Dracula (Netflix) review

In my early 2018 review of The Square, I wrote “Danish Theatre actor Claes Bang makes a gigantic impression in the lead role of the curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm who may not be as cool as he looks; watch as Bang becomes a massive worldwide star (his spoken English, accented towards British, is perfect).” I avoided suggesting he should be the next Bond, despite the fact that he very, very much looks like a Bond; indeed, he resembles a mash-up of 40something Pierce Brosnan and 40something George Lazenby.

Instead, he’s the new Dracula (Netflix), and he’s wonderful and perfectly cast: even the fact that “British” English is a learned language and accent for him is playfully utilised, as, of course, Count Dracula is Transylvanian. It’s the kind of comic detail that rules this enormously entertaining new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who also updated Sherlock in bits and bursts, mostly very well, from 2010 – 2017.

As with that adaptation, Gatiss and Moffat honour the spirit of the original profoundly; they have fun with it but never at the expense of it. They set a perfect tone then get everyone on the same page; here, that tone is wit, camp and playful gore; references to the Hammer films abound, including many shots where Bang is framed to deliberately mimic famous shots from that film series. (Incidentally, in those shots, he looks remarkably like Christopher Lee as well; is there any dark-haired handsome Commonwealth thesp this Dane can’t resemble?)

Special mention must go to Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha. She’s hilarious. “Hilarious?”, you say? Oh yes. Just watch.

Top 15 TV Series of The Decade!

Finally, a list of my favourite TV shows of the decade. These are all TV series in the old-fashioned sense: no mini-series or limited series. I’ve reserved the top two spots – one comedy and one drama – for shows that are complete, so you know they’re good all the way. After that, a show may be ongoing but have had at least two seasons. Enjoy! Listen to me discuss the list on ABC RADIO.

1

VEEP

(US) 2012-2019

2

THE LEFTOVERS

(US) 2014-2017

3

SUCCESSION

(US) 2018-ongoing

4

BLACK MIRROR

(UK) 2011-ongoing

5

THE BUREAU

(France) 2015-ongoing

6

BORGEN

(Denmark) 2010-2013

7

BOJACK HORSEMAN

(US) 2014-ongoing

8

JUSTIFIED

(US) 2010-2015

9

ATLANTA

(US) 2016-ongoing

10

HIGH MAINTENANCE

(US) 2012-ongoing

11

AMERICAN VANDAL

(US) 2017-2018

12

GOMORRAH

(Italy) 2014-ongoing

13

GAME OF THRONES

(US) 2011-2019

14

NORSEMEN

(Norway) 2016-ongoing

15

BROAD CITY

(US) 2014-2019

The Two Popes Review

* * * *

I’ve never enjoyed Jonathan Pryce more than in The Two Popes; his powerfully warm charisma, coupled with a rosy-to-glowing depiction of Pope Francis, is the strongest reason to see this intriguing piece of speculative history. It seems that when Pope Benedict was privately considering renouncing his papacy, he sought out (and called in from Argentina) Francis to discuss the idea; the film – written by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) and directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God, Blindness) imagines four lengthy conversations between the two.

Lest that sound boring to you, it should be noted that Benedict is played by Anthony Hopkins; the four conversations, which collectively probably make up about 70 percent of the film, are exquisite acting set-pieces of the absolute highest order: two of the world’s greatest actors with intelligent, thoughtful and often very funny words to say. The film also is much larger than two old men chatting about religion; flashbacks fill in the early life and (deeply problematic) career of Francis (not Benedict; it’s not that film), while the contemporary story includes fascinating, detailed depictions of the Vatican’s functionality, including a terrific sequence showing the papal elections from the inside.

My only interest in religion of any stripe is intellectual; The Two Popes, which is unashamedly pro-Francis and quite clearly pro-Pope, fascinated and delighted me, and Pryce is simply captivating.

Mandalorian, Queens of Mystery, The Good Liar

Two new streaming shows offer genre fans massive levels of fan service; each may seem to their respective prospective audiences like manna from heaven.

Acorn TV streams exclusively British content of the mostly cosy variety; it’s the kind of stuff you’ve traditionally found on ABC Australia, with a heavy emphasis on mystery and period drama. The new Acorn TV exclusive Queens of Mystery aims to be the mother of all cosy mysteries; it is so engineered to deliver what fans of the genre want that it’s easy to be cynical about it, but I suspect there will be plenty of eager fans ready to lap up every ripe moment.

A young female cop is transferred to her gorgeous (cosy) hometown, where pretty much immediately a murder is committed, not only to a writer of mystery novels, but at a mystery novel festival. But that’s not even the big hook; the cop’s three aunts all live in the town, are all mystery writers themselves, and all want to help solve the mystery. One of them is even a suspect!

This extreme high concept will either leave you dry or make you so excited you’ve already ordered Acorn in HD. It’s hard for me to judge, not really being a fan of the genre (sadly; I used to be); it’s ludicrously over-acted and over-stuffed, but also smells like fun.

Fun is the mega-operative word for The Mandalorian on Disney Plus; this Star Wars TV series is nothing but. Eschewing the deep family-drama ‘force’ mythology of the soon-to-be-completed nine-film franchise but embracing every stylistic element you love from episodes 4-8 (ie the ‘George Lucas 1977 A New Hope’ style), this action-packed and very funny bounty-hunter epic, grounded in the conventions of the classic Hollywood Western, is one hundred percent convinced of its own tone. It knows exactly what it wants to be, and with every bug-eyed monster, laser shoot-out and Mos Eisley Cantina-like cantina, it achieves it. I thought I was done with everything Star Wars, but The Mandalorian’s joyous charms are impossible to resist. For its every brief episode (they’re about 38 minutes apiece) I’m a kid again, grinning from ear to ear.

Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren are two great movie stars, and they account for the * * I can give The Good Liar, a ludicrous con-man thriller perfunctorily directed by Bill Condon, now in cinemas. Based on a novel by Nicholas Searle which I will never read, the film sells itself first on McKellen and Mirren and then on its “twisty” plot. The actors are great; the plot, not.

The Irishman Review

The Irishman Pacino and De Niro.png

* * * * 1/2

There’s simply no denying the awesome craftsmanship of Martin Scorsese’s überfilm The Irishman, which has finally arrived, after an enormous shoot and an unprecedented post-production process, on big and small screens (it’s a Netflix production). As monumental, and monumentally skilled, cinema, it’s breath-taking: the production design, the cinematography, the attention to detail at every level, the bold editing, the elegance of the compositions, all point to a team of masters working together on a masterpiece in the old-fashioned sense.

So how does it work on a storytelling level? For me, the biggest surprise, given that I went in with plenty of fair assumptions, was the amount of times the film made me laugh out loud. Once Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) enters the story, presumably kicking off the second act (of a three and a half hour picture), The Irishman is not afraid to boldly make a joke. Pacino’s performance is funny in its own right, and as it goes on, it seems to give the movie permission to follow its lead; by the time we’re well ensconced in the second hour, Scorsese and lifelong editor Thelma Schoonmaker are making edit gags – “cuts” that humorously draw attention to themselves – and, presumably, yucking it up in the edit suite. Praise be to them; I loved the humour in the movie, and Pacino’s performance.

Robert De Niro, as Hoffa’s factotum Frank Sheeran, the Irishman of the title who also serves the Philly mob, and ultimately finds himself a troubled servant of two masters, has the film’s straightest role, allowing the enormous and enormously professional cast to dazzle in his reflection. He’s in every scene and a stable influence, which is not to say he’s not very, very good. But Frank’s major personality trait is his loyalty, which simply isn’t a very passionate attribute. His is a quiet confidence, most evident when he kills.

The film spent so long in post because it utilised digital de-ageing techniques to allow De Niro, Joe Pesci, Pacino and others the chance to play the younger versions of themselves. Facially, this looks a little ‘uncanny’, especially in the first act, when they’re meant to be at least thirty years younger than they really are (which is in their mid-70s). But it’s their bodies that don’t look right. The digital forty year-old Frank, featuring a smooth face with eerie computer eyes, walks as a 76 year old De Niro does, throws a gun into the river as an older man does, kicks a man with weak old man legs and joints. It’s strange looking – not in a good way – and distracting.

The third act, featuring the men in their actual dotage, is melancholic, mournful and quite magical. This is where Scorsese and his mob effectively bring their mafia trilogy – combining GoodFellas, Casino and this title – to its close, and in doing so, come to the mother of all crime movie conclusions: at the end of the day, crime really doesn’t pay. All those days these goombahs spent one-upping each other, they weren’t playing with their children, and that is their punishment. That, and, as the movie keeps telling us, very often five or six bullets to the head.

Marriage Story Review

*****

Marriage Story is Noah Baumbach’s masterpiece, a tragicomedy of human relationships that gets everything right. Anchored by pitch perfect performances from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, this forensic study of a certain kind of divorce elegantly, faultlessly rides the bittersweet path: every scene, and practically every moment, is simultaneously deeply sad and very funny. That’s not just skilled filmmaking, it’s a kind of alchemy.

The stakes are high but accessible: there is a child, Henry, who is about six years old; the splitting couple each have work on either side of the United States (he in NYC, she in LA); both want Henry to live on their coast. Without money and property being foregrounded, the story remains deeply human and humane: Baumbach shows deep empathic compassion for both his leads, and for us as an audience. We are not forced to pick sides. Their professional world – of the grant-subsidised NYC theatre and uncertainties but big bucks of series TV – is rarefied and simply rare, but Baumbach’s script and direction is so incredibly specific, so full of rich and precisely observed detail, that the whole is entirely relatable; that old adage, find the universal in the specific, is entirely and successfully at play here.

If there is a villain, it’s lawyers and a legal system that reflects the misnomer of the “United” States: California and New York have rival systems, and god forbid you break up in both of them simultaneously.

The deep bench of supporting actors do superb work: Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as the attorneys, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Johansson’s family, Wallace Shawn as a workmate and Azhy Robertson as Henry. Driver and Johansson deliver career-bests and will both be nominated for Oscars. Driver may win.

This may be the best film of 2019. It’s right up there. Unmissable.

The Righteous Gemstones Review

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I’ve found Danny McBride’s TV series – Eastbound and Down and Vice Principles – not quite for me; a little too broad and, in some way I can’t quite nail, ‘American’. But his new one for HBO, The Righteous Gemstones (HBO / Showcase), grabbed me from the very first scenes and propelled me through its nine episodes on my own righteous binge. This show is smart, clever, funny and just great fun. McBride plays the eldest of three adult sibling “mega-church” Florida preachers, ruled over by their father Eli Gemstone, played by John Goodman. But it’s not so much a satirical take-down of the church as it is a Coen Brothers-like crime comedy of incompetents trying to be criminals and getting themselves further and further in trouble; some of the dialogue and scripting is evocative of Elmore Leonard at his most colourful (and this show is very colourful). The supporting cast are superb: Adam Devine (who again, I’ver never appreciated before this) and (completely new to me) Edi Patterson are the siblings; I could watch each of their spin-off shows with glee. And Walton Goggins, Tony Cavalero and Scott MacArthur all make tasty meals of plum parts. This is really digestible; the first scene-setting ep is 51 minutes, but the average after that is 36. Binge and be happy! SEASON ONE * * * *

Morning Wars / The Morning Show

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I can’t care for any of the characters in the pilot episode of Morning Wars (aka The Morning Show in the US), the ‘flagship’, and very expensive, piece of content being used to promote Apple’s new ‘TV +’ streaming service / portal / all-inclusive lifestyle product. The protagonist, Alex Levy, played by Jennifer Aniston in a heavily promoted ‘return to television’ for what is rumoured to be a jaw-droppingly gargantuan sum of money, is a host for the most successful morning show on American free-to-air television who has been making jaw-droppingly gargantuan sums of money for fifteen years in the position, and is now deeply upset that her show’s ratings may wobble because her co-host, Mitch, played by Steve Carell (to similar promotion) has been canned because he’s been sleeping with production assistants, make-up girls and sundry other young women who’ve dropped by the Morning Show set.

The pilot’s set-piece is Alex having to deliver the news of Mitch’s firing; it is, essentially, a dramatic recreation of the morning Savannah Guthrie announced Matt Lauer’s firing from the Today show on NBC on November 29th, 2019. Reading Ronan Farrow’s book Catch and Kill will provide a far more gripping take on that incident, and watching the actual video is frankly more – weirdly – gripping than Aniston’s portrayal. (Here it is: Matt Lauer Gets Canned)

So, in a show constructed around a man’s potential sexual assaults – including possible rapes – at his workplace, we’re examining the effect not on his victims but on his gazillionaire co-host and, most off-puttingly, himself, and, let’s face it, he’s not such a bad guy, at least in Carell’s hands. Meanwhile, a conservative Journalist With a Capital J is discovered screaming at a coal-mine protester in some hick part of the country, flown to the Morning Show set, and stands her ground against Alex, paving the way for her to become the new co-host (and All About Eve-style threat). She’s played by Reese Witherspoon, so there’s another angle, and another pile of millions effortlessly sluicing from Cupertino to Beverley Hills.

HBO’s Succession has ludicrously wealthy characters based on real people, but their crimes aren’t white-washed, and there is satire and true, incisive skewering. The writing and direction on Morning Wars have no such bite, and the characters are less compelling – and, it looks like, less actually bad – than their real-life counterparts. This is TV about the 1% made by the 1% and produced by the ultimate 1% company, and it’s simply less interesting than the true story that it’s ripping off.