2 films disappoint in 2019

Everybody Knows

Apart from the obvious (see my review of Joker here), the two most disappointing films of the year just gone were Everybody Knows and Sunset. The former directed by the Iranian Asghar Farhadi, the latter by the Hungarian László Nemes.

Farhadi came to international prominence with his devastating fifth feature A Separation, reviewed by me earlier here. And there are a lot of superficial similarities between that film and the one that was released this year. 

Or rather, it would be more accurate to say that Farhadi has developed a very particular way of telling a story, and in that regard at least, Everybody Knows is very much cut from the same cloth.

He focuses on intimate, personal dramas centred on an apparently simple dilemma. But as the story unfolds, he drip-feeds you details that complicate it incrementally. So that by its end, you’re left quietly devastated. 

A Separation.

It’s not fair to expect every film to be a masterpiece of course. After A Separation (‘11), About Elly (’09 – actually made before, but released after) was an intriguingly enigmatic film. The Past (’13) was powerful for three of its quarters but fizzled out thereafter. While The Salesman (’16) was something of a return to form.

But unlike any of those, the twists and turns of the plot in Everybody Knows feel quietly calculated and hence contrived. Where previously, those gradual developments felt organic, here they feel forced.

Which is a shame, as Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are, as ever, magnetic. But how odd that Farhadi managed so successfully to completely dampen any sexual chemistry between the two. It ought to have been there in the script, as it was in their past. And he clearly could have had it, had he wanted to, on screen.

Son of Saul.

Son of Saul was the feature debut for Nemes, and won the Grand Prix at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best foreign film in 2015 and 2016 respectively. So we were all hoping to be similarly wowed by his follow up. Unfortunately, Sunset quietly disappointed. 

It’s not a bad film (neither for that matter is Everybody Knows), it’s just a bit of a mess, story-wise. Stylistically, it’s told in much the same way as Son of Saul. Unusually long, claustrophobic shots are rendered all the more menacing because of what they don’t show us. We can hear what’s going on, but by focusing on him and on how he reacts to those events, it becomes all the more threatening.

The same technique is employed here. But the stakes aren’t quite so high, so you have more time to concentrate on the details of the story unfolding. And, simply put, there’s not enough care invested in that aspect of the film.

Sunset.

In many ways, it’s the mirror image of Everybody Knows. Almost the same, and at once its exact opposite. Where Farhadi’s film becomes formulaic in the way that it structures its story, Nemes uses the same visual techniques in Sunset as he had in Son of Saul. So that what were previously stylistic innovations become instead merely formulaic.

Neither are bad films, and neither film maker has suddenly become uninteresting. It’s just that, for two of the most exciting film makers working anywhere in the world, Everybody Knows and Sunset were something of a disappointment. 

You can see the trailer for A Separation here

And the trailer for Son of Saul here.

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HBO’s Chernobyl.

Chernobyl.

So, who wants to watch that new series on Chernobyl”, has to be pretty much the least enticing invitation imaginable. And yet, remarkably, HBO’s Chernobyl is comfortably the most exciting and the most brilliantly realised television series of the last four or five years. 

On one level, this oughtn’t to have been a surprise. We all know, at least in theory, that stories have nothing to do with their unadorned content, and depend entirely for their success on how they are told. The base material is irrelevant, what matters is how they are moulded into being.

Mad Men.

After all, who wants to watch a series in which the police department of a nondescript, US city tries to deal with its inner city drug problem, and all the social issues that that creates? Or one about a bunch of privileged, white, mostly unpleasant marketing professionals, worried about what to spend their inflated salaries on, and who next to be unfaithful with, at the turn of the 1960s? And yet.

Nevertheless, the prospect of spending five, hour-long episodes watching the Soviet Union dealing poorly with the accident at one of its nuclear power plants in Ukraine, in 1986, was an especially unappealing one. How wrong I was.

Jared Harris in Chernobyl.

The first mistake was to assume that I knew what the story had been. Like, I imagine, the vast majority of people, I actually knew next to nothing about what had actually happened at Chernobyl. And the first thing to say is that Chernobyl is meticulously, indeed exhaustively researched. Because of which, it constantly surprises. 

But even more impressive is how cinematic it is. There is a visual confidence and ambition to the directing that matches the tension and drama created by the script. So that episodes frequently nod to some of the genres that have most successfully populated our screens of late, like the zombie flick and horror in general. 

The eerily deserted streets of Pripyat.

But when you see the eerily deserted city streets in episode 2, it’s rendered genuinely unnerving because you know that this is not some genre piece. This is what actually happened to the city of Pripyat. Its 50,000 inhabitants were forcibly evacuated in less than two days. And that creature in the bed is not some fiendish ghoul or invading extra terrestrial, it’s a human being in the later stages of extreme radiation sickness. 

There are a constant stream of wonderfully subtle, visual flourishes. As we leave on one of the myriad buses that are transporting the people of Pripyat to God knows where, a dog bounds down the street behind us. Someone’s family pet is trying forlornly to join them and jump on board. 

That nondescript US city police department show.

As – the excellent – Jared Harris steps up to give his evidence at the trial that the series culminates with, the camera drunkenly tilts in slo mo. Partially, this is because his own radiation sickness has begun to kick in, and partially this is a reflection of his nervousness at the prospect of having to give evidence at a Soviet show trial. But they refrain from lingering on this tricksiness, and they quickly move on to the evidence itself. 

Nothing is overdone, and everything is exactly as it should be, which is what makes it such a triumph. And its director, Johan Renck, and writer, Craig Mazin, are names to be watched. 

You can see the trailer for Chernobyl here

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Joker: films V movies

Joker.

Joker is a deeply depressing work that disappoints on numerous levels. But the most dispiriting aspect about the whole, yawn, phenomenon, is how willingly so many people have been led by the nose to dutifully sit down and watch it. And then, despite having seen it, how obediently they then insist on telling the world how thrilled they were with it, describing it, even, and astonishingly, as daring.

Remarkably, this malaise went so far as to infect the jury at the traditionally reliable Venice Film Festival, where it won their top prize.

We all know the broad outline of the story. A professional clown and would-be comedian feels so unloved and under-appreciated that he decides to take his revenge on a society gone wrong, by turning to random violence. What Joker does do more than anything else is to highlight the difference between films and movies.

De Nero as The King of Comedy.

It could, had it chosen to, have been a small, independent film that explored the plight of an ordinary individual, as he struggles to come to terms with a society that seems to have degenerated so completely, that trying to live in it, to merely exist, has become more than his crushed spirit can bear. And his only means of coping is to blur the reality of the world that he lives in, and the world of his imagination, so completely, that they merge into one.  

That was the film that Martin Scorsese made with Taxi Driver (’76), and then with The King of Comedy (’83), both of which are minor masterpieces – Raging Bull (’80) is his unqualified triumph. And both of which starred Robert de Nero, who also reappears here in the Jerry Lewis role. 

Taxi Driver.

As a matter of fact, Joker has almost every single element that went into the making of those two films, except for one thing; ideas. It makes absolutely no attempt to in any way explore those elements or to investigate the world it presents. 

Well okay, then, so it’s not a small, thought-provoking portrait of a small man with big dreams finding it increasingly hard to cope. We’re in the world of comic book heroes, and we should have known that from the title. So we’re dealing with one-dimensional archetypes, and this is just the back-story for a figure who will become one of Batman’s arch enemies. But if that’s what it’s supposed to be, then it fails abjectly. 

It’s so grim, and humourless, and mean-spirited, and just plain nasty. Comic book films, when they work, have an energy and a joie de vivre that at the very least diverts and on occasion thrills. Joker is just so unremittingly unpleasant that all it ends up being is un-watchably dull. So it fails as much as a movie as it does as a film.

As Sam Fuller so memorably opined in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (’65), films, more than anything else, are about emotion*. The reason the stakes are so terribly high in the cinema is because it deals with real, live, flesh and blood human beings. Because they are the things we get emotional about. That’s what Scorsese was getting at when he made those comments about Marvel movies that so irritated the rabble: 

It isn’t the cinema of human beings.” 

How could it be? They are not, by definition, human. They’re super heroes. That’s their whole point. And that’s why so many of us find it impossible to care one way or the other what ever happens to them. 

But that doesn’t matter, because movies aren’t about emotion. They are solely concerned with percentage points, gross, territories, platforms, outlay, merch, net profits and all the other elements that go to make up the world of marketing. And that’s the level, and the only level that Joker succeeds on. But that’s the only thing that anyone involved with the project was evidently interested in.

*What he actually says, if you watch the clip here, is emotions, which seriously undercuts what ought to have been his point. But that’s a whole other blog post in of itself.

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Bo Burnham’s glorious “Eighth Grade”

Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.

For all the disruption and chaos unleashed by the digital revolution and the brand new medium it spawned, the Internet, the media landscape that has emerged is, at least thus far, stubbornly traditional. Nobody in publishing, cinema or television dreams of being on the Internet. And nobody on the web is perfectly happy where they are. 

All of them dream, with a desperation that is palpable, of landing that publishing, TV and or cinema deal. Hitherto however, none of them had seemed to offer anything other than a pale facsimile of the kind of talent on view in the more traditional media. Most Youtubers and influencers have come across as diaphanously transparent and guilelessly unsophisticated.

So Eighth Grade will be one of two things. The exception that goes to prove an otherwise golden rule. Or the first of what will prove to be an increasingly common phenomenon. The work of a crossover artist who successfully straddles both the new and the old.

Elsie Fisher as Kayla in Eighth Grade.

Eighth Grade isn’t merely good, it’s stunning. Comfortably the film of the year, and one of the top six or seven films of the decade. And there are so many different ways it could have been a complete disaster. 

The film follows Kayla, a 12 year old who’s recently turned 13 and is moving from what we call primary into secondary school. So, unlike any other girl of her age, she is unimaginably insecure, cripplingly shy and hopelessly socially awkward. So she disappears into her screen, investing all of her care and attention in her digital persona, resigned to be forever friendless and impossibly alone in the real world beyond the pixels. 

Bo Burnham.

It could so easily have been cloyingly sentimental, or patronising or sanitized, or, most obviously of all, Hollywoodized – i.e. a sickly concoction of all of the above. Remarkably, not to say impressively, it is instead a beautifully nuanced, subtle and grown-up portrait of a girl, as she moves from childhood into that brief, intermediate state before emerging as a fully-fledged adult. 

It’s hard to know which is more note-worthy, Bo Burnham’s writing, his direction, or Elsie Fisher’s performance as Kayla. All the performances are impeccable, and Josh Hamilton is especially good as her well meaning but generationally clumsy father. But Fisher is outstanding in the lead. Yet it is ultimately Burnham who emerges as the real star. Because Eighth Grade is that rare thing, a serious film. And Burnham is verily a man to watch.

You can see the trailer to Eighth Grade here.

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“Never Look Away”, new film from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Never Look Away.

The Lives of OthersFlorian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s feature debut from 2006,was one of the standout films of the last decade. His follow-up, The Tourist from 2010, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, and costing over 100 million dollars, wasn’t merely disappointing, it managed somehow to pass everyone by, going completely un-noticed. 

The Lives of Others.

Which was quite a feat given its cast and cost. So was that debut a chance accident of converging talents, or did it genuinely herald the arrival of a serious film maker?  

In his new film, Never Look Away, Tom Schilling plays Kurt, an artist struggling under the restrictions of life in post-war East Germany. Married to the daughter of a former SS officer, who does everything he possibly can to sabotage their union, they flee to freedom in the West. 

There’s little enough to get excited about in cinema these days, so when you do seem to have stumbled upon an actual find, you cross your fingers that whoever it is turns out to be the genuine article. So I desperately wanted to be wowed by Never Look Away. But it’s felled, alas, by two fatal flaws.

Sirk’s Imitation of Life.

First, it’s a melodrama. Personally, I love melodrama, it’s probably my favourite genre, being to cinema what country is to music. And Germany has a proud tradition of brilliant melodrama. 

On the one hand, there are those glorious, Technicolor weepies that Douglas Sirk made in Hollywood in the 1950s; All That Heaven Allows (’55), Written on the Wind (’56) and Imitation of Life (‘59). Gloriously over the top, unashamedly mannered and defiantly theatrical. “You don’t believe in the happy ending,” Sirk said of that last named, “and you’re not supposed to(!)


Fassbinder’s the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

And on the other, there are those flurry of do-it-yourself, handmade films that Rainer Werner Fassbinder produced in the 70s, before burning so spectacularly out at the tender age of 37. Films like Fear Eats the Soul (’74), Despair (’78) and the peerless the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (’72). Archetypally art house, brazenly intellectual and comfortably, almost casually avant garde. 

The problem with Never Look Away is that it is neither fish nor fowl, falling midway between those two twin poles. Much of it is gloriously silly, but how intentional that is, is impossible to say. What, for instance, are we to make of the fact that the artists Kurt meets on his arrival in the West look like they’ve stepped out of one of those paintings produced back in the Communist East, that they are supposed to be critiquing? And what about that ending – no spoilers -? Are we meant to smile knowingly, à la Sirk, or are we supposed to take it seriously? In short, it’s a film that desperately wants to be taken seriously, but devotes its entire energy into merely looking wondrously pretty.

David Lynch’s Dune, which is every bit as bad as that poster suggests.

It’s not hard to see where the project went wrong. Donnersmarck befriended the great German artist Gerhard Richter, interviewing him at length, which you can read about in the New Yorker profile here. But with what in mind? That intimacy meant that he was then incapable of producing a distanced, warts and all biopic of the man. So instead, he made a fictionalised film about someone quite like, but not actually, Richter. The result is polite, well mannered and extremely dull. It’s not even the sort of spectacular failure that we got with Dune. Which somehow makes it even more of a disappointment. 

Hopefully, just as David Lynch did after Dune, Donnersmarck will go back to the sort of small, intimate film that he began with. But as of now, so far as his gifts as a film maker go, the jury is very much out. He seems, at least for the moment, to be more of a Darren Aronofsky than he does an Asghar Farhadi.

You can see the trailer for Never Look Away here.

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