The White Lotus and This Way Up

Australian actor Murray Bartlett gets the kind of mid-career, middle-age role most jobbing TV actors dream of in Mike White’s pandemic-shot, Hawaii-based ensemble dramatic comedy The White Lotus (Foxtel, from HBO). Bartlett plays Armond, the manager of a luxe Hawaiian resort dealing with a contingent of needy guests. They’re not all bad people, but they’re all privileged, and different degrees of difficult. Watching Bartlett as Armond navigate their demands is often very, very funny; it’s a sublime performance, playing against an ensemble of famous and instantly recognisable faces including Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, Jennifer Coolidge, Alexandria Daddario and Sydney Sweeney. All of them are playing to type, well; Daddario and Sweeney are particularly good. But Bartlett steals the show: his Armond is the centre of the resort and the drama and he takes seemingly effortless control. Mike White’s writing is never subtle but unfailingly well observed and often very sharp, and his direction is moody and evocative. HBO (and hence Foxtel) are doling out the six episodes weekly; all three so far have been crackers.

On STAN, Aisling Bea’s half-hour comedy This Way Up has just dropped its second six-episode season. I’m just discovering it – halfway through Season One – and it’s a total delight. Bea plays Aine, a thritysomething Irish lass living in London and just trying to cope (at the beginning of ep one she’s being discharged from a facility after a nervous breakdown). Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) plays her older sister who seems to have things a bit more together. The sisters’ relationship is the core of the show and the scenes between Bea and Horgan – they’ve played sisters before, on the BBC series Dead Boss – sparkle with natural affection and sharp wit. Lovely.

Netflix Double: Pretend It’s a City and Lupin.

Pretend It’s a City

Fran Lebowitz is an author, an actor, a public speaker, a raconteur, a wit. Martin Scorsese winds her up and lets her go in this fantastically warm, charming and funny seven part half-hour Netflix series. At times they’re in a fancy bar (although neither of them seem to be drinking alcohol), at other times in front of an audience (the kind of New York audience who have subscriptions to The New Yorker, The New York Times and New York Magazine) and at times they’re out and about in New York, in libraries, museums and other places of note and import. But the conversation is always about New York, and it’s always funny.

Perhaps ‘conversation’ is too strong a word. Scorsese prompts, prods and pokes, then Fran lets rip and Marty laughs – a lot. Part of the joy of this unbelievably good-hearted show is watching the celebrated maestro of American cinema crack up, again and again and again. He’s divided the episodes thematically – there’s one on transport, one on art, one on ‘sports and health’ and so forth – but Fran’s brain goes where it goes, and we all follow, delightedly. While what she has to say is always interesting and, indeed, often profound, more importantly, it’s funny as hell. This modest series, playing by its own rules, is its own kind of perfect.

Lupin

The good news about Lupin is that it stars Omar Sy as a master jewel thief in Paris. The bad is that the first few episodes are directed by Louis Leterrier in his signature flashy, bombastic, whizzy-zoomey way. The camera never stops, everything is turned up to eleven, and over-acting is encouraged. But as pandemic escapism, this is expensive, pretty and shiny, like the necklace Sy’s thief wishes to steal from an auction at the Louvre in the first episode. I don’t know why or if they have auctions at the Louvre; this show really wouldn’t care. It’s a great place for a heist, right? Sometimes that’s enough.

Mank

Watched at the Ritz Cinema, Sydney, where it is now playing.

* * * *

I am the target audience for Mank, David Fincher’s Netflix-funded production of his dad Jack Fincher’s screenplay about Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, a “screenwriter’s screenwriter” who won an Oscar for Citizen Kane. This film covers Mank (Gary Oldman) during the writing of that script, with flashbacks to his earlier Hollywood career and its intersection with Citizen Kane subjects William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies.

I’m the target audience all right: earlier this year, I read Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s 480-page biography of Mank and his brother Joseph, The Brothers Mankiewicz; I’ve read more books about Orson Welles, Citizen Kane’s director (and a minor character in this film by screen time but a major one by impact) than about anyone else; I’ve even read John Houseman’s books about working with Welles, and Houseman is a major character in this film no matter how you gauge it. I love the golden age of Hollywood; I love these (real-life) characters; I love films about films. This film was meant for me, and I loved it.

Will you? Hard to say. But there’s more on Fincher and daddy Fincher’s minds than just a Hollywood story. Mank’s desire to write a classic film about the media mogul of his day – Hearst – reflects his growing realisation that realpolitik trumps idealism, and Mank is really a political film, striking out at propaganda, electioneering and fake news. Its vibe is old-timey – more on that in a moment – but it’s actually very timely.

Fincher has shot the film so that it looks, sounds, feels and smells like it was made at the time Citizen Kane was: the early 1940s. It’s a startling experience. From the contrast of the black and white images, to the (simulated, I suppose) grain of the film, to the period-appropriate fade-outs, to the fun inclusion of cue blips – those strange circles in the upper right corner of the screen that appear in old movies to alert the projectionist to a reel change – Fincher and his cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt nail the aesthetic of the period, and the sound design follows suit. But there’s more to the film’s 1941faux-verisimilitude: the screenplay itself is constructed as it might have been then, and thus is it acted. Every actor in the film is, essentially, giving the performance they would have given in 1941, before the naturalistic ‘method’ stormed in. The whole enterprise is highly stylised, and it totally works. Once you’re in – a process that took mere minutes for me – you’re in. The style remains but it’s never an obstacle, obstruction nor irritant: form follows function, beautifully.

All that clever acting is excellent acting, too. Gary Oldman makes Mank a gloriously happy alcoholic, steering clear of many of the type’s trappings. It’s not a flashy performance but a stable one, Mank as hero of his own story, which he was. This is not a take-down, and Oldman’s performance is not a grotesque: he, and the film, like Mank, and so do we. He’s talented, generous, idealistic and, most importantly, true to himself, something recognised in him by others.

Amanda Seyfried delivers a career-best performance as Davies, Hearst’s young mistress. Charles Dance plays Hearst not as a monster but simply a master – of his domain, of men, of his mistress – and subverts our sympathies in the process. There are fine performance from Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer, Sam Troughton as Houseman, and Tom Burke, from The Souvenir, as Welles. But the character sharing the most scenes with Mank is Rita, a young woman employed to attend to him – and keep an eye on him – as he writes Kane; she’s played by Lily Collins, superbly. She’s Emily in Paris, too, but I’ll take Rita in Victorville, where she and Mank co-exist.

Mank is one of the films of the year. It’s surprisingly gentle, loving, calm and graceful. It takes you to another world. Five hours after leaving the cinema, I’m still kind of there. It’s my happy place, and Mank is, for me, a feel-good movie, one made like they used to.

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

My first produced play was a farce about intrigue among chess grandmasters. The climax, which I reckon was a bit of a coup de théâtre, involved the hero grandmaster facing off with the villain grandmaster over a game of chess. There was no board; the two characters stalked each other around the good guy’s living room, leaping onto furniture and barking out their moves: “Queen to rook five!” The entire match was played out, and if you were a deep chess person, theoretically you could follow it in your head, and it would be as suspenseful and fun as, say, the climactic sword-fight at the end of a production of Hamlet or Macbeth.

I cribbed the match from an actual one played by actual champions – I forget whom or from when. But I made sure to find a match that suited my players’ identities: I wanted the moves made to feel authentic, the kind of moves those actual characters would make. It was a long scene, and for people who couldn’t possibly follow the game in their heads (99% of us) there was a lot of jumping around and acting going on to keep them entertained; for the one percent (and that’s being very generous) that could follow the match, it played, I hoped, like the climactic boxing scene in a boxing movie, the final football game in a football film, etc.

So too, do the many chess games and snippets of, as played by the various competitors in The Queen’s Gambit, adhereto the sports movie formula: they are given enough screen-time to actually be appreciated, and are based on actual games that reflect the theoretical / fictional styles of the players. Chief among them is Beth Harmon, played spectacularly by Anya Taylor-Joy, an orphan in 1950s America who grows up to be a world champion. Her story is both a superhero girl-power adventure as she barrels her way up through the ranks of a very male sport, and an addiction drama: she loves her pills and, increasingly as I roll into the middle of the seven-episode limited series, her drink.

The period design is both gorgeous and a little over-the-top (most of the show was shot in Berlin-for-other-places, so there’s a lot of set dressing, both physical and digital, going on) and the same could be said for the drama. Subtle it is not. Nor nuanced. It’s the kind of show where a character is introduced by another character turning to a third character and saying, “Look, it’s X! He won the X tournament in 19XX and now he’s X.” Most of the dialogue is expositional and a lot of it is very clunky. One can see where most scenes, and most episodes, are headed. It’s unsubtle, obvious, on-the-nose.

But it’s also compelling, even compulsive: a classic Netflix binge. The plot is a page-turner (it’s based on a popular novel), Taylor-Joy is endlessly watchable, and the casting is really fun: every character, like Taylor-Joy, has an interesting-to-fascinating face. Most of the supporting cast are British, but their US accents are strong (as is Taylor-Joy’s) and they attack the material with gusto. It’s a sprawling drama with a lot of players and they’re all allowed to make their mark (and their move). In the main supporting role, of Beth’s adoptive mother Alma, Marielle Heller, best known as a director (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood), is, as critics say a little too often, a “revelation.” In this case it’s true.

And then there’s the chess, treated seriously, with integrity, with respect. I suspect a lot of little girls will give the game a go thanks to this show (if they’re allowed to watch a show about an addict), and that alone is raison d’être. Pawn to Queen four!

The Trial of the Chicago 7

* * *

Everyone’s in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (now on Netflix). Well, all your favourite dudes, anyway. Sacha Baron Cohen and Succession’s Jeremy Strong are on trial, in the wake of the protests at the 1968 US Democratic Convention in Chicago, as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Eddie Redmayne and John Carroll Lynch are on trial too, as the more level-headed Tom Hayden and David Dellinger. Mark Rylance and Ben Shenkman are there trying to defend them, while Joseph Gordan-Levitt is across the aisle for the prosecution. Meanwhile, glowering from his high bench, there’s Frank Langella as the odious Judge Julius Hoffman. When he walked into the courtroom, my partner blurted out, “Perfect.”

Indeed. Langella is, on the surface – on paper – perfectly cast, and emblematic of the kind of film this is: everyone’s playing to their strengths, to the gallery, and to the moment. Watching the dirty deeds hurled at the ‘7’ by the government makes you angry, both for then and for now: nothing’s changed. My anger came with a side of very weird comfort: Oh well, it’s not as though the current US administration is the first to be horribly corrupt, vengeful, and willing to unfairly prosecute their own citizens. There’s precedent!

It’s a wiggy movie – that is, there are a lot of wigs, a lot of beards, a lot of late-60s gear – and not a very subtle one. But it is a spectacular history lesson that also reverberates perfectly for this moment, while also becoming increasingly entertaining as it goes on. Each of the cast are given multiple moments to shine, and if Baron Cohen’s accent is (very) dodgy, his essence is not: he is a modern-day Hoffman, constantly speaking truth to corrupt power through subversive comedy. The least obvious casting may be Strong as Rubin, given his short-back-and-sides work on Succession, but he is actually the film’s greatest delight. And Redmayne is the best I’ve seen him.

Surprisingly, given the clear-cut case for his casting, the one who doesn’t work is Langella. He goes full-on Disney villain, Sorkin lets him, and together they come close to ruining the end of the film, Langella flailing about cartoonishly, a bully come-upped. It’s a pretty dreadful, intensely over-done, schmaltzy ending, and you come out whistling a familiar tune: Sorkin remains one of the great American screenwriters, but a fledgling director.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix)

* * * 1/2

Some people love Charlie Kaufman, in the way that others love Christopher Nolan and others Quentin Tarantino. He has a distinctive voice: whether it’s solely as the screenwriter – Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Adaptation – or as auteur – Synecdoche, New York, Anomalisa or now I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Kaufman is grappling with very particular themes in a very particular way. And, as Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood was for Tarantino and Tenet is for Nolan, so Ending Things is very, very much a Kaufman work, and will appeal greatly to those who love him while running the clear risk of alienating those who don’t. Or to put it another way: if you’ve previously not grooved with Kaufman’s vibe, you’ll probably hate this.

I like Kaufman and I liked this, but not in the way that same of his acolytes clearly loved it. It’s full of ideas, it wears its literary and intellectual curiosity with pride, and it’s borderline incomprehensible. Twice – in the first and third acts – it essentially pauses the dramatic action for an incredibly lengthy philosophical / pop cultural discussion that may drive you to tears. And the more you know the references – including the 2016 source novel by Iain Reid- the more the film will work for you. It’s a kind of cinematic club, with enjoyable membership being contingent on knowing and liking the stuff that Kaufman does.

On the surface, a young woman, played by Jessie Buckley, accompanies her boyfriend, played by Jesse Plemons, on a dark snowy drive to visit his parents, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, at their farmhouse in one of the United States. In voiceover, she contemplates “ending things”, presumably with him. But nothing is as it seems, and the film keeps opening up, shifting perspective, re-framing expectations and ultimately re-jigging the entire narrative voice. It is, deliberately, a puzzle-box. References abound: Thewlis played the lead voice in Anomalisa, while Plemens seems to be deliberately evoking the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played the lead in Synecdoche, New York, the film of Kaufman’s this one most clearly resembles. But is he, or is Plemens just evolving into a Hoffman ‘type’? It’s a mystery, and to enjoy this film, mystery must be embraced.

That said, I listened to a podcast afterwards hosted by a couple of people who had read the book, and once I heard what they had to say, not only did the whole film make sense, it became deeply satisfying. Movies probably shouldn’t require outside research to ‘work’, but that seems to be the deal Kaufman’s demanding of us to come into his world, and why not? He’s an idiosyncratic outsider, his films break the rules, and this one has its own. There is a great deal of rigour and substance here, but you’ve got to be willing to dig for it; otherwise you may scratch your head until you’re bleeding.

Mention should be made of Łukasz Żal’s cinematography, which is superb. As he proved with Ida and Cold War, nobody shoots snow like he does, nor uses the 4:3 ratio to heighten the tension of emotional space.