Black Monday (S1) and Corporate (S2)

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Boy, has the American half-hour comedy come a long way since I was a kid. With the exception of MASH, most shows used to be safe, safe, safe. Now, you can watch a speculative explanation of the 1987 Wall Street crash as a broad comedy.

That’s the pitch behind Black Monday (STAN), which unfortunately doesn’t live up to its promise – and what promise! Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer and a directing team that includes Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen – what could’ve gone wrong?

My guess is they had too much fun on set. This is a loud show about loud people (Wall Street traders in the 1980s, usually on cocaine) and everyone is acting just too damn loud. Don Cheadle is a great, and very funny, actor, but the writers seem to think that just giving him long speeches and letting him off the leash will result in comic gold, and it doesn’t. He’s too much, the writing isn’t funny enough, and I found myself in the awful position of wishing he would shut up. He didn’t, and doesn’t. This is his show, and it’s indulgent of an actor’s worst impulses.

Much funnier is Corporate (FOXTEL), entering its second season. This is a truly subversive and edgy comedy that doesn’t need to yell; indeed, it’s as deadpan as it gets, and all the better for it. Creators Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman play sad office drones at a fictional massive corporation, Hampton Deville, that has its hands in everything; the underlying source company seems to be Halliburton. The sheer scope of the conglomerate allows the show to pierce many targets – Hampton Deville can make and sell anything – while gunning at all manner of workplace situations, especially the simple daily art of not getting shafted, shivved or shoved out. It’s not as brilliant as the original The Office, but it’s a workplace comedy with plenty of bite.

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New Half-Hour Comedy: Russian Doll, Derry Girls, The Other Two and Sally4Ever.

There’s a fine line between “passion project” and “vanity vehicle”. You’ve really got to love Natasha Lyonne’s shtick to fall for Russian Doll, her undoubtedly original and committed half-hour eight-part comedy / drama on Netflix that may also be outrageously indulgent. I was out after two episodes; your mileage may vary, and I would warrant, on your love for Lyonne’s vibe.

She plays Nadia, a hard-partying Manhattan-based video game coder having a strange episode that may be drug-related, a mental illness, or supernatural. Essentially, she’s suffering from Groundhog’s Day Disease; she keeps dying and coming back to life at exactly the same moment. Naturally, this is freaking her out, and rather than use her endless loop to woo a pretty girl as Bill Murray did, she seeks professional help.

Lyonne plays Nadia as an old Jewish comedian from the Catskills would. Seriously. It’s an outrageous, very big, very bold performance that is so loud and intense it wore me out. As did the repetitive party scenes which Nadia keeps returning to. The series has a definite voice, utilising its vibrant Manhattan streetscapes well and plenty of intriguing music choices, but by the end of ep two it felt more exciting for the creators than for me.

Netflix’s Derry Girls will tire you out, but after a breather I warrant you’ll be back for more. Set in Northern Ireland – specifically, County Derry – in the early 1990s, it follows the daily trials and tribulations of a group of four sixteen year old girls and one of their male cousins as they navigate (very Catholic) school, family, and The Troubles. The girls’ performances are all big big big – especially Nicola Coughlan, whose face never stops twitching – and the humour is as broad as the  River Foyle, but it works in small doses. The dialogue is the fastest on television, and for every gag that doesn’t land there’s one that does. The whole thing is also very sweet; by the end of ep two, I felt not only for these girls, but for their friendship, and that’s the key to the show. The milieu is also fascinating, and fascinatingly used; soldiers, guns, bombs and fear are ever-present, but as such, also somehow everyday, mundane, and often the source of humour. Great fun.

For easy-going good times in a mellow tone, Foxtel’s The Other Two goes down like a butterscotch candy. It’s a show-business satire with warmth and colour but very little bite. Heléne York and Drew Tarver play adult siblings whose younger brother, 13 year old Chase (Case Walker), has become an overnight YouTube sensation a la Justin Bieber. Since their own artistic aspirations  are mitigated by total failure, they’re ripe for a spot of jealous intrigue and possible career sabotage, but so far the show is sweeter than that. Rather than make Chase a monster, so far he’s a very nice boy, and his older siblings, now stuck in his shadow, still adore him. It’ll be interesting if things are allowed to go a little off the rails; if not, the show’s sweetness may be its undoing. It’s not funny enough to get by on laughs alone. Interestingly, the siblings’ dynamic (and the Manhattan setting) recall the recently and tragically cancelled Difficult People, which really did have an edge.

Julia Davis’ work certainly has edge; her 2016 show Camping was uncomfortably brilliant (NB: not the recent US remake). But her new one, Sally4Ever (also on Foxtel) is outrageously and unforgivably indulgent. Davis plays a truly awful compulsive liar, Emma, who worms her way into the life of mousy Sally (Catherine Shepherd, doing surprisingly subtle work) and upends it. Sally is discovering same-sex sex for the first time and seems absolutely obsessed with it; there’s no other real way to justify her continuing acceptance of Emma, who is the most obnoxious screen character since David Brent (and who exists in his shadow). Essentially the show provides one set-up for Davis to improvise after another, and once we “get it” – that Emma’s the worst – it becomes terribly wearing. If you really still love to cringe, that’s all this show is about; after five eps I really couldn’t take it anymore.

Eighth Grade

* * * *

Bo Burnham’s debut feature announces him as a fresh and talented auteur (he’s only 28 and comes from a comedy, YouTube background). It’s a mercilessly spot-on depiction of the trials and tribulations of being a female thirteen year-old in modern America, avoiding many high-school movie tropes and clichés along the way. It’s also sensationally acted by young Elsie Fisher as shy eighth-grader Kayla and super-indie stalwart Josh Hamilton as her kind single dad.

The film is absolutely a comedy, even as it touches raw nerves head-on: one startling sequence depicts the students training for a school shooting, while another, late in the film, reverberates mightily with the cultural conversations currently swirling around gender relations. In this sense, its artistic grandparent seems to be Amy Heckling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), which likewise confronted big teen issues with a respectful and tasteful comedic appreciation.

The biggest issue here, by far, is social media and smartphones, and the film could be appreciated simply as a furious, comic attack on both. While it’s got more up its sleeve, its depiction of the crippling effects of social media on young people is satisfyingly complete. This is a film I instantly wanted to share with many specific people, as a warning: look how bad these things actually are! Look what they do to our kids!

In targeting social media itself as the villain, Burnham avoids many high-school stereotypes, and while there are some mean girls, they’re portrayed as victims (of social media) too. Likewise, there’s a nerd, but he’s the most surprising and intriguing nerd you’ve seen in a long time, and his big scene is rather incredible.

There’s no schmaltz, no faux tragedy, no bullshit in Burnham’s movie. It’s got integrity, compassion and respect for its subjects and audience. Releasing on January 3rd in Australia, it will have to wait out 2019 to appear on Oz “Best of Year” lists, but I’ll be sure to remember it. It’s a new classic in the teen genre, joining The Edge of Seventeen and Diary of a Teenage Girl from recent years. Excellent, and if you’re a parent, unmissable.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

* * *

Melancholic, indeed dour, with a colour palette of (too much) brown and grey, Marielle Heller’s real-life tale of small(ish) time literary fraud is resolutely one-note, as is Melissa McCarthy’s central performance as Lee Israel, a biographical author who, jobless and desperate in early-90s Manhattan, began a small(ish) life of literary crime. Luckily, the film has a few joltingly interesting twists and turns, and Richard E. Grant, who is, has been and always will be joltingly interesting.

Heller’s direction is uninspired. She uses four montage sequences, each of which could have been replaced with a single, inventive scene. Voice-over narration has often been given a critical cold shoulder, but surely montage sequences are cinema’s ultimate lazy storytelling device. Here, they may as well signify potential toilet breaks.

But the story, small as it is, is intriguing, and Grant, big as he is, is super watchable. He’s playing a very to-type role – sad and flamboyant – but that’s his stock in trade and he owns it. Also, the period set design – Manhattan in winter – is superb; the story evolves mostly in pubs, bookstores, libraries and antique shops, and all ring both true and poetically evocative. I lived in Manhattan then, and I’ve been in those places, with their cramped, wooden, dusty romance. That spirit is present, and helps the film stay alive amidst its strident sadness.

Succession

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HBO’s Succession, now airing (and available for full-season download) on Foxtel, is not only the best season of television of the year, it is one of the best debut seasons of television I’ve ever seen, up there with the first seasons of Deadwood, Spiral and The Wire. It’s entertainment on a grand scale, what you may call Shakespearean, dealing, as he did, with humanity’s foibles through the prism of the very rich and powerful. It is also incredibly funny, which may not be apparent from its signifiers: it’s an hour-long show, it’s got a cast of actors mainly known for dramatic roles, and it looks, from stills and trailers, like a drama. But its pedigree is not only very much comedic, its golden.

The creator is Jesse Armstrong, a very English comic author whose crowning work, before Succession, was fifteen episodes of The Thick of It and the screenplay for the movie that accompanied that incredible series, In The Loop (co-written with Thick of It co-conspirators Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche and Simon Blackwell). If you know those, you’ll recognise that Armstrong (along with his collaborative team) is a spectacular creator of character-based, intelligent humour, spectacular dialogue, and an uncanny knowledge of the workings of power. All those combine magnificently in this season of television, this magnum opus.

The writing is sweeping, kaleidoscopic, vibrant, sharp and all kinds of outrageous, as well as being remarkably empathetic given the base-line venality of the characters. That’s the thing about Succession that you really need to know in order to take the plunge, and ride out the first few episodes which are very important to building this incredible world’s foundations: even though you may hate these characters, you’re going to weirdly end up loving each and every one of them, because they may not be good human beings, but they’re ludicrously good characters.

From the top down, the acting bench is uncommonly deep. Brian Cox, as a Murdoch-styled patriarch, lords over the action in the role his entire illustrious career has prepared him for. Australia’s own Sarah Snook is fascinatingly complicated as his only daughter, Kieran Culkin weird, funny and tragic as his cheeky, woefully unfocused youngest son. Jeremy Strong, who worked with episode one director and series executive producer Adam McKay on The Big Short, is quite brilliant as Kendall, the son who is meant to inherit the empire but keeps screwing it up; it’s an ensemble show but at the end of the day – and season one – it’s Kendall’s story and Strong is the lead, his relatively “unknown” status as an actor contributing effectively to Kendall’s mercurial, slippery, unknowable nature: is he dumb as an ox, smart as a whip, spoiled, ruined, traumatised, or just a brat? He’s all; they’re all all; the writing is encyclopaedic and the playing fully committed.

Then there’s Matthew Macfadyen, an outsider playing an outsider, the love interest to Sarah Snook, a sycophant to Brian Cox’s Logan Roy, giving the funniest performance of the year. Strong may carry the show’s weightiest dramatic burdens but Macfadyen is given the responsibility of delivering some of the best lines Armstrong’s ever written, and he’s written a lot. If you know Macfadyen as the tall, incredibly British lead from Spooks or Pride and Prejudice then his wicked performance is all the funnier. It’s masterly work, worthy of a multiple awards. (Weirdly, the only Golden Globe nomination for this undeniably accomplished series is for Culkin, who is the only “American star” in the cast, which makes the Globes once again guilty of star-f***ing, of which the people in this series would probably approve).

What else can I say? That the season concludes so perfectly that I was shaking my head with wonder at Armstrong’s plotting genius? That Nicholas Britell’s magisterial score had me replaying the opening credits over and over? That we haven’t even mentioned “Cousin Greg?” This is some of the best television I’ve ever seen. Don’t miss it.

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Climax

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* * * *

Gaspar Noé May not be my favorite film director, but he is certainly the one that fascinates me the most. His singular obsessions, and the staggeringly proficient way he translates them into cinema, are endlessly intriguing. I don’t know how he does it, and I really don’t know why he does it, but I’m really glad he does, because no one else in the world makes films like he does.

Those obsessions are dominated by drug use, particularly LSD, and specifically when it goes bad. Again and again, Noé’s cinema aims to induce in the viewer the spectacularly depressed feeling of the drug downer, and it usually succeeds, at least for me. His films make me feel more intensely than those of others. It’s not a good feeling, but man, it’s a feeling, and I don’t need to actually take drugs to get it.

Climax take this obsession to its zenith, acutely rendering the experience of a really bad group LSD trip. Whether or not that’s a feeling you want is another matter; most people, obviously, will not. But if you’re interested in cinematic technique, Noé’s work here demands your attention, because the technique on display is phenomenal and his alone. He is a cinematic magician.

The film has a simple plot: a newly-formed dance troop, at the conclusion of a three-day intensive rehearsal workshop, drink LSD-spiked sangria, and react badly. That’s it. But you don’t come to Noé for the story, you come for the experience, and this one is at first spectacularly beautiful – the opening dance scenes are incredible – before becoming savage and outrageously depressing. Just like your worst ever trip.

How Noé manages to get his troupe of actors – who are all, obviously, highly trained dancers – onto his strange page is beyond me. Likewise his cinematography, his sound design and his truly subversive use of VFX are all of a singular piece that is so outside the usual understanding of filmic construction, I’m constantly amazed anyone else can figure out what he wants. But they do, and they pull off his vision, seamlessly. He must be an extraordinary communicator. Which is to say, director.

Most of the population will not see Climax, and most would hate it. But if you’ve read this far, you probably should try it. It’s the safest way you can feel this terrible.

Sorry To Bother You

* * * 1/2

To say Sorry To Bother You is about a group of telemarketers unionizing would be to criminally undersell it. Boots Riley’s trippy, frequently hilarious and extremely original Oakland-set fantasia is an urgent, cohesive and accessible statement on race in America masquerading as the best episode of The Twilight Zone you’ve never seen. It joins Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman as an American film released in 2018 that uses comedy to discuss America’s difficulties with racial division with anger, precision, intellectual rigor and a touch of heart.

Lee’s film was a true story humorously told; Riley’s is more of a satire. Lakeith Stanfield (Darius from Atlanta) plays Cassius Green, who discovers the secret to telemarketing success: use his “white voice” (a very clear parallel with BlacKkKlansman, which has an essentially identical trope). As he climbs the ladder at his firm, his co-workers, including his new girlfriend, are unionizing, and his choice – to join them or abandon them for success – is a superb dramatic construction compounded by myriad ethical, political and personal conundrums and contradictions.

This is an example of American Indie Cinema firing on all cylinders: it introduces a fresh, powerful new voice with an undeniably entertaining work that is also completely engaged with current American politics. It’s fresh, bold and, more than anything, it’s wild.

Spitfire

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* * *

Like its subject, Spitfire is refined, elegant and classy – if such a thing can be said of a killing machine. Certainly, the film and its interview subjects think so of the plane that “saved Europe” in World War 2. This is a hagiography of an object, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Surely, to make a cinema-release documentary about any subject, one must be, in some way, in love with it?

There are (very British) people in this film that really love the Spitfire, and in their passion there is gentle humour and charm. If they were this gushy over, say, a breed of small dog, they might come off as eccentric or even ridiculous, but the film maintains a jovial respectful tone, showing each in their best, rather than most extreme, light. At 36 minutes in, we start to hear from female group plotters of the artillery brigade, and the film becomes more revelatory. Seeing contemporaneous footage of women at war, last century, is rare and rather thrilling. Later, we see them as pilots, and it’s like a hidden door has been opened, a secret revealed.

Obviously, it’s one for the fans (of warplanes!), but they’re not a finite bunch. One of my best friends has a five year old son who is passionate about the World Wars and who will love this film. While being careful to acknowledge that the Spitfire was indeed a “killing machine”, this lovingly crafted work, deserving a big screen thanks to its splendid aerial photography, is not really about war, but about Britain and its people, and the pride they may take in an object that did indeed exemplify “the best of British.” If such things move you, you may even shed a tear.

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

* * * * 1/2

The Coen Brothers’ supreme mastery of all elements of cinematic storytelling are on full display with their portmanteau of the old, wild west, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Frequently hilarious, occasionally moving and always stunningly beautiful – every frame a painting, indeed – the six stories contained in this generous two and a bit hours of sublime entertainment can be enjoyed at one sitting or over a span of viewings; ether way, entertainment will be achieved.

The stories were originally going to be broken up, and producer Netflix was originally going to package them separately, as a TV series. I don’t know what discussions lead to the current format, of a single feature film, but suspect it may have to do with the stories’ disparate running times. The shortest feels around ten minutes, the longest at least half an hour; a TV series so comprised would have been radical, and perhaps ran the risk of being off-putting. As it stands, the experience of watching all in one sitting, as I did, is enormously rewarding, as the stories are well placed to thematically resonate and enrich each other.

The first, titular story, and the one that follows, are both very very funny and pretty violent, and seem designed to deconstruct the myth-making, “balladeering” of the old west. But as the film goes on, the stories grow in length, deepen in characterisation and darken in mood, and, while the sudden threat of fatal violence remains ever-present, the thematic focus shifts to language, such that the final story is essentially all dialogue, and all about words.

The Coens just love words with this film, and you’ll love them loving them. The lovely conceit of the whole seems to be that, while the American western frontier was coarse and rough in action, it was dignified and stately of tongue. This theme is spectacularly illustrated in the film’s final minutes, which fuse New World frontier law with Old World stately decorum while also nodding to an entire, hidden realm of unorthodox lifestyles. The final face we see is fearful, not just of potential violence, but of a love that dare not yet speak its name, and of society itself.