Clouds in my Coffee

I visit my local cafe regularly. For the purposes of this post I shall call it Cafe Proximity. This place is ridiculously near by. How close is it? I occasionally think of walking to the slightly more distant cafe to give my pedometer something to do. But I don’t. The nearer java-slinger plays a steady stream of Generation X hits like Spandau Ballet’s “True” and (perhaps as a result) it is less busy and more in need of my custom. The farther joint, which I will now dub Espresso Hipster, is going gangbusters. It is populated by young mums who have just fast-walked the entire suburb and parked their strollers three deep on the footpath outside. I can’t be dealing with their kind of vigorous energy on a Sunday morning, nor do I wish to be the only person on the premises not wearing yoga pants. So I slump in a Cafe Proximity plastic chair and listen to the likes of Cold Chisel and Carly Simon whilst waiting for a small latte that will be delivered with a complimentary Tiny Teddy clinging to the lid.

As youse know, we’re all about the coffee now. This was not always the case in this continent of Australis. I come from an era when “coffee” meant a nice cup of instant; a Nescafe Blend 43 or its equivalent. As my friend Ed likes to point out, back when we were students, Nescafe was the gold standard for instant and we only bought it when we were in funds, so mostly we drank International Roast. If we were really strapped for cash, we drank “Pablo”. It was a signal moment, somewhere in the early ’90s, when we all moved in unison to drinking the rather pricier Moccona Medium Roast. Suddenly, this was the instant of choice and none of the lesser coffees were acceptable.

Shortly thereafter, the mainstreaming of “real coffee” commenced, although proto-hipsters had been slugging back espressos, short blacks and long maccs for decades. Or to put it another way, the neo-beats, the pre-slackers, the black-clad caffeine cognoscenti, had long purchased their drop from the Italian Australians who brought decent coffee to Oz in the first place. In their restaurants, cafes, continental stores and homes, these Mediterranean folk knew a Moka pot from a Sunbeam ceramic kettle jug.

So we, as a country, skilled up a couple of notches. We learnt to drink flat whites, cappuccinos and lattes. This was deemed “not the done thing” by those in the know. Posers, recently returned from their first tour of the northern hemisphere, explained how these capps etc. were too milky and this is not how they did it in Rome. The changes were coming thick and fast. Chain store coffee arrived and we tried imitating how they did it in America and we got that wrong, too. We joked about ordering a “tall” or a “venti” or a half double decaffeinated half-caf with a twist of lemon, because we saw Steve Martin do it in LA Story.

You see, if the Americans or the Europeans are into it, whatever it is, be it tiramisu, planking or the First World War, we Aussies gotta be part of that action. Which is why we loved it when American movie star George Clooney started shilling go juice in capsules for European food giant Nestlé. The timing was excellent, we had decided a daily store-bought coffee was pricey and we needed a cheaper alternative. The Nespresso machine filled the Nespresso-shaped hole in our hearts.

We in the Wide Brown Land are now perched at the rim of the third millennium of our triumphant Western Civilisation. We’re free to enjoy our coffees in a myriad of ways, including served up chilled in a carton made from liquid paperboard. We’ve never had it so good, people. Any day now, we shall be sitting in our solar-powered, driverless car, taking an Instagram of our drone-delivered, 3D printed, lupin-infused, artisinal, drip-brewed chai-puccino. And in the foam on top, sprinkled in finely milled Ethiopian Teff grain, these words: “I am one of those who think that humanity will draw more good, than evil, from new discoveries – Marie Curie.”

Content Sponge #9

Welcome to Content Sponge, my capsulet reviews of things, usually televisual, but occasionally textual. For the foreseeable future, this semi-regular feature will be an imageless affair, as will this blog. Reason being that I am now super-mature and have no need for the frippery of illustrative pictures. Join me in the theatre of the mind, people!

I watched the following recently, all on Netflix or Stan. Through luck, not design, they are all comedies.

LADY DYNAMITE (Season 1)

US stand up Maria Bamford is sometimes described as a comedians’ comedian, which is one way of saying “not mainstream”. For years she has been doing stand up which is quite unlike anyone else’s. Her ability to switch between different character voices has been parlayed into numerous animation gigs. In her act, she is prepared to strip down a character into a series of sounds and partial phrases as if to say, don’t be fooled by the appearance of a coherent narrative, we are all moments away from falling to pieces.

Underpinning her sonic presentation is the topic of mental illness. Bamford’s own struggles means she has plenty to say about our perceptions of mental health and sanity. Her new Netflix show is divided into three times zones related to the Bamford character break down (before, recovery, aftermath). This is roughly autobiographical and has been touched upon in The Maria Bamford Show web series (2009) and her video download comedy special The Special Special Special! (2012).

The producers of the Netflix show are Mitchell Hurwitz (ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) and Pam Brady (SOUTH PARK)  and they have created a determinedly unformulaic comedy that probably would not be made outside of subscriber television. The meat of the story is Bamford’s fictionalised journey through show business as her manager, Bruce Ben-Bacharach (Fred Melamed) secures her terrible gig after terrible gig. We also see her family relationship and love life. The fourth wall is frequently broken, there are surreal story tangents and characters that may be the product of Maria’s mind.

There is a solid supporting cast that includes Ana Gasteyer, Dean Cain, Mo Collins Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Junior. The excellent guest-cast of stand ups and comic actors includes Patton Oswalt, Wendie Malick, Missi Pyle, John Mulaney and June Diane Raphael. Maria Bamford fans are likely to enjoy the show. For everyone else, this is a quite different comedy about a comedian. It is nothing like LOUIE (2010-) or GARFUNKEL AND OATES (2014). Watch a couple if these and see what you think.

THE UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT (Season 2)

Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s sitcom returns. Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) is a young woman who was an unwilling member of a Doomsday Cult. She was kidnapped and trapped in a bunker with three other women by an evil but charismatic preacher, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm). Season 1 was about Kimmy’s release from the bunker, moving to New York and then confronting the Reverend in a televised court case back home in Durnsville, Indiana.

Season 2 is necessarily less focused on a main narrative thread. Kimmy has gained a new sense of her own identity, lost a boyfriend and is looking for her mother. She is also looking for different work now her former employer and (sort of) friend Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski) has left New York. Her roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess) finds a boyfriend and their landlady Lillian (Carol Kane) fights the gentrification of their area. Hipsters beware.

The diffuseness of this new narrative blunted the overall feel of Season 2 for me. The story felt somewhat forced at times and so I enjoyed the series a little less. Having said that, series regulars Kemper, Krakowski, Kane and Burgess are in absolutely cracking form. As with later seasons of Fey’s 30 ROCK (2006-13), the gags are layered, the pace is blistering and the pop cultural referencing is intense.

GRACE AND FRANKIE (Season 2)

The premise for this show is rather high concept. Grace, the retired cosmetics mogul (Jane Fonda) and a hippy artist, Frankie (Lily Tomlin) discover their 40 year marriages to their husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Wasterston) are a sham. The men are partners in a law firm and have been secretly in love with each other for years. Season 1 begins with Robert and Sol divorcing Frankie and Grace. The men move in together and so do the women. This is far from ideal for Frankie and Grace because they can barely tolerate each other.

By the beginning of Season 2, Grace and Frankie have a workable friendship, although it still has rocky patches. As in the first season, this comedy-drama cleverly explores family dynamics, addiction, gender, identity politics, class and ageing. Tomlin and Fonda are consistently great. They had their characters nailed from season one. Waterston and Sheen seem more settled in their roles and are given more drama in their storyline this season. The fact that the four grown-up kids of the two marriages are basically supporting roles, yet have defined story arcs, is a tribute to the depth of the writing and producing talent. The performers, Ethan Embry, Brooklyn Decker and Baron Vaughn are solid, week in and week out. June Diane Raphael plays the daughter who now heads Grace’s cosmetic empire and is frequently the MVP of the offspring quartet. The show has been renewed for a third season.

ANGIE TRIBECA (Season 1)

Rashida Jones (Ann Perkins of PARKS AND RECREATION) stars as hard working veteran LAPD cop Angie Tribeca. The show is the creation of Steve Carrell and Nancy Walls Carrell. It is not a police sitcom like BROOKLYN NINE-NINE (2013-2016), but a parody of police procedurals. It is nothing at all like Paul Scheer’s NTSF: SD: SUV:: (2011-2013) which tackles the action film genre as well as CSI type cop shows (and also starred June Diane Raphael). ANGIE TRIBECA is a parody of older style television police dramas like TJ HOOKER and POLICEWOMAN.

It takes its literalist sight gags and puns from POLICE SQUAD! (1982) and flips the cop partner dynamic from SLEDGE HAMMER! (1986-88). The female cop, Tribeca, is the tough go-getter prepared to break the rules, the male cop (played by Hayes MacArthur) is the sensible, cautious one. His character is named Jay Geils like J.Geils of the J. Geils band. Much of the humor operates at this old-fashioned Mad Magazine level.

Rashida Jones is an unusual choice for the lead. In PARKS and the US version of THE OFFICE she played grounded characters, the comic foil, the feed for the big laugh getters (most often Amy Poehler or Aubrey Plaza). Jones takes a while to find her feet with this new character. The show as a whole begins to click about half way through the season. Or maybe I had tuned into their vibe. Not sure.

I enjoyed this but didn’t find it compelling, precisely because I remember those older parodies. I feel the best audience for ANGIE TRIBECA is anyone who hasn’t seen POLICE SQUAD! Or SLEDGE HAMMER! Season 2 is screening now on STAN.

Film Review: Eye in the Sky (2015)

USA/UK 102 minutes/4 stars

A joint Anglo-American military operation is about to take place. A terrorist group has gathered in a compound, in a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya. The plan is to capture and question the group. The targets are surveilled from on high with a sophisticated drone that has a missile payload on board. On the ground, there are agents with cameras and listening devices. This profusion of electronic eyes and ears on the Nairobi house helps to link together team leader Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) in Surrey with a British government and military panel in London and to US Air Force drone pilots in Nevada. It is these last two, Watts (Aaron Paul) and Gershon (Phoebe Fox) who are charged with the actual responsibility for any kills that might result if an engagement takes place. If a missile is fired, then Watts will be the one to hit the button.

The operation looks set to change as a result of intelligence uncovered by one of the agents on the ground. Jama Farah (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS’ Barkad Abdi) uses some nifty snooping devices to uncover the unexpected range of weaponry inside the house. The terrorists have even greater lethal capacity than they had imagined. The international team considers whether the objective should now be firing the missile and killing the terrorists.

This begins a complex process of dealing with this question by “referring up” the chain of command. The civil, military, political and ethical points are argued in the United States, Britain and in Kenya by various individuals fighting for their competing agendas. If they attack the house now they have the element of surprise and will likely succeed in killing some significant terrorists. However, in doing so they will cause much collateral damage that will likely result in the deaths innocent civilians. Time is also a pressure because the terrorists are preparing to leave their compound.

The question at hand: How many people is it reasonable to accidentally kill now, in order to save the lives of potential terrorism victims later? And are you prepared to live with consequences?

South African filmmaker Gavin Hood (2013’s ENDER’S GAME) uses his home country to double for Kenya in this British thriller. The film has an international feel that reflects the cast and the choice of location. The audience is given a rare insight into the process of co-operation across borders in order to prosecute the War on Terror. Any idea of the drones providing detachment from the act of killing is soon lost. The film makes it clear that there are some circumstances where having a chain of command and numerous others to share responsibility will not absolve you of your ethical duties to others, nor your moral duty to yourself.

Hood’s film has some solid performances, including one of the late Alan Rickman’s last cinematic outings. It is a think piece with emotional weight. While the diplomats, soldiers and politicians argue on screen, we think about what we might do in the same position. What would we do if the responsibility were ours?

This review also appears in AccessReel.com

Film Review: The Daughter (2016)

Australia/95 minutes/4 stars

Henry (Geoffrey Rush), a man in his 60s, is the patriarch of a family who runs the sawmill in a small NSW town. Everyone in the district knows his family and most are employed at the sawmill. Henry is soon to be married to his former housekeeper, Anna (Anna Torv) who is thirty years his junior.

The wedding is a large affair although the only people invited from the town itself are Charlotte (Miranda Otto) a teacher at the local school, her husband Oliver (Ewan Leslie) a mill worker and their 16-year-old daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young). Their connection to the wedding is Oliver’s friendship with Henry’s adult son Christian (Paul Schneider). The pair were at university together twenty-years ago and Oliver is excited to be catching up with his old friend. Christian has been working in the USA and when he flies in for the wedding, it rapidly becomes clear that he has spent so many years abroad because he is estranged from Henry.

Christian puts everyone on edge. His is a restless presence and it seems he has scores to settle and is not too worried about collateral damage. Charlotte doesn’t trust him but says nothing. Largely oblivious to all of this is Hedvig. She concerns herself with her school friends and the menagerie of birds and rabbits that her grandfather (Sam Neill) keeps. The two families are opposites socially and financially, but their past and future are bound together by a secret.

THE DAUGHTER is a loose adaptation of Ibsen’s 1884 play, The Wild Duck. This is writer-director Simon Stone’s first feature. He directed a theatrical version five years ago for Belvoir St Theatre. Apparently the feature takes some elements from that production but is more naturalistic (the default mode of Australian film). It is completely unrelated to Henri Safran’s Edwardian-set Australian version of THE WILD DUCK (1983) starring Liv Ullman, Jeremy Irons and John Meillon

The strength of Stone’s modernized version is in the writing and performances. Despite some minor missteps towards the end, the director rarely puts a foot wrong in this impressive feature debut. The solid cast had two standouts, Ewan Leslie as Oliver and Paul Schneider as Christian. Despite his extensive theatre and television credits, I have somehow missed seeing Leslie in anything. I imagine he will be seen in higher profile roles after this. Schneider, who played Mark Brendanawicz on the first two seasons of Parks and Recreation (and always seemed miscast) is perfect as a neer-do-well, damaged son. When you realize what kind of pain the character is harbouring, you have concerns for the others. Odessa Young’s engaging performance as Hedvig has also garnered strong notices.

THE DAUGHTER is about the ways wealth and power can insulate people from the consequences of their actions. The movie is in Australian cinemas now in limited release. This is a well-made adult drama with an excellent cast.

This review also appears in AccessReel.com

Film Review: Brooklyn (2016)

Canada/Ireland 112 minutes/3 stars

Ireland, 1952. A young woman called Eilis Lacey works part time in a shop. She despises the owner the poisonous Miss Kelly, but there is no work in her small town of Enniscorthy. The lack of opportunity leads her older sister Rose to arrange for her passage to the United States. As reluctant as she is to leave her mother and her sister, Eilis makes the journey. On her way over, she finds herself in a cabin with a more experienced woman who informs her of the mysterious land to which they are heading. She tells Eilis that she wished she had never returned to Ireland. Eilis can’t imagine what her new life will be like. She can’t imagine thinking of America as home.

When she arrives in the USA, Eilis is helped by Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) who emigrated years previously. He arranges for her accommodation at a women’s boarding house run by the matronly Madge Kehoe. He also finds her a job at Bartocci’s department store. Eilis has to find her way in a new culture and overcome her small town shyness in the giant city she now calls home.

And then an earthquake hits which precipitates a tsunami…kidding! There are big events in Eilis’s life, but this is a small story set in a time of relative (American) prosperity. It is precisely the ordinariness of Eilis Lacey’s existence, that makes this a feat of storytelling. Nothing huge happens in BROOKLYN, but director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby bring out the nuance and commonplace drama of Colm Tóibín’s award-winning novel. Audiences with long memories might be put in mind of the kitchen sink realism of 1950s British film, theatre and literature. The images themselves are more beautiful than that would suggest, but the interaction between characters is at a personal and intimate scale.

Saoirse Ronan puts in a beautiful, restrained performance as Eilis. Emory Cohen is faintly anachronistic as Tony Fiorello, an Italian who likes Irish women. Julie Walters is robustly amusing as Madge Kehoe and Jim Broadbent, who often likes to go big, chews no scenery in this outing. There are times when the computer-generated version of old Brooklyn seems a little too clean, which at a guess, probably reflects the film’s very tight budget. That being said, the 1950s look and feel of the movie is mostly convincing.

BROOKLYN is near the end of its Australian run and should be seen by anyone who is interested in a story about leaving home and building a life elsewhere. This is a simple tale, satisfyingly told.

This review also appears in AccessReel.com

Film Review: Zootopia (2016)

USA/108 minutes/4 stars

In a world of talking mammals where humans do not exist, there is a rabbit called Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) who dreams of being a police officer in the city of Zootopia. There has never been a rabbit cop before, but Hopps is determined. She eventually becomes the first rabbit to make it through the police academy, but she discovers that her fellow officers do not take her seriously. She is sneered at for her small stature and the fact that she isn’t a predator. Years ago, the creatures of this world decided that predators and prey had to make peace in order for society to thrive, however there are still many animals who don’t accept this new world order.

Her boss Bogo, a giant buffalo, won’t give Judy an opportunity to show what she is capable of until one day she elbows her way into a missing persons case. She also crosses paths with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox and a con artist. Through a complex series of events, the fox and the rabbit form a reluctant team and go on the hunt to discover what is happening to the missing animals.

The conception of Disney’s ZOOTOPIA is in part inspired by the studio’s 1973 version of ROBIN HOOD. That was also a world entirely peopled by animals. Co-director Byron Howard took this concept to Disney’s animation supremo, John Lasseter who loved the idea. Nick Wilde’s design is clearly inspired by the Robin Hood fox. At this point, Wilde was the central character in the narrative, but as the development process wore on, it became clear that Judy Hopps, the rookie cop from the sticks, was going to be the best way to tell the story.

Prejudice and diversity are the currents running near the surface of ZOOTOPIA. Numerous gags deal with the differences in size, speed and powers of the the animals. The message does not overwhelm the story-telling. Directors Howard (TANGLED) and Rich Moore (WRECK-IT RALPH) are smart enough to lead with the action and comedy and the result is a sophisticated entertainment aimed at family audiences. The main story has the familiar structure of a police procedural, but there is enough colour and movement to keep the kids engaged. This was certainly the case at the screening I attended.

The story also tugs at the threads of popular culture. It has elements that remind one of CHINATOWN (1974) or WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988). Judy Hopps is an echo of Clarice Starling from 1991’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (rest assured parents, none of these animated carnivores devours a victim with a side of fava beans). Hopps and Wilde’s relationship is (in a G-rated way) patterned after material like television’s Castle. However, there isn’t that wall-to-wall pop culture referencing that sometimes mars big studio animated features. ZOOTOPIA is substantially its own thing; it’s not a sequel, not a reboot, nor is it based on an existing comic or novel.

The animation and voice performances are top shelf. Goodwin and Bateman are excellent as the leads. They actually have chemistry. Which is a little weird to see on screen and to write in a film review. I wasn’t in love with the character design and animation as I was with Disney’s BIG HERO 6, but that’s me nit-picking. This production has all the polish and talent that big studio bucks can buy, right down to the theme song sung by Shakira and written by Sia and Stargate.

This review also appears in Accessreel.com

Is It Biscuit Tin-able?

Pro_HartLook, I don’t know anything about Art, but I do know what I like. And I like biscuits, especially ones that come in fancy tins. Flash bicky tins have been with us for more than a century. Often they simply depict the brand’s name or perhaps a litho’d portrait of the Royals or a random dignitary (there is more than one Winston Churchill tin out in the world). I am here to argue that the great biscuit tins come with a lid that reproduces great art. It’s a marriage baked in heaven.

NV_Biscuitfabriek 1950
Although I am very impressed with this embossed reproduction (above) of the detail from Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1950s for NV Biscuitfabriek), I favour something more toned down like this Louis Garin tin (below) from Bicuiterie St Michel (also 1950s).

St Michel_1950s
Arnott’s Bicuits Limited has had plenty of Australia artists on its tins like Maynard Waters, Brian Baigent and Pro Hart (top of this post) especially during the 1970s and ‘80s. I believe now is the time for them to get contempo and cook up an appealing matrix of rising dough and social media. For example, how about slapping the annual Archibald prize winner on a tin?

Archibald

Even though we’re not telepathically linked, somehow, I can hear you putting the question: Do we necessarily want to see Nigel Milsom’s 2015 Archibald winning portrait of barrister Charles Waterstreet gracing the top of a special edition Assorted Creams tin, Phil? I mean it’s rather foreboding an image–it’s not exactly biscuit tin-able, is it?

Well, if there’s anything I have learnt from the BBC’s Fake or Fortune, it’s that in Art and Cultural circles, it is no rare thing for a group of people, who regard themselves as experts, to gather about a table in a room, in closed session and pronounce the authenticity, or excellence, or award-worthiness, of a cultural artifact.

So what I’m saying is this: if, in future, an Arnott’s Biscuit Tin Art Selection Committee deems any painting to be biscuit tin-able, then by the expert power invested in them by themselves, biscuit tin-able that artwork shall be.

Even if we don’t like it, Art will be the winner and we can always push down any negative feelings with a delicious mouthful of Arnott’s Monte Carlos.

Monte Carlos

Film Review: Calvary (2014)

Calvary

2014/UK-Ireland/101 minutes

Father James Lavelle is the priest of a small town in County Sligo. One day while taking confession, a man tells Lavelle of how he was raped by a priest numerous times from the age of 11. The Father’s attempts to deal with him are futile because the man isn’t looking for absolution from his sins, rather he is there to make a statement. No one cared about his plight during his childhood or since. He was ignored by the Church. Since the priest who committed the sex crimes has died, the man believes the only way to bring attention to his sufferings is by killing another priest, in particular, a good priest like Father Lavelle. He tells Lavelle he has a week to get his affairs in order. He intends to carry out the execution the next Sunday.

From this point, the story counts down until the confrontation. At first, Lavelle thinks he might know the man from his voice, but as the days pass he becomes less certain. He reports the threat to the police. He worries about what will happen and imagines how he might talk the man out his plan when they meet face to face. The audience is left to sort through the potential suspects of this future murder. We become acquainted with the townsfolk and are given a profusion of clues and red herrings. The parishioners are an unsettled group. Almost everyone has an axe to grind. The town’s atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) delights in poking at the Father with a metaphorical stick, but none of the believers seems to care too much for the Catholic Church, either.

CALVARY is director John Michael McDonagh take on the state of contemporary Ireland. It is an impassioned film that attempts to portray the depth of disillusionment with the Catholic Church after the numerous investigations into child sexual abuse crimes by priests and nuns. The transferring of known abusers to new parishes, and the years of denials of wrongdoing, has substantially damaged the public’s trust in the formerly revered institution. In the movie, it seems all the townspeople have negative things to say to Lavelle; to them, he is the representative of an organisation that has not yet answered for its sins. Does the Church have any moral authority of any kind, anymore? This is the big question that Lavelle struggles with as Sunday approaches. McDonagh’s last feature was the critical hit, THE GUARD. It also had things to say about Ireland, but it used comedy and satire to make its points. CALVARY is different in that it’s a drama with comedic moments. It is an angrier film, that exists to deliver a stinging rebuke to the Church and its attempts to silence the victims of clerical sexual abuse of children. The other institutions of the land don’t escape McDonagh’s attentions, either.

Brendan Gleeson is powerful as Father Levelle. He plays a good man who thinks he can make a difference to the world. He has come by this idea through the hard knocks of his former life. The rest of the cast is also top notch. The excellent cinematography reveals the wild beauty of the landscape that serves as the main release from the tension of the story. Although the script loses some steam towards the end, McDonagh has crafted a serious film that packs a hefty emotional punch. (3.5/5)

This review was also published in AccessReel.com

Content Sponge #8

In which I briefly review the telly what I watched this year so far, on various platforms. In this edition: Deutschland 83, The Honourable Woman, Agent Carter, The Fades, Love, Jack Irish and Fake or Fortune.

This irregular feature Content Sponge returns to philjengkane.com after a long slumber. Blinking the sleep from its eyes to discover a new world where Malcolm Turnbull is Australian PM, iPhones are the size of mini iPads, Australia has an entrant in the Eurovision Song Contest and Donald Trump is the Republican front runner for Presidential nominee. So many changes. Disoriented, Content Sponge looks to the past, specifically back thirty-three years…

DEUTSCHLAND ’83

deutschland-83-large

This eight-part television series is the creation of a German and American couple Anna and Joerg Winger and co-produced with German and American investors. It tells the story of Martin Rauch an East German border guard in 1983. The Cold War is still being fought. In East Germany the Stasi (secret police) have a comprehensive spying program operating in West Germany. One Stasi operative, Leonora Rauch (Maria Schrader), realises her nephew Martin would be an effective choice to go under cover in West Germany and pose as the new aide-de-camp to a Major-General Edel (Ulrich Noethen). This would give them a conduit to NATO and its operations.

Jonas Nay, the young actor who plays Martin, does a terrific job as the series’ lead. In the beginning, he has some belief in his mission and wants to impress his family and his superiors. As time goes on, when he has to perform more morally questionable tasks, he begins to question what he is doing. The series veers from the comedic differences between East and West into the serious consequences of constant deception. This is the thematic counterpart to the US series THE AMERICANS. It begins brighter than that show, but becomes bleaker as it moves towards its season 1 conclusion. Some of the interiors for the Stasi HQ were shot in the actual building itself (it is now the Stasi Museum in real-life). This gives those scenes a certain visual authenticity.

I found the series compelling. I enjoyed seeing actors I didn’t know from numerous other television shows. The tone is uneven at times, but the historical details are fascinating. The series is in German with English subtitles. Oddly the German version has New Order’s Blue Monday as its main theme music. The UK/US version has the rather catchy Euro-hit Major Tom (Coming Home) by Peter Schilling. Remember him? Me neither.

THE HONOURABLE WOMAN

The Honorable woman blog

Memory and history are also at the forefront this next series. The story begins with a senseless killing many years ago in London. It is the death that shapes the worldview of Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a wealthy English woman who has recently been elevated to the peerage. She is the head off her family business, a telecommunications company with an international reach. They are working on a controversial West Bank optical fibre project that involves Israelis and Palestinians. The Steins’ Anglo-Jewish heritage means they are constantly accused of betrayal and favouritism. Nessa considers her business to be integral to the Middle East Peace process. Two major events, another murder and a kidnapping throw her project and her worldview into question.

This eight-part BBC series written and directed by Hugo Blick has great ambitions that are thwarted by its overly complex plotting and a severe lack of characters one can care about. Veteran actor Stephen Rea gets to be rumpled and pathetic in the Le Carre-esque spy part of the story. Unfortunately this also involves a wonky characterisation from the usually great Janet McTeer. She play’s Rea’s scheming boss with a lot of unconvincing sex-talk sprinkled among the hip and equally unconvincing spy-lingo. Nessa Stein is a fairly terrible creation, too, moving uneasily between unpleasant A-type assertiveness, dazzling people skills and complete emotional surrender. Gyllenhaal does all of this brilliantly, nails the accent flawlessly and deservedly won a Golden Globe for her pains. The series is hard work, though, and the occasional good bit of drama did not make up for its confusing storytelling and unlikeability.

AGENT CARTER (Season 2)

Agent Carter

The diametrically opposite on the likeability scale is AGENT CARTER. The series is spun off Marvel’s Captain America movies and focuses on the character of British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). For two seasons, the show has run during the midseason break in Marvel’s AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. (AOS) Carter is a mostly straightforward two-fisted hero differentiated mainly by being in a woman in a man’s world. She is constantly underestimated by her enemies and her brother agents. Carter works for the S.S.R., a forerunner to S.H.I.E.L.D. and her allies include Iron Man’s dad Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and the original Jarvis (James D’Arcy). She fights the rise of Hydra and various other post-war criminal conspiracies.

The feel of the series is very like its Captain America source material and other adventure entertainment of the 1940s. Carter could stand with The Phantom and early Batman. She uses cunning and subterfuge when necessary but is just as likely to choose a frontal attack on an enemy. In comic book terms, this story is pre-X-Men, pre-Watchmen and pre-Dark Knight. It is also set in a pre-Civil rights, pre-E.R.A., pre-Watergate world where the study of psychology is not yet a commonplace. Carter relies on her unerring sense of integrity to get her through any situation. The makers of the show have chosen the lens of old-fashioned heroism with a feminist twist and it works surprisingly well.

I note that Peggy Carter may be turning in her badge and Walther PPK. Hayley Atwell has apparently signed on to a US procedural drama called CONVICTION.

THE FADES

The fades_blog

Jumping sideways and tangentially to the 2011 six-part UK supernatural drama series THE FADES. I came across this because certain AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. fans reference it constantly because it stars AOS’s Iain De Caestecker (Leo Fitz).

It’s a basic hero’s journey for De Caestecker’s Paul character. Only he starts way behind Paul Atreides, Luke Skywalker or the Matrix’s Neo, socially speaking. By the way, the series knowingly and annoyingly name-checks other geekery in a similar fashion. It does however have a Buffy-esque sense of humour (I will stop, promise) and a surprisingly offbeat dark tone. De Castecker and Daniel Kaluuya (SKINS) are a comically co-dependant duo of geek buddies. GAME OF THRONES’ Natalie Dormer also makes an impact here.

Paul is a bed-wetting teen who flies way under the radar, but he has been having dreams about the Apocalypse. And they’re turning out to be premonitions. The vengeful dead (fades) are rising and there’s seems to be no one who can stop them. The series was penned by Jack Thorne and it won a BAFTA, but somehow couldn’t get renewed for a second season. That’s a shame, because it deserved a second bite of the cherry.

LOVE (Season 1)

Love the blog

Man, I binge-watched the hell out of this ten episode Netflix comedy series. I almost can’t tell if it was good or not. This, by the way, is how I feel about Aziz Ansari’s recent Netflix comedy series MASTER OF NONE. I certainly liked some of that, but the bingedness of my watching, simply downloading into my eyeballs like others might ingest a can of Pringles, makes me wonder if I missed certain nuances of performance and theme. Or perhaps entire plot strands. I should probably start pacing these out a little, like a mature adult might do; which is the other way to Netflix and chill.

As for the boldly named LOVE it is the creation of the ubiquitous Judd Apatow, working with husband and wife team Leslie Arfin and Paul Rust. Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and Gus (Paul Rust) meet and feel some kind of attraction and then NOTHING happens between them for a number of episodes. We, the audience, get to know them better. They start off stereotypically enough; Gus, a put upon nice guy, Mickey a self-entitled screw up, but as episodes pass we see more of what is behind their facades. Both behave deplorably in their respective media jobs and in their friendships and when they get close enough to each other, the bullshit and game-playing is on in earnest. Both are so full of their own fears and deeply ingrained defences that they never get close to getting close. This is frustrating for anyone after a simple rom-com, but potentially fascinating for anyone who can travel with this couple on their cringe-inducing, maddening journey.

True things are observed in this series, and if you are prepared to wait, you may enjoy the exploration of these adult themes. Rust is a successful stand up whose work I didn’t know. His acting is solid enough and he goes all in when showing Gus’s dorkiness and awfulness. Gillian Jacobs is best known for her six seasons playing Britta Perry on COMMUNITY. Her talent was clear in that show and LOVE gives her the opportunity to play a more rounded character with some serious issues to overcome.  Season 2 has been ordered by Netflix.

JACK IRISH (2016 series)

Jack Irish_Blog

After three outings as telemovies for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Peter Temple’s private investigator character Jack Irish (Guy Pearce) returns in a series of six one-hour episodes. Written by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios (who also wrote Russ Crowe’s THE WATER DIVINER) the series is the first not based on a Temple book. This has perturbed some of the writer’s fans. I felt the new format had a lot more breathing space for character development and was a better fit for the humour that Knight and Anastasios have considerable experience in writing.

Apart from Leonard in MEMENTO (2000), I don’t think Pearce has had a better role than the self-effacing, alcoholic PI who prefers to stay out of other people’s business right up until the moment that he has to stick his nose in. Brooke Satchwell, Marcus Graham, Sacha Horler, Shane Jacobson, Roy Billing and Aaron Pedersen are some of the new and old faces that pop up here. Claudia Karvan has a terrific role as a woman whose spiky artist persona is cover for being the privileged daughter of a judge (memorably played by New Zealand’s John Bach, great to see him back on Australian telly). Monarch of the ABC and Janet King of all she surveys, Marta Dusseldorp, also returns as Linda Hillier and has a separate storyline that takes her to the Phillippines.

Although the series loses a little puff towards its conclusion, this still seems like the better way to present the adventures of Irish.

FAKE OR FORTUNE (Season 4)

Fake or Fortune Blog

Not a drama, but a hyped up BBC reality-esque documentary series starring journalist Fiona Bruce and art historian Philip Mould. Not being a Brit I knew of these two only from The Antiques Roadshow, but here they couldn’t be further away from the dusty genteel world of Clarice Cliff knock-offs and Uncle Hugo’s reproduction Queen Anne Furniture. (They probably could be further away, but bear with me.)

In each episode, a punter brings Mouldy and Brucey a painting that is supposed to be the work of a great artist but because it is unsigned or has no paper trail (provenance) proving its origins, the artifact is worth 3 quid rather than 3 million. Fiona and Philip, whom I like to think of as the Emma Peel and John Steed of arts telly or perhaps the Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin of cultural programming, then go on a hunt across Europe (and sometimes North America) to establish the painting’s bonafides. They are aided immeasurably by another, even posher, younger, art historian Dr Bendor Grovesnor whose only television analog is from the 1970s British sci-fi series Blakes Seven. He is FAKE OR FORTUNE’s super-computer Orac. This trio of authenticators is assisted by various boffins from places like Aldi or The Tate using techniques that are way beyond me, but which I will now lazily portray as kirlian photography, gas chromatography and electronic microscopy.

By episode’s end they are either telling the painting’s owner the good news or gravely informing them that their masterpiece isn’t worth the canvas it’s painted on.
The only thing that could possibly improve this program for me is if they somehow shoehorned Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud into an episode.

Film Review: Grimsby (2016)

13-grimsby2016/UK/82minutes

What do we expect of comedians? To make us laugh, obviously. To make us think? Sometimes. George Carlin moved from being a slick nightclub style comedian in his early days to a more anti-establishment voice. Sometimes comedians move the other way, they become more about the laughs and less about a clever take on the world. This is more or less where Sacha Baron Cohen is with his latest movie GRIMSBY.

In ALI G INDAHOUSE (2002), BORAT (2006) and BRUNO (2009) it could be said that the characters he played always had some satirical point to make. When he played Ali G and Borat on television and film, Baron Cohen chose the device of ambushing unsuspecting dupes in character.  Ali G and Borat had a limited world-view and Baron Cohen would use their apparent innocence and lack of sophistication to draw out real life interview subjects and and expose the contradictions and darkness in their point of view. This is a reality-show version of cringe comedy that some people regard as unfair because it relies on the interviewee being the patsy of a set up. (God knows what line of super-persuasive chat producers had to come up with to get those release forms signed.) Bruno, Borat and Ali G were all retired because the public became too familiar with the characters and Baron Cohen lost the element of surprise.

In GRIMSBY (also known as The Brothers Grimsby in some quarters) Baron Cohen plays Nobby Butcher, a football hooligan and father of 11. The ambush comedy is gone. This is a straight-down-the-line spy action spoof. Nobby is a poorly educated man who loves his family and football. His greatest regret is that he was separated with his younger brother Sebastian during childhood. Unbeknownst to Nobby, Sebastian has become MI6’s top spy. Sebastian is everything that Nobby isn’t; intelligent, capable, well-travelled and in top physical condition. It has been Nobby’s life quest to reunite with brother Sebastian (Mark Strong). When he eventually tracks him down, Nobby ruins a carefully planned top secret operation. Sebastian is accused of being a double agent and goes on the run. The only way he can clear his name is with the dubious help of his long-lost brother.

Director Louis Leterrier whose work includes, UNLEASHED (2005), THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008), CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010) as well as two of the Transporter films delivers some amazing action sequences here, far above the standard required of a comedy. The flash-backs to young Nobby and Sebastian’s life as orphaned children are also better done than is usual for the genre. These scenes don’t fit comfortably alongside the barrage of crass sight gags and crude sexual slapstick that make up most of the film’s laughs.

Critics have called the comedy juvenile and over-the-top and indeed there are gallons of bodily fluids spraying everywhere. I wasn’t too bothered. I seem to remember all of Baron Cohen’s other films had plenty of schoolyard smut and tastelessness. That said, there is nothing clever and satirical going on here. It’s base level, but it made me laugh. Mark Strong plays through all the indignities visited upon his character. He’s not funny but he’s game for anything. The rest of the international cast is largely wasted, including Isla Fisher, Ian McShane, Rebel Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Gabourey SibideRicky Tomlinson and Johnny Vegas.

GRIMSBY is a non-demanding piece of entertainment. Those who expect Baron Cohen to say more comedically will be disappointed. Those who think genitalia props and inappropriate insertions are hilarious, will find this laugh-out-loud funny. (2.5/5)

This review also appeared in AccessReel.com.