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?

Better Than Us (NETFLIX)

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics state: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”

Creating them, he laid a foundation for all robot stories to come. Indeed, he essentially gave writers a template for great drama: at some point, let the robot(s) obey the third law to the detriment of the first two, and start hurting humans.

Netflix’s Better Than Us goes so far as to open Ep 1 with the laws on-screen. Nothing wrong with that; we know where we are and what to expect. The tale’s in the telling. What’s fresh about the telling here is the milieu: modern (or near-future) Moscow. Better Than Us is a Russian series, with fresh, intriguing Russian faces and a sensibility that doesn’t necessarily reflect the politically correct nuances of more western fare. Our dangerous robot here, at least in the first couple of episodes, is a fembot fatale, a cheerful throwback to, say, Species.

The production design and VFX cleverly offer a Moscow, and Muscovites, with wrist-implanted phones but scuffed up shoes. This is the kind of futurism I particularly like, the kind that acknowledges that some things don’t change. Also, not having been to Moscow, and certainly not recently, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s invented within the cityscape. It all adds up to a fresh vibe, even as (Russian-born) Asimov’s three rules again set the dramatic ones. The lead (human) characters – a morgue worker, a cop, a pregnant widow, an oily executive and a little girl – are all distinct, rounded and very well performed, and the story expands satisfyingly. This is a compelling and highly watchable sci-fi drama.

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

* * * * 1/2

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie is a superb time at the movies, a languid, fun, exquisitely crafted “movie movie” that is best appreciated in the context of the whole career of this quintessentially American auteur. It references, plays with and draws comparison to other films of his; it builds on narrative conceits and structures that he either created from whole cloth or has wielded more successfully than any other filmmaker; it reflects – deeply – on middle-age and late career. It truly is the ninth movie from a man who has said he only intends to make ten. Sure, if this is your first Tarantino, you’ll have a great time. But it needs to be your ninth for you to “get it.”

Brad Pitt is at his very, very best as an ageing – yet supremely physically capable – stuntman, who has transitioned to being the factotum to an ageing, and semi-alcoholic, TV star (Leonardo DiCaprio). They represent what they represent – including Tarantino – and they do it superbly. If Brad Pitt is run in the Best Supporting Actor category come Oscar time, he’ll win. (If both of them are run in Lead, they will certainly cancel each other out). Their camaraderie forms the spine of the film, which is set very, very deliberately in Hollywood in 1969.

The bright, shining star of the film, however, the objet d’art and fulcrum of the plot, is (real-life up and coming movie star) Sharon Tate, played exquisitely by Margot Robbie. Her tragic real-life murder by followers of Charles Manson’s “family” has become a seismic semiotic turning point across popular culture and academia – signifying America’s death of innocence, the end of the ‘60s, the end of personal safety, etc, etc – and Tarantino fully embraces her iconography and cultural importance while also taking the radical and incredibly humane step of treating her as a proper person, and specifically a good one, full of joy, generosity, talent and integrity. In one astonishingly well-conceived sequence, he shows Tate watching one of her movies with a general audience and joyfully appreciating their appreciation of her performance, not egotistically but artistically. She is there to make sure she got the beats right; she’s there as an artist entirely aware that she’s at the beginning of something great but that she has a lot to learn. If only, Tarantino is saying, she had been allowed to.

Perpetual Grace Ltd (STAN)

Damon Herriman is an uncommonly versatile actor with an intriguing, enviable and unique career. In Australia, he’s a star character actor – itself a rare position – and in the United States he’s cornered a strange market, of misfits and malcontents of sometimes limited intelligence and potential danger (he’s playing Manson in Tarantino’s upcoming film). He has a laser-like ability to hone in on any of his characters’ exact level of intelligence and worldliness, so that, for example, his character in Perpetual Grace Ltd, Paul, is smarter than Dewey, his character on Justified, but not as smart as Kim on Secret City, who’s much smarter than Buddy on Quarry, and so on and so on. The secret sauce is that all of them may be a little bit smarter than they let on, or a lot more dumb than they think they are.

This ability to be so specific is important for Perpetual Grace Ltd, because Paul kicks the whole thing rolling, setting up a drifter (Jimmi Simpson) to help him rob of his parents (Ben Kingsley and Jacki Weaver) of four million bucks. They’re corrupt preachers, and the universe of their operations is New Mexico, but really, it’s Coen Brothers World, even though those filmmakers have nothing to do with this show, except to leave their influence all over it.

Despite wearing that influence on its sleeve, Perpetual Grace Ltd delivers. It’s funny, sharp and funky. Kingsley brings his Sexy Beast, Simpson is a natural at roles like this, and Weaver… well, you can tell there’s something brewing. I’m in. This is fun TV made with seriously good ingredients, such as this sublime, highly intelligent cast; they’re all smart enough to know how to play dumb, and I’m guessing some of their characters are too.

Big Little Lies, Black Mirror

Big Little Lies (Showcase) is back with a vengeance; her name is Celeste, and she’s played by Meryl Streep. Celeste is the mother of Perry, who was killed, pack-style, by the “Monterey Five” at the end of Season One; now she prowls amongst them, sniffing them out and deploying every weapon in the passive aggressive arsenal to throw them off-balance. Under Andrea Arnold’s direction, this season seems to have veered deeper into black comedy (away from issue-based mystery), and that’s working just fine for me. Let the bloodletting begin.

Season Five of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (Netflix) is an unprecedented disappointment. There are three episodes, in increasing degrees of quality, from the first, which I felt was unwatchably badly scripted and directed, to Ep 3, which is quite fun and at least competently made. Ep 2 suffers from a truly overblown performance from Andrew Scott, who is having a moment as the Hot Priest on Fleabag; he’s a notorious overactor, and that’s certainly the case here. For the first time the series seems to be behind the technological eight-ball; Brooker’s deal with Netflix should allow him the time to relax, reflect, and re-group. He’s much better than this season would suggest.

Fosse/Verdon

Fosse/Verdon Showcase

Nothing will stop the musical theatre darlings from devouring this eight-part examination of the grand, extremely complicated love affair and working relationship between choreographer / director Bob Fosse and choreographer / dancer / actor Gwen Verdon, but the rest of the population might find their relentless self-absorption wearing to say the least. As portrayed here, Fosse and Verdon come off as deeply unlikeable and terrible parents; amidst the drug-taking and drinking, the fights, the affairs, the negligence and the endless passive aggression, one scene sums it up: the two of them talking throughout their daughter’s school ballet recital, simultaneously ignoring their child and blithely displaying disregard for the other parents and students. It is Fosse/Verdon’s “wire coathanger” scene, and the whole thing sits just on the tasteful side of Mommy Dearest, but with a lot more craft, if not much more heart.

Michelle Williams is outstanding as Verdon; Sam Rockwell perhaps less so as Fosse. Or perhaps it’s the character; I found (this version of) Fosse so repugnant, perhaps I blame the actor unfairly. Of course, by the end of the series, during an episode depicting Fosse directing his film All That Jazz, we’re watching an actor playing Fosse directing an actor playing an actor playing Fosse, so where reality ends and art begins is pretty much up for grabs.

63 Up

Screen Shot 2019-06-11 at 11.03.16 am.pngI was recently wondering how Michael Apted was doing. Specifically, I wondered if he was still capable of continuing the 7 Up documentary film series, or whether that had been quietly put to rest. For that matter, had Apted been put to rest, and had I simply missed his passing amidst the 21st Century Noise?

Turns out, Apted is alive and well – he’s 78 – and we have the latest instalment of his revolutionary series: 63 Up. On SBS in Australia it’s divided into three parts, and the first part caught up with four of the original series’ fourteen participants.

I thought I’d feel disconnected to these people. Out of the loop. I was wrong. Seeing them again brings back an immediate rush of memory, and perhaps nostalgia. It’s astonishing that this series started in 1964, and here they are, at 63, and we really are seeing how things panned out.

Apted’s thesis “Give me the child at 7 and I’ll show you the man!” has certainly panned out, at least looking at these four. They are all unmistakably close versions of their 7 year old selves, physically and temperamentally. My own theory – “people don’t change” – is kind of based on Apted’s, and whether or not it’s a good thing, I feel it’s now been proven.

Of course, Apted knows how to tell these stories, and in what order to tell them – Tony comes first! – so I’m sure there are some – potentially sad – twists and turns to come. But so far – one revelation notwithstanding – the news is good. All four of episode one’s subjects have partners and kids and seem okay financially. Indeed, Apted’s biggest theme – Class – provides the biggest happy revelation: even those from the “working class” seem to have at least made it to the middle.

More to come, and I can’t wait. A milestone show.