Briarpatch; Lucky Grandma

BRIARPATCH (SBS On-Demand)
 

On my father’s bookshelf, novels by Ross Thomas were never far from those of Elmore Leonard. I’ve read a lot of my father’s Leonard but none of his Thomas, and Thomas isn’t talked about in the same revered tones, but they’re clearly similar authors, writing about cops and crims and cons and creeps with dialect-driven humour, often in the more exotic and lawless areas of the US.

There have been many Leonard adaptations, some very good – Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Justified – and some, not so. I can’t recall seeing a Thomas adaptation before, but Briarpatch, on SBS On Demand, seems a perfect introduction to the man and his work. The characters and milieu are indeed colourful unsavoury types in one of the USA’s least savoury places: Texas. And the style suits the subject: colourful, bordering on cartoonish, neo-noir, wearing Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh and Tarantino influences proudly (and obviously). Heaps of very familiar, rough-hewn character faces support a fine central performance from Rosario Dawson. Fun, familiar, not violent, and comfortable: classic Dad-lit fare.

 
LUCKY GRANDMA (CINEMAS)
 

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I’ll bet you haven’t seen anything else recently like Lucky Grandma (in cinemas now). Tsai Chin gives one of the performances of the year as Grandma Wong, a widow in Manhattan’s Chinatown who, through not particularly innocent means, ends up with a bag of cash belonging to a member of one of Chinatown’s gangs. She hires a massive young bodyguard, Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), and the two strike up an unlikely friendship, even as they dig themselves into a deeper, messier hole with the local villains.

The film’s bouncy, neo-noir, jazzy, colourful aesthetic clearly demonstrates Coen Brothers, Soderbergh and Tarantino influences (in this respect, it’s not stylistically dissimilar, at all, to Briarpatch) but it’s the milieu, and Chin’s performance, that really sets the film apart. We’ve been to Chinatown (and Chinatowns) in many movies, but often accompanying an outsider (and often a white cop at that). Here, the whole story takes place within not only the place but the culture, and there are tremendously fascinating details in constant revelation, from how elders are addressed (everyone calls Grandma Grandma, even if she’s not, you know, their Grandma) to specific cultural rituals performed at the local bank branch. It’s fascinating and funny, and Chin – playing a very prickly person – will steal your heart.

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.

 

ZeroZeroZero

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If you want scope, ZeroZeroZero has it. This show is huge. An Italian production primarily, but set across multiple countries – primarily Italy, Mexico and the United States – in multiple languages, with funding coming from multiple regions, this show is BigBigBig. And for the audience that grew up on Scarface, Cocaine Cowboys and Traffic – or any of a hundred other shows about international drag trafficking – this epic mini-series could be a dream prospect.

The show examines a massive international cocaine deal from multiple viewpoints, including the buyers in Italy, the cartels in Mexico, the soldiers in Mexico (the cops being way out of their league and mainly in league with the cartels) and the “brokers”, based in New Orleans, who essentially provide the ship, in this case a massive tanker. Things to do with many aspects of this mammoth deal go wrong, often lethally, and we examine the various twists and turns from multiple perspectives, jumping back and forth in time, holding flashbacks-within-flashbacks, zooming from the widest canvas to the most intimate moment.

The protagonist (among many lead characters) is played by Andrea Riseborough, who inherits her father’s shipping company, his interest in the global drug trade, and this massive deal, when Dad (Gabriel Byrne) gets felled. She’s supported by her younger brother, played by Dane DeHaan, who somehow manages to pull off playing what I think is meant to be, if not a teenager, then a very young adult. Regardless, they’re very much ‘the kids’, learning the ropes in the middle of the biggest deal, and the biggest mess, one could imagine.

The driving creative force behind all this is Stefano Sollima, who is very good at this sort of thing: his directing credits include the TV show Gomorrah and the movies Suburra and Sicario: Day of the Soldado. If you’re into any of his previous work, you’ll be into this: it’s that kind of thing, on the largest possible canvas, epic, exciting and exhilarating.

Coming Soon To SBS in Australia on May 14.

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.

63 Up

Screen Shot 2019-06-11 at 11.03.16 am.pngI was recently wondering how Michael Apted was doing. Specifically, I wondered if he was still capable of continuing the 7 Up documentary film series, or whether that had been quietly put to rest. For that matter, had Apted been put to rest, and had I simply missed his passing amidst the 21st Century Noise?

Turns out, Apted is alive and well – he’s 78 – and we have the latest instalment of his revolutionary series: 63 Up. On SBS in Australia it’s divided into three parts, and the first part caught up with four of the original series’ fourteen participants.

I thought I’d feel disconnected to these people. Out of the loop. I was wrong. Seeing them again brings back an immediate rush of memory, and perhaps nostalgia. It’s astonishing that this series started in 1964, and here they are, at 63, and we really are seeing how things panned out.

Apted’s thesis “Give me the child at 7 and I’ll show you the man!” has certainly panned out, at least looking at these four. They are all unmistakably close versions of their 7 year old selves, physically and temperamentally. My own theory – “people don’t change” – is kind of based on Apted’s, and whether or not it’s a good thing, I feel it’s now been proven.

Of course, Apted knows how to tell these stories, and in what order to tell them – Tony comes first! – so I’m sure there are some – potentially sad – twists and turns to come. But so far – one revelation notwithstanding – the news is good. All four of episode one’s subjects have partners and kids and seem okay financially. Indeed, Apted’s biggest theme – Class – provides the biggest happy revelation: even those from the “working class” seem to have at least made it to the middle.

More to come, and I can’t wait. A milestone show.

The Bureau

The Bureau Image.pngThe Bureau, or The Bureau of Legends as directly translated from the French original, is a sprawling, engrossing, thrilling espionage drama and one of the best shows I have ever seen. I put it only behind Engrenages (Spiral) as my favourite French show. So far there have been three seasons, and all are currently available on SBS On Demand. A fourth season began airing in France on October 22nd, 2018.

It focuses on the workings of the DGSE, the General Directorate of External Security, France’s principal external security service. The first season sees long-embedded spy “Malotru” (Mathieu Kassovitz) come in from the cold – Damascus – and try to adjust to “normal” life in Paris while wrestling with a particularly personal dilemma brought on during his operative term. The second season, one of the best seasons of television I’ve ever seen, shifts the primary focus to the “B Story” lead character, Marina (Sara Giraudeau) as she goes undercover in Tehran. The third season… well, no spoilers from me, but it’s awesome.

There is a brilliantly conceived universe of fascinating characters here, warmly played by a superb ensemble. The operations, centred always in the Middle East, are compelling and believable, based, as they are, on real accounts by former spies and formidable research. There is humour, there are love affairs (and plain old French affairs), and the constant churn of truly difficult work, done in the shadows. But where the series really stands out is in its handling of suspense. This is a drama first and foremost, with the killings and action set-pieces held in admirable restraint, but when a tense sequence does kick into gear, it always works. At least once per episode, you’re likely to get sweaty palms.

N’attends pas! This is a binge delight.