It’s A Sin

Full Season Available Now On STAN

Russell T. Davies is at the top of the heap of queer television, paving the way for all who followed with his seminal series Queer As Folk. His new show, It’s a Sin, seems destined to have a seismic impact.

Davies knows how to write TV, and It’s a Sin is extremely well scripted, zipping along with total watchability even as it tackles deeply sad subject matter. It’s a Sin is about AIDS tearing through the London queer community in the 1980s, and there is tragedy at every turn. But there are also a cast of buoyant and almost immediately loveable young people – that must be Davies’ true alchemy, the ability to create instantly appealing characters – whose exuberant energy is as upbeat as the plague they face is devastating.

The style is hyper, elevated, almost cartoonish; everyone’s acting is dialled up to 11 (and sometimes beyond), particularly when called upon to ‘act happy’ (there is sooo much forced gaiety – pun not really intended – and badly faked laughter, and it grates). But the script, the milieu and the themes of the show add up to an undeniably addictive, entertaining and, dare I say it, deeply important package.

Netflix Double: Pretend It’s a City and Lupin.

Pretend It’s a City

Fran Lebowitz is an author, an actor, a public speaker, a raconteur, a wit. Martin Scorsese winds her up and lets her go in this fantastically warm, charming and funny seven part half-hour Netflix series. At times they’re in a fancy bar (although neither of them seem to be drinking alcohol), at other times in front of an audience (the kind of New York audience who have subscriptions to The New Yorker, The New York Times and New York Magazine) and at times they’re out and about in New York, in libraries, museums and other places of note and import. But the conversation is always about New York, and it’s always funny.

Perhaps ‘conversation’ is too strong a word. Scorsese prompts, prods and pokes, then Fran lets rip and Marty laughs – a lot. Part of the joy of this unbelievably good-hearted show is watching the celebrated maestro of American cinema crack up, again and again and again. He’s divided the episodes thematically – there’s one on transport, one on art, one on ‘sports and health’ and so forth – but Fran’s brain goes where it goes, and we all follow, delightedly. While what she has to say is always interesting and, indeed, often profound, more importantly, it’s funny as hell. This modest series, playing by its own rules, is its own kind of perfect.

Lupin

The good news about Lupin is that it stars Omar Sy as a master jewel thief in Paris. The bad is that the first few episodes are directed by Louis Leterrier in his signature flashy, bombastic, whizzy-zoomey way. The camera never stops, everything is turned up to eleven, and over-acting is encouraged. But as pandemic escapism, this is expensive, pretty and shiny, like the necklace Sy’s thief wishes to steal from an auction at the Louvre in the first episode. I don’t know why or if they have auctions at the Louvre; this show really wouldn’t care. It’s a great place for a heist, right? Sometimes that’s enough.

Sound Of Metal

Can Paul enter the Oscar ‘Raci’?

* * * 1/2

Paul Raci makes a massive impression in Sound of Metal, the debut directorial feature from screenwriter Darius Marder (The Place Beyond The Pines). The film is featuring heavily in ‘awards chatter’ for lead actor Riz Ahmed, who plays a heavy-metal drummer who rather suddenly loses his hearing, but mark my words, Raci is going to start – pardon the pun – making noise. His performance is an apt use of that critical cliché, a ‘revelation’.

The film itself mashes up two pretty conventional sub-genres – those of ‘dealing with sudden disability’ and ‘rehab’ – without subverting either nor adding anything fantastically new, except a highly specific sound design that strives mightily to give us a simulacrum of what Ahmed’s character, Ruben, is hearing and experiencing. That sound design is the other element of the film being talked about for big awards, but again, I’m laying my money on Raci to step forth and start scooping up Supporting Actor statues. He plays the cultish leader of a community for deaf addicts (Ruben’s a four-year clean junkie) with absolute authority, compassion, empathy and integrity. Since, despite having a true ‘character actor’ face, Raci is simply not that well known (and wasn’t to me), he comes across as one hundred percent the real deal, as though Marder had found this actual man and had him play himself. Raci was raised by deaf parents so his signing is unassailable, even as he himself is not deaf. It’s perfect casting resulting in a perfect performance.

An indie film with wide appeal, Sound of Metal hardly re-invents the wheel, but it’s got a lot of integrity and heart, and is well worth your two hours. Ahmed is indeed very, very good, as is Olivia Cooke in an underwritten role as his girlfriend; late in the film, a major international star makes an appearance that’ll make your eyes pop wide open.

Small Axe

How much do you know about West Indian life in London from the 60s to the 80s? If not much, not enough, or not at all, Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave and Widows) is here to rectify that. He’s made five feature films for the BBC, all stories based on actual events, covering daily life for the London Caribbean community throughout those decades. It’s a monumental achievement that gives English Blackness its greatest popular entertainment exposure, I would suggest, ever. All five are now available on Foxtel in Australia.

The films have no recurring characters and are solely linked thematically, but McQueen hascurated them in a particular order and I suggest you follow it. The first two are the best, so if you only want to dip your toes, you can enjoy them and move on. But watching all five has a cumulative power; this is indeed a case of the whole adding up to more than the sum of its parts.

Mangrove: The first in the series and the second best. A relatively conventionally constructed courtroom drama, made unconventional by its dramatic ingredients: the Black London community that the whole series shines a light on. The proprietor of the Mangrove restaurant in Ladbroke Grove is continually harassed by the police; when he and his community demonstrate, they are brought up on charges which they fight in court. The most ‘historically educational’ of the series and a true eye-opener. Also the longest at a smudge over two hours. * * * 1/2

Lovers Rock: The best one. In a little over an hour McQueen offers a massive slice of young West Indian cultural life in London in the 1980s. Two people meet at a house party. That’s it. But it’s so much more: a film about music, mating, toxic masculinity and predator culture, Rastafarianism, sexuality and sensuality (this is the most sensual film of, say, the decade?), youth, food, dance, safe space and above all, community. The most artful of the five, bordering on experimental, it’s joyous, enthralling and magical. This is the one you’ll watch twice. * * * *

Red, White and Blue: The true story of a young man who joined the London police force and became the literal poster boy for minority recruitment, while dealing with the realities of racism within the force, this 80 minute entry features an excellent central performance from John Boyega.  My fourth favourite. * * *

Alex Wheatle: The least satisfying entry is a character study based on one of the writers McQueen engaged in a ‘writer’s room’ designed to generate material for the series. This is the one that suffers the most from Foxtel’s lack of having Closed Captions available for this series: the patois is dense and deep and I have to admit to being unable to follow a lot of it (and clearly missing a lot of nuance and humour). If you have Closed Captions available to you in your viewing region, and you aren’t up on your Caribbean patois, turn them on. * * *

Education: My third favourite is a charming hour-long depiction of a seminal year or so in McQueen’s own childhood, when he got shunted off to a school for “special needs” students. Touching, warm and possessing the most humour of the five. * * * 1/2

SERIES OVERALL:

* * * *

Suspense TV

Following on from THE INVESTIGATION, here are two more new TV series trading in suspense.

On SBS On Demand in six parts is Savages, a big, loud, brash, expensive, turbo-charged political thriller. Riffing on the attempted assassination of France’s first Algerian-descended President, and sweeping through a broad range of characters across a broad swathe of Paris, the show is desperate for your attention, and for the most part earns it.With its relentlessly swirling camera, its crowds, its chyrons and its colour, it demands that you keep up. Racism, terrorism, politics and family are the Big Themes and they all get a thorough work-out. Entertainingly in your face, it becomes increasingly compelling and surprisingly emotionally engaging if, unfortunately, a little predictable.

On Fox One, from HBO, comes The Flight Attendant,a far lighter, more comedic (and more commercial) take on suspense. Told over eight episodes, this energetic, relentlessly propulsive whiplash soufflé cares not a jot for race, politics or banal procedure, but an awful lot about entertaining you. And it does. Kaley Cuoco plays an American First Class flight attendant with a drinking problem who wakes up next to a one-night stand in a Bangkok hotel room… and he’s very, very dead. From there, it’s one spiralling crisis after another, in multiple cities, as she tries to figure out what happened while becoming an ever-greater suspect for the FBI, a target for the killer, and a moral dilemma for her brother. If Alfred Hitchcock had created a spin-off series for Samantha from Sex and the City it might have been this.

SAVAGES

SBS On Demand

All Six Episodes Available Now

THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT

Fox One / HBO

All Eight Episodes Available Now

The Investigation


Malling should win awards-a-plenty for his work on The Investigation.

SBS On Demand

All Six Episodes Available Now

Tobias Lindholm is a screenwriting master – if not the master – of sombre, research-based, unflashy thrillers. Indeed, you could call his films and TV shows “anti-thrillers”, in the way they portray events steeped in all the trappings of suspense with methodical, procedural calm. Eschewing all the bells and whistles – attention-drawing camera moves, editing, music or histrionic performances – usually associated with this kind of content, Lindholm’s work comes across as bearing more weight and integrity than more sensationalised takes. When Lindholm tells a true story, you believe he’s telling you the truth.

His body of work includes A Hijacking (for my money, his masterpiece) and A War, both of which he also directed, The Hunt (directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg), TV series Borgen and Follow The Money, and new film, releasing in early 2021 in Australia, Another Round (also directed  and co-written by Vinterberg). There is an unimpeachable argument for Lindholm and Vinterberg to be considered Denmark’s finest screenwriting team, and for Lindholm to be considered one of the finest screenwriters in the world.

Now, The Investigation – all six episodes of which Lindholm wrote and directed – carries his no-nonsense, highly procedural style into the long-form prestige television space. Telling the incredibly strange true story of the investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall aboard an inventor’s home-made submarine, Lindholm doubles down on his trademark stoicism to highly engaging results. Embracing the arduous, painstaking, frustrating and often dispiriting nature of truly investigative police work, with its dead ends, red herrings, slippery witnesses, grieving relatives and endless cups of coffee in banal spaces, The Investigation is almost paradoxically suspenseful, because we realise that what we’re watching has so much more weight than chases, shoot-outs and other contrivances. The story is weird enough – and it is weird – for the storytelling to be as by-the-book as our chief homicide detective, played exquisitely by the great Søren Malling (Borgen, A Hijacking, A War, Follow The Money). This is very much the story of how a horrendous crime can impact on the investigating officer, and Malling wears his pain, grief and frustration under a mask as stoic as Lindholm’s visuals. It is a bravura performance of naturalistic restraint, and Malling will win awards for it.

Don’t miss this superb show, one of the year’s best. Outstanding.

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

In Australian cinemas now.

Who knew this man was a swole beast?

* * * *

Oliver Sacks was one of those people who seemed beyond normal capabilities. We may call them geniuses, hyper-intelligent, or, simply, very good at their jobs. But Sacks was very, very good at two jobs: writing and neurology. And that combo made him, weirdly, a star.

As the title makes clear, this is his own story, which is as strange and compelling as many of his case studies. Who knew that beside his incredible talents, he achieved a California State Record in 1961 for squatting? That’s a bodybuilding term for a particular weightlifting manoeuvre, and Sacks won his record by doing it with two hundred and seventy-two kilos on his back. I don’t know about you, but when I read Oliver Sacks, I don’t picture a swole beast.

But this was Sacks: he was full of complications and contradictions, and this elegiac and beautiful movie touches on, I assume, all the biggies. His love and sex life was fascinating; there are addiction issues; he has his own – very Sacksian – neurological deviation; and he was surrounded by a team of Incredibly Smart People who are assembled with Oliver as he discusses his cancer prognosis, the ticking time bomb that frames the film. For this is a movie made about a dying man as he knows he is dying, yet rather than being mournful, it is joyous. Another amazing feat from the life of a truly astonishing individual. Highly recommended.

The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

* * * *

Made a couple of decades after the ground-breaking first two movies for financial rather than strictly artistic reasons, The Godfather Part Three (1990) was greeted appropriately: everyone acknowledged that it simply wasn’t as good as the first two (it’s not); that Coppola’s daughter Sofia, playing Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary, gave a bad performance (she did); and that the story was both over-complicated and rather unengaging (it was). Some critics went further and accused Coppola, and the film, of tarnishing The Godfather legacy.

A tinkerer – he’s put out multiple ‘director’s cuts’ of Apocalypse Now and recently a re-edited version of The Cotton Club – Coppola has sought to address some of these universally acknowledged issues with his re-cut, restored and re-named The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. He can’t take what’s there and make a silk purse, and the new version remains a pale companion to the glory of the first two masterpieces. But he does restore his daughter’s reputation somewhat, by cutting out a lot of her worst moments, and he definitely streamlines and clarifies the story, mainly by strengthening the structure around Vincent Corleone (Andy Garcia). In this version, Vincent’s introduced earlier, and comes this close to being the protagonist, almost putting Michael in the supporting seat.

Of course, no-one puts Al Pacino, in his greatest role (across the three films), in a corner, and he is superb as the ageing mobster who wants to go straight and find redemption in the eyes of God and his children. But the strengthened focus on Garcia works, driving the narrative more cleanly, and, frankly, Sofia doesn’t come off too badly (though there are still some cringe-worthy line readings). It’s a leaner, cleaner, more comprehensible and watchable version of itself – shorter by thirteen minutes – and worth your time for a re-visit. It looks and feels like The Godfather, and has some sublime moments and a couple of great set-pieces. Like Michael, it seeks redemption. Unlike Michael, it gets some.