Mandalorian, Queens of Mystery, The Good Liar

Two new streaming shows offer genre fans massive levels of fan service; each may seem to their respective prospective audiences like manna from heaven.

Acorn TV streams exclusively British content of the mostly cosy variety; it’s the kind of stuff you’ve traditionally found on ABC Australia, with a heavy emphasis on mystery and period drama. The new Acorn TV exclusive Queens of Mystery aims to be the mother of all cosy mysteries; it is so engineered to deliver what fans of the genre want that it’s easy to be cynical about it, but I suspect there will be plenty of eager fans ready to lap up every ripe moment.

A young female cop is transferred to her gorgeous (cosy) hometown, where pretty much immediately a murder is committed, not only to a writer of mystery novels, but at a mystery novel festival. But that’s not even the big hook; the cop’s three aunts all live in the town, are all mystery writers themselves, and all want to help solve the mystery. One of them is even a suspect!

This extreme high concept will either leave you dry or make you so excited you’ve already ordered Acorn in HD. It’s hard for me to judge, not really being a fan of the genre (sadly; I used to be); it’s ludicrously over-acted and over-stuffed, but also smells like fun.

Fun is the mega-operative word for The Mandalorian on Disney Plus; this Star Wars TV series is nothing but. Eschewing the deep family-drama ‘force’ mythology of the soon-to-be-completed nine-film franchise but embracing every stylistic element you love from episodes 4-8 (ie the ‘George Lucas 1977 A New Hope’ style), this action-packed and very funny bounty-hunter epic, grounded in the conventions of the classic Hollywood Western, is one hundred percent convinced of its own tone. It knows exactly what it wants to be, and with every bug-eyed monster, laser shoot-out and Mos Eisley Cantina-like cantina, it achieves it. I thought I was done with everything Star Wars, but The Mandalorian’s joyous charms are impossible to resist. For its every brief episode (they’re about 38 minutes apiece) I’m a kid again, grinning from ear to ear.

Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren are two great movie stars, and they account for the * * I can give The Good Liar, a ludicrous con-man thriller perfunctorily directed by Bill Condon, now in cinemas. Based on a novel by Nicholas Searle which I will never read, the film sells itself first on McKellen and Mirren and then on its “twisty” plot. The actors are great; the plot, not.

Jojo Rabbit

If the awards were won based purely on audacity, without regard for outcome, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit would have the potential to win them all. This movie is a big swing in every direction: tonally, commercially, as subject matter, as career move. And when it works, it really works: there are some metaphorical visuals that are among the most powerful filmed images I’ve seen in a bountiful year of great moviegoing. But it doesn’t always work, and, unfortunately, some of the swings and misses really land with a thud: silence loud enough to make its presence known in the auditorium, silence that says, “Whoops, we all saw that.”

So points indeed for bold ambition, and I’m glad the film exists, not least for introducing us to an extraordinary young male actor, Roman Griffin Davis, who plays Jojo, a ten-year old boy at the tail end of WW2 who longs to be a Nazi but instead befriends a Jew. She’s played by Thomasin McKenzie, who already had her big coming out party in the form of Leave No Trace last year; here, she’s burdened by a German accent which seems trickier for her than an American one (she’s from New Zealand) but there’s no denying that the two young actors, whose scenes together comprise at least a third of the film, make for one of the year’s best love stories.

Outside of their rather isolated story, Waititi stages a Mel Brooks-style comedic assault on the Nazis that is sporadically rather than consistently funny. His deep supporting cast, including Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell, Stephen Merchant and (in a weirdly brilliant role) Alfie Allen all have their moments, but they also all get dud gags that don’t work. Wilson in particular, perhaps limited by that German accent (she usually gets to keep her deep Aussie twang), struggles and often flails.

Scarlett Johansson is fine as Jojo’s mother – a kind of ‘straight man’ role amongst the satirical goofiness – and Waititi himself plays Jojo’s imaginary friend, Hitler. His performance is emblematic of the whole movie: it can be brilliant or really flat, often in the span of the same moment.

The Irishman Review

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* * * * 1/2

There’s simply no denying the awesome craftsmanship of Martin Scorsese’s überfilm The Irishman, which has finally arrived, after an enormous shoot and an unprecedented post-production process, on big and small screens (it’s a Netflix production). As monumental, and monumentally skilled, cinema, it’s breath-taking: the production design, the cinematography, the attention to detail at every level, the bold editing, the elegance of the compositions, all point to a team of masters working together on a masterpiece in the old-fashioned sense.

So how does it work on a storytelling level? For me, the biggest surprise, given that I went in with plenty of fair assumptions, was the amount of times the film made me laugh out loud. Once Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) enters the story, presumably kicking off the second act (of a three and a half hour picture), The Irishman is not afraid to boldly make a joke. Pacino’s performance is funny in its own right, and as it goes on, it seems to give the movie permission to follow its lead; by the time we’re well ensconced in the second hour, Scorsese and lifelong editor Thelma Schoonmaker are making edit gags – “cuts” that humorously draw attention to themselves – and, presumably, yucking it up in the edit suite. Praise be to them; I loved the humour in the movie, and Pacino’s performance.

Robert De Niro, as Hoffa’s factotum Frank Sheeran, the Irishman of the title who also serves the Philly mob, and ultimately finds himself a troubled servant of two masters, has the film’s straightest role, allowing the enormous and enormously professional cast to dazzle in his reflection. He’s in every scene and a stable influence, which is not to say he’s not very, very good. But Frank’s major personality trait is his loyalty, which simply isn’t a very passionate attribute. His is a quiet confidence, most evident when he kills.

The film spent so long in post because it utilised digital de-ageing techniques to allow De Niro, Joe Pesci, Pacino and others the chance to play the younger versions of themselves. Facially, this looks a little ‘uncanny’, especially in the first act, when they’re meant to be at least thirty years younger than they really are (which is in their mid-70s). But it’s their bodies that don’t look right. The digital forty year-old Frank, featuring a smooth face with eerie computer eyes, walks as a 76 year old De Niro does, throws a gun into the river as an older man does, kicks a man with weak old man legs and joints. It’s strange looking – not in a good way – and distracting.

The third act, featuring the men in their actual dotage, is melancholic, mournful and quite magical. This is where Scorsese and his mob effectively bring their mafia trilogy – combining GoodFellas, Casino and this title – to its close, and in doing so, come to the mother of all crime movie conclusions: at the end of the day, crime really doesn’t pay. All those days these goombahs spent one-upping each other, they weren’t playing with their children, and that is their punishment. That, and, as the movie keeps telling us, very often five or six bullets to the head.

Frozen 2 Review (aka Frozen II)

* * * 1/2

Having, this year, both been to Norway and been mildly obsessed with Norway’s 2019 Eurovision entry Spirit In The Sky, I feel I can appreciate the true oddity that is Frozen 2, one of those strange sequels, like Babe: Pig In The City, that not only feels weirder and more free-wheeling than its predecessor, but that also feels like some of its offbeat charm is a happy accident.

Because this movie is a mess. Nobly seeking to address the Sami indigenous people of northern Norway, and incorporate greater Norse mythology, while also maintaining the theme of sisterhood that made Frozen the ultimate girl-power success story, the scriptwriters deliver an incomprehensible plot dripping with mysterious mysticism – and that’s what’s fun. Going in, expecting a finely-tuned toy advertisement, and instead getting bonkers nonsense with some fine songs and Elsa ice-surfing, is unpredictable, and unpredictable in this case is to be celebrated.

The B plot, involving Kristof, is appalling, but includes a very funny 80s music video parody, and Olaf the snowman had my daughter in stitches. For me, it was all about the film’s joyous abandon: it makes no sense, it goes nowhere, and the Walt Disney Company signed off on it. It’s nutty!

Knives Out

* * * * 1/2

Rian Johnson is forging a cool career as a genre auteurist whose films are in different genres. Thus Brick was his noir, The Brothers Bloom his romantic con-artist romp, Looper his time travel brain-buster, The Last Jedi his space opera, and now Knives Out his whodunnit. In each case – even on his Star Wars gig – he simultaneously celebrates and subverts the genre, adhering to its conventions while spinning the material in a fresh way. He’s only 46, and he’s ludicrously talented.

And Knives Out is ludicrously fun. Johnson’s found the perfect old house in Massachusetts to set his murder mystery; he’s stacked it with props that directly reference, and may even be, the props from Sleuth (1972), which was also one of my favourite twisty movies as a kid; he’s engaged a fun-loving ensemble of glitterati; and then there’s his subversions, spins and extrapolations, none of which I’ll reveal, save one: the poster may imply a true ensemble, but this film has a protagonist and a star, and that’s Ana De Armas (who you hopefully remember fondly from Blade Runner 2049 as Ryan Gosling’s AI girlfriend). The second most prominent character here is played by Daniel Craig, and he shares a lot of scenes with De Armas, essentially supporting her, which is super fun, because she’ll soon be doing the same for him in No Time To Die, the next Bond film (and Craig’s last).

This film is super satisfying. It’s funny, the mystery plot really works, and it also has something to say, which it does with enjoyably righteous anger. Go for the production design and the plot, leave being blown away by De Armas and, once again, Johnson, one of America’s finest. This might be his best film; it’s one of 2019’s most entertaining.

Marriage Story Review

*****

Marriage Story is Noah Baumbach’s masterpiece, a tragicomedy of human relationships that gets everything right. Anchored by pitch perfect performances from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, this forensic study of a certain kind of divorce elegantly, faultlessly rides the bittersweet path: every scene, and practically every moment, is simultaneously deeply sad and very funny. That’s not just skilled filmmaking, it’s a kind of alchemy.

The stakes are high but accessible: there is a child, Henry, who is about six years old; the splitting couple each have work on either side of the United States (he in NYC, she in LA); both want Henry to live on their coast. Without money and property being foregrounded, the story remains deeply human and humane: Baumbach shows deep empathic compassion for both his leads, and for us as an audience. We are not forced to pick sides. Their professional world – of the grant-subsidised NYC theatre and uncertainties but big bucks of series TV – is rarefied and simply rare, but Baumbach’s script and direction is so incredibly specific, so full of rich and precisely observed detail, that the whole is entirely relatable; that old adage, find the universal in the specific, is entirely and successfully at play here.

If there is a villain, it’s lawyers and a legal system that reflects the misnomer of the “United” States: California and New York have rival systems, and god forbid you break up in both of them simultaneously.

The deep bench of supporting actors do superb work: Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as the attorneys, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Johansson’s family, Wallace Shawn as a workmate and Azhy Robertson as Henry. Driver and Johansson deliver career-bests and will both be nominated for Oscars. Driver may win.

This may be the best film of 2019. It’s right up there. Unmissable.

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.