Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga Review

If you’re a Eurovision super fan – like me – you can rest easy: Will Ferrell’s ambling comedy about a pair of Icelandic entrants is not a piss-take. Indeed, it loves Eurovision: if anything, the film is a celebration.

When I heard, a few years back, that Ferrell was planning this film, I got surprisingly anxious, not just that Ferrell was going to mock my beloved contest, but also that the film itself would operate as a gateway drug for Americans to discover, pollute and ultimately destroy the annual event. Seemingly aware of such a response, Ferrell stages two scenes where his character, Lars, yells at a group of four young Americans to, essentially, fuck off out of Europe: “We don’t want you here!”

Putting his money where Lars’ mouth is, Ferrell and director David Dobkin cast all of Iceland’s actors, a batch of funny Brits, and Canadian Rachel McAdams as Sigrit, Lars’ bandmate and the true protagonist of the film. It goes out of its way to not be American, and ends up, to its great credit, as a film for the Eurovision community, possibly to the exclusion of everyone else. This was never meant for the mall cinemas of Idaho (it’s a Netflix original).

It’s hardly Ferrell’s best work – it’s not even in his top five – and if you’re not into Eurovision there’s probably no reason to give it a whirl. It’s too long – possibly by half an hour – and there are flat patches. But if you’re a Eurovision fan you kind of have to see it. There’s one extended sequence, a gift for Eurovision tragics, that gave me my longest prolonged smile in… well, let’s just say since February. Or maybe since I saw Think About Things for the first time. If you know what I mean, you’ll want to see this movie, shaggy as it is.

* * * for the Eurovision Fan

* * 1/2 for everyone else

BAIT and DEAD STILL reviews

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BAIT

In cinemas June 22nd (Victoria) / July 1st (elsewhere)

* * * *

Mark Jenkin has created the most visually memorable film so far this year with Bait, which he shot on 16mm B&W stock using a vintage wind-up Bolex, which meant he couldn’t record live sound, so the whole soundscape including all dialogue was added in post. Furthermore, Jenkin processed the film himself by hand, and used things like coffee grounds and vitamin powder in the process, giving the resulting image an honestly-achieved hand-made look. The story itself is also bold and original, the tale of Cornish gentrification seen through the eyes of a local fisherman struggling with economic survival in the new Cornwall tourist economy. The aesthetics of the film inevitably consign it to the arthouse, but for the right viewer, this film will be fresh, vibrant, exciting and extremely memorable. It certainly was for me.

DEAD STILL

Acorn TV

Everyone loves Michael Smiley, right? He’s on of those actors that, upon his entrance into a film, gives you a frisson of confident elevated expectation: “Oh, he’s in it. Well that’ll be good!” His role in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, as one of the most quotable hit-men in cinema, remains his signature performance, but among his 96 credits are scene-or-movie-stealing turns in A Field In England, The Lobster, Burke and Hare, Down Terrace and Free Fire. His big face and beautiful Northern Irish speaking voice are the tools through which his sardonic, ironic line deliveries flow: he’s the guy who can make all his lines funny without actually steering a scene or film’s dramatic intentions into comedy.

He’s the kind of actor you can end up taking for granted, and who often never gets their one great leading role, let alone their own TV series, but here it is, a vehicle of Michael Smiley, and an Acorn TV Original no less. He plays Brock Blennerhasset (what a name!), a post-mortem photography expert in 1880s Ireland (what a concept!) He takes staged photographs of dead people before they’re buried – which apparently was a thing – who gets tangled up in a series of suspicious deaths. It’s a mystery, and there are detectives and suspects, but Blennerhasset is neither, while, dramatically, at times serving as both.

Smiley’s decades-crafted persona sets the tone of the show: the aforementioned sardonic irony pervades, resulting in gentle humour and a classically cosy mystery vibe. Fans of this kind of gentle period crime show should lap it up; fans of Smiley, likewise. It’s a surprisingly buttoned-up role for him – Blennerhasset is successful, a bit pompous, and Smiley has to affect a posh voice, softening his trademark brogue – but his essence shines through: the man can spin almost any line into a funny one. He’s a treasure.

The Vast Of Night

* * * 1/2

Sometimes something wonderful comes right out of left field. Andrew Patterson, an Oklahoma-based local commercials producer, self-financed and began shooting The Vast of Night, an homage to the kind of giddy, upbeat, weirdo tales you’d get on The Twilight Zone, in 2016. Supposedly rejected by eighteen film festivals before premiering at 2019’s Slamdance, winning the Audience Award, and now available on Amazon, his über-indie “look to the skies” fantasia is a precise little gem, exquisitely conceived.

It’s the 50s, in a small town in New Mexico, on a Friday night, and while the town-folk are all attending the basketball game at the high school, the local radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) and the town’s switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) stumble upon the possibility that extraterrestrials are hovering in local skies.

Patterson makes big choices and commits to them whole-heartedly. His film is ingeniously paced and structured, alternating bustling whip-crack dialogue with quiet, expressive monologues, and long single close-ups with the film’s most thrilling and virtuosic stylistic gambit, pulsing sequences sending the camera zooming at knee-height throughout the town to the gorgeously evocative score. Essentially, Patterson is constantly alternating stillness with frenzy, and it makes his ninety minutes feel like fifty.

There’s an awful lot of Spielberg in Patterson’s tale (as there was in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8) and cynics may dismiss The Vast of Night as that 90s relic, the ‘calling-card film’. I don’t see it that way; rather, as one Oklahoman’s magnum opus, a pure work of passionate personal art made entirely outside the system, entirely to its creator’s tune, and entirely to their credit.

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich

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Survivor Sarah Ransome.

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is another in an ever-growing line of excellent Netflix true-crime documentary series. Over four episodes, the show features moving interviews with many of Epstein’s survivors, law enforcement officials, journalists, lawyers and copious footage of Epstein’s world – the houses in particular – to paint a clear and vivid portrait of a monstrous predator and the system that enabled him. Many, many photos of Epstein with Donald Trump give the show an additional creepy edge. It’s very well done, tasteful and well-modulated, and a total binge. Even if you’ve read “all the articles”, as I felt I had, there is still great value in meeting the victims and seeing their provenance; Epstein preyed on the vulnerable, and Filthy Rich does a great job of contextualising the predator’s method of identifying and manipulating their prey.

The focus is on the subset of survivors from Epstein’s first wave of abuse, in Palm Beach in the 2000s, and the series is respectful of them, and thank goodness, because they’ve been exploited enough. Their lawyer, and the original Palm Beach Chief of Police, emerge as dogged, and humble, heroes. A few more survivors from later years emerge as the episodes progress, and by the end we’ve gotten to know them well. It’s their story, really, rather than Epstein’s.

We know how his story ends, and the show doesn’t attempt to push past that. Conspiracy theories are not the subject here, nor detailed accusations against a worldwide consortium of bad men (although Prince Andrew gets royally served), nor do we find out where in the world might Ghislaine Maxwell be. Those documentaries will inevitably follow. This one is probably all you really need.

Proxima

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* * * * 1/2

I can’t remember the last time I was as moved – nay, emotionally wrecked – by a film as I was by Alice Wincour’s Proxima (available on VOD in Australia from June 3rd, through Madman Entertainment). Clearly, we’re all a little tender right now, parents perhaps especially so, protective of our young, sitting ducks for the right thoughtful drama about parental responsibility to come along and rip open our hearts. I’m in the film’s demographic sweet spot, being a father of a young daughter, and I could’ve essentially wept through this beautiful film’s entire hundred and seven minutes.

Eva Green plays Sarah, a French astronaut, living and training at the European Space Agency in Cologne, and bringing up her eight year old daughter Stella. When she is selected for a one-year mission aboard the International Space Station, Sarah finds that, despite wanting to go to space since she herself was a little girl, she now feels deeply conflicted about leaving her child.

We follow Sarah through detailed and ultra-realistic scenes of an astronaut’s specific training. Sequences were shot at the European Space Agency in Cologne and at Star City near Moscow, on actual training equipment, in actual uniforms, according to actual protocols. Purely as a procedural about what modern astronauts do, Wincour’s film would have been fascinating. Much of the equipment looks decidedly un-futuristic, indeed evocative of imagery from the 60s and 70s; the astronauts accompanying Sarah on her mission, one Russian and one American, are worldly (the film’s characters freely talk in French, English, German and Russian) but the American, played by Matt Dillon, has some clear attitudes towards female astronauts that aren’t so.

But this is not a film about Sarah coming up against sexism, or about the sheer challenges she faces in her training, although both those elements are there. This is a film about parenthood, and the hugely emotional bond between a mother and her child when her child is still young and vulnerable (Stella is eight). Sarah’s excitement to fulfil her lifelong dream of venturing into space is immediately and overwhelmingly tempered by her grief and guilt for leaving her daughter, despite the girl’s father, an amiable astrophysicist who also works at the European Space Agency in Cologne, being a decent man who Stella loves and Sarah can trust. Sarah can train all day at the limits of human physical and mental ability, only to find her most challenging moment upon hearing, via Facetime, that her daughter’s not made any friends at her new school and is spending her lunchtimes in the playground alone. This news would be heartbreaking to any parent, and any parent can relate, astronaut or not. Wincour worked closely with Claudie Haignéré, the first female French astronaut, as she wrote the script, and her film hardly suggests that mothers feel the pain, and responsibility, of separation too much; rather, it demands of any parent, “How could you not?”

Eva Green’s naturalistic performance is superb, her eyes registering every minute repercussion her choices make on her child. As that child, a young French girl named Zélie Boulant, who was essentially discovered for the film, makes it. Her ability to register those indescribable emotional wounds that occur when a child is, say, denied an adult’s promise, and offer them in a brave yet ever-so-trembling voice, is astonishing and – here’s that word again – heartbreaking. The whole film is heartbreaking, never by trading in cheap dramatics (it’s the furthest thing from a manipulative “weepie”) but by simply recognising and dramatising fundamental truths: parenthood is impossible to perfect, we hurt our children even when we couldn’t love them more, there is nothing stronger than the bond of a parent and child, and that bond must inevitably sever.

Non-parents may not get it; parents may find Proxima their film of the year. Astronauts too.

The Great (Hulu / STAN) TV review

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Tony McNamara is a prolific Australian playwright and TV writer who shifted to the big big leagues with his screenplay for Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, which garnered him an Oscar nomination. Now he’s the credited creator and principal writer on The Great, which plays, essentially, like the TV series of The Favourite – and that’s a good, good thing.

Instead of a royal castle in 18th Century England, we’re in a royal castle in 18th Century Russia, and instead of Queen Anne, we’ve got the young German woman, Sophie, who was to become Catherine The Great (Elle Fanning). At the beginning of the series, she is betrothed to Peter III, the Emperor of Russia (Nicholas Hoult), and quickly discovers that he is immature, volatile and ridiculous (among other undesirable traits). If you know your history you’ll know where this is headed; our fun is going on that journey, as Sophie/Catherine must very quickly learn how to navigate, survive, prosper and ultimately take control within Peter’s raucous court.

And fun it absolutely is! This show is a constant delight. As with The Favourite, McNamara’s primary comedic conceit is that these 18th Century courts were full of childish, drunken, asinine men, drinking, brawling, bickering and forever pandering. The women are portrayed as more mature but no less scheming: survival in court is by any means necessary. Catherine’s corresponding character in The Favourite is not Queen Anne, but the young servant Abigail, played by Emma Stone; each is smart enough to plot their moves through the madhouse with ever-evolving tactics, accumulating allies along the way, while always realising that the seat of power is unassailable, until it is not.

Fanning is superb and Hoult – with the flashier role – astounding. He’s been building up to this sort of comic extravagance for awhile now – he played a similar role in The Favourite – and everything he does here is gold, every line reading, every physical bit, every expression. His Peter is a precise, masterful comic creation.

If you loved The Favourite you’ll love this; I would go so far as to suggest the directors have even been told to ape, to some degree, Lanthimos’ style. The production design is similar, the set-up obviously so, but the biggest connective tissue is McNamara, whose obsession with this sort of material – The Great began as a sprawling two-part play at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008 – has finally to come to roost, spectacularly. This is TV at its finest, boldest, and most thrillingly auteurist. It is McNamara’s vision, and it is indeed great.

The Trip To Greece

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PA Photo © Sky UK Limited

* * * * 

A franchise that began with as a rapid-fire cascade of gags to rival the Marx Brothers has evolved, profoundly, into a rich and somber elegiac meditation on middle age. And why not? The key thing about Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip movies has always been that they were making it up as they went along, and only now, at this fourth and supposedly final juncture, can we see the retrospective and rather monumental path they’ve struck.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon trade quips, barbs and, of course, impressions once again, always in glorious (and exceedingly expensive) locations over glorious (and exceedingly expensive) lunches, but that banter is now the side dish rather than the main meal. Indeed, the repartee is deliberately perfunctory, a sort of greatest hits, with quick reminders that the lads can do Roger Moore and Mick Jagger, Al Pacino and Rod Stewart (they refrain from re-mining Michael Caine). A brief foray into Ray Winstone is gut-bustingly funny, a reminder of the experience of pretty much the entire first two movies.

This is Winterbottom’s most cinematic, crafted, layered and storied of the four films, and by far the most moving. The tone is often melancholic, aided by a selection of sweeping, mournful music that represents a bold choice for an ostensibly silly comedy series (of course, it’s no longer that). At one point I cried. It’s a send-off to the boys for the fans; whatever you do, if you haven’t visited this series yet, don’t begin here. This is not the starter’s pistol, it’s the end of the race, and the runners are gasping for breath, fully aware of their own mortality and how heroic they really may or may not be.

Out Now On VOD Worldwide.

Bad Education, The Clinton Affair, Trial By Media

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I’ve never enjoyed a Hugh Jackman performance like the one he gives in Bad Education (HBO, on Foxtel in Australia). As Frank Tassone, the real-life New Jersey school superintendent whose left-of-legal shenanigans start to be revealed by a dogged junior reporter for the high school newspaper, he is oily and charming, monstrous and delicately tender. It’s a tricky, challenging role in a movie that could have played as an issue of the week; instead, both performance and film are hugely entertaining.

Tassone is not quite a Richard III, or even a Richard Nixon, of the schoolyard; his villainy isn’t as well constructed, nor his delight in it so palpable. But like those two Dicks, his downfall is our delight, and watching him eloquently sweat as the noose tightens is ever more gratifying.

There’s an excellent deep bench around him, including Alison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan, Stephen Spinella and Alex Wolff. Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) directs with a deft, light touch; I laughed a lot, and was sad for it to end. The Oscars have announced that streaming films will be awards-eligible; Hugh could get nominated here, deservedly. Great fun. * * * *

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The Clinton Affair, a six-part documentary series beginning Sunday the 24th of May at 8:30pm on SBS in Australia, examines the investigation into and impeachment of US President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. It is comprehensive, revealing and riveting, and, watched in our current era, operates on multiple levels.

As a portrait of the Clintons it is compulsive. They’re amazing characters, supremely intelligent and capable, but – in Bill’s case, anyway, – flawed, and what a flaw! The Monica Lewinsky incident stands as an historically stupid act, and in the era of #metoo, reminds us that ‘great men’ are always brought down by sheer, idiotic carnality.

As a document of the intense and relentless dirty tricks utilised by the Republican Party since the Clintons came to power, the series places the current US tribalism in a very clear context. Up until the Clintons, the series suggests, Republicans and Democrats had drinks together after a workday in Congress. Then came Newt Gingrich, and set the country on a highway to partisan hell.

Finally, seen today, the series is simultaneously a slice of nostalgia and a hard-hitting exposé of GOP hypocrisy. The party that tried to impeach the President for a sexual encounter supports Trump, who will outshine Clinton in corruption and deviancy on any given Wednesday. The attack on the Clintons was disgraceful, but also seems, viewed from today, as almost quaint: monstrosity in a less monstrous time.

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On Netflix, Trial By Media is a six-part, one-hour-per-episode documentary series examining six American courtroom cases, stretching back to 1984, where the media coverage of the trial became so omnipresent that it must be asked whether it influenced the outcome. Executive Produced by a heavily experienced team including Jeffrey Toobin, Steven Brill, George Clooney and Grant Heslov, it’s compulsive viewing, featuring reams of archival footage, interviews with copious associated participants (including, often, the lawyers on either side of a case) and a ton of research. Catnip for media, courtroom and doco lovers alike.

 

The Assistant

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* * * * 1/2

Kitty Green’s debut fiction feature, The Assistant, is remarkably assured, bold and precise. With a preternaturally firm grasp of tone and style, backed up by immaculate – if low-key – craftsmanship, Green takes on one of the massive stories of our recent history – the systemic abuse of women by patriarchal systems as exemplified specifically by the actions of Harvey Weinstein – and turns them into ninety minutes of crystal drama, informing, enlightening and horrifying us.

Julia Garner plays a young woman who has been one of Weinstein’s personal assistants for about two months. (The Weinstein character is never named, nor is his face shown, but there is no doubt whatsoever who the character is meant to be). She’s in the inner sanctum, at a desk immediately outside his office, in a reception room with two other – male – assistants. In another part of the building, executives and other employees labour away at distribution, finance and artistic elements of his business (clearly The Weinstein Company) while more employees – including Human Resources – occupy a building next door. Los Angeles and London offices of the company are ingeniously represented by thick folders handed to a new employee.

The action takes place over a single – long – Monday, rarely leaving the offices, and part of the thematic genius of the script is that it’s, in many ways, ‘just another day’, with all the minor and major abuses – of trust and power, emotions and sex – that a single day in the life of Weinstein could involve. It’s gut-wrenching and evocative and atmospherically rich; at times the vibe is of a horror movie, the monster lurking just metres from the protagonist, separated by one door and a lifetime of acquired privilege.

All the excellent actors are on the same completely naturalistic page; the spare (and often incidental) dialogue is perfect in its concise precision; and the production design oozes authenticity, to the point that I suspect it reflects the actual Weinstein Company offices as leaked by an ex-employee. It all adds up to a stunning package, which also, more than any film I’ve seen in at least eighteen months, has something truly serious to say, and says it with breathtaking audacity. Brilliant.

Now available to rent via Foxtel On Demand. Available to Rent On Demand from 10 June on platforms including Google Play, iTunes, Fetch TV, Telstra Bigpond, Sony (Playstation Network), Microsoft & Quickflix.