The Offer, The Innocents, We Own This City

THE OFFER (Paramount +)

When I heard about The Offer I couldn’t believe it: had someone made a TV show just for me? Of course, I’m not the only one obsessed with The Godfather, and not the only one who’s read many, many books and articles about its making. But the idea that someone would produce an entire TV show about the production of your favourite movie… well, wow.

Trouble is, the script feels directly lifted from those books and articles, giving rise to that dreaded ‘illustrated wikipedia entry’ feeling. But it’s fun to see spiritual heroes like Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Evans come to life (Dan Fogler and Matthew Goode, respectively) and the story itself, for those who haven’t obsessively read about it, is a good one. The show errs on spoon-feeding the mechanics of movie-making, but thats its nature and its flaw: it tries to serve the novice and the nerd.

THE INNOCENTS (Cinemas)

* * *

Likewise, The Innocents, a Norwegian supernatural creeper about kids gradually becoming aware of their telekinetic powers, may scare the bejesus out of you, and I may have been less affected purely by having been exposed to so much of this kind of stuff before. Certainly to get performances like this from a cast this young is no small achievement. There are some pacing problems, and the autism of one of the main characters feels, unfortunately, exploitative at worst and misguided at best. But it’s strong on tone and vibe and features some genuinely creepy moments.

WE OWN THIS CITY (HBO / Foxtel)

David Simon and George Pelecanos, who created The Wire, return with a spiritual sequel, the real-life tale of police corruption, brutality and criminality in Baltimore in the 2000s. Featuring some returning cast members from The Wire (in different roles), and many more of those astonishingly authentic performances that made that show feel almost like a documentary, We Own This City is typically gritty, robust and never less than totally engaging. Exceptional.

Aline, Flee, KIMI, Severance

Aline.

ALINE

Cinemas Now

* * *

Valérie Lemercier’s wackadoodle ‘unauthorised’ biopic of Céline Dion stars the 57-year old auteur as a version of the Canadian superstar singer at about five years old, twelve, as a teenager, in her twenties and so forth. Bizarre in conception and often bonkers in execution, it’s also truly compelling, partly as train wreck and partly as an honest-to-goodness offbeat oddity.

FLEE

Cinemas Now

* * * *

Nominated, unprecedented, for Best Animated Feature Film, Best International Film and Best Documentary Feature at the upcoming Academy Awards, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s astonishingly creative telling of his friend’s refugee story – coming from Afghanistan to Copenhagen via Moscow and elsewhere – is beautiful, heartbreaking and eye-opening. This is the nuts and bolts of European human trafficking, finding the universal in the personal, and reminding you how lucky you have it.

KIMI

Now on Foxtel

* * *

Steven Soderbergh’s latest thriller is clean, efficient, timely and resonant until it becomes something… less. The prolific auteur is in full neo-Roger Corman mode here, riffing on our fears but delivering, in this instance, an elevated B-Movie, clearly intended, and enjoyable, as such.

SEVERANCE

Series on Apple+

Ben Stiller’s creepy, darkly funny workplace satire is artfully framed, spookily scored, and acted with deadpan wit by, among others, Adam Scott, Britt Lower, John Turturro, Patricia Arquette, Zach Cherry and Christopher Walken. The central conceit – that at a large tech corporation, certain employees working on sensitive material have a procedure ‘severing’ their work memories from those of their out-of-work lives – is intriguing and well thought-through, but it’s only the jumping-off point for an honestly compelling series of mysteries and corporate-conspiracy shenanigans. The production design is terrific.

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. * * * *

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

American Utopia

Still the nerdiest and the coolest.

Opening In Australian Cinemas 26 November.

* * * * 1/2

It is a truth somewhat universally acknowledged that Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads concert film, is the coolest movie ever made. It’s just perfect: energetic, joyous, polished yet spontaneous, cerebral yet earthily sweaty. It makes you think and dance, and David Byrne is just the nerdiest and the coolest.

He still is, and now Spike Lee documents him in concert again (with a different, purpose-built band) in a Broadway theatre. All the above adjectives still describe the new show, and once again, Byrne demonstrates his profound ability to turn a theatre full of strangers into a community. He creates a secular church, with his greatest hits as gospel, and his parishioners raise their arms. You will too. This is an hour and forty-five minutes of joyous energy. Created, performed and filmed before the US election, there’s a strong political edge, particularly urging the audience to vote. Now that they have, we can relax a little, and enjoy the music.

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.
Saint Frances.png
 
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.

Bad Education, The Clinton Affair, Trial By Media

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I’ve never enjoyed a Hugh Jackman performance like the one he gives in Bad Education (HBO, on Foxtel in Australia). As Frank Tassone, the real-life New Jersey school superintendent whose left-of-legal shenanigans start to be revealed by a dogged junior reporter for the high school newspaper, he is oily and charming, monstrous and delicately tender. It’s a tricky, challenging role in a movie that could have played as an issue of the week; instead, both performance and film are hugely entertaining.

Tassone is not quite a Richard III, or even a Richard Nixon, of the schoolyard; his villainy isn’t as well constructed, nor his delight in it so palpable. But like those two Dicks, his downfall is our delight, and watching him eloquently sweat as the noose tightens is ever more gratifying.

There’s an excellent deep bench around him, including Alison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan, Stephen Spinella and Alex Wolff. Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) directs with a deft, light touch; I laughed a lot, and was sad for it to end. The Oscars have announced that streaming films will be awards-eligible; Hugh could get nominated here, deservedly. Great fun. * * * *

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The Clinton Affair, a six-part documentary series beginning Sunday the 24th of May at 8:30pm on SBS in Australia, examines the investigation into and impeachment of US President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. It is comprehensive, revealing and riveting, and, watched in our current era, operates on multiple levels.

As a portrait of the Clintons it is compulsive. They’re amazing characters, supremely intelligent and capable, but – in Bill’s case, anyway, – flawed, and what a flaw! The Monica Lewinsky incident stands as an historically stupid act, and in the era of #metoo, reminds us that ‘great men’ are always brought down by sheer, idiotic carnality.

As a document of the intense and relentless dirty tricks utilised by the Republican Party since the Clintons came to power, the series places the current US tribalism in a very clear context. Up until the Clintons, the series suggests, Republicans and Democrats had drinks together after a workday in Congress. Then came Newt Gingrich, and set the country on a highway to partisan hell.

Finally, seen today, the series is simultaneously a slice of nostalgia and a hard-hitting exposé of GOP hypocrisy. The party that tried to impeach the President for a sexual encounter supports Trump, who will outshine Clinton in corruption and deviancy on any given Wednesday. The attack on the Clintons was disgraceful, but also seems, viewed from today, as almost quaint: monstrosity in a less monstrous time.

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On Netflix, Trial By Media is a six-part, one-hour-per-episode documentary series examining six American courtroom cases, stretching back to 1984, where the media coverage of the trial became so omnipresent that it must be asked whether it influenced the outcome. Executive Produced by a heavily experienced team including Jeffrey Toobin, Steven Brill, George Clooney and Grant Heslov, it’s compulsive viewing, featuring reams of archival footage, interviews with copious associated participants (including, often, the lawyers on either side of a case) and a ton of research. Catnip for media, courtroom and doco lovers alike.

 

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.