Free Solo

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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.”

New TV: Flack and Losers

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“I shoulda stayed with HBO.”

The pilot episode of Flack (Foxtel) is the worst I’ve seen for awhile; nothing will bring me back for any more. It’s a big disappointment, because there was promise, and I was excited: Anna Paquin as a London-based PR crisis manager in a zippy 40something-minute show dealing with public relations disasters in the #metoo era? I was in. But now I’m very much out.

Credibility is the biggest issue: nothing in the show rings true. Television doesn’t have to reflect the reality of the workplace – is any cop show realistic? – but the ways this show gets its own premise wrong beggar belief. I could pinpoint many examples – just from the pilot – but the overwhelming conceit – that tomorrow’s papers are still what everyone’s frightened about – just can’t cut it in the viral era. The dialogue is expositional, spoon-feedy and often cringe-worthily on the nose: a monologue halfway through, where Paquin’s character essentially explains #metoo to a Jaime Oliver-like celebrity chef facing exposure of his many affairs, will haunt her career for the rest of it. It’s terrible.

It must be hard for TV to keep pace with current world events and, particularly, technology, but if you’re going to try, in the words of one of Flack’s characters to a ludicrously-portrayed intern: must try harder. 

On Netflix, Losers is the kind of show the “play next episode” button was built for. These c. 24minute documentaries each look at a “losing” player or team in a different sport. The diversity of the sports and the players make super-addictive: the first three eps jump from boxing to English football to figure skating. As with any good doco or doc series, you don’t have to like the ostensible subject – “sport” – to like the show, because it’s not about sport, it’s about the people, and this charming, off-beat and often very funny little show – which often uses animation to illustrate the stories – has assembled a panoply. 

Oscars 2019: Thoughts and Wild Predictions

CJ Johnson and Danielle McGrane look at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ year of self-fouls, own goals and other idiotic mis-steps in anticipation of a train-wreck 2019 Oscars. In addition, they step outside of the boring conventional wisdom predictions for this year’s Oscars, and instead, take a few big swings. Don’t bet on these long shots!

 

 

Black Monday (S1) and Corporate (S2)

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Boy, has the American half-hour comedy come a long way since I was a kid. With the exception of MASH, most shows used to be safe, safe, safe. Now, you can watch a speculative explanation of the 1987 Wall Street crash as a broad comedy.

That’s the pitch behind Black Monday (STAN), which unfortunately doesn’t live up to its promise – and what promise! Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer and a directing team that includes Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen – what could’ve gone wrong?

My guess is they had too much fun on set. This is a loud show about loud people (Wall Street traders in the 1980s, usually on cocaine) and everyone is acting just too damn loud. Don Cheadle is a great, and very funny, actor, but the writers seem to think that just giving him long speeches and letting him off the leash will result in comic gold, and it doesn’t. He’s too much, the writing isn’t funny enough, and I found myself in the awful position of wishing he would shut up. He didn’t, and doesn’t. This is his show, and it’s indulgent of an actor’s worst impulses.

Much funnier is Corporate (FOXTEL), entering its second season. This is a truly subversive and edgy comedy that doesn’t need to yell; indeed, it’s as deadpan as it gets, and all the better for it. Creators Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman play sad office drones at a fictional massive corporation, Hampton Deville, that has its hands in everything; the underlying source company seems to be Halliburton. The sheer scope of the conglomerate allows the show to pierce many targets – Hampton Deville can make and sell anything – while gunning at all manner of workplace situations, especially the simple daily art of not getting shafted, shivved or shoved out. It’s not as brilliant as the original The Office, but it’s a workplace comedy with plenty of bite.

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