STAN: Catch-22, The Bisexual, Pen15

 

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.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem

* * * *

I knew nothing about The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, nor anything about its director, Muayad Alayan, before watching it, and half an hour in I grew a little nervous that gaps in my knowledge of the more intricate details of life in Jerusalem (and Bethlehem) were obstructing my ability to enjoy the film to its fullest. However, the filmmaking was solid, the acting convincing, the script intriguing and the milieu deeply compelling, so I told myself what I tell my students all the time – “trust the filmmaker” – and just let myself go. I had a tremendously rewarding experience.

That’s the thing about good cinema and good filmmakers. They can challenge you with worlds outside your own, and if their hand is sure, guide you through safely. Alayan is Palestinian (rather than Israeli), and had I known that, it may have coloured my expectations of his sympathies. It turns out that his worldview is broader than I may have allowed for.

Saleem and Sarah are on opposite ends of a divide, between East and West Jerusalem, Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Arab, well off and struggling. Yet they have an extramarital affair, and the domino effect of repercussions it has are complicated, seriously dangerous, and staggeringly rich as drama.

This substantial film (two hours and seven minutes) has the heft and moral complexity of a smart novel. It shifts its point of view, moving from character to character, and, each time, examines human nature under the burden of existing beliefs and prejudices. It is told realistically, in shooting style (handheld camera, very little music) and performance, and every detail rings authentic and possible. I learned a lot more about life in Jerusalem today; I also had a seriously good cinema experience. Highly recommended.

The Realm (El Reino)

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* * * 1/2

Playing a little like the last act of Goodfellas without the cocaine or the pasta, Spanish thriller The Realm is relentlessly propulsive. Manuel (Antonio de la Torre), a high ranking career politician, is about to get a big bump up the political career ladder, but the web of schemes he and basically every politician in the country has been involved in threatens to splinter, ruining everything. He’s on the run, trying to keep ahead of the story, the evidence, his allies, his enemies, everything and everyone, by car, train, foot. There’s no voiceover a la Ray Liotta, but you get the sweat.

The film’s glossy sheen is seductive, as is Manuel, who gives out an air of superficial goodness even as we know he’s part of the problem. He’s a family man, a decent man – right? Except he’s so not. It’s part of the film’s ingenuity that we’re able to simultaneously root for him and revel in his downfall. Slot in Michael Cohen from his congressional hearings; the fit is weirdly perfect.

The film’s final act is superb: very tense, very cynical and very very angry. Writer / co-director Rodrigo Sorogoyen ultimately pulls no punches; the final scene screams what we all want to at our corrupt politicians. It’s satisfying stuff, and truly on the dirty money for these deeply corrupt times.

Eurovision 2019: My Picks!

It’s a great year – again – at Eurovision. Here are my pick of the songs in order of my personal preference; I’ve added a note or two about their chances and so on. Enjoy! Vote for Kate!

Kate Miller-Heidke – Zero Gravity – Australia

Regional bias? Sure. But this song gives me the feels every time, and Kate rocks.

KEiiNO – Spirit In The Sky – Norway

I love this. Pop perfection. And, I would suggest, a chance of winning. Supposedly the rehearsals for the contest show that they’ve played down the camp and taken up the “classy” vibe a notch.

Hatari – Hatrið mun sigra – Iceland

These freaks are going to win, and good on them. Integrity, craftsmanship, balls.

PÆNDA – Limits – Austria

No chance of winning but lovely. And what a great, simple, video clip.

S!sters – Sister – Germany

Catchy and clean. BTW they’re not real sisters. I don’t care. Not a very dynamic staging so far though; they need something better for the big show.

Katerine Duska – Better Love – Greece

What a voice! I can’t wait to see her do this live.

Tulia – Fire of Love (Pali się) – Poland

This is my bonkers pick o’ the year that I truly love. About one chance in a million of winning; they might not even make it to the finals – but talk about integrity! Great.

New Netflix Comedy: DEAD TO ME and TUCA AND BERTIE

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.

Long Shot

* *

What a tragic disappointment. After a promising opening ten minutes featuring gags that, if not truly edgy, at least carry a little bite, the superficially progressive RomCom Long Shot proceeds inexorably towards complete mainstream commercial formulaic filmmaking. The first hint that things aren’t going to stay cool is the score, which blandly announces itself as cosy and familiar as your grandmother’s lap blanket; it’s awful. Next come the interior logic and character consistency casualties, indicative of a sloppy script and a slack edit or, worse, studio notes. Finally, the tropes, the tropes, the boring, predictable, endlessly clichéd tropes. It’s all the worse for watching the enormously gifted Charlize Theron, as the US secretary of state who falls for her speechwriting “gag man” (Seth Rogen), having to play these shopworn scenarios, while being shot like a fancy perfume bottle. For a film that begins with a couple of quick jabs that seem to establish the semblance of feminist credentials, it quickly succumbs to being its own idealogical enemy. The whole thing’s slide from hipness to commercial blandness is reflective of its director, Jonathan Levine’s, career, from indie-cred The Wackness (2008) and critical darling 50/50 (2011) through the dreadful Snatched (2017) and now this. What a shame.

Acute Misfortune

* * * 1/2

Rich, strange, smart and darkly off-centre – like its subject – Acute Misfortune is based on Erik Jensen’s book about the two or so years he spent researching Blue Mountains painter Adam Cullen for a proposed biography (the proposal coming from Cullen himself). Mostly but not entirely confined to Cullen’s spare, modest mountain house, and to the two main characters, the film examines Cullen’s troubled psyche with the detached observational eye the famously confrontational painter may have shown his subjects. Like a painter, director and co-writer (with Jensen himself) Thomas M. Wright produces a portrait that is somewhat oblique and extremely evocative; like Cullen himself, it is a portrait that brings out the subject’s darkest tones while not afraid of some bold, risk-taking strokes.

Daniel Henshall is magnetic and imposing as Cullen. Since he grabbed us all by the throat and forced us to reckon with his powerful talent as killer John Bunting in Snowtown (2011), Henshall has been in a lot of television, including having a major role in the long-running US series Turn, which is essentially unwatched in Australia. He deserves, and demands, the big screen, and it is thrilling to see him once more in such a dominant – indeed domineering – role. Indeed, it’s very, very much a role in kin with his Bunting; both were disturbed men who decided to aggressively, abusively “mentor” much younger men as some sort of outlet for their demons/diseases.

The reverberations with Snowtown are indicative of a film that is full of references, oblique and sometimes glaringly clear. Max Cullen plays his own cousin, Adam’s father Kevin Cullen; late in the film, Cullen asks Jensen a question that seems to be a direct quote from Snowtown. Since Cullen/Henshall is shown admiringly watching David Wenham in The Boys (1998) and seemingly basing his style of intimidatory rhetoric on Wenham’s character Brett Sprague, it’s entirely possible that filmmaker Wright is suggesting that Cullen also was a fan of Snowtown, and Henshall’s performance in it, ultimately meaning that Henshall is, to at least a degree, playing a character imitating his own performance as another character in another film.

If that’s too clever, or meta, for you, it’s totally in line with the philosophy of painters, who all “steal” from each other, reference each other, copy each other, honour each other and indeed simply paint in each other’s styles, all the time. As Cullen’s portraits captured their subjects with reference to his own dark drama, so too does Wright’s film ensnare a version of Cullen, while also obsessively presenting itself as its own artwork, endlessly reflecting and refracting the art of others.

New Comedy On The Box

There’s no denying Chris Lilley’s “commitment to the bit”, nor his abilities around mimicry, impersonation, vocal dynamics, physical comedy and all the other technical performance skills that go into his brand of long-form / ongoing character comedy. At his best his portrayals are uncanny. That said, I’m two episodes into his new show Lunatics (Netflix) and yet to laugh. There’s technique on display, but very shallow content.

Lilley’s new show showcases six characters; only two of them are engaging (for me), meaning there are already long stretches of desert content. He seems to dislike his female characters, and flat-out hate an unfortunate income-and-intellect-deprived hefty teenage boy (read: fat bogan idiot); they are treated with disdain, and by association, so are the social, cultural and national types they are emblematic of (such as a female South African ‘psychic to the stars’).

Lilley’s comedy was once cutting-edge; whether or not it’s now considered offensive (he no longer trades in blackface, but comes close), it can hardly be called relevant. Some of it is long in the tooth, some strikingly observed, some mean. The overwhelming comic attribute of this suite of characters is that they’re dumb; one of them, Joyce, seems to be seriously mentally ill, and nothing about her is funny. It’s a dispiriting package overall.

Luckily, Netflix has also dropped another, better sketch show, I Think You Should Leave, by Tim Robinson. These six 16-minute episodes are wild, unpredictable and often laugh-out-loud funny. Like Lilley, Robinson, aided by occasionally famous guest stars and respected alternative comedy regulars, skewers types and tribes of people; unlike the characters of Lunatics, they’re types and tribes of the here and now, that we can recognise.

Entering its seventh and final season, Veep (Foxtel) is making a play for the greatest half-hour comedy of all time. In this, series creator Armando Iannucci will be challenging his own brilliant British show, The Thick of It, for the title. They’re thematic cousins: the first eviscerated the British political system, while Veep rips a new one for the Americans. Both portray politicians as venal, greedy, foul-mouthed and generally incompetent, and both are funny as hell. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in Veep’s lead Selina Meyer, has created one of the greatest of all television characters, becoming a six-time Emmy winner for the role (that would be the last six Emmys, and she’ll almost certainly win one more time for this season).

The challenge for this season, of course, is that Trump has made US politics stupider and more corrupt than anything Veep has come up with. In response, Selina (and Jonah, played by Timothy Simons) have become even more craven, and that’s fine. This show was never going to get nicer; if it had, it would have been a betrayal. The trademark rapid-fire dialogue has gotten even faster, as though the writers are challenging themselves to produce a show that demands to be watched again the moment the episode is over so as to catch all the jokes. They’ve succeeded. Veep remains a brilliant piece of satirical art, and the funniest show on all of television.

The Hummingbird Project

* *

When your protagonist is motivated by greed, it’s hard to care about them; those days – of Gordon Gecko proclaiming “Greed is good!” – are gone. Sometimes, we’ll buy into greedy protagonists if there is humour and truth: The Big Short (2015) was excellent, but a lot of the enjoyment of that film was in knowing that it was, essentially, a true story. That film was adapted from Michael Lewis’ book, and Lewis knows how to make economic bandits seem interesting. His 2014 book Flash Boys even managed to make the arcane practice of front-running investor orders during high frequency trading by utilising ultra-low latency direct market access somewhat intriguing. But The Hummingbird Project, a completely fictional story about such traders (and seemingly using Lewis’ book not as source material but as material to rip off), lacking humour and truth, is just about greedy people, and we simply don’t care whether their cable makes their money travel faster or not.

Alexander Skarsgård manages, at least, to somehow deliver an interesting performance as a stereotypically odd, socially stunted savant coder. Not so Salma Hayek, left screeching and floundering in a role that, since it’s been written as a woman, by a man, seems pretty misogynistic. If this had been a film based on real people – which it kind of feels like it’s pretending to be – then Hayek’s shrill, vindictive Boss Lady would have had to be a woman. Here, in a fiction, the fact that the film’s least likeable character – by far – is its only major female one smells really bad. It’s a nasty role played ludicrously, but, really, could Hayek have played it well?

The film actually gets worse as it goes on, with a sickeningly misjudged development for the third act designed to jolt us into empathy for the lead Greed, played by Jesse Eisenberg with typical insouciance. It doesn’t work in the slightest, being the cheapest kind of screenwriting trick; instead it makes the film’s long final act one of the most punishing I’ve sat through in a while. By the end, I was truly rooting for these guys to fail spectacularly, like the movie they’re in.

Woman At War

* * * 1/2

Most movies feature a protagonist facing obstacles and challenges; any good movie shows their protagonist having to make tough choices to deal with them. But rare is the movie that routinely shows a protagonist making mistakes, miscalculations, errors both of judgement and simple dexterity. Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War is such a movie, which is part of the reason it feels so bracingly original.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir plays Halla, a middle-edged Reykjavík single woman leading a double life as a friendly and maternal choir director and a somewhat fierce, solitary, edge-pushing activist. Her current guerrilla campaign against huge foreign interests taking control of Iceland’s energy production is jeopardised both by the forces against her and by a truly superb dramatic twist: the theoretical child she applied to adopt four years ago, and has forgotten about, has become a reality. In Ukraine there is a four year old girl that needs a mother; at home her natural environment – the majestic and magisterial landscapes of Iceland – need her radical efforts, which could easily see her imprisoned, and thus unable to become a mother.

It’s a superb conceit, supported by strong visuals (Scandiphiles will love the many sweeping environmental shots), terrific performances (Geirharðsdóttir does superb work, including playing Halla’s sister) and a script that marries a lot of humour to what, on paper, looks like a thriller. Best of all is the film’s moral and ethical complexity: Halla rides the edge of strident activism and dangerous extremism, and our support of her choices is never taken for granted, let alone assured.