As the terrifying massive ratings for the recent debut of a new season of Roseanne demonstrate, everything old remains new again. We don’t necessarily need any of these retreads, which also include Will and Grace and Dynasty and upcoming Murphy Brown, but as long as we watch them, we’re going to keep getting them.
Depending, I suppose, on the age, availability and gameness of the original cast members, some of these shows are “revivals” – Roseanne and Will And Grace feature their original casts – while some are “reboots”. Cagney and Lacey, on CBS All-Access in the US and Netflix in the rest of the world, is a mix of the two. The characters are meant to be the same, but they’re played by new actors; admirably, the show bucks most trends by casting new actors who are not only far more established than the original cast members were, but are as old – or older – than the characters themselves would have become.
Helen Mirren is two years younger than Sharon Gless, who originally played Cagney, the blonde, single, career-minded cop partnered with Lacey, played by Tyne Daley in the original and here played by Judi Dench, who, at 83, is eleven years Daley’s senior. It would have been very easy for Netflix to cast two “hot” twenty-somethings, so kudos to them for allowing these two characters to age (and so gracefully). Perhaps we have the astonishing success of Gracie and Frankie, starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, to thank?
The casting of the two Dames is quite a coup; who hasn’t hankered to see them in a vehicle together? Unfortunately, this is pretty much the wrong vehicle. Dench takes to Lacey’s boozy swagger with gusto (if a bit too much Brooklynese) but Mirren, unfortunately, seems all at sea as Cagney. Gless was always the “femme” to Daley’s “butch”, but Mirren seems determined to go another way with her interpretation, presenting a Cagney every bit as grizzled and gutsy as her partner (she also has a much harder time with the accent). Sure, time has passed, and both of the characters have every reason to be hard-bitten, but the similarity of the characters – a fault obviously partially to blame on the script – robs the series (I’ve seen the first four of ten episodes) of one of the original’s most distinct flavours, which was the the difference between the two. Mirren and Dench, as older versions of two distinct women, seem to have grown into one. Or perhaps, the series is saying, all Cagneys become Laceys over time.
A chat with Kate McIntyre Clere and Mick McIntyre about their excellent, eye-opening new doco.
From Watch This, on skipi.tv — Jim Flanagan, Miriam Capper and Lynden Barber joined me just before Christmas for an epic look back at 2017.
* * * 1/2
Let’s clear the elephant from the room first. 88 year old Christopher Plummer is fantastic as an 80 year old J. Paul Getty in a way that a 57 year old Kevin Spacey and a ton of make-up simply could not have been. For what it’s worth, I think Plummer is the better actor, too, so there.
Now the film. Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World is a dependable, lavish and thorough telling of a very intriguing true story; if you don’t know the details of John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping in 1973, and the strange response from his grandfather – the richest man in history (to that point) – they’re all here. That’s also the film’s fatal flaw; in cramming in all the details, Scott occasionally loses the story’s drive. At two hours and twelve minutes, it feels too long, and flabby. David Scarpa’s screenplay is based on the nonfiction book by John Pearson, and Scarpa’s instruction from Scott seems to have been “get it all in”, resulting in narrative details (the minotaur!) that could easily have been cut. I hesitate to use the current critical cliché, but this material, done this way, may have worked better as a work for television – say, a six hour series.
Nevertheless, we have the movie, and despite its woolliness, it’s worth seeing. Plummer is really good. In every way, his Getty Snr. is a huge character in the film (he’s second billed to Michelle Williams, which would accurately reflect their screen time) and his seamless integration makes my head spin (there’s only one shot, in Saudi Arabia, where some digital compositing is visibly obvious). Williams is also excellent, obviously drawing on the available research to offer a portrait of a woman in distress who is not constantly flipping out. Her restraint is admirable; she shows Gail Harris’ vulnerability in subtle moments of physicality, such as removing her shoes. Charlie Plummer – not Christopher’s actual grandson! – is good casting as poor JPG III, and everyone’s artsy heart-throb Romain Duris is terrific as JPG III’s kidnapper Cinquanta.
Unfortunately, Mark Wahlberg seems miscast as ex-CIA man turned JPG head of security Fletcher Chase (don’t forget, that’s a real name). I think Wahlberg is terrific in the right role – usually comedy – but he’s not at all terrific here (and not allowed to be funny). Something is off. It’s a tough role, demanding, perhaps, layers of self-doubt – Chase made some massive mistakes along the way – but Wahlberg only brings one note.
JPG is savaged in the film, to the point that Scott seems personally aggrieved at him. It seems like the old man was a real ass. The audience I was with gasped at some of his miserly comments. All The Money In The World finally works best, not as a true-crime kidnap thriller, but as yet another reminder – always timely, and particularly now, as billionaires buy political capital – that all the money in the world can’t make you happy, and will probably make you a dick.
Big In Japan is a new Australian documentary that follows David Elliot-Jones as he moves to Japan to become… big. It’s extremely entertaining and pretty eye-opening. CJ interviewed David for Watch This on skipi.tv – which you can watch below.
* * * *
Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is the most artful film in the whole series. Working with his usual (but new to the franchise) cinematographer Steve Yedlin, and Series Legend sound designer Ben Burtt, he creates images, moments and sequences that have more visual flair and sonic innovation than the other films. In doing so, he creates a slightly more grown-up feel (even, once or twice, bordering on the arthouse), all to the film’s credit. It’s not only wonderful, it’s fresh.
Perhaps the biggest and boldest cinematic innovation Johnson and Yedlin apply here is a simple one: colour, or to be much more specific, red. This could well become known, of the Star Wars movies, as ‘The Red One’ (or perhaps ‘The Crimson One’); the colour’s use is so blatant, so dramatically present, that it cannot go unnoticed, even by the youngest viewer (or the most under-informed cineaste). It informs the entire experience of the film. Johnson and Yedlin deploy it as a stand-in for blood on a salt planet (with a truly chilling, and seemingly very violent, effect, such that you feel they’re ‘getting away’ with something); as the colour of the armour of a squad of elite imperial guards; and, most theatrically, as the colour of the lair of Big Baddie Snoke, where red simply replaces actual walls and the film veers from fantasy movie ‘reality’ into actual abstraction.
Rian also advances the cinematic language we’ve come to expect from the film’s action sequences. Here, at climactic moments, he will offer us an absence of sound and spectacle, using silence in lieu of an explosion, destruction seen from a distance. Again, it feels more mature, more cerebral; you’ve seen plenty of big bangs, he seems to be saying, but how often have you taken a moment to contemplate their impact? He also makes far more of small individual moments of tension than is common for the franchise; the film’s first big action sequence comes down to the simple pressing of a finger on a button, and it is nail-biting.
All of this makes the film thrilling experientially, and the character stuff works tremendously as well. In particular, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver get to play off each other (whether or not they’re on the same planet) with wit and emotional resonance. Oscar Isaac also makes a strong impression. The actor not making a big impact this time around is John Boyega, whose Finn definitely takes a narrative backseat to Isaac’s Poe. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher offer substantial appearances, though their actual performances are a little odd.
The story is convoluted and at times confusing, but that felt, to me, by-the-by. I had a great time at this Star Wars; I felt, as an adult, that I was being catered to on a more substantial level than usual, and that was gratifying. I even liked the little fluffy penguins. I just might go see this one again.
* * * * 1/2
Timothée Chalamet gives a superb, award-deserving performance as a seventeen-year-old “Jewish French Italian American” young man falling in love for the first time in Luca Guadagnino’s sensuous, languid, romantic and beautifully crafted Call Me By Your Name. Chalamet himself is American/French, speaks French fluently, and spent his summers as a boy in France, so his casting here represents a kind of divine providence. He is the right actor in the right role at the right time and he nails it.
He plays Elio, who lives in a gorgeous villa in Lombardia, Italy with his parents and a couple of household staff. Each summer his academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg) hosts a research assistant; this year – 1983 – it is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a brashly confident American scholar. Over the summer, Elio and Oliver fall in love.
This isn’t Brokeback Vineyard. Oliver and Elio are not – at least, on the surface – fumbling, self-hating deniers, and they’re untroubled by any tangible outside dangers, including bigotry. Indeed, they are both cool. Oliver enchants the whole town with his rather astounding physical presence but his cool goes deeper than that; it’s in how he walks, how he wears the subtly brilliant period-specific summer clothing. He’s deeply dorky when he dances ‘80s-style, but that just somehow adds to his cool. Likewise, Chalamet’s Elio starts the film awkwardly but Oliver awakens some inner cool within him, and soon he’s smoking cigarettes as suavely as the older man.
It is incredibly pleasant to spend a couple of hours with characters as unashamedly smart as this. It is rare these days to find English-speaking characters who revel in the pleasures of intellectual discussion, who celebrate each other’s braininess. Languages in this household freely intermingle and people lie down and read to each other; poets and philosophers are quoted and questioned. It feels like a universe away, a better place, and a most wonderful one for these two smart, intriguing people to come together.
The film feels too long for its story, which, while it may contain multitudes of feeling and intimate detail, is essentially a simple one. But it is charming in spades, and, as captured in Chalamet’s performance, an essential addition to the coming-of-age canon. The final shot lodges it there with amazing grace. And we need the time, perhaps, to fully get to know these people. Chalamet’s Elio is the focus of the story and carries the movie, but Hammer’s Oliver is devilishly complicated, layered with nuance and far more vulnerability than first suggested; Hammer plays him perfectly – again, the right role for the right actor at the right time, superbly cast and directed.
This is a film that stays with you. Its mood, its heart and its characters have been tickling my brain since seeing it. It feels nourishing and generous, like a meal that was delicious and has turned out to have ongoing health benefits. It’s briefly altered my perception of the world, reminding me that there is decency out there, somewhere. And I daresay, if I was a gay teenager right now, or even just a teenager, this would be the movie I needed. It may be one of those films that change many thousands of young lives for the better. For many, it will become a favourite, a classic, even a life-saver. It is sublime.
Black Mirror Season 4 drops on Netflix worldwide on or around December 29. At this point we don’t know if they’ll drop all eps at once, or parse them out. Which is very Black Mirror.
* * * * 1/2
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is an enormously compassionate film; it is joyous and funny, incisive and surprising, and truly subversive. It manages to be furious about the state of affairs in the United States while never raising its voice nor venturing near any political imagery. It is sublime and must be seen.
I’ve seen two of Baker’s previous features, Starlet (2012) and Tangerine (2015). Both were original, often very funny, and determinedly empathetic for their characters who lived in the margins of society. However, The Florida Project towers above them as a major, mature work, one of the very best films of 2017. Like Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Alexander Payne’s Election (1999) and Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight (1998), this is the big, confident, near-perfect film that delivers on a director’s enormous, already demonstrated, promise and potential.
Ostensibly, it’s about life among the community – the residents and the manager – at The Magic Castle, a motel in Orlando, Florida, that sits geographically close, but socio-economically worlds apart, from Walt Disney World. Many of the residents are essentially permanent tenants, living week-to-week, barely scraping by; some American media outlets refer to people in this predicament as the “invisible homeless”, for, although they technically have shelter, it is impermanent, insecure, hanging by the Damocles Sword of the weekly “rent”. Our primary characters are six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, who Baker found on Instagram, and who delivers an astonishing debut performance); as their life becomes subtly more precarious, they are watched over by the motel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), whose empathy and compassion make him an obvious stand-in for Baker himself.
Baker and his cinematographer Alexis Zabe tell the story through the perspective of Moonee and her friends (the camera never once ‘looks down’ at these little wonders); the bold tacky colours and neglected flora of and around the series of motels and small businesses that make up their world are rendered as bright, joyous, delicious. For at least half the film, Baker – and we – are content to delight in the children’s exultant, unsupervised play; it is the beginning of summer, and their holiday stretches before them like an endless sunny paradise. Even if they can’t afford to go into the Magic Kingdom, they have the pools, the corridors, the laundry rooms, the ponds, and, of course, each other. This section of the film feels defiantly episodic and breezy, and is utterly delightful, and very funny.
But Baker has an incredibly precise schematic up his sleeve, and all the while, he is slowly, calmly and very deliberately layering in story elements that will build to a narrative we never saw coming. It is a superb display of directorial control, especially given that he was not only working with many “non-actors”, but, often, six-year old ones. Impressively, unlike Tangerine, which was famously shot on iPhones, The Florida Project is shot on film and utilises very formal, often symmetrical, highly structured locked-off shots, so it wasn’t as though Baker and Zabe were just letting the kids be kids and shooting whatever they did. These remarkable little thespians are hitting their marks and acting within the frame, yet bring endless moments of ecstatic spontaneity.
Still, Baker and his cast and crew were flexible and agile enough to let their environment deliver them natural bounty: I can think of two scenes – one involving a rainbow and one some flamingos – that were obviously captured on the fly when opportunity knocked, and there may be more. Certainly, there are some astonishing sunsets that can’t have allowed for many takes, and Dafoe, the professional actor within this diverse young company, was obviously game to leap in and deliver at a moment’s notice. With the flamingos, he comes up with one of the film’s funniest lines, but with the kids, he truly lives within the moment, making every exchange full, rich and real. I have never loved him as an actor more.
As for little Brooklyn, it’s hard to sing her praises too much, and one shouldn’t. Like Quvenzhané Wallis is Beasts of the Southern Wild, Brooklyn is impeccable, the absolute heart and soul of the film, as astonishing find, a boundless life-force captured forever in a magical film. I hope she’s not dragged all over the red carpets, nor saddled with – as Wallis was – an Annie remake or the like. She’s Moonee in The Florida Project and always will be. One thing The Florida Project can teach us is that it’s vital that we let kids be kids.