Bojack Horseman S5, American Vandal S2

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It’s a great, nay, a tremendous pleasure to report that Netflix has dropped new seasons of Bojack Horseman and American Vandal and both live up to extremely high standards previously set. With Bojack, this isn’t unexpected; it’s already racked up four consistently excellent seasons. If you’re not familiar with idiosyncratic creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s surreal animated fantasia, it’s about a Hollywood television actor who was huge in the 90s on his own sitcom and now floats around, buffeted and comforted by plenty of money, booze and friends but troubled by a million doubts, fears, anxieties and, at least in seasons past, honest-to-goodness depression. It’s extremely funny, beautifully drawn and animated, perfectly acted (Will Arnett plays Horseman) and a sharp LA satire, but where it really kicks goals is in its ambitious tonal reach: it’s not afraid to play melancholic notes, nor reach for true pathos and occasional tragedy. Frankly, it got a bit too depressing for me at times last season, but this season there’s more fun and zip in the air, buoyed by Bojack’s new lease on life: he’s drinking a little less, taking care of himself a bit more, and has a new starring role on a “prestige” show that may just put him back in the game in a major way. By the way, Bojack is half man, half horse or something like that; the technicalities don’t matter, as the entire universe of the show is populated by humans, animals, and a million variations in between. You can dive right in, but if you have the time, definitely start from Season One.

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American Vandal potentially faced less chance of repeat success, essentially because Season One was such a self-contained, satisfying jewel. It was a perfect satire of the new style of binge-worthy prestige true-crime shows such as Making a Murderer, The Keepers and The Staircase, with a healthy whack at the podcast Serial as well. It mimicked the style and tone of the opening credits, the theme music, the camera angles, the blend of archival, interview and new footage (including the obligatory drone-overs), the pacing, the drip of information, everything. But then, in a coup de TV, it also provided a compelling story that made you want to find out who did it; the characters were superbly drawn, the mystery deep, the plotting intricate. And all stemming from a base crime – the drawing of a bunch of penises on a lot-full of parked cars at a high school.

Season Two had the potential to be totally irrelevant, and the first ten or so minutes of the first episode were ominous. The setting had switched to a private high school, but the crime remained base, this time involving a lot of poo. Not to worry. Just like the first season, this story very quickly starts multiplying, branching, expanding and soon becomes massive, engrossing and very, very addictive. It even, extremely cleverly and rather subtly, starts to engage with current American politics. The gimmick still works, but the suburb storytelling is what will grab you and glue you, once you get past all the poo.

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A Simple Favour

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Female gazing.

* * * (out of five)

Anna Kendrick commits with all she’s got to a perfect role for Anna Kendrick, now that Anna Kendrick is old enough to play a “mom”, in Paul Feig’s incredibly sunny, bright and colourful A Simple Favour, which gender-riffs on Double Indemnity but with naught but the brightest blue skies. This is neo-noir with chardonnay on bright Tuesday afternoons, James M. Cain crossed with Marian Keyes.

Blake Lively plays Barbara Stanwyck to Kendrick’s Fred MacMurray, and while the metaphor doesn’t reflect the plot, it certainly applies to the awe with which Kendrick’s Stephanie gazes on Lively’s Emily, a daytime-tuxedoed PR firefighter who works in the city – the main action takes place in Connecticut – for one of the world’s great designers. Everything about Emily makes Stephanie look commonplace, and Lively, whose delivery is preternaturally naturalistic, makes Kendrick – who, lest we forget, has played Cinderella in Into The Woods and at the Oscars – look like a strangely-featured, cartoonish imp. Only the insanely beautiful can make the incredibly beautiful look close to ordinary.

Kendrick’s all-in acting style and Lively’s laid-back naturalism could clash, but instead they blend beautifully – these are meant to be wildly different people, even though they’re living in the same one percent – and the first act scenes of the two of them together are the best in the film by a Connecticut mile. Sadly, the second act is haphazard and draggy, and the climax is clunky and unsatisfying. The newly minted hunk of Hollywood, Henry Golding, so terrible in Crazy Rich Asians, is once again terrible here. This guy is gorgeous and supremely well spoken; he really should take two years out to go to a fine acting training program (any would have him) and re-emerge with some chops. He can’t go on as he’s going on, because at the moment, there ain’t nothing going on.

In the end, Kendrick, Lively, Feig’s direction, and the sunny Connecticut exteriors and stunning tasteful rich interiors are diverting enough and perhaps worth a matinee ticket. But the script only has a single good act, and after about the forty minute mark, diminishes with every scene. This is the kind of idea the Coen Brothers make small masterpieces out of, but they would have put this script down at page thirty-seven and never picked it up again.

Recent TV: BAD BANKS and STORIES FROM NORWAY: THE MUSICAL

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You’ve never seen anything exactly like Stories from Norway: The Musical! Chances may well be you’ve never seen anything remotely like it either, although if you’ve seen Flight of the Conchords – and you should! – you’ve close kind of close. Norwegian brothers Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker take actual stories from Norway’s recent past, such as the building of a local council diving board that resulted in an extraordinary cost blow-out, or the time Justin Bieber short-changed a small audience of incredibly passionate Norwegian fans at a concert, and dramatise them as full-on mini-musicals. I kid you not. They shoot the episodes – averaging 21 minutes – in English, consisting of interviews with real people involved in the real events and elaborately staged recreations, sung-through with original songs. The whole package is extremely funny and rather jaw-droppingly clever. Recommended unreservedly; truly entertaining and surprisingly informative.

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Bad Banks is less original – it’s a fast-paced financial Euro-thriller, so it follows that money by following, among others, Follow The Money but it’s no less entertaining, its thrills achieved chiefly through sheer pace of storytelling. This show burns through plot like Donald Trump burns through staff. Some of it is ludicrous, but that’s part of the ride. We’ve had plenty of financial malfeasance thrillers; this one differentiates itself by adding psychological disturbance to the mix, not as plot development but as character starting line. Banking doesn’t make these people corrupt, broken, maladjusted and amoral, the show seems to be saying; it’s such people who want to be bankers. All the characters, save for our heroine, played by the stoic but subtly subversive Paula Beer, are over-the-top banking maniacs and they’re all a whole lot of fun. Plus, it’s set and shot in Luxembourg, Frankfurt am Main, and Berlin. What more do you want?

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In Australia both series are available for free on SBS On Demand.

Searching

* * * (out of five)

Ex-Google employee Aneesh Chaganty’s debut feature Searching follows in the footsteps of 2014’s Unfriended (and its recent sequel) by being set entirely on a computer screen – in the various windows, applications, browsers and sometimes simply on the desktop space. In these films, the form is absolutely as important as the content – does the story actually get told without breaking the self-imposed obstruction? – and the hesitation of a mouse-click can tell as much as an actor’s pause.

Unfriended was a straight-up horror film, setting itself further obstructions by taking place in real time and mainly within a five-person Skype video chat. I wrote of it at the time that it was “a deeply intricate, beautifully constructed and very creepy horror film that is its own brand of wildly original.” Chaganty’s film aims for higher artistic ground; Searching is a thriller, not a horror film, and – by concerning a widowed father looking for a lost daughter – it strives for some deep emotional resonance as well.

The good news is that the form holds, and holds well. The story is very effectively told within the gimmick, albeit with a few cheats, I thought, when it used “news footage” that happened to be being watched on a computer screen. All manner of apps are utilized – many with their real names and interfaces, which is interesting, and possibly a payola bonanza all around – and do what they do in the real world, which is to say, on your own desktop or laptop. The plot pans out over a number of days, and Chaganty is inventive here, using a pretty standard screensaver as an ominous portent while also setting up the convention of the passage of time.

Unfortunately, the mystery story, while clean and tidy, is not particularly clever, and I seriously doubt would stand up to a “straight” telling without a few more twists, turns and reversals. If the gimmick doesn’t hold you, I’m not sure the script will, but in tandem, they add up to something solid and clever without re-setting the bar. Unfriended still holds the belt.

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

You Were Never Really Here

* * *

Lynne Ramsay takes her time to make her dark features. Ratcatcher was 1999, Morvern Callar 2002, We Need to Talk About Kevin 2011, and now You Were Never Really Here. She keeps them moody, creepy and full of dramatic elision: there’s a whole story there, but that doesn’t mean you get to see all of it. You get what you get and you need to fill in the blanks.

Her latest, which evokes violent exploitation flicks such as Ms. 45, Death Wish, The Brave One and Drive, but also decidedly wearing art-house bona fides, offers plenty in the way of structured ambiguity, so much so that I’m afraid its most appealing as a deconstruction of Ramsay’s own authorial voice; if you’re really into a filmmaker trying things out (I am but your mileage my vary) then this may be your sort of thing. 

Joaquin Phoenix, wearing his Jesus hair and beard from Mary Magdalene, which he shot back-to-back with this one, is typically hefty, magnetic and troubled as Joe, a violent New York fixer who rescues kids from nasty men. He’s full of trauma, and his backstory – which accounts for his profession, both in skill-set and psychology – accounts for the prime set of narrative mysteries, although his current assignment is no picnic for the plot-picker either. This is all highly deliberate, for Joe’s brain is sliced, skewered and burned, and he’s not necessarily sure what’s going on either.

I enjoyed myself because of Phoenix, exceptional cinematography (Tom Townend), superb music by Jonny Greenwood, and Ramsay’s undeniable style. The story itself is nothing special or new, and I don’t think it really has anything to say. At eighty-nine minutes, it’s a fair use of your time. Ten minutes more, it may have been an unacceptable indulgence.

Prefer a video discussion of YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE? WATCH THIS!

Crazy Rich Asians

* * 1/2

Crazy Rich Asians is currently occupying an important cultural moment, particularly in the US, which gets far less Asian cinema released theatrically than Australia, and places far fewer Asian faces on screens in general. Americans of Asian descent are finding the movie to be a turning point in representational terms, an emotionally powerful one for many, and that’s obviously a very good thing. The film may be worth your while on those terms.

As a work of narrative cinema, it was not for me, but in general RomComs lie toward the bottom of my preferences, and if I should recuse myself or abstain from the critical vote, consider that done and stop reading if your hopes for the film center around its existence and cultural impact rather than its cinematic qualities, which are few. It is often painful to watch. The expository dialogue is frequently cringe-inducing, the desperately flamboyant and posey overacting more so (with the exception of Michelle Yeoh, the grand dame of the large ensemble, setting a more grounded example the young ones refuse to follow); luckily, the art direction has some colourful flair, and the setting – Singapore – is rare enough in theatrically-released films to feel unique (while also feeling like an expensive commercial for the city-state, especially during the “street-food” scene, which may as well be stamped with the Singaporean flag and a link to airfares and hotel rates).

Worst, though, is the relentless wealth porn. This film revels in piles of old money and it feels really icky. Our protagonist, Rachel (Constance Wu), a Chinese American in New York, gazes at her still somewhat mysterious, English-accented Singaporean boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) with fondness, even love, but once she sees the house he grew up in in Singapore – on land worth two hundred million dollars, according to her old university friend – she looks at him with overwhelming desire, and then sets out to “earn” him with an expensive frock. Despite clunky lines and scenes intended to deny it (barely), the film can’t hide its true belief: crazy rich people have their own problems, but there’s still nothing better than being crazy rich. This is a Cinderella story. My partner and I recently and very deliberately removed Cinderella from our daughter’s video library. Crazy Rich Asians is culturally significant, but it’s still about a girl falling in love with the prince and having to prove she’s worthy of the slipper.

The Insult

* * 1/2

Zine Doueiri’s The Insult arrives in Australia a big deal, loaded down with awards, nominations, plaudits and (relatively) boffo box office in other markets. It was nominated this year for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award (a first for Lebanon), it won the Audience Award for narrative feature at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, and one of its two lead actors, Kamel El Basha, won the Best Actor award at Venice. It’s nominated for nine Lebanese Movie Awards but, I daresay, given its agenda (more on that below), is unlikely to sweep the field.

It’s easy to see why the film has done so well, particularly outside of Lebanon. It runs with precise engineering, offering the viewer an almost exhausting roller coaster ride of conflicting emotions. It is designed to make your blood run hot and cold, and it does. It is also fatally hindered by some egregious errors of judgement or polemical politics, depending on how personally you take Douheiri’s stake in his own script.

Tony (Adel Karam) is a Lebanese Christian, member of a vocal right-wing, nationalistic, anti-immigration Christian Party, and mechanic living in Beirut. One day he trades some bad civil behaviour with a contractor doing work on his street, Yasser (El Basha), who happens to be a Palestinian refugee. Things escalate, get out of hand, and end up not only in the courtroom, but all over the media, and, in some quarters, with violence.

Tony and Yasser obviously, deliberately and unapologetically represent opposing sides in the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990, and, as a blatant metaphor for the dumb ways ideological conflicts can rise out of misplaced pride, vanity and, especially in the Middle East, “machismo”, the film works smoothly and effectively. If only men weren’t so damn stubborn, so much suffering could be avoided! It’s also a very clean plot mechanism to keep us thoroughly engaged: by the nature of the men’s increasing insults (in every sense of the word), the film naturally keeps raising the stakes almost on a scene-by-scene basis. Conflict is drama; conflict with high stakes is better drama; legal conflict with national implications, therefore, must be great drama.

Except – and it’s a big exception – Tony is such a deeply unlikeable protagonist that the film is hard to stomach. The party whose leader’s inflammatory speeches pepper the film through Tony’s televisions are full of hateful rhetoric, and Tony is a hateful guy; he’s racist, a nationalist, a bigot. I gave up on him long before the film did, and when, in its closing act, it introduced a massive, dramatically over-bearing rationale for his behaviour, it not only lost me completely but angered me to boot. Tony’s lawyer, and, by extension, Doueiri, seems to be claiming that bigotry is justified by past trauma, which is not a message I can get behind, let alone in the current climate. Palestinians are upset by this film, and it’s easy to see why. Yasser is depicted as a noble character, but the film is really on Tony’s side. Sympathy for the devil, indeed.

Recent Television

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On Showcase (Foxtel), HBO’s Sharp Objects has one episode to go of its eight episodes, and I highly recommend catching up on the first seven, which are in rotation or available on demand. If it feels very much like the unholy child of Gone Girl and Big Little Lies, that’s because that’s precisely what it is. Novelist Gillian Flynn wrote Gone Girl and Sharp Objects (and is one of the primary screenwriters on the series) and Jean-Marc Vallée directed all eight episodes, as he directed all six episodes of Big Little Lies. It is perhaps this intense directorial authorship – very few series are entirely directed by a single person – that is most distinctive about Sharp Objects, and Vallée’s style will be recognisable from Big Little Lies. Again, he uses many short, sharp flash-backs, many of which are deliberately opaque, mysterious and occasionally creepy; however, he never leaves the current timeline’s aural environment (in other words, only flashbacks visually) and the resulting, disorienting sensation has become a signature of his style. Likewise, he continues in only utilising natural lighting, multiple (steady) hand-held cameras, existing locations and long takes to achieve a strong sense of grounded realism and, vitally, place. Just as Big Little Lies was so much abou that coastal community, Sharp Objects lives, breaths and sweats in its highly specific (though fictional) small Missouri town.

Amy Adams plays Camille, a reporter sent from the big smoke – the St. Louis Dispatch – back to her hometown of Wind Gap to report on the murder of two pre-teen girls. This doesn’t do her serious alcohol problem any favours, given that her mother, the town’s presiding landed gentry matriarchal figure (based on hog-farming old money), played by Patricia Clarkson, is domineering, manipulative, cold, untrustworthy and potentially evil. There are a raft of suitably baroque, “southern Gothic” characters including a genteel lush played by Elizabeth Perkins, the family members of both girls, two cops – one local, one from the big city – and, most importantly, Camille’s teenage step sister Amma, played with extraordinary lucidity by Australian Eliza Scanlen.

The mystery is good – I’m very eager to find out who done it next week! – but the tone, sense of mood and general style is even better. None of these characters are the kind of people you should have in your house but they’re all fascinating. Amy Adams is doing career-best work with a very troubled character; watch her and Clarkson win a lot of Awards when the time comes. For me, this is superior to Big Little Lies and Gone Girl the book, matched only by David Fincher’s film adaptation of the latter. It’s evocative and enthralling, suspenseful and sumptuous. Catch up on it before the big reveal next week!

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On September 30th, The Simpsons will begin airing its thirtieth season. This means that all those bright young things around you with thumbs that can text fifty words a minute, who have only ever known a world of Google, online dating and smartphones, have also never lived in a non-Simpsons world. And in all likelihood they live in a world that doesn’t appreciate the seismic impact The Simpsons had on popular culture, politics, the world.

Oh well. Seismic influence never lasts. Matt Groening’s next animated show, Futurama (1999-2013) didn’t change the world, and nor will Disenchantment, his first since then. Which is not to say it’s not a load of fun. Set in a medieval world that includes elves, demons and, well, whatever Groening wants, it follows a dissatisfied and often drunk Princess (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) dealing with her dad the king, palace intrigue, and the like.

The animation is cute and retro, the music is superb, and I laughed at least twice in the pilot. Above all, this feels like Groening, particularly the gags that deconstruct conventions, tropes and motifs, so it’s got a warm and fuzzy vibe for those of us who are old enough to remember The Simpsons knocking our socks off. For anyone else, it’s entirely possible it’ll feel old hat. You can’t completely revolutionize comedy twice.

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Meanwhile, New Zealand pop-cultural commentator David Farrier leverages his suburb documentary Tickled into the Netflix original travel show Dark Tourist, which sees him partaking of ‘dark tourism’ around the globe. Thus, in ep 1, he takes part in a paid tour Mexican tour that simulates illegally crossing the border into the US; in ep 2 he heads off on a jolly tour bus into the radioactive wasteland of Fukushima. Each ep he’s in a new country and presents four ‘tours’; based on the first two eps, the tours are indeed fascinating, but the direction of the series is unfocused; Farrier’s persona is very fuzzy, he seems uncomfortable with how to present himself (is he cynical? humorous? thoughtful?) and the biggest question of all – why anyone would pay to do these things – goes unanswered. Both Farrier, and the tours, need more context.