The Bureau

The Bureau Image.pngThe Bureau, or The Bureau of Legends as directly translated from the French original, is a sprawling, engrossing, thrilling espionage drama and one of the best shows I have ever seen. I put it only behind Engrenages (Spiral) as my favourite French show. So far there have been three seasons, and all are currently available on SBS On Demand. A fourth season began airing in France on October 22nd, 2018.

It focuses on the workings of the DGSE, the General Directorate of External Security, France’s principal external security service. The first season sees long-embedded spy “Malotru” (Mathieu Kassovitz) come in from the cold – Damascus – and try to adjust to “normal” life in Paris while wrestling with a particularly personal dilemma brought on during his operative term. The second season, one of the best seasons of television I’ve ever seen, shifts the primary focus to the “B Story” lead character, Marina (Sara Giraudeau) as she goes undercover in Tehran. The third season… well, no spoilers from me, but it’s awesome.

There is a brilliantly conceived universe of fascinating characters here, warmly played by a superb ensemble. The operations, centred always in the Middle East, are compelling and believable, based, as they are, on real accounts by former spies and formidable research. There is humour, there are love affairs (and plain old French affairs), and the constant churn of truly difficult work, done in the shadows. But where the series really stands out is in its handling of suspense. This is a drama first and foremost, with the killings and action set-pieces held in admirable restraint, but when a tense sequence does kick into gear, it always works. At least once per episode, you’re likely to get sweaty palms.

N’attends pas! This is a binge delight.

WELLES FEAST

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THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND ****

THEY’LL LOVE ME WHEN I’M DEAD ****

It’s difficult to know, objectively, how exciting the simultaneous release, on Netflix, of Orson Welles’ finally-finished film The Other Side of the Wind and a documentary about that film’s production, They’ll Love Me When I’d Dead, will be for the general movie watcher. For me, it’s manna from heaven. If cinema is my love, Welles has been my obsession. I’ve read more books about him, watched more documentaries about him, just thought about him more than any other artist. And I’m not alone. Welles inspires devotion, because he was just the biggest, baddest, raddest, most ball-bustingly bravura filmmaker there was. He huffed and he puffed and blew all the doors down.

Of course, his very grandiosity, the thing about him that makes him so compelling, made him a pariah to some, and his story, no matter who’s telling it (I recommend Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles by David Thomson, This Is Orson Welles by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, Put Money In Thy Purse by Micheál MacLiammóir, and Run-Through by John Houseman, although there are scores more, including a mammoth multi-volume extravaganza by Simon Callow) always includes Hollywood’s abandonment of him, and his years in self-imposed exile, raising money and hell all over Europe and the world, starting many projects and tragically leaving many unfinished.

The most famous and infamous of these, the Golden Fleece, is The Other Side of the Wind, except that now, thanks to a smorgasbord of Jasons, it is, actually, finished, and you can, miraculously, push a button and watch it. But first, watch Morgan Neville’s extraordinarily entertaining documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, also on Netflix, or read (and read?) the book that inspired it, Orson Welles’s Last Movie by Josh Karp, which is similarly delightful and inherently more detailed.

Then, once you’re up to speed on all the shenanigans, watch The Other Side of the Wind. It’s one of the more meta cinematic experiences you’ll ever have, for reasons that are self-evident, and plainly discussed in both They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and Karp’s book. The story of a Wellesian director, Jake Hannaford, played by John Huston, on his 70th birthday, having a party and trying to finish his latest film, it’s a stylistic tour-de-force first and foremost, a flashy, breezy and often very funny satire on the movies and reflection of Welles’s own predicament. If you’ve seen Welles’s superb cinematic essay F For Fake, you’ll recognise his editing style (and his leading lady and girlfriend, Oja Kodar), here taken to extremes. The cinematic conceit of the “main” storyline is that almost everyone at Hannaford’s party has some form of movie camera, and the film we’re watching is constructed from their footage, so the grain shifts, sometimes we’re in black and white, and very few cuts last longer than a couple of seconds. It’s propulsive and vibrant and edgy and fresh and unmistakably the work of Orson Welles. He had a true cinematic voice and it’s fully on display here.

We’re also treated to a hefty selection of scenes from Hannaford’s unfinished film – a film-within-the-film – also called The Other Side of the Wind. This is shot and edited in a completely different style (including in a different aspect ratio), being, within the film’s construct, not “Welles’s” work but “Hannaford’s”, and Hannaford, it turns out, is trying to connect with the late-60s / early 70s cineaste crowd by making an Antonioni-esque film. Thus the footage we see is a parody of Antonioni, and if you needed confirmation of that, the house Welles shot Hannaford’s party in is the house next door to the house Antonioni blew up at the end of Zabriskie Point. Now you see how deep the games go?

This footage – the film-within-the-film – is astonishing, for many reasons. It is intensely erotic (something rare for Welles), famously so thanks to the influence of co-writer Kodar, whom Welles adored and who obviously influenced him deeply during this period of his life. It is gorgeous, intricate, and often very creepy. If the main storyline is fascinating for its autobiographical take on Welles and his relationship to Peter Bogdanovich (playing a Peter Bogdanovich-type called Brooks Otterlake!) and young hip Hollywood (Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Curtis Harrington and Claude Chabrol are all at the party, among others, and Susan Strasberg plays a version of Pauline Kael called Julie Rich), the film-within-a-film is fascinating to experience. Almost entirely free of dialogue, it is spellbinding, captivating, better than most of the films it so wickedly parodies.

If you love Welles you’ll be seeing both They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and The Other Side of the Wind. If you’re new to Welles, give ‘em both a try. Regardless, watch the documentary first. It makes the film itself a vitally richer experience.

Wildlife

* * * * 1/2

US cinema is having a rich year, and the talent behind it is fresh. With only two months to go, 2018’s three best American films – Hereditary, A Star Is Born and Wildlife – are all directorial debut feature films. Seemingly disparate, they share some unexpected connections (the unexciting one being that they’re all, culturally, very, very white.) They seem to be rooted in their own genre lanes – horror, romance and family drama – but there is thematic connective tissue, with particular overlap between Hereditary and Wildlife, two films about the effect of family disturbance upon a teenage boy.

In this case, the boy is Joe, played with supreme sensitivity by Ed Oxenbould. It’s the early 1960s in Montana, which may as well be the 1950s or earlier, and Joe’s parents are struggling. Dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is one of those men, littered throughout American literature (the film is based on the book by Richard Ford) for whom the American foundation is proving to be deceptive, if not an outright lie. Joe’s mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) is, likewise, stuck in a construction – American mid-century marriage – that could not seem more like a prison. When Joe loses his job, both he and Jeanette take single, seemingly selfish actions, one following the other, like dominoes; the enormity of their effect can only be gauged on Joe’s face, in silent close-up, for it is only he who must absorb every single ripple of their actions through no impulse of his own.

Debutant director Paul Dano exudes incredible assurance. The film is flawlessly conceived. All of the performances are tremendous (Mulligan, with the lion’s share of the movie’s dialogue and vulnerable moments, is staggeringly good), the cinematography is superb, the score precise and profound. Above all, the storytelling is intellectually rigorous. Dano never abandons his young protagonist to the fireworks of his parents’ behaviour; Joe might say very little, but he is always there. Like a lot of American dramatic cinema and literature, Wildlife uses the disintegration of the mid-century American dream to remind us that the biggest impact of all is that of parents on their children, and that culpability begins at home.

Suspiria

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* * * 1/2 (out of five)

Luca Guadagnino follows up his sublime Call Me By Your Name with a bonkers, WTF take on Dario Argento’s 1977 bonkers, WTF dance-school horror classic Suspiria. It’s weirdly entertaining, supremely stylish, and somewhat surprisingly superbly acted, even as it baffles at every turn, until the last, when it manages to draw at least some of its strands together and achieves something like profundity.

Guadagnino shifts the story to a professional dance company in Berlin in 1977, casting his A Bigger Splash actors Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton as an incoming dancer and the company’s artistic director, respectively. As with the original, all is not as it may appear on the surface at the institution. Indeed – very minor spoiler alert – it’s actually a front for a coven of witches.

Guadagnino shoots the film, not as a garish freak-out in the style of Argento but with the grainy, semi-documentary 70’s grungy realism of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (and has acknowledged the influence in interviews about the production). It is a very different vibe to Call Me By Your Name, all hand-held zooms and strange edits, weird pacing and disjointed storytelling. You’re constantly aware you’re watching a film, a construction, and more than a little aware of it being rather precious, or at least indulgent. It is, for example, two and a half hours long.

And yet, a lot of it really works. Besides the very rigorous aesthetic, which is entertaining on its own, the film has Johnson and Swinton, and that’s a lot. Johnson really engaged me throughout the whole thing; I found her mesmerizing, compelling, endlessly fascinating. Whatever Guadagnino is up to here, she seems to get it, and manages, through a very determined performance – including loads of contemporary dance – to bring us along. Her character, seemingly a naïf from Ohio, is surprisingly complex, and, by the time of the film’s truly demented climax and her part in it, she’s earned it, whatever the hell it is.

Besides the company’s chief artiste, Swinton plays two other parts, each under layers of prosthetics; one is a man in his eighties, Dr. Jozef Klemperer, who is investigating the possibility of witches at the company. She’s uncanny as Klemperer, so much so that no casual audience member would likely suspect the character is not being portrayed by a real old man, and I only reveal it’s her because it makes watching her performance far more fun.

In the end, Guadagnino goes for some hefty and intriguing questions about culpability during the Nazi era that are simultaneously provocative and confusing. I’m sure he knows exactly what he wants to say; I’m not sure he’s said it with great clarity, but I’m equally sure he hasn’t intended to. Suspiria is deliberately disorienting and perhaps deliberately obtuse; it’s never very scary, but it’s often beautiful and always fun.

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Fahrenheit 11/9

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Michael Moore’s new theatrically released feature-length documentary should probably not have been theatrically released. Despite the crying, aching need for Moore’s voice to be heard at this dire moment in the American story, in America itself this film was, relative to the immense success of Moore’s other films, a miss at the box office. This time, when Moore finally spoke, few listened, and I think the medium was the mistake. Moore should have made this film for Netflix.

I’ve sat in a hotel lobby in California and watched US cable news. It’s all Trump, and all rage, all the time. Combined with everyone’s news feeds, which everyone’s constantly swiping down to update, news saturation is a thing. The idea of trotting off to the cinema to get “more of the same” perhaps seemed redundant to the American cinema-going public. Especially to get more Trump. I imagine that people either reckoned they already knew what Moore had to say, or they felt content to get it from the “takeaways” on their feeds.

It’s a shame, because Moore’s film is absolutely worth seeing, impossible to reduce to bullet points, and – the big surprise – not really about Trump. Its call to arms is Trump’s election, absolutely, and its final act is a very persuasive argument for Trump as calculating fascist that puts a terrifying new spin on even his dumbest-seeming acts. But the bulk of the film offers a comprehensive account of a more localised example of sheer, jaw-dropping, morally incomprehensible corruption within the US political system, and holds that up, not only as a mirror to Trump, but as and example – to Trump – of what you can get away with once you’re in charge.

That would be the Flint water scandal – and by scandal, I mean abomination. What was done to the people of Flint, Michigan, by its Governor, Rick Snyder, in pursuit of his and his friends’ wallets and at the expense of his mostly poor black constituents is so unbelievably callous, reckless and obviously criminal that it feels like a war crime. Australian audiences will be aghast; it really does feel impossible that someone actually did this to their own constituents and pretty much got away with it. And that’s part of Moore’s point. He shows that corruption at this hellish scale has not only set up Trump, it has inspired him. When politicians can be as fundamentally evil as Snyder, voters disengage – give up – and shameless sociopaths like Trump can move in and make absolute hay.

By offering a thorough, moving and furious exposé of what happened in Flint, Moore is linking back to his first major documentary feature, Roger and Me, and, later in the film, when he examines the Parkland school shooting and its aftermath, to his second, Bowling For Columbine. This has a profound effect. Both those films highlighted serious flaws in the American system, whereby people were not only losing their jobs and their houses but their lives. By returning to both subjects – Flint and guns – again, with such focus, we see, shatteringly, that not only have things in the USA gotten worse, they’ve gotten substantially worse. Moore’s collective filmography thus charts sustained systemic decline. Oh, for the days when Flint’s only problem was the loss of all sustainable income, rather than the systemic poisoning of its children.

In sympathy with its sober content, the new film has a darker hue than Moore’s previous work. Unlike Roger and Me and Bowling For Columbine, there is barely any humour here; it’s hard to smile in the face of kids drinking lead, and kids eating lead. It’s the stuff of despair, and anger, and the film is full of each. That anger also strikes at the Democratic Party; Moore exposes its hijacking of Bernie Sanders in yet another instance of such brazen corruption as to feel unreal, and Obama comes in for a massive serve for his actions when he finally decided to deal with what was happening in Flint.

So, no. It’s not all about Trump. It’s never about Russian collusion, Comey, the first 100 days, Stormy Daniels, Michael Avenatti, Michael Cohen or money laundering, and there is no pee tape, N-word tape, sex tape or other smoking gun. It’s about the system, the prevailing winds, that allowed for all of the above. It’s about a country in serious trouble, and it’s compelling and deserves a massive audience.

It should have been on Netflix. But it’s not, so go see it at the cinema. The last thing we need is for people like Michael Moore to give up, too.

Ghost Stories

* * * (out of five)

Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s throwback to the classic British horror anthologies – films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales From The Crypt and Torture Garden, most popular in the 1960s – is most fun as exactly that, not only an exercise in nostalgia but also in quintessential Britishness. This is a film where every sky is grey and where, if a man can wear a tan raincoat, he will. It’s as British as it gets, highly deliberately so, and all the more fun for it.

It’s not particularly scary, but I’m not sure that’s a big problem. Nyman plays Phillip Goodman, a professional skeptic or myth-buster who exposes psychics, mediums and other frauds on his television show. When a celebrated skeptic from a previous generation – who is also his idol – tells him there are three cases he cannot explain, it’s up to our cynical hero to investigate.

Cue anxious men telling anxious stories of the time they were spooked by fiendish beasties. The three stories take place in classic locales – including some moors – and include lots of creaks and shadows and a few minor jump-scares. The emphasis is on true ghosts, not human horrors, so everything is kept at an arm’s remove. Like the earlier classic anthology films, Ghost Stories has a lot of resonance with classic creepy comics, though it’s based on Dyson and Nyman’s stage play.

It’s the kind of spooky event you can take your grandparents to, or your nine year old. Fun for Halloween, and certainly an original, at least for this century.

TV: Big Mouth, Norsemen, Trust

Two extremely clever, original and defiantly edgy half-hour comedies return to Netflix for their second seasons. Big Mouth, from creator Nick Kroll, is an animated look at every uncomfortable, mortifying, terrifying aspect of puberty. A group of American teenagers are going through it, egged on by their own, literal, hormone monsters; masturbation, menstruation and everything else is covered in graphic and lurid detail, with mostly very funny results. Deliberately over the top, everyone whose been through all this mess can relate, but some may not want to go back there; it could be just too painful.

Meanwhile, Norsemen is a Norwegian spoof of that country’s Viking history, and often extremely funny. It’s the closest show I’ve ever seen to old-school Monty Python humour: dry, absurd, and played straight. It’s also in English; somehow, that makes it funnier and more charming (and a Norwegian friend of mine agrees). The series doesn’t shy away from the Vikings’ predilection for invasion, pillaging and rape, and there is occasional gore, but always deployed for humorous effect. There is also intrigue, a love quadrangle, ancient ritual, a psychotic villain and stunning locations. The large ensemble cast are all superb; many of them have been seen as cops, politicians, soldiers and bad guys in Nordic noir, and it’s a delight to see them here, being delightfully, unapologetically silly. Terrific.

Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle’s Trust (FOXTEL) shares a lot of story DNA with Sir Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World from last year. Both take J. Paul Getty’s response to his grandson John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping in Rome in 1973 as their general plot, and there are certainly similarities; in both, the rich old man is portrayed as a miserly controlling creep, and his seat of power, a mansion in England, is a prime location in both. But Trust, at ten hours, obviously has a lot more room, and on the basis of the first two episodes it is clear Boyle’s going to use it. He’s always been interested in money and its effect on people, and J. Paul, played exquisitely by Donald Sutherland, gives him a marvelous monster to sic amongst a large cast of family and employees (J. Paul, like many of the über-rich, didn’t have friends), each of whom is subservient and sycophantic to, rebellious against, or disgusted by him to varying degrees. The production design is stunning and the story massively entertaining (and quite lurid). Typical of his work, Boyle is superb at character delineation; this is a big universe but everyone is exquisitely and clearly defined. It’s also funny, a lot more than Scott’s somber movie.

The Cleaners

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You’ll learn more about Facebook’s devastating relationship to the Myanmar genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in the 88 minutes of this incredibly timely German documentary than you will from four hours of Apple News bits, bites and bobs. You’ll also learn more about how fake news spreads throughout not only Facebook and other social platforms but through Google itself than you would if you’d listened to the entire US congressional hearings into those applications.

You do so through the prism of “cleaners”, a work-force of thousands employed in Manila who spend their days and nights approving or deleting flagged images and videos for Google, Facebook, Twitter and others. Some have to service 25,000 images or videos a day, and all of them, by their nature, have the potential to be highly disturbing. Violence, pornography, propaganda and terrorist acts all pass the eyes of these front-line curators of the world’s internet experience; they are then expected to be able to sleep at night and view 25,000 more upsetting things tomorrow.

This is stuff from dystopian fiction, it’s happening now, and it’s very disturbing. It also makes this compelling doc a must-see if you care at all about how the internet works.