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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

GREAT ESCAPES, by Michael Betzold

Movies provide great escapes. One reason I don't watch TV is that it's hard to get lost in the small screen. It's the same reason I sit up close at movie theaters. Like vivid dreams, movies have the power to immerse you in other worlds. Two recent releases, Coraline and Watchmen, satisfy that urge for rapid immersion in alternate universes, but those universe's couldn't be less alike. Coraline is the detailed nightmare of an imaginative young girl who longs for more attentive parents and a less boring life. Watchmen depicts a feverish fictitious world, circa mid-1980s, in which the United States and the Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear war, Richard Nixon has been elected to a fourth term, and someone is targeting a group of mostly washed-up superheroes for extinction. Both films are so inventive that at times they are barely coherent. But Coraline has the wacky logic of a dream world, a world with the moral: Be careful what you wish for. In the case of Coraline, who has just moved into a strange new house from Michigan, she'd like some parents who weren't cranky writers, a friend who didn't run off at the mouth, and some outlet for her imagination. There's only one problem: Her dream parents have button eyes, and her dream mother turns out to be a monster. Watchmen is much more ambitious and complex, but that's not necessarily a virtue. Based on an acclaimed comic book series turned graphic novel, it's packed full of superheroes like Rorshach, whose mask is its own ever-changing ink-blot test, and Dr. Manhattan, a mutant nuclear physicist--a big blue naked man with the power of a living bomb and a bent for philosophical pondering. The other characters are far less interesting, however, and though the film is full of stunning imagery, it's a narrative kitchen sink, crammed with back stories and dueling plots and overwrought with blood, gore, spectacle, and pretentious ideas. In its eagerness to be bolder, bigger, and more important than other superhero movies, it ends up being a bloated bore. You can get a similar story, more economically told, in The Incredibles. It's worth noting that some of the snappier scripts and smoother plots in recent years have belonged to animated films like Brad Bird's Incredibles and, yes, Coraline (Wolverines be warned though: an MSU sweatshirt makes several appearances). By comparison, the big spectacle live-action movies increasingly look like they were made by and for people with ADD. Surviving Watchmen, I had the feeling that I kept seeing the same movie over and over again. I call it superhero fatigue. If you've got it, too, the quieter Coraline might be the perfect antidote.


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