The Righteous Gemstones Review

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I’ve found Danny McBride’s TV series – Eastbound and Down and Vice Principles – not quite for me; a little too broad and, in some way I can’t quite nail, ‘American’. But his new one for HBO, The Righteous Gemstones (HBO / Showcase), grabbed me from the very first scenes and propelled me through its nine episodes on my own righteous binge. This show is smart, clever, funny and just great fun. McBride plays the eldest of three adult sibling “mega-church” Florida preachers, ruled over by their father Eli Gemstone, played by John Goodman. But it’s not so much a satirical take-down of the church as it is a Coen Brothers-like crime comedy of incompetents trying to be criminals and getting themselves further and further in trouble; some of the dialogue and scripting is evocative of Elmore Leonard at his most colourful (and this show is very colourful). The supporting cast are superb: Adam Devine (who again, I’ver never appreciated before this) and (completely new to me) Edi Patterson are the siblings; I could watch each of their spin-off shows with glee. And Walton Goggins, Tony Cavalero and Scott MacArthur all make tasty meals of plum parts. This is really digestible; the first scene-setting ep is 51 minutes, but the average after that is 36. Binge and be happy! SEASON ONE * * * *

Suzi Q Review

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***

The qualities of Suzi Q are the qualities of Suzi Quatro: inoffensive, charming, friendly, nice. Quatro achieved a pioneering position as a bassist singer in a custom leather catsuit, but her lifestyle was hardly rock ‘n roll: a few beers and cigarettes was the extent of her debauchery, and, ironically, one of the shocking things about seeing a lot of archival footage of Quatro is just how clean, wholesome and healthy she looks. New interviews shot for this documentary with Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Debbie Harry and a lot of male promoters, producers and band members present more ravaged faces and voices, but Quatro is that grannie who looks too young to be a grannie, and is frequently shown jogging.

So what’s left for a sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll doco to offer, when there’s no sex and drugs? Rock ‘n roll, of course, and Suzi Q does its best to place Quatro in the firmament, arguing, along the way, that a set of circumstances – the wrong place at the wrong time – meant that she became a star in the UK, Europe and Australia, but never cracked her home country of the USA. I would suggest her music wasn’t as significant as that of Blondie, The Runaways and others, but the film takes the qualities of her hits for granted. There’s not a lot of critical analysis.

Given that this is an Australian production, I was expecting a second or third act turn into Quatro’s intersection with the greatest continent, but it never came, and Molly Meldrum never showed up (which was really kind of weird given his championing of Quatro; her appearances on Hey Hey It’s Saturday don’t rate any screen time either). That’s perhaps indicative of the film, which doesn’t have much of a thesis, except to say that Quatro and her sisters still have some issues. Like Quatro herself, Suzi Q is a pleasant hang, a G rated version of a rock star life.

Judy and Punch

* * * *

After three highly regarded short films, Mirrah Foulkes announces herself as a feature auteur of serious talent and limitless potential with Judy and Punch, a film whose great artfulness is only outdone by its sheer, breath-taking originality. So many movies are formulaic, copies of copies of copies; Foulkes’ astonishing debut is as fresh as the Jacarandas blooming all over Sydney, and, in its weird way, just as beautiful.

Foulkes takes the puppet show franchise Punch and Judy, which has been codified illustratively since the 1770s and in script form since around 1830, and riffs on it, deconstructs it, pulls and punches at it, and ultimately uses it to say something profound, resonant and topical. Her script is a work of deep and intellectually rigorous imagination, surprising, humorous, dark, whimsical and fantastical, pungent and dank.

Damon Herriman, topping a year of spectacular performances, plays the odious Punch, proprietor of the puppet show, husband to Judy (Mia Wasikowska), father to their baby, drunkard, scoundrel, charmer and fool. They live in ‘Seaside’, outside of ‘the big smoke’, where once they were feted, until Punch’s drinking took hold. Now Punch wants his status back, but there’s a bottle in every corner, and his baby’s a burden, too.

Judy and Punch takes as its source material puppet show scripts from around the 1800s, and all the characters associated with them – the policeman, the dog, the mistress, the hangman, the doctor, even the crocodile – are all here, superbly layered into the rich stew of Foulkes’ script. But if the script is terrific, her direction meets it for thrilling theatricality and innovation, most boldly and excitingly in how she plays with tone. Working closely with a most incredible score by François Tétaz, Foulkes ironically undermines the film’s frequent dark sequences with vaudevillian comic panache, to achieve, against great odds, the strange effect of those truly weird original scripts come to life. Punch and Judy, the 1800s puppet show, asked you to laugh as Punch beat his wife; now Foulkes plays those scenes as intended, as clowning, exposing them for what they are: embedded icons of domestic abuse, perversely seared into our collective consciousness as children’s entertainment.

Doctor Sleep (Review)

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* * * 1/2

I recently made a momentous decision and shifted The Shining to position number one as my all-time favourite movie (dislocating The Godfather). Kubrick’s horror masterpiece is a perfect movie, a revolutionary movie, an almost inconceivably well-conceived movie, and boasts, possibly, more iconic moments than any other movie. It can still scare me to death (when I watch it alone, late at night, in the dark, which I do every couple of years) and its artistry will forever astound me.

When I heard they were making a ‘sequel’, it naturally sounded like not just a dumb idea but anathema, like making a sequel to Citizen Kane. But Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is staggeringly respectful, both of Kubrick’s film and Stephen King’s 2013 novel Doctor Sleep, and, for the Shining fan, great fun.

King hated Kubrick’s film, the common wisdom being because Kubrick took a lot of liberties with the story. Flanagan, who wrote Doctor Sleep’s screenplay, manages to make it simultaneously a tonal sequel to Kubrick’s film and the adaptation of King’s sequel to his original book (and if that bends your brain a bit, wait until you see the film). So, we get stylistic nods to Kubrick’s film, careful use of his original score, and even actors re-creating iconic Shining moments (which sounds worse than it is; the modern stand-ins are impeccably cast). But in the story chunks from Doctor Sleep (the novel) that have no direct resonance in Kubrick’s film, involving a troupe of other “shiners” who are more vampire-adjacent than Danny or Hallorann ever were, the feel is much more “Stephen King” than Stanley Kubrick, acknowledging and celebrating King’s motifs and tropes from his books and other films made from them (and if you’re up on both Kubrick and King, you’re in for one hell of a game of ‘spot the reference!’)

Remarkably, this bold-to-the-point-of-foolhardy strategy works. It helps that Rebecca Ferguson is quite awesome as the leader of the rogue shiners; her flamboyant character, Rose The Hat, is one of those King creations that would’ve been wicked on the page but could’ve been ludicrous on screen. In Ferguson’s hands, she’s not. Also helping are the production designers, who’ve done a superlative job of the potentially disastrous task of recreating key Shining sets and costumes. And, of course, that original score really sets the mood. If this hadn’t been a Warner Bros film, and the essential elements hadn’t been available to play with, I cannot imagine any of this being watchable, but, all credit to Flanagan and all involved, it’s highly entertaining, which certainly makes it one of the strange surprises of 2019.

Dolemite Is My Name (NETFLIX review)

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* * * *

Eddie Murphy roars back into the cultural conversation, the Awards Season, and my heart, with his flamboyant, exuberant and spectacularly entertaining performance in director Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name. He plays Rudy Ray Moore, a real-life performance desperado who broke through to cult success in the 1970s with a comedy set and subsequent record based on stories he bought from a drunk old-timer who lived on the streets. Then, with his rag-tag ensemble of friends and colleagues, he made a movie, Dolemite, under the most indie of independent circumstances. Along the way he may just have invented rap.

This joyous film has the kind of generosity of spirit that you just gotta smile, and frequently laugh out loud. Murphy powers the whole thing along but his ensemble – Keegan-Michael Key, Titus Burgess, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Mike Epps and particularly Craig Robinson – fill out Rudy Ray’s motley creative family with warmth and huge heart. The filmmaking section, which is a good half of the film, evokes Ed Wood, which was also written by Dolemite scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.

I loved this movie. Rudy Ray went on to make seven more Dolemite pictures; I could easily take a Netflix series with an episode spent on the production of every one. It may not be, cinematically, particularly ground-breaking or artful, but as pure entertainment, it’s among the films of the year; it’s certainly one of the funniest.

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Morning Wars / The Morning Show

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I can’t care for any of the characters in the pilot episode of Morning Wars (aka The Morning Show in the US), the ‘flagship’, and very expensive, piece of content being used to promote Apple’s new ‘TV +’ streaming service / portal / all-inclusive lifestyle product. The protagonist, Alex Levy, played by Jennifer Aniston in a heavily promoted ‘return to television’ for what is rumoured to be a jaw-droppingly gargantuan sum of money, is a host for the most successful morning show on American free-to-air television who has been making jaw-droppingly gargantuan sums of money for fifteen years in the position, and is now deeply upset that her show’s ratings may wobble because her co-host, Mitch, played by Steve Carell (to similar promotion) has been canned because he’s been sleeping with production assistants, make-up girls and sundry other young women who’ve dropped by the Morning Show set.

The pilot’s set-piece is Alex having to deliver the news of Mitch’s firing; it is, essentially, a dramatic recreation of the morning Savannah Guthrie announced Matt Lauer’s firing from the Today show on NBC on November 29th, 2019. Reading Ronan Farrow’s book Catch and Kill will provide a far more gripping take on that incident, and watching the actual video is frankly more – weirdly – gripping than Aniston’s portrayal. (Here it is: Matt Lauer Gets Canned)

So, in a show constructed around a man’s potential sexual assaults – including possible rapes – at his workplace, we’re examining the effect not on his victims but on his gazillionaire co-host and, most off-puttingly, himself, and, let’s face it, he’s not such a bad guy, at least in Carell’s hands. Meanwhile, a conservative Journalist With a Capital J is discovered screaming at a coal-mine protester in some hick part of the country, flown to the Morning Show set, and stands her ground against Alex, paving the way for her to become the new co-host (and All About Eve-style threat). She’s played by Reese Witherspoon, so there’s another angle, and another pile of millions effortlessly sluicing from Cupertino to Beverley Hills.

HBO’s Succession has ludicrously wealthy characters based on real people, but their crimes aren’t white-washed, and there is satire and true, incisive skewering. The writing and direction on Morning Wars have no such bite, and the characters are less compelling – and, it looks like, less actually bad – than their real-life counterparts. This is TV about the 1% made by the 1% and produced by the ultimate 1% company, and it’s simply less interesting than the true story that it’s ripping off.

Pavarotti

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* * * *

I really enjoyed Pavarotti, Ron Howard’s generous new theatrical feature documentary on the big cuddly tenor. Of course, it helps when your subject is so immensely talented, physically striking and charismatic: just seeing Pavarotti (and hearing him) for a couple of hours is entertainment enough. But Howard’s been a highly skilled storyteller for a long time now – he directed Splash in 1984 and Cocoon in 1985, and his resumé since includes A Beautiful Mind, Parenthood, The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Backdraft and his finest film, Apollo 13 – and he knows how to flesh out a theme.

In Pavarotti, this means assembling the mass of available material – concerts, contemporaneous interviews, news reports, television specials and appearances, family photos and home movies – into a time-line that is subtly and cleverly arranged into thematic chapters. Without feeling the lanes shift, we move from Pavarotti’s anxieties to Pavarotti’s obsession with (and dependence on) food to Pavarotti’s love life to Pavarotti’s new management. It’s seamlessly and artfully done. Howard supplements the wealth of existing material with wisely chosen new interview subjects, relying most on Pavarotti’s three main lovers (who are all very elegant indeed). He, and they, quickly move past the required praising of the man’s astonishing vocal gifts and onto more personal and intriguing observations.

In the film’s second hour, Pavarotti basically owns a chunk of the 1980s as he becomes a mega pop star. Having lived through it, this section was very evocative and brought back the strange and distinct memory of much of the 1980s being dominated by such a small group of pop culture icons who all seemed to know each other and do projects with each other, often in the aid of charity: Pavarotti, Princess Diana, Bono and U2, Sting, Michael Jackson… Of course there were many others, but the placing of Pavarotti and Diana at the centre of high-end celebrity philanthropic society seems like a valid historical point.

Howard clearly loves his subject and keeps things positive, possibly to the point of hagiographic. But the main thing Pavarotti could be accused of (and his home country’s press certainly did) would be, through his love-life, a betrayal of his Catholicism, and Howard certainly doesn’t hide the love life. Thank goodness. I really enjoyed hearing from each of Pavarotti’s classy lovers about this man they, and the world, clearly adored.

Ready Or Not

The Next Big Thing.

 

Ready or Not is a goof and a hoot, a retro, completely silly, quite violent but never nasty romp that doesn’t tax the cerebral cortex but isn’t without style. In fact, rather terrific style: set in a gorgeous old mansion on a large estate, much of the film seems lit by candlelight, and the design and cinematography in general is very pleasing to the eye.

Samara Weaving – niece of Hugo, with a strong resemblance – plays a young woman marrying into a dynastic family. Their wealth comes from board games – consider them, say, the extended Parker Brothers or Mattels – and perhaps a little deal with the devil. Seems they strongly believe their ancestor may have made a satanic pact to get the family business rolling, with bad news for our young bride.

All of the cast are on the same page – peppy and upbeat and mildly ridiculous – and the directors are very sure of their tone, which echos fun murder mystery spoofs like Clue and Murder By Death. But it’s Weaving’s show. She is supremely watchable, a superb physical comedienne with a unique presence. More exciting than any other aspect of the film is watching her announce herself as the next big Australian female movie star from her very first scene. She’s buoyant, exuberant, and just plain fun to watch. See it for her.

Watchmen (HBO / Showcase)

Watchmen remains the equivalent of a sacred text among graphic novels. The 1986 tome by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was listed among Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels in English since 1923. It was adapted into an incredibly faithful film by Zack Snyder in 2009. At the time I wrote of that film that it was an “excellent, exciting adaptation which will please fans no end, but probably bewilder those who have not read the source material. Violent, strange, enigmatic and loads of fun.” Some of those sentiments carry over here.

Damon Lindelof’s new HBO series continues the story world of Watchmen by bringing its given circumstances into the present, but not our present. Like the source text, it presents an “alternative history” narrative. In the 2019 of the show, Robert Redford is President (and that is literal: the actor Robert Redford is not playing “the President” in the TV show Watchmen; rather, in the TV show Watchmen, the actor Robert Redford is the President). Police officers’ handguns, at least in the state of Oklahoma, where the first episode is set, are locked into gun-safes within their squad cars and may only be remotely released by an authorised higher-up back at base. Cops wear masks to protect their identities. And, most intriguingly, race now longer seems to be generally consistent within families: black parents have white children, and vice-versa.

There are a few big barriers to entry. The show’s world-building is clearly going to be deliberately parceled out, and those who need to get a quick grip on everything will feel rootless and probably frustrated. If you haven’t read Watchmen or seen the movie, the whole tone, which is intense, highly ironic (and sarcastic) and really pretty provocative, may be discombobulating or off-putting. And this is a show about vigilantes who wear masks and capes, so it is certainly superhero-adjacent.

I’m in for now. Lindelof is a TV genius (The Leftovers is one of my favourite TV shows ever, and Lost certainly was a thing) and the opening of this episode, dramatizing a horrendous moment in US racial history known as the Black Wall Street massacre, is arrestingly bold. The production values are through the roof, the music propulsive, and Jeremy Irons is in a concurrent storyline as a really weird castle dweller. One thing is for sure: there’s no predicting what’s coming next.

Zombieland Double Tap

I was totally surprised when a trailer for Zombieland Double Tap dropped onto the cinema screen in front of me a few months ago. I hadn’t thought of the original, which came out ten years ago, since I saw it, and, frankly, I’d forgotten it existed. Seeing the trailer, I felt like I’d missed some cultural phenomenon: wow, Zombieland must have become a… thing!

Maybe, maybe not. One of my film students, who was 12 when the original came out and only discovered it later when given a digital copy by a friend, loves it, has watched it multiple times, and can’t wait to see this new one. Who knew? Not me.

Anyway, the sequel’s not good. Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg do their best to energise the dialogue, but it’s all too self-conscious, and self-satisfied, to be playable. It would have been better in balloons on a comic-book page rather than on a big screen being said aloud. A lot of the lines are cringe-inducing in their desperation. Emma Stone is wasted, given little to do other than sulk – a crime against talent – and Abigail Breslin, who was nine when the first film was made, has grown up to be a flat actor. If she wants to keep going, maybe some classes would help.

The liveliest presence is Zoey Deutch, but her role is really problematic: she simply plays an old-school bimbo, right down to the blond hair and the pink outfit, and, when she’s not going for laughs by playing very dumb, Harrelson is going for them by commenting on her dumbness. It’s an astonishingly tone-deaf character for our time, but it’s all the film has; without Deutch’s idiot schtick, there’d be nothing to laugh at at all.