On the hunt: There’s action and impressive VFX aplenty in the Star Wars series ‘The Mandalorian’.
Reviewed below: Hunters; Morning Wars; Star Trek: Picard; After Life; The Irishman; Spenser Confidential; The Mandalorian; Ricky Gervais: Humanity; Marriage Story; Uncut Gems; The Loudest Voice; Miss Americana
In a frightfully short space of time the Coronavirus – or Covid-19 – has touched every aspect of modern life. The scourge has become the defining event of 2020 – and possible beyond – as it claims lives, livelihoods, businesses, public events and global economic stability.
As people restrict their movements, maintain “social distancing” and follow official advice to stay at home as much as possible, most places are either deserted or have been declared no-go areas.
Pubs, clubs, casinos, restaurants, malls, gyms and theatres have been hit hard. The Melbourne International Comedy Festival was cancelled, as was the Sydney Film Festival and the Grand Prix. Whole economies have been hobbled. Even beaches in Bondi and St Kilda have been shut.
Most people have been sensible enough to comply. Yet there remains a small, thick-headed cluster of people who see in the present circumstance a priceless opportunity to brandish their penchant for defying authority. Such people packed the sands of Bondi and St Kilda, forcing authorities to close them off behind cyclone fences.
These citizens might think of themselves as cheeky mavericks who are behaving in accordance with the Aussie archetype of the non-conforming larrikin. To be clear and for the record, they are not. They are idiots.
The effect the virus has had on cinema has been devastating. Cinemas across the US, UK, China, Italy, Spain, India and Poland have closed. In the US, the closures are expected to last two months.
As sad as it was inevitable the same has happened here. The Palace cinema chain was the first to shut its screens nationwide and while the major chains forged on for a few days, limiting patrons per theatre to less than 100 and spacing people apart, they have all now been shut down in keeping with the Prime Minister’s edict.
The release of many major films has been disrupted. These include: Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway; Black Widow; the 007 film No Time to Die; Mulan; The New Mutants; Antlers; A Quiet Place 2; Fast & Furious 9 (till April next year!); and Minions 3.
So, what to do with all that spare time stuck at home? Finish writing that novel? Learn to knit? Finally get around to clearing out the spare room?
Nay. People, quite sensibly, are turning to their TVs, computers, tablets and phones for salvation from bordem.
There is, of course, free-to-air programming, your DVD collection and all the delightful offerings on YouTube to plunge into.
Yet the streaming services are where you’ll find a trove of premium entertainment. There’s literally more content than you can sensibly keep track of, and with such a cornucopia of viewing treasures on offer in the stream many people could find themselves suffering from that peculiarly 21st century malady – choice paralysis.
Well, worry not. Here are some prime choices to help you through.
Uncut Gems ***1/2 (135 minutes; MA): In a sharp turn away from comedy, Adam Sandler plays a financially stricken jeweller who tries, against all odds and death threats, to pull off one big deal that will save his business and his life. Sandler, who also did an impressive non-comedy turn in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), puts in a very strong performance as a hard-bitten businessman determined to survive in a world set out to destroy him. Brace yourself for the film’s shock – some would argue double-shock – finale. (Netflix)
Marriage Story ****(137 minutes; M): Whatever the upside of divorce is supposed to be there’s no sign of it anywhere in Noah Baumbach’s excoriating drama about the huge financial and emotional cost that can come with the adversarial end of a marriage. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are totally convincing as a much-loved arts-world couple who try to quantify the damage they have done to each other. The pair spend much of the film spitting acid at each other as they try to assign blame for the disaster that their family life has become. One particularly symbolic scene involving Driver and a small key-chain blade says more about the nature of bad divorces than most films on the subject. The film was up for a swag of Oscars – best film, actor, actress, screenplay, original score – with Laura Dern winning best supporting actress for her turn as a vengeful lawyer. (Netflix)
Morning Wars ***1/2 (ten episodes): Having left The Office far behind with dramatic turns in such films as Foxcatcher and The Big Short, Steve Carell proves his salt yet again in this addictive, aggressively topical #metoo drama. Carell plays Mitch Kessler, a morning show presenter who has just lost his job over sexual misconduct allegations. Coping with the chaos is co-host Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston in her best work to date), an ageing star in the middle of a difficult contract negotiation. Falling backwards into the mess is Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a local TV spitfire whose viral video puts her in the wrong place at the right time. The high-stakes drama is dialled up to 11 in almost every scene as it draws on all the attendant controversies of the #metoo/Weinstein/Kavanaugh scandals. Top notch stuff. (Apple TV+)
The Loudest Voice **** (seven episodes): And if you can’t get your fill of #metoo drama, be sure to check out the outstanding work put in by Russell Crowe as Fox News guru Roger Ailes in this fact-based ripper. The show covers the same ground as the hit film Bombshell, but in much more detail and subtlety. As brilliant a newsman as Ailes is portrayed to be, there’s no holding back on what a sleaze he was, though the dramatic keynote underlying the entire story is that he never thinks he’s doing anything wrong. Naomi Watts is fab as whistleblower Gretchen Carlson; ditto Simon McBurney as a very reasonable Rupert Murdoch. (Stan)
The Mandalorian **** (eight episodes): Even those suffering Star Wars fatigue will delight in this knockout series created by Jon Favreau (The Lion King) following the adventures of hard-bitten bounty hunter Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal). Set in the outer reaches of the Star Wars universe, the show’s place in the saga’s timeline is between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. The action-packed first episode should be enough to draw even non-fans in as Din is sent on a special mission by his new client (played perfectly by legendary director Werner Herzog) to collect and protect a very special package. There are heaps of references for hardcore Star Wars fans to pick up and the visual effects are movie standard. As for the quality of the action, just wait for the bounty hunter droid to turn up. Whoa. (Disney+)
Spenser Confidential **1/2 (111 minutes; MA): In this nifty action crime drama, Mark Wahlberg puts in a sturdy, head-strong performance as an ex-cop who has just been released from prison after beating up a police captain he believed was corrupt. The day of his release the cop he bashed is murdered. With all fingers pointing at him he sets out to prove who really did it. Lots of tough talk and gunplay, set in Boston, a must for Wahlberg fans. (Netflix)
Miss Americana *** (86 minutes; M): Taylor Swift carefully lets down her guard in a very well cobbled bio-documentary about her rapid rise to fame, the stress of coping with achieving your dreams too early in life and the importance politics can have for a pop princess. Fans aside, those who ever doubted Swift’s talent, smarts or conviction will find this chronicle eye-opening and extremely entertaining, especially when she’s not singing or talking about music. (Netflix)
Ricky Gervais: Humanity **** (79 minutes; MA): Fully aware of his status as a mini-god to the anti-PC crowd, Gervais clocks up his best stand-up special yet as he rubs against the grain on a wide variety of hot-button topics, the most controversial being his observations of other people’s children and Caitlyn Jenner. (Netflix)
The Irishman *** (209 minutes; MA): Though it was somewhat overrated as a masterpiece of mobster cinema when it first came out, Martin Scorsese’s epic, occasionally funny, word-driven drama about the fate of trucker’s union master Jimmy Hoffa is still a venerable, highly entertaining work with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci showing us what all movie dialogue should sound like. It’s also testament to Scorsese’s unparalleled flair for making a story move.(Netflix)
Hunters *** (ten episodes) When it comes to a hot-button dramatic premise it’s hard to beat revenge for a central theme. And when it comes to revenge, it’s harder still to get stronger motivation than when you have Jewish people hunting down Nazis who have eluded justice.
The idea has fuelled many films – The Odessa File, Apt Pupil, The Boys from Brazil, etc – and is tapped again in Hunters, a controversial series that takes the idea even further.
Set in 1977, presumably to make the post-war presence of Nazis in American society plausible, we meet Jonah (Logan Lerman) who learns after his grandmother’s murder that she was part of a secret team of Nazi-slayers.
Their leader is a nice old Jewish gent called Meyer, played by Al Pacino in what must have been a major casting coup given how outlandish this show is.
For not only are there Nazis trying to pass themselves off as regular citizens in suburbia – the pilot has a pretty arresting opening sequence – they are continuing to prosecute Hitler’s Holocaust, even if it means gassing people in their apartment showers.
Their evil aim is the rise of the Fourth Reich.
If this sounds somewhat crass and B-grade, don’t worry – it is. Hunters is not likely to win any awards for subtlety or good taste, especially given the darkness of its theme, its heightened style and liberal use of graphic violence.
The feature-length pilot is undoubtedly engaging – like all good shows there’s a sizeable stratum of subplots running parallel to the main storyline – and it also raises the oft-raised issue about exploiting one of the most horrific man-made events in history for our entertainment.
Can the show be seen as an indirect tribute to the work of Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal? Or is it just bad taste? Can it be both?
In the US it certainly upset a lot of people in the Jewish community chiefly over how, in a flashback to a concentration camp, we witness a form of execution where Nazi officers use Jewish prisoners in a human chess game.
The argument goes that the execution methods the Nazis actually used during the Holocaust were bad enough without filmmakers choosing to invent new ones.
The sound counter to this is that it is a powerful, gruelling scene about the contempt Nazis had for human life, so surely the makers are entitled, as artists, to create a scenario that illustrates that.
And though the show is inspired by real-life Nazi hunters, it is fiction.
Provided you key in to the lowbrow revenge-fantasy of Hunters – hey, Quentin Tarantino did a similar thing with Inglourious Basterds – the opener certainly had enough going on to draw you in.
And Pacino does a swell job selling himself as an elderly hero leading his pack on an important quest for some long overdue payback. (Amazon Prime)
Star Trek: Picard *** (ten episodes): It’s no wonder, really, that having spent all those years zapping around in space as the captain of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation (and four films) Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart; also executive producer on this) would find retirement on his vineyard unfulfilling.
Luckily, a young woman comes to him seeking mentorship and an old scandal (where Picard ordered the rescue of enemy Romulan citizens) rears up during a TV interview.
Plenty of plotlines kick off in an eventful opening innings to this very expensive-looking show, including the banning of synthetic people (like the long-dead Data, played, of course, by Brent Spiner), Romulan scheming and Picard’s need to get back into it.
As always, keep an eye out for the great design work that goes into the background of Star Trek. (Amazon Prime)
After Life **** (six episodes) With the second season being set for release on 24 April now is the perfect time to re-digest the quietly remarkable dramedy from Ricky Gervais.
He plays Tony Johnson, a dour small-town journalist who has lived far beyond the point that he wants to. In a constant state of grief over the death of his wife he feels his universal apathy – he literally cares about nothing – empowers him to do, speak and think as he pleases, that not caring is a kind of liberation.
After Life has its funny moments – thanks mainly to his acidic bursts of sarcasm and his photographer Lenny (Tony Way), who apparently has the easiest job in journalism – but it is more drama than comedy, taking seriously its exploration of loss, depression and the resilience of optimism.
If you’ve not seen it, consider it a must-see, even for those who are not fans of Gervais. It’s as far from The Office, Extras or Derek as he could get and it was a very worthwhile move. Plus, the whole shebang can be consumed in a compact three hours. (Netflix)
As well as paid streaming outlets, don’t forget the free online services run by the TV networks, which offer a huge range of archived programs for you to catch up with and binge on.
For films though, special mention must be made of SBS on Demand, a splendidly constructed website that is a true blessing in our online landscape. Its library contains a wealth of films – from classics to contemporary, niche to mainstream, quirky to queer – so please check it out.
A side note…
In response to the virus some studios have brought the digital release of some major titles forward so people can enjoy them now while they endure self-isolation, rather than waiting the three months it usually takes for a theatrical release to hit the home market via disk and stream.
Since the advent of powerful streaming platforms such as iTunes, Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Apple TV and so on, the sanctity of that 90-day grace period – during which exhibitors try to sell up every possible cinema ticket before the film is made available in the home market – has been under siege.
We’ve recently seen major films such as The Irishman, The True History of the Kelly Gang, The King, Marriage Story and The Report get short theatrical runs – a pre-requisite for award eligibility – before hitting the stream. They ran at independent cinemas because the big players don’t embrace the idea of shortening the theatrical window.
The early home release of major film titles in response to the Coronavirus might well put the precious 90-day window under more stress.
In the US people will get early access to Frozen 2 (also available here on Disney+), The Invisible Man, Emma, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, The Hunt, Just Mercy, The Way Back, the Pixar film Onward, Birds of Prey, Bloodshot, The Gentlemen and Sonic the Hedgehog.
In a major virus-related move, Trolls World Tour will come out in the US on digital platforms on 10 April as well as in cinemas – if they have re-opened. That is looking very unlikely at this point, hence the stream will probably have the film to itself, disregarding the usual 90-day window that all other delayed films will apparently observe.
So it seems the Coronavirus might indirectly add heat to the tussle over the longevity of the traditional three-month window, a tussle that was already getting hot.