I recently returned from serving on the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Jury at the Norwegian International Film Festival, where we awarded the prize for Best Nordic Film. Have a read of my overview of the Festival here, as published in FilmInk Magazine.
Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics state: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”
Creating them, he laid a foundation for all robot stories to come. Indeed, he essentially gave writers a template for great drama: at some point, let the robot(s) obey the third law to the detriment of the first two, and start hurting humans.
Netflix’s Better Than Us goes so far as to open Ep 1 with the laws on-screen. Nothing wrong with that; we know where we are and what to expect. The tale’s in the telling. What’s fresh about the telling here is the milieu: modern (or near-future) Moscow. Better Than Us is a Russian series, with fresh, intriguing Russian faces and a sensibility that doesn’t necessarily reflect the politically correct nuances of more western fare. Our dangerous robot here, at least in the first couple of episodes, is a fembot fatale, a cheerful throwback to, say, Species.
The production design and VFX cleverly offer a Moscow, and Muscovites, with wrist-implanted phones but scuffed up shoes. This is the kind of futurism I particularly like, the kind that acknowledges that some things don’t change. Also, not having been to Moscow, and certainly not recently, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s invented within the cityscape. It all adds up to a fresh vibe, even as (Russian-born) Asimov’s three rules again set the dramatic ones. The lead (human) characters – a morgue worker, a cop, a pregnant widow, an oily executive and a little girl – are all distinct, rounded and very well performed, and the story expands satisfyingly. This is a compelling and highly watchable sci-fi drama.
* * * * 1/2
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie is a superb time at the movies, a languid, fun, exquisitely crafted “movie movie” that is best appreciated in the context of the whole career of this quintessentially American auteur. It references, plays with and draws comparison to other films of his; it builds on narrative conceits and structures that he either created from whole cloth or has wielded more successfully than any other filmmaker; it reflects – deeply – on middle-age and late career. It truly is the ninth movie from a man who has said he only intends to make ten. Sure, if this is your first Tarantino, you’ll have a great time. But it needs to be your ninth for you to “get it.”
Brad Pitt is at his very, very best as an ageing – yet supremely physically capable – stuntman, who has transitioned to being the factotum to an ageing, and semi-alcoholic, TV star (Leonardo DiCaprio). They represent what they represent – including Tarantino – and they do it superbly. If Brad Pitt is run in the Best Supporting Actor category come Oscar time, he’ll win. (If both of them are run in Lead, they will certainly cancel each other out). Their camaraderie forms the spine of the film, which is set very, very deliberately in Hollywood in 1969.
The bright, shining star of the film, however, the objet d’art and fulcrum of the plot, is (real-life up and coming movie star) Sharon Tate, played exquisitely by Margot Robbie. Her tragic real-life murder by followers of Charles Manson’s “family” has become a seismic semiotic turning point across popular culture and academia – signifying America’s death of innocence, the end of the ‘60s, the end of personal safety, etc, etc – and Tarantino fully embraces her iconography and cultural importance while also taking the radical and incredibly humane step of treating her as a proper person, and specifically a good one, full of joy, generosity, talent and integrity. In one astonishingly well-conceived sequence, he shows Tate watching one of her movies with a general audience and joyfully appreciating their appreciation of her performance, not egotistically but artistically. She is there to make sure she got the beats right; she’s there as an artist entirely aware that she’s at the beginning of something great but that she has a lot to learn. If only, Tarantino is saying, she had been allowed to.
Damon Herriman is an uncommonly versatile actor with an intriguing, enviable and unique career. In Australia, he’s a star character actor – itself a rare position – and in the United States he’s cornered a strange market, of misfits and malcontents of sometimes limited intelligence and potential danger (he’s playing Manson in Tarantino’s upcoming film). He has a laser-like ability to hone in on any of his characters’ exact level of intelligence and worldliness, so that, for example, his character in Perpetual Grace Ltd, Paul, is smarter than Dewey, his character on Justified, but not as smart as Kim on Secret City, who’s much smarter than Buddy on Quarry, and so on and so on. The secret sauce is that all of them may be a little bit smarter than they let on, or a lot more dumb than they think they are.
This ability to be so specific is important for Perpetual Grace Ltd, because Paul kicks the whole thing rolling, setting up a drifter (Jimmi Simpson) to help him rob of his parents (Ben Kingsley and Jacki Weaver) of four million bucks. They’re corrupt preachers, and the universe of their operations is New Mexico, but really, it’s Coen Brothers World, even though those filmmakers have nothing to do with this show, except to leave their influence all over it.
Despite wearing that influence on its sleeve, Perpetual Grace Ltd delivers. It’s funny, sharp and funky. Kingsley brings his Sexy Beast, Simpson is a natural at roles like this, and Weaver… well, you can tell there’s something brewing. I’m in. This is fun TV made with seriously good ingredients, such as this sublime, highly intelligent cast; they’re all smart enough to know how to play dumb, and I’m guessing some of their characters are too.
Big Little Lies (Showcase) is back with a vengeance; her name is Celeste, and she’s played by Meryl Streep. Celeste is the mother of Perry, who was killed, pack-style, by the “Monterey Five” at the end of Season One; now she prowls amongst them, sniffing them out and deploying every weapon in the passive aggressive arsenal to throw them off-balance. Under Andrea Arnold’s direction, this season seems to have veered deeper into black comedy (away from issue-based mystery), and that’s working just fine for me. Let the bloodletting begin.
Season Five of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (Netflix) is an unprecedented disappointment. There are three episodes, in increasing degrees of quality, from the first, which I felt was unwatchably badly scripted and directed, to Ep 3, which is quite fun and at least competently made. Ep 2 suffers from a truly overblown performance from Andrew Scott, who is having a moment as the Hot Priest on Fleabag; he’s a notorious overactor, and that’s certainly the case here. For the first time the series seems to be behind the technological eight-ball; Brooker’s deal with Netflix should allow him the time to relax, reflect, and re-group. He’s much better than this season would suggest.
Nothing will stop the musical theatre darlings from devouring this eight-part examination of the grand, extremely complicated love affair and working relationship between choreographer / director Bob Fosse and choreographer / dancer / actor Gwen Verdon, but the rest of the population might find their relentless self-absorption wearing to say the least. As portrayed here, Fosse and Verdon come off as deeply unlikeable and terrible parents; amidst the drug-taking and drinking, the fights, the affairs, the negligence and the endless passive aggression, one scene sums it up: the two of them talking throughout their daughter’s school ballet recital, simultaneously ignoring their child and blithely displaying disregard for the other parents and students. It is Fosse/Verdon’s “wire coathanger” scene, and the whole thing sits just on the tasteful side of Mommy Dearest, but with a lot more craft, if not much more heart.
Michelle Williams is outstanding as Verdon; Sam Rockwell perhaps less so as Fosse. Or perhaps it’s the character; I found (this version of) Fosse so repugnant, perhaps I blame the actor unfairly. Of course, by the end of the series, during an episode depicting Fosse directing his film All That Jazz, we’re watching an actor playing Fosse directing an actor playing an actor playing Fosse, so where reality ends and art begins is pretty much up for grabs.
I was recently wondering how Michael Apted was doing. Specifically, I wondered if he was still capable of continuing the 7 Up documentary film series, or whether that had been quietly put to rest. For that matter, had Apted been put to rest, and had I simply missed his passing amidst the 21st Century Noise?
Turns out, Apted is alive and well – he’s 78 – and we have the latest instalment of his revolutionary series: 63 Up. On SBS in Australia it’s divided into three parts, and the first part caught up with four of the original series’ fourteen participants.
I thought I’d feel disconnected to these people. Out of the loop. I was wrong. Seeing them again brings back an immediate rush of memory, and perhaps nostalgia. It’s astonishing that this series started in 1964, and here they are, at 63, and we really are seeing how things panned out.
Apted’s thesis “Give me the child at 7 and I’ll show you the man!” has certainly panned out, at least looking at these four. They are all unmistakably close versions of their 7 year old selves, physically and temperamentally. My own theory – “people don’t change” – is kind of based on Apted’s, and whether or not it’s a good thing, I feel it’s now been proven.
Of course, Apted knows how to tell these stories, and in what order to tell them – Tony comes first! – so I’m sure there are some – potentially sad – twists and turns to come. But so far – one revelation notwithstanding – the news is good. All four of episode one’s subjects have partners and kids and seem okay financially. Indeed, Apted’s biggest theme – Class – provides the biggest happy revelation: even those from the “working class” seem to have at least made it to the middle.
More to come, and I can’t wait. A milestone show.
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.
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.
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.