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. 

New Half-Hour Comedy: Russian Doll, Derry Girls, The Other Two and Sally4Ever.

There’s a fine line between “passion project” and “vanity vehicle”. You’ve really got to love Natasha Lyonne’s shtick to fall for Russian Doll, her undoubtedly original and committed half-hour eight-part comedy / drama on Netflix that may also be outrageously indulgent. I was out after two episodes; your mileage may vary, and I would warrant, on your love for Lyonne’s vibe.

She plays Nadia, a hard-partying Manhattan-based video game coder having a strange episode that may be drug-related, a mental illness, or supernatural. Essentially, she’s suffering from Groundhog’s Day Disease; she keeps dying and coming back to life at exactly the same moment. Naturally, this is freaking her out, and rather than use her endless loop to woo a pretty girl as Bill Murray did, she seeks professional help.

Lyonne plays Nadia as an old Jewish comedian from the Catskills would. Seriously. It’s an outrageous, very big, very bold performance that is so loud and intense it wore me out. As did the repetitive party scenes which Nadia keeps returning to. The series has a definite voice, utilising its vibrant Manhattan streetscapes well and plenty of intriguing music choices, but by the end of ep two it felt more exciting for the creators than for me.

Netflix’s Derry Girls will tire you out, but after a breather I warrant you’ll be back for more. Set in Northern Ireland – specifically, County Derry – in the early 1990s, it follows the daily trials and tribulations of a group of four sixteen year old girls and one of their male cousins as they navigate (very Catholic) school, family, and The Troubles. The girls’ performances are all big big big – especially Nicola Coughlan, whose face never stops twitching – and the humour is as broad as the  River Foyle, but it works in small doses. The dialogue is the fastest on television, and for every gag that doesn’t land there’s one that does. The whole thing is also very sweet; by the end of ep two, I felt not only for these girls, but for their friendship, and that’s the key to the show. The milieu is also fascinating, and fascinatingly used; soldiers, guns, bombs and fear are ever-present, but as such, also somehow everyday, mundane, and often the source of humour. Great fun.

For easy-going good times in a mellow tone, Foxtel’s The Other Two goes down like a butterscotch candy. It’s a show-business satire with warmth and colour but very little bite. Heléne York and Drew Tarver play adult siblings whose younger brother, 13 year old Chase (Case Walker), has become an overnight YouTube sensation a la Justin Bieber. Since their own artistic aspirations  are mitigated by total failure, they’re ripe for a spot of jealous intrigue and possible career sabotage, but so far the show is sweeter than that. Rather than make Chase a monster, so far he’s a very nice boy, and his older siblings, now stuck in his shadow, still adore him. It’ll be interesting if things are allowed to go a little off the rails; if not, the show’s sweetness may be its undoing. It’s not funny enough to get by on laughs alone. Interestingly, the siblings’ dynamic (and the Manhattan setting) recall the recently and tragically cancelled Difficult People, which really did have an edge.

Julia Davis’ work certainly has edge; her 2016 show Camping was uncomfortably brilliant (NB: not the recent US remake). But her new one, Sally4Ever (also on Foxtel) is outrageously and unforgivably indulgent. Davis plays a truly awful compulsive liar, Emma, who worms her way into the life of mousy Sally (Catherine Shepherd, doing surprisingly subtle work) and upends it. Sally is discovering same-sex sex for the first time and seems absolutely obsessed with it; there’s no other real way to justify her continuing acceptance of Emma, who is the most obnoxious screen character since David Brent (and who exists in his shadow). Essentially the show provides one set-up for Davis to improvise after another, and once we “get it” – that Emma’s the worst – it becomes terribly wearing. If you really still love to cringe, that’s all this show is about; after five eps I really couldn’t take it anymore.

Roma

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* * * * *

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a masterpiece, operating at the highest possible levels of artistry of storytelling and technique. Let me join the global chorus of critics urging you to see it at the cinema as it enjoys a “special theatrical run” before landing on Netflix, where it will remain brilliant, but lose its grandeur. This is a milestone of a movie, an epic, an event.

Cuarón is one of the world’s great visual directors: just witness Gravity and Children of Men, both of which were shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubzki, who is, I understand, considered by many cinematographers to be their finest living peer. On Roma, Cuarón is his own cinematographer, and his work in this department is astonishing. Formally constructed in black and white widescreen, most sequences in the film begin with or prominently feature substantial tracking shots filled to the brim with action on multiple planes, all contributing to a portrait of the film’s central setting, Mexico City in 1970, as vibrant and energetic and often chaotic and wild. Incredibly intriguing details – a human cannonball, relentless aircraft, marching bands – constantly fill in the greater depths of the frame, cascading upon each other and providing us with multiple layers of meaning, for the film we are watching is both minutely autobiographical and intensely poetic. Everything we see is from Cuarón’s own childhood, but poured into the richest two hours and thirteen minutes of the year; if events, at times, seem almost too dramatic to be true, that’s because we’ve made the deal to witness them as a movie, and Cuarón’s agreed to condense them.

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Roma is the story of a year in the life of Libo, Cuarón’s nanny (and one of his household’s two maids) when he was a boy. It was a dramatic year for both Libo and the household, and Cuarón has stated that he wrote the film from direct memory, then sought to re-create those memories as authentically as possible. Thus, he sourced almost all the furniture in the house in the film from relatives of his scattered around Mexico; whenever possible, scenes were shot where they actually took place; and he and his extraordinary production design team have strived to make every single moment look as close to the memory in Cuarón’s head as possible. The result is breathtaking: the performances and design are grounded in absolute realism, while the cinematography is artful and precise. This gives the film a true timeless quality; were someone to show it to you in 2028, I’d wager you’d have no real way of guessing, to the nearest ten years, when it was actually made.

The film is epic and intimate; in the seemingly simple story of Cleo (the stand-in for Libo) and her unusual year, we are driven to contemplate huge issues and major themes: class and ethnicity, the nature and dignity of work, what actually constitutes a family and parenting; what it means to love. It is a film of constant compassion and absolute humanity. It is totally, essentially personal to Cuarón, but it is also fundamentally universal. It is filmmaking of the highest order.

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Thanks to the Randwick Ritz in Sydney, where I was able to see Roma in its essential environement: the cinema.

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

* * * * 1/2

The Coen Brothers’ supreme mastery of all elements of cinematic storytelling are on full display with their portmanteau of the old, wild west, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Frequently hilarious, occasionally moving and always stunningly beautiful – every frame a painting, indeed – the six stories contained in this generous two and a bit hours of sublime entertainment can be enjoyed at one sitting or over a span of viewings; ether way, entertainment will be achieved.

The stories were originally going to be broken up, and producer Netflix was originally going to package them separately, as a TV series. I don’t know what discussions lead to the current format, of a single feature film, but suspect it may have to do with the stories’ disparate running times. The shortest feels around ten minutes, the longest at least half an hour; a TV series so comprised would have been radical, and perhaps ran the risk of being off-putting. As it stands, the experience of watching all in one sitting, as I did, is enormously rewarding, as the stories are well placed to thematically resonate and enrich each other.

The first, titular story, and the one that follows, are both very very funny and pretty violent, and seem designed to deconstruct the myth-making, “balladeering” of the old west. But as the film goes on, the stories grow in length, deepen in characterisation and darken in mood, and, while the sudden threat of fatal violence remains ever-present, the thematic focus shifts to language, such that the final story is essentially all dialogue, and all about words.

The Coens just love words with this film, and you’ll love them loving them. The lovely conceit of the whole seems to be that, while the American western frontier was coarse and rough in action, it was dignified and stately of tongue. This theme is spectacularly illustrated in the film’s final minutes, which fuse New World frontier law with Old World stately decorum while also nodding to an entire, hidden realm of unorthodox lifestyles. The final face we see is fearful, not just of potential violence, but of a love that dare not yet speak its name, and of society itself.

WELLES FEAST

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THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND ****

THEY’LL LOVE ME WHEN I’M DEAD ****

It’s difficult to know, objectively, how exciting the simultaneous release, on Netflix, of Orson Welles’ finally-finished film The Other Side of the Wind and a documentary about that film’s production, They’ll Love Me When I’d Dead, will be for the general movie watcher. For me, it’s manna from heaven. If cinema is my love, Welles has been my obsession. I’ve read more books about him, watched more documentaries about him, just thought about him more than any other artist. And I’m not alone. Welles inspires devotion, because he was just the biggest, baddest, raddest, most ball-bustingly bravura filmmaker there was. He huffed and he puffed and blew all the doors down.

Of course, his very grandiosity, the thing about him that makes him so compelling, made him a pariah to some, and his story, no matter who’s telling it (I recommend Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles by David Thomson, This Is Orson Welles by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, Put Money In Thy Purse by Micheál MacLiammóir, and Run-Through by John Houseman, although there are scores more, including a mammoth multi-volume extravaganza by Simon Callow) always includes Hollywood’s abandonment of him, and his years in self-imposed exile, raising money and hell all over Europe and the world, starting many projects and tragically leaving many unfinished.

The most famous and infamous of these, the Golden Fleece, is The Other Side of the Wind, except that now, thanks to a smorgasbord of Jasons, it is, actually, finished, and you can, miraculously, push a button and watch it. But first, watch Morgan Neville’s extraordinarily entertaining documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, also on Netflix, or read (and read?) the book that inspired it, Orson Welles’s Last Movie by Josh Karp, which is similarly delightful and inherently more detailed.

Then, once you’re up to speed on all the shenanigans, watch The Other Side of the Wind. It’s one of the more meta cinematic experiences you’ll ever have, for reasons that are self-evident, and plainly discussed in both They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and Karp’s book. The story of a Wellesian director, Jake Hannaford, played by John Huston, on his 70th birthday, having a party and trying to finish his latest film, it’s a stylistic tour-de-force first and foremost, a flashy, breezy and often very funny satire on the movies and reflection of Welles’s own predicament. If you’ve seen Welles’s superb cinematic essay F For Fake, you’ll recognise his editing style (and his leading lady and girlfriend, Oja Kodar), here taken to extremes. The cinematic conceit of the “main” storyline is that almost everyone at Hannaford’s party has some form of movie camera, and the film we’re watching is constructed from their footage, so the grain shifts, sometimes we’re in black and white, and very few cuts last longer than a couple of seconds. It’s propulsive and vibrant and edgy and fresh and unmistakably the work of Orson Welles. He had a true cinematic voice and it’s fully on display here.

We’re also treated to a hefty selection of scenes from Hannaford’s unfinished film – a film-within-the-film – also called The Other Side of the Wind. This is shot and edited in a completely different style (including in a different aspect ratio), being, within the film’s construct, not “Welles’s” work but “Hannaford’s”, and Hannaford, it turns out, is trying to connect with the late-60s / early 70s cineaste crowd by making an Antonioni-esque film. Thus the footage we see is a parody of Antonioni, and if you needed confirmation of that, the house Welles shot Hannaford’s party in is the house next door to the house Antonioni blew up at the end of Zabriskie Point. Now you see how deep the games go?

This footage – the film-within-the-film – is astonishing, for many reasons. It is intensely erotic (something rare for Welles), famously so thanks to the influence of co-writer Kodar, whom Welles adored and who obviously influenced him deeply during this period of his life. It is gorgeous, intricate, and often very creepy. If the main storyline is fascinating for its autobiographical take on Welles and his relationship to Peter Bogdanovich (playing a Peter Bogdanovich-type called Brooks Otterlake!) and young hip Hollywood (Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Curtis Harrington and Claude Chabrol are all at the party, among others, and Susan Strasberg plays a version of Pauline Kael called Julie Rich), the film-within-a-film is fascinating to experience. Almost entirely free of dialogue, it is spellbinding, captivating, better than most of the films it so wickedly parodies.

If you love Welles you’ll be seeing both They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and The Other Side of the Wind. If you’re new to Welles, give ‘em both a try. Regardless, watch the documentary first. It makes the film itself a vitally richer experience.

TV: Big Mouth, Norsemen, Trust

Two extremely clever, original and defiantly edgy half-hour comedies return to Netflix for their second seasons. Big Mouth, from creator Nick Kroll, is an animated look at every uncomfortable, mortifying, terrifying aspect of puberty. A group of American teenagers are going through it, egged on by their own, literal, hormone monsters; masturbation, menstruation and everything else is covered in graphic and lurid detail, with mostly very funny results. Deliberately over the top, everyone whose been through all this mess can relate, but some may not want to go back there; it could be just too painful.

Meanwhile, Norsemen is a Norwegian spoof of that country’s Viking history, and often extremely funny. It’s the closest show I’ve ever seen to old-school Monty Python humour: dry, absurd, and played straight. It’s also in English; somehow, that makes it funnier and more charming (and a Norwegian friend of mine agrees). The series doesn’t shy away from the Vikings’ predilection for invasion, pillaging and rape, and there is occasional gore, but always deployed for humorous effect. There is also intrigue, a love quadrangle, ancient ritual, a psychotic villain and stunning locations. The large ensemble cast are all superb; many of them have been seen as cops, politicians, soldiers and bad guys in Nordic noir, and it’s a delight to see them here, being delightfully, unapologetically silly. Terrific.

Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle’s Trust (FOXTEL) shares a lot of story DNA with Sir Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World from last year. Both take J. Paul Getty’s response to his grandson John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping in Rome in 1973 as their general plot, and there are certainly similarities; in both, the rich old man is portrayed as a miserly controlling creep, and his seat of power, a mansion in England, is a prime location in both. But Trust, at ten hours, obviously has a lot more room, and on the basis of the first two episodes it is clear Boyle’s going to use it. He’s always been interested in money and its effect on people, and J. Paul, played exquisitely by Donald Sutherland, gives him a marvelous monster to sic amongst a large cast of family and employees (J. Paul, like many of the über-rich, didn’t have friends), each of whom is subservient and sycophantic to, rebellious against, or disgusted by him to varying degrees. The production design is stunning and the story massively entertaining (and quite lurid). Typical of his work, Boyle is superb at character delineation; this is a big universe but everyone is exquisitely and clearly defined. It’s also funny, a lot more than Scott’s somber movie.