Destroyer, Sometimes Always Never, The Family

Around the time The Family, from writer/director Rosie Jones, was released as a theatrical feature, it won the Film Critics Circle of Australia Best Feature Documentary Award. Now re-titled The Cult Of The Family, it’s being shown on the ABC (and available on ABC iView) as a three part documentary series. It’s the disturbing story of the creepy cult, known as The Family, lead by Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The children within the cult – some illegally adopted – notoriously wore identical, freakishly blonde bobs, making them resemble the children from Village of the Damned. Jones interviews many of those children who are now scarred adults, as well as the chief investigator who essentially spent his career trying to bring Hamilton-Byrne to justice. Although the film relies too much on an uninspired score and unconvincing re-creations, the essential story, and the interviews, are urgent, essential records of an astonishingly awful Australian story.

Bill Nighy plays a Scrabble-obsessed father of two boys, searching, up and down the English coast, for one of them, who walked out on a Scrabble game years ago and never returned. If that’s not intriguing enough for you, how about the fact that director Carl Hunter, making his feature debut, shoots Sometimes Always Never in the style of Aki Kaurismaki, with nods to Wes Anderson? The result is extremely stylized, melancholy and rippled with extremely dry humour (don’t believe the quote on the poster proclaiming it “Hilarious!”); play “WHIMSICAL” for twenty points. * * *

Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who previously wrote The Invitation for Kusama to direct, is gritty, uncompromising and vibrant. It is refreshingly specific in its intent, being to follow in the footsteps of such blue-sky LA noir as To Live And Die In LA, Heat and Point Break – films that are essentially downbeat, nihilistic and grim. Common tropes include the LA River; bank heists; machine guns; charismatic, almost supernaturally influential male gang leaders; and very damaged (anti)heroes. Destroyer has all that, plus Nicole Kidman doing her usual top-notch work. It’s all very stylish, very deliberate, very purposeful, and very enjoyable, if you like this kind of thing. I do and I did. * * * *

New TV: FIVE New Shows!

Just when you thought he’d retired to Spain, Ricky Gervais is back, with a very British half-hour comedy fully paid for by Netflix. This has given him absolute creative freedom and total autonomy; this may not be the best thing in the world. His masterpieces, The Office and Extras, were created with Stephan Merchant. Left to his own devices – and I’m talking full solo album here, writing, directing and starring in each of the six episodes – he’s still wicked and at times wickedly funny, but prone to meandering, self-indulgence, repetition and a misguided love of soulful guitar.

After Life (Netflix) is Gervais’ take on grief. His character, Tony, has lost his wife – the only woman he’s ever been with, or ever needed to know – to cancer. Now he’s in his late forties in a small English village, working for the very local paper as a features writer, and utterly, suicidally miserable. The two things keeping him alive are his dog, and his newfound freedom to be as rude as he wants to people, knowing that if and when too much offence is finally taken he can simply, happily top himself.

It’s by design a miserable set-up and unfortunately the series is out of balance, focusing too much on the maudlin at the expense of the funny. There is very little forward momentum and a few basic situations – Tony’s boss (and brother-in-law) expressing frustration at Tony’s malaise, Tony watching his deceased beloved on his computer, Tony walking his dog through sunny British countryside to a soundtrack of truly dreadful soulful guitar – are simply repeated and repeated again. Like Tony himself, it’s a show at a dead end, with no impulse to forge ahead.

That said, when there are jokes, they’re great; Gervais is superb in his role; and the milieu is surprisingly enchanting. Whether or not this type of English idyll still survives with a working newsroom of at least six employees, it’s a pleasant place to hang, even with god-awful, grumpy Tony sitting in the middle of it.

Similarly, the best thing going for Turn Up Charlie (also Netflix) is the lead performance at its centre, that of Idris Elba, who also “created” the show but is not actually a credited writer nor director. He must have come up with the concept, and the concept is not good. Elba plays a past-his-prime London DJ who gets hired to be the nanny for his rich and famous friend’s little girl. So it’s big Idris and a precocious little girl getting to know each other, which, for many scenes, is precisely the hell it sounds.

Elba is such a strong, charismatic and talented actor that you need awesome performers to support him; he does not have them here. Most damningly, Frankie Hervey, as the little girl, isn’t up to the gig, looking like she’s remembering her lines and gestures rather than delivering them. This is her very first acting job, and boy, does it show. This is enough to sink the show right there, but unfortunately her mother is played by (second-billed) Piper Perabo who’s no good either.

Elba does his best – he’s always watchable – and London looks cool. But it’s embarrassing to watch this spectacular actor surrounded by amateurs in such a mummified premise. A true candidate for a “What were they thinking?” award. Watch the punters prove me wrong and this thing be a huge hit. That’s obviously what it’s going for, because high art this ain’t.

Nor, unfortunately, is Miracle Workers (Stan), although it’s certainly high concept. It’s damning with faint praise, I suppose, to say that the best thing about it is the casual diversity of its cast. All comers are represented (particularly actors from South Asia) and their background is not a story factor. This is good. This is woke.

But the show itself is absolutely mired in old-school sitcom tropes, the worst offender by far being “sitcom acting”. Most performers in this show are swinging for the back row in every single shot, let alone scene. It’s tiring to watch. The worst offender is the female lead, Geraldine Viswanathan. She plays Eliza, a worker bee in Heaven assigned to duty alongside Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) in the division that answers prayers. So far, so twee; at least God (Steve Buscemi) is kind of a bum, swilling beer and wasting time when he could be tending his work, and in particular, Earth.

The gags come fast but few stick. Despite the obvious charms of Buscemi and Radcliffe, I found the show hard to stomach. There’s just too much mugging.

It’s not so much over-acting as terrible acting that plagues Now Apocalypse, also on Stan. Greg Araki, the bad boy of the New Queer Cinema movement (The Living End, The Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin), jumps into the streaming fray with a show so monumentally amateurish that I’m frankly surprised it’s been put to air. The meandering plot involves a young LA man whose recurring dream of something nasty happening in a laneway reveals itself, at the end of the pilot, to be premonitions of a rapist alien beast, but the show’s true intent seems to be to parody young ‘uns and this tech, particularly dating apps and webcam sites. A, yawn, and B, satire needs to be witty. This is turgid. The actors are really good looking and routinely shot undressed and / or having graphic sex; one can’t help but feel Araki perving on the other end of the lens.

Slightly better, and certainly better crafted, sci-fi and satire are available in chunks ranging from six to seventeen minutes on Netflix’s Love Death + Robots, an animated anthology of eighteen self-contained sci-fi tales. The animation varies from modern video-game photo-realism to traditional 2D, and the quality from yawn to all right. There’s nothing brilliant here, but plenty to divert you over your cereal. Kids, hard-core sci-fi nerds and animation aficionados will almost certainly have more eager reactions.

Leaving Neverland

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* * * * * (out of five)

Already a cultural disruptor, Dan Reed’s four hour documentary Leaving Neverland will come to be regarded as a milestone in films about child sexual abuse. I’ve certainly never seen a clearer deconstruction of the methodology of the serial groomer. If you’ve ever wondered to yourself, “how did they get away with it?” (until they didn’t) – how did Jerry Sandusky get away with it, how did Larry Nassar get away with it, how did Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris and Ronald Brown and George Ormond and Barry Bennell and Ian Watkins get away with it? – it’s all here. The seduction of both victim and victim’s family; the (mis)use of trust, power, position and wealth; the training to lie; the gradual distancing of the victim and their family; the declarations of love; the incremental escalation of physical contact; the measured introduction of alcohol and pornography – it’s all here.

A lot of people will be helped by this superbly crafted, strikingly important film. Survivors will feel compassion, empathy and perhaps some level of catharsis. There may be parents who will immediately question their child’s relationship to a particular adult in their lives, or, indeed, immediately realise that their child is currently being groomed, which could lead to that child being saved. That is the power of this already widely-viewed documentary: it will save people.

Constructed entirely around interviews with two survivors, their families and staggering amounts of, at times, jaw-dropping corroborating material, the film is reservedly, unsensationally laid out. The revelations are of course upsetting, and the nature of the crimes is spoken precisely (which is to say, graphically), but that is the nature of this sad criminality. Reed’s careful and methodical style allow us not simply to learn (and learn to recognise) the pedophile’s methodology, but to begin to understand the staggering complexity of the relationship of perpetrator to victim. As one of the victims says of Michael Jackson, he was “my dad, my lover, and my mentor.”

Everybody Knows

* * * * (out of five)

I’ve come to realise that A Separation (2011), Asghar Farhadi’s fifth feature film as writer / director, is one of my favourite movies, top five, ever. I think about it all the time; I show it to students whenever possible; it sparks joy in me to remember scenes from it, moments, ideas. It helped me realise my sweet-spot as a viewer: intelligent dramatic character films that skirt the edge of being thrillers. Indeed, for me at least, Farhadi created a sub-genre, what I call (if just to myself) the “social thriller”. Lives don’t need to be threatened, and there needn’t be villains per se, but tension runs high, with the metaphorical bomb beneath the desk actually being social norms and customs, bending and breaking along with the patience of the characters. A Separation remains a perfect, pure example of this type of cinema; everyone is in great conflict with everyone else, yet no-one is really right or wrong. The stakes are impeccably high but the situations reflect, at most, a heightened realism.

As Farhadi’s clout has risen, along with his ambitions and resources, he’s ever-so-subtly upped the genre alignment of his scripts. The Past (2013) and The Salesman (2016) were still about people before plot, character before crisis, but they toyed with tropes absolutely absent from A Separation or, say, About Elly. Now, with Everybody Knows, Farhadi for the first time delivers a film whose log-line could fool the uninitiated into thinking they were getting Friday night fare.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth; Farhadi remains a humanist, a deep chronicler of human foible, and Everybody Knows, like his previous work, is a film of human beings in turmoil behaving realistically, understandably and with precise observation; they difference is, this time, the turmoil they face is more essentially and recognizably dramatic. They face a thriller trope, but they face it with the sensitivity of Farhadi characters.

I won’t reveal the trope; I saw this film knowing essentially nothing, and you should try for the same. Everything is surprising in a Farhadi film, and this one twists and turns like a frightened snake; there are secrets, lies, revelations and reveals, so much so that you could call this melodrama, but of the highest caliber, and performed, by brilliant actors, with straight faces and total integrity. Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin and an ensemble of excellent Spanish actors go through the emotional wringer for us; it can be painful to watch.

Therein lies my only rub: Farhadi and his cast twist the screws so tight, on a story that I could relate to on such a visceral, personal level, that my pleasure center wasn’t being so much lit as stabbed. Frankly, I was so tense I longed for the film to wrap up, and wrap up happily, so I could breathe again. A director, whose intention is to put you in suspense, should not be criticized for doing so. It’s simply a paradox that here, he’s applied tension so well, you want him to stop.

New TV: Flack and Losers

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“I shoulda stayed with HBO.”

The pilot episode of Flack (Foxtel) is the worst I’ve seen for awhile; nothing will bring me back for any more. It’s a big disappointment, because there was promise, and I was excited: Anna Paquin as a London-based PR crisis manager in a zippy 40something-minute show dealing with public relations disasters in the #metoo era? I was in. But now I’m very much out.

Credibility is the biggest issue: nothing in the show rings true. Television doesn’t have to reflect the reality of the workplace – is any cop show realistic? – but the ways this show gets its own premise wrong beggar belief. I could pinpoint many examples – just from the pilot – but the overwhelming conceit – that tomorrow’s papers are still what everyone’s frightened about – just can’t cut it in the viral era. The dialogue is expositional, spoon-feedy and often cringe-worthily on the nose: a monologue halfway through, where Paquin’s character essentially explains #metoo to a Jaime Oliver-like celebrity chef facing exposure of his many affairs, will haunt her career for the rest of it. It’s terrible.

It must be hard for TV to keep pace with current world events and, particularly, technology, but if you’re going to try, in the words of one of Flack’s characters to a ludicrously-portrayed intern: must try harder. 

On Netflix, Losers is the kind of show the “play next episode” button was built for. These c. 24minute documentaries each look at a “losing” player or team in a different sport. The diversity of the sports and the players make super-addictive: the first three eps jump from boxing to English football to figure skating. As with any good doco or doc series, you don’t have to like the ostensible subject – “sport” – to like the show, because it’s not about sport, it’s about the people, and this charming, off-beat and often very funny little show – which often uses animation to illustrate the stories – has assembled a panoply. 

The Guilty

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* * * * (out of five)

Gustav Möller’s police thriller The Guilty is a must-see: an hour and twenty-five minutes of lean gripping cinematic heaven. The razor-tight, superbly plotted, intricate and surprising screenplay, by Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen, hurls us into a terrifically difficult situation, then challenges every aspect of our response. It’s very, very clever.

Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is a Copenhagen cop assigned, not necessarily happily, to night duty on the alarm dispatch line. There are issues at play with Asger, not entirely understood by us, perhaps not even by him. After deftly setting up his precarious situation and state of mind, Möller lets the telephone ring and Asger take an emergency call. He then deals with it, in real time, as our jaws clench, our guts twist, and our fists grip ever tighter on our armrests.

Like Steven Knight’s masterful Locke (2014), this is almost a single-location, single-actor film; there are the voice actors on the phone (all excellent) and some minor other characters, but the bulk of the screen time is spent on Cedergren’s face. A lot is resting on his performance, but he’s magnificent. Möller moves the camera around the single police station location enough to dispel any “staginess” while adhering to a worthy self-imposed discipline. It’s an intense, thoroughly well constructed ride.

I saw this as my final film at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival, with an audience of 2,000. It felt like we were all at the end of a long slog of film-going, ready, frankly, for the festival to be over, and perhaps didn’t know too much about what we were about to see. As the film played, I could feel it grip this jaded audience with an iron fist; gasps at the script’s magnificent twists and turns were audible throughout the vast theatre. As the final credits rolled, we all sat, stunned and silent. A man on a telephone had faced a dilemma, and through him, so had we all.

King of Thieves

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* * * 1/2

Come for the cast and you won’t be disappointed. Come for the heist and you will. That’s it in a nutshell for this dramatisation of a truly astonishing event in recent British history, when a gang of O.A.P.s – that’s Old Age Pensioners – robbed a famous vault in London’s jewel district, Hatton Garden, in 2015.

That cast is plum fruit with plenty of warm, rich texture: Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, Tom Courtney and Paul Whitehouse play the gang along with young Charlie Cox, with Michael Gambon being fabulous on the side as their alcoholic, incontinent, practically incoherent fence. Their wicked interplay, featuring barbs and threats as much as banter and lingo, comprises most of the film, and every one of its best scenes. Intriguingly, they are cast just a tiny bit “against type”, so that Broadbent gets to be a little Winstone-y, Caine mellow and melancholic, and Winstone perhaps the funniest… except for Gambon, who is quite hysterical.

Unfortunately the heist – which must have been intricate and hard as hell, full of challenging and tense moments and, quite simply, a bit of a modern masterpiece as heists go – is presented almost as a fait accompli, under-explained, confusingly presented, very choppily shot and edited. Perhaps the actual criminals simply have not spilled enough details for a thorough and honest depiction to be portrayed. More likely, director James Marsh is simply far more interested in the dynamics between the thieves than their work.

Fair enough. These geezers won’t be around for ever – Caine particularly shows his age here, for the first time as far as I’m concerned – and if you’ve got ‘em, flaunt ‘em. This movie is absolutely worth your ten bob just to see them in a room together, slapping each other on the back before stabbing them there.