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Life Like (2019)
Fun, but doesn't withstand too much scrutiny
With a little refinement this low-budget sexy sci-fi movie could have been seriously gripping and ultimately shocking. The central premise about interactions between humans and robots is intriguing and thought-provoking. It's offers some creepily sensual scenarios. The leads are good - especially Steven Strait as the robot, Henry. And it delivers some strong surprise twists toward the end. It's just a shame that the story is undermined by a sluggish start and a particularly annoying characterisation of the wife, Sofie, who is infuriatingly unlikeable. For the most part, however, it's quite well written - although the final plot twists needed more finessing. Still, worth a look.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017)
A Marvelous first series, a less marvelous second...
Series One of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel would have earned a 10 rating from me, without a moment's hesitation. It was refreshingly original, smartly written, dazzlingly directed and full of outstandingly original characters and winning performances. It was nothing short of a comic triumph, perhaps even a masterpiece. Series Two probably deserves a shaky 6, but I'll give it a 7, purely out of deference to the lingering glow from the first series and in the fervent hope that Series Three will bring a return to form. The problem with Series Two seems to have been a serious lack of story planning and a dangerous over-confidence. It is acted and directed with all the brio of the previous series, but it's light-on in all areas. Crucially, Midge's stand-up aspirations - the central premise for the show - are all-but-lost for entire episodes. Instead, we are treated to an extended - and I mean e-x-t-e-n-d-e-d - saga around the Maisel's annual vacation to one of the Catskill's summer camps, which is, sadly, nowhere near as amusing as the writers seem to think. It's also a dramaturgically questionable diversion that frequently seems to undermine the show's title character. I mean, are we really supposed to believe that Midge, who is a scathing social commentator in her stand-up routines, surrenders to games of Simon Says with nothing but utter conviction?! I could also have done entirely without the largely pointless Paris interlude at the beginning of the season. But without Paris and the Catskills series two would have been three episodes long. But, hey, hope springs eternal, and I'm willing to completely forget Series Two if Series Three gets Midge and her marvelous crew back on track.
The TV equivalent of flat champagne?
It looked so promising. Richard Gere. Helen McCrory. Sinead Cusack. A tale of corruption and media skullduggery, with echoes of Murdoch phone-hacking and a political apocalypse not too far removed from Brexit. And the first two episodes delivered enough intrigue to justify the positive tone of the more glowing reviews here, if not the unequivocal 10-star scores. But by the half-way mark it was all looking increasingly strained and underwhelming, even rather hum-drum. The plot and the characters started going around in circles. The intrigue gave way to increasingly empty confrontations. And the tone became more self-important and pretentious as the plot became more cliched and threadbare. I made it to the final episode, but what a dull damp squib it was - a mangled mish-mash of political foreboding and romantic happy endings that neither paid off on the political-thriller elements, not satisfied on the level of pure soap opera. Ho-bloody-hum.
Fortitude: Episode #3.1 (2018)
When good things go bad...
I was about 30 seconds into the first scene when I knew that something was terribly, terribly wrong. Everything about this third series of Fortitude is off. The first thing you notice is peculiarly misjudged performances from actors who were fine in the previous series. Then it becomes apparent that the direction is haphazard and the overall tone is strangely off. Pretty soon it's clear that the script is poor. And it's not long before there's no escaping the fact that the series has, sadly, jumped the shark and strayed beyond bizarre into utterly ludicrous. They really should have quit after Series Two. It must have been apparent to everyone involved that series three wasn't up to scratch . One can only presume that it was already too late to simply show some mercy and pull the plug. It certainly would have been a better option than trashing the brand completely.
They All Laughed (1981)
...But mostly they groaned
Screwball comedies are devilishly hard to pull off, which is why there is really only a handful of films worthy of the description. The cream of the crop would be Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, The Front Page, His Girl Friday and, unquestionably, Peter Bogdonovich's 1970s homage to those earlier films, What's Up Doc? Bogdanovich demonstrated with that film that he totally understood every element of the screwball comedy: the off-kilter characters, the mismatched romance, the smart rapid-fire dialogue, the intricately hare-brained plot and a relentlessly furious pacing coupled to a feather-light directorial touch. "Doc" is a faultless addition to the genre, and it hasn't dated at all. So what's shocking about They All Laughed is that Bogdanovich attempts re-cycle all those elements and fails utterly in every way. The result is laboured, tedious, confusing and, for the most part, depressingly unfunny. And when I say "re-cycle" that's precisely what I mean. Ryan O'Neal's Howard Bannister in "Doc" was a bespectacled, yet sexy absent-minded professor. Here John Ritter's Charles Rutledge is a bespectacled, yet (supposedly) sexy private detective - though one actually character notes that he's just like an absent-minded professor (just in case we hadn't noticed). In "Doc" Streisand's Judy insists, for no reason, on calling Howard "Steve". Here Ben Gazzara's character insists on calling Patti Hansen's Deborah "Sam". The difference is that O'Neal and Streisand are genuinely sexy in What's Up Doc? and Streisand brilliantly essays the role of an adorable/infuriating kook. But Ben Gazzara, whatever his charms, is not a sexy hunk. Nor, for all his boyish nerdishness, is John Ritter. Yet the various female character fall helplessly in love/lust with both of them. Even the decidedly unattractive Leon (who runs the motley crew of detectives at the centre of the action) has a woman half his age smitten with him. This is clearly some kind of wish-fulfilment for Bogdanovich, but it's no recipe for either romance or comedy, and becomes increasingly nauseating as the film progresses. It also doesn't seem to have occurred to Bogdanovich that a film in which every single character is engaged in extra-marital hijinks does not really add up to light-hearted romance. But then everything is off about They All Laughed. The nearly two-hour running time works against any efforts to keep things pacy and sprightly. Ritter's constant klutziness fails to build and evolve, and instead becomes an exercise in diminishing returns. The music constantly works against the action (Sinatra playing over a roller-disco scene, would you believe?). And the sound mix is one of the worst I've ever heard on a Hollywood film. Even the star power of Audrey Hepburn is weirdly squandered, with her not having anything at all to do until exactly an hour into the running time. All in all, it's a mystery that the director who concocted a perfect homage to the screwball comedy in the 1970s, could have produced such an inept and pallid attempt less than ten years later. But that's where this film earns one of its two stars: as a Hollywood curiosity and motion picture mystery. Just how and why did Peter Bogdanovich go from screwball to screw-up in ten years?
The Bookshop (2017)
The book on which this film is based is apparently well-regarded, though it's hard to see why from this stodgy, sullen, snail-paced adaptation. The fault clearly lies mostly with the director. She has a great cast at her disposal, but their performances all seem stilted and poorly judged, in large part due to woeful editing. Every scene ambles along with the pace of a pensioner on a zimmer frame. The plot is further bogged down with all manner of unnecessary establishing and travelling shots. And the costumes would seem more suited to a sketch show parody of the period (Acorn Antiques frequently came to mind). Dreary direction aside, there are problems with the plot that one can only assume come from the source material. Our heroine, Florence Green, is a passionate book lover with previous experience in the book trade, yet she's somehow never heard of "Lolita" when it lands in her lap (never mind that it was globally scandalous and on the front page of every newspaper). Also, Florence's bookshop isn't making money, yet she blithely hires a young assistant who clearly can't contribute much beyond a bit of dusting. And her mentor Mr Brundish has supposedly been a recluse for 45 years, yet is somehow still intimately acquainted with every minute development in the town. In fact, almost everything about the plot, which pitches the whole town against poor Florence and her bookshop, feels weirdly contrived and unbelievable. And thematically it attempts to pitch books against the arts, as though that makes any sense. Certainly, the author appears to have given the evil Violet Gamart no real motivation other than an intrinsically spiteful nature. Though just why the entire town falls into line with her remains unclear to the very end. Clearly, there are loads of filmgoers who just love this kind of confected nostalgia that imagines an England of old full of gormless eccentrics behaving badly and clinging to the last vestiges of the class system. I guess they're the same people who regard Midsommer Murders as quality drama. But who knew there were so many of them still alive?!
Boy Erased (2018)
Worthy, but wishy-washy
The despicable practice of conversion therapy warranted a much, much better movie than this - a plodding, strangely dull and never-very-convincing affair. While I've not read the book on which the film is based, I have seen Garrard Conley's TED talk and a number of TV interviews with him - all of which display a sense of humour, a writer's eye for the ridiculous and a real outrage at the twisted hypocrisy of the "therapy" to which he was subjected. None of these elements have made it into the film, which, very oddly, is a bland and mostly unexciting account of Conley's disturbing personal experience. It may also be true that, while Conley tells his own story well in person, his experience of conversion therapy seems not to have come anywhere near the worst of what's out there. So maybe his was just the wrong book to adapt. If you really want to know just how horrific conversion therapy can be - and it gets seriously sick and sadistic - you just won't find out from watching Boy Erased. And while Lucas Hedges is a fine actor he seems hopelessly out of his depth here. He does bewilderment perfectly well, but he utterly fails to convince in the scenes where he is sexually attracted/conflicted. Kidman and Crowe are fine, as you'd expect, and having the time of their lives playing simple, southern, god-fearing folk - but that only unbalances the film, which should be primarily "Jared's" story. I'm sure everyone involved had the best of intentions, but they really needed to dig a lot deeper.
Swinging Safari (2018)
Swinging Safari is unquestionably the worst Aussie movie of 2018. And even with 80+ years to go it's a pretty fair bet that it will be a contender for worst of the century. Everything about it is revoltingly juvenile. It's little more than an extended sketch that relies on gross-out humour and sexual innuendoes that even Benny Hill would have considered beneath him. Aside from the art direction it fails to evoke the 70s in any meaningful way, and it frequently gets things hopelessly wrong. (e.g. Nobody said "rack off" in the 70s; that was a phrase invented by Neighbours writers in the 80s because network censors wouldn't allow "piss off". You'd think Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue would know that.) It's astounding that any of the on-screen talent agreed to sign on for such a lame, moronic, mean-spirited and mirthless piece of dreck.
Do You Take This Man (2016)
This is a well-intentioned examination of marriage through the relationship of two guys on the eve of their wedding. The problem is that it's cloyingly earnest and almost every plot point feels contrived and artificial. The big pre-nuptial spanner in the works, for example, comes when the celebrant has a conflict and drops out. But this too is a phoney obstacle, and the solution they eventually arrive at is one of several that could easily have been found. It also doesn't help that one half of the couple, Daniel, is rather an uptight a**hole, and Anthony Rapp doesn't succeed in adding much in the way of charm or charisma. You'd really have to be a real sucker for weddings or wedding films to find any of this romantic or uplifting. For the most part I found it hard going and mildly depressing.
Seriously, Steve McQueen?! This is how you follow up a masterpiece like 12 Years A Slave? Widows has attracted some glowing reviews, but one can only assume they are from people so dazzled by McQueen's reputation that they just can't believe he could direct something this inept. Nevertheless, he's taken a heist story and buried they heist and all heist-related activity so deep within a narrative more concerned with race and political corruption that, despite what you might think from the trailer, this isn't even really a heist movie. In doing so, what was originally a six-hour mini series - with more than enough plot to make a gripping two-hour movie - becomes a slow, lumbering, often tedious ramble, only occasionally enlivened by bursts of action and violence. There's so much preamble and so many arduously introduced sub-plots here that the actual inciting incident for the story - you know, the heist - is damn nearly halfway into the running time. And what would normally be the fun parts of a heist movie - the planning, the training, the problem-solving - is so absent that the heist itself delivers no tension or suspense because we just don't know enough about the masterplan to care. Which results in us never really believing that these women could pull off such a crime. And that rather undermines the entire exercise. McQueen has essentially hijacked his own movie to make various social and political points, but sabotaged himself in the process. The original Widows mini-series certainly contained the raw ingredients for a great heist movie. But this ain't it.
Yer 'avin a laff, intcha?
This might have worked but for the utterly hopeless miscasting of Will, the would-be "straight-acting" footballer that nobody knows is gay. The actor, Pip Brignall, is clearly gay and almost anyone would pick it at 20 paces, if not the very moment he opens his mouth to speak. He also doesn't have a footballer's build or any of the likely mannerisms of your typical football club lad. So it's not even like he's superficially successful at playing the part. The other actor, Jo Weil, is at least hunky and does a reasonable job of pretending that Will is what the script says he is. Honestly, everyone involved should have done themselves a giant favour and called off the shoot if they couldn't find a more suitable actor.
55 Steps (2017)
A "worthy" film elevated by a masterful performance
Inevitably, some will avoid a film about mental illness and patients' rights for fear of it being "worthy" or "depressing". And, sure, this is undoubtedly the kind of story that used to be packaged for "disease of the week" telemovies. What elevates "55 Steps" above that lowly status is an extraordinary performance by Helena Bonham Carter as Eleanor Riese. It's not only a detailed, sensitive and touching portrayal of a woman with mental illness, but a smart, masterful exercise in calibrating a performance that balances both drama and comedy so that a difficult and potentially alienating subject becomes entertaining and ultimately uplifting. It takes an actor with incredible skill and range to pull off such a feat, and Bonham Carter is one of only a handful who could do it. That in the past few years she's also convincingly played roles as disparate as Elizabeth Taylor and Madame Thenardier demonstrates what a remarkable actor HBC has become. But this may be her best performance yet. Well worth seeing.
A Star Is Born (2018)
It's a man's, man's world, eh Bradley?
Bradley Cooper's take on this classic fable should really have been re-titled A Star Is Dying because his film is far more focussed on the collapsing career of Jackson Maine than on the rising star of Ally... err, what's her name again? ... oh, that's right, we never learn her second name. Cooper's film reverses the focus and the dynamic of all previous versions to make this primarily a story of addiction, self-destruction and family tragedy, only slightly leavened by the lead character's new romance (albeit doomed) and his girlfriend's new stardom. Thus Cooper gives his character far more screen time than was ever granted to Frederic March, James Mason or Kris Kristofferson. Now, let's be fair: Cooper may be right; perhaps the fall from grace of a big music star is inherently more dramatic than the rise of a self-doubting singer-songwriter. Perhaps he is also a better actor than Lady Gaga will ever be, and therefore more capable of carrying a movie. Perhaps it's also just a good way of wringing a new twist on a much-told, somewhat cliched story. But even if all this is true, I still wonder why Bradley Cooper making the film all about him has attracted only good reviews and Oscar buzz. Nobody has attacked him for rampant egomania. Nobody seems to be questioning the amount of screen time he gets, or the number of juicy ("hello, Oscar voters!") close-ups. Or suggesting that even when drunk and dishevelled he is still styled, lit and shot to look better than poor Gaga, who is scrubbed of all make-up for most of the movie and often dressed in the kind of gowns bitchy brides bestow on their bridesmaids. In short, Cooper has done everything and more that Barbra Streisand was accused of with her 1976 version of A Star Is Born - yet, I would suggest, rather more egregiously, and certainly to the much greater detriment of his co-star. Even when Jackson Maine is dead and gone and Ally finally (or so you might think) has the spotlight to herself, Cooper can't resist superimposing flashback shots of Jackson in happier times over her performance. He even chooses to cut off her final notes for a silent shot of her teary face. So where the finale of Streisand's film takes grief and turns it into art, Coopers' takes art and reduces it to grief - again, making it about his character's death, not about survival and transcending tragedy through music.
Cooper's egomania aside, I still found his movie less impressive than the glowing reviews led me to expect. Yes, it's well enough directed, Cooper's performance is excellent (probably Oscar-worthy), and Gaga acquits herself well. But it's no masterpiece and I seriously doubt that Gaga's performance will stand alongside Garland's or Streisand's in either film history or moviegoers' affections. She's great in the few musical moments where she is allowed to shine, but none of her musical sequences have the dramatic impact of Woman in the Moon or the With One More Look At You/Watch Closely Now finale from Streisand's movie. Nor do they come anywhere near the sublime musical heights of The Man That Got Away or the Born In A Trunk sequence from Garland's movie. I'm also inclined to think Gaga is sabotaged twice over in the film - first by the drab, make-up free, girl-next-door look she's given in the first half, then, rather more seriously, by the utterly hideous star makeover that lumbers her with an unflattering red wig that could have come from the drag bar featured early in the film. Without the make-up she's vaguely pretty if you're being generous. Post-makeover she looks like a cos-play fan at Comic Con. Even worse is the musical makeover Ally gets. Say what you like about how Streisand never meshed with the rock setting of her film, at least her musical numbers showcased her unique talent and she was thrillingly herself. Gaga, on the other hand, is required to morph into some gyrating Beyonce/J-Lo hybrid that does nothing to highlight her real and genuine talent.
And here's where I have another serious issue with Cooper's film. In all previous incarnations the heroine fights against attempts to package her as something she's not. She becomes more herself through the rise to stardom. Esther Blodgett becomes Vicki Lester, but she baulks at any extreme makeover. Esther Hoffman defiantly keeps both her name and her style. Ally, in Coopers' version, submits to both a musical and personal makeover without any real protest - and with seemingly no awareness that the physical makeover makes her look ridiculous. In the final scene she's ditched the red hair, but that's the only sign she might be standing up for herself. Ally is also more submissive generally. Jackson is already pretty far gone when they meet, so she knows he's doomed. But she goes there anyway, which makes her something of a masochist and rather more of a victim. And when she's not trying to keep Jackson in line, Ally is running around cleaning up after her widowed father. There's no mention of Ally's mother, only a passing mention of Jackson's mother, but a great deal of talk about his father, and much screen time devoted to the tortured relationship with his older brother. All in all, it's a very male film, more concerned with male characters and male relationships. Ally gets a male best friend too. And the only "women" in her life are drag queens. This movie sure doesn't pass the Bechdel test. Indeed, it offers up a classic case of female erasure. So where Streisand's film is consciously feminist, with points to make about women's place in the world and in relationships, and a determination NOT to depict Esther as a victim, Cooper downplays Ally's strength and independence in favour of a narrative about men and their problems. In fact, if it weren't for the 70s fashions you could quite easily believe that Coopers movie was made in the 70s and Streisand's was made today. To that extent Streisand's movie has a sense of social purpose that Coopers' entirely lacks.
In short, I'd suggest Streisand's A Star Is Born deserves to be very favourably re-assessed in the wake of Cooper's film. Yes, the Streisand film was a vanity project. But hardly more so than Cooper's. Yes, her film was flawed and compromised, and copped a lot of flak. Cooper's film is, in my view, rather more seriously flawed, yet has attracted mostly unstinting praise. It sure pays to be a man in Hollywood.
The Alec Baldwin Show (2018)
But enough about me...
If you don't want to kill Alec Baldwin within the first ten minutes of his debut show then you're some kind of saint. His very first question to Robert de Niro is about how similar they are in so many ways. And so it continues. Baldwin can't go for more than a minute without bringing the conversation back to himself. Even when he appears to show some passing interest in de Niro as an actor it turns into sucking up to him, rather than digging for some kind of insight. And then it's back to Baldwin's attitude to making movies, raising his kids, Trump or whatever. Was there really no producer to rein Baldwin in? Or is his ego so appallingly inflated that nothing and no-one can control it?
First Man (2018)
Over-long, over-hyped, over-rated
The only real distinction of First Man may be that it's the first over-hyped and over-rated film of next year's Oscar crop. It's a film that is dismally defeated by its own subject matter at every turn. First it wants to be an illuminating, insightful study of Neil Armstrong. But on the evidence of everything it offers, Armstrong was simply not that interesting. If the most startling discovery about your hero is that he was sad about his infant daughter's death, then you're already in deep trouble. Nor is it hugely surprising that a guy who is dedicated to preparing for a mission to the moon isn't exactly a well-rounded, socially adept human being. But many a fascinating film has been built around a cerebral, emotionally-distant, socially awkward character, right? True enough, but it takes an actor with a much greater skill set than Ryan Gosling to make such a character interesting. First Man is essentially two hours of Gosling mooching around trying to find some way of making Armstrong's interior life compelling. That he fails isn't entirely due to his own shortcomings as an actor, but to a screenplay that does little more than rely on his good looks and the "glamour" of the space race to make Armstrong interesting. But the second big fail of First Man is that it doesn't offer us anything particularly new or interesting about the moon mission. Chazelle's strategy is to eschew the cliches of space movies - the focus on technology and the astronaut's eye view - and stay close on his heroes through interminable sequences in juddering space capsules. There's nothing new about this, other than it being the main, sometimes sole focus. Unfortunately, it becomes tedious long before we get to Apollo 11's trek to the moon. Even the ultimate moon sequence offers little that we don't already know from the grainy footage of the real event that everyone has seen hundreds of times. In short, the term "epic fail" could have been invented to describe First Man.
So many films and TV shows rely heavily on those convenient plot contrivances that we mostly just happily ignore. The hero on a mission always finds a park right outside wherever he or she happens to be going. The cop or secret agent pursued by dozens of baddies with machine guns miraculously wends his or her way unharmed through a virtual curtain of gunfire. But the plot contrivance that annoys me most is the open curtain that enables the private investigator, the secret admirer or the estranged mother to effortlessly observe the object of their interest through an open window (see the final scene of Stella / Stella Dallas for the quintessential execution of this classic). Normal people close their curtains after dark or when they're undressing, but apparently not in any movie or TV show. Here, with You, we have an entire series virtually built around this classic contrivance. Our anti-hero - stalker and serial killer Joe - spends much of the series observing his prey through her apartment window. And the curtains of Bec's street-level apartment on a busy New York street are NEVER drawn, even when she's getting undressed, having wild sex or walking about in her lingerie. It's odd and unlikely once or twice, but when it happens consistently it becomes increasingly preposterous. The unavoidable conclusion is that Bec is a total exhibitionist and, in her own way, as kinky and weird as Joe, who is forever watching her every move from across the street. I guess that means they're made for each other, so maybe it adds to the romance. If you go for that kind of thing.
The First (2018)
More life on Mars than there is in this series
Rarely, if ever, have I seen a pilot episode as utterly pointless as the first of The First. It purports to be a series about the first crewed mission to Mars, but there's nothing in the pilot that even addresses that premise. Instead - spoiler alert - we get a rocket that explodes shortly after take off, killing the entire crew. What follows - mostly just angst from all involved - could well be a docudrama about the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy. We learn nothing about the proposed mission to Mars - nothing about the logistics, the rationale, the politics. Nothing. And while starting a story about a mission with a major setback is potentially interesting, devoting an entire episode to that setback and nothing more, is just stupid. There's also little in the way of character development and not enough about the key relationships to make us care about anyone involved. It looks pretty much like Hulu has spent a truckload of money on a TV series written and produced by people who don't know the first thing about drama.
Dead Lucky (2018)
Seriously, shamefully sub-standard
When you consider how excellent the best of television is now, it's nothing short of shameful that Australian TV drama has, for the most part, not improved much since the 1980s. Sadly, Dead Lucky isn't even at good as the best of 80s Aussie drama. A tired, lazy concept (headstrong, combative detective... etc), unrealistic storyline, one-dimensional characters, woeful dialogue, creaky acting, bad accents... and so on. Normally capable actors like Simon Burke and Justine Clark come out looking as though they've just graduated from amateur rep. The colour palette and shooting style even manages to make Sydney look downright ugly. Rachel Griffiths is presumably there to add some star quality, but her heart doesn't seem to be in it. She clearly knows she's fighting a losing battle. Why, SBS? Why?
The Revival (2017)
An unholy mess
If you're won over by the number of suspiciously similar ten star reviews for The Revival, then you're likely to be sorely dismayed by the actual film. At best, it's a well- intentioned effort - a story that attempts to skewer the brutal hypocrisy and stupidity of homophobia and religion. It's also competently directed and well-acted. But that's about where it ends. The story revolves around the attraction between a wayward, closeted preacher and an itinerant, meth-brewing homeless man - a promising premise, but unfortunately there's not even a speck of psychological truth along the way. Even if you can suspend disbelief on the relationship, there a some astoundingly ham-fisted scenes along the way, like the one in which Daniel, who is brewing meth in Eli's cabin, clumsily outs himself with a random, unprovoked reference to making meth. (Never mind that Eli doesn't smell the foul and noxious fumes that meth-cooking produces.) . It all builds to a denouement that is supposed to be "shocking" and "powerful", but falls entirely flat because nothing about it is believable. I'm all for films that expose religious hypocrisy, but trying to do so with cartoonish villains and loaded melodrama isn't going to lead any bigots to have another think about what Jesus might do. The two stars are for Zachary Booth who is gorgeous and deserves better.
Book Club (2018)
Stylish, but silly
By all means, watch this movie for the home decor (some really great kitchens), style tips (Diane Keaton is, as ever, impeccable), smart one-liners (expertly delivered) or Hollywood pizzazz (four very well-preserved leading ladies). It is a satisfying entertainment on all those levels - slickly produced and tastefully photographed; a light, sugary, nutritionally dubious confection of a movie. Just, whatever you do, don't stop to think about any of it. The moment you do the whole thing collapses into a sloppy, nonsensical and rather offensive heap. For one thing, all four of the central characters are patronisingly written as smart, accomplished women who are nevertheless shockingly incapable of doing even the slightest thing in the interests of their own personal happiness. Diane Keaton's character - Diane! - is bullied by her daughters into moving all the way to Arizona before she can work up the nerve to tell them that she's perfectly happy living her own life and isn't ready yet for the granny flat (or, in this case, basement). It may serve the story structure and deliver a (sort of) emotionally-satisfying crisis and climax, but it makes her pathetic and spineless. And it takes all of Keaton's likability to make it fly. It's pretty much the same dynamic with the other characters too. Fortunately, Fonda, Bergen and Steenburgen also have just enough charisma and energy to (mostly) distract from the preposterousness of it all. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a little escapism. But you'd think that these four smart women would be able to insist on slightly smarter escapism.
How It Ends (2018)
The NRA presents....
Look beyond the surface and this is a nasty little movie. There's an intriguing premise, deft use of suspense, and a seemingly diverse cast of characters (multi-racial couple, female mechanic, etc), but underlying it all is a right-wing agenda that leaves you wondering if it was financed by a coalition of the NRA and the dopiest of evangelical Christians. Forest Whittaker plays a supposedly "badass" (read: asshole) who has practically no redeeming features, but that's okay because he's a retired serviceman, so his patriotism and machismo is beyond question. That said, for a badass, he walks into about the most obvious roadside ambush ever, and is a consistently rotten just of character. He and his prospective son-in-law also trudge doggedly onward, despite mounting signs that their journey is doomed, if not merely extremely unwise - and at no point to they pause to contemplate the possible cause of the various signs of apocalypse along the way. This is perhaps because the signs don't ever really add up to anything except this: it's dangerous up ahead; buy a gun.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018)
What would Joan have said?!
There's so much that's wrong with this new version of the Australian classic that it's hard to know where to start. First there's the direction - tricksy, flashy and sprinkled with "creative" flourishes more evocative of 80s music videos than Australia in 1900. It's uneven from episode to episode, unhelpful in establishing the kind of eerie, dreamy atmosphere that the story demands, and frequently just yanks us out of the period and out of the story. The performances are jarringly uneven too, ranging from naturalistic (though, unfortunately, in an anachronistic contemporary style) to fruity amateur-theatrical emoting, with highly questionable accents. The location for the girl's school is ludicrously lavish, a sprawling mansion replete with marble columns and ornate fixtures - an unlikely girl's school anywhere in Australia at any time, but utterly nonsensical in a remote rural area in 1900. And then there's the depiction of the bush and hanging rock itself - over-saturated hues that make everything seem green and lush, and even a shimmering lake. It looks more English than Australian, and absolutely nothing like the dry Macedon Ranges in which the story is set. The same lack of care extends to the dialogue and the depiction of social conventions of the time, with almost every exchange between "the gentry" and the lower orders being hilariously unlikely. If you watch this Picnic with the expectation of something eerie and other-worldly, you may well find it... and it's most likely the sound of poor Joan Lindsay turning in her grave.
Interesting idea, clumsily executed
This series has been slyly promoted as inspired by the Murdoch dynasty, which can't help but create certain expectations. And, why not, because the politics and the family dynamics around the Murdoch succession would make for a pretty good series. But for all the verisimilitude, Succession doesn't quite measure up. The problem for those in the know is that the dynamics of the Murdoch clan are more interesting than anything offered up here. And the more Succession tries to make its possible successors interesting and quirky - Kieran Culkin's wacky Roman Roy being the most obvious example - the less convincing it all seems. For those looking for a thinly veiled evisceration of Rupert it's also an exercise in diminishing returns. Brian Cox's family patriarch is frail from the outset, and possibly a bit senile as well. And it's hard to imagine Rupert ever even considering ceding power to any of his wives, as Logan Roy does. In Murdoch terms, Logan is a bit of a pussy, as are most of his offspring. If you're going to base a series on a real family dynasty, then you might as well go for broke and make it as sleazy and as nasty as the real thing.
High & Dry (2018)
A shameful throwback
A mirthless sitcom with idiot characters and desperate plot-lines is hardly news. But I am mildly surprised that Channel 4 would commission a deeply homophobic schlock comedy that has the unenlightened sensibilities of a 1960s Carry On film or a lowbrow 1970s sitcom. In High and Dry Marc Wootton plays Brett, an airline "trolly dolly" who could have been a friend of Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? or one of Dick Emery's cast of stereotypical characters. He's insufferably camp in that too-gay-to-function way that almost no real life person could be. But, worse, there is an underlying pathology to Brett that betrays the homophobia in both the writing and the performance. Brett is the very embodiment of the predatory homo - the kind of pervert we were once warned about - and half the jokes revolve around him trying to seduce straight Douglas and ward off any attempts to interfere with the fantasy of Brett making the island on which they are stranded a paradise for two. Which points to the second strand of homophobia: Brett is not just comedy-crazy, he is psychopathic. Textbook definition psychopathic, actually. And since Brett pretty much drives the action, the nastiness that generates suffuses almost every scene and plot point, to the point where the whole show is one stinking pile of offensive dreck. Best avoided. The two stars are for Vicki Pepperdine, who is talented and has my sympathy.
Rebel in the Rye (2017)
Worth it for Hoult and Spacey
This may be an old-fashioned bio-pic, but there's nothing terribly wrong with that. It's subject is intriguing, the story it tells is emotionally engaging and - unlike so many recent, showier bio-pics (The Imitation Game springs immediately to mind) - it doesn't play so fast and loose with the facts that you're left questioning whether it was really worth the effort. It's slickly directed and boasts a cast of extremely fine actors, among them Victor Garber, Hope Davis, Jefferson Mays and Sarah Paulson. But the two main reasons for watching are Nicholas Hoult and Kevin Spacey. Hoult gives his best performance since A Single Man, while Spacey (as Salinger's teacher and mentor) pretty much steals every scene he's in. If recent revelations result in Spacey being forever black-listed by Hollywood it will be a great shame.