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.

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.

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 * * * *

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.

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.

The Eulogy

This consistently engrossing documentary is extremely elegantly structured as a mystery: why did Australia’s finest concert pianist die in destitution, alone, young? Framing the investigation is the eulogy given for the magnificently talented departed by the ex-Prime Minister Of Australia Paul Keating, who used the somber occasion to lambast the country’s two most prominent symphony orchestras for not employing the prodigy enough, and, in a way, blaming them for his death.

The pianist in question is Geoffrey Tozer, and if you don’t know much about him, or haven’t heard of him at all, that only goes to support the film’s thesis. You’ll certainly know him by the end of the movie, which reveals its many secrets with the expert timing of an Agatha Christie.

In lieu of Hercule Poirot, we have Richard Gill, a marvellous music teacher and conductor who looks like Jim Broadbent and investigates the mystery with the dogged determination of a classical Colombo. He gives this sometimes sad, sometimes joyous detective story a narrative spine and a lot of heart. Highly recommended.

Recent Film and Television

Amiable, very Jim Jarmuschian dead-pan zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die is held together almost entirely by the warm interplay between Bill Murray and Adam Driver as a couple of small-town cops dealing with the undead rising. Tilda Swinton is also a delight in an almost entirely physical performance. Loads of other terrific indie-centric actors – Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Chloë Sevigny – play small parts (none smaller nor more perfect than Carol Kane’s), seem to be having a lark, and probably did it for one. There are clear but never on-the-nose reverberations with the Trump presidency and all the madness it entails, the zombie apocalypse being a manifestation of a world that is so upset, it’s “not going to end well” (as Driver’s character insists throughout the film). Fun. * * *

Also kind of fun is Good Boys, which follows three twelve year old boys as they try and prepare to go to a “kissing party.” Terrified, they aim to self-educate by watching porn, using a drone to spy on older kids, and other methods, all of which comedically misfire (of course), sending them on further misadventures. The kids’ charm, the script’s inherent nostalgic value (it’s basically a remake of producer Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg’s 2007 breakthrough Superbad, with younger kids) and a hefty dose of good will provide the film’s value, rather than any particularly brilliant gags. It’ll give you a smile and then you’ll forget you ever saw it. * * 1/2

Truly fun, and laugh-out loud funny on many occasions, is Netflix’s compact original movie Between so Ferns: The Movie. Zach Galifianakis’s strange, unsettling talk show Between Two Ferns produced 22 episodes on Funny Or Die Between 2008 and 2018; this hilarious mockumentary, directed by the show’s creator Scott Aukerman, offers us a glimpse “behind the scenes” of the show’s production and then sends Zach, his small crew, and us on a road trip to tape more episodes in order to appease his corporate overlord Will Ferrell (who really does own Funny Or Die). Hilarious, and you don’t need to be a fan of the original show, although Galifianakis is definitely an acquired taste. * * * 1/2

There is no reason to watch The Masked Singer (Network 10), a Korean competition format that has been replicated around the world and now arrives in Australia losing many, many things in translation, including any sense of integrity. Among the many disastrous elements of the show, perhaps the worst is the enforced and completely unbelievable pretence of gaiety, enthusiasm, passion and commitment emanating like childish playacting from the host and four “judges”. Watching them pretend that any of this is actually worthwhile is like watching starving puppies being forced to jump for a fake sausage dangling on a string.

Succession Season Two

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Now halfway through its second season, Succession (HBO / Showcase on Foxtel) continues to overwhelm me with its brilliance; I feel that I am watching some of the greatest television ever made, on par with Deadwood, The Wire and Mad Men. The humour is razor-sharp, the satire sharper even than that, while the drama is intense (and at times quite moving, quite the achievement for a show about privileged brats) and the plotting unbelievably engaging. This show rocks.

This season seems to be slicing even closer to the actual shenanigans of the Murdoch family, while also creating strong facsimiles of Vice and Gawker, Fox News (including a female version of Roger Ailes), Bernie Sanders and the Sulzberger (New York Times) and Bancroft (ex-Wall Street Journal) media dynasties. The directorial craft is exceptional (there are multiple directors), the acting incredible (and never more so than from the three “kids”, played by Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin and Australia’s own Sarah Snook) and the design impeccable. But it’s the writing, from series creator and chief scribe Jesse Armstrong, that is always the mic drop. He joins his colleague Armando Ianucci (they did The Thick of It and its movie spin-off In The Loop together, among other projects) as a CJ-Certified genius. If you haven’t tasted Succession, you need to watch season one first. What are you waiting for?