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 race 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.


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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