Friday, May 22, 2009

REVIEW: Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter/Under the Hood DVD

Above: A scene from 'Tales of the Black Freighter'.

Tales of the Black Freighter
Starring the voices of Gerard Butler and Jared Harris
Screenplay by Alex Tse & Zack Snyder Directed by Daniel Delpurgatorio and Mike Smith

Under the Hood
Starring Stephen McHattie, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer and Jeffery Dean Morgan
Screenplay by Hans Rodionoff Directed by Eric Matthies

Based on the 'Watchmen' comic series created by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

When this release was first announced, like many fans of the series 'Watchmen' I was surprised, very skeptical and ever so slightly intrigued. Frankly I was surprised they would bother to go to the effort of filming these additional narratives; both of which were interesting side stories in their own right, but really only created to comment on and enhance the central plot.

How they would stand on their own would be a completely different story.
Especially in the case of 'Tales of the Black Freighter'; told as a comic inside a comic, which captured in motion, would sort of defeat the purpose. 'Under the Hood' was a mock autobiography presented as a series of text features, fleshing out the history of this alternate world setting. Seeing this captured on film was a much more intriguing hook for me; especially since the production team had clearly invested a lot of time and effort in casting and recreating the era for the main feature's opening credits (one of the film's clear highlights).

First up, 'Tales of the Black Freighter' faithfully follows Alan Moore's story of a shipwrecked Sea Captain who must build a horrific raft to sail home ahead of the dreaded Black Freighter to raise the alarm and save his family, a decision that ultimately costs him his humanity.

In it's original context it was presented as short interludes; so to see it assembled as a whole made for an interesting, if novel viewing. Like many readers, the first time I finished Watchmen I immediately went back to try and read this story separately to see if it held up on it's own (it does, but has plenty of breathing room between panels). And in viewing this it's hard not to feel an odd sense of distraction; like the main plot of Watchmen nagging at me like a phantom limb, as if it's needed to put this into context.
With the absence of the main story it's no longer a metaphor for the fast approaching nuclear apocalypse it's just a straight forward pirate story, and as such it does seem to lose it's extra edge.

The script adaptation is pretty close, and uses almost all of Moore's script line-for-line, which offers some small delights when spoken aloud: "Adrift, my darkest imaginings welled up unchecked, spilling from brain to heart like black ink impossible to remove".

To fill out this slim piece, Ridley (one of the ship hands, mentioned briefly in the original text) is promoted to nightmare companion to the Captain on his fevered voyage. It's a pretty clear plot lift from the Tom Hank's film 'Castaway' (he even ends up with Ridley's Wilson-like head to spell it out for you), but it works well enough here.
The anime animation here is polished, perhaps too much so. It's flashy nightmare sequences seem out of place with the tone of the story, hoping to wow us with it's effects rather than service the material appropriately. It also doesn't resemble Gibbon's art, but since he was imitating Joe Orlando it can be forgiven for taking some liberties and going for a more ghoulish approach.

Overall it accomplishes what it sets out to do: tell a short nasty Pirate story; but at a slim 30 minutes, this single 'tale' is really to brief to get under your skin the way it should. It would have been more interesting if they had spent a little more and adapted some of the other pirate stories referenced in the back-matter of Chapter 5, to really make this an honest 'Tales' collection. Now that would be an event worth selling separately.

There's only one heavy handed reference to the main Watchmen movie: the Captain finds a sheet wrapped around Ridley's body to use as a sail (the bloody patch left on the sail mirroring Rorschach's ink blots). Director Zack Snyder's credit as co-writer suggests he's worked on it with an eye to disassembling it to be cut back into the longer final 'Watchmen' film edit.
I find it almost impossible to imagine this anime style working well alongside the live action footage, but he seems pretty intend on trying it anyway (the making of doco hints at footage of the newsstand sequences filmed to help integrate it). 'The Black Freighter' is an interesting novelty, but a novelty none the less.

'Under the Hood' filmed as a live action doco featuring the well cast Minutemen of the film promised to be the far more promising feature, which of coarse meant it was bound to disappoint (as too much of a good thing usually does).

Presented as an episode of 'The Culpeper Minute' (but it's 30mins..?), a 1980's Sixty Minutes knock-off revisiting it's 1975 interview with Hollis Mason on his auto-biography. It features Mason, Sally Jupiter, Moloch and a host of other supporting characters from the book.

For all it's disputed failings, it's hard to argue with the level of care Snyder and his team brought to the Minutemen department of the production. From the authentic archive film footage down to the props like Mason's Nite Owl statue, it's all beautifully realised here. In this respect it's great to see all that effort getting it's worthy amount of screen-time, as it's brushed over all to quickly in the main feature.

The casting is also spot on. Stephen McHattie brings a wry humanity to Hollis Mason; his performance is very natural and assured, giving the role a believable depth of character. With knowing glances and warm chuckles at his recollections, his presence is so engaging that it's almost a pity to cut away to other minor parts, as he could have easily carried most of this show on his own.

Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter also gets some much deserved extra screen-time here.
In one of the few cosmetic changes from the book, Gugino gives Silk Spectre a much more overtly sexual presence in the film; one that I felt matched her representation in the book a little better than Gibbon's depiction (more film starlet than female athlete). Her back-story with the Minutemen and her relationship with her agent Larry Schexnayder gets it's due here, supported by some great photo recreations from her crime-fighting heyday.

It's also fun to see some of the other supporting characters here who didn't get much face-time in the theatrical cut. Unfortunately all these nice touches are let down by a frustratingly uneven and probably rushed script.
Alan Moore's text pieces left more than enough material to use here, but the adaptation is oddly scatter-shot. Most of Mason's dialogue is faithfully retained, while other details are changed as if out of ignorance: Dollar Bill now works for a department store instead of a bank (his name wasn't a enough of a hint?), but the small details of his Kansas upbringing remain the same.

If those changes to the script weren't bad enough, the new additions for foreshadowing are just painfully ham-fisted. For example, after delivering a very shallow examination of the psychology behind vigilantes, Dr Malcolm Jones gazes off into the foreground to wonder aloud " day I'd like to psychoanalyse one of those vigilantes...that would really be something...". It's at that point I wanted to scream and throw something at the television; if you're going to add anything like foreshadowing, at least give it some dignity and spend more than five minutes writing it (did nobody learn anything from Starwars Episodes 1-3?). Just plain BAD. It's a pity because it was going so well up until that point.

The direction was also a little underwhelming. They should really have hired an actual documentary maker to film it rather than a film director pretending to be one (the constant push-ins for dramatic effect got boring real fast).
'Under the Hood' captures a lot of great B-role material, it's just a pity they couldn't spend a little more time on the really important elements (the script and direction) rather than fussing over the art direction.

So much like the main feature it's a mix of delights and frustration.
As extras to the eventual Watchmen Ultimate Edition DVD, both these short pieces make great side shows, they just don't stand-up as a main attraction on their own.


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