La Belle Epoque, David Foster, Speed Cubers

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For a lot of (Non-French) people, French cinema is about romance, culture, gentle good humour, affairs of the heart, beautiful (and beautifully lit) locations, and nostalgia: the Amélie model. They’ll be well served by La Belle Époque, in cinemas now, one of those expensive, commercial French products that is geared to make big bucks outside of France. The pleasant surprise is that, while it delivers that Amélie package, it’s also rather clever, witty and gorgeously performed.

Daniel Auteuil, once my favourite actor, plays a sixty-something luddite cartoonist whose wife is having a mid-life crisis, and who finds solace in the arms of a tech/media/production company that allows him, via sets, actors and other production values, to go back to the night he met her, in a bistro, in 1974. It’s not quite science fiction, but is certainly adjacent: sort of Westworld meets The Truman Show meets… well, Amélie. It’s all very charming and delightful and will bring a smile to your dial. That makes it top entertainment for the current era. Auteuil is typically winning.

On Netflix are two new documentaries: David Foster Off The Record and The Speed Cubers. Both are pacy, surprising and fun. Foster is one of the most successful pop producers of all time – he’s produced Celine Dion, Michael Bublé, Chicago, Barbara Streisand, Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli and so on, as well as Whitney Huston’s I Will Always Love You and the soundtrack to St. Elmo’s Fire – and most of his career-long collaborators weigh in, as well as his many daughters (from five wives). He’s a self-confessed problematic individual, which the film somewhat embraces, but it’s best enjoyed as a testament to an astonishing career. Meanwhile, The Speed Cubers follows the two fastest Rubik’s Cube solvers in the world as they head towards a showdown at the 2019 Speed Cubing World Championships. One of them is from Melbourne; the other is Californian, has autism, and hero-worships his rival. As with Foster, they are two of the most successful people in the world at what they do; neither, yet, have wives, let alone five, but who’s to say where success may lead them? Heartwarming, uplifting and surprising.

La Belle Époque                               * * * 1/2

David Foster Off The Record       * * *

The Speed Cubers                           * * * 1/2

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga Review

If you’re a Eurovision super fan – like me – you can rest easy: Will Ferrell’s ambling comedy about a pair of Icelandic entrants is not a piss-take. Indeed, it loves Eurovision: if anything, the film is a celebration.

When I heard, a few years back, that Ferrell was planning this film, I got surprisingly anxious, not just that Ferrell was going to mock my beloved contest, but also that the film itself would operate as a gateway drug for Americans to discover, pollute and ultimately destroy the annual event. Seemingly aware of such a response, Ferrell stages two scenes where his character, Lars, yells at a group of four young Americans to, essentially, fuck off out of Europe: “We don’t want you here!”

Putting his money where Lars’ mouth is, Ferrell and director David Dobkin cast all of Iceland’s actors, a batch of funny Brits, and Canadian Rachel McAdams as Sigrit, Lars’ bandmate and the true protagonist of the film. It goes out of its way to not be American, and ends up, to its great credit, as a film for the Eurovision community, possibly to the exclusion of everyone else. This was never meant for the mall cinemas of Idaho (it’s a Netflix original).

It’s hardly Ferrell’s best work – it’s not even in his top five – and if you’re not into Eurovision there’s probably no reason to give it a whirl. It’s too long – possibly by half an hour – and there are flat patches. But if you’re a Eurovision fan you kind of have to see it. There’s one extended sequence, a gift for Eurovision tragics, that gave me my longest prolonged smile in… well, let’s just say since February. Or maybe since I saw Think About Things for the first time. If you know what I mean, you’ll want to see this movie, shaggy as it is.

* * * for the Eurovision Fan

* * 1/2 for everyone else

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich

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Survivor Sarah Ransome.

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is another in an ever-growing line of excellent Netflix true-crime documentary series. Over four episodes, the show features moving interviews with many of Epstein’s survivors, law enforcement officials, journalists, lawyers and copious footage of Epstein’s world – the houses in particular – to paint a clear and vivid portrait of a monstrous predator and the system that enabled him. Many, many photos of Epstein with Donald Trump give the show an additional creepy edge. It’s very well done, tasteful and well-modulated, and a total binge. Even if you’ve read “all the articles”, as I felt I had, there is still great value in meeting the victims and seeing their provenance; Epstein preyed on the vulnerable, and Filthy Rich does a great job of contextualising the predator’s method of identifying and manipulating their prey.

The focus is on the subset of survivors from Epstein’s first wave of abuse, in Palm Beach in the 2000s, and the series is respectful of them, and thank goodness, because they’ve been exploited enough. Their lawyer, and the original Palm Beach Chief of Police, emerge as dogged, and humble, heroes. A few more survivors from later years emerge as the episodes progress, and by the end we’ve gotten to know them well. It’s their story, really, rather than Epstein’s.

We know how his story ends, and the show doesn’t attempt to push past that. Conspiracy theories are not the subject here, nor detailed accusations against a worldwide consortium of bad men (although Prince Andrew gets royally served), nor do we find out where in the world might Ghislaine Maxwell be. Those documentaries will inevitably follow. This one is probably all you really need.

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

* * * *

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.