Diana’s Wedding, The Chair, Impeachment

At select cinemas across Australia from 23 September, Diana’s Wedding, a decades-spanning tale of the marriage of two spiky Norwegians who get hitched the same day as Princess Diana,is warm, charming, observant, honest, with absolutely winning performances from the two leads. It’s the best Norwegian film I’ve seen in a few years. Delightful and absolutely worth your time. * * * 1/2

Kingsley Amis and Vladimir Nabokov, among others, wrote comedies of academic life, and the central conflict often involved a culture clash between ageing professors and the youthful progressive students. So it is with The Chair, a new Netflix half-hour comedy starring Sandra Oh as the newly-minted chair of an American University’s English department. Her professors are stuck in their ways; she’s stuck in the middle. It’s not the most biting satire and the more invested you are in woke politics the less authentic it will feel; instead, it’s light, charming, and very easily swallowed. You won’t be fighting over the dinner table about issues it raises so much as singing the praises of the older character actors populating the stuffy department, particularly Holland Taylor as a feisty boozy flirt. A central (romantic) entanglement between Oh’s character and one of her male professors is far less interesting than watching the shenanigans of the older thesps.

American Crime Story: Impeachment on Foxtel, the latest Ryan Murphy extravaganza, sees his muse Sarah Paulson playing Linda Tripp, the ex-White House Counsel secretary who nudged Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) into the world’s brightest spotlight. So far (one ep in) it’s typically Murphyesque: overblown and melodramatic yet compulsive storytelling. And it is the story itself that’s compelling, along with Paulson’s sharp, specific performance. Clive Owen’s Bill Clinton is in it for about a second and a half; this is Tripp and Lewinsky’s story.

Under The Volcano

* * * *

VOD from 1 September.

Australian director Gracie Otto follows her excellent 2013 feature documentary The Last Impresario, about producer Michael White, with another enormously entertaining and charmingly breezy entertainment feature doco, Under the Volcano, about Sir George Martin’s post-Beatles adventure building and running a music studio on the West Indian island of Montserrat.

Air Studios only operated from 1979 to 1989 on the small volcanic island, but in that time a rather incredible batch of your favourite childhood albums were recorded there, including Ghost In The Machine and Synchronicity by The Police, Too Low For Zero by Elton John, Steel Wheels by The Rolling Stones and Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits, along with seminal albums by Jimmy Buffet, Duran Duran, Ultravox and many others.

The Police are interviewed in full, along with members of Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Buffet and so forth; also included are staff and crew from the studios, Montserrat locals, and, in lieu of Martin himself, his son, who speaks with great insight into his dad’s dreams and methods. Since the gang’s all here and they did their two most important albums there, The Police get the most screen time, and while Sting remains incredibly charismatic and handsome, it is Stewart Copeland who provides the most energetic and amusing recollections. He’s a character, that Copeland.

The eventual demise of the studio – and the island – gets short shrift. Under The Volcano is a celebration, not an elegy, and does everything it can to remain as upbeat as a track from side one of Brothers In Arms. I loved every minute.

No Sudden Move

* * * *

Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move is familiar territory for him, as cosy for those of us who love his work as a warm blanket. There are multiple echoes, homages, illusions and references to his previous work – especially in the casting, but also thematically, stylistically and tonally – wrapped up in a period piece, which is the most unusual aspect of the material for him.

That period is the 50s; the place, though, is Detroit, and seeing top-billed Don Cheadle in a mansion there – with a gun, no less – obviously evokes the incredible third act of Out of Sight. Indeed, Cheadle’s character here, Curt Goynes, is like an alternative version of Out of Sight’s Maurice Miller: there’s a stingingly direct reference to a prison stabbing that, in the right cinema with the right audience, would elicit howls of self-satisfaction.

Goynes is offered five Gs at the beginning of the film for a three hour (criminal) job; his partners in this crime will be played by Benicio Del Toro and Kieran Culkin, and along the way, as things get more and more and more and more complicated, he’ll encounter characters played by, among many others, Jon Hamm, Bill Duke, David Harbour, Brendan Fraser, Amy Seimetz, Julia Fox and Ray Liotta. Everyone has a great time playing various levels of scuzzbucket; so do we. This is Soderbergh very much en forme, working from a terrific script by Ed Solomon, and the film’s pleasures are constant and rich.

Room 2806

The Netflix true-crime docuseries may have jumped the shark a couple of times, but when they’re good they can be very, very good, and Room 2806, a four-parter about the very serious accusation of sexual assault against Dominique Strauss-Kahn (‘DSK’) when he was at the peak of his power, intellect and ability, is very, very good. Compellingly structured and movingly told, featuring interviews with Strauss-Kahn’s victim Nafissatou Diallo, other women accusing Strauss-Kahn of other crimes, investigating officers, attorneys and French officials of all stripes and statures who have known Strauss-Kahn over the years, it paints another brutal portrait of a man who could have done so much good if he hadn’t done such terrible bad, and the women whose lives were torpedoed by it. Massive in scope, encompassing not only the case but the media frenzy surrounding it both in the US and France, the political fall-out and its place in the historical timeline of #metoo, this is a superb, gripping and vital production. It also demonstrates – perhaps reinforces – a cultural attitude to sexual misbehaviour among a certain strata of French society that would be hilarious in its stereotypical self-ownership were it not so tragically misaligned in relation to DSK’s particular predilections.

When you’re done, see if you can find Abel Ferrara’s 2014 film Welcome to New York, which dramatises some of these events and stars – perfectly – Gérard Depardieu as (a renamed version of) DSK.

The White Lotus and This Way Up

Australian actor Murray Bartlett gets the kind of mid-career, middle-age role most jobbing TV actors dream of in Mike White’s pandemic-shot, Hawaii-based ensemble dramatic comedy The White Lotus (Foxtel, from HBO). Bartlett plays Armond, the manager of a luxe Hawaiian resort dealing with a contingent of needy guests. They’re not all bad people, but they’re all privileged, and different degrees of difficult. Watching Bartlett as Armond navigate their demands is often very, very funny; it’s a sublime performance, playing against an ensemble of famous and instantly recognisable faces including Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, Jennifer Coolidge, Alexandria Daddario and Sydney Sweeney. All of them are playing to type, well; Daddario and Sweeney are particularly good. But Bartlett steals the show: his Armond is the centre of the resort and the drama and he takes seemingly effortless control. Mike White’s writing is never subtle but unfailingly well observed and often very sharp, and his direction is moody and evocative. HBO (and hence Foxtel) are doling out the six episodes weekly; all three so far have been crackers.

On STAN, Aisling Bea’s half-hour comedy This Way Up has just dropped its second six-episode season. I’m just discovering it – halfway through Season One – and it’s a total delight. Bea plays Aine, a thritysomething Irish lass living in London and just trying to cope (at the beginning of ep one she’s being discharged from a facility after a nervous breakdown). Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) plays her older sister who seems to have things a bit more together. The sisters’ relationship is the core of the show and the scenes between Bea and Horgan – they’ve played sisters before, on the BBC series Dead Boss – sparkle with natural affection and sharp wit. Lovely.

Physical and Blindspotting

Rose Byrne has emerged as an astonishingly versatile screen actress; witness her Gloria Steinem in last year’s Mrs. America. Now she’s got herself a big, heavily promoted Apple TV+ series of her own, Physical; the material is good, but she is great. This could be her Emmy; she seems destined for one.

Byrne plays Sheila, a once active activist who has settled into a seemingly comfortably mundane domestic routine in 1980s San Diego: she takes her and her husband’s daughter to day care, shops for the groceries, takes a ballet class, picks up her daughter from day care, cooks dinner. There’s one huge problem: amongst all that, she routinely buys large amounts of junk food, eats it, and then ‘purges’ it (vomits it up), telling herself every time, in an almost non-stop interior monologue voiceover that is the show’s coup de télé, that it will be the very last time.

This is tough stuff for a half-hour ‘dark comedy’, which is how the show is being marketed (I read it, two episodes in, as a drama), so much so that the show carries a content warning before it rolls. But Byrne makes it work. There is a lot of good work going on around her – the production design is excellent – but so far, the singular sensation of the show is Byrne’s performance. She’s truly ready for her close-up: as a vehicle for her, this is as good as anything, and I’m in.

STAN is making Blindspotting available one episode at a time, and based on the first, it’s a little hard to predict how things will pan out. It’s adapted from the extremely idiosyncratic (and enjoyable) 2018 film of the same name by that film’s writers, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, but this time around, they’re not the stars: Casal is in it tangentially, but Diggs not at all, and, frankly, Diggs the actor was a huge part of what was interesting about the film. The TV adaptation follows Ashley, Casal’s girlfriend from the film, as she adapts to life in Oakland, California while Casal’s Miles serves a prison term. Back in the day, they’d call this a ‘spin-off’, giving a minor character their own show with occasional drop-ins from the original leads to remind viewers why they’re there. On the basis of the first episode, I’m not convinced Jasmine Cephas Jones, as Ashley, was ready for her close-up. We’ll see; thus far, it’s touch and go.