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Watchmen

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Only four episodes into the first season, HBO’s Watchmen series could very well be the best comic book adaptation of 2019… that’s saying a lot in a year that’s given us The Boys, Avengers: Endgame, Joker and Preacher.

This isn’t a traditional sequel or spin-off, yet it feels closer to the source material than Zack Snyder’s almost-honourable 2009 feature, which basically recreated Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ beloved graphic novel panel-by-panel. What Snyder made up for in visual styling, he lost with some of the bigger ideas that hit home previously.

Watchmen (the series) is helmed by Damon Lindelof, the brilliant/frustrating mind behind Lost, which makes sense with the many disconnected events that occur within the first episode alone. Thankfully, as with The Leftovers, the grand design here seems much more intentional, so viewers are encouraged to take the leap of faith that it’ll all make sense eventually.

Much like Amazon Prime’s The Boys, the casting is what differentiates this from your average silver-screen adaptation. Regina King remains one of the most exciting faces in Hollywood; believably coordinated and violent as the masked vigilante Sister Night, but equally protective and vulnerable as a loving wife/mother.

The supporting cast is bang-on too, from Don Johnson’s smirking police chief to Tim Blake Nelson as the genius redneck known as Looking Glass, and most importantly, the aptly-buff Jeremy Irons in a role that’s hard to describe (even though the producers let slip who he’ll be playing prior to release).

While on the topic of source-related Easter Eggs, the always-magnetic Jean Smart pops up in the third episode as FBI agent and vigilante hunter Laurie Blake – who fans of the comic may know as an ex-vigilante herself, Silk Spectre. Laurie was one of the major players in the original comics, most notably for her love triangle between Dr. Manhattan and Night Owl, so comic fans will salivate knowing she’s playing such a pivotal role once again.

Production-wise this is exceptionally structured & shot. Close to the source, it cuts seamlessly from past to present, with gimmicky interludes of fictional shows that make clear parallels with the current environment, and climactic episodes that will have viewers anticipating each weekly release.

Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross expertly tackle the score, using a diverse mix of trappy bass and old-school soul to full effect, with clear influences from Fight Club to Twin Peaks. Fans will be able to get their hands on three different vinyl releases, with volume 1 available November 4.

Needless to say, whether you know everything or nothing about the original comic or previous film adaptation, this is quality television that deserves patience and multiple viewings. Hopefully it might even inspire a few people to go back and read the comic – there’s a reason it’s the only graphic novel on Time Magazine’s Top 100 Books.

Who will watch the Watchmen? You, that’s who.

Episode 5 will air Monday 19th November 2019 on Foxtel.

 
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Joker

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The superhero genre, while often entertaining and crowd-pleasing, can feel a little unambitious at times. Even hardcore fans will likely agree that once a formula is set, it’s adhered to, with very little room for inspiration or subversion. However, every now and then a superhero flick comes along with a little more on its mind. Notable examples include The Dark Knight (2008) and Logan (2017), and now we can add Joker to that list, although not without a couple of qualifications.

Joker tells the tragic tale of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a spindly, twitchy loner who lives with his sick mum, Penny (Frances Conroy) and is attempting to break into the world of standup comedy. Naturally nothing much goes according to plan for Arthur, and the film traces a dark downward spiral showcasing how an ordinary, unassuming man eventually becomes the Crown Prince of Crime aka The Joker.

To be clear, Joker is an origin story only in the broadest terms. Director Todd Phillips has already gone on record telling media outlets that this incarnation of the iconic baddie is a one-off and we’ll never see them battling Batman while attempting to poison Gotham’s water supply. Consequently, the script is much more focused on the slowburn breakdown of an unfortunate who has fallen through the cracks and seeks solace in delusion. Honestly, the script, co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver, is a tad blunt which might be more of a problem if not for the film’s clear selling point: Joaquin Phoenix’s stunning turn in the titular role.

To say Joaquin nails the role is an outrageous understatement, because he delivers a pitch perfect turn, at times vulnerable, manic, tortured and afraid, his body twisting and contorting in a bony dance that’s all elbows, bruised skin and teeth. The sheer sense of discomfort and unease that Phoenix manages to convey, particularly in a relatively mainstream comic book movie, is staggering. Every second he’s on screen is fascinating to watch, so much so that you’ll likely forgive the occasionally by-the-numbers nature of the script.

Todd Phillips’ direction is slick and effective, with numerous visual references and homages to the early works of Scorcese, in particular Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), the latter of which is further reinforced by the casting of Robert De Niro as talk show host Murray Franklin. Gotham, also, looks and sounds like New York during the garbage strike of the 1970s, lending the piece a grimy, abandoned feel, seething with vermin and potential violence.

On the downside, Joker does pull some of its punches. Sure, it may reference Taxi Driver, but ultimately this is a property from DC Films and Warner Bros, so if you’re expecting something truly transgressive, you’ve come to the wrong place. And hey, if you want Taxi Driver, go watch Taxi Driver! It’s a great flick and you can probably pick it up for under a tenner these days.

Joker works within the rigid framework of a superhero (or in this case supervillain) movie, because while it may not push the boundaries of cinema in general, it certainly widens the barriers inherent to this specific genre. Paired with a performance that should have the Academy hurling handfuls of Oscars at Joaquin like mad bastards, Joker delivers one of the more haunting and unique comic book movie experiences in years.

 
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Avengers: Endgame

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When the credits roll on the just-over-three-hours Avengers: Endgame, one can’t help but be struck by what a staggering achievement this film represents. This is the 22nd (!) Marvel movie in eleven years, and yet somehow Endgame delivers a satisfying, emotional and unexpectedly thoughtful conclusion to a series of films that began in 2008 with an unlikely little flick about a comic book character no one particularly cared about, Iron Man. We say “conclusion” because even though the Marvel films continue – hell, Spider-Man: Far from Home drops in just a few months – the events of Endgame fundamentally change the Marvel Cinematic Universe in profound ways.

The story of Avengers: Endgame picks up after the bleak, soul-crushing ending of Avengers: Infinity War. You know, when Thanos (Josh Brolin) clicked his fingers and disintegrated 50% of life in the universe, including many of our favourite Marvel characters. Well, as you can imagine, everyone’s pretty gutted about the whole affair, particularly Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) ie: the original Avengers lineup from 2012. Naturally Earth’s mightiest heroes aren’t going to take their most recent staggering defeat lying down, but how do you solve a problem like Thanos?

After the seemingly endless battle scenes of Infinity War, Endgame spends much of its runtime on more personal journeys. Don’t get us wrong, there’s a shitload of brightly-coloured superheroes bashing the crap out of baddies, but it’s more focused and intimate, somehow. The stakes here are universe-saving, yes, but the way they’re expressed feels more nuanced, with genuine moments of honest pathos. This is a celebration of what has occurred thus far in the MCU, and a love letter to the fans, but also a farewell, and those are always bittersweet.

Performance wise everyone’s at the top of their game, with Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans delivering particularly strong performances. Jeremy Renner is finally given something to do, with a surprising arc, and Chris Hemsworth showcases a slightly more comedic side to Thor, continuing the fine work from Thor: Ragnarok. The only dud note is Mark Ruffalo who does what he can with a rather muddled subplot that doesn’t seem to go anywhere, which is a pity because his Hulk has always been a series highlight.

Avengers: Endgame is epic in the truest sense of the word, spanning across space and time, both in story and reality. This movie is three hours long, and though it never really slackens the pace it may test the bladders and patience of those who are still bemused by the staggering success of the MCU. But then, if you’re in that rather joyless demographic, Endgame was never going to be the film for you. This is a delicious platter of delights designed specifically for the fans, that only very occasionally begins to feel like fan service.

Ultimately, Avengers: Endgame manages to run the gamut of emotions, from existential dread to giddy joy, offering a messy but utterly compelling denouement to a fascinating, and successful, experiment in longform cinematic storytelling. It’s bold, gutsy and profoundly moving and if you find yourself ugly crying through the final 30 minutes, know that you’re not alone.

 
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Hellboy

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In 1993 a talented comic book artist/writer named Mike Mignola debuted the now iconic character of Hellboy, a demonic bloke who loves pancakes, cigars and punching the shit out of evil. Just over a decade later, in 2004, a talented writer/director named Guillermo del Toro released a cinematic adaptation, Hellboy starring Ron Perlman, that while taking some liberties with the source material and adding an unnecessary romance, brimmed with whimsy and imagination. Said film got a sequel in 2008, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which performed adequately but not spectacularly at the box office and, for a time, the embers of the Hellboy franchise cooled.

Fade in to 2019 and another talented director by the name of Neil Marshall, the chap who brought us the excellent Dog Soldiers (2002) and all-time genre classic The Descent (2005), has rebooted big red in a brand new adventure. And the result? Ehhh it’s a bit of a mess, hey.

Hellboy (2019) focuses on Hellboy (David Harbour this time around) on a quest to defeat an evil witch, Nimue (Milla Jovovich) who is gathering an army of monsters and ready to unleash a plague across England and then the world. It’s a fun premise, with a lot of eye-catching creature effects and gore, but there’s just something missing in this adaptation. Ian McShane, one of the world’s most charming actors, is horribly miscast as Hellboy’s adoptive father, Trevor Bruttenholm, and the new BRPD team members, Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) are only sporadically interesting. Most disappointing is Hellboy himself, however, who has gone from being an optimistic dreamer and charming smart arse to a whiny, self-loathing dickhead who spouts unfunny zingers every ten seconds. It doesn’t help that David Harbour’s wonderfully expressive face is covered in layers of stiff makeup effects, so he looks for all the world like a frowning botox tragedy; but it’s hard to imagine what Neil Marshall was going for here with this singularly unappealing performance.

The thing is, lower budget remakes of large comic book properties can actually be a good thing. Despite its relatively poor showing at the box office, 2012’s Dredd reboot is remembered much more fondly than 1995’s Sylvester Stallone-starring stinker, Judge Dredd. Same goes for 2008’s Lexi Alexander-directed Punisher: War Zone, which was arguably the best take on the material until Netflix took that crown. However, this Hellboy seems intent on avoiding everything that makes the character likable, unique or interesting.

On the slender plus side, some of the creatures look pretty cool and the gore is… kinda fun? A couple of the sequences in the third act are so batshit crazy in their viscera-splattered invention, you can’t help but chuckle.

Sadly, however, a few good gore gags and a monster or two can’t disguise the dearth of imagination on display here, and the whole effort feels like an unfortunate misfire. While not without occasional goofy charm this version of “diablo muchacho” should have probably spent more time in (development) hell.