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.

Homecoming (Amazon Prime Video)

Homecoming is based on a dramatic podcast, and the whole season of ten episodes is directed by Sam Esmail, who created and directed most of Mr. Robot. Oh, and it’s a half-hour drama. All those elements combine to give the show a very unique tone and feel. It’s bold and original. It doesn’t feel like anything else on television right now.

What it does feel like, and this is highly deliberate, especially on Mr. Esmail’s part, is The Parallax View, Capricorn One, The Conversation and other 1970s American paranoid conspiracy thrillers. It’s a total stylistic homage to those films and those directors, incorporating constant visual and aural references, particularly in the camera framing (and use of zooming), score, and title and cross-dissolve motifs. If you’re a fan of such cinema, you’re essentially predisposed to love this.

There’s a lot to love. The story is gripping, the performances – suiting the style – are a lot of fun, and the half-hour format is definitely fresh. Julia Roberts plays a counselor working for a government-contracted Florida-based Veteran’s program, called Homecoming, that aims to aid soldiers returning from the Middle East with their transition back to civilian life. But, of course, something nefarious is afoot. As the very embodiment of that nefariousness, Bobby Cannavle is (and has) a hoot, giving a very Bobby Cannavale performance. If you’ve listened to the podcast version, you’ll get a lot of enjoyment seeing the phone conversations between Roberts and Cannavale’s characters come to life.

But in the end, it is Esmail’s directorial flair, utilizing the cinematography and score, that puts this cool little oddity in the hoop. It just looks and sounds fantastic.

The Bureau

The Bureau Image.pngThe Bureau, or The Bureau of Legends as directly translated from the French original, is a sprawling, engrossing, thrilling espionage drama and one of the best shows I have ever seen. I put it only behind Engrenages (Spiral) as my favourite French show. So far there have been three seasons, and all are currently available on SBS On Demand. A fourth season began airing in France on October 22nd, 2018.

It focuses on the workings of the DGSE, the General Directorate of External Security, France’s principal external security service. The first season sees long-embedded spy “Malotru” (Mathieu Kassovitz) come in from the cold – Damascus – and try to adjust to “normal” life in Paris while wrestling with a particularly personal dilemma brought on during his operative term. The second season, one of the best seasons of television I’ve ever seen, shifts the primary focus to the “B Story” lead character, Marina (Sara Giraudeau) as she goes undercover in Tehran. The third season… well, no spoilers from me, but it’s awesome.

There is a brilliantly conceived universe of fascinating characters here, warmly played by a superb ensemble. The operations, centred always in the Middle East, are compelling and believable, based, as they are, on real accounts by former spies and formidable research. There is humour, there are love affairs (and plain old French affairs), and the constant churn of truly difficult work, done in the shadows. But where the series really stands out is in its handling of suspense. This is a drama first and foremost, with the killings and action set-pieces held in admirable restraint, but when a tense sequence does kick into gear, it always works. At least once per episode, you’re likely to get sweaty palms.

N’attends pas! This is a binge delight.

WELLES FEAST

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THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND ****

THEY’LL LOVE ME WHEN I’M DEAD ****

It’s difficult to know, objectively, how exciting the simultaneous release, on Netflix, of Orson Welles’ finally-finished film The Other Side of the Wind and a documentary about that film’s production, They’ll Love Me When I’d Dead, will be for the general movie watcher. For me, it’s manna from heaven. If cinema is my love, Welles has been my obsession. I’ve read more books about him, watched more documentaries about him, just thought about him more than any other artist. And I’m not alone. Welles inspires devotion, because he was just the biggest, baddest, raddest, most ball-bustingly bravura filmmaker there was. He huffed and he puffed and blew all the doors down.

Of course, his very grandiosity, the thing about him that makes him so compelling, made him a pariah to some, and his story, no matter who’s telling it (I recommend Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles by David Thomson, This Is Orson Welles by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, Put Money In Thy Purse by Micheál MacLiammóir, and Run-Through by John Houseman, although there are scores more, including a mammoth multi-volume extravaganza by Simon Callow) always includes Hollywood’s abandonment of him, and his years in self-imposed exile, raising money and hell all over Europe and the world, starting many projects and tragically leaving many unfinished.

The most famous and infamous of these, the Golden Fleece, is The Other Side of the Wind, except that now, thanks to a smorgasbord of Jasons, it is, actually, finished, and you can, miraculously, push a button and watch it. But first, watch Morgan Neville’s extraordinarily entertaining documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, also on Netflix, or read (and read?) the book that inspired it, Orson Welles’s Last Movie by Josh Karp, which is similarly delightful and inherently more detailed.

Then, once you’re up to speed on all the shenanigans, watch The Other Side of the Wind. It’s one of the more meta cinematic experiences you’ll ever have, for reasons that are self-evident, and plainly discussed in both They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and Karp’s book. The story of a Wellesian director, Jake Hannaford, played by John Huston, on his 70th birthday, having a party and trying to finish his latest film, it’s a stylistic tour-de-force first and foremost, a flashy, breezy and often very funny satire on the movies and reflection of Welles’s own predicament. If you’ve seen Welles’s superb cinematic essay F For Fake, you’ll recognise his editing style (and his leading lady and girlfriend, Oja Kodar), here taken to extremes. The cinematic conceit of the “main” storyline is that almost everyone at Hannaford’s party has some form of movie camera, and the film we’re watching is constructed from their footage, so the grain shifts, sometimes we’re in black and white, and very few cuts last longer than a couple of seconds. It’s propulsive and vibrant and edgy and fresh and unmistakably the work of Orson Welles. He had a true cinematic voice and it’s fully on display here.

We’re also treated to a hefty selection of scenes from Hannaford’s unfinished film – a film-within-the-film – also called The Other Side of the Wind. This is shot and edited in a completely different style (including in a different aspect ratio), being, within the film’s construct, not “Welles’s” work but “Hannaford’s”, and Hannaford, it turns out, is trying to connect with the late-60s / early 70s cineaste crowd by making an Antonioni-esque film. Thus the footage we see is a parody of Antonioni, and if you needed confirmation of that, the house Welles shot Hannaford’s party in is the house next door to the house Antonioni blew up at the end of Zabriskie Point. Now you see how deep the games go?

This footage – the film-within-the-film – is astonishing, for many reasons. It is intensely erotic (something rare for Welles), famously so thanks to the influence of co-writer Kodar, whom Welles adored and who obviously influenced him deeply during this period of his life. It is gorgeous, intricate, and often very creepy. If the main storyline is fascinating for its autobiographical take on Welles and his relationship to Peter Bogdanovich (playing a Peter Bogdanovich-type called Brooks Otterlake!) and young hip Hollywood (Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Curtis Harrington and Claude Chabrol are all at the party, among others, and Susan Strasberg plays a version of Pauline Kael called Julie Rich), the film-within-a-film is fascinating to experience. Almost entirely free of dialogue, it is spellbinding, captivating, better than most of the films it so wickedly parodies.

If you love Welles you’ll be seeing both They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and The Other Side of the Wind. If you’re new to Welles, give ‘em both a try. Regardless, watch the documentary first. It makes the film itself a vitally richer experience.