The Offer, The Innocents, We Own This City

THE OFFER (Paramount +)

When I heard about The Offer I couldn’t believe it: had someone made a TV show just for me? Of course, I’m not the only one obsessed with The Godfather, and not the only one who’s read many, many books and articles about its making. But the idea that someone would produce an entire TV show about the production of your favourite movie… well, wow.

Trouble is, the script feels directly lifted from those books and articles, giving rise to that dreaded ‘illustrated wikipedia entry’ feeling. But it’s fun to see spiritual heroes like Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Evans come to life (Dan Fogler and Matthew Goode, respectively) and the story itself, for those who haven’t obsessively read about it, is a good one. The show errs on spoon-feeding the mechanics of movie-making, but thats its nature and its flaw: it tries to serve the novice and the nerd.

THE INNOCENTS (Cinemas)

* * *

Likewise, The Innocents, a Norwegian supernatural creeper about kids gradually becoming aware of their telekinetic powers, may scare the bejesus out of you, and I may have been less affected purely by having been exposed to so much of this kind of stuff before. Certainly to get performances like this from a cast this young is no small achievement. There are some pacing problems, and the autism of one of the main characters feels, unfortunately, exploitative at worst and misguided at best. But it’s strong on tone and vibe and features some genuinely creepy moments.

WE OWN THIS CITY (HBO / Foxtel)

David Simon and George Pelecanos, who created The Wire, return with a spiritual sequel, the real-life tale of police corruption, brutality and criminality in Baltimore in the 2000s. Featuring some returning cast members from The Wire (in different roles), and many more of those astonishingly authentic performances that made that show feel almost like a documentary, We Own This City is typically gritty, robust and never less than totally engaging. Exceptional.

The Warhol Diaries, The Good Boss, Happening

THE WARHOL DIARIES (Netflix Series)

* * * *

Netflix’s six-part extrapolation of Andy Warhol’s posthumously-published Diaries is superb and gripping. I was hugely into Warhol and read the Diaries twice, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting this to be revelatory to me. It was. It’s an interpretation of the diaries, a deep reading, and as such is informed, passionate and intelligent. It digs beyond the parties and the personalities into Andy’s love life, his response to the AIDS crisis, and even his faith. Fantastic.

THE GOOD BOSS (Cinemas)

* * * *

The Good Boss, about a, well, ‘good boss’ of a successful scale company (that is, it manufactures scales of all kinds) facing a week of increasing pressures and challenges, has one of those extremely well-structured screenplays that is almost too well crafted; the pieces are put into place so well that most of us will be able to predict the endgame before it comes, leaving it as a slight anti-climax. But the action along the way is extremely well modulated, gathering pace organically and exponentially, and Javier Bardem, the good boss himself, is superb. In almost every scene of the movie, he displays enormous range while also presenting a highly specific character. Place this performance alongside his Desi Arnaz in Being The Ricardos to be reminded that he’s one of the most versatile – and, simply, one of the best – screen actors working today.

HAPPENING

* * * 1/2

Gruelling but compelling, this early-1960s France-set abortion drama joins the other movies of its kind on the tougher side of the ledger: more 4 Months, Three Weeks and Two Days than Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Knowing going in that it’s based on a memoir will make it more meaningful.

Recent Film and TV

THE SOUVENIR PART 2

Cinemas Now

* * * *

Joanna Hogg’s follow-up to her sublime autobiographical rendering of a troubled relationship she had in her early adulthood maintains an air of artful exquisiteness while shifting the focus from love to art. This time, her young self completes her film school training by working through the events of Part 1. It’s a glorious, intriguing film, thoroughly engrossing and deeply personal.

DJANGO AND DJANGO (Netflix)

* * *

If you think nothing could be more entertaining than watching Quentin Tarantino celebrate the career of the “second Sergio of Spaghetti Westerns,” Sergio Corbucci, then this is the film for you.  The kind of film you’d once only ever see at film festivals, now on Netflix!

THE DROPOUT (Disney+)

Extremely entertaining look at the rise and fall of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes anchored by a career-best lead performance from Amanda Seyfried. 

A SONG CALLED HATE

* * * 1/2

VOD Now through iwonder.com

Everyone loves a feature-length documentary about an Icelandic techno-heavy-BDSM band’s political coming-of-age during the Eurovision Song Contest, right? Ok, it sounds niche – and it is, of course, on the surface – but Anna Hildur Hildibrandsdottir’s film following the band Hatari as they navigate the complexities of Israeli / Palestinian politics and attempt to stage a protest while participating in the 2019 show in Tel Aviv is eye-opening, compelling and thoughtful. The band members are aggressively political at home in Iceland, but the situation in Israel clearly rattles them, and watching them try to maintain their position in the face of actual fear makes for honest, universal drama.

FRIENDS AND STRANGERS

* * * 1/2

Opening 10 March in select cinemas

James Vaughn’s modest feature debut is a beguiling, entrancing, sunny Sydney jewel with a hum of strange menace. A bit Rohmer and a bit microbudget Lynch, it’s its own thing, an odd, and oddly magical, original.

Aline, Flee, KIMI, Severance

Aline.

ALINE

Cinemas Now

* * *

Valérie Lemercier’s wackadoodle ‘unauthorised’ biopic of Céline Dion stars the 57-year old auteur as a version of the Canadian superstar singer at about five years old, twelve, as a teenager, in her twenties and so forth. Bizarre in conception and often bonkers in execution, it’s also truly compelling, partly as train wreck and partly as an honest-to-goodness offbeat oddity.

FLEE

Cinemas Now

* * * *

Nominated, unprecedented, for Best Animated Feature Film, Best International Film and Best Documentary Feature at the upcoming Academy Awards, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s astonishingly creative telling of his friend’s refugee story – coming from Afghanistan to Copenhagen via Moscow and elsewhere – is beautiful, heartbreaking and eye-opening. This is the nuts and bolts of European human trafficking, finding the universal in the personal, and reminding you how lucky you have it.

KIMI

Now on Foxtel

* * *

Steven Soderbergh’s latest thriller is clean, efficient, timely and resonant until it becomes something… less. The prolific auteur is in full neo-Roger Corman mode here, riffing on our fears but delivering, in this instance, an elevated B-Movie, clearly intended, and enjoyable, as such.

SEVERANCE

Series on Apple+

Ben Stiller’s creepy, darkly funny workplace satire is artfully framed, spookily scored, and acted with deadpan wit by, among others, Adam Scott, Britt Lower, John Turturro, Patricia Arquette, Zach Cherry and Christopher Walken. The central conceit – that at a large tech corporation, certain employees working on sensitive material have a procedure ‘severing’ their work memories from those of their out-of-work lives – is intriguing and well thought-through, but it’s only the jumping-off point for an honestly compelling series of mysteries and corporate-conspiracy shenanigans. The production design is terrific.

Six Recent Films

THE LOST DAUGHTER (Netflix)

Olivia Colman plays an academic vacationing alone in Greece who is forced to consider her legacy as a mother of two daughters when she crosses paths with a large creepy family. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature directorial debut, adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, is superb as both truly suspenseful thriller and intricate psychological portrait; the tone of menace and destabilisation is consistent and intense.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (Cinemas from Thursday)

Guillermo del Toro’s 1941-set neo-noir about a hustler (Bradley Cooper) who learns how to become a ‘mentalist’ at a flea-ridden carnival is full of ideas (and astonishingly beautiful sets) but, at two and a half hours, is a bit of a plod. A ton of great actors, including Willem Defoe and Toni Collette, get to be colourful along the way.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (Apple+ and cinemas)

Joel Coen’s adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth is fun, lean, mean and gorgeously designed and shot, with clear, bold performances. Stripped to its essence in all regards, the play shines through, shot and spoken with care and love.

THE KING’S MAN (Cinemas)

Matthew Vaughn’s prequel to his two Kingman: The Secret Service movies may be the best of the three; it’s certainly better than the last one which was not good. Here Ralph Fiennes takes the heroic lead, showing us what his James Bond might have been. Guess what? It would have been sublime. The story, an alt-history fantasia set around WW1, is wooly, shaggy and ludicrous, but it has some moments of pathos, new to the series, that Fiennes absolutely nails. Acting of this caliber can raise a silly action movie like this to greater heights, and here, it does. I had fun.

THE HAND OF GOD (Netflix)

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God is full of magic moments; it’s funny, heartwarming and very wise, and restores to Naples what Gomorrah removed: beauty. It’s a sublime and moving account of his teenage years in that gritty city in the 1980s, and a late entry into the list for best films of 2021.

MR SATURDAY NIGHT (Foxtel)

This 90-minute documentary on Robert Stigwood and, in particular, his creation of Saturday Night Fever is slender, feeling like the magazine article rather than the proper biography. However, if you’re unfamiliar with the story, it’s a truly fascinating one.

Get Back

* * * * *

I’m not going to be shy, coy or restrained, because there’s no reason to be: Peter Jackson’s Get Back is monumental, the Mona Lisa of rock documentaries, a staggering, towering technical and artistic achievement. Over eight hours and three episodes, drawing from sixty hours of footage and a hundred and twenty of audio, Jackson recreates the Beatles’ creation of Let It Be (and parts of Abbey Road) and in doing so, gives us not only the most intimate, revealing, comprehensive look at the Beatles ever, but one of the most incisive portraits of musical creation as well.

It’s all summed up in a jaw-dropping, spellbinding, you-wouldn’t-believe-it-if-you-weren’t-seeing-it moment when we watch, in real time, with no cuts, as Paul McCartney comes up with the main structure of the song Get Back. As he’s doing so, Ringo and George (John isn’t there yet) pick up on the vibe, then pick up their instruments. It’s not merely goosebump-inducing; your hair may stand on end, and you could very likely cry with the sheer magic of the moment.

Get Back is full of such incidents; we see and hear individual songs from their moment of birth and follow them as they’re refined and ultimately recorded. We see George play I Me Mine to the others for the very first time. We see John coming up with the ‘Everybody had a hard year’ riff for I’ve Got A Feeling – as it happens. Indeed, the greatest magic of all, among eight hours of pure magic, comes whenever Paul and John get into a groove with each other and create the songs we know and love.

But outside of the music, we see and hear the most private conversations (one of them recorded secretly, between John and Paul, by a microphone hidden in a vase of flowers) and get to know these guys as individuals like never before. It’s uncanny. The sound and vision has been elaborately restored: everything is audible, everything is vivid. You simply cannot believe (a) that all this material exists and (b) that we’ve never seen it before.

I don’t know how non-Beatles fans would go – eight hours of conversation and noodling is a lot – but this isn’t for them. This is for the fans; indeed, it is surely the greatest item of fan service ever made. Too much? Wait ‘till you see it.

The Many Saints of Newark

WARNING: Minor Spoilers.

The US reviews for The Many Saints of Newark, the big-screen Sopranos prequel, were lukewarm, and I was reticent in seeing it. But bada bing, I enjoyed it, quite a lot. It’s full of richly evocative late 1960s / early 1970s US urban period ambiance, it’s nicely shot (looking great on the huge screen I saw it on at Event Cinemas in the Sydney CBD) and the acting is a lot of fun. I also found the story compelling. But here’s the thing (and the reason, I think, mild disappointment surrounds the film): it’s not really Tony Soprano’s ‘origin’ story. It’s the story of his uncle Dickie, played very well by Alessandro Nivola. Young Tony is in it, as a child and a teenager, but he really doesn’t do much of anything at all. He’s an observer in Dickie’s movie. And I enjoyed Dickie’s movie.

The story revolves around the tension between the established Italian crime bosses in Newark and the rising opposition of Black gangsters. It’s exciting and the dialogue is witty. Vera Farmiga, as Livia, is the standout among those playing established characters from the series; the most exciting new character is a young Italian woman brought over to Newark and into the family, played passionately and cleverly by Michela De Rossi. Ray Liotta also has a couple of delicious roles.

It’s a fun, well crafted period mob story. Enjoy it as such; but if you’re hoping to see Tony’s blooding, you may well be very disappointed.

Only Murders In The Building, Hacks, Foundation

Milieu is everything in Only Murders In The Building (Disney+), a half-hour cosy mystery set in a gorgeous, sprawling, classic Manhattan apartment building. Steve Martin and Martin Short continue their forty year or so on-again off-again collaboration as two mature show-biz types whose prime days are way past; true-crime podcast obsessives, they hook up with a third, a young woman played by Selena Gomez, to solve a murder in the building. It’s warm, charming and sweet: total lockdown comfort food. It’s also underwritten, at times rather casually directed, and features a very weird, even off-putting, performance by Gomez. But watching Martin and Short together is a treat, and the milieu is delicious.

Sometimes the right actor just gets the right TV role, and hits the jackpot. That’s an intentional, albeit lame, pun, as Jean Smart’s role in Hacks (STAN), as Deborah Vance, a Joan Rivers-like stand-up comedian, sees her revelling in all things Las Vegas. Vance, as Rivers was, is a star of the Vegas Strip, performing a hundred shows a year, and making unimaginable amounts of money. But the guy who owns the casino she works in wants to slowly decrease her workload, so to give the appearance of sharpening up her act, she agrees to her agent’s request to hire a young joke-writer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who is at least 45 years younger than her and light years away in all sensibilities.

Their culture clash forms the spine of this feted half-hour comedy, but the depiction of a ludicrously lavish Las Vegas lifestyle is more than half the fun. Rivers was famously loaded, as is Vance, and the wealth porn on display is magnificent and eye-opening. Why would you ever work Vegas? Well, this house is why, and this lifestyle. Much like Rivers herself was, Vance is simultaneously a fan of Vegas and a woman of some taste, and seeing that culture clash – how to be tastefully obscenely wealthy in an obscenely tasteless place – is fun indeed. Smart won the Emmy recently, and she’s the reason to watch: she’s fantastic, making the most of every single moment.

On Apple TV+, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation gets a very expensive outing. One of the first vehicles we see in the first episode is extremely close to Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder from Star Wars, and myriad other references – especially to ‘Empire’ – make it clear that Asimov’s novel was indeed, for George Lucas, a foundational text. But Star Wars is fantasy, and this is ‘hard’ sci-fi, so everyone is giving a stoic performance, and solemnity is the key tone. Sometimes the mood is deliberately lightened, clearly to aid accessibility, and when it is, the tone clashes jarringly. I’ve not read the Asimov, but I doubt there was such importance played to a shipboard romance as there is here. Thankfully, there’s an awful lot of science, or pseudo-science, and mathematics going on as well, which is, I gather, what the Asimov heads will want, along with spectacular VFX world-building (and there are a lot of worlds). It feels mostly respectful to Asimov’s tone and story, which may make it good for the fans and incomprehensible to the rest of us.

Diana’s Wedding, The Chair, Impeachment

At select cinemas across Australia from 23 September, Diana’s Wedding, a decades-spanning tale of the marriage of two spiky Norwegians who get hitched the same day as Princess Diana,is warm, charming, observant, honest, with absolutely winning performances from the two leads. It’s the best Norwegian film I’ve seen in a few years. Delightful and absolutely worth your time. * * * 1/2

Kingsley Amis and Vladimir Nabokov, among others, wrote comedies of academic life, and the central conflict often involved a culture clash between ageing professors and the youthful progressive students. So it is with The Chair, a new Netflix half-hour comedy starring Sandra Oh as the newly-minted chair of an American University’s English department. Her professors are stuck in their ways; she’s stuck in the middle. It’s not the most biting satire and the more invested you are in woke politics the less authentic it will feel; instead, it’s light, charming, and very easily swallowed. You won’t be fighting over the dinner table about issues it raises so much as singing the praises of the older character actors populating the stuffy department, particularly Holland Taylor as a feisty boozy flirt. A central (romantic) entanglement between Oh’s character and one of her male professors is far less interesting than watching the shenanigans of the older thesps.

American Crime Story: Impeachment on Foxtel, the latest Ryan Murphy extravaganza, sees his muse Sarah Paulson playing Linda Tripp, the ex-White House Counsel secretary who nudged Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) into the world’s brightest spotlight. So far (one ep in) it’s typically Murphyesque: overblown and melodramatic yet compulsive storytelling. And it is the story itself that’s compelling, along with Paulson’s sharp, specific performance. Clive Owen’s Bill Clinton is in it for about a second and a half; this is Tripp and Lewinsky’s story.

Under The Volcano

* * * *

VOD from 1 September.

Australian director Gracie Otto follows her excellent 2013 feature documentary The Last Impresario, about producer Michael White, with another enormously entertaining and charmingly breezy entertainment feature doco, Under the Volcano, about Sir George Martin’s post-Beatles adventure building and running a music studio on the West Indian island of Montserrat.

Air Studios only operated from 1979 to 1989 on the small volcanic island, but in that time a rather incredible batch of your favourite childhood albums were recorded there, including Ghost In The Machine and Synchronicity by The Police, Too Low For Zero by Elton John, Steel Wheels by The Rolling Stones and Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits, along with seminal albums by Jimmy Buffet, Duran Duran, Ultravox and many others.

The Police are interviewed in full, along with members of Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Buffet and so forth; also included are staff and crew from the studios, Montserrat locals, and, in lieu of Martin himself, his son, who speaks with great insight into his dad’s dreams and methods. Since the gang’s all here and they did their two most important albums there, The Police get the most screen time, and while Sting remains incredibly charismatic and handsome, it is Stewart Copeland who provides the most energetic and amusing recollections. He’s a character, that Copeland.

The eventual demise of the studio – and the island – gets short shrift. Under The Volcano is a celebration, not an elegy, and does everything it can to remain as upbeat as a track from side one of Brothers In Arms. I loved every minute.