HBO’s triumphant Watchmen: cinema V television

Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen.

First things first; Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is something to behold. It’s Back to the Future directed by Lars von Trier on a particularly good day, and scripted by Dennis Potter. Except it’s been fused in a parallel universe on the other side of the looking glass, so that colour and gender have been reversed.

We’ll come to that in a bit. But to begin with, how has this succeeded where so many others have failed?

Scosese’s Raging Bull.

As has been well documented, two fundamental changes have taken place across the media landscape over the last couple of decades. On the one hand, we’re in the midst of a proverbial golden age of television. And on the other, the world of cinema has become completely polarised. 

Superficially speaking, that polarisation has always been there. 20thcentury cinema was made up of Hollywood films, and independent films. But those two canvases produced a wide variety of different kinds of films. Hollywood could mean Double Indemnity, The Godfather or Raging Bull. Independent could give you The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Amélie, Babette’s Feast or Prospero’s Books.

Amelie.

It’s impossible to imagine any of those being made today with the aim of screening them primarily at the cinema. Because there are only two kinds of films that you’ll find in the cinema today; franchise products, and really low budget, genuinely independent fare.

That’s what Scorsese was complaining about in those series of interviews that he gave towards to end of the year just gone, and which culminated with that op ed piece in the New York Times, here.

He can’t connect, he says, with any of those superhero movies, because there’s nothing at stake. How could there be? They’re superheroes. And none of the people making those movies have the room to take any kind of risks. Because there’s just too much money involved in the franchises they fuel. Which is why, if you’re an adult hungry to explore grown up themes and ideas, it’s to television that you today turn to. And not, alas, cinema.

So what would be the biggest risk when exploring the comic book landscape?

The Wachowskis V for Vendetta.

Ignoring the super of your heroes and viewing them instead as grown ups dressed in masks. If they don’t have their superpowers, then there’s no need for all that green screen nonsense. And when you don’t have that to fall back on, you’re forced to explore instead the relationships between your various characters, and how they fit in in the world in which they find themselves. What would drive an articulate, intelligent person to put on a mask and fight crime?

That was why V for Vendetta worked so powerfully, and it’s why Lindelof’s Watchmen is such a triumph. The DC universe of masked crime fighters allows him, and the Wachowski siblings before him, to explore individuals whose time is out of joint and who feel cursed to set it right. Not because they’ve been arbitrarily gifted with some nebulous super power. But because they can do no other.

And what, if you are a 21stcentury American, are the two most pressing personal and societal issues? Race and gender. So here we are in Watchmen, presented with a cast (and crew) who are predominantly black, and female. And older.

Lindelof’s The Leftovers.

Interestingly, both V and Watchmen originated with the perennially grumpy Alan Moore, who, predictably, has disowned them both. I tried reading (is that what one does with a graphic novel?) his Watchmen, and I have to confess it sailed serenely over my head. I just found it flat, and static, and all too black and white.

Lindelof’s Watchmen is so much more dynamic. And relevant. 

You can see the trailer for Watchmen here.

And if you haven’t already, you should watch Lindelof’s The Leftovers, which I reviewed earlier, here.

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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 seem 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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