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.

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.

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.

The Young Pope and The New Pope

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Beauty is clearly in the eye of the beholder, but there would be a case to be made that The Young Pope is the most beautiful season of television ever made. It was created – and, vitally, every one of its ten episodes was directed – by Paolo Sorrentino, who is recognised worldwide as one of the great visual stylists, whose trademark style is beauty, and whose breakthrough, Oscar-winning film is called The Great Beauty. That film takes place in Rome, widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful cities in the world; The Young Pope is set in the Vatican, which is in Rome, and shot in Venice, which, need I say, is widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Take all this and add an HBO budget – you know, Game of Thrones / Succession level budget – and there’s your case: The Young Pope is possibly the most beautiful season of television ever made.

That’s important, because its beauty helps keep you going when the plot gets you down. It’s not that Paolo can’t tell a linear story efficiently, it’s that he doesn’t care to: if you’ve seen any of his movies you’ll know what I mean, and he brought the same disregard for traditional plotting, and the same emphases instead on visual style, intense wit, multitudinous references, and deep character examination, to The Young Pope.

That was 2016 / 2017. Now, rather than a second season of The Young Pope, he gives us The New Pope, which will make sense once you watch Season One. Should you? Unabashedly yes, if you’re down for what I’ve already put forward and more: astonishing, ravishing beauty (including that of Jude Law, who plays The Young Pope), wit, deep intellectual curiosity, uncanny political relevance (much of The Young Pope predicts Trump’s chaotic reign and the intense turmoil it causes) and extremely deep levels of conflicted, confusing, contradictory characterisation. Just don’t come expecting a simple story cleanly told. That’s not Paolo’s style, nor his Young Pope’s.

The New Pope has been fast-tracked and is now screening on SBS On Demand in tandem with its episode-by-episode release on HBO. All episode of The Young Pope are available.

Watchmen (HBO / Showcase)

Watchmen remains the equivalent of a sacred text among graphic novels. The 1986 tome by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was listed among Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels in English since 1923. It was adapted into an incredibly faithful film by Zack Snyder in 2009. At the time I wrote of that film that it was an “excellent, exciting adaptation which will please fans no end, but probably bewilder those who have not read the source material. Violent, strange, enigmatic and loads of fun.” Some of those sentiments carry over here.

Damon Lindelof’s new HBO series continues the story world of Watchmen by bringing its given circumstances into the present, but not our present. Like the source text, it presents an “alternative history” narrative. In the 2019 of the show, Robert Redford is President (and that is literal: the actor Robert Redford is not playing “the President” in the TV show Watchmen; rather, in the TV show Watchmen, the actor Robert Redford is the President). Police officers’ handguns, at least in the state of Oklahoma, where the first episode is set, are locked into gun-safes within their squad cars and may only be remotely released by an authorised higher-up back at base. Cops wear masks to protect their identities. And, most intriguingly, race now longer seems to be generally consistent within families: black parents have white children, and vice-versa.

There are a few big barriers to entry. The show’s world-building is clearly going to be deliberately parceled out, and those who need to get a quick grip on everything will feel rootless and probably frustrated. If you haven’t read Watchmen or seen the movie, the whole tone, which is intense, highly ironic (and sarcastic) and really pretty provocative, may be discombobulating or off-putting. And this is a show about vigilantes who wear masks and capes, so it is certainly superhero-adjacent.

I’m in for now. Lindelof is a TV genius (The Leftovers is one of my favourite TV shows ever, and Lost certainly was a thing) and the opening of this episode, dramatizing a horrendous moment in US racial history known as the Black Wall Street massacre, is arrestingly bold. The production values are through the roof, the music propulsive, and Jeremy Irons is in a concurrent storyline as a really weird castle dweller. One thing is for sure: there’s no predicting what’s coming next.

Succession Season Two

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Now halfway through its second season, Succession (HBO / Showcase on Foxtel) continues to overwhelm me with its brilliance; I feel that I am watching some of the greatest television ever made, on par with Deadwood, The Wire and Mad Men. The humour is razor-sharp, the satire sharper even than that, while the drama is intense (and at times quite moving, quite the achievement for a show about privileged brats) and the plotting unbelievably engaging. This show rocks.

This season seems to be slicing even closer to the actual shenanigans of the Murdoch family, while also creating strong facsimiles of Vice and Gawker, Fox News (including a female version of Roger Ailes), Bernie Sanders and the Sulzberger (New York Times) and Bancroft (ex-Wall Street Journal) media dynasties. The directorial craft is exceptional (there are multiple directors), the acting incredible (and never more so than from the three “kids”, played by Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin and Australia’s own Sarah Snook) and the design impeccable. But it’s the writing, from series creator and chief scribe Jesse Armstrong, that is always the mic drop. He joins his colleague Armando Ianucci (they did The Thick of It and its movie spin-off In The Loop together, among other projects) as a CJ-Certified genius. If you haven’t tasted Succession, you need to watch season one first. What are you waiting for?

Chernobyl

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.