Wellington Paranormal

Wellington Paranormal.jpgLike all the greatest comedians, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement have a strong and unique collective artistic voice, the core components of which are on display in their latest TV series, Wellington Paranormal. As with their hit film What We Do In The Shadows – which itself is becoming a TV show – they utilise the mocumentary format, naive characters, strong New Zealand idiom and the collision of the extremely mundane with the extraordinary to create very dry – and frequently brilliant – humour.

It is the naivety of the characters that is their greatest artistic gamble and pay-off. Throughout their work – including Flight of The Conchords, on which Waititi was not a creator but a contributing writer/director – most of the characters, and certainly the leads, are so unsophisticated as to credibly be called “dumb”. But this is not dumb comedy – not by a million miles – and these characters are never the butt of the jokes. Somehow – and it’s a kind of alchemy – characters like Rhys Darby’s Murray Hewitt on Conchords and his artistic descendants Officer O’Leary (Karen O’Leary), Officer Minogue (Mike Minogue) and Sergeant Maaka (Maaka Pohatu) are admirable in their honest attempts to overcome their own ignorance, noble in their own ignobility.

If you like their style, there’s a lot to love here, although for me the hook itself – that Wellington is beset by paranormal spooks and freaky creatures – is the least interesting element. The human characters are the thing here, just as they were on Conchords, which didn’t need a high concept. That masterpiece – I think it’s among the greatest TV comedies of all time – was simply about three knuckleheads trying to get by, which meant it was about, and for, us all.

Mr. Inbetween and Maniac

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The banality of evil has been making good fodder for comedy for at least a couple of decades now. Tarantino’s the master of the criminal-as-everyman, and Guy Ritchie’s early work fits the bill, but you’ve also got Scorsese, famously, in Goodfellas, having our antihero as worried about the pasta as the cocaine. Australian larrikinism, and our laid-back lifestyle, has fit well with the trope; Chopper and Two Hands offer great examples of criminals who also have to walk the dog, feed the baby and take out the trash. Fifteen years ago Scott Ryan made his own fantastic feature-length take on the sub-genre, The Magician, about a laconic hit-man’s everyday working life. Now he’s teamed with director Nash Edgerton on a very low-key series about the same character. Each episode of Mr. Inbetween (Foxtel) couldn’t be drier, and the predominant tone is melancholy. Ryan remains as charismatic and captivating a screen presence as he was fifteen years ago, and at around twenty-three minutes each, the eps go down easy.

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Maniac, on Netflix, is fresh and hardly banal. Jonah Hill and Emma Stone play troubled souls participating in an experimental drug study in a world that is an alternative to our own, not quite futuristic, nor steam-punky, but recognisably sci-fi all the same. The first couple of episodes are magnificent, but then the series finds a groove that allows for limitless experimentation but very limited stakes (for we spend entire episodes inside the lead characters’ heads and not in reality). The world-building and direction (by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who will direct the next James Bond movie and who directed all of Season One of True Detective) is sublime; the story-telling a little free. Wild and certainly fun, at around forty-one minutes an ep, this is worth at least a visit and possibly a binge.

Custody

custody.poster.ws_.jpg* * * * (out of five)

Xavier Legrand’s debut feature film follows in the footsteps of last year’s Russian masterpiece of divorce and dismay, Loveless. This is a leaner take; if Loveless took a meat cleaver to marriage and its aftershocks, Custody is more like a shiv. Which is to say, still sharp and lethal.

Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet play the separated couple waiting for their divorce; they have two children, but, as with Loveless, the focus here is on the impact their separation has on their eleven year old son, and it’s not good.

Loveless was, in its quiet way, an epic, a scathing indictment of modern humanity. Custody examines the day to day affect of joint custody and is far more contained and seemingly modest. Yet by the end, it has achieved momentous power. It is meticulously constructed, building with painfully specific intent. Ultimately, it is shattering. This is a film where strangers (at a general public screening at the French Film Festival) and I all checked in with each other afterwards, because we were all so moved, and shaken. A spectacular debut.

McKELLEN: PLAYING THE PART

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* * *

Sir Ian McKellen deserves a feature-length, theatrically released film about his life and career, and he’s got one: McKellen: Playing The Part. It features a sit-down interview with Sir Ian – looking very dapper in jacket and tie – interspersed with loads of footage, photos and other archival materials. Additionally, director Joe Stephenson has shot scenes of a boyhood Ian, played by first Milo Parker and then Scott Chambers, which have a similar affect to dramatic recreations in true-crime documentaries: they work, but you’re constantly wondering whether they’re really necessary.

I am the absolute target market for this film – I love Sir Ian – and find it a little hard to critique. For a novice interested in a general discovery of Sir Ian, I suppose the film – at 92 minutes – is a comprehensive and entertaining enough overview. It covers childhood, the early theatrical career, the mid-career of big theatre and some television, Sir Ian’s coming-out and politicisation, and ultimately the film career. And of course, there’s Sir Ian himself, in that charming jacket and tie, being ever so charming and dapper.

But is the novice really going to go to the cinema to see this film? And if not, why not give the film’s true audience – people who already love Sir Ian – something heftier? Sir Ian deserves at least two hours, more footage from the theatrical days (especially his incredible performances as Edward II and Richard II, both of which are teasingly included here), and more context. An example of the film’s lack of discipline and focus occurs around the Amadeus section, when Sir Ian won a Tony on Broadway. It is minutes into this chunk before the awning of the theatre finally reveals exactly which play Sir Ian was on Broadway with, and then the subsequent natural question – why wasn’t he in the film version? – goes both unasked and unanswered.

There is no discernible point of view here. It’s not the story of Sir Ian’s politicisation, nor his intriguing attitude to theatre versus film work, nor his “early years”; it’s a bit of everything in 92 minutes, and as such, it’s completely entertaining, charming and lovely while also being annoyingly unsatisfying. Now that this exists, it’s unlikely, given Sir Ian is 79, someone is going to make another version of his life, one which extends him, quite simply, a little more time.

Bojack Horseman S5, American Vandal S2

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It’s a great, nay, a tremendous pleasure to report that Netflix has dropped new seasons of Bojack Horseman and American Vandal and both live up to extremely high standards previously set. With Bojack, this isn’t unexpected; it’s already racked up four consistently excellent seasons. If you’re not familiar with idiosyncratic creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s surreal animated fantasia, it’s about a Hollywood television actor who was huge in the 90s on his own sitcom and now floats around, buffeted and comforted by plenty of money, booze and friends but troubled by a million doubts, fears, anxieties and, at least in seasons past, honest-to-goodness depression. It’s extremely funny, beautifully drawn and animated, perfectly acted (Will Arnett plays Horseman) and a sharp LA satire, but where it really kicks goals is in its ambitious tonal reach: it’s not afraid to play melancholic notes, nor reach for true pathos and occasional tragedy. Frankly, it got a bit too depressing for me at times last season, but this season there’s more fun and zip in the air, buoyed by Bojack’s new lease on life: he’s drinking a little less, taking care of himself a bit more, and has a new starring role on a “prestige” show that may just put him back in the game in a major way. By the way, Bojack is half man, half horse or something like that; the technicalities don’t matter, as the entire universe of the show is populated by humans, animals, and a million variations in between. You can dive right in, but if you have the time, definitely start from Season One.

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American Vandal potentially faced less chance of repeat success, essentially because Season One was such a self-contained, satisfying jewel. It was a perfect satire of the new style of binge-worthy prestige true-crime shows such as Making a Murderer, The Keepers and The Staircase, with a healthy whack at the podcast Serial as well. It mimicked the style and tone of the opening credits, the theme music, the camera angles, the blend of archival, interview and new footage (including the obligatory drone-overs), the pacing, the drip of information, everything. But then, in a coup de TV, it also provided a compelling story that made you want to find out who did it; the characters were superbly drawn, the mystery deep, the plotting intricate. And all stemming from a base crime – the drawing of a bunch of penises on a lot-full of parked cars at a high school.

Season Two had the potential to be totally irrelevant, and the first ten or so minutes of the first episode were ominous. The setting had switched to a private high school, but the crime remained base, this time involving a lot of poo. Not to worry. Just like the first season, this story very quickly starts multiplying, branching, expanding and soon becomes massive, engrossing and very, very addictive. It even, extremely cleverly and rather subtly, starts to engage with current American politics. The gimmick still works, but the suburb storytelling is what will grab you and glue you, once you get past all the poo.

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Recent TV: BAD BANKS and STORIES FROM NORWAY: THE MUSICAL

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You’ve never seen anything exactly like Stories from Norway: The Musical! Chances may well be you’ve never seen anything remotely like it either, although if you’ve seen Flight of the Conchords – and you should! – you’ve close kind of close. Norwegian brothers Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker take actual stories from Norway’s recent past, such as the building of a local council diving board that resulted in an extraordinary cost blow-out, or the time Justin Bieber short-changed a small audience of incredibly passionate Norwegian fans at a concert, and dramatise them as full-on mini-musicals. I kid you not. They shoot the episodes – averaging 21 minutes – in English, consisting of interviews with real people involved in the real events and elaborately staged recreations, sung-through with original songs. The whole package is extremely funny and rather jaw-droppingly clever. Recommended unreservedly; truly entertaining and surprisingly informative.

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Bad Banks is less original – it’s a fast-paced financial Euro-thriller, so it follows that money by following, among others, Follow The Money but it’s no less entertaining, its thrills achieved chiefly through sheer pace of storytelling. This show burns through plot like Donald Trump burns through staff. Some of it is ludicrous, but that’s part of the ride. We’ve had plenty of financial malfeasance thrillers; this one differentiates itself by adding psychological disturbance to the mix, not as plot development but as character starting line. Banking doesn’t make these people corrupt, broken, maladjusted and amoral, the show seems to be saying; it’s such people who want to be bankers. All the characters, save for our heroine, played by the stoic but subtly subversive Paula Beer, are over-the-top banking maniacs and they’re all a whole lot of fun. Plus, it’s set and shot in Luxembourg, Frankfurt am Main, and Berlin. What more do you want?

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In Australia both series are available for free on SBS On Demand.

Searching

* * * (out of five)

Ex-Google employee Aneesh Chaganty’s debut feature Searching follows in the footsteps of 2014’s Unfriended (and its recent sequel) by being set entirely on a computer screen – in the various windows, applications, browsers and sometimes simply on the desktop space. In these films, the form is absolutely as important as the content – does the story actually get told without breaking the self-imposed obstruction? – and the hesitation of a mouse-click can tell as much as an actor’s pause.

Unfriended was a straight-up horror film, setting itself further obstructions by taking place in real time and mainly within a five-person Skype video chat. I wrote of it at the time that it was “a deeply intricate, beautifully constructed and very creepy horror film that is its own brand of wildly original.” Chaganty’s film aims for higher artistic ground; Searching is a thriller, not a horror film, and – by concerning a widowed father looking for a lost daughter – it strives for some deep emotional resonance as well.

The good news is that the form holds, and holds well. The story is very effectively told within the gimmick, albeit with a few cheats, I thought, when it used “news footage” that happened to be being watched on a computer screen. All manner of apps are utilized – many with their real names and interfaces, which is interesting, and possibly a payola bonanza all around – and do what they do in the real world, which is to say, on your own desktop or laptop. The plot pans out over a number of days, and Chaganty is inventive here, using a pretty standard screensaver as an ominous portent while also setting up the convention of the passage of time.

Unfortunately, the mystery story, while clean and tidy, is not particularly clever, and I seriously doubt would stand up to a “straight” telling without a few more twists, turns and reversals. If the gimmick doesn’t hold you, I’m not sure the script will, but in tandem, they add up to something solid and clever without re-setting the bar. Unfriended still holds the belt.

Recent Television

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On Showcase (Foxtel), HBO’s Sharp Objects has one episode to go of its eight episodes, and I highly recommend catching up on the first seven, which are in rotation or available on demand. If it feels very much like the unholy child of Gone Girl and Big Little Lies, that’s because that’s precisely what it is. Novelist Gillian Flynn wrote Gone Girl and Sharp Objects (and is one of the primary screenwriters on the series) and Jean-Marc Vallée directed all eight episodes, as he directed all six episodes of Big Little Lies. It is perhaps this intense directorial authorship – very few series are entirely directed by a single person – that is most distinctive about Sharp Objects, and Vallée’s style will be recognisable from Big Little Lies. Again, he uses many short, sharp flash-backs, many of which are deliberately opaque, mysterious and occasionally creepy; however, he never leaves the current timeline’s aural environment (in other words, only flashbacks visually) and the resulting, disorienting sensation has become a signature of his style. Likewise, he continues in only utilising natural lighting, multiple (steady) hand-held cameras, existing locations and long takes to achieve a strong sense of grounded realism and, vitally, place. Just as Big Little Lies was so much abou that coastal community, Sharp Objects lives, breaths and sweats in its highly specific (though fictional) small Missouri town.

Amy Adams plays Camille, a reporter sent from the big smoke – the St. Louis Dispatch – back to her hometown of Wind Gap to report on the murder of two pre-teen girls. This doesn’t do her serious alcohol problem any favours, given that her mother, the town’s presiding landed gentry matriarchal figure (based on hog-farming old money), played by Patricia Clarkson, is domineering, manipulative, cold, untrustworthy and potentially evil. There are a raft of suitably baroque, “southern Gothic” characters including a genteel lush played by Elizabeth Perkins, the family members of both girls, two cops – one local, one from the big city – and, most importantly, Camille’s teenage step sister Amma, played with extraordinary lucidity by Australian Eliza Scanlen.

The mystery is good – I’m very eager to find out who done it next week! – but the tone, sense of mood and general style is even better. None of these characters are the kind of people you should have in your house but they’re all fascinating. Amy Adams is doing career-best work with a very troubled character; watch her and Clarkson win a lot of Awards when the time comes. For me, this is superior to Big Little Lies and Gone Girl the book, matched only by David Fincher’s film adaptation of the latter. It’s evocative and enthralling, suspenseful and sumptuous. Catch up on it before the big reveal next week!

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On September 30th, The Simpsons will begin airing its thirtieth season. This means that all those bright young things around you with thumbs that can text fifty words a minute, who have only ever known a world of Google, online dating and smartphones, have also never lived in a non-Simpsons world. And in all likelihood they live in a world that doesn’t appreciate the seismic impact The Simpsons had on popular culture, politics, the world.

Oh well. Seismic influence never lasts. Matt Groening’s next animated show, Futurama (1999-2013) didn’t change the world, and nor will Disenchantment, his first since then. Which is not to say it’s not a load of fun. Set in a medieval world that includes elves, demons and, well, whatever Groening wants, it follows a dissatisfied and often drunk Princess (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) dealing with her dad the king, palace intrigue, and the like.

The animation is cute and retro, the music is superb, and I laughed at least twice in the pilot. Above all, this feels like Groening, particularly the gags that deconstruct conventions, tropes and motifs, so it’s got a warm and fuzzy vibe for those of us who are old enough to remember The Simpsons knocking our socks off. For anyone else, it’s entirely possible it’ll feel old hat. You can’t completely revolutionize comedy twice.

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Meanwhile, New Zealand pop-cultural commentator David Farrier leverages his suburb documentary Tickled into the Netflix original travel show Dark Tourist, which sees him partaking of ‘dark tourism’ around the globe. Thus, in ep 1, he takes part in a paid tour Mexican tour that simulates illegally crossing the border into the US; in ep 2 he heads off on a jolly tour bus into the radioactive wasteland of Fukushima. Each ep he’s in a new country and presents four ‘tours’; based on the first two eps, the tours are indeed fascinating, but the direction of the series is unfocused; Farrier’s persona is very fuzzy, he seems uncomfortable with how to present himself (is he cynical? humorous? thoughtful?) and the biggest question of all – why anyone would pay to do these things – goes unanswered. Both Farrier, and the tours, need more context.

Aurore

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* * * (out of five)

Spoiler alert: This review obliquely references the film’s tonal conclusion.

Pregnancy is a good given circumstance – a good hook – on which to hang a movie. It’s human and relatable, there are going to be emotions involved, and it’s inherently suspenseful. There’s going to be a result, an ending, a climax. Nine months or so is a pretty good length of time for a story. The seasons can change, things can happen. Structurally, a pregnancy is pretty impeccable. Like screenplays, they’re even divided into three acts (okay, trimesters).

Aurore, a bouncy, swift and genial comedy from Blandine Lenoir, cleverly has fun with this inherent dramatic arc by assigning the pregnancy neither to the protagonist, nor the antagonist, but to a supporting character. Aurore, warmly played by Agnès Jaoui (who co-wrote the film with Lenoir and, weirdly for a French film, four others) is the mother of the expectant, but the center of the story. At age fifty, she simply feels too young to be on the verge of  being a grandmother; accepting this inevitable status is her character arc, and the film’s journey.

Unfortunately, this clever construction allows the film to avoid dealing with its actual nemesis, which is menopause. The trials and tribulations of menopause are highlighted, I dare say, in every scene of this 89 minute film, but not dealt with, except comically. Rather, the film uses Aurore’s daughter’s pregnancy to dodge the issue, keep things light, airy and pleasant. The film is about society marginalising women once they hit middle-age, but fear not, it’s all played for laughs, and everything turns out okay.

The mature audience I saw it with laughed with every hot flash and mood swing, many obviously in recognition. They didn’t want their buzz killed and they were completely obliged. I enjoyed the witty dialogue, the warm performances, and the intriguing setting (a city somewhere in South-Western France, by the water, possibly La Rochelle), but, somewhere in the second trimester, I realised the film, like its heroine, was more concerned with being loved than asking questions, and, frankly, it lost me. Like many pregnancies, the beginning was surprising and exciting, but the end was entirely predictable.