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

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very Best and Worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

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.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month, on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

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.

Sign up for a subscription right of below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

“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.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you updated every month, on All the very Best and Worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

Catch 22, perfectly pretty candyfloss.

Catch 22.

Catch 22 is the new George Clooney project and the latest attempt to transfer Joseph Heller’s acclaimed novel to the screen. Like the Handmaid’s Tale, it’s a co-production between Hulu and Paramount and is clearly an attempt to replicate that show’s success. 

Unfortunately, it’s precisely when compared to something like the Handmaid’s Tale (reviewed by me earlier here) that the core problem with Catch 22 becomes obvious.

Margaret Atwood’s futuristic depiction of a dystopian society, which she published in 1985, was rendered terrifyingly prescient after the election of you know who, in 2016. In contrast, Heller’s novel, which he published in 1961, clearly comes from another century.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

For thousands of years, the world was divided into two groups; peasants, and the aristocracy. But the turn of the twentieth century ushered in an age of meritocracy. And in this world, you were either an ordinary (and still probably manual) worker, or, you were part of a tiny elite, and one of the very few who had an actual career. 

This latter group was made up of doctors, lawyers, bank managers and anyone lucky enough to be part of the government, the church or the army. These people were unimpeachably honest, trusted and universally revered. 

Hugh Laurie in Catch 22.

So, if you wanted to know if, say, the harvest was likely to be delayed this year, or whether or not the great powers were going to go to war, you would ask one of these august gentlemen (they were all men of course). And whatever they told you, you would take as writ. And you would then plan for the rest of your year accordingly. 

So when Heller’s novel came out in ’61, his depiction of the army was thrillingly subversive and genuinely satirical. The officers in this army were every bit as venal, petty, dim-witted, thin-skinned and self-centred as the ordinary privates forced to carry out their orders and to service their every whim.

Orson Welles in Mike Nichol’s Catch 22.

But by the time Mike Nichols released his film of the novel, a mere nine years later, in 1970, that world had been turned on its head. The sixties had rendered pillars of society, figures of authority and all institutions, especially the army, hopelessly suspicious. 

Now, half a century later, the idea that the army, and of all things, the American army, might once have been respected and even revered, rather than the object of ridicule, seems almost literally unimaginable. 

So when the latest Catch 22 depicts a scene in which an army private on the make tries to sell a truck load of clandestinely acquired tomatoes to his superior, it doesn’t read like a caustic critique of universal values subverted by the pursuit of person profit, and the sacrifice of ideals at the altar to capitalism. It just looks like a young guy selling a slightly older guy a few crates of tomatoes. 

George Clooney in Catch 22.

It all looks sumptuous, and the acting is uniformly superb. And, as wonderful as it is to see Giancarlo Giannini given something grown-up to do, against the backdrop of a pristine and Acadian southern Italy, it lacks any real substance. As Gertrude Stein said so memorably of California, “there’s no there, there “.

You can see the trailer to Catch 22 here

Sign up for a subscription right or below and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.