There’s every reason not a give a damn about the ‘College Admissions Scandal’ that, among other things, sent actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin to prison for eleven days and two months, respectively. But if you’re curious to know how it all worked – and the way it all worked is, in my book, inherently fascinating – then Operation Varsity Blues, now available on Netflix, will fill you in. Chris Smith’s zippy (99 minute) documentary hybrid casts Matthew Modine as Rick Singer, the odd mastermind behind the whole thing; we mainly see him on the phone as he negotiates his extremely expensive services – mainly bribery-broking and test-cheating – with extremely wealthy clients, all of whom don’t want their little darlings to know that mummy and daddy were breaking the law to buy their way into a fancy university. Along the way we meet all sorts of grifters, and one poor sailing instructor who just gets caught up in the morass. Grimy fun.
Eddie Murphy was my favourite contemporary movie star when I was a young teen. 48 Hours (1982), Trading Places (1983) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984) were movies I practically worshipped, and, like millions of others, I worshipped them for Murphy’s performances. They were displays of protean virtuosity, full of energy, wit, intelligence and profane belligerence.
Coming To America (1988) was a different story. As a naive African prince who goes to the United States to find a bride, Murphy was restrained, and restraint was not the quality one looked for in Murphy. His trademark hyperbolic energy was seriously muzzled, at least as Prince Akeem; luckily, he and co-star Arsenio Hall also played denizens of a Queen’s barbershop, under layers of makeup (Eddie played both the black owner and an old white Jewish customer), and those scenes, liberally scattered throughout the movie, helped salvage it.
Those characters re-appear in this very belated sequel, available on Amazon Prime, but only briefly, and the film suffers mightily from the same affliction as the first: not enough Eddie, and not the Eddie we want. Murphy is just too generous in both these movies: he gives so much screen time away to his co-stars, he himself barely registers, yet he’s the sole reason we’re there. Coming 2 America, Murphy’s second collaboration with director Craig Brewer after 2019’s terrific Dolemite Is My Name, is a mis-fire. Given how often it re-packages material from the first movie, it is also, sadly, redundant. * * 1/2
For a far better film with a nearly all-Black cast, check out Judas and the Black Messiah(in cinemas now). It’s the fascinating story of Bill O’Neal, who informed on Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton to the FBI. O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) remains an elusive figure, perhaps inevitably, but the film is beautifully crafted and a superb history lesson. The production design and cinematography are particularly rewarding, all the performances are solid (Daniel Kaluuya is picking up awards for his fiery portrayal of Hampton), and the score is phenomenal. It’s the second feature from director Shaka King; there will be many more. * * * *
The whole schmozzle around Woody Allen, Mia Farrow and Dylan Farrow is tawdry and complicated, not least by Allen’s marriage to Soon-Yi Previn. Disturbing allegations about Allen’s relationship with Dylan Farrow, although cleared in a legal context, linger in the public mind, and Allen V. Farrow, through HBO and available on Foxtel over four hour-long episodes dropping weekly, makes the whole affair murkier. Resolutely on the ‘side’ of Dylan (and Mia, and Ronan), it adds to the conversation, but not to the clarity, because, one sadly suspects, the definitive history will never be written. If you’re fascinated by it all, by all means watch; if you’re sick of it all, no need to get back into it all here. I will be glued to every minute.
Nick Bilton has written, and podcasted, on technology, entertainingly, for Vanity Fair for a while. Now he’s made a breezy documentary about Instagram influencers called Fake Famousfor HBO (available on Foxtel On Demand in Australia). If you know a lot about them already, there may not be much here for you; if you know nothing, then there may be a lot; if, like me, you know about them but steer clear of them (and Instagram) at all costs, these eighty-three colourful minutes will confirm your worst fears. Bilton auditions and hires three pretty young people in LA, buys them 7,500 bots to get their Instagram accounts rolling, then proceeds to see if he can make any of them ‘famous’ using the fraudulent practices real influencers use. Along the way we get to see if the process has any positive sides along with the clear negatives (such as spending your precious time on Earth trying to amass little hearts on a small metal device rather than playing in the sunshine). It’s by no means as serious, intense or revelatory as similar tech docs such as The Social Dilemma, but Bilton’s light-hearted, easily watchable social experiment does offer some insight even to a NeverGrammer like me. It’s also a very sunny portrait of modern Los Angeles in all its fatuous glory.
On a podcast recently I heard the actor Sam Neill refer to the lifestyle he was enjoying in New Zealand at this stage of the pandemic as a ‘strange privilege.’ It was the perfect phrase, far better than ‘survivor guilt’, which is not in any way actually appropriate.
In Australia, we’re also enjoying this strange privilege, and it may have rubbed off on our cinema industry. For at least five weeks now, multiple Australian films have dominated the Australian box office; while each have many merits, there is no doubt that the enormous financial success of The Dry, Penguin Bloom and High Ground in cinemas around the country has been augmented by the lack of Hollywood blockbuster competition. Australians historically have a terrible habit of shunning their own movies at the box office, but, during this strange privilege, we seem to have enthusiastically embraced a suite of movies that have come along, paradoxically, at a very good time.
The Dry, the most successful of the three, has finally been knocked off its number one position at the Australian box office by the kind of Hollywood product that has been around forever: the serial killer thriller (it’s called The Little Things, and stars Denzel Washington, the kind of American movie star who can still drive people to the cinema). But The Dry dropped just 18% in its eighth weekend, which is pretty phenomenal; it is on track to make $20 million at the first-run domestic box office, and is already the 14th highest grossing Australian film of all time.
This is reason to be proud, and, of course, it’s hard to feel proud in a pandemic, because our privilege is strange. But hearing today that New Zealand is trialling digital vaccination passports that will be the prototypes for the world, and reading about the vaccine support Australia will be providing across the South Pacific, does make me kind of proud to live and work in Australasia. Our strange privilege comes partially from the societies we have built, and the current success of our movies comes from the industry of artists who have been allowed to develop within them.
Russell T. Davies is at the top of the heap of queer television, paving the way for all who followed with his seminal series Queer As Folk. His new show, It’s a Sin, seems destined to have a seismic impact.
Davies knows how to write TV, and It’s a Sin is extremely well scripted, zipping along with total watchability even as it tackles deeply sad subject matter. It’s a Sin is about AIDS tearing through the London queer community in the 1980s, and there is tragedy at every turn. But there are also a cast of buoyant and almost immediately loveable young people – that must be Davies’ true alchemy, the ability to create instantly appealing characters – whose exuberant energy is as upbeat as the plague they face is devastating.
The style is hyper, elevated, almost cartoonish; everyone’s acting is dialled up to 11 (and sometimes beyond), particularly when called upon to ‘act happy’ (there is sooo much forced gaiety – pun not really intended – and badly faked laughter, and it grates). But the script, the milieu and the themes of the show add up to an undeniably addictive, entertaining and, dare I say it, deeply important package.
Fran Lebowitz is an author, an actor, a public speaker, a raconteur, a wit. Martin Scorsese winds her up and lets her go in this fantastically warm, charming and funny seven part half-hour Netflix series. At times they’re in a fancy bar (although neither of them seem to be drinking alcohol), at other times in front of an audience (the kind of New York audience who have subscriptions to The New Yorker, The New York Times and New York Magazine) and at times they’re out and about in New York, in libraries, museums and other places of note and import. But the conversation is always about New York, and it’s always funny.
Perhaps ‘conversation’ is too strong a word. Scorsese prompts, prods and pokes, then Fran lets rip and Marty laughs – a lot. Part of the joy of this unbelievably good-hearted show is watching the celebrated maestro of American cinema crack up, again and again and again. He’s divided the episodes thematically – there’s one on transport, one on art, one on ‘sports and health’ and so forth – but Fran’s brain goes where it goes, and we all follow, delightedly. While what she has to say is always interesting and, indeed, often profound, more importantly, it’s funny as hell. This modest series, playing by its own rules, is its own kind of perfect.
The good news about Lupin is that it stars Omar Sy as a master jewel thief in Paris. The bad is that the first few episodes are directed by Louis Leterrier in his signature flashy, bombastic, whizzy-zoomey way. The camera never stops, everything is turned up to eleven, and over-acting is encouraged. But as pandemic escapism, this is expensive, pretty and shiny, like the necklace Sy’s thief wishes to steal from an auction at the Louvre in the first episode. I don’t know why or if they have auctions at the Louvre; this show really wouldn’t care. It’s a great place for a heist, right? Sometimes that’s enough.
Paul Raci makes a massive impression in Sound of Metal, the debut directorial feature from screenwriter Darius Marder (The Place Beyond The Pines). The film is featuring heavily in ‘awards chatter’ for lead actor Riz Ahmed, who plays a heavy-metal drummer who rather suddenly loses his hearing, but mark my words, Raci is going to start – pardon the pun – making noise. His performance is an apt use of that critical cliché, a ‘revelation’.
The film itself mashes up two pretty conventional sub-genres – those of ‘dealing with sudden disability’ and ‘rehab’ – without subverting either nor adding anything fantastically new, except a highly specific sound design that strives mightily to give us a simulacrum of what Ahmed’s character, Ruben, is hearing and experiencing. That sound design is the other element of the film being talked about for big awards, but again, I’m laying my money on Raci to step forth and start scooping up Supporting Actor statues. He plays the cultish leader of a community for deaf addicts (Ruben’s a four-year clean junkie) with absolute authority, compassion, empathy and integrity. Since, despite having a true ‘character actor’ face, Raci is simply not that well known (and wasn’t to me), he comes across as one hundred percent the real deal, as though Marder had found this actual man and had him play himself. Raci was raised by deaf parents so his signing is unassailable, even as he himself is not deaf. It’s perfect casting resulting in a perfect performance.
An indie film with wide appeal, Sound of Metal hardly re-invents the wheel, but it’s got a lot of integrity and heart, and is well worth your two hours. Ahmed is indeed very, very good, as is Olivia Cooke in an underwritten role as his girlfriend; late in the film, a major international star makes an appearance that’ll make your eyes pop wide open.
I’m pleased to announce that my Movieland podcast is back, with seven episodes already in the can. Have a listen via your favourite podcast platform, please subscribe, and please rate and review it highly to ensure it ‘gets out there’.
The most recent episode – 7 – features Kitty Green talking about her incredible film The Assistant, which was my ‘Best Film’ of 2020. Start there! You’ll also find discussions on The Godfather Coda, Promising Young Woman and the best films of 2020.
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
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.