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.

 

Unorthodox (Netflix) and Come to Daddy (Umbrella On Demand)

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Based on a memoir by Deborah Feldman, Netflix’s four part series Unorthodox is mostly compelling and occasionally frustrating. Newcomer and breakout star Shira Haas plays Esty (short for Esther), a young married woman who flees her orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn for Berlin, where her mother, who similarly escaped the ultra-conservative sect years before, lives. As she discovers a world outside the rigid confines of her own, her husband and his ne’er-do-well cousin are dispatched to bring her home.

There are a couple of time frames going on; besides Esty’s escape, we get flashbacks of her betrothal to her husband and her gradual disillusionment with her community. Those scenes are excellent, as are all the Brooklyn sequences, and very well acted – in Yiddish – by actors who certainly feel authentic to this highly specific milieu (they’re mostly from Israel). However, the Berlin scenes are far less convincing, with a lot of on-the-nose dialogue and performances.

This is intriguing stuff that rests tremendously on Haas’s tiny shoulders; she bears the burden with electric intensity. It’s refreshing to watch a show like this with an entire cast of ‘unknowns’ (outside of Israel, anyway) led by such a good one. She won’t be unknown for long.

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Like Harry Pott— oops, sorry — like Daniel Radcliffe, Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings) has spent his post-blockbuster-franchise life looking for weird. He finds it in spades with Ant Timpson’s Come To Daddy, a black comedy that’s blacker than most. Timpson is a New Zealander and this is his feature directorial debut, but he’s got a strong and truly eccentric list of other credits, particularly as a producer (Turbo Kid, The ABCs of Death) and as the founder of The Incredibly Strange Film Festival, which has been going since 1994. He’s clearly into weird cinema, and with Come to Daddy, he’s effectively made exactly the kind of film he likes to program at his own festival.

Indeed, it’s plainly apparent that his deep experience with freaky-film audiences highly informs his film. Come To Daddy seems literally made to be enjoyed as a late-night festival screening for a packed house; it has a number of moments designed (rather expertly) to elicit that contagious panicky giggling, partner’s arm-grabbing, oh-my-god-what-are-we-seeing? discomforted laughter wave. It’ll play differently in isolation on your device, but if you’re a fan of this type of film, you’ll appreciate those moments even as you wish you were sharing them with a half-drunk raucous audience of young festival hounds, the type who seek out Incredibly Strange every year at the New Zealand International Film Festival. (At the Sydney Film Festival, the similar sidebar is called Freak Me Out.)

Wood plays a thirty-five year old Beverly Hills music-industry wannabe who is summonsed to see his father – who deserted him and his mother when he was five – at his gorgeous remote coastal home. When he arrives he finds an abusive, alcoholic wreck of a man, but that’s just the set-up. As befits this quite specific sub-genre, a lot of crazy shit goes down. Timpson has a lot of surprises up his sleeve; one of them is very, very clever.

This is an unashamedly violent film, but never against women, and always in the spirit of the genre, which isn’t horror, nor comedy; black comedy is technically correct, but in spirit and intention, the best descriptor of all would be midnight movie. Intriguingly, it was shot on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada, with money from New Zealand, Canada and Ireland. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster, and not without wit and ghoulish charm. * * *

Come To Daddy is available to stream at https://www.umbrellaentfilms.com.au/movie/come-to-daddy/

Unorthodox is currently streaming on Netflix.

Tiger King: Netflix Doco Series Review

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Instantly taking its place alongside The Staircase, Making a Murderer and OJ: Made In America as one of the great documentary mini-series, Tiger King, a jaw-dropping seven part Netflix tale of wild and criminal shenanigans among the big cat fraternity – that is, people who love (and exhibit) tigers, leopards and so forth – will also always be remembered as the first viral sensation of Covid 19. In a way, there couldn’t be a better moment for this show to drop, as only something this nuts could take our brains away from our current sensational concerns.

Among the series’ endless qualities, it is the astonishing vivacity of the characters that towers above all. Every one of these insanely idiosyncratic individuals feels like they’re being played by the world’s greatest character actor giving their career-best performance. It’s all lead by a truly charismatic freakshow named Joe Schreibvogel, who goes by Joe Exotic. Flamboyant, queer, tattooed, pierced, and, most distressingly, always armed (he openly carries a pistol in a holster on his right hip), Joe is as redneck as they come and yet also so oddly progressive. He absolutely defines himself by his gayness in a world where that may seem tricky. But nothing’s tricky to Joe, who has more confidence than anyone who routinely tickles tigers should.

His antagonist is Carol Baskin, who runs Big Cat Rescue, a rival organisation to Joe’s GW Zoo. She wants to shut him down; he wants to shut her up. Things get illegal, intense, and insane.

You will not believe your eyes, your ears, your brain. And you will love every minute of it. I binged it, I miss it. I even miss Joe, although I’d never, ever want to meet him, nor any of these deranged sociopaths, malcontents and freaks. They can stay where they are, in a world that seems like it’s on another planet, but is actually just more of Crazy, USA.

Dracula (Netflix) review

In my early 2018 review of The Square, I wrote “Danish Theatre actor Claes Bang makes a gigantic impression in the lead role of the curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm who may not be as cool as he looks; watch as Bang becomes a massive worldwide star (his spoken English, accented towards British, is perfect).” I avoided suggesting he should be the next Bond, despite the fact that he very, very much looks like a Bond; indeed, he resembles a mash-up of 40something Pierce Brosnan and 40something George Lazenby.

Instead, he’s the new Dracula (Netflix), and he’s wonderful and perfectly cast: even the fact that “British” English is a learned language and accent for him is playfully utilised, as, of course, Count Dracula is Transylvanian. It’s the kind of comic detail that rules this enormously entertaining new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who also updated Sherlock in bits and bursts, mostly very well, from 2010 – 2017.

As with that adaptation, Gatiss and Moffat honour the spirit of the original profoundly; they have fun with it but never at the expense of it. They set a perfect tone then get everyone on the same page; here, that tone is wit, camp and playful gore; references to the Hammer films abound, including many shots where Bang is framed to deliberately mimic famous shots from that film series. (Incidentally, in those shots, he looks remarkably like Christopher Lee as well; is there any dark-haired handsome Commonwealth thesp this Dane can’t resemble?)

Special mention must go to Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha. She’s hilarious. “Hilarious?”, you say? Oh yes. Just watch.

Uncut Gems Review

* * * * 1/2

Adam Sandler plays a Manhattan jeweller with a fondness for gambling that gets him in some trouble. That’s all you need to know, except to see this movie, the Safdie Brothers’ fourth, and feel the incredible rush.

This film is amazing, the logical and pure synthesis of the Safdie Brothers style, distilled to perfection. All the cast are incredible. Julia Fox, in her first role, is superb. Sandler is superb. All the grimy sleazoids, the nightclub homies, and the sports stars playing themselves are superb. Eric Bogosian is superb. And, once again, the Safdies have found all manner of non-actors and trusted them with big roles (such as Fox); all are superb.

Besides being a thoroughly successful experiment in relentless suspense and tension, it represents amazing storytelling. Every character, no matter how minor, seethes with inner life (case in point: the nice guy in the casino; you’ll see what I mean when you meet him). The dialogue is original, vibrant, startling and unique. The milieu is beyond evocative and fuelled by integrity, the camerawork is energetic and artful, the score (typically for the Safdies) wondrous strange, and the pacing magnificent. One of 2019’s best. It will make you grateful you don’t want any of the things the people in the film want, unless you do, in which case it may just get you to re-evaluate your life.

PS: John Amos? What a bonkers detail.

The Two Popes Review

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I’ve never enjoyed Jonathan Pryce more than in The Two Popes; his powerfully warm charisma, coupled with a rosy-to-glowing depiction of Pope Francis, is the strongest reason to see this intriguing piece of speculative history. It seems that when Pope Benedict was privately considering renouncing his papacy, he sought out (and called in from Argentina) Francis to discuss the idea; the film – written by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) and directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God, Blindness) imagines four lengthy conversations between the two.

Lest that sound boring to you, it should be noted that Benedict is played by Anthony Hopkins; the four conversations, which collectively probably make up about 70 percent of the film, are exquisite acting set-pieces of the absolute highest order: two of the world’s greatest actors with intelligent, thoughtful and often very funny words to say. The film also is much larger than two old men chatting about religion; flashbacks fill in the early life and (deeply problematic) career of Francis (not Benedict; it’s not that film), while the contemporary story includes fascinating, detailed depictions of the Vatican’s functionality, including a terrific sequence showing the papal elections from the inside.

My only interest in religion of any stripe is intellectual; The Two Popes, which is unashamedly pro-Francis and quite clearly pro-Pope, fascinated and delighted me, and Pryce is simply captivating.

Better Than Us (NETFLIX)

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.

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.

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.

New TV: Flack and Losers

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“I shoulda stayed with HBO.”

The pilot episode of Flack (Foxtel) is the worst I’ve seen for awhile; nothing will bring me back for any more. It’s a big disappointment, because there was promise, and I was excited: Anna Paquin as a London-based PR crisis manager in a zippy 40something-minute show dealing with public relations disasters in the #metoo era? I was in. But now I’m very much out.

Credibility is the biggest issue: nothing in the show rings true. Television doesn’t have to reflect the reality of the workplace – is any cop show realistic? – but the ways this show gets its own premise wrong beggar belief. I could pinpoint many examples – just from the pilot – but the overwhelming conceit – that tomorrow’s papers are still what everyone’s frightened about – just can’t cut it in the viral era. The dialogue is expositional, spoon-feedy and often cringe-worthily on the nose: a monologue halfway through, where Paquin’s character essentially explains #metoo to a Jaime Oliver-like celebrity chef facing exposure of his many affairs, will haunt her career for the rest of it. It’s terrible.

It must be hard for TV to keep pace with current world events and, particularly, technology, but if you’re going to try, in the words of one of Flack’s characters to a ludicrously-portrayed intern: must try harder. 

On Netflix, Losers is the kind of show the “play next episode” button was built for. These c. 24minute documentaries each look at a “losing” player or team in a different sport. The diversity of the sports and the players make super-addictive: the first three eps jump from boxing to English football to figure skating. As with any good doco or doc series, you don’t have to like the ostensible subject – “sport” – to like the show, because it’s not about sport, it’s about the people, and this charming, off-beat and often very funny little show – which often uses animation to illustrate the stories – has assembled a panoply.