Apple TV’s ‘Severance’ is the real deal

Apple TV’s “Severance”

Things have been quiet of late, in this the much heralded golden age of television. There has been plenty of perfectly watchable, eminently adequate fodder on offer from the various streaming services and their terrestrial brethren. But very little to write home about. 

So it was with a slight sense of wariness that I sat down to watch Severance, notwithstanding all the noise it’s generated. But for once, that hype was entirely justified. Happily, it’s the real deal.

It’s a high concept, Big Idea series. A nefarious and implicitly evil tech corporation has invented a chip that allows you to separate, sever, your work-you from your home-you. So as you work through the mindless chores at the faceless office where you work, you’ve no idea what you do or who you are for the rest of the day when you’re at home. 

The same neck of the woods.

As you descend in the elevator at the end of the day, the chip kicks in, and you step out on to the ground floor as your home-you, or what they call your ‘outie’. And after you get back into the elevator as your outie the following morning, you emerge on the ‘severance’ floor as your ‘innie’. Completely oblivious as what you might have got up to in between. 

Why would anybody want that? Well, Mark has recently lost his wife in a car crash. And, he figures, at least for 8 hours a day he’ll be spared the bottomless grief he’s floored by during the other 16.

It’s avowedly left of field and off kilter, and veers from the surreally mundane to menacing and back, often in the same scene. Think Charlie Kaufman meets David Lynch, where both have had their wings clipped to rein their flights of fancy in. Which is, respectively, both good and bad.

Everything about Severance is impeccably crafted. The art direction is pristine, the directing, by Ben Stiller, is foot perfect and the acting is exceptional across the board. 

All the gang on the Severance floor.

Adam Scott takes the lead as Mark, and is impressively abetted by Britt Lower, Zach Cherry, John Turturro and, improbably, Christopher Walken, all of whom are outstanding as his increasingly rebellious co-workers. But Patricia Arquette manages to somehow steal the show, as the nearest thing to a plausible and genuinely terrifying realisation of the wicked witch of the West. 

And, rather than addressing them head on, it sensibly flirts around the philosophical questions that it raises about the self, purpose, meaning, work-life balance and agency. Most impressively of all, it builds momentum and raises the stakes continually, thanks to the perfectly meted out parcels of story. And the increasingly compelling cliff-hangers that each episode concludes with.

It might not quite be up there with series 1 of Twin Peaks, and I hope it does a better job than that show did of maintaining its momentum into series 2. But it’s comfortably the best show to grace our screens since Bojack pursued and fed his demons (reviewed earlier by me here).

You can see the trailer for Severance here:

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‘Destroyer’, starring Nicole Kidman

Destroyer

I missed Destroyer first time around, when it was released in 2018. Inexplicably, so did everybody else, and it grossed just $5 million, barely half its budget. Which is criminal, as it’s one of the most intelligent and gripping thrillers made in the last decade.

The fifth film by Karyn Kusama, it was written by her husband Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi, and is their third collaboration together. 

And although her feature debut, Girlfight (2000), was lauded at Sundance and Cannes, it fared poorly at the box office. As did her next two films, Aeon Flux (‘05) and Jennifer’s Body (’09). So she spent the following 5 or 6 years working as a director for hire on television. 

Kidman’s best performance since To Die For in 1995.

But she went back to the silver screen in 2015 for The Invitation, a well-regarded horror that had only a limited release. But Destroyer takes her work to a whole new level.

Confidently plotted and impeccably scripted, the direction and cinematography are constantly thoughtful and carefully choreographed. Which ought of course to be true for every film, but almost never is. While the twist is low-key, subtle and, cleverly, structural.

But the entire film revolves around the vortex that is Nicole Kidman. The gravitational pull of her self-destruction seems to drag the whole of Los Angeles down into the hole she’s hell-bent in burrowing for the grave she’s determined to dig for herself.

Kidman’s a funny one. Her choices are actually almost always both challenging and impressively intelligent. But the few duds are so glaring, they can be momentarily blinding. But really, it’s only The Stepford Wives (’04), Bewitched (’05) and Australia (08) that baffle. Birth (’04), Margot at the Wedding (’07) and Nine (’09), for instance, might not work as films, but they were all choices and risks worth taking.

This though is comfortably her best performance, and is the answer she’ll give when St Peter asks her to point to the one thing that could move him to open the pearly gates for her.

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.

As for Kusama, she presumably finds herself once more at a crossroads. Having had her fingers burnt trying to produce commercial fodder for the Hollywood bean-counters, she was once again offered the chance to get her hands on a sizable budget, for a re-make of Dracula, only to have the project cancelled. So which way does she go now, to the left or to the right?

Does she follow the path of Kathryn Bigelow, and trade in her intelligence for dollar bills, or that of Lynne Ramsay (whose You Were Never Really Here I reviewed here) and Debra Granick, into the undergrowth and uncertainty of the independent world?

I hope somebody sits her down and forces her to watch repeated viewings of Zero Dark Thirty (’12). There but for the grace of God…

You can see the trailer for Destroyer below:

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‘Elvis’, the trailer, plus a film about music made by a grown up

Elvis

What a joy to be able to see the world as Baz Luhrmann does, through the eyes of a 9 year old boy. Many 9 and 10 year olds note what pleasure they get from eating the icing on a cake. And they have the brilliant idea of asking for one made of nothing else. 

But they note their parent’s weary dismissal of that idea, and they spend a few years investigating gastronomy, learning about appetite and acquiring taste. And they come to appreciate that pleasure without pain, light without darkness and euphoric highs without the depths of despair simply cannot be. They are mutually dependent.

The Velvet Underground, Nica and Andy Warhol

But Lurhmann has said, sod that. I’m staying just as I am. And he’s spotted how much we all enjoy watching music videos and movie trailers, and he’s had the brilliant idea of making feature length versions of them. 

So we got Romeo + Juliette, which manages to defang Shakespeare’s play of its tragedy, and turn it into a poptastic costume fest. Then there was Moulin Rouge, which was a 2 hour music video, pure and simple. Likewise The Great Gatsby

Which, I have to confess, I’ve not been able to actually sit through. So it’s perfectly possible that it’s a carefully considered and thoughtful meditation on doomed youth and fin de siècle disillusionment. But I’m going out on a limb, and presuming that it’s just A N Other 2 hour plus music video.

The Velvet Underground and Nico

And now we have 2 ¾ hour movie trailer about Elvis. So, as with any trailer, you get told immediately who the goodies and baddies are. And every line of dialogue is on the nose and means exactly what it says – just like this sentence. And every frame is stuffed full of information, because you’ve only got two minutes to tell the audience about all the different elements in your story. 

Only it doesn’t go on for two minutes. This is kept up for nearly three hours. There’s stuff stuffed into every frame and on every corner of the soundtrack. It’s like watching a teenage boy who’s just been shown what all the buttons do in his editing software. And so pleased is he with all the effects they can produce, that he can’t stop pressing them, repeatedly. And he’s completely oblivious to the reaction of his parents when he shows them what he’s done.

It’s relentless in its blind bombardment of the senses, and the tedium that results is incessant and mind-numbing.

The Velvet Underground

I always admire though rarely warm to the films of Todd Haynes. But his eponymous documentary on The Velvet Underground is an unqualified joy from start to finish. Serious music from an extraordinary collective who came together at a fascinating moment in time. 

Structured in an appropriately left of field way, it’s a quietly intelligent and thoughtful film about a uniquely influential band. Their first album is one of the great works of art of the 20th century. And remarkably, this film does them justice. 

Watching it after sitting through Elvis is like dropping your child off at a birthday party, only to be greeted there by the excited stare of the birthday boy, as he offers you a slice of his solid icing cake. When suddenly, you’re taken by the elbow and gently led out into the back garden, where you’re handed an ice cold beer and a glass of Jameson. And you sit down together and lean back to contemplate the stars.

You can see the trailer for The Velvet Underground below:

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’Conversations with Friends’, more of the same

Conversations With Friends. Yawn.

Like most sequels these days, Conversations with Friends is actually a remake. And on one level, you can hardly blame them. 

After the giddy high that The Tiger King initially produced, arriving as it did in the depths of the pandemic, we gradually realised quite how sordid the whole thing was. The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. 

So the arrival soon after of Normal People seemed to provide the world with a much needed palette cleanser. Here was something you could sit back, relax and enjoy in the knowledge that, for the next thirty minutes, your brain would be completely superfluous. 

No bile or vitriol, just polite, keen-to-be-educated and uniformly pretty youths shot against endlessly pleasing backgrounds, as they mumbled sweet nothings about nothing in particular for six glorious hours. 

The only way you could conceivably end up on the edge of your seat would be if you’d sunk so far back into it, you’d inadvertently slipped off entirely to land languidly in a pool on the floor. For many, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Normal People. Which is, like, ironic. You know, like the song.

But now that we’ve all come out of our enforced hibernation, mindless heritage television doesn’t have quite the draw that it did that lifetime ago. And now they’ve produced an exact replica. 

There’s the artistic longing and romantic yearning of youth, the trips back to the parents in the West of Ireland, and the would-be Joycean rejection of old Ireland in favour of continental cosmopolitanism. And all of it centred around the promise provided by the gateway that is the university. Specifically, Trinity College, Dublin.

What’s so baffling, about both Normal People and Conversation With Friends, is how off it all feels. Those parties and soirees with monied students and the would-be litterati, the seminars they go to and the conversations they have wherever they gather, are all clearly meant to evoke a charged bohemia where anything can happen. And out of which, who knows how many great novels and seminal poetry collections will any day now emerge.

But they don’t look, sound or feel anything like the fiercely bright and perennially competitive beacons of youth that they’re clearly supposed to be. What you get instead are what characters like that look and sound like to people who’ve never actually met anyone like that.

Or who met them so long ago, that their idea of what people like that look and sound like is so hopelessly idealised, that the result is entirely lifeless and quietly cringe-inducing.

Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You.

And then there’s the dialogue. Which seems to have been produced by people whose only training was in watching a series of Aaron Sorkin set-pieces with the sound turned down. They’ve never heard what snappy dialogue is supposed to sound like, so all their characters end up delivering a series of one liners devoid of depth, charm or insight. No wonder there’s absolutely no chemistry between the principals. Nobody should have to deliver lines like that. 

And let’s not even get started on the poetry, or that production of the Tennessee Williams play. 

What was so impressive about I May Destroy You (reviewed by me earlier here), and its world of brilliantly bright young things battling with having to navigate their treacherous, threatening and deeply troubled world, was that the programme makers patently came from and inhabited the world they were depicting. So every scene rings effortlessly true. Likewise Can You Ever Forgive Me?, from 2018, and before that, Wonders Boys, from 2000. All of which cover similar terrain, and revolve around a cast of would-be and actual writers.

But, bafflingly, Normal People was a rip-roaring and stratospheric success. So, quite correctly and very understandably, they’ve gone and produced an exact replica, with another six hours (six hours!!) of more of the same. And for that, I’m afraid, we’ve only ourselves to blame. 

You can see the trailer for I May Destroy You here:

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‘The Northman’, classy video, yawn

The Northman

What you think of The Northman will depend on whether you’ve heard anything about it before seeing it. Unfortunately, its director, Robert Eggers, and his PR team have done such a sterling job promoting it that the chances of you coming to it fresh are almost negligible. 

You’ll be as well versed as I was in how meticulously researched it all was, and about the many and great pains that they all went to to realise his vision. So you’ll very probably be as baffled and as quietly irritated by it as I was. 

What all that painstaking research was aimed at was, apparently, in giving us a window into what life in 9th and 10th century Viking Europe actually looked and felt like. Doing then for the Viking world what Robert Altman and Jacques Audiard did for the western, with McCabe and Mrs Millar (1971) and The Sisters Brothers (2018). Or what Bergman, Eggers’ favourite film maker did for medieval Europe, with The Virgin Spring (’60) and The Seventh Seal (’57). All of which brilliantly redraw a genre’s borders to reimagine its parameters.

Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Millar

But The Northman doesn’t look or feel anything like a film. It’s plainly part of the music video/advertising/video game landscape. All the physiques are perfectly sculpted, everyone’s hair falls just so, and all that killing and mayhem has that choreographed look and feel that we’ll all so familiar with and comfortable watching. 

We know that none of the figures we’re looking up at are actual, real people. They’re just more of those character avatars. Some of whom get decapitated, others of whom survive. None of which matters, because the stakes are necessarily almost non-existent. And the whole thing has that flattened, monochrome look that you get with video, further dulling any interest you might have had in it. 

Worst of all, you never get to hear, and therefore experience, any of the physical things that they’re supposed to be doing. Like, say, taking a bite out of something, or sitting down exhausted into a chair, or taking off a piece of clothing, because all its sounds are neutered by the constant drone of atmos.

Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.

If you’d heard nothing about it before sitting down to watch The Northman, you’d very probably consider it a perfectly pleasant way to while away a stray couple of hours. No doubt you’d have found all that cod, ye oldie, mittle-European dialogue mildly amusing, rather than risibly pretentious.

And you’d probably conclude that Eggers was the younger brother of Baz Luhrmann, determined to treat the world of comic book heroes and D&D with deadly earnestness. Unlike that older brother of his, ever ready to settle for the cheapest thrill and the easiest laugh.

But you’d never for a second imagine that either were working in anything other than the world of video. And when it comes to video, there’s no two ways about it. Eggers is a class act.

Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers

I love music videos, and video games. Just not at the cinema. As a matter of fact, they’re exactly what I go to the cinema to escape.

You can see the trailer for The Northman below – and, by the way, a 2 minute trailer is exactly how the Northman should be best experienced. Just don’t ruin your memory of it by watching the actual film.

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