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 the 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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“Birdman” doesn’t quite take off. And “Jupiter” sinks.

Michael Keaton in "Birdman".

Michael Keaton in “Birdman”.

Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu burst on to the international film circuit with Amores Perros in 2000, one of the most exciting and confident debuts for many a moon.

Unfortunately, since then things have gone decidedly downhill. We got the ponderous and frankly soapy 21 Grams in ’03, the portentous and all too precious Babel in ’06 and more of the same with Biutiful in ‘10.

That’s three dull duds in a row. So the first thing to say is that Birdman is definitely something of a return to form, albeit of the qualified variety.

"Amores Perros".

“Amores Perros”.

Nominally, it’s the story of an actor pursued by his alter ego, the Batman like superhero he long ago starred as in one of those Hollywood blockbusters that so many actors like to feign embarrassment over. But really, it’s a wonderfully compact and contained chamber piece set in the suitably confined space of the theatre.

Michael Keaton – you know, the guy that used to be Batman – is the washed-up has-been trying to give his career the sheen of respectability by adapting a Raymond Carver short story for the Broadway stage.

Standing in his way are his girlfriend, Andrea Riseborough, his daughter, Emma Stone, the method-obsessed star actor, the method-obsessed Edward Norton and his love interest in the play, Naomi Watts.

And for 75 minutes or so, we get a wonderfully bitchy, impressively nuanced, gripping drama in which each character reveals themselves to be at least as messed up as Keaton. Norton is particularly impressive giving warmth and depth to what could have been a one dimensional sleaze, and suggesting that contrary to appearances, he does have a sense of humour. And Keaton obviously is hugely impressive.

'All About Eve", now that's how you sneer.

‘All About Eve”, now that’s how you sneer.

But there’s a revealing scene at around the 70 minute mark when the actor confronts the feared critic, played by Lindsay Duncan.

This you felt is what the film had been building up to all along. Here was the moment for Iñárritu to stamp his authority much as Godard did in One Plus One, with “The critic is as close to the artist as the historian is to the man of action”, or as Brendan Behan had with his famous “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.” But the film fluffs its lines, and instead of a withering put down all the scene delivers is hollow bluster in the form of empty huffing and puffing.

From here on in, the film quietly loses its direction, as it mistakenly attempts to take flight. And for the last 20 minutes or so, that portentousness returns, as the film makes a conscious effort to become cinematic. And all that wonderfully claustrophobic tension is allowed to dissipate, disappearing into thin air. What had promised to be a contemporary take on All About Eve and an impressive companion piece to Sex, Lies and Videotape becomes, yawn,  just another Oscar vehicle.

"Jupiter Ascending".

“Jupiter Ascending”.

What a pity. Birdman desperately wants to be cinema, but all it ends up being is theatre.

So, Jupiter Ascending, is it really as bad as everyone says it is? Well, for one thing, as thin and inconsequential as the script is, it’s not Star Wars bad. And yes, bereft of a story that anyone other than a 5 year old would own up to, watching something that’s so entirely dependent on CGI is like having to watch a video game you’re not allowed to actually play. But in fairness, it’s 7 hours shorter than Lord Of the Rings was (16 if you include the sequel), and no one seemed terribly bothered about being asked to sit through that.

Truth be told, it’s very disappointing. Especially after the similarly but wrongly ignored Cloud Atlas, Andy and (now) Lana Wachowski’s previous film.

As I mentioned in my review here, the relatively restrained use of CGI there was put entirely at the service of the story and the characters who inhabited them.

"Cloud Atlas", just as visually arresting, but with a story.

“Cloud Atlas”, just as visually arresting, but with a story.

Jupiter Ascending is like seeing what you’d thought was a reformed alcoholic falling spectacularly off the wagon, going off on an almighty bender to make up for lost time. It’s all CGI here. And whatever story there might have been once upon a time has been irretrievably buried. Instead, the cup overfloweth with unremitting tedium.

All we can do is hope that this was a one off. And that now, they’ll have got it out of their system once and for all.

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