I’m pleased to announce that my Movieland podcast is back, with seven episodes already in the can. Have a listen via your favourite podcast platform, please subscribe, and please rate and review it highly to ensure it ‘gets out there’.
The most recent episode – 7 – features Kitty Green talking about her incredible film The Assistant, which was my ‘Best Film’ of 2020. Start there! You’ll also find discussions on The Godfather Coda, Promising Young Woman and the best films of 2020.
Dominik Moll’s Only The Animals is very pretty to look at, pretty fun and pretty ridiculous. If you approach it with the right attitude, it will deliver a solid couple of hours of entertainment.
An “everything-is-connected” film along the lines of Crash, Babel and Amores Perros, Moll’s wintry drama bends over backwards to make the connections. As such, it is contrived to the point of parody. But, despite the tone and performances being very straight-faced, the film works if you allow it in as a black comedy, a joke, or at least a shaggy-dog story. These films need contrivance; this one is more contrived than most; accept it and enjoy the ride. I did, even if a couple of the coincidences really did make me groan out loud.
Centered around the appearance of a dead body in a rural community, and spreading itself across a wide swathe of themes including the effects of isolation and grief, internet fraud, obsessive attraction and stalking, mental illness and – bien sûr – adultery, Only The Animals appears hugely ambitious, but it really comes down to a few central performances, most notably that of Denis Ménochet. Having menaced us in Custody (and other films), his deft portrayal here of a man obsessed with an online lover plays sneakily with his established persona. It’s the kind of trick the film needs to work, and, despite its clearly rickety narrative machinery, it does, just.
Dawn Raid is a relentlessly entertaining feature length documentary about the rise, fall and re-birth of Dawn Raid Entertainment, New Zealand’s first and, by far, most influential hip-hop label. Anchored by interviews with Dawn Raid founders Danny “Brotha D” Leaosavai’i and Andy Murnane, and featuring almost all of the label’s most important artists including Savage, Mareko, Deceptikonz, Adeaze and Aaradhna, the film has multiple moments of sheer fist-pumping joy.
Dawn Raid was always more than a label; it was a South Auckland cultural force, and the film is about culture and community as much as it is about music. But boy, the music is good; if nothing else, Dawn Raid may open your eyes to a whole area and era of hip-hop that bridges clear US rap influence with specifically NZ Polynesian concerns.
Murnane gets the most screen time, and he tells the Dawn Raid story with great energy, passion, humour and humility. He and Leaosavai’i met at ‘Business School’ – technical college – and the constant refrain of trying to marry a love of music with by-the-book business methodology culminates in a superb second-act comic, and cosmic, pay-off. This is a hip-hop movie with no guns nor gangsters, and the only drug on display is a reefer smoked by an American rapper. Instead, there is humour, joy and a whole lot of heart. It’s a delight from start to finish.
How much do you know about West Indian life in London from the 60s to the 80s? If not much, not enough, or not at all, Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave and Widows) is here to rectify that. He’s made five feature films for the BBC, all stories based on actual events, covering daily life for the London Caribbean community throughout those decades. It’s a monumental achievement that gives English Blackness its greatest popular entertainment exposure, I would suggest, ever. All five are now available on Foxtel in Australia.
The films have no recurring characters and are solely linked thematically, but McQueen hascurated them in a particular order and I suggest you follow it. The first two are the best, so if you only want to dip your toes, you can enjoy them and move on. But watching all five has a cumulative power; this is indeed a case of the whole adding up to more than the sum of its parts.
Mangrove: The first in the series and the second best. A relatively conventionally constructed courtroom drama, made unconventional by its dramatic ingredients: the Black London community that the whole series shines a light on. The proprietor of the Mangrove restaurant in Ladbroke Grove is continually harassed by the police; when he and his community demonstrate, they are brought up on charges which they fight in court. The most ‘historically educational’ of the series and a true eye-opener. Also the longest at a smudge over two hours. * * * 1/2
Lovers Rock: The best one. In a little over an hour McQueen offers a massive slice of young West Indian cultural life in London in the 1980s. Two people meet at a house party. That’s it. But it’s so much more: a film about music, mating, toxic masculinity and predator culture, Rastafarianism, sexuality and sensuality (this is the most sensual film of, say, the decade?), youth, food, dance, safe space and above all, community. The most artful of the five, bordering on experimental, it’s joyous, enthralling and magical. This is the one you’ll watch twice. * * * *
Red, White and Blue: The true story of a young man who joined the London police force and became the literal poster boy for minority recruitment, while dealing with the realities of racism within the force, this 80 minute entry features an excellent central performance from John Boyega. My fourth favourite. * * *
Alex Wheatle: The least satisfying entry is a character study based on one of the writers McQueen engaged in a ‘writer’s room’ designed to generate material for the series. This is the one that suffers the most from Foxtel’s lack of having Closed Captions available for this series: the patois is dense and deep and I have to admit to being unable to follow a lot of it (and clearly missing a lot of nuance and humour). If you have Closed Captions available to you in your viewing region, and you aren’t up on your Caribbean patois, turn them on. * * *
Education: My third favourite is a charming hour-long depiction of a seminal year or so in McQueen’s own childhood, when he got shunted off to a school for “special needs” students. Touching, warm and possessing the most humour of the five. * * * 1/2
Robert Connelly’s The Dry, based on Jane Harper’s novel, is a very professionally constructed example of a very trope-y genre. A Big City Cop is called back home to their small town because of a tragic event, and in doing so, must face dark secrets from their past. Sound familiar? Of course it does. There have been at least sixty TV series made in Europe over the past ten years – over forty of them in the Nordic nations – that hew to that exact formula. It’s become such a cliché that there was even an entire parody series, Fallet, made in Sweden in 2017, that hit every tired beat again and again, exposing the genre’s self-cannibalisation ruthlessly.
But Australia is not Norway, and it’s the milieu that gives The Dry what freshness it has. Eric Bana’s Aaron Falk is a Federal Police Officer living in Melbourne whose (fictional) hometown, Kiewerra, hasn’t seen rain in a year. It is the parched, incessantly dusty drought-stricken crisis that gives the film its striking and foreboding atmosphere, and separates it from all those similar stories set in snow and sleet rather than dirt and desert.
The plotting is tight and, of course, the town is full of dodgy dirtbags played by good actors with interesting faces. Bana’s Falk is quite a cipher at the centre, but that’s part of the genre, too: the cop is inherently the least interesting character. It’s all plot plot plot, red herrings and ominous music, until the Big Reveal(s) in the third act. For me, those concluding sequences were not as satisfying – nor as well constructed – as the investigation that came before, and had a nasty bite that seemed tonally distinct from the rest of the film. But I suspect fans of the genre will find this very solid film way more than acceptable. I have no doubt that there was talk of turning the novel into a series; that it’s all done and dusted (sorry) in two hours rather than stretched out to ten is commendable.
Happy holidays. Here’s my Top 15 of 2020, as published in FilmInk Magazine. All were released in Australia, either in cinemas, via streaming or VOD, during the calendar year. I suspect most if not all of them are now available for home viewing. Enjoy! Your comments are welcome. CJ
Following on from THE INVESTIGATION, here are two more new TV series trading in suspense.
On SBS On Demand in six parts is Savages, a big, loud, brash, expensive, turbo-charged political thriller. Riffing on the attempted assassination of France’s first Algerian-descended President, and sweeping through a broad range of characters across a broad swathe of Paris, the show is desperate for your attention, and for the most part earns it.With its relentlessly swirling camera, its crowds, its chyrons and its colour, it demands that you keep up. Racism, terrorism, politics and family are the Big Themes and they all get a thorough work-out. Entertainingly in your face, it becomes increasingly compelling and surprisingly emotionally engaging if, unfortunately, a little predictable.
On Fox One, from HBO, comes The Flight Attendant,a far lighter, more comedic (and more commercial) take on suspense. Told over eight episodes, this energetic, relentlessly propulsive whiplash soufflé cares not a jot for race, politics or banal procedure, but an awful lot about entertaining you. And it does. Kaley Cuoco plays an American First Class flight attendant with a drinking problem who wakes up next to a one-night stand in a Bangkok hotel room… and he’s very, very dead. From there, it’s one spiralling crisis after another, in multiple cities, as she tries to figure out what happened while becoming an ever-greater suspect for the FBI, a target for the killer, and a moral dilemma for her brother. If Alfred Hitchcock had created a spin-off series for Samantha from Sex and the City it might have been this.
Tobias Lindholm is a screenwriting master – if not the master – of sombre, research-based, unflashy thrillers. Indeed, you could call his films and TV shows “anti-thrillers”, in the way they portray events steeped in all the trappings of suspense with methodical, procedural calm. Eschewing all the bells and whistles – attention-drawing camera moves, editing, music or histrionic performances – usually associated with this kind of content, Lindholm’s work comes across as bearing more weight and integrity than more sensationalised takes. When Lindholm tells a true story, you believe he’s telling you the truth.
His body of work includes A Hijacking (for my money, his masterpiece) and A War, both of which he also directed, The Hunt (directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg), TV series Borgen and Follow The Money, and new film, releasing in early 2021 in Australia, Another Round (also directed and co-written by Vinterberg). There is an unimpeachable argument for Lindholm and Vinterberg to be considered Denmark’s finest screenwriting team, and for Lindholm to be considered one of the finest screenwriters in the world.
Now, The Investigation – all six episodes of which Lindholm wrote and directed – carries his no-nonsense, highly procedural style into the long-form prestige television space. Telling the incredibly strange true story of the investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall aboard an inventor’s home-made submarine, Lindholm doubles down on his trademark stoicism to highly engaging results. Embracing the arduous, painstaking, frustrating and often dispiriting nature of truly investigative police work, with its dead ends, red herrings, slippery witnesses, grieving relatives and endless cups of coffee in banal spaces, The Investigation is almost paradoxically suspenseful, because we realise that what we’re watching has so much more weight than chases, shoot-outs and other contrivances. The story is weird enough – and it is weird – for the storytelling to be as by-the-book as our chief homicide detective, played exquisitely by the great Søren Malling (Borgen, A Hijacking, A War, Follow The Money). This is very much the story of how a horrendous crime can impact on the investigating officer, and Malling wears his pain, grief and frustration under a mask as stoic as Lindholm’s visuals. It is a bravura performance of naturalistic restraint, and Malling will win awards for it.
Don’t miss this superb show, one of the year’s best. Outstanding.
Among music documentarians, Julien Temple strides as a charming colossus, primarily because of The Great Rock And Roll Swindle, his incredible 1980 portrait of The Sex Pistols. He’s also one of the great – and prolific – music video directors, particularly of the British scene since 1977, when he got his start making videos for the Pistols. He’s got an eye, an ear, and a deep appreciation for his tribe, particularly the punks, the rebels and the misfits. Shane MacGowan, creative driving force and lead singer of The Pogues, is certainly all three of those and then some. In his life-long commitment to unhealthy living, he’s perhaps the most misfitting, rebellious punk of them all.
Temple’s two-hour documentary on MacGowan, Crock of Gold, is as energetic and meticulous as all of his work, astonishingly full of expertly curated archival material and found footage, narrated, stirringly and slurringly, by MacGowan, who may be slow and sloppy, but is still somewhat witty and somewhat wise. He’s in a wheelchair now, his feet and brain ravaged by drink, and his head lilts to the side, as though his neck was, too. To get him to tell us his story, Temple has him sit with his wife Siobhan (he got married last year), Gerry Adams (yes, that Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin until 2018) and Johnny Depp (yes, that Johnny Depp, who is one of the producers of the movie and seems to venerate men like MacGowan and the late Hunter S. Thompson, guys with real drinking problems). MacGowan talks to them, and Temple illustrates his oral history as he has in previous films with imagery from a vast array of sources and specifically created animation. It’s propulsive and vibrant. There’s a lot of footage of MacGowan from the late 70s during the birth of London punk, thrashing in the crowd at other band’s gigs, and it turns out that he was, weirdly, a kind of punk-scene celebrity before he even announced himself as a musician.
Beyond MacGowan’s own story (and that of The Pogues), Temple paints a bigger picture, of Ireland’s rich and rebellious history, of punk (of course), and (of course) of drink. You can’t tell MacGowan’s story without talking of booze, and the film is soaked in it, just like MacGowan. He’s simultaneously a sad figure and a weirdly heroic one, defiantly drinking even as he finds it hard to get the glass to his lips. Around him, his friends and family have long ago accepted that he’s a lifer, and they enable him. He’ll die of drink one day, but he hasn’t yet, and that keeps the film’s energy upbeat: MacGowan is a living musician, not a soaking corpse, and here is his worthy celebration.
Oliver Sacks was one of those people who seemed beyond normal capabilities. We may call them geniuses, hyper-intelligent, or, simply, very good at their jobs. But Sacks was very, very good at two jobs: writing and neurology. And that combo made him, weirdly, a star.
As the title makes clear, this is his own story, which is as strange and compelling as many of his case studies. Who knew that beside his incredible talents, he achieved a California State Record in 1961 for squatting? That’s a bodybuilding term for a particular weightlifting manoeuvre, and Sacks won his record by doing it with two hundred and seventy-two kilos on his back. I don’t know about you, but when I read Oliver Sacks, I don’t picture a swole beast.
But this was Sacks: he was full of complications and contradictions, and this elegiac and beautiful movie touches on, I assume, all the biggies. His love and sex life was fascinating; there are addiction issues; he has his own – very Sacksian – neurological deviation; and he was surrounded by a team of Incredibly Smart People who are assembled with Oliver as he discusses his cancer prognosis, the ticking time bomb that frames the film. For this is a movie made about a dying man as he knows he is dying, yet rather than being mournful, it is joyous. Another amazing feat from the life of a truly astonishing individual. Highly recommended.