid aside), there’s no real downside to their contribution. Even if the film went on to severely underperform, they won’t be pegged as the problem. Indeed, for many involved in the production, Moore and Gibbons will be given more grief than those charged with accurately bringing their vision to life.

The Director

Zack Snyder

For his part, Snyder has already won. Even if the eventual returns don’t cover the cost of production, the man behind Dawn of the Dead and 300 set out to make the best. Most believable Watchmen movie he could, and given the outcome, he did just that. Sure, you can argue over how he truncated the tale, and how successful something like The Tales of the Black Freighter will be both outside and included in the final DVD cut, but he bested noted imaginative individuals like Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass, and Darren Aronofsky, and there’s something to be said for actually filming the “unfilmable”. Any primping on his part will be seen as studio swagger and the resulting returns on home video will guarantee at least a few more dream projects before the fiscal reality of a less than Dark Knight return sinks in.

The Stars

Jeffery Dean Morgan/Patrick Wilson/Jackie Earle Haley

Of the many names associated with the Watchmen movie, only three truly stand out. We can’t consider Malin Akerman or Matthew Goode because many thought of them as miscast, and with Billy Crudup disguised under a buff blue CG persona, his career clout is also limited. But there’s no denying the continued interest in Jeffery Dean Morgan (the Comedian), Patrick Wilson (Dan Drieberg/Nite Owl II) and especially Jackie Earle Haley (as the reactionary Rorschach). All three men should see their profile in Tinsel Town amplified significantly. All three give award worthy performances in a genre effort that rarely gets such a mention (Heck, SE&L is still shilling for Haley as a Heath Ledger like lock come Oscar time) and they provide the emotional core to the complex narrative. With only Wilson currently capable of walking the fine line between mainstream commerciality (Lakeview Terrace) and indie edge (Hard Candy), here’s betting the others find their phones ringing relatively soon. 

The Franchise


Oddly enough, this is a dead subject - at least from the purists’ initial position. Aside from the aforementioned side projects and an expanded DVD/Blu-ray run come five to seven months from now, Watchmen just does not lend itself to a sequel or series. Snyder approached it as a self-contained work, and the ending offered currently closes things off nicely. Still, Moore did allow for some continuation leeway when he ended on the discovery of Rorschach’s journal, and you know a cash flush studio - if there is a way to make another Watchmen movie and not totally alienate or piss off the predisposed demographic, they will do it. Here’s betting that multiple digital reconfigurations and special editions will be the most this movie sees of a supposed continuation.

by Chris Conaton

9 Mar 2009

Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers w/Shurman, Sunday, March 1, Houston, TX@ The Continental Club

Roger Clyne seems to hit Houston’s Continental Club about twice a year. And for the third time in his last four appearances, he was playing the club on a Sunday night. After going to a few Clyne shows in Austin and at Gruene Hall on weekend nights, it seemed like a little bit of a letdown to go to another Sunday night show where the crowd could be counted in the dozens instead of the hundreds. And at first, it seemed like it was gonna be roughly the same 80 people who always come out to the Continental Club. By the time the Peacemakers got started, though, there were well over 100 people in the crowd, many of them ready to sing along.

First up, though, was Shurman. This was our third time seeing them open for Clyne, and their fired-up country-rock is always a nice way to start the show. Shurman has recently relocated from Los Angeles to Austin, and their drummer stayed behind. So Peacemakers drummer P.H. Naffah filled in for the band’s 40-minute set. The set was typical, which is to say a lot of fun. I don’t know all of Shurman’s songs yet, but I always enjoy seeing them. The highlight of the set was probably a cover of Elvis Costello’s “What’s so Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?” Not just because it was a strong cover, but because the guy standing next to me was so excited that he was about to explode. Shurman playing that song seemed to blow his mind.

Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers hit the stage at about 10:45, a little later than planned due to the doors opening about an hour late. They opened the show with “Wanted”, a live staple that is generally the only song in the set to come from the second Refreshments album, The Bottle and Fresh Horses. Right away it was noticeable that despite wearing a similar black cowboy hat, the band had a new guitarist. Original Peacemaker Steve Larson has left and been replaced by Jim Dalton, a strong guitar player in his own right. Dalton’s influence was felt early on, as he sang a lot more backing vocals than Larson, and even used his microphone to speak occasionally. Clyne is often the only person talking onstage, so it was nice to have a bit of banter for a change. Dalton was also responsible for putting “Tributary Otis” in the set, a rare second song from The Refreshments’ second album. Later on, the band also pulled out “Sin Nombre,” an unprecedented third song from The Bottle and Fresh Horses. Seeing as that album is right at the top of my list of favorite Clyne albums, it was a nice treat.

The rest of the set was mostly standard-issue Peacemakers, which isn’t a bad thing by any means. The sweet “Down Together” featured the first of many great singalongs from the audience. Live staples “I Don’t Need Another Thrill” and “Mexico” also had excellent audience participation. This paved the way for Clyne to take an audience request, which led to the band playing relative rarity “Easy” for the first time with Dalton- they said they hadn’t even rehearsed it together. But it still sounded good.

A woman in the crowd spent most of the night yelling at the top of her lungs for “Green and Dumb”, the beautiful love ballad that doesn’t usually show up until late in the set, but is almost always played. She should’ve saved her voice, because, sure enough, the song showed up in the encore, great as ever. The band closed the show with their cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and said goodnight shortly after 12:30am. At a scant one hour and 45 minutes, this made it the shortest Peacemakers show I’ve attended- the band almost always goes over 2 hours. But since the show started late, it was a blessing that the band got finished (relatively) early, because I was able to get 5 ½ hours of sleep or so and actually function the next day.

by Alan Ranta

9 Mar 2009

Chris Wilcha (This American Life) treats us with the second video from Asthmatic Kitty’s latest and greatest, Fol Chen’s Part 1: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made, which saw release in mid-February. Not to be outdone, the benevolent label convinced Liars (fresh from their tour with Radiohead) to provide us all with a free remix. Good vibes all around.

Fol Chen
“Cable TV” [MP3]

“Cable TV (Liars Remix)” [MP3]

No Wedding Cake (Matthew David Remix) [MP3]

by Mike Schiller

8 Mar 2009

When Arnold Schwarzenegger, Paul Glaser and their friends got together to make The Running Man back in 1987, there’s a good chance that none of them had any idea how prescient it would seem 20 years later.  Is there anyone, at this point, that doubts that killing in the name of sport hasn’t crossed the mind in a very real way of at least one major television executive at this point?  The Running Man, with the benefit of hindsight, is now more of a satirical statement on the direction of television than it is a gruesome sci-fi fantasy; while both elements certainly existed when the movie was released, the balance in emphasis between the two has shifted.

Of course, nobody could have predicted that the runner and the biggest, baddest stalker in the movie would go on to be governors less than 20 years later either, but perhaps I’m getting off topic.

Madworld, coming out for the Wii (of all consoles) this week, is for all intents and purposes a 21st-century update of The Running Man—that is, it centers around a sadistic gameshow on which mayhem and death are leveraged for entertainment purposes.  Of course, it’s a little different this time around, as the “game show” is put on by terrorists, and most of the participants are simply the unwitting inhabitants of a fictional city, but it’s the same idea, more or less.  It’s The Running Man as drawn by Frank Miller, with a little bit of Gears of War thrown in for chainsaw-related purposes.  I’m almost ashamed to say it also looks fun as hell, even if you’re not into violence for its own sake.

Will the satirical elements be as strong as those in The Running Man? Probably not, given that it’s more of a “save the city” narrative than a “save your ass” narrative (with a subtext of “look what entertainment has come to!”).  Regardless, I can’t wait to find out.

Also releasing this week is, of course, Resident Evil 5, which I haven’t wanted to talk about at all, quite frankly, but I suppose I can’t ignore it any more.  It looks like Resident Evil, except that it’s in Africa, and it’s all shiny and smooth, thanks to the current generation of hardware it’s been developed for.  You still can’t move while you’re shooting, but people are bound to love it anyway.  As for the elephant in the room, I just want to say that racist intent is not a prerequisite to racist product.  I haven’t seen the game (or even the demo for that matter), so I can’t make a judgment on it, but the single most ridiculous argument I’ve seen as to why parts of Resident Evil 5 can’t possibly be racist is because its developers didn’t intend for them to be.

You see? This is why I never want to talk about it.

Elsewhere, we get a boardgame (Trivial Pursuit), some rehashes (Nintendo’s New Play Control! series), high-powered dirtbikes (SBK), and a whole pile of DS shovelware.  Hooray!

Tell us what you’re playing this week, or try and bait me into a Resident Evil 5 conversation.  Your pick.

by Bill Gibron

8 Mar 2009

It seems like, every year, the Academy Awards introduces us to a new actor or actress that we should have heard of already, but for some reason (not wholly our own fault), we haven’t. In 2006, it was Felicity Huffman. In 2008, it was France’s Marion Cotillard. And in 2009, the new name messing up Oscar pools everywhere was Melissa Leo. Though she’s been in the business since 1984, few of her films have been mainstream successes. And when she does appear in wide release efforts - Mr. Woodcock, Righteous Kill - she’s never the recognizable lead. Still, Leo is the very definition of a working actress (her IMDb page boasts over 80 appearances in her two decade career). Right after Frozen River, the title that would come to define her current higher profile, she traveled to South Africa to make the thriller Lullaby - and it’s a good thing too. Without Leo, this shallow suspense film would be wholly forgettable. 

Stephanie is a waitress living a dead-end life in the middle of nowhere America. Every week, she travels to the local Western Union station and wires money to her beloved son Stephen who is currently holed up in South Africa. What Stephanie doesn’t know is that her boy is a crackhead, in debt to a drug dealer who doesn’t take such matters lightly. Along with pregnant girlfriend Tina, the strung out kid is in a lot of trouble. One day, Stephanie receives a call at work. It’s T-Boy, the aforementioned South African mobster. He wants a ransom and he wants it NOW. Instead of simply wiring the cash, Stephanie calls in a few favors, grabs her passport, and travels halfway around the world to help her child. When she arrives in Johannesburg, the culture shock is overwhelming. But that’s nothing compared to the personal sacrifices she will make to help everyone - Stephen…and expecting gal pal Tina as well.

Lullaby is a flim flam flick. It wants to substitute local color for actual thrills and standard crime drama dynamics for evocative foreign flavor. In the hands of native Darrell James Roodt (Sarafina! , Cry the Beloved Country), this South African take on typical ‘innocent in a world of vice’ is not effective enough to get us involved. Like the recent, redundant Lake City, Lullaby provides its audience with no real rooting interesting in the outcome. We have some compassion for Stephanie, especially with the amount of emotion Ms. Leo invests in the role. But since nothing is really set-up - not the relationship with the son, not the backstory as to how he got to South Africa, not our heroine’s histrionic move to simply pull up stakes and head across the Atlantic - that by the time the bad guys appear, we don’t know whether to hiss or yawn. The inherent bond between mother and child is inferred and exploited, but never to a successful end. By the time the plot demands payback, we are simply going through the mechanical movie motions.

It has to be said that Leo is electrifying here. She really invests Stephanie with a desperation that practically overwhelms this tiny film. Eyes consistently filled with fear and tears, and body bent from a life of serving others, this scrappy matriarch should really make us care about her plight. But screenwriters Donald Barton, Ivan Millborrow, and Michael Sellers don’t know the first thing about empathy. They simply start the story and hope our feelings eventually catch up. This is particularly true of the Middle Act meet-up with prostitute Tina. Stephanie is supposed to see a kindred spirit in this waste of a working girl, someone struggling to survive, but the callous, cynical nature of this whore undermines any sympathy. And when they suddenly turn into Thelma and STDS, robbing the locals to raise T-Boy’s payment, the myriad of unanswered questions subvert any suspense.

The rest of the performances are rote, to say the least. Joey Dedio has clearly spent far too long in cornrows to be this cavalier. His T-Boy is about as menacing as a man in bad hair can be. Similarly, Lisa-Marie Schneider’s Tina is an ambiguity looking for some kind of filmic focus. She’s bad-ass, she’s battered. She sold out Stephen (?) but then wants to help him (???). Elsewhere, Roodt loads the screen with lots of amateur actors, people who absolutely look the part, but who don’t necessarily know how to play it. There is nothing subtle here. Everything is frontier, “in your face” grandstanding. Even the minor roles tend to overstay their welcome, taking away from the movie’s desire to place you directly on the edge of your seat.

Still, Lullaby languishes in the mind, not because of Roodt’s skill behind the lens, but because of the numerous loose ends left dangling. The relationship between the criminals and the victims, the reason Stephanie is so broken up about her son, the boy who she visits when first arriving in South Africa, the reason she seeks no assistance from anyone in authority or legal power, who she turns to for money, why the diner owner makes a pass - all of these things are introduced, dramatized, and then left to dissipate and decay. Of course, even if they were all wrapped up in the neatest of bows, Lullaby would still lack a solid connective core. The more and more Ms. Leo moves away from the rational and the reasonable, the less and less we care about the outcome.

Indeed, the independent realm was not the right medium for this kind of movie. A lo-fi approach to high tension material only derails the proposed spectacle. Since everyday people usually don’t find themselves locked in cat and mouse conflicts with the criminal element in their town, such heighten reality (and production value) is necessary. Not every film can be One False Move. Not every effort can house a performance like Leo’s. In combination, the incongruity between manner and Method negate each other, resulting in a dull and rather tedious experience. Sadly, it looks like this recent Oscar nom will go the way of so many “here today, forgotten tomorrow” talents. Melissa Leo will still make a living as a solid, sometime superior actress. Here’s hoping Lullaby doesn’t ruin her resume too badly.

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