Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind

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Not everyone gets to make a home movie for HBO, and even Natalie Wood’s daughter Natasha may have faced a “Thanks, but no thanks” suggesting a personal hagiography of her (deserving, there is no doubt) mother. But when you can bring your stepdaddy Robert Wagner to the table, promising an intimate interview including going over the events of ‘that night’ – that Natalie drowned – in excruciating, minute-by-minute detail, well, you’ve got yourself a green light.

The result, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, is filmmaking at its most personal, and its most agenda-driven. In a nutshell, Natasha Gregson Wagner’s intention with the film is to exonerate her “Daddy Wagner” – as she calls him throughout the film – from the lingering whispers, mainly propagated by Natalie’s sister Lana, that he was directly, even murderously, responsible for her death. She makes a strong case, basically because Wagner, now 90, comes off as such a teddy bear, and one who clearly legitimately loved his deceased wife.

I rather loved this film, even as I saw through it. You could remove all the stuff with Daddy Wagner and have a lovely hour-long ode to Natalie’s life as mother and actress. But then, without daddy, I doubt there would have been a movie at all.

Now screening on Foxtel in Australia.

Upload and Whitney

In 2017, of Nick Bloomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me, I wrote, “The overwhelming feeling this film provokes is sadness, and not just because of the drugs and the brilliant life cut short. There isn’t any celebration here; like a lot of Bloomfield’s work, there is only casualty.”

Kevin Macdonald’s 2018 take, Whitney, is better – a lot better. It not only appreciates Whitney as an artist, it places her in the context of her times in a far more significant way, punctuating the action of her life with incredibly effective montages of just how 80s the 80s were – and Whitney was nothing if not an 80s phenomenon.

Bloomfield focused, as befitting his nature, on the love triangle between Whitney, her ‘best friend’ Robyn and her husband, Bobby Brown. Macdonald aims bigger and higher, viewing Whitney’s sexuality through a prism of pain.

I felt a lot of big emotions watching Whitney. It’s the documentary she deserved: hardly hagiographic, indeed warts and all, but with a massive heart.

SBS is following its premiere screening of Whitney with a week of music bio pics, including Ray, Taylor Hackford’s 2004 film about Ray Charles, starring Jamie Foxx, which I reckon is one of the very best of the genre, and Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s odd, speculative fantasia on Miles Davis, which is flawed but fun.

Upload, the big new comedy on Amazon, is a fun take on what our near future may have looked like had Covid 19 not got in the way. Although its central idea – that we’ll be able to upload, on our deathbeds, into a virtual afterlife – can still hold. You come to sitcoms for the situation and stay for the characters. The relatively unknown cast here are appealing enough to show promise; the tech-cute situation certainly does, and breezily keeps you tethered while your appreciation for the human beings can develop.

Whitney, Australian TV Premiere, SBS, Sunday 10 May 9:20pm

Upload, now streaming on Amazon

Three Shows On Apple TV+

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Depending on your relationship with Apple and its products, you may be offered a free trial for Apple TV+, its streaming content service. Buy a new device, get a free year. Otherwise, you can get a seven day free trial, which, given the relative paucity of product, should be plenty of time for you to decide whether you want to keep going at $7.99 a month.

I reviewed Morning Wars when the service dropped last year, but I caught up on a few more titles. The one I was most excited about, and which led to me dipping back into the service for review, was Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, which is not a Game of Thrones clone nor a similar fantasy adventure but rather a half-hour sitcom set at a Silicon Valley video game company whose massively successful feature product is called Mythic Quest, which, in the first episode, launches an update called Raven’s Banquet, giving the show its unwieldy title. My high hopes were lashed to the pedigree of the creators: Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney are two of the lads from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which, for fourteen years, has been one of the freshest American sitcoms of this millennium.

Alas, those hopes were dashed. Where It’s Always Sunny is gritty, bold, hand-sewn and relentlessly provocative, the new show is timid, sanitised, safe and clean. It feels like American network TV. The jokes are sub-par, the characters shallow echoes of types we’ve seen far too often, and the acting – except for McElhenney himself, who adequately plays the game’s conceited creator – too hammy, too sit-commy. It’s an astonishingly conservative play from a couple of the baddest boys of American comedy.

Elsewhere, Home is Apple’s very glossy take on architecture porn. From the very clean white font of the title card, surely designed by Sir Jony Ive, to the endlessly perfect drone shots and relentlessly comforting milquetoast new-agey muzak, this is Apple-tooled precision all the way, gleaming and seductive and desperate to please. I watched two episodes, one about a stunning eco-house in Austin, Texas, and the other a truly obsessional transformative apartment in Hong Kong, and while both featured all the smooth adoring camerawork this genre demands (look at those custom-made hinges!) along with deep dives into the minds and methods of the domiciles’ creators, both outstayed their welcome – at half an hour. Unlike, say, The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes, which features the delightful interplay of architect Piers Taylor and daffy actress Caroline Quentin, Apple’s entry has decided to defy the genre’s convention – to have a host or hosts – which proves to be a mistake. Like the Tin Woodman, the show desperately wants to have a heart, but doesn’t.

What does have a heart – a big one – is Snoopy In Space, which by its very existence shows you how strange the Apple TV+ line-up is. This is an eight-minute, twelve-episode animated adventure for kids that directly positions itself within the existing animated Peanuts universe: the animation style, voice-work and, vitally, the music all echo, admirably precisely, the tone and feel of the classic TV specials and the many cinematic and television outings since. You won’t get the melancholic, existential musings that the strips, and the best of the animated works, provide; instead, there is a healthy focus on the science of space travel (the show was developed in partnership with NASA). How very Apple. And how very delightful.

New on ABC iView: The Australian Dream and Year of the Rabbit

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ABC iView is currently screening The Australian Dream, one of two feature length documentaries made about the AFL player Adam Goodes to be completed last year. It is essential, emotional viewing. Goodes, whose mother is Aboriginal and part of the stolen generation, found himself, having reached the absolute highest echelons of his sport (he twice won the Brownlow Medal for Fairest and Best in the league), in a nightmarish situation involving crowd behaviour, racism, and, of course, horrendous social media. While the situation ultimately led Goodes to a greater understanding of his own Aboriginality, it was an education forged in sadness and bile.

The film was written by Stan Grant, an Aboriginal ABC journalist who identified enough with Goodes’ story to use it as the basis for a seminal speech on Australian racism and subsequently this film. His thoughts on the matter are eloquent, precise, and angry (although his manner is unflappably cool), and his film, directed by Daniel Gordon, is likewise a clear-eyed screed, a dignified rebuke, and a vital document. * * * *

Also brand new to ABC iView is Year of the Rabbit, a new British half hour comedy series starring Matt Berry (Toast of London, What We Do In The Shadows, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace). Set in a suitably grimy Victorian-era London, Berry plays a homicide detective, Rabbit, who, in ep one, gets circumstantially teamed up with a couple of younger sidekicks while investigating a series of murders linked to a secret society. It’s deadpan funny with a side of Pythonesque period parody, but also surprisingly compelling as a cop show, even as it spoofs the genre. I legitimately look forward to watching this trio of coppers as they embark into an ever-seamier and very well designed East End of The Big Smoke; they’ve already got spark and sizzle.

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Unorthodox (Netflix) and Come to Daddy (Umbrella On Demand)

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Based on a memoir by Deborah Feldman, Netflix’s four part series Unorthodox is mostly compelling and occasionally frustrating. Newcomer and breakout star Shira Haas plays Esty (short for Esther), a young married woman who flees her orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn for Berlin, where her mother, who similarly escaped the ultra-conservative sect years before, lives. As she discovers a world outside the rigid confines of her own, her husband and his ne’er-do-well cousin are dispatched to bring her home.

There are a couple of time frames going on; besides Esty’s escape, we get flashbacks of her betrothal to her husband and her gradual disillusionment with her community. Those scenes are excellent, as are all the Brooklyn sequences, and very well acted – in Yiddish – by actors who certainly feel authentic to this highly specific milieu (they’re mostly from Israel). However, the Berlin scenes are far less convincing, with a lot of on-the-nose dialogue and performances.

This is intriguing stuff that rests tremendously on Haas’s tiny shoulders; she bears the burden with electric intensity. It’s refreshing to watch a show like this with an entire cast of ‘unknowns’ (outside of Israel, anyway) led by such a good one. She won’t be unknown for long.

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Like Harry Pott— oops, sorry — like Daniel Radcliffe, Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings) has spent his post-blockbuster-franchise life looking for weird. He finds it in spades with Ant Timpson’s Come To Daddy, a black comedy that’s blacker than most. Timpson is a New Zealander and this is his feature directorial debut, but he’s got a strong and truly eccentric list of other credits, particularly as a producer (Turbo Kid, The ABCs of Death) and as the founder of The Incredibly Strange Film Festival, which has been going since 1994. He’s clearly into weird cinema, and with Come to Daddy, he’s effectively made exactly the kind of film he likes to program at his own festival.

Indeed, it’s plainly apparent that his deep experience with freaky-film audiences highly informs his film. Come To Daddy seems literally made to be enjoyed as a late-night festival screening for a packed house; it has a number of moments designed (rather expertly) to elicit that contagious panicky giggling, partner’s arm-grabbing, oh-my-god-what-are-we-seeing? discomforted laughter wave. It’ll play differently in isolation on your device, but if you’re a fan of this type of film, you’ll appreciate those moments even as you wish you were sharing them with a half-drunk raucous audience of young festival hounds, the type who seek out Incredibly Strange every year at the New Zealand International Film Festival. (At the Sydney Film Festival, the similar sidebar is called Freak Me Out.)

Wood plays a thirty-five year old Beverly Hills music-industry wannabe who is summonsed to see his father – who deserted him and his mother when he was five – at his gorgeous remote coastal home. When he arrives he finds an abusive, alcoholic wreck of a man, but that’s just the set-up. As befits this quite specific sub-genre, a lot of crazy shit goes down. Timpson has a lot of surprises up his sleeve; one of them is very, very clever.

This is an unashamedly violent film, but never against women, and always in the spirit of the genre, which isn’t horror, nor comedy; black comedy is technically correct, but in spirit and intention, the best descriptor of all would be midnight movie. Intriguingly, it was shot on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada, with money from New Zealand, Canada and Ireland. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster, and not without wit and ghoulish charm. * * *

Come To Daddy is available to stream at https://www.umbrellaentfilms.com.au/movie/come-to-daddy/

Unorthodox is currently streaming on Netflix.

Monos

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* * * 1/2

Alejandro Landes’ mesmerising, gorgeous and intriguing tale of child soldiers holding an American doctor captive in an unnamed South American country feels like the bastard child of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, with clear and deliberate references to Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now – among others – thrown in for good measure. It was clearly an adventure to shoot; indeed, Landes has said that “people were dropping like flies … everyone cried on this movie.” Principal photography was in the Andes, at heights of up to 4,300 metres (14,000 feet), and there is a constant dramatic tension between the natural beauty of the setting and the unnerving situation.

Mica Levi delivers another brilliant otherworldly score (she did Under the Skin and Jackie, too) and the hitherto unknown child actors are all astonishingly convincing, as may they well be: they kind of lived the experience, being put through a boot camp by a Colombian military consultant who had himself been a child soldier (from when he was 11 to his desertion at 24) and who plays their leader in the movie. The fact that he’s an astonishingly muscled dwarf is just par for the course in a film which defies expectations at every turn. The American hostage is played bravely and precisely by Julianne Nicholson, one of those non-star “oh her!” actresses with a massive set of TV, but few leading film, credits. No doubt she will consider this one of her most vital roles – and challenges – for years to come; she can be proud just for taking the job, let alone doing it so well.

Despite all the references, it’s bracingly original. That duality is also present as a travelogue: here are some of the most beautiful locations in the world, exquisitely shot, along with reason to never visit them.

Blow The Man Down (Amazon Streaming Movie Review)

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* * *

There’s a sub-genre of dark comedy that, dramatically, is a no-brainer: someone in a group, however small, of relatively innocent people, kind-of accidentally kills someone; the group agrees to cover up the crime (and, usually, help dispose of the body); and then all members of the group face three ever increasing pressures: the fear of being found out (and arrested), their own moral conscience, and the disintegration of the group’s resolve. It’s a superb dramatic engine: the structure is solid, the stakes are high, and the conflict is inherent. Some of the classic examples include Shallow Grave, Very Bad Things and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Blow The Man Down’s point of difference is its milieu, which is wintry coastal Maine, on the North-Eastern US seaboard, in a fishing community. Assumedly touristy by summer, it’s fishermen and locals in the off-season, and the filmmakers, Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, utilise a chorus of fishermen singing stunningly beautiful sea-shanties to comment on the action, to great effect. I heard an interview with them where they revealed that they were obsessed with watching The Wicker Man (1973) while shooting their film, and that movie’s sense of weird isolation and creepy local colour generously infuses their work.

It’s not nearly as well scripted, or ingeniously directed, as the examples above, but the milieu definitely offers its own rewards, as does the supporting cast of exemplary female character actors led by June Squibb and Margo Martindale. It’s borrowing from tropes you’ve seen before, but shuffles and deals them fresh.

Tiger King: Netflix Doco Series Review

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Instantly taking its place alongside The Staircase, Making a Murderer and OJ: Made In America as one of the great documentary mini-series, Tiger King, a jaw-dropping seven part Netflix tale of wild and criminal shenanigans among the big cat fraternity – that is, people who love (and exhibit) tigers, leopards and so forth – will also always be remembered as the first viral sensation of Covid 19. In a way, there couldn’t be a better moment for this show to drop, as only something this nuts could take our brains away from our current sensational concerns.

Among the series’ endless qualities, it is the astonishing vivacity of the characters that towers above all. Every one of these insanely idiosyncratic individuals feels like they’re being played by the world’s greatest character actor giving their career-best performance. It’s all lead by a truly charismatic freakshow named Joe Schreibvogel, who goes by Joe Exotic. Flamboyant, queer, tattooed, pierced, and, most distressingly, always armed (he openly carries a pistol in a holster on his right hip), Joe is as redneck as they come and yet also so oddly progressive. He absolutely defines himself by his gayness in a world where that may seem tricky. But nothing’s tricky to Joe, who has more confidence than anyone who routinely tickles tigers should.

His antagonist is Carol Baskin, who runs Big Cat Rescue, a rival organisation to Joe’s GW Zoo. She wants to shut him down; he wants to shut her up. Things get illegal, intense, and insane.

You will not believe your eyes, your ears, your brain. And you will love every minute of it. I binged it, I miss it. I even miss Joe, although I’d never, ever want to meet him, nor any of these deranged sociopaths, malcontents and freaks. They can stay where they are, in a world that seems like it’s on another planet, but is actually just more of Crazy, USA.