The Tick: The Optimism We All Need

The first six episodes of Amazon’s new version of THE TICK hail from the character’s original creator Ben Edlund, and they are amazing.

Tick and Arthur

Voice of Darth Maul (and essential player on Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s SPACED), Peter Serafinowicz plays the titular tick. And the co-host of Blank Check With Griffin And David, one of the greatest podcasts of ALL TIME, Griffin Newman plays Tick’s sidekick, Arthur. In an outstanding, statement-of-intent performance, Newman laces his character with beautiful layers of vulnerability and fragility, as he battles mental illness and grief, and struggles with the notion that he might actually be a superhero. His twitchy sensitivity plays perfectly against Serafinowicz’s boomingly cheerful hilarity and positivity. They’re a double act for our times, representing the strobelike oscillation many of us have suffered throughout this year, bouncing between the emotional likes of Taylor Swift’s “I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time,” and Newman’s tremulous, heartbreaking, not-at-all-convincing, “I’m a really together person.” Let’s face it: We’re all Arthur right now, and we all need a Tick to show us the way.

The show is a goddamn delight, full of hundreds of throwaway zingers, some slicing observations, and some excellently named villains (The Terror, Overkill… Lint…). It’s bright, bold, beautiful, warm, compassionate, heartbreaking and sensitive in its handling of mental illness… and still really funny. It’s a tonal masterpiece, bouncing merrily along its high wire and never missing a step. The show opens with Newman’s Arthur struggling hard to just function at all, and ends (this half of its season) with a jaw-droppingly brilliant joke that leaves you cracking up as the credits roll. In between, The Tick rolls deep through genuine emotions while slinging jokes like ninja stars.

Tick Dot and Arthur

It’s not just Newman and Serafinowicz who excel. Valorie Curry is quite frankly extraordinary as Arthur’s paramedic sister Dot. She combines razor-sharp Friends-era Jennifer Aniston comedic chops with Mulholland Drive-era Naomi Watts emotionality, in a fresh, utterly present performance that’s feisty and magnetic. Jackie Earle Haley is in monstrously villainous form as Arthur’s nemesis The Terror, and Yara Martinez brings an unexpectedly empathetic streak to the super-evil electro-fingered Lint.

For such a quirky show, it’s directed as though it’s the Dark Knight, in full 2.40:1 ultra-widscreen, and with genuinely amazing cinematography. This is not a surprise, since Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy DP Wally Pfister directs the opening episodes, and sets the tone: super-sharp visuals that simultaneously elevate and ground the material. Spending time and money on making the show look so good pays off tremendously, and gives the cast a powerful environment to play against. Also, the sentient A.I. Danger Boat (it makes sense when you see it) looks and sounds like something out of a Marvel movie.

Tick skyline

THE TICK is essential viewing. Get yourself some Amazon Prime, and watch these first six episodes. It’s unlike anything else on TV, and Newman is the hero we didn’t know we needed… but who we really f**king needed. As an actor he’s achieving his dream, and in this role he shows us that maybe we can all achieve ours.

Advertisements

The Dark Knight Rises

With Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan brilliantly reinvented the iconic character of The Batman. The Dark Knight Rises marks the thrilling conclusion to his trilogy, and the setting of an impossibly high bar for superhero movies, for trilogies/series, and for cinematic storytelling in general.

The Batman

The Dark Knight Rises also brings Nolan’s cinematic record to an unheard-of 7 for 7 in great movies.

He announced himself in Hollywood with the twisty ploting and bold structure of Memento; brought an epic and lonely grandeur to the Al Pacino thriller Insomnia; reinvented superheroes with Batman Begins; delivered the uniquely dazzling magician-thriller The Prestige; channeled the brutal scale of Heat and The Godfather to make one of the greatest sequels of all time with The Dark Knight; blew our minds with the extraordinary dream-, perception- and reality-bending Inception.

And now this.

That’s seven era-defining, pop culture-redefining classics in a row.

How did that happen?

It all comes down to Nolan’s magnificent, architectural, kinetic and flat-out rock-solid grasp of how to blend and meld action, character, concept and emotion into one fluidly relentless thrill-ride. He’s a master storyteller, both on the page and up there on the screen. His scripts have an architect’s precision, a powerful, inexorable structure on which he hangs his whole new cinematic language of action and motion. A language which reaches new heights in The Dark Knight Rises.

The scope and complexity of the storytelling in The Dark Knight Rises is thrilling, especially when you look at it in the context of the trilogy as a whole. From the bold creation of the new origin story, to the reimagined diabolical and morally vacuous Joker, to the vast and inhuman monstrosity of Bane, Nolan keeps the character of Bruce Wayne/The Batman fully grounded, while also continually challenging him in fundamental and ever-escalating ways. The stakes are jacked up in the final installment, with Batman facing his most lethal adversary, and Gotham City itself threatened with being burned to the ground.

It’s the stuff of brilliant drama. It’s great writing, augmented by next-level directing.

The one liners are heavyweight punches; the physical and emotional punches are devastating body blows; the gadgets and vehicles blow you away with their newness and coolness; and the cool, measured approach taken by Nolan reins everything in and then whips it up into an intelligent maelstrom of furious action. He makes the visual, visceral. It’s easy to show big stuff, or blow big stuff up. It’s extraordinarily difficult to invest such visuals with emotion. To do that, the shot needs conceptual and emotional layers. Which means you have to build them in and lead up to the moment, often in subliminal ways.

And that comes down to the script.

The Batman movies usually start with Nolan and David Goyer (Blade, Man Of Steel) breaking story. Then Jonah Nolan writes the script. Then Christopher Nolan rewrites it, and pre-production begins. That’s one hell of a writers room. The scripts are juggernauts of narrative momentum, but they always find time to play, and to make you hurt, and dream.

And to care. In all three movies, you care about the characters, and the things that happen to them. When Batman makes his first appearance on the Batpod in The Dark Knight Rises, you’re invested in it (for all kinds of reasons), and that makes it all the more thrilling.

Another example is the way Nolan and his team brought Catwoman to life. Once the Nolans worked out that she should be a femme fatale, a grifter, they wrote the hell out of her part. That commitment extended to the costumes too. They did a particularly brilliant job making the “cat ears” an integrated part of her cat burglar tech gear, which itself is an integral part of her character.

Indeed, from the beginning of the trilogy, one of Nolan’s most original contributions has been to make all the “superhero” stuff utterly grounded, completely explained by function and need. Everything is logical, explainable, rooted in reality. This gives its superhuman behavior much more impact, and increases the coolness quotient exponentially. It’s one of many aspects of Nolan’s version that serves as a masterclass for all genre writers and directors.

The Bat

Of course, when Nolan wants to unleash technological and conceptual hell, he does it with massive style. Especially in IMAX. The first time you see and hear “The Bat” roar into view on an IMAX screen is one of the top ten thrilling moments in cinema history.

Just by way of perspective, so you can see where I’m coming from, my personal number one on that top ten list (and please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments below) is the first appearance of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park.

T-Rex

On every f**king level — conceptual, visual, primal, emotional, cinematic — it blows you away. The way Nolan handles The Bat falls squarely in this territory. The way he flies it around Gotham’s steel and glass towers also shows us why in some ways The Dark Knight Rises is Nolan’s Blade Runner.

He’s also staked his claim as a true innovator, even though he insists on shooting and editing on film rather than digital. I’m talking about his use of IMAX cameras. Where James Cameron has pioneered 3D, and Peter Jackson is pushing the hyperreality of 48fps, Nolan has single-handedly taken IMAX from the realm of documentaries into the world of the 21st century blockbuster, by shooting ever-increasing numbers of scenes using those cameras. He’s proved that you can shoot drama and action in the format, and use it to enhance the emotional impact of the visuals.

But Nolan’s grasp of the mechanical and technological is just as deft as his way with emotions and dreams. He understands the human heart and all the trouble it can get us into.

He’s a master architect of the human mind, along with his brother Jonah Nolan, who is currently showrunner of the stunningly great NYC-set TV show Person Of Interest. Together, they’ve brought a wholly original point of view to their blend of noir, epic crime, zinging dialogue and startling concepts.

Of course, all this is well and good, but without the cast, the movies couldn’t succeed. Nolan knew this, which was why he cast Christian Bale.

Bruce Wayne

From his start as a young boy lost in WW2 Japan in Steven Spielberg’s excellent Empire Of The Sun, to his Oscar-winning performance in The Fighter, Bale has always delivered maximum intensity and rawness. Whether playing a free spirit succumbing to 60s British suburbia in Metroland, or the burning-out wannabe LAPD cop in Harsh Times, Bale always immerses himself in a part, turns it inside out, becomes it. That transformation burns its way out of the screen.

Who better, then, to play the broken billionaire, tortured by terrible loss, always fearing yet embracing his own inner monsters? In the prior two movies Bale was outstanding, delivering a pyschologically detailed and gripping portrayal of Bruce Wayne. In this movie, he somehow steps it up yet again; this is some of his finest, most heartbreaking, and most ferocious work.

The movie is full of legends and stars: Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman, and Tom Hardy all invest their scenes with heart and soul.

Oh yeah, and Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle? Revelatory.

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle

In “Catwoman mode,” she’s stylized, deadly, her speech hovering just the right side of a seductive almost-purr, hazy and woozy yet always in control. And in depicting a vulnerable, haunted young woman on the run from an unknown past she fully reveals how Kyle is in the grip of complex moral conflicts. She’s a great female character for a superhero movie, and Nolan shoots her scenes alternating through close-ups, fascinating camera tilts and alluring distance. He shows us her dreams, even as she does her best to hide them.

There’s a great line in Ridley Scott’s Legend: “the dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity.” In some ways, that line resonates powerfully within the world of The Dark Knight Rises; the characters are haunted by dreams, by futures lost. But it also applies to the movie itself. All of us geeks have been fans of superheroes since we were kids. What Nolan has done is turn those dreams of our youth into the extraordinarily thrilling dreams of our maturity.

WILFRED is the INCEPTION of the R-rated half-hour

One of the darkest, most reality-bending, mind-f**king shows on TV right now also happens to be one of the funniest and most raucous half-hour comedies ever made.

FX’s update of the original Australian comedy features the same actor/co-creator, Jason Gann, as the Wilfred of the title: the man in a dog suit that only Elijah Wood can see. Everyone else just sees a normal dog, but for Wood’s perpetually confused and tortured character Ryan, Wilfred is a bong-smoking, toy giraffe-abusing a**hole who likes Matt Damon movies and does everything he can to screw up Ryan’s life.

Jason Gann, Elijah Wood and Fiona Gubelmann

This is a show where the funny is brutal and the darkness is hilarious. And nothing is what it seems. Under exec producer David Zuckerman’s watch, the FX version of the show is like a mash-up of Inception, Awake and The Hangover, all cooked together and smoked in a Californication-style wrapper. But make no mistake, this is an extremely intelligent show. You can’t play with reality to the devilish degree that Wilfred does without being super-smart. And this show does a fantastic job of making sure you feel the same anxiety and confusion that besets Ryan on a daily, if not hourly basis. Just when Ryan thinks he has a handle on which reality is the real one, something else happens to turn that upside down.

It’s a show that seems descended from UK shows such as Green Wing, Spaced and The IT Crowd in that it takes a surrealistically dark and wry look at reality, shifting it around and reshaping it. The difference is that Wilfred takes this so much further, in a highly disciplined way. It really is as if Christopher Nolan was making a half-hour comedy.

For example, the special preview episode Progress features mind-altering medications, different layers of reality, Robin Williams in a classic “bearded Robin Williams” role, Rob Riggle as a potentially hallucinatory work colleague, shock treatment, and Kevin from The Office in a truly multi-layered role. Progress blasts through its surreal and extraordinary story elements in an assured and devious manner, and is a brilliant introduction to the second series.

Jason Gann is even better in this version than the original, and brings new dark slyness to Wilfred in this episode. Elijah Wood’s watery-eyed confusion is as subtle and haunting as always, and Fiona Gubelmann is pitch-perfect as Wilfred’s sweet and lovely and utterly in-the-dark owner.

The writing is sharp, the directing inspired, the drama messed-up, and the humor  bone-dry. Progress is a great start to this second season of a great show. Don’t miss it.

We Have A Hulk: How The Avengers Took Over The World

Wow.

I mean… Wow.

Whether you were a total Whedonite, or just a Buffy or Firefly fan, or someone who knew he did that vampire thing but didn’t know about the comic books or web shows, or you just weren’t a fan of Joss Whedon at all, it was impossible not to kneel before The Avengers as though it was an all-powerful demigod demanding your allegiance. In a good way.

Kneel!

What a remarkable achievement this movie was on each and every level. Never before has a franchise been born character by character before being pulled together into one massive, all-conquering whole. For that we can thank the unswerving vision of Marvel Studio’s head honcho, Kevin Feige. From 2008 through 2011, he shepherded Iron Man 1 & 2, Thor and Captain America into production, setting up the title characters, and weaving in Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. Each movie not only set up its lead, but also evolved the Avenger Initiative backstory a little more, through one-liners, brief glimpses of the S.H.I.E.L.D. world, and crafty post-credits stingers.

With that heavy lifting taken care of, the biggest task still remained: how to take all those characters and synthesize them into one fast-moving, massive spectacle of an event movie, while retaining the humor, soul and smarts of each of the previous installments.

Which is where Joss Whedon came in.

Joss Whedon directing Mark Ruffalo

It’s no easy thing, to keep so many characters in the mix, giving each their moment(s) to shine, without losing any of them — this is especially true when the characters in question are iconic; are all (or have the potential to be) stars of their own movies & franchises. At least, it’s usually no easy thing in the movies. In TV, on the other hand, keeping multiple character arcs rolling and interweaving as you escalate stakes and understanding is simply business as usual. Todd VanDerWerff made this point in a brilliant piece for the Onion’s AV Club. He talked about how J.J. Abrams, another TV superstar-turned-movie-god, also had the same intuitive understanding as Whedon: focusing on the good guys and their interactions and emotional connections is a powerful foundation, especially in a huge movie. There are exceptions, of course, most notably Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which are dark and extraordinarily focused odes to isolation and loneliness (also, they’re works of utter genius). However, in the case of The Avengers, which is a high-energy, brightly-colored rock-n-roll universe, focusing on our heroes was a brilliant move on Whedon’s part.

Everyone got arcs and awesome moments (although Robert Downey Jr may have had a few more than most, knocking them all out of the park). Whedon found a way to humanize each of his heroes (most poignantly using “the cellist” and the trading cards to make us care about Agent Coulson), which drew us in all the more: such care is rarely taken in tentpole pictures, and even when care is taken, it’s rarely done with such skill and charm.

The script really is a force to be reckoned with; this is writing as superpower. It begins with a boom, then rides that momentum easily as it swoops from character to character, using one to segue to another, never losing pace as it builds up the cast; then it ratchets up the stakes, the conflict, the sheer size of everything — bringing the team together then breaking them down then finding a nuanced yet brutal emotional lever to launch the massive, rollicking final third of the movie.

This juggernaut of narrative pace is shot through with constant soul, emotion, and, most importantly of all, a relentless and brilliant sense of razor-sharp wit. This may just be the greatest comedy of the year, even as it lays an early claim to blockbuster movie of the year, and possibly even highest grossing movie ever made.

Whedon brought other great grace notes to his performance as writer & director, flourishes that made the performance even more his own: casting the iconic rebel Harry Dean Stanton as a janitor (to Hulk: “son, you have a condition”); using Lou Ferrigno as the voice of the Hulk; ending the movie with Soundgarden’s first song in fifteen years.

The Avengers in action

On so many levels, The Avengers is basically a glorious expression of everything I’ve ever loved about genre and pop culture. As a child, bringing together multiple characters was simply how I did it; that’s what toys were for. In my childhood games, it wasn’t unusual for Captain Kirk to join Spiderman, Superman and the Daleks for a face off against dinosaurs (f**k off, I’m copyrighting that, it’s mine!)… so the notion of superhero team events is basically wish-fulfillment on a massive scale: thank you, Mr. Whedon, for making this match-up so much more than the sum of its parts.

But that’s enough about Joss and the boys. Let’s talk about Scarlett.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in The Avengers

As the lone female, Scarlett Johansson had her work cut out. But she had Whedon on her side, one of the great feminists of pop culture, a true believer in the awesomeness and awesome power of women. Who better to make Black Widow unique and memorable, soulful and strong, kickass and funny? But having Johansson bringing Whedon’s words to life on the big screen was a truly special thing. She brought a stormy, sensual quality to the Black Widow/Natasha Romanov, playing her with a quiet strength interlaced with a hurt soulfulness, and a sharp intelligence, hidden like a knife, wielded with deadly precision and speed.

Yes, she kicked ass with the best of them, but her shivering, shaking vulnerability after just barely avoiding being killed by Hulk is just one example of what makes Natasha Romanov so human, and is one of the reasons this movie has so much heart and soul. Johansson gave the movie its warm yet broken & tortured soul. In the process, she made an airtight case for a standalone Black Widow movie.

I could keep going, but then the run time of this review would almost match the movie.

In conclusion, The Avengers was a majestic blend of humor, soulfulness, intelligence, mad thrills, and a visceral, always-building visual crescendo.

Iron Man

An extraordinary pop culture rush, in other words.

Final rating: five out of five quippy one liners.

Inception

Christopher Nolan’s Inception is many things: a great heist movie, a metaphysical thriller, a metaphor for life and creativity. As writers and artists, we exist in three worlds: the “real world”, the world of our consciousness, and the world of our creations. All those worlds are narrated to a certain extent. Narratives are overlaid by others or by us, and events are given meanings and connections.

We collectively impose stories upon the external world, whether in broadsheet newspapers, on TMZ, CNN or The Daily Show. We have to create reasons, causes and effects, to make sense of our surroundings. It starts when we’re infants and everything is a mystery. We have to tell ourselves stories about why this leads to that, so that we can simply survive. This process just gets more sophisticated as we get older.

Likewise with our consciousnesses. One theory states that our brains have an ‘interpreter function’ that adds motivations to our thoughts, which is how we attempt to understand our feelings, impulses and desires. When we wake from a dream, those seemingly random images and feelings usually have a narrative, which some dream scientists and philosophers believe is only added in the moment of waking. Think about it. You wake up to a loud noise: in your dream, a complex series of events led up to something that made that noise, and yet only a second went by between the noise and your waking up. Our brains are incredibly agile: as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character states in a key scene within Inception, we create and experience simultaneously in dreams. It’s the same when we’re awake. We want something; we want someone. Until you question it, the feeling drives you and your actions. When you do question it, you search for the why. Why do I want this person? You search for clues, for a chain of causes leading to this effect. You add your motivation to explain why you did what you did. The interpreter theory says that this motivation is a story we tell ourselves, nothing more. We could have told ourselves a different story, gone  a different way. We experience ourselves and create ourselves, and we don’t always notice the seams, the joins. When we are in therapy, discovering why we took the paths we did, are the connections we make real, or simply useful fictions?

The third level, for creative types, is the creative world. We go deep into the creative trance state, the dream-world, where we are simultaneously architects and forgers, extractors and thieves. We create worlds, people, psychologies and emotions: we get lost in them. The external world, our internal world, and the world of our creations bleed into each other; the levels mingle, realities collide. It’s no wonder that many creative individuals lead intense existences; we are navigating multiple realities, all the time.

With Inception, Christopher Nolan deftly skips between worlds, displaying a seemingly effortless control and the lightest of touches (which is also a fantastic testament to and argument for the power of multiple script drafts). It’s an intense, thrilling experience, partly due to the story, and partly because such accomplished, bravura, show-stopping creativity is exhilarating to watch. We rarely see that in cinema anymore; but we do it ourselves, all the time, every day. We’re all creative geniuses; that’s what being human is.