Month: July 2020

Roy-al Dysfunction: SUCCESSION and the Self-Destructive Dynasty

Amongst the many trends available in television and cinema these days, the self-destructive family dynamic remains among the most potent and popular, except the targets are successively growing bigger in stature.
I have recently caught up on HBO’s Succession which, if you haven’t managed to catch it, truly is one of the finest pieces of drama anywhere today. With a third season on the way either this year or likely next—delayed, as much else, by Covid-19–Jesse Armstrong’s series has rocketed into the public consciousness following two incredibly strong opening seasons which focus on the Roy dynasty, a New York-based family in control of Waystar Royco, a multi-billion global news and entertainment multinational company, a family faced with challenges within and without as they strive to navigate an ever-shifting media landscape. Armstrong’s series is rich in Shakespearean plotting, razor-sharp writing, complex characterisation and laugh out loud black comedy which underscores a series which, ultimately, is about the self-destructive nature of exorbitant wealth on not just family, but humanity itself – both figuratively and literally. If Game of Thrones saw families physically stab each other in the back, Succession’s pain is psychological.

In watching the show, which Armstrong has worked hard to stress should not be interpreted as one particular family or another (but it isn’t hard to get a strong whiff of the Murdoch, or even Trump dynasties here), I’m left to wonder if part of Succession’s appeal is in watching people who have everything reduced to a personal, psychological nothing. The series is nominally concerned with the titular question of the successor to patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox, on brilliantly snarling form), with his grown up children variously positioning themselves to take over his sprawling, vastly lucrative empire, but the meat of the drama is in how Logan’s cruel, amoral lens on a world he is sucking dry belittles, damages and threatens to destroy his children along the way. As Logan’s brother Euan puts it in one episode, “In terms of the lives that will be lost by his whoring for the climate change deniers, there’s a very persuasive argument to be made… that he’s worse than Hitler.”. There is much current, real world relevance in what Succession deals with, but the heart of the drama, so finely balanced as it is with gallows humour that often resembles The Thick of It (which Armstrong also worked on), lies in how the rule of an empire is enough to destroy an entire family.
This feels like a tale that keeps being told. Succession follows Game of Thrones, or The Crown, even Ozark, in depicting the super-powerful lose their souls, or at the very least their happiness. I wonder… are we perversely enjoying their pain?

Six Seasons and (No) Movie (Yet): Reflections on COMMUNITY

We all have those shows or movies that we sailed right on past, don’t we? Community was absolutely one of mine.
For years, I had close friends knowledgeable about television encouraging me to check in on Greendale Community College but for whatever reason, it never quite happened. I used to hear #sixseasonsandamovie and miss the reference. The first time I saw Joel McHale in anything was the revival of The X-Files. I spent *far* too long not knowing who Donald Glover was. All of these are on me. In hindsight, having just binge-watched almost the entirety of the series in around three weeks on Netflix (and slightly on Amazon), I can safely say Community is one of those shows that I am disappointed not to have experienced with everyone else at the time. I feel like those people who refuse to watch Game of Thrones and have no idea what they missed out on.

Let’s face it, Community is unique. There has never been a sitcom quite like it. You might call it a sitcom about sitcoms but that’s disingenuous. Community is more a sitcom that knows it’s a sitcom, and works hard to transcend a complex series of established formulas that have been in place for decades. Dan Harmon, the primary ubermind behind the adventures of the Greendale study group whose eventful college lives we observe each episode, understands tropes exist to be deconstructed and analysed, and deeper comedy can be reached in our post-modern landscape by encouraging the audience to be aware of said tropes. Community respects the so-called ‘fourth wall’ while never quite breaching it. In a sense, Harmon’s show is post-post-modern.
What’s great about Community, even as a show that arguably peaks and then troughs, is that it understands the sitcom well enough to deconstruct it while at the same time playing to the strengths of that same formula.

X-MEN: a pioneering example for modern superhero cinema (2000 in Film #27)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of July 14th, Bryan Singer’s X-Men

NOTE: this piece is a re-post from a previous film by film breakdown of the X-Men series.

Though not always discussed in the annals of great comic-book cinema, or even considered the height of its own franchise, Bryan Singer’s original adaptation of X-Men is a seminal moment in superhero cinema.

Before Singer brought Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s formative 1960’s Marvel Comics property to the screen, after over a decade of attempts by a range of filmmakers (most notably James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow), comic-book cinema was principally dominated across the 1980’s and 1990’s by two heavyweights: Superman and Batman. The former ruled the late 1970’s into the 80’s before falling from grace with a succession of sequels whereby the budget went down as the schlock went up, while the latter moved away in the 90’s from Tim Burton’s initial Neo-Gothic vision into a high camp, overblown blockbuster confection. Beyond these behemoths, comic-book films were curiosities – The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Crow, Darkman, Spawn – films which either garnered a cult audience or disappeared from the radar entirely.

X-Men changed all that. While not the first Marvel property brought to bear on the big-screen, Singer’s film was without doubt the first adaptation of their source material to go mainstream as a major box-office success – two years earlier, the Wesley Snipes-fronted Blade arguably also did well but was too violent and pulpy to reach a wide audience, and many to this day are unaware it even *is* a Marvel adaptation. X-Men changed the game. X-Men showed that comic-book movies could be more than kitsch spectacle or showy theatrics. Superheroes could be *real* people with heart and soul, their villainous antagonists complicated foes, both morally and psychologically; plus, these films could, much like the related genre of science-fiction, work as powerful allegory and social commentary. In other words, comic-book cinema could do what actual comic-books had been doing, without much in the way of critical respect, for decades.

While X-Men absolutely gives in to some of the silliness that weakened comic-book movies of decades past, it also shows what is possible in this sub-genre, and unknowingly lays down a template for the eventual rise and domination of superhero cinema.

SCARY MOVIE: a post-modern horror spoof without any post-modern wit (2000 in Film #26)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of July 7th, Keenen Ivory Wayans’ Scary Movie

All through watching Scary Movie, a film I missed twenty years ago the first time around, I kept thinking as I sat, largely stone-faced and more than a bit repulsed… would 18 year old Tony have found this funny?

The answer is, honestly, yes. Probably. 18 year old Tony found Road Trip, which we discussed earlier this summer, very funny at the time. It certainly isn’t as nasty as Scary Movie in its frat-boy comedy but it’s just as base, obvious and cheap. Both of these films are aimed, squarely, at youthful or teenage audiences who are rewarded by cheap laughs. However, Scary Movie comes from a different stable. Road Trip is an extension of the post-modern revival of the teen sex comedy. Keenen Ivory Wayans’ spoof harkens back to the Zucker Brothers or Mel Brooks brand of cinematic spoof, in this case directly lampooning the modern horror genre, particularly the post-modern horror genre made up of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, with a few other examples sprinkled in.

In fact, Miramax—the production company behind Scary Movie—were already producing a Scream spoof when the film was written, and WGA arbitration gives the writers of that other script credit here given the ideas were undoubtedly fused together to make what would become Scary Movie. The targets are primarily recent examples of the horror movie inversion, the meta-textual examination of horror tropes, characters and narratives which earlier this year remained still in evidence with Scream 3, which was derided (perhaps unfairly) for taking the concept to the max and making films within films, examining Hollywood within that spectrum. It was perhaps both too soon for a spoof like Scary Movie and exactly the right time, given the sizeable box office take that would lead, over the next fifteen years, to four sequels.

Here’s the thing, though. Scary Movie is terrible. Not just terrible, but *horrible*, and considering it so desperately wants to ape Airplane or Hot Shots etc… it is, despite being younger than those films, infinitely already much more dated.