Chernobyl

Wielding resources from both HBO and Sky Atlantic, and fielding a cornucopia of British and European acting talent, Chernobyl is something to behold, a monumental, thus-far impeccable (and impeccably researched) five-episode rendering of the 1986 nuclear disaster. Suspenseful, alarming, horrifying, tragic and angry, this is television as good as it gets.

The scientists, party members, public – well, everyone – of this sad story are all portrayed speaking English with dialectically variable British accents, which takes a few moments to adjust to, but then you’re in. (Incidentally, The Death of Stalin did the same thing, with director Armando Iannucci pointing out that the USSR was so vast and composed of so many different dialects and accents, the use of multiple British voices made sense, and it did, as it now does here).

The show thus far is a scathing indictment of the State system of secrecy, cover-up and general terror at being perceived as anything other than perfect at everything. The sheer denial of truth at every level is mind boggling and infuriating, and will be a revelation for many viewers (myself included). This is an expansive, expensive, take-no-prisoners investigation into a system’s response to a terrible accident, rather than a “disaster movie” depiction of the accident itself, although the disaster is rendered, in the first episode, with exquisite and disturbing effect. I was truly moved as the credits rolled on episode one, and felt reverberations from those late 80s nuclear-themed calls to action The Day After, Threads and When The Wind Blows.

You would hardly expect from his credits – Scary Movie 3 and 4, The Hangover Part II and Part III – that creator and writer Craig Mazin had this in him. People will surprise – and amaze – you. This is must-see television.

STAN: Catch-22, The Bisexual, Pen15

 

New and newish TV on STAN.

Exquisitely directed by Grant Heslov, and featuring a perfectly wry, extremely charismatic central performance from Christopher Abbott, the pilot episode of Catch-22, a new six-episode adaptation of the infamous 1961 anti-war novel by Joseph Heller on Stan, shows enormous promise. Rather than trying to outgun the intensity of Saving Private Ryan and its followers, this thrillingly entertaining show seems to be indebted far more to Robert Altman’s film version of M*A*S*H than anything else; it presents its World War 2 bomber pilots and their idiotic commanders in a wold that includes beer, swimming and girls. There is horror, of course: people die and they bleed. But the tone is light, jaunty, aided by a wonderful period soundtrack of popular songs, and as such may be a throwback, but a truly delightful one. War is insane, so we may as well laugh at it.

The Bisexual, from feature-film auteur Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) is a half-hour comedy about an Iranian-American living in London, Leila (played by Akhavan herself) who splits up with her long-term girlfriend to explore her bisexual side – ie, men. It’s cool, stylish and intriguing, with some really good laughs and excellent performances, and – it almost goes without saying – fresh. This is the kind of content that comes with cultural revolution; it’s a far cry from Modern Family, let alone Married With Children or The Honeymooners, all considered radical in their day. The Bisexual doesn’t scream out its agenda on the battlements; it takes its own modernity as a given, and that’s fresh indeed. Worth a watch.

Pushing formal boundaries more than narrative ones, Pen15 stars creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle as two American “7th graders” (12-13 year olds) dealing with high school. The formal twist is that Erskine and Konkle are both in their 30s. The revelation is that, in almost every scene, you completely buy them as kids, even when the only other actors in scenes with them are actual kids. It’s pretty remarkable and lots of fun, and the tone is buoyant and giddy. This is a show about female friendship at a very particular age, and it feels very much like it’s nailing it; despite its overtly comedic style, it feels very, very real. It’s set in 2000, so there’s nostalgia to be revelled in as well. Worth watching.

New Netflix Comedy: DEAD TO ME and TUCA AND BERTIE

Dead to Me arrives strongly hyped, at least on my Netflix feed. It’s a half-hour dramatic comedy / comedic drama starring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini as two young-middle-aged women who meet at a coastal California “Grief Group” and become involved, as new friends, in each other’s traumas. It’s fresh, funny and tremendously confident.

There’s a credibility, and integrity, to Christina Applegate’s performance as a widowed mother of two trying to cope with the rage she feels at her husband’s hit-and-run death, and it casts a glow of respectability and trustworthiness over everything, such that any shortcomings the script might have are evened out, possibly negated. Put simply, her performance alone is reason enough to watch. Cardellini is no slouch either, in the goofier and possibly more psychologically complicated role.

This is a show about women, created by a woman (Liz Feldman), directed by three women (and one gay man), and golly gee, maybe that’s why these women sound like they’re actually talking to each other. A century of seeing women characters written and directed by men on screens large and small has left a sticky residue of falseness and fantasy, such that when you simply see an honest scene between women done well, it can feel so refreshingly clean. Absolutely check this show out, it’s a binge.

Also on Netflix, Tuca and Bertie is a thoroughly modern sitcom. It’s animated, it’s wild, it’s female-centric (created by Lisa Hanawalt) and not a little bit trippy. Tuca (Tiffany Haddish), a toucan, used to be flatmates with Bertie (Ali Wong), a wren. Now she lives upstairs. The two are still friends, and things happen when they get together. The jokes, verbal and visual, never stop and it’s just as enjoyable to sit back and let it splash all over you rather than try and keep up. Intriguingly, it seems to take place in an alt-Bojack Horseman universe, although in this one there are only birds. (Hanawalt is the Production Designer responsible for the art direction of Bojack Horseman). Delicious and sweet, like a Fluffy Duck.

New Comedy On The Box

There’s no denying Chris Lilley’s “commitment to the bit”, nor his abilities around mimicry, impersonation, vocal dynamics, physical comedy and all the other technical performance skills that go into his brand of long-form / ongoing character comedy. At his best his portrayals are uncanny. That said, I’m two episodes into his new show Lunatics (Netflix) and yet to laugh. There’s technique on display, but very shallow content.

Lilley’s new show showcases six characters; only two of them are engaging (for me), meaning there are already long stretches of desert content. He seems to dislike his female characters, and flat-out hate an unfortunate income-and-intellect-deprived hefty teenage boy (read: fat bogan idiot); they are treated with disdain, and by association, so are the social, cultural and national types they are emblematic of (such as a female South African ‘psychic to the stars’).

Lilley’s comedy was once cutting-edge; whether or not it’s now considered offensive (he no longer trades in blackface, but comes close), it can hardly be called relevant. Some of it is long in the tooth, some strikingly observed, some mean. The overwhelming comic attribute of this suite of characters is that they’re dumb; one of them, Joyce, seems to be seriously mentally ill, and nothing about her is funny. It’s a dispiriting package overall.

Luckily, Netflix has also dropped another, better sketch show, I Think You Should Leave, by Tim Robinson. These six 16-minute episodes are wild, unpredictable and often laugh-out-loud funny. Like Lilley, Robinson, aided by occasionally famous guest stars and respected alternative comedy regulars, skewers types and tribes of people; unlike the characters of Lunatics, they’re types and tribes of the here and now, that we can recognise.

Entering its seventh and final season, Veep (Foxtel) is making a play for the greatest half-hour comedy of all time. In this, series creator Armando Iannucci will be challenging his own brilliant British show, The Thick of It, for the title. They’re thematic cousins: the first eviscerated the British political system, while Veep rips a new one for the Americans. Both portray politicians as venal, greedy, foul-mouthed and generally incompetent, and both are funny as hell. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in Veep’s lead Selina Meyer, has created one of the greatest of all television characters, becoming a six-time Emmy winner for the role (that would be the last six Emmys, and she’ll almost certainly win one more time for this season).

The challenge for this season, of course, is that Trump has made US politics stupider and more corrupt than anything Veep has come up with. In response, Selina (and Jonah, played by Timothy Simons) have become even more craven, and that’s fine. This show was never going to get nicer; if it had, it would have been a betrayal. The trademark rapid-fire dialogue has gotten even faster, as though the writers are challenging themselves to produce a show that demands to be watched again the moment the episode is over so as to catch all the jokes. They’ve succeeded. Veep remains a brilliant piece of satirical art, and the funniest show on all of television.

TV: This Time With Alan Partridge

Available now in Australia on ABC iView.

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Steve Coogan’s character “Alan Partridge” may not be the longest-running comic creation of all time, but I bet he’s up there for crossing the most genres. He was born on the BBC4 comedic radio program On The Hour, moved into the ensemble of television news spoof The Day Today, then took on his own (fake) chat show, Knowing Me Knowing You in 1995. In 1997, and again in 2002, he was the centre of a one-camera half-hour sitcom, I’m Alan Partridge. In 2010 he returned in a series of webisodes called Mid Morning Matters and in 2012 there was an hour-long mockumentary / travelogue called Welcome to the Places of My Life. In 2013 he made it to the big screen in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.

All of these are worth checking out. Indeed, they’re bloody hilarious, and Alan Partridge, for me and millions of others, is one of the great comic creations, played by one of the great comedic actors. He’s way too intricate to be described pithily, but it’s safe to say he’s now in his mid-fifties and remains parochial, conservative, extremely “British”, self-important but insecure, arrogant and occasionally aggressive. There are media personalities all over the world just like him, including more than a few in Australia.

His new six part series, This Time With Alan Partridge, sees him first be a guest host, then become a regular, on a British light infotainment show, This Time, essentially a spoof of the British staple The One Show. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen it. Australia has plenty like it. This is once again satire of the absolute highest standard. If you like Partridge you’ll already be watching. If you’re new to Alan’s hideous charms, dive in. It’s comic brilliance.

Free Solo

* * * *

The 2018 Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, Free Solo, now still in some Australian cinemas while also available on Foxtel, charts the first “free solo” – rope-free – climb of the El Capitan cliff face in Yosemite National Park, California, by Alex Honnold, in 2017. While this feat is mind-boggling, extraordinary, almost inconceivable, and deserves a full-bodied documentation, the film is about a lot more. Covering three main strands – the climb, the filming of the climb, and Alex’s first romantic relationship of any true depth – it examines heroism, fear, obsession, the culpability of filming dangerous events, what it takes to love a reckless adventurer who may die “by the sword” on any given Wednesday, and the complex emotional makeup of climbers and in particular, free solo climbers, who live so far outside the mainstream that “free solo” describes their lifestyle as much as their sport.

Is it a spoiler to say Alex survives? I knew he did – I saw him on the Oscar stage with the filmmakers! – but that didn’t stop me feeling nauseous with anxiety as I watched him on his epic climb. Your brain knows he makes it, but your organs are in revolt. Rarely have I been so relieved to see an ending I knew was coming all along. His achievement is majestic, and so is this movie, which avoids any form of overt button-pushing. Like Alex himself, Free Solo is straightforward, honest, humble and confident, with a grip of steel.

Destroyer, Sometimes Always Never, The Family

Around the time The Family, from writer/director Rosie Jones, was released as a theatrical feature, it won the Film Critics Circle of Australia Best Feature Documentary Award. Now re-titled The Cult Of The Family, it’s being shown on the ABC (and available on ABC iView) as a three part documentary series. It’s the disturbing story of the creepy cult, known as The Family, lead by Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The children within the cult – some illegally adopted – notoriously wore identical, freakishly blonde bobs, making them resemble the children from Village of the Damned. Jones interviews many of those children who are now scarred adults, as well as the chief investigator who essentially spent his career trying to bring Hamilton-Byrne to justice. Although the film relies too much on an uninspired score and unconvincing re-creations, the essential story, and the interviews, are urgent, essential records of an astonishingly awful Australian story.

Bill Nighy plays a Scrabble-obsessed father of two boys, searching, up and down the English coast, for one of them, who walked out on a Scrabble game years ago and never returned. If that’s not intriguing enough for you, how about the fact that director Carl Hunter, making his feature debut, shoots Sometimes Always Never in the style of Aki Kaurismaki, with nods to Wes Anderson? The result is extremely stylized, melancholy and rippled with extremely dry humour (don’t believe the quote on the poster proclaiming it “Hilarious!”); play “WHIMSICAL” for twenty points. * * *

Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who previously wrote The Invitation for Kusama to direct, is gritty, uncompromising and vibrant. It is refreshingly specific in its intent, being to follow in the footsteps of such blue-sky LA noir as To Live And Die In LA, Heat and Point Break – films that are essentially downbeat, nihilistic and grim. Common tropes include the LA River; bank heists; machine guns; charismatic, almost supernaturally influential male gang leaders; and very damaged (anti)heroes. Destroyer has all that, plus Nicole Kidman doing her usual top-notch work. It’s all very stylish, very deliberate, very purposeful, and very enjoyable, if you like this kind of thing. I do and I did. * * * *

New TV: FIVE New Shows!

Just when you thought he’d retired to Spain, Ricky Gervais is back, with a very British half-hour comedy fully paid for by Netflix. This has given him absolute creative freedom and total autonomy; this may not be the best thing in the world. His masterpieces, The Office and Extras, were created with Stephan Merchant. Left to his own devices – and I’m talking full solo album here, writing, directing and starring in each of the six episodes – he’s still wicked and at times wickedly funny, but prone to meandering, self-indulgence, repetition and a misguided love of soulful guitar.

After Life (Netflix) is Gervais’ take on grief. His character, Tony, has lost his wife – the only woman he’s ever been with, or ever needed to know – to cancer. Now he’s in his late forties in a small English village, working for the very local paper as a features writer, and utterly, suicidally miserable. The two things keeping him alive are his dog, and his newfound freedom to be as rude as he wants to people, knowing that if and when too much offence is finally taken he can simply, happily top himself.

It’s by design a miserable set-up and unfortunately the series is out of balance, focusing too much on the maudlin at the expense of the funny. There is very little forward momentum and a few basic situations – Tony’s boss (and brother-in-law) expressing frustration at Tony’s malaise, Tony watching his deceased beloved on his computer, Tony walking his dog through sunny British countryside to a soundtrack of truly dreadful soulful guitar – are simply repeated and repeated again. Like Tony himself, it’s a show at a dead end, with no impulse to forge ahead.

That said, when there are jokes, they’re great; Gervais is superb in his role; and the milieu is surprisingly enchanting. Whether or not this type of English idyll still survives with a working newsroom of at least six employees, it’s a pleasant place to hang, even with god-awful, grumpy Tony sitting in the middle of it.

Similarly, the best thing going for Turn Up Charlie (also Netflix) is the lead performance at its centre, that of Idris Elba, who also “created” the show but is not actually a credited writer nor director. He must have come up with the concept, and the concept is not good. Elba plays a past-his-prime London DJ who gets hired to be the nanny for his rich and famous friend’s little girl. So it’s big Idris and a precocious little girl getting to know each other, which, for many scenes, is precisely the hell it sounds.

Elba is such a strong, charismatic and talented actor that you need awesome performers to support him; he does not have them here. Most damningly, Frankie Hervey, as the little girl, isn’t up to the gig, looking like she’s remembering her lines and gestures rather than delivering them. This is her very first acting job, and boy, does it show. This is enough to sink the show right there, but unfortunately her mother is played by (second-billed) Piper Perabo who’s no good either.

Elba does his best – he’s always watchable – and London looks cool. But it’s embarrassing to watch this spectacular actor surrounded by amateurs in such a mummified premise. A true candidate for a “What were they thinking?” award. Watch the punters prove me wrong and this thing be a huge hit. That’s obviously what it’s going for, because high art this ain’t.

Nor, unfortunately, is Miracle Workers (Stan), although it’s certainly high concept. It’s damning with faint praise, I suppose, to say that the best thing about it is the casual diversity of its cast. All comers are represented (particularly actors from South Asia) and their background is not a story factor. This is good. This is woke.

But the show itself is absolutely mired in old-school sitcom tropes, the worst offender by far being “sitcom acting”. Most performers in this show are swinging for the back row in every single shot, let alone scene. It’s tiring to watch. The worst offender is the female lead, Geraldine Viswanathan. She plays Eliza, a worker bee in Heaven assigned to duty alongside Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) in the division that answers prayers. So far, so twee; at least God (Steve Buscemi) is kind of a bum, swilling beer and wasting time when he could be tending his work, and in particular, Earth.

The gags come fast but few stick. Despite the obvious charms of Buscemi and Radcliffe, I found the show hard to stomach. There’s just too much mugging.

It’s not so much over-acting as terrible acting that plagues Now Apocalypse, also on Stan. Greg Araki, the bad boy of the New Queer Cinema movement (The Living End, The Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin), jumps into the streaming fray with a show so monumentally amateurish that I’m frankly surprised it’s been put to air. The meandering plot involves a young LA man whose recurring dream of something nasty happening in a laneway reveals itself, at the end of the pilot, to be premonitions of a rapist alien beast, but the show’s true intent seems to be to parody young ‘uns and this tech, particularly dating apps and webcam sites. A, yawn, and B, satire needs to be witty. This is turgid. The actors are really good looking and routinely shot undressed and / or having graphic sex; one can’t help but feel Araki perving on the other end of the lens.

Slightly better, and certainly better crafted, sci-fi and satire are available in chunks ranging from six to seventeen minutes on Netflix’s Love Death + Robots, an animated anthology of eighteen self-contained sci-fi tales. The animation varies from modern video-game photo-realism to traditional 2D, and the quality from yawn to all right. There’s nothing brilliant here, but plenty to divert you over your cereal. Kids, hard-core sci-fi nerds and animation aficionados will almost certainly have more eager reactions.

Leaving Neverland

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* * * * * (out of five)

Already a cultural disruptor, Dan Reed’s four hour documentary Leaving Neverland will come to be regarded as a milestone in films about child sexual abuse. I’ve certainly never seen a clearer deconstruction of the methodology of the serial groomer. If you’ve ever wondered to yourself, “how did they get away with it?” (until they didn’t) – how did Jerry Sandusky get away with it, how did Larry Nassar get away with it, how did Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris and Ronald Brown and George Ormond and Barry Bennell and Ian Watkins get away with it? – it’s all here. The seduction of both victim and victim’s family; the (mis)use of trust, power, position and wealth; the training to lie; the gradual distancing of the victim and their family; the declarations of love; the incremental escalation of physical contact; the measured introduction of alcohol and pornography – it’s all here.

A lot of people will be helped by this superbly crafted, strikingly important film. Survivors will feel compassion, empathy and perhaps some level of catharsis. There may be parents who will immediately question their child’s relationship to a particular adult in their lives, or, indeed, immediately realise that their child is currently being groomed, which could lead to that child being saved. That is the power of this already widely-viewed documentary: it will save people.

Constructed entirely around interviews with two survivors, their families and staggering amounts of, at times, jaw-dropping corroborating material, the film is reservedly, unsensationally laid out. The revelations are of course upsetting, and the nature of the crimes is spoken precisely (which is to say, graphically), but that is the nature of this sad criminality. Reed’s careful and methodical style allow us not simply to learn (and learn to recognise) the pedophile’s methodology, but to begin to understand the staggering complexity of the relationship of perpetrator to victim. As one of the victims says of Michael Jackson, he was “my dad, my lover, and my mentor.”