Perpetual Grace Ltd (STAN)

Damon Herriman is an uncommonly versatile actor with an intriguing, enviable and unique career. In Australia, he’s a star character actor – itself a rare position – and in the United States he’s cornered a strange market, of misfits and malcontents of sometimes limited intelligence and potential danger (he’s playing Manson in Tarantino’s upcoming film). He has a laser-like ability to hone in on any of his characters’ exact level of intelligence and worldliness, so that, for example, his character in Perpetual Grace Ltd, Paul, is smarter than Dewey, his character on Justified, but not as smart as Kim on Secret City, who’s much smarter than Buddy on Quarry, and so on and so on. The secret sauce is that all of them may be a little bit smarter than they let on, or a lot more dumb than they think they are.

This ability to be so specific is important for Perpetual Grace Ltd, because Paul kicks the whole thing rolling, setting up a drifter (Jimmi Simpson) to help him rob of his parents (Ben Kingsley and Jacki Weaver) of four million bucks. They’re corrupt preachers, and the universe of their operations is New Mexico, but really, it’s Coen Brothers World, even though those filmmakers have nothing to do with this show, except to leave their influence all over it.

Despite wearing that influence on its sleeve, Perpetual Grace Ltd delivers. It’s funny, sharp and funky. Kingsley brings his Sexy Beast, Simpson is a natural at roles like this, and Weaver… well, you can tell there’s something brewing. I’m in. This is fun TV made with seriously good ingredients, such as this sublime, highly intelligent cast; they’re all smart enough to know how to play dumb, and I’m guessing some of their characters are too.

Big Little Lies, Black Mirror

Big Little Lies (Showcase) is back with a vengeance; her name is Celeste, and she’s played by Meryl Streep. Celeste is the mother of Perry, who was killed, pack-style, by the “Monterey Five” at the end of Season One; now she prowls amongst them, sniffing them out and deploying every weapon in the passive aggressive arsenal to throw them off-balance. Under Andrea Arnold’s direction, this season seems to have veered deeper into black comedy (away from issue-based mystery), and that’s working just fine for me. Let the bloodletting begin.

Season Five of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (Netflix) is an unprecedented disappointment. There are three episodes, in increasing degrees of quality, from the first, which I felt was unwatchably badly scripted and directed, to Ep 3, which is quite fun and at least competently made. Ep 2 suffers from a truly overblown performance from Andrew Scott, who is having a moment as the Hot Priest on Fleabag; he’s a notorious overactor, and that’s certainly the case here. For the first time the series seems to be behind the technological eight-ball; Brooker’s deal with Netflix should allow him the time to relax, reflect, and re-group. He’s much better than this season would suggest.

Wild Rose

* * * 1/2

Wild Rose is a seriously well judged and executed hybrid, combining the social-realism gritty urban British council-housing single-mum drama (Fish Tank, Dirty God) with the inspirational aspirational a-Brit-did-that! goose-bump feel-good dramedy (The Full Monty, Brassed Off). It is clearly commercial and accessible, but the script’s great strength is that it’s actually far less formulaic than it looks (from the marketing); it repeatedly skirts right up to clichés only to make surprising and satisfying left turns.

The film’s great strength is Jessie Buckley, who is tremendous, turning in a truly “star-making” turn. She plays Rose-Lynn, fresh out of prison, back to the Glasgow council house where her mum (Julie Walters, pitch-perfect) has been looking after her two children. Rose is a good, maybe great, country singer, and her dreams of getting to Nashville are at serious odds with her parental responsibilities.

As I say, you can see where this is headed, except you can’t. The film delivers not on your expectations but on its own integrity. You’ll get the feels, don’t worry about that, but they’re earned.

Parasite

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****

Less tonally schizophrenic, and more accessible, than Joon-ho Bong’s previous work, Parasite is fun, propulsive, ingenious and quite loveable. The young adult son of a couple who have been less than financially lucky in life uses an opportunity to help them and his sister out. The film comments on Korean class issues, but is more concerned with giving the audience a good ride. Extremely well crafted and scripted, and already an incredible box office success in Korea, it’s an intriguing crossover of totally commercial and a teeny bit arty. It won the Palme D’Or for, I guess, the filmmaking brio. See it with an audience; the laughs are infectious.

Fosse/Verdon

Fosse/Verdon Showcase

Nothing will stop the musical theatre darlings from devouring this eight-part examination of the grand, extremely complicated love affair and working relationship between choreographer / director Bob Fosse and choreographer / dancer / actor Gwen Verdon, but the rest of the population might find their relentless self-absorption wearing to say the least. As portrayed here, Fosse and Verdon come off as deeply unlikeable and terrible parents; amidst the drug-taking and drinking, the fights, the affairs, the negligence and the endless passive aggression, one scene sums it up: the two of them talking throughout their daughter’s school ballet recital, simultaneously ignoring their child and blithely displaying disregard for the other parents and students. It is Fosse/Verdon’s “wire coathanger” scene, and the whole thing sits just on the tasteful side of Mommy Dearest, but with a lot more craft, if not much more heart.

Michelle Williams is outstanding as Verdon; Sam Rockwell perhaps less so as Fosse. Or perhaps it’s the character; I found (this version of) Fosse so repugnant, perhaps I blame the actor unfairly. Of course, by the end of the series, during an episode depicting Fosse directing his film All That Jazz, we’re watching an actor playing Fosse directing an actor playing an actor playing Fosse, so where reality ends and art begins is pretty much up for grabs.

63 Up

Screen Shot 2019-06-11 at 11.03.16 am.pngI was recently wondering how Michael Apted was doing. Specifically, I wondered if he was still capable of continuing the 7 Up documentary film series, or whether that had been quietly put to rest. For that matter, had Apted been put to rest, and had I simply missed his passing amidst the 21st Century Noise?

Turns out, Apted is alive and well – he’s 78 – and we have the latest instalment of his revolutionary series: 63 Up. On SBS in Australia it’s divided into three parts, and the first part caught up with four of the original series’ fourteen participants.

I thought I’d feel disconnected to these people. Out of the loop. I was wrong. Seeing them again brings back an immediate rush of memory, and perhaps nostalgia. It’s astonishing that this series started in 1964, and here they are, at 63, and we really are seeing how things panned out.

Apted’s thesis “Give me the child at 7 and I’ll show you the man!” has certainly panned out, at least looking at these four. They are all unmistakably close versions of their 7 year old selves, physically and temperamentally. My own theory – “people don’t change” – is kind of based on Apted’s, and whether or not it’s a good thing, I feel it’s now been proven.

Of course, Apted knows how to tell these stories, and in what order to tell them – Tony comes first! – so I’m sure there are some – potentially sad – twists and turns to come. But so far – one revelation notwithstanding – the news is good. All four of episode one’s subjects have partners and kids and seem okay financially. Indeed, Apted’s biggest theme – Class – provides the biggest happy revelation: even those from the “working class” seem to have at least made it to the middle.

More to come, and I can’t wait. A milestone show.

Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion

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* * * 1/2

I grew up on Asterix, and now have the pleasure of introducing my young daughter to his world: of forests and wild boars, druids, villagers, feasts, adventures and Romans. It is a warm world of great wit; the books have always worked simultaneously for kids and adults, because the wordplay is so funny and the satire so astute.

Luckily, Asterix and the Secret Of The Magic Potion, an animated feature with an original story, honours the spirit of the books with grace and integrity. It also nods to girl power, which, of course, was good news for me and my little one. Getafix the druid, having had a near-death experience, decides to share the secret of the magic potion to a young druid-in-training, and takes Asterix and Obelix along for protection; a young girl with a passion for science stows away with them, and is treated with respect by the gang (and the filmmakers), ultimately overcoming a traditional gender bias or deux.

I’ve now seen the film in French and English; the version being shown in Australia, dubbed into English by a crack squad of Canadian voice artists, is faithful and funny. Far less formulaic and far wittier than your average American animated feature, this is truly fun for old and young.

Chernobyl

Wielding resources from both HBO and Sky Atlantic, and fielding a cornucopia of British and European acting talent, Chernobyl is something to behold, a monumental, thus-far impeccable (and impeccably researched) five-episode rendering of the 1986 nuclear disaster. Suspenseful, alarming, horrifying, tragic and angry, this is television as good as it gets.

The scientists, party members, public – well, everyone – of this sad story are all portrayed speaking English with dialectically variable British accents, which takes a few moments to adjust to, but then you’re in. (Incidentally, The Death of Stalin did the same thing, with director Armando Iannucci pointing out that the USSR was so vast and composed of so many different dialects and accents, the use of multiple British voices made sense, and it did, as it now does here).

The show thus far is a scathing indictment of the State system of secrecy, cover-up and general terror at being perceived as anything other than perfect at everything. The sheer denial of truth at every level is mind boggling and infuriating, and will be a revelation for many viewers (myself included). This is an expansive, expensive, take-no-prisoners investigation into a system’s response to a terrible accident, rather than a “disaster movie” depiction of the accident itself, although the disaster is rendered, in the first episode, with exquisite and disturbing effect. I was truly moved as the credits rolled on episode one, and felt reverberations from those late 80s nuclear-themed calls to action The Day After, Threads and When The Wind Blows.

You would hardly expect from his credits – Scary Movie 3 and 4, The Hangover Part II and Part III – that creator and writer Craig Mazin had this in him. People will surprise – and amaze – you. This is must-see television.

Godzilla 2 King of the Monsters

* * 1/2

Warning: Spoilers.

To call Godzilla 2 King of the Monsters ridiculous would be an understatement, but it’s not without its charms, chief of which is a truly A-list cast speaking ludicrous dialogue with absolute commitment. It must have been tough, saying lines that make no sense in a story that is incomprehensible; I imagine them all – Charles Dance, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn – sitting around at night, trading bonkers lines of dialogue they’d had to say that day, as a kind of drinking game.

Some of them have pedigrees with freaky creatures. Hawkins famously shtupped a slimy merman and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination in the terribly over-rated The Shape Of Water; Dance spent four seasons on Game of Thrones, where he at least co-existed in a dragon world. Many of them are returning from Godzilla (2014), which lives in the same cinematic universe as the rebooted King Kong; a clash between the great ape and the nuclear lizard is coming, so there’s something to look forward to.

The plot, such as is discernible, involves Dance as an eco-warrior in charge of a bunch of like-minded British mercenaries colluding with Vera Farmiga, as a scientist and mother traumatised from Godzilla’s last rampage, to free all the monsters on earth from their secret burial grounds so that they can rid earth of most of humanity in order to save it, while a plane-load of other scientists and soldier-types try to stop them, or something like that. In other words, it pits extremist greenies against the government. Whatever. Over a very loud, very confusing, but never boring couple of hours, the main fighting is between the big monsters, and at the end of the day, Godzilla wins. Of course he does. He’s the king of the monsters.

Rocketman

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* * * *

Framed as a rehab therapy session, with the subject – Elton John – recalling the circumstances leading to his sitting in a recovery circle, Rocketman, from director Dexter Fletcher (the same passionate Brit who was called in to finish Bohemian Rhapsody when director Bryan Singer was fired) is a fabulous “juke-box” memory musical that absolutely suits its flamboyant subject. Eschewing strict chronology in favour of “ecstatic truth”, Fletcher’s fantasia nonetheless manages to tell his subject’s life – echoing a “traditional biopic” – even as he turns it into a musical.

The direct influence here is Ken Russell, another British music-mad auteur with a penchant for flamboyance. He made Tommy, Lisztomania, Mahler and The Music Lovers, among many others, and those films are clearly inspirational for Fletcher’s work here; indeed, there are bounteous direct references. Elton John was in Tommy (as The Pinball Wizard), and watching the brilliant Taron Egerton, as John, singing Pinball Wizard, in a sequence that is an homage to Tommy, is trippy, and designed as such.

The whole movie is full of such bold delights; it’s fun, fun fun, and at its most fun when – about every nine minutes – characters burst into (an Elton John) song, arranged and structured so as to comment on, or further, the action. Egerton is astonishingly good, doing all his own singing to boot (which Rami Malek did not do in the far, far inferior Bohemian Rhapsody, a film to which this one will be endlessly compared, in Rocketman’s favour). He progresses from a very fresh-faced young talent to a very angry, very drug-addled superstar with precision and panache. He deserves Malek’s Oscar; this is the performance of a sexually conflicted London-born piano-playing singing and songwriting prodigy with serious addiction problems that the world should remember.

The film has faults; the recovery framework, while being essential to the movie’s terrific structure, is its own worst enemy in some extremely cheesy, on-the-nose “therapy-speak” moments towards the film’s end, and John’s demons, personified by three particular individuals, are portrayed with too heavy a hand. But overall, Rocketman is a joyous spectacle crafted with obvious love, care, passion and skill. See it on a Friday night with a crowd; you’ll find yourselves applauding some of the numbers.