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.

Hustlers

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Here’s my riddle:

This week I’ve seen

Four Martin Scorsese movies

But no movies

Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Ho ho ho. The answer, of course, is that I’ve seen Joker, thereby seeing Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and now Hustlers, thereby taking in GoodFellas and Casino.

Luckily, Lorene Scafaria’s adaptation of a fascinating New York magazine article, despite being astonishingly derivative on a directorial level, has some fresh vibes in the excellent chemistry between Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, as a young stripper and her mentor who turn to crime in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Their friendship is believable and enjoyable, and carries the movie through its otherwise unbearably repetitive (and long) second act into its pacy and legitimately compelling third. They’re supported by a terrific ensemble, including Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart and Mette Towley; when they’re not required to laugh hysterically at each other’s sass like everything that everyone says is the funniest thing ever – seriously, spending three minutes in the strip club’s raucous dressing room is exhausting given the level of bonhomie – they exude a communal warmth that fuels the film’s buoyant spirit. Fun.

Joker

After its big surprise win in Venice, a big splash (and some backlash) in Toronto, a storm (in a teacup) of opinion on social media, self-generating fear of cinema violence and even incel insurrection, Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips, arrives on our screens to a resounding, “hm.” It’s a fine enough film, extremely well crafted, but, in direct opposition to its buzz, there is no discernible need to see it. Indeed, if you’ve seen Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy both, there is truly nothing for you, as Joker, aping those films and setting itself in 1980 squat between them, doesn’t even update their concerns for our own troubled age.

Cinematography, art direction and Phoenix’s performance are the draws here; the story is so derivative, drawn out, empty and vapid that the film’s biggest fault is that it drags. Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy had wit and style; Joker has no wit and all its style is stolen. Its tale of a poor down-trodden wannabe urban comedian who descends into violence has been often told, with minor variations, and resonance to real-life events, most specifically to “subway vigilante” Bernhard Goetz, does not come with any insight. Ugliness is on display here purely for its own sake.

The best takeaway from this film is as a set-up for an upcoming Batman (like we need another). The final scenes are suitably baroque, befitting the Joker’s origin story as operatically linked to Bruce Wayne’s; try as Phillips, his marketing team, and everyone else at Warner Bros. may have to deny it, this is just another comic book movie, in a darker than usual key.

Judy

* * *

If subtlety – of storytelling or performance – is your thing, Judy, starring Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in the tumultuous final stages of her career and life, will not be for you. Subtle it is not, nor is Zellweger’s performance, which, given its precision and grandiosity, will almost certainly win her the Oscar and many other statues along the way. She will have deserved it. Playing Judy seems like a feat of endurance, which is also the experience of watching the movie.

The first act is enjoyable, as mid-40s Judy, struggling to keep custody of her two children to her third husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell, bringing some admirable restraint), takes a gig in London at a very posh dinner theatre for a five-week engagement, while teenage Judy, in flashback, learns the cold realities of child stardom on the set of The Wizard of Oz. The film neatly sets up a cause and effect scenario around Judy’s lifelong struggles, placing, essentially, a choice of applause and addiction over “normalcy” on her young shoulders. This long section culminates with Judy’s first London performance, which Zellweger does in a one-take wonder that will be all the Academy needs to give her the gold.

From there, though, it’s downhill; repetitive scenes of drunken and drug-addled anguish and dreadful decisions (wait until you see what she does on a winter’s day in a park with a young man) get very tiresome. No one wants to hang out with a delusional self-pitying, very messy drunk for an hour, but the movie makes you, until desperately reaching for your sympathy with one of the most laboured endings in recent memory. The film splits focus by serving up multiple antagonists for Judy and underserving all of them, most egregiously Jesse Buckley’s Rosalyn, the young woman assigned to, essentially, make sure Judy got to the theatre, and onto the stage, every night. Their relationship is the film’s most intriguing but is sadly undercooked.

Ultimately overstaying its welcome by being repetitive and dramatically frustrating, Judy is worth seeing by the right audience for the inherent interest of the historical story (although there’s a lot of made-up nonsense) and Zellweger’s performance, which, however grandiose, is legitimately worthy.

Working Woman

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* * * 1/2

A young mother of three in Tel Aviv, happily married to a chef whose restaurant is struggling, gets an exciting, demanding and potentially highly rewarding job as the assistant to a very successful and powerfully connected real estate developer. But there’s trouble, and it’s him.

This is a forensic examination of just how workplace sexual harassment can not only play out but ensnare its victims in deeply complicated, confusing, dehumanising emotional and psychological webs. Without ever resorting to lurid plot developments or any hint of sensationalism, nor directorial tricks (there isn’t even a score), the film anchors you deeply within the brutal turmoil of the protagonist’s dilemma.

No film, nor book nor play, has come close to demonstrating to me – an Australian man – the subtleties of how such behaviour can continue, escalate, evolve and keep the victim on the hook as well as this. The antagonist is Weinstein-esque without being on-the-nose; the effect is to enhance the empathy one already feels for everyone who ever worked for him, or men like him. Vital viewing for our sad age, and to help us move forward to the next.

Ride Like a Girl

Rachel Griffiths’ feature directorial debut is directly aimed at the younger female market, and, as an aspirational and inspirational true story with heart, good intentions, an excellent central performance and absolutely killer source material, Ride Like a Girl is a winner. Like the girl power pop anthems that litter the soundtrack, this is a pop confection that knows its audience. Far be it for me to churlishly point out too many deficiencies – some slack editing, some iffy dialogue and some far too glorious (CGI-infected) sunsets; this is a rousing crowd-pleaser that earns its box office success.

Teresa Palmer is engaging, credible and ultimately the film’s trump card as Michelle Payne, the youngest of ten children brought up in a horse training and racing family in Victoria, who dreams of riding in the Melbourne Cup. Her journey as told here, with significant dramatic ellipsis (there’s one particular time jump that conveniently skips arguably a movie’s worth of drama) is not so much one of fighting against racing’s patrimony as of jockeying for position (ho ho ho) within her family for her father’s blessing to ride. Her dad is played by Sam Neill, one of the screen’s consummate professionals and a master of exuding empathy, so there’s nothing to worry about there. This is a girl and horse and father and family story first; it is inherently feminist but never makes gender its central concern. Thankfully, there’s no romantic subplot; outside of her dad, Michelle’s central relationship is with her brother Stevie, winningly played by the actual Stevie Payne. Palmer and Payne’s chemistry is sublime, and the quiet scenes between them are the film’s best.

What will be concerning to some parents is the film’s long second act dealing with Michelle’s attempts to rapidly and recklessly bring her weight down to 50 kg to ride a particular race. We see Palmer starving herself, push herself physically, and even wrap herself in plastic and go driving in a car with the heat turned up through the night. This is not presented as dangerous but simply as par for the course and when she weighs in at 50kg, a triumph. It’s astonishing that the film goes there with this clearly unhealthy behaviour; TabCorp – the horse racing gambling establishment – and the Victorian Racing Authority were major supporters of the film, so make of that what you will. Needless to say, you don’t see any horses being mistreated, let alone fatally shot on the track; if, inherently, you cannot stomach the horse racing industry, clearly you are not going to want to see this film, which passionately adores the practice. I have put aside my own disagreements with the industry for the sake of this review.