TV: Big Mouth, Norsemen, Trust

Two extremely clever, original and defiantly edgy half-hour comedies return to Netflix for their second seasons. Big Mouth, from creator Nick Kroll, is an animated look at every uncomfortable, mortifying, terrifying aspect of puberty. A group of American teenagers are going through it, egged on by their own, literal, hormone monsters; masturbation, menstruation and everything else is covered in graphic and lurid detail, with mostly very funny results. Deliberately over the top, everyone whose been through all this mess can relate, but some may not want to go back there; it could be just too painful.

Meanwhile, Norsemen is a Norwegian spoof of that country’s Viking history, and often extremely funny. It’s the closest show I’ve ever seen to old-school Monty Python humour: dry, absurd, and played straight. It’s also in English; somehow, that makes it funnier and more charming (and a Norwegian friend of mine agrees). The series doesn’t shy away from the Vikings’ predilection for invasion, pillaging and rape, and there is occasional gore, but always deployed for humorous effect. There is also intrigue, a love quadrangle, ancient ritual, a psychotic villain and stunning locations. The large ensemble cast are all superb; many of them have been seen as cops, politicians, soldiers and bad guys in Nordic noir, and it’s a delight to see them here, being delightfully, unapologetically silly. Terrific.

Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle’s Trust (FOXTEL) shares a lot of story DNA with Sir Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World from last year. Both take J. Paul Getty’s response to his grandson John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping in Rome in 1973 as their general plot, and there are certainly similarities; in both, the rich old man is portrayed as a miserly controlling creep, and his seat of power, a mansion in England, is a prime location in both. But Trust, at ten hours, obviously has a lot more room, and on the basis of the first two episodes it is clear Boyle’s going to use it. He’s always been interested in money and its effect on people, and J. Paul, played exquisitely by Donald Sutherland, gives him a marvelous monster to sic amongst a large cast of family and employees (J. Paul, like many of the über-rich, didn’t have friends), each of whom is subservient and sycophantic to, rebellious against, or disgusted by him to varying degrees. The production design is stunning and the story massively entertaining (and quite lurid). Typical of his work, Boyle is superb at character delineation; this is a big universe but everyone is exquisitely and clearly defined. It’s also funny, a lot more than Scott’s somber movie.

The Cleaners

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You’ll learn more about Facebook’s devastating relationship to the Myanmar genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in the 88 minutes of this incredibly timely German documentary than you will from four hours of Apple News bits, bites and bobs. You’ll also learn more about how fake news spreads throughout not only Facebook and other social platforms but through Google itself than you would if you’d listened to the entire US congressional hearings into those applications.

You do so through the prism of “cleaners”, a work-force of thousands employed in Manila who spend their days and nights approving or deleting flagged images and videos for Google, Facebook, Twitter and others. Some have to service 25,000 images or videos a day, and all of them, by their nature, have the potential to be highly disturbing. Violence, pornography, propaganda and terrorist acts all pass the eyes of these front-line curators of the world’s internet experience; they are then expected to be able to sleep at night and view 25,000 more upsetting things tomorrow.

This is stuff from dystopian fiction, it’s happening now, and it’s very disturbing. It also makes this compelling doc a must-see if you care at all about how the internet works.

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.