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.

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind

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Not everyone gets to make a home movie for HBO, and even Natalie Wood’s daughter Natasha may have faced a “Thanks, but no thanks” suggesting a personal hagiography of her (deserving, there is no doubt) mother. But when you can bring your stepdaddy Robert Wagner to the table, promising an intimate interview including going over the events of ‘that night’ – that Natalie drowned – in excruciating, minute-by-minute detail, well, you’ve got yourself a green light.

The result, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, is filmmaking at its most personal, and its most agenda-driven. In a nutshell, Natasha Gregson Wagner’s intention with the film is to exonerate her “Daddy Wagner” – as she calls him throughout the film – from the lingering whispers, mainly propagated by Natalie’s sister Lana, that he was directly, even murderously, responsible for her death. She makes a strong case, basically because Wagner, now 90, comes off as such a teddy bear, and one who clearly legitimately loved his deceased wife.

I rather loved this film, even as I saw through it. You could remove all the stuff with Daddy Wagner and have a lovely hour-long ode to Natalie’s life as mother and actress. But then, without daddy, I doubt there would have been a movie at all.

Now screening on Foxtel in Australia.

ZeroZeroZero

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If you want scope, ZeroZeroZero has it. This show is huge. An Italian production primarily, but set across multiple countries – primarily Italy, Mexico and the United States – in multiple languages, with funding coming from multiple regions, this show is BigBigBig. And for the audience that grew up on Scarface, Cocaine Cowboys and Traffic – or any of a hundred other shows about international drag trafficking – this epic mini-series could be a dream prospect.

The show examines a massive international cocaine deal from multiple viewpoints, including the buyers in Italy, the cartels in Mexico, the soldiers in Mexico (the cops being way out of their league and mainly in league with the cartels) and the “brokers”, based in New Orleans, who essentially provide the ship, in this case a massive tanker. Things to do with many aspects of this mammoth deal go wrong, often lethally, and we examine the various twists and turns from multiple perspectives, jumping back and forth in time, holding flashbacks-within-flashbacks, zooming from the widest canvas to the most intimate moment.

The protagonist (among many lead characters) is played by Andrea Riseborough, who inherits her father’s shipping company, his interest in the global drug trade, and this massive deal, when Dad (Gabriel Byrne) gets felled. She’s supported by her younger brother, played by Dane DeHaan, who somehow manages to pull off playing what I think is meant to be, if not a teenager, then a very young adult. Regardless, they’re very much ‘the kids’, learning the ropes in the middle of the biggest deal, and the biggest mess, one could imagine.

The driving creative force behind all this is Stefano Sollima, who is very good at this sort of thing: his directing credits include the TV show Gomorrah and the movies Suburra and Sicario: Day of the Soldado. If you’re into any of his previous work, you’ll be into this: it’s that kind of thing, on the largest possible canvas, epic, exciting and exhilarating.

Coming Soon To SBS in Australia on May 14.

Upload and Whitney

In 2017, of Nick Bloomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me, I wrote, “The overwhelming feeling this film provokes is sadness, and not just because of the drugs and the brilliant life cut short. There isn’t any celebration here; like a lot of Bloomfield’s work, there is only casualty.”

Kevin Macdonald’s 2018 take, Whitney, is better – a lot better. It not only appreciates Whitney as an artist, it places her in the context of her times in a far more significant way, punctuating the action of her life with incredibly effective montages of just how 80s the 80s were – and Whitney was nothing if not an 80s phenomenon.

Bloomfield focused, as befitting his nature, on the love triangle between Whitney, her ‘best friend’ Robyn and her husband, Bobby Brown. Macdonald aims bigger and higher, viewing Whitney’s sexuality through a prism of pain.

I felt a lot of big emotions watching Whitney. It’s the documentary she deserved: hardly hagiographic, indeed warts and all, but with a massive heart.

SBS is following its premiere screening of Whitney with a week of music bio pics, including Ray, Taylor Hackford’s 2004 film about Ray Charles, starring Jamie Foxx, which I reckon is one of the very best of the genre, and Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s odd, speculative fantasia on Miles Davis, which is flawed but fun.

Upload, the big new comedy on Amazon, is a fun take on what our near future may have looked like had Covid 19 not got in the way. Although its central idea – that we’ll be able to upload, on our deathbeds, into a virtual afterlife – can still hold. You come to sitcoms for the situation and stay for the characters. The relatively unknown cast here are appealing enough to show promise; the tech-cute situation certainly does, and breezily keeps you tethered while your appreciation for the human beings can develop.

Whitney, Australian TV Premiere, SBS, Sunday 10 May 9:20pm

Upload, now streaming on Amazon

Three Shows On Apple TV+

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Depending on your relationship with Apple and its products, you may be offered a free trial for Apple TV+, its streaming content service. Buy a new device, get a free year. Otherwise, you can get a seven day free trial, which, given the relative paucity of product, should be plenty of time for you to decide whether you want to keep going at $7.99 a month.

I reviewed Morning Wars when the service dropped last year, but I caught up on a few more titles. The one I was most excited about, and which led to me dipping back into the service for review, was Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, which is not a Game of Thrones clone nor a similar fantasy adventure but rather a half-hour sitcom set at a Silicon Valley video game company whose massively successful feature product is called Mythic Quest, which, in the first episode, launches an update called Raven’s Banquet, giving the show its unwieldy title. My high hopes were lashed to the pedigree of the creators: Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney are two of the lads from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which, for fourteen years, has been one of the freshest American sitcoms of this millennium.

Alas, those hopes were dashed. Where It’s Always Sunny is gritty, bold, hand-sewn and relentlessly provocative, the new show is timid, sanitised, safe and clean. It feels like American network TV. The jokes are sub-par, the characters shallow echoes of types we’ve seen far too often, and the acting – except for McElhenney himself, who adequately plays the game’s conceited creator – too hammy, too sit-commy. It’s an astonishingly conservative play from a couple of the baddest boys of American comedy.

Elsewhere, Home is Apple’s very glossy take on architecture porn. From the very clean white font of the title card, surely designed by Sir Jony Ive, to the endlessly perfect drone shots and relentlessly comforting milquetoast new-agey muzak, this is Apple-tooled precision all the way, gleaming and seductive and desperate to please. I watched two episodes, one about a stunning eco-house in Austin, Texas, and the other a truly obsessional transformative apartment in Hong Kong, and while both featured all the smooth adoring camerawork this genre demands (look at those custom-made hinges!) along with deep dives into the minds and methods of the domiciles’ creators, both outstayed their welcome – at half an hour. Unlike, say, The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes, which features the delightful interplay of architect Piers Taylor and daffy actress Caroline Quentin, Apple’s entry has decided to defy the genre’s convention – to have a host or hosts – which proves to be a mistake. Like the Tin Woodman, the show desperately wants to have a heart, but doesn’t.

What does have a heart – a big one – is Snoopy In Space, which by its very existence shows you how strange the Apple TV+ line-up is. This is an eight-minute, twelve-episode animated adventure for kids that directly positions itself within the existing animated Peanuts universe: the animation style, voice-work and, vitally, the music all echo, admirably precisely, the tone and feel of the classic TV specials and the many cinematic and television outings since. You won’t get the melancholic, existential musings that the strips, and the best of the animated works, provide; instead, there is a healthy focus on the science of space travel (the show was developed in partnership with NASA). How very Apple. And how very delightful.

New on ABC iView: The Australian Dream and Year of the Rabbit

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ABC iView is currently screening The Australian Dream, one of two feature length documentaries made about the AFL player Adam Goodes to be completed last year. It is essential, emotional viewing. Goodes, whose mother is Aboriginal and part of the stolen generation, found himself, having reached the absolute highest echelons of his sport (he twice won the Brownlow Medal for Fairest and Best in the league), in a nightmarish situation involving crowd behaviour, racism, and, of course, horrendous social media. While the situation ultimately led Goodes to a greater understanding of his own Aboriginality, it was an education forged in sadness and bile.

The film was written by Stan Grant, an Aboriginal ABC journalist who identified enough with Goodes’ story to use it as the basis for a seminal speech on Australian racism and subsequently this film. His thoughts on the matter are eloquent, precise, and angry (although his manner is unflappably cool), and his film, directed by Daniel Gordon, is likewise a clear-eyed screed, a dignified rebuke, and a vital document. * * * *

Also brand new to ABC iView is Year of the Rabbit, a new British half hour comedy series starring Matt Berry (Toast of London, What We Do In The Shadows, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace). Set in a suitably grimy Victorian-era London, Berry plays a homicide detective, Rabbit, who, in ep one, gets circumstantially teamed up with a couple of younger sidekicks while investigating a series of murders linked to a secret society. It’s deadpan funny with a side of Pythonesque period parody, but also surprisingly compelling as a cop show, even as it spoofs the genre. I legitimately look forward to watching this trio of coppers as they embark into an ever-seamier and very well designed East End of The Big Smoke; they’ve already got spark and sizzle.

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