David Simon’s latest TV series “Show Me A Hero”.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

David Simon read Show Me A Hero by New York Times journalist Lisa Belkin in 2001, and immediately approached HBO about adapting it for television. But he got sidetracked with the phenomenally successful and justly lauded The Wire, and then by Generation Kill and Treme. So it’s only now that Show Me a Hero has finally made it to our screens.

As soon as he heard it was going ahead, Paul Haggis signed on as director without having to see any of the scripts beforehand. And it’s not hard to see what might have drawn him to it, apart of course from the obvious fact that it was Simon’s latest venture.

Haggis wrote and directed Crash in 2004, which explores the complexities of race and colour brilliantly, and could have been a masterpiece if only they’d held out against tacking happy endings on to three of its stories, those of the detective’s mother, the shop keeper and the TV director.

Crash.

Crash.

One of the first things that leaps out at you when you start watching Show Me A Hero is its apparent artlessness. A great deal of time and effort has been invested in rendering it entirely transparent. So that instead of using the medium to mirror the subject matter, as they did with the amphetamine fuelled fidgeting of The Wire, and the laid back languid southern rhythms of Treme, what we get here is Strindberg’s dream of being presented with something as if we were the fourth wall.

So the late 80s that the story is set in is seen not as the sort of stylized, immaculately dressed era that something like Mad Men would have presented it as. Rather, it looks and feels exactly as it did when you were actually living in it. Utterly, unforgivably vile, and cheap in a somehow expensive way. That hair, those shoulder pads, and the way that everything, even the architecture, all looks thin, insubstantial and devoid of any real depth.

The Wire.

The Wire.

The story centres around Nick Wasicsko who became the youngest mayor in America when taking up the reins at Yonkers, a suburb of New York City and a city in its own right within the larger state. For 5 or 6 years in the late 80s, its residents were up in arms over the social housing development that was being forced upon them against their wishes.

What’s so great about Simon is that he manages to keep his liberal sympathies in check without ever letting you lose sight of them. He focuses instead on showing us the multifaceted complexities that lie behind all apparently black and white issues.

There’s a reason the residents of Yonkers are so dead set against allowing public housing units allocated to black families into their area. Wherever that had been done before, the buildings that resulted all too quickly developed into Stygian centres for drugs and prostitution, and the organizational fulcrum for a network of petty, and not so petty crime.

Proponents of the scheme, which Wasiscko inadvertently came to front, said that that was only because of the way that those kinds of things had been handled in the past. That this scheme would be different (which, unusually, it was), and that in any case, they were only talking about a paltry 200 housing units.

Treme.

Treme.

I’ll not say anything more, other than that I just about managed to avoid looking up what the actual outcome was, so drawn in was I with the story, and so should you. But if you recognize the Fitzgerald quote, or know the book, you’ll know that the full quote is Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.

The one thing I can say is, and forgive me for sounding a little smug, but the whole sorry story is a dreadful reflection on that era and, dare I say it, America. Happily, the idea that the good people in the larger community might shun a minority to such a degree that they refuse to let them even live amongst them is, happily, not something that could possibly happen in this day and age. And certainly not in Ireland. Obviously.

You can see the trailer to Show Me A Hero here.

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5 Worst Films To Win The Oscar For Best Film.

5. Million Dollar Baby (2004). For its first 90 minutes or so (most films’ actual length), Clint Eastwood’s boxer chick flick shuffles along as a poor man’s Rocky. But then, with what’s laughably described as a plot “twist”, it suddenly veers off into the final scene of Betty Blue, which it manages to drag out for a further ¾ of an hour.

Neither one thing nor the other, it manages to be dull and tedious twice over. Incredibly, it triumphed at the expense of the rightly lauded Sideways, the charming Finding Neverland, and Scorsese’s underrated The Aviator.

Having to write Million Dollar Baby was obviously the price that Paul Haggis had to pay for being allowed to direct Crash, which quite correctly won the following year.

4. The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003). The final installment of Peter Jackson’s magnum opus affords a third opportunity to spend yet another three hours (3 hours and 20 minutes actually…) watching one set of computer generated characters in a series of increasingly noisome battles with A N Other set. Which, inexplicably, they occasionally do with subtitles.

Watching a video game without being able to participate is the cinematic equivalent of being treated to a lap dance without being allowed to touch. For hours and hours. Oh and it beat Lost In Translation and Clint Eastwood’s superb Mystic River.

3. How Green Was My Valley (1941). Is John Ford the worst film maker of all time? Or is that Kurosawa? They are, as they say, well met.

Either way, just in case you thought that getting it monumentally wrong on Oscar night was a modern phenomenon, Ford’s oh so dull and typically leaden tale of, yawn, a Welsh mining town was duly awarded the gong in 1941. And at whose expense?

Well, for one there was a certain Citizen Kane. Then there was John Huston’s enigmatic and genuinely quirky noir classic, The Maltese Falcon. And William Wyler’s ice-cold but razor-sharp Bette Davis vehicle, The Little Foxes (which, like Kane, was shot by Gregg Toland). As well as Hitchcock’s Suspicion, starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine.

2. Titanic (1997). Our very own Ford and Kurosawa rolled into one (see above), the first thing you want to do with James Cameron’s mesmerically tedious  3 hours and 17 minute film is to take each and every one of its shots and chop off their opening and closing 25%. That would bring it down to just over an hour and a half.

You’d lose nothing. You would however see even more clearly that it’s little more than a shot by shot remake of the 1958 film A Night To Remember, but without any of the latter’s charm, social graces or understanding of etiquette. And as for those special effects. Well, they’re certainly special all right.

1. The Artist (2012). Anyone who’s ever done any of those Hollywood screenwriting courses will know that there are a certain number of archetypal plots. One of which is the Ironic Plot, a classic example of which goes as follows; he does something to avoid being caught, and hide his true identity, only to discover that what he does is precisely the thing that leads to him being unmasked.

The one thing that Hollywood is obsessed with, is proving to the rest of the world that, contrary to popular opinion, it is not in fact peopled by philistines. So they fell over themselves in their haste to lavish The Artist (reviewed by me here earlier) with ill-considered praise on the grounds that a) it’s French, b) it’s in black and white, and c) it’s silent.

But by failing to spot its complete absence of drama, or to notice that it’s made up of one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, albethey beautifully drawn ones, whose narrative arc could be comfortably predicted by most below-averagely intelligent 9 year olds, they have, needless to say, confirmed all our worst suspicions. So there you are then, QED.

Appropriately enough I  suppose, Hollywood itself has become a classic example of one of its own genres.

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