Hunters (Amazon) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)

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Even though he may have aged out of being a massive box office drawer, Al Pacino is still a Big Deal Movie Star, and thus his first TV series is a Big Deal. Shame then, that – based on the movie-length pilot, and I won’t be watching any more episodes – Hunters (Amazon) is such an agonisingly bad choice for his streaming debut. Garish, sadistic and desperate to please, it is also deeply offensive, so much so I’m staggered it was green lit, made and is now being screened.

The premise is that in late 1970s New York, there is a ragtag team of Nazi hunters, led by Pacino’s Meyer Offerman, a concentration camp survivor, hunting Nazis in America. Indoctrinating a young fella whose survivor-grandmother has been coldly murdered by one of these rogue Nazis, Offerman and co also face a potential new Nazi movement in the US – a Fourth Reich.

Nazi hunting is certainly not unprecedented as dramatic fodder; The Boys from Brazil (1978) was always playing on Sunday night TV when I was a kid. That film was nominated for three Oscars and is considered pretty classy. There are plenty of smaller films, such as Remember (2015) and The German Doctor (2013) that try to wrestle with the human side of evil and approach the subject with some form of integrity.

But it is integrity that is wholly absent in Hunters. This is cartoon stuff and brutally insensitive. I knew I was out halfway through the pilot episode when a ‘human chess game’ is depicted at a Nazi concentration camp: a mean Nazi commander plays chess with one of the prisoners, using other prisoners armed with knives as living pieces; when they ‘take’ each other, they slaughter each other. I cannot imagine how I would feel, seeing this sequence, were I a camp survivor. “Your experience,” the show is saying, “wasn’t horrible enough, so we’ve invented this.”

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Meanwhile, on the altogether more classy HBO, Larry David delivers a tenth season of his comedy of manners Curb Your Enthusiasm (on Foxtel in Australia). There’s no reason for him to; after all, just like his character (who is himself), Larry is loaded, beyond any mortal’s wildest dreams (estimates are around the billion dollar mark, from royalties and ongoing sales of Seinfeld, which David co-created). But #metoo has happened to the world since Season Nine, so it stands to reason it should happen to Larry, who, while no predator, ticks every other box for being in the movement’s crosshairs. Watching Real Larry and Fictional Larry duke it out onscreen – where does one stop and the other start? – in this heightened environment gives the season a definite edge it hasn’t had since about Season Three, and makes it worth watching. That, and the fact that, as usual, it’s really funny.

EMMA and HORSE GIRL

EMMA (Cinemas)

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* * * 1/2

Why do we need a new Emma? You may ask the same of Hamlet. Emma is (controversial opinion here perhaps) Jane Austen’s most intriguing heroine, and it’s worth seeing what new generations of actresses may bring to the role (as it has proved worthwhile seeing a new ensemble take charge of a Little Women for the 21st Century).

This one – directed by feature debut director Autumn de Wilde – is heavy on a highly specific design choice, and will be known henceforth as “the pastel one”: every outfit, chair, curtain and wall is of a pastel shade, each contributing to the overwhelming – but very delightful – sense of the whole movie being constructed as a sweet slice of cake, which, when you think about it, is a perfectly fair approach and metaphor for how Austen’s stories can be enjoyed (which is not to say other directorial approaches cannot emphasise darker qualities).

But beyond the intensity of the clear style choice, it is Anya Taylor-Joy who justifies this new adaptation’s existence. She is sublime, reason enough to mount a new film, as, say, Jude Law was enough for there to be a new Hamlet on the West End in 2009. Her Emma is as devious, misguided and occasionally sheerly unlikeable as Austen’s is on the page, but her underlying likability enables Emma’s redemption to not only be consumable, but go down as sweetly as the cupcake wallpaper. Taylor-Joy, blessed with one of those deployable cinematic faces that is almost all eyes, is perfect for period pictures; the straighter she stands, the more corseted she is, the more she can gain from a glance, a look, a stare, and in this Emma, it is stolen glances that carry more weight than, at times, even the sparkling words. A delight.

HORSE GIRL (Netflix original movie)

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* * *

Mental illness as the engine for a thriller is a cultural conceit whose days are numbered, but, as a last gasp, there’s no denying this entry is compelling and evocative. Alison Brie, who co-wrote the screenplay, is excellent as a young woman whose mental health begins to unravel toward the end of the first act. The second act is very strong, and Brie’s performance borders on sensational; overall, however, the film is rather shallow, entirely predictable on a story level but happily surprising on an execution one.

The Leunig Fragments

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* * *

Michael Leunig is literally an Australian National Living Treasure: it turns out, as revealed in The Leunig Fragments, an alternatively revealing and frustrating feature-length cinema-release documentary about the (generally) adored cartoonist, someone calls you up from the National Trust and asks if you’d like to be one. (There are currently 79; naturally, when you die, you drop off the list). In person – and this documentary features him a lot, sitting for the camera in his studio and occasionally his home, both in Melbourne – he is perhaps as you’d expect, which is to say philosophical, soft, and whimsical.

It is that dreaded but oh-so-precise word, whimsy, that will forever be associated with Leunig’s vast body of work; how much you can stomach the stuff will determine how much, perhaps, you’ll enjoy this edge-of-hagiography. I personally have always admired his work, but I found the man himself painful to listen to, literally: his voice drove me bananas, high and soft and never completing a thought with determination but letting every single sentence, phrase and utterance drift off into ellipsis…

Frankly, he sounds utterly mannered and affected, and the documentary is at its best when not pointing its camera at him. Hearing others talk about him is more revealing, but there’s more to his story than shown in these ninety-seven minutes worth of ‘fragments’. The most fascinating moment is a simple title card telling us that “only one member of [Leunig’s] family” was willing to appear in the film; that speaks volumes, but the film doesn’t read them beyond an introduction. Like the minute or so spent on Leunig’s pro-anti-vaccination stance or other controversies he’s found himself in, every time something comes along to trouble the nice narrative, the film takes a peek, then looks away, almost ashamed to denigrate its subject and, clearly, its hero.

The Lighthouse

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* * * *

A youngish drifter joins an old-timer to serve as his assistant running a lighthouse on an isolated, indeed god-forsaken, island. That’s all you need to know about the plot of The Lighthouse, because it’s not a film you see for the plot; it’s experiential, a sublime example of an ostensibly narrative feature film that compels you (and boy does The Lighthouse compel you) through its 109 minutes through virtuosic visual and aural stimulation. Call it ecstatic cinema.

Robert Eggers, the auteur of this absolutely auteurist work, previously made The VVitch, and The Lighthouse reverberates with that film’s early-times-in-New-England setting (The VVitch was set in the 1630s, The Lighthouse in the late 1800s), its hand-made wooden sets and props, and its spectacularly florid period language (wait’ll you hear Willem Dafoe, in an Oscar-nominated performance, get his mouth around it). But, like his contemporary, peer and possible artistic soulmate Ari Aster, Eggers’ sophomore effort is as much a black comedy as a horror film. As Aster’s Midsommar was to Hereditary, so too is The Lighthouse a wild trip compared to The VVitch’s mapped-out precision.

And what a trip! This is mesmerising, head-spinning stuff, full of shots, moments, scenes and sequences that are pretty indelible and pretty incredible. Shot in miserable conditions (and the dramatic weather’s all up there on the screen) in Nova Scotia, as essentially a two-hander (Robert Pattinson being the young gun up against Dafoe’s incredibly salty sea-dog), in striking 35mm B&W (the cinematography is nominated for an Oscar), there is nothing else like it. I was stunned to get to see it at Event Cinemas Bondi Junction – a mainstream Australian theatre chain and location – on their biggest screen (VMAX!) – as though it was the latest superhero movie. Whether they felt that Pattinson’s involvement meant this would pack in the young ‘uns, or they actually recognised a spectacle demanding their best possible facilities, they’re to be praised for playing a film this wonderfully nutty as though it’s mainstream. Unclassifiable, maybe it was pitched to them thus: Wake In Fright meets Ida meets Splash. That’ll sell some popcorn!

Midway and Seberg (Movie Reviews)

MIDWAY * * * 1/2 and SEBERG * *1/2

I tend to love a late-60s Hollywood biopic and not a WW2 strategy battle epic, so two new films have my expectations flummoxed.

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Roland Emmerich’s Midway is not a remake of the film from 1976, though it certainly could be, and it is in spirit. Like that film, Emmerich’s massive adventure – a one hundred million dollar indie produced primarily with Chinese capital is an “all-star” epic following many storylines and aiming to portray the actual strategies and tactics involved in the Battle of Midway in June, 1942 as much as possible. It is resolutely old-fashioned and surprisingly compelling; I enjoyed it far more than I expected to.

The 1976 Midway was essentially a sequel to 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! which depicted the attack on Pearl Harbor (Emmerich’s film handily includes that attack, saving us from having to watch Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor from 2001). Both films came in the wake of other star-studded battle historical epics such as The Longest Day (1962), Battle of the Bulge (1965) and Battle of Britain (1969); these films inevitably had their multitudinous male stars’ faces in little boxes covering much of the poster, and ultimately became Sunday afternoon TV staples, where, with ads, they could stretch well into a third hour. Once most of the big WW2 battles had been portrayed, or war-weariness had set in, the template simply pivoted to become the ‘disaster movie’, and films like Earthquake, Airport, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure replaced war with catastrophe but told their stories the same way – big stars (and lots of them), multiple storylines, long running times, short scenes leading up to the ultimate conflagration.

Roland Emmerich became the new ‘disaster movie King’ in the 1990s and 2000s with a string of films that followed the 1970s template, including Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. So coming full circle to Midway feels like a natural move for him (if insane for anyone else): he’s simply returning to the source of his style. And Midway is unmistakably in the Roland Emmerich style, down to the captions constantly alerting us to the day and date (and, as we reach the main event, the time of day).

Unlike the 1976 Midway, Emmerich has access to newer information: that published in 1985 as And I Was There by Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton, portrayed in the new movie by Patrick Wilson. Layton and his colleague Joseph Rochefort broke Japanese code that led to the US’s victorious strategy at Midway, and this storyline – necessarily absent from the ’76 film – gives Emmerich’s version more strategic depth.

Depth is not the strong point of the dialogue, which is often jingoistic and artificial: “Men like Dick Best are the reason we’re going to win this war.” But that’s Emmerich, and, indeed, the genre. The film is at its worst – as genre examples ever were – when trying to depict the warriors at home, with their spouses or kids. I’m going to shatter all my politically correct credentials by suggesting that films like this shouldn’t even try to include ‘domestic scenes’ (and, therefore, female characters). Those are the “go to the bathroom” scenes. Everyone knows why we’re here: to see the strategy and then see the battle.

This is a film free from dramatic nuance and irony; it’s about as subtle as the attack on Pearl Harbor itself. But (dialogue aside) it’s a very good history lesson in movie form; you’d be a Pacific War geek indeed to not come away with at least a couple of new nuggets.

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Dialogue is the worst part, too, of Seberg, but there are other problems. On paper this film had every possibility of working: Kristen Stewart is absolutely the right actor to play iconoclastic Hollywood / French New Wave actress Jean Seberg, and this period of Seberg’s life – 1968-1971 – is absolutely ripe for dramatisation.

Like Seberg, Stewart was given massive Hollywood exposure in a huge tentpole film while still a teenager, then found greater artistic value in smaller, more director-driven films in France, before returning to work in the US while stirring the celebrity gossip pot with (vaguely) unorthodox sexuality. Unlike Seberg, Stewart was not targeted by the FBI for her involvement with a civil rights activist – Hakim Jamal – and her donations to the Black Panthers.

So Seberg’s story is a great one, and Kristen Stewart, a truly magnetic actor, is a great Seberg. But the dialogue is excruciating, and it makes the actors saying it look bad: you can’t act this stuff properly. Also, the film, directed by Benedict Andrews (Una), while theoretically on Seberg’s side, spends half its time on a made-up FBI agent played by Jack O’Connell as he struggles with his conscience and considers subverting the agency. This is a massive dramatic mistake. O’Connell’s character is meant to represent the FBI, and there is no historical evidence that the FBI ever softened its stance on Seberg, but the film seems to be saying, ‘don’t worry, there were some good guys spying on you, hounding you, trashing your reputation and destroying your life, too.’ Also, O’Connell’s scenes require a fictional wife, wasting Margaret Qualley in ‘domestic scenes’ as dramatically lame as those in Midway.

Watching Seberg is to become increasingly disheartened, as it strays deeper into bathos, incredulity and cliché as it goes on. It’s very disappointing. Who knew that the film I had high hopes for, a film that had all the ingredients I liked, would be such a bummer, while a film made in a genre I couldn’t care less about, by a director I generally find crass, would prove so relatively rich? C’est le cinema.

Avenue 5: HBO / Foxtel Showtime (Review)

It is with no pleasure at all to report that Armando Iannucci’s new show for HBO, Avenue 5, is not good (at least, according to the pilot). Iannucci, my favourite living screenwriter and showrunner/creator/producer/director (I’m Alan Partridge (and various other Alan Partridge shows), The Thick Of It, In The Loop, The Death of Stalin, Veep, and the upcoming The Personal History of David Copperfield). Iannucci has brought some of his long-standing writing and producing crew, including Tony Roche, Will Smith, Ian Martin, Georgia Pritchett, Sean Grey and Simon Blackwell along with him to this new venture; together, these are The Beatles of TV comedy, as astonishingly consistently brilliant group. Let’s call them The Iannuccis. But all artists are fallible, and something happened here.

Political satire has been The Iannuccis’ stock in trade, and they’re at their most dextrous when manoeuvring a group of three to seven nincompoops around a farcically inane situation. Here, they’ve substituted recognisable corridors of power – British Parliament, the White House – for those of a luxury starship cruise liner, led by Iannuccis all-star Hugh Laurie as a witless captain (there’s a twist to that which I won’t spoil). When a galactic incident occurs, the starship is propelled into a new trajectory, stranding the passengers and crew together for three years.

It’s hard to define exactly what went wrong, but something really did, because the show fails, landing its gags with a dead thud. The huge cast – rather than tight groups, we’re deliberately dealing with a lot of passengers – weighs the comedy’s mechanics down; the contrived setting jettisons The Iannuccis ability to deploy satire; mainly, though, the characters who form the key ensemble within the starship just aren’t well conceived. This means we’re stuck with them, drastically reducing the chances of the show ‘finding itself’, at least this season.

Too much money, too much carte blanche, too long working together, too complacent in their brilliance, too much on their plate(s)? Impossible to say. What is clear is that the cast – some individually talented – are clearly trying to play in The Iannuccis style; they’ve watched Veep and they’re doing Veep, and with this many of them, it’s all too much, too loud, too unfocused, and unfunny.

Oh well.

The Young Pope and The New Pope

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Beauty is clearly in the eye of the beholder, but there would be a case to be made that The Young Pope is the most beautiful season of television ever made. It was created – and, vitally, every one of its ten episodes was directed – by Paolo Sorrentino, who is recognised worldwide as one of the great visual stylists, whose trademark style is beauty, and whose breakthrough, Oscar-winning film is called The Great Beauty. That film takes place in Rome, widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful cities in the world; The Young Pope is set in the Vatican, which is in Rome, and shot in Venice, which, need I say, is widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Take all this and add an HBO budget – you know, Game of Thrones / Succession level budget – and there’s your case: The Young Pope is possibly the most beautiful season of television ever made.

That’s important, because its beauty helps keep you going when the plot gets you down. It’s not that Paolo can’t tell a linear story efficiently, it’s that he doesn’t care to: if you’ve seen any of his movies you’ll know what I mean, and he brought the same disregard for traditional plotting, and the same emphases instead on visual style, intense wit, multitudinous references, and deep character examination, to The Young Pope.

That was 2016 / 2017. Now, rather than a second season of The Young Pope, he gives us The New Pope, which will make sense once you watch Season One. Should you? Unabashedly yes, if you’re down for what I’ve already put forward and more: astonishing, ravishing beauty (including that of Jude Law, who plays The Young Pope), wit, deep intellectual curiosity, uncanny political relevance (much of The Young Pope predicts Trump’s chaotic reign and the intense turmoil it causes) and extremely deep levels of conflicted, confusing, contradictory characterisation. Just don’t come expecting a simple story cleanly told. That’s not Paolo’s style, nor his Young Pope’s.

The New Pope has been fast-tracked and is now screening on SBS On Demand in tandem with its episode-by-episode release on HBO. All episode of The Young Pope are available.

Bombshell Review

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* * * *

Jay Roach’s portrait of the year Fox News’ Roger Ailes’ history of sexual harassment came back to bite him on his fat ass is exhilarating, furious, compelling and thoroughly entertaining. It is also essentially and thrillingly visceral: I spent the second half of the movie having to stop myself from standing up in the crowded cinema and screaming “Take that you evil fuck!” at John Lithgow’s portrayal of this awful, awful, awful human being.

Ailes and Fox News (the movie almost entirely takes place within its network of offices, elevators, hallways and cubicles) were / are so inherently toxic, so blatantly disgusting, that it could be argued that merely to present them onscreen is to guarantee a cracker show: with villains this villainous, it’s easy to rile your audience against them and cheer at their fall. But Roach and Lithgow don’t allow Ailes to be a total grotesque; the movie, as flashy as it is, is subtler than that. And it’s not Ailes’ movie, anyway.

Weirdly, but successfully, it’s Megyn Kelly’s movie. If you’re not from the US and haven’t been obsessively reading US news since Trump, you may not have heard of her; the film sketches in the version of her required to tell this story (if not her whole story, which is very complicated) and she is brilliantly played by Charlize Theron. I’m told the simulacrum of Kelly is astonishing; I’ve never seen Kelly on air, or if I have, so little that I can’t vouch for the impersonation side of the portrayal, but it’s an honest and sincere and intelligent performance. And Margot Robbie, as a young employee at Fox News who becomes a fish in Ailes’ barrel, is, as usual, astonishing. Both women are nominated for Oscars.

The only reason not to see Bombshell – and it’s a fair one – is to avoid swimming in these disgusting, rank, poisonous, filthy waters. This is not only Fox, it’s the US under Trump, and it’s grim. But as a film, this is energising, invigorating and rather essential.

PS Special points must be awarded for the ingenious casting of the Lawson brothers as the Murdoch brothers.

True History of the Kelly Gang Review

* * * *

I don’t think I finished reading Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, and remember feeling a little ashamed about it: I may have found it too cerebral, post-modern, and reliant on previous histories of Australia’s most (in)famous outlaw. But in cinema, post-modern deconstructionist expressionistic anachronistic elliptical storytelling is my jam, and Justin Kurzel’s fourth feature is full of it. This is a feast for the senses, a gloriously indulgent examination of myth-making, storytelling and the essence of Kelly’s Australia, which was a battleground between civilisation and savagery.

George MacKay (again George MacKay! He’s having a week) plays Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, and man he is good. Donning a very acceptable Australian accent, his Kelly is forged in the bosom of his mother (Essie Davis), and it is for her he fights and dies. He pitches Ned’s intelligence, and particularly emotional intelligence (would that be wisdom?) at a very specific level; although he gets to punkishly howl at the moon and rev up his gang like a football hooligan, it’s actually a very deliberate and well-thought-through performance. Davis is superb, as is Nicholas Hoult as the creepy Constable Fitzpatrick. But this is a director’s film, an auteur’s film, and Kurzel, along with Jennifer Kent, is one of Australia’s great young auteurs. They are both fearless.