Diana’s Wedding, The Chair, Impeachment

At select cinemas across Australia from 23 September, Diana’s Wedding, a decades-spanning tale of the marriage of two spiky Norwegians who get hitched the same day as Princess Diana,is warm, charming, observant, honest, with absolutely winning performances from the two leads. It’s the best Norwegian film I’ve seen in a few years. Delightful and absolutely worth your time. * * * 1/2

Kingsley Amis and Vladimir Nabokov, among others, wrote comedies of academic life, and the central conflict often involved a culture clash between ageing professors and the youthful progressive students. So it is with The Chair, a new Netflix half-hour comedy starring Sandra Oh as the newly-minted chair of an American University’s English department. Her professors are stuck in their ways; she’s stuck in the middle. It’s not the most biting satire and the more invested you are in woke politics the less authentic it will feel; instead, it’s light, charming, and very easily swallowed. You won’t be fighting over the dinner table about issues it raises so much as singing the praises of the older character actors populating the stuffy department, particularly Holland Taylor as a feisty boozy flirt. A central (romantic) entanglement between Oh’s character and one of her male professors is far less interesting than watching the shenanigans of the older thesps.

American Crime Story: Impeachment on Foxtel, the latest Ryan Murphy extravaganza, sees his muse Sarah Paulson playing Linda Tripp, the ex-White House Counsel secretary who nudged Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) into the world’s brightest spotlight. So far (one ep in) it’s typically Murphyesque: overblown and melodramatic yet compulsive storytelling. And it is the story itself that’s compelling, along with Paulson’s sharp, specific performance. Clive Owen’s Bill Clinton is in it for about a second and a half; this is Tripp and Lewinsky’s story.

Tina and Aalto

Untroubled by any scandals of her own making – she’s never been a boozer, a drug addict, or involved in any fraud, deception or even artistic complacency – Tina Turner is one of those great artists who can be celebrated unconditionally. A loving, comprehensive documentary such as Tina, an HBO feature documentary now airing on Foxtel in Australia, cannot be accused of hagiography, because it is a truth universally acknowledged that Turner is, indeed, universally beloved, admired and respected.

Not that she doesn’t have a story. Her story is well told, in her book I, Tina (1986) and the feature film What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993); it’s a story of pain and trauma, most prominently around her 16 year relationship with Ike Turner, who physically abused her. That stuff necessarily gets covered (again) in the first half of Tina, but as Turner escapes Ike, the film, like her life and career, takes off, with a huge sense of release, into the stratosphere. It’s thrilling stuff and an absolutely worthy testament to a truly deserving – indeed, iconic – artist. Turner herself, at 80, is interviewed throughout, and there’s no better teller of her story than she. * * * *

No less influential, if somewhat less dynamic, Finnish modernist architect Alvar Aalto also gets a definitive and highly entertaining documentary of his own in Aalto, now screening in Australian cinemas. He’s dead so doesn’t get to tell his story, but filmmaker Virpi Suutari uses a smorgasbord of architects and academics to tell it instead, using only their voices over ravishing images of Aalto’s buildings (often covered in snow) and furniture, along with spectacularly intriguing other imagery that metaphorically addresses the kind of work Aalto did. Suutari manages to present someone whose work was groundbreaking in a groundbreaking way, an essentially modernist way; his form follows Aalto’s, even into a different medium, and it works, very, very well. This is how you make a film about an architect, perhaps the best I’ve seen. The influence and importance of Aalto’s wife Aino is foregrounded, and their love affair forms the film’s emotional spine. The result is hugely informative and beautiful from first minute to last, with a gorgeous original score to boot. * * * *

I May Destroy You

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Michaela Coel came roaring out of the gate with her show Chewing Gum a few years back, but that show had nothing like the impact of I May Destroy You (HBO), which is almost revolutionary television. Using the 12 episode half hour format, it uses an ensemble of (mainly) Black millennial Londoners to ruthlessly examine sexual assault and the parameters of consent. It’s also, essentially, a comedy.

I wonder what Norman Lear, who famously pushed sitcom boundaries with his shows like All In The Family, would make of it. Well, I know. He’d love it. Humour is a powerful weapon, and Coel absolutely weaponises it here, slashing it like a blade against her gallery of rapists, predators and slime-balls.

Coel plays Arabella, a tweeter turned blogger turned actual about-to-be-published author, who goes for a big night out in London, wakes up with blackouts, and realises she was probably assaulted. Meanwhile, her posse of friends encounter similar issues. That conceit may sound a little engineered, but Coel isn’t messing around. She’s got an axe to grind and her plot mechanics are in service to that. It works. This is confident, compelling stuff, and if some of the plot developments seem contrived, perhaps contrivance is the key. She’s got an issue – and issues with the issue – and we’re here to hash it out. This is a conversation-starter, and it’s a big conversation.

Not that it’s a one-issue show. Over the course of the season, Coel piles on the concerns; two-thirds of the way through, Arabella takes a heel turn, quite shockingly, as she becomes, embraces being, and is made awful by becoming and being a social-media star. All these characters live their lives on their phones, but there seems to be a line, and Arabella crosses it, at least for an episode. Others of the close ensemble deal with sex addiction, urban loneliness and, ultimately, all manner of issues surrounding consent.

Coel also posits some provocative ideas around race, identity and politics that were new, and fascinating, to me. For instance: that among at least a significant segment of young / millennial Black Britons of African descent, climate change is not seen as a given but as a tool of oppression wielded by white people. Arabella buys into this argument and acts on it, perhaps implying that Coel, too, is similarly inclined. Less revelatory to me, but intriguing none the less, was the clear implication, told over a three-episode arc, that among young Black women, loyalty is to Blackness first, womanhood second, or, to put it another way, a Black man is to be believed over a white woman. Thoughtful stuff for people like me, and for anyone.

It’s the TV event of the year, no doubt. It’s angry, vibrant, exhilarating, surprising and funny. It’s not “perfect” – one of the supporting players, whose character is in three episodes, gives a performance so out-of-sync with the rest of the show that it should have been cut, and a late development in the arc of Arabella’s best friend Terry is just too contrived, but the production’s rough edges suit its definite edge, and also, in the end, its narrative raison d’être. It’s a story coming to Arabella and Coel, not easily, but with righteous passion and undeniable integrity, in blood, sweat and tears.

Showbiz Kids and Saint Frances

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SHOWBIZ KIDS
HBO / Foxtel Showcase
* * * 1/2
 
Written and directed by Alex Winter – Bill from Bill and Ted’s excellent adventures, of which another is coming very soon – the HBO documentary Showbiz Kids lets level-headed survivors of child stardom speak with level heads, rather than revel in sordid and sad tragics and their tragedies.
 
Evan Rachel Wood, Milla Jovovich, Henry Thomas, Wil Wheaton, Mara Wilson and Cameron Boyce all get about equal screen time, while Todd Bridges, Jada Pinkett Smith and ‘Baby Peggy’ – hundred-year-old Diana Serra Cary – also speak their pieces.
 
It’s sober and sobering and not at all trashy. Essentially these adults aren’t moaning, seeking pity nor trying to scare us to death lest we let our kids go on the stage, but their overwhelming message is clear: kids should get to be kids.
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SAINT FRANCES
STAN
* * * 1/2

When Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg declared their Dogme 95 Manifesto in Paris at the centenary celebration of cinema, they were advocating for a digital democratisation of the filmmaking process: basically, they were saying, let’s let handheld digital movies about real people in real settings with tiny budgets and no tomfoolery get cinema releases and paying audiences. I think they’d admire Saint Frances, which adheres to most of the original 10 Rules to achieve Dogme certification, but which won’t be seen in cinemas in Australia because of the big bad virus; instead, it’s lurking quietly on STAN, where it deserves far more attention than it’s getting.
 
The feature directorial debut from Alex Thompson, surprisingly a man, Saint Frances is a compassionate, funny, warm and super-enjoyable slice-of-life about modern American female life. Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan, who also wrote the script) is a thirty-four year old midwestern “server” – waitress – who becomes a nanny for the six-year-old daughter of a lesbian couple. Her relationship with the child, Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), grows alongside her consistent embarrassment as she deals with a particular physical irritation. The interweaving of themes of maternity, responsibility, maturity and sexuality is seamless and engrossing. But the film goes further, tackling – with rather exquisite tact and taste – the ongoing culture wars dividing even seemingly affluent, progressive American neighbourhoods in such theoretically neutral spaces as the playground. Unafraid to stand its ground, Saint Frances is also unafraid to engage the enemy with empathy. It’s a lovely movie, and lingers in the mind.

The Assistant

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* * * * 1/2

Kitty Green’s debut fiction feature, The Assistant, is remarkably assured, bold and precise. With a preternaturally firm grasp of tone and style, backed up by immaculate – if low-key – craftsmanship, Green takes on one of the massive stories of our recent history – the systemic abuse of women by patriarchal systems as exemplified specifically by the actions of Harvey Weinstein – and turns them into ninety minutes of crystal drama, informing, enlightening and horrifying us.

Julia Garner plays a young woman who has been one of Weinstein’s personal assistants for about two months. (The Weinstein character is never named, nor is his face shown, but there is no doubt whatsoever who the character is meant to be). She’s in the inner sanctum, at a desk immediately outside his office, in a reception room with two other – male – assistants. In another part of the building, executives and other employees labour away at distribution, finance and artistic elements of his business (clearly The Weinstein Company) while more employees – including Human Resources – occupy a building next door. Los Angeles and London offices of the company are ingeniously represented by thick folders handed to a new employee.

The action takes place over a single – long – Monday, rarely leaving the offices, and part of the thematic genius of the script is that it’s, in many ways, ‘just another day’, with all the minor and major abuses – of trust and power, emotions and sex – that a single day in the life of Weinstein could involve. It’s gut-wrenching and evocative and atmospherically rich; at times the vibe is of a horror movie, the monster lurking just metres from the protagonist, separated by one door and a lifetime of acquired privilege.

All the excellent actors are on the same completely naturalistic page; the spare (and often incidental) dialogue is perfect in its concise precision; and the production design oozes authenticity, to the point that I suspect it reflects the actual Weinstein Company offices as leaked by an ex-employee. It all adds up to a stunning package, which also, more than any film I’ve seen in at least eighteen months, has something truly serious to say, and says it with breathtaking audacity. Brilliant.

Now available to rent via Foxtel On Demand. Available to Rent On Demand from 10 June on platforms including Google Play, iTunes, Fetch TV, Telstra Bigpond, Sony (Playstation Network), Microsoft & Quickflix.

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind

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Not everyone gets to make a home movie for HBO, and even Natalie Wood’s daughter Natasha may have faced a “Thanks, but no thanks” suggesting a personal hagiography of her (deserving, there is no doubt) mother. But when you can bring your stepdaddy Robert Wagner to the table, promising an intimate interview including going over the events of ‘that night’ – that Natalie drowned – in excruciating, minute-by-minute detail, well, you’ve got yourself a green light.

The result, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, is filmmaking at its most personal, and its most agenda-driven. In a nutshell, Natasha Gregson Wagner’s intention with the film is to exonerate her “Daddy Wagner” – as she calls him throughout the film – from the lingering whispers, mainly propagated by Natalie’s sister Lana, that he was directly, even murderously, responsible for her death. She makes a strong case, basically because Wagner, now 90, comes off as such a teddy bear, and one who clearly legitimately loved his deceased wife.

I rather loved this film, even as I saw through it. You could remove all the stuff with Daddy Wagner and have a lovely hour-long ode to Natalie’s life as mother and actress. But then, without daddy, I doubt there would have been a movie at all.

Now screening on Foxtel in Australia.

Devs TV Review

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Alex Garland is one of, if not the, definitive cinematic sci-fi auteurs of the modern era. He wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Dredd (a surprisingly good Judge Dredd movie that was unfairly overlooked in 2012) and wrote and directed Ex Machina and Annihilation, both of which are awesome and widely acknowledged as such.

Now, he’s turned auteur TV creator, following in the footsteps of Paulo Sorrentino (The Young Pope and The New Pope) by writing and directing every single episode (which will be eight in total, at least for Season One) of his TV show Devs. It’s a big commitment, but results in one-of-a-kind TV.

If you’re into sci-fi, and into Garland (and the latter kind of follows the former naturally), you’ll be into Devs. Garland borrows his visual aesthetic from Annihilation – overly vibrant, almost ‘technicolor-throwback’ colours, a forest setting housing a near-future set of gizmos – and applies it to the story of a Big Tech company, based just outside of San Francisco, which is developing something Very Big Indeed. To motor the plot, there’s a murder mystery, or at least a version of one: we see the murder committed in the first episode, but the meaning of the murder is the mystery.

Everything’s pretty great – including Nick Offerman as our Jack Dorsey / Elon Musk stand-in – with the exception of the lead performance of Sonoya Mizano, a model and dancer (she was the double of Natalie Portman in Annihilation), whose inexperience shows. It doesn’t derail the ship, however, and, frankly, by the end of ep two, I’d adjusted for it and moved on. This is a big, bold, seemingly uncompromised vision. Go in.

Hunters (Amazon) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)

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Even though he may have aged out of being a massive box office drawer, Al Pacino is still a Big Deal Movie Star, and thus his first TV series is a Big Deal. Shame then, that – based on the movie-length pilot, and I won’t be watching any more episodes – Hunters (Amazon) is such an agonisingly bad choice for his streaming debut. Garish, sadistic and desperate to please, it is also deeply offensive, so much so I’m staggered it was green lit, made and is now being screened.

The premise is that in late 1970s New York, there is a ragtag team of Nazi hunters, led by Pacino’s Meyer Offerman, a concentration camp survivor, hunting Nazis in America. Indoctrinating a young fella whose survivor-grandmother has been coldly murdered by one of these rogue Nazis, Offerman and co also face a potential new Nazi movement in the US – a Fourth Reich.

Nazi hunting is certainly not unprecedented as dramatic fodder; The Boys from Brazil (1978) was always playing on Sunday night TV when I was a kid. That film was nominated for three Oscars and is considered pretty classy. There are plenty of smaller films, such as Remember (2015) and The German Doctor (2013) that try to wrestle with the human side of evil and approach the subject with some form of integrity.

But it is integrity that is wholly absent in Hunters. This is cartoon stuff and brutally insensitive. I knew I was out halfway through the pilot episode when a ‘human chess game’ is depicted at a Nazi concentration camp: a mean Nazi commander plays chess with one of the prisoners, using other prisoners armed with knives as living pieces; when they ‘take’ each other, they slaughter each other. I cannot imagine how I would feel, seeing this sequence, were I a camp survivor. “Your experience,” the show is saying, “wasn’t horrible enough, so we’ve invented this.”

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Meanwhile, on the altogether more classy HBO, Larry David delivers a tenth season of his comedy of manners Curb Your Enthusiasm (on Foxtel in Australia). There’s no reason for him to; after all, just like his character (who is himself), Larry is loaded, beyond any mortal’s wildest dreams (estimates are around the billion dollar mark, from royalties and ongoing sales of Seinfeld, which David co-created). But #metoo has happened to the world since Season Nine, so it stands to reason it should happen to Larry, who, while no predator, ticks every other box for being in the movement’s crosshairs. Watching Real Larry and Fictional Larry duke it out onscreen – where does one stop and the other start? – in this heightened environment gives the season a definite edge it hasn’t had since about Season Three, and makes it worth watching. That, and the fact that, as usual, it’s really funny.

Avenue 5: HBO / Foxtel Showtime (Review)

It is with no pleasure at all to report that Armando Iannucci’s new show for HBO, Avenue 5, is not good (at least, according to the pilot). Iannucci, my favourite living screenwriter and showrunner/creator/producer/director (I’m Alan Partridge (and various other Alan Partridge shows), The Thick Of It, In The Loop, The Death of Stalin, Veep, and the upcoming The Personal History of David Copperfield). Iannucci has brought some of his long-standing writing and producing crew, including Tony Roche, Will Smith, Ian Martin, Georgia Pritchett, Sean Grey and Simon Blackwell along with him to this new venture; together, these are The Beatles of TV comedy, as astonishingly consistently brilliant group. Let’s call them The Iannuccis. But all artists are fallible, and something happened here.

Political satire has been The Iannuccis’ stock in trade, and they’re at their most dextrous when manoeuvring a group of three to seven nincompoops around a farcically inane situation. Here, they’ve substituted recognisable corridors of power – British Parliament, the White House – for those of a luxury starship cruise liner, led by Iannuccis all-star Hugh Laurie as a witless captain (there’s a twist to that which I won’t spoil). When a galactic incident occurs, the starship is propelled into a new trajectory, stranding the passengers and crew together for three years.

It’s hard to define exactly what went wrong, but something really did, because the show fails, landing its gags with a dead thud. The huge cast – rather than tight groups, we’re deliberately dealing with a lot of passengers – weighs the comedy’s mechanics down; the contrived setting jettisons The Iannuccis ability to deploy satire; mainly, though, the characters who form the key ensemble within the starship just aren’t well conceived. This means we’re stuck with them, drastically reducing the chances of the show ‘finding itself’, at least this season.

Too much money, too much carte blanche, too long working together, too complacent in their brilliance, too much on their plate(s)? Impossible to say. What is clear is that the cast – some individually talented – are clearly trying to play in The Iannuccis style; they’ve watched Veep and they’re doing Veep, and with this many of them, it’s all too much, too loud, too unfocused, and unfunny.

Oh well.