Small Axe

How much do you know about West Indian life in London from the 60s to the 80s? If not much, not enough, or not at all, Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave and Widows) is here to rectify that. He’s made five feature films for the BBC, all stories based on actual events, covering daily life for the London Caribbean community throughout those decades. It’s a monumental achievement that gives English Blackness its greatest popular entertainment exposure, I would suggest, ever. All five are now available on Foxtel in Australia.

The films have no recurring characters and are solely linked thematically, but McQueen hascurated them in a particular order and I suggest you follow it. The first two are the best, so if you only want to dip your toes, you can enjoy them and move on. But watching all five has a cumulative power; this is indeed a case of the whole adding up to more than the sum of its parts.

Mangrove: The first in the series and the second best. A relatively conventionally constructed courtroom drama, made unconventional by its dramatic ingredients: the Black London community that the whole series shines a light on. The proprietor of the Mangrove restaurant in Ladbroke Grove is continually harassed by the police; when he and his community demonstrate, they are brought up on charges which they fight in court. The most ‘historically educational’ of the series and a true eye-opener. Also the longest at a smudge over two hours. * * * 1/2

Lovers Rock: The best one. In a little over an hour McQueen offers a massive slice of young West Indian cultural life in London in the 1980s. Two people meet at a house party. That’s it. But it’s so much more: a film about music, mating, toxic masculinity and predator culture, Rastafarianism, sexuality and sensuality (this is the most sensual film of, say, the decade?), youth, food, dance, safe space and above all, community. The most artful of the five, bordering on experimental, it’s joyous, enthralling and magical. This is the one you’ll watch twice. * * * *

Red, White and Blue: The true story of a young man who joined the London police force and became the literal poster boy for minority recruitment, while dealing with the realities of racism within the force, this 80 minute entry features an excellent central performance from John Boyega.  My fourth favourite. * * *

Alex Wheatle: The least satisfying entry is a character study based on one of the writers McQueen engaged in a ‘writer’s room’ designed to generate material for the series. This is the one that suffers the most from Foxtel’s lack of having Closed Captions available for this series: the patois is dense and deep and I have to admit to being unable to follow a lot of it (and clearly missing a lot of nuance and humour). If you have Closed Captions available to you in your viewing region, and you aren’t up on your Caribbean patois, turn them on. * * *

Education: My third favourite is a charming hour-long depiction of a seminal year or so in McQueen’s own childhood, when he got shunted off to a school for “special needs” students. Touching, warm and possessing the most humour of the five. * * * 1/2

SERIES OVERALL:

* * * *

Suspense TV

Following on from THE INVESTIGATION, here are two more new TV series trading in suspense.

On SBS On Demand in six parts is Savages, a big, loud, brash, expensive, turbo-charged political thriller. Riffing on the attempted assassination of France’s first Algerian-descended President, and sweeping through a broad range of characters across a broad swathe of Paris, the show is desperate for your attention, and for the most part earns it.With its relentlessly swirling camera, its crowds, its chyrons and its colour, it demands that you keep up. Racism, terrorism, politics and family are the Big Themes and they all get a thorough work-out. Entertainingly in your face, it becomes increasingly compelling and surprisingly emotionally engaging if, unfortunately, a little predictable.

On Fox One, from HBO, comes The Flight Attendant,a far lighter, more comedic (and more commercial) take on suspense. Told over eight episodes, this energetic, relentlessly propulsive whiplash soufflé cares not a jot for race, politics or banal procedure, but an awful lot about entertaining you. And it does. Kaley Cuoco plays an American First Class flight attendant with a drinking problem who wakes up next to a one-night stand in a Bangkok hotel room… and he’s very, very dead. From there, it’s one spiralling crisis after another, in multiple cities, as she tries to figure out what happened while becoming an ever-greater suspect for the FBI, a target for the killer, and a moral dilemma for her brother. If Alfred Hitchcock had created a spin-off series for Samantha from Sex and the City it might have been this.

SAVAGES

SBS On Demand

All Six Episodes Available Now

THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT

Fox One / HBO

All Eight Episodes Available Now

The Investigation


Malling should win awards-a-plenty for his work on The Investigation.

SBS On Demand

All Six Episodes Available Now

Tobias Lindholm is a screenwriting master – if not the master – of sombre, research-based, unflashy thrillers. Indeed, you could call his films and TV shows “anti-thrillers”, in the way they portray events steeped in all the trappings of suspense with methodical, procedural calm. Eschewing all the bells and whistles – attention-drawing camera moves, editing, music or histrionic performances – usually associated with this kind of content, Lindholm’s work comes across as bearing more weight and integrity than more sensationalised takes. When Lindholm tells a true story, you believe he’s telling you the truth.

His body of work includes A Hijacking (for my money, his masterpiece) and A War, both of which he also directed, The Hunt (directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg), TV series Borgen and Follow The Money, and new film, releasing in early 2021 in Australia, Another Round (also directed  and co-written by Vinterberg). There is an unimpeachable argument for Lindholm and Vinterberg to be considered Denmark’s finest screenwriting team, and for Lindholm to be considered one of the finest screenwriters in the world.

Now, The Investigation – all six episodes of which Lindholm wrote and directed – carries his no-nonsense, highly procedural style into the long-form prestige television space. Telling the incredibly strange true story of the investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall aboard an inventor’s home-made submarine, Lindholm doubles down on his trademark stoicism to highly engaging results. Embracing the arduous, painstaking, frustrating and often dispiriting nature of truly investigative police work, with its dead ends, red herrings, slippery witnesses, grieving relatives and endless cups of coffee in banal spaces, The Investigation is almost paradoxically suspenseful, because we realise that what we’re watching has so much more weight than chases, shoot-outs and other contrivances. The story is weird enough – and it is weird – for the storytelling to be as by-the-book as our chief homicide detective, played exquisitely by the great Søren Malling (Borgen, A Hijacking, A War, Follow The Money). This is very much the story of how a horrendous crime can impact on the investigating officer, and Malling wears his pain, grief and frustration under a mask as stoic as Lindholm’s visuals. It is a bravura performance of naturalistic restraint, and Malling will win awards for it.

Don’t miss this superb show, one of the year’s best. Outstanding.

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

In Australian cinemas now.

Who knew this man was a swole beast?

* * * *

Oliver Sacks was one of those people who seemed beyond normal capabilities. We may call them geniuses, hyper-intelligent, or, simply, very good at their jobs. But Sacks was very, very good at two jobs: writing and neurology. And that combo made him, weirdly, a star.

As the title makes clear, this is his own story, which is as strange and compelling as many of his case studies. Who knew that beside his incredible talents, he achieved a California State Record in 1961 for squatting? That’s a bodybuilding term for a particular weightlifting manoeuvre, and Sacks won his record by doing it with two hundred and seventy-two kilos on his back. I don’t know about you, but when I read Oliver Sacks, I don’t picture a swole beast.

But this was Sacks: he was full of complications and contradictions, and this elegiac and beautiful movie touches on, I assume, all the biggies. His love and sex life was fascinating; there are addiction issues; he has his own – very Sacksian – neurological deviation; and he was surrounded by a team of Incredibly Smart People who are assembled with Oliver as he discusses his cancer prognosis, the ticking time bomb that frames the film. For this is a movie made about a dying man as he knows he is dying, yet rather than being mournful, it is joyous. Another amazing feat from the life of a truly astonishing individual. Highly recommended.

The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

* * * *

Made a couple of decades after the ground-breaking first two movies for financial rather than strictly artistic reasons, The Godfather Part Three (1990) was greeted appropriately: everyone acknowledged that it simply wasn’t as good as the first two (it’s not); that Coppola’s daughter Sofia, playing Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary, gave a bad performance (she did); and that the story was both over-complicated and rather unengaging (it was). Some critics went further and accused Coppola, and the film, of tarnishing The Godfather legacy.

A tinkerer – he’s put out multiple ‘director’s cuts’ of Apocalypse Now and recently a re-edited version of The Cotton Club – Coppola has sought to address some of these universally acknowledged issues with his re-cut, restored and re-named The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. He can’t take what’s there and make a silk purse, and the new version remains a pale companion to the glory of the first two masterpieces. But he does restore his daughter’s reputation somewhat, by cutting out a lot of her worst moments, and he definitely streamlines and clarifies the story, mainly by strengthening the structure around Vincent Corleone (Andy Garcia). In this version, Vincent’s introduced earlier, and comes this close to being the protagonist, almost putting Michael in the supporting seat.

Of course, no-one puts Al Pacino, in his greatest role (across the three films), in a corner, and he is superb as the ageing mobster who wants to go straight and find redemption in the eyes of God and his children. But the strengthened focus on Garcia works, driving the narrative more cleanly, and, frankly, Sofia doesn’t come off too badly (though there are still some cringe-worthy line readings). It’s a leaner, cleaner, more comprehensible and watchable version of itself – shorter by thirteen minutes – and worth your time for a re-visit. It looks and feels like The Godfather, and has some sublime moments and a couple of great set-pieces. Like Michael, it seeks redemption. Unlike Michael, it gets some.

BELOW

LaPaglia and Corr.

* * * 1/2

Bold, ambitious, colourful, a big swing, Maziar Lahooti’s feature debut Below, now available on STAN, is full of ideas. Set in the daunting milieu of a migrant detention centre in a (very slightly) alternative-reality Australia, the film takes black-comedy aim at all manner of hot button issues swirling around our – Australian – sense of identity, as well as cancel culture, the dark web, gambling, corporate-speak, privatisation, and, inherently, the ethical and moral quagmire of migrant detention itself. It’s loaded to the brim, thrillingly, bracingly, at times almost gluttonously – the work of someone with a lot to say and only 93 minutes to say it.

Ryan Corr plays Dougie, a young man forced by circumstance to work in a private detention centre in an arid region that’s been effectively erased from Australia – a no-man’s land of no accountability. There, he encounters a punitive system of cage-fighting that’s been set up to keep the detainees in line, and sees an opportunity to profit.

A kind of unholy cross between Catch-22, Fight Club and The Road Warrior, Lahooti’s nihilistic, anti-heroic and at times ferociously angry film is visually energetic and excitingly paced, creating a vibrantly dangerous world with one foot in reality and the other in low-key science fiction. Corr is an entertaining – if amoral – guide, and Anthony LaPaglia is ridiculously enjoyable as Terry, Dougie’s step-father and head honcho at the detention centre who gets him into this mess. As black comedy it’s not the funniest, as political satire it’s not the sharpest, and as sci-fi it’s not the most rigorous, but part of its charm is how it resists trying too hard to excel as any of these. You might say that it’s tonally inconsistent; I would suggest it’s tonally bold. It’s its own thing, original and unique, not for everyone, and all the better for it.

Mank

Watched at the Ritz Cinema, Sydney, where it is now playing.

* * * *

I am the target audience for Mank, David Fincher’s Netflix-funded production of his dad Jack Fincher’s screenplay about Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, a “screenwriter’s screenwriter” who won an Oscar for Citizen Kane. This film covers Mank (Gary Oldman) during the writing of that script, with flashbacks to his earlier Hollywood career and its intersection with Citizen Kane subjects William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies.

I’m the target audience all right: earlier this year, I read Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s 480-page biography of Mank and his brother Joseph, The Brothers Mankiewicz; I’ve read more books about Orson Welles, Citizen Kane’s director (and a minor character in this film by screen time but a major one by impact) than about anyone else; I’ve even read John Houseman’s books about working with Welles, and Houseman is a major character in this film no matter how you gauge it. I love the golden age of Hollywood; I love these (real-life) characters; I love films about films. This film was meant for me, and I loved it.

Will you? Hard to say. But there’s more on Fincher and daddy Fincher’s minds than just a Hollywood story. Mank’s desire to write a classic film about the media mogul of his day – Hearst – reflects his growing realisation that realpolitik trumps idealism, and Mank is really a political film, striking out at propaganda, electioneering and fake news. Its vibe is old-timey – more on that in a moment – but it’s actually very timely.

Fincher has shot the film so that it looks, sounds, feels and smells like it was made at the time Citizen Kane was: the early 1940s. It’s a startling experience. From the contrast of the black and white images, to the (simulated, I suppose) grain of the film, to the period-appropriate fade-outs, to the fun inclusion of cue blips – those strange circles in the upper right corner of the screen that appear in old movies to alert the projectionist to a reel change – Fincher and his cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt nail the aesthetic of the period, and the sound design follows suit. But there’s more to the film’s 1941faux-verisimilitude: the screenplay itself is constructed as it might have been then, and thus is it acted. Every actor in the film is, essentially, giving the performance they would have given in 1941, before the naturalistic ‘method’ stormed in. The whole enterprise is highly stylised, and it totally works. Once you’re in – a process that took mere minutes for me – you’re in. The style remains but it’s never an obstacle, obstruction nor irritant: form follows function, beautifully.

All that clever acting is excellent acting, too. Gary Oldman makes Mank a gloriously happy alcoholic, steering clear of many of the type’s trappings. It’s not a flashy performance but a stable one, Mank as hero of his own story, which he was. This is not a take-down, and Oldman’s performance is not a grotesque: he, and the film, like Mank, and so do we. He’s talented, generous, idealistic and, most importantly, true to himself, something recognised in him by others.

Amanda Seyfried delivers a career-best performance as Davies, Hearst’s young mistress. Charles Dance plays Hearst not as a monster but simply a master – of his domain, of men, of his mistress – and subverts our sympathies in the process. There are fine performance from Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer, Sam Troughton as Houseman, and Tom Burke, from The Souvenir, as Welles. But the character sharing the most scenes with Mank is Rita, a young woman employed to attend to him – and keep an eye on him – as he writes Kane; she’s played by Lily Collins, superbly. She’s Emily in Paris, too, but I’ll take Rita in Victorville, where she and Mank co-exist.

Mank is one of the films of the year. It’s surprisingly gentle, loving, calm and graceful. It takes you to another world. Five hours after leaving the cinema, I’m still kind of there. It’s my happy place, and Mank is, for me, a feel-good movie, one made like they used to.

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

My first produced play was a farce about intrigue among chess grandmasters. The climax, which I reckon was a bit of a coup de théâtre, involved the hero grandmaster facing off with the villain grandmaster over a game of chess. There was no board; the two characters stalked each other around the good guy’s living room, leaping onto furniture and barking out their moves: “Queen to rook five!” The entire match was played out, and if you were a deep chess person, theoretically you could follow it in your head, and it would be as suspenseful and fun as, say, the climactic sword-fight at the end of a production of Hamlet or Macbeth.

I cribbed the match from an actual one played by actual champions – I forget whom or from when. But I made sure to find a match that suited my players’ identities: I wanted the moves made to feel authentic, the kind of moves those actual characters would make. It was a long scene, and for people who couldn’t possibly follow the game in their heads (99% of us) there was a lot of jumping around and acting going on to keep them entertained; for the one percent (and that’s being very generous) that could follow the match, it played, I hoped, like the climactic boxing scene in a boxing movie, the final football game in a football film, etc.

So too, do the many chess games and snippets of, as played by the various competitors in The Queen’s Gambit, adhereto the sports movie formula: they are given enough screen-time to actually be appreciated, and are based on actual games that reflect the theoretical / fictional styles of the players. Chief among them is Beth Harmon, played spectacularly by Anya Taylor-Joy, an orphan in 1950s America who grows up to be a world champion. Her story is both a superhero girl-power adventure as she barrels her way up through the ranks of a very male sport, and an addiction drama: she loves her pills and, increasingly as I roll into the middle of the seven-episode limited series, her drink.

The period design is both gorgeous and a little over-the-top (most of the show was shot in Berlin-for-other-places, so there’s a lot of set dressing, both physical and digital, going on) and the same could be said for the drama. Subtle it is not. Nor nuanced. It’s the kind of show where a character is introduced by another character turning to a third character and saying, “Look, it’s X! He won the X tournament in 19XX and now he’s X.” Most of the dialogue is expositional and a lot of it is very clunky. One can see where most scenes, and most episodes, are headed. It’s unsubtle, obvious, on-the-nose.

But it’s also compelling, even compulsive: a classic Netflix binge. The plot is a page-turner (it’s based on a popular novel), Taylor-Joy is endlessly watchable, and the casting is really fun: every character, like Taylor-Joy, has an interesting-to-fascinating face. Most of the supporting cast are British, but their US accents are strong (as is Taylor-Joy’s) and they attack the material with gusto. It’s a sprawling drama with a lot of players and they’re all allowed to make their mark (and their move). In the main supporting role, of Beth’s adoptive mother Alma, Marielle Heller, best known as a director (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood), is, as critics say a little too often, a “revelation.” In this case it’s true.

And then there’s the chess, treated seriously, with integrity, with respect. I suspect a lot of little girls will give the game a go thanks to this show (if they’re allowed to watch a show about an addict), and that alone is raison d’être. Pawn to Queen four!

The Trial of the Chicago 7

* * *

Everyone’s in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (now on Netflix). Well, all your favourite dudes, anyway. Sacha Baron Cohen and Succession’s Jeremy Strong are on trial, in the wake of the protests at the 1968 US Democratic Convention in Chicago, as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Eddie Redmayne and John Carroll Lynch are on trial too, as the more level-headed Tom Hayden and David Dellinger. Mark Rylance and Ben Shenkman are there trying to defend them, while Joseph Gordan-Levitt is across the aisle for the prosecution. Meanwhile, glowering from his high bench, there’s Frank Langella as the odious Judge Julius Hoffman. When he walked into the courtroom, my partner blurted out, “Perfect.”

Indeed. Langella is, on the surface – on paper – perfectly cast, and emblematic of the kind of film this is: everyone’s playing to their strengths, to the gallery, and to the moment. Watching the dirty deeds hurled at the ‘7’ by the government makes you angry, both for then and for now: nothing’s changed. My anger came with a side of very weird comfort: Oh well, it’s not as though the current US administration is the first to be horribly corrupt, vengeful, and willing to unfairly prosecute their own citizens. There’s precedent!

It’s a wiggy movie – that is, there are a lot of wigs, a lot of beards, a lot of late-60s gear – and not a very subtle one. But it is a spectacular history lesson that also reverberates perfectly for this moment, while also becoming increasingly entertaining as it goes on. Each of the cast are given multiple moments to shine, and if Baron Cohen’s accent is (very) dodgy, his essence is not: he is a modern-day Hoffman, constantly speaking truth to corrupt power through subversive comedy. The least obvious casting may be Strong as Rubin, given his short-back-and-sides work on Succession, but he is actually the film’s greatest delight. And Redmayne is the best I’ve seen him.

Surprisingly, given the clear-cut case for his casting, the one who doesn’t work is Langella. He goes full-on Disney villain, Sorkin lets him, and together they come close to ruining the end of the film, Langella flailing about cartoonishly, a bully come-upped. It’s a pretty dreadful, intensely over-done, schmaltzy ending, and you come out whistling a familiar tune: Sorkin remains one of the great American screenwriters, but a fledgling director.