Movie review: Swinging Safari

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

 

It is said, with a wryly amused eye on the decade’s predilection for the consumption of illicit substances, that if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there; conversely, a sign of having grown up in the ’70s, as yours truly did, is that you can remember every last gaudy, lurid, un-helicopter parented moment in vivid detail.

And honestly, in ways too innumerable to count, it was glorious.

Perhaps this is the product of overactive nostalgia – although as someone who fiercely inhabits the here-and-now, this is not an overriding personal influence – or simply that it was an era where the freewheeling Sixties gave way to a decade where the world, and Australia right along with it, collectively lost its mind.

The latest film from Stephan Elliott, Swinging Safari (with naming no doubt inspired by the 1962 Bert Kaempfert song of the same name, the record of which is pulled from the then-ubiquitous K-Tel Record Selector) harks back to that messy era, mining its fondness for hands-off parenting, social experimentation and suspect fashion and decor choices to the absolute max.

As an exercise in full-blown nostalgia, it’s damn near unparalleled with products, TV programs and a slew of social conventions packed in with wild, almost too enthusiastic abandon – there is a strong sense at times that products are namechecked simply to scream “YOU ARE IN THE 1970S!” – and if you grew up during this era of Polly Waffles, knitted jumpsuits for men, and anarchic parenting, you’ll find yourself laughing hard and often as the liberal touchstones to your (hopefully) misbegotten youth.

Unfortunately beyond that, the film is a narrative shamozzle that is every bit as overplayed and directionless as pretty much every last one of the almost interchangeable characters.

 

(image courtesy Becker Film group)

 

Resembling more of a ’70s-themed sketch show than an actual cohesively-plotted film, Swinging Safari struggles to say much more than “Weren’t the 1970s a crazy decade huh?”

It works overtime to convince us of this with the three families at the centre of the story, such as it is, the Halls (Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue as Keith and Kaye respectively), the Marshes (Asher Keddie and Jeremy Sims as Gale and Bob) and the Jones (Radha Mitchell and Julian McMahon as Jo and Rick) all in various stages of freewheeling chaos.

As the film opens, and a dead blue whale washes up on the omnipresent beach where everyone in the coastal community lives during the summer, swathed in tiny swimming costumes, zinc and awash in a sea of beer, wine and pee (well, one of the Halls’ bluebottle-cursed daughters does anyway), the three couples are as close as can be in their cul-de-sac.

Spending their time over cask wine and fondue, and neglecting their kids who are consigning to the rumpus room for TV and, ahem, other endeavours, the couples decide to try the latest overseas trend – wife-swapping with less than stellar results.

Unfortunately he who lives by the madcap, absurdity of life in the ’70s also dies by them, and while this act of social avant garde-ness unleashes all kinds of troubling questions about the state of the marriages and friendships of the six friends, any biting social commentary soon falls prey to the overriding silliness of what follows.

Which is a real pity because Elliott could have quite easily had his gaudy insanity and invested it with penetrating insightfulness too, but he squanders it on a Keystones Cops-ish sequence of frayed relations and petty practical jokes.

Crazy, over the top pitch-perfect decade-specific shenanigans box ticked; serious examination of the state of Australian suburban life, damn near negligible.

You might wonder if this is really such an issue given Swinging Safari is a lightweight, shock-value comedy after all but as plenty of other Aussie comedies have shown, such as the writer and director’s own supremely-successful Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it is possible to be winningly cheeky and very, very silly, and still stay something worthwhile.

 

(image courtesy Becker Film group)

 

The one ray of sunshine in this narrative hotch-potch is the tentative romance, and looming escape from stultifyingly Australian coastal suburbia, where the highest accolade, according to the safari suit-wearing town mayor played by Jack Thompson, of aspiring filmmaker Jeff Marsh (an impressive feature film debut by Atticus Robb; the character is semi-autobiographically based on Stephan Elliott) and Melly Jones (Darcey Wilson).

Their mutually-fortifying friendship provides the only real emotional resonance in a film that is far more keen on slapstick hilarity than saying anything worthwhile or telling a cohesive story.

As the two outcasts – it is hinted that creative Jeff may be gay while Mel is far more introspective than her shallow, glitzy parents or braindead brothers – band together to survive the town’s craziness and plot a future far away from it, we get a sense of the wonder and yet exhaustion of living in a decade where anything goes was less a mantra than a fact of life.

Alas, while they provide a nice little focal point for a film, their very real growing up travails are often overshadowed by the show’s overriding dedication to period portrayal and it penchant for what is sometimes pleasing surreal absurdities such as the dissection of the pet ownership of the three families which is decidedly non-RSPCA friendly.

This misstep speaks to the overall feeling of a film that misses more marks than it actually hits.

As an exercise in nostalgia and giddy slapstick hilarity, it can’t be beat; unfortunately it fails to match this with a robustly meaningful plot, any real character accessibility (they’re not really likable or fully differentiated) or any interesting or meaningful observations.

Swinging Safari is hardly a disaster on wheels and will provide a smattering of laughs, especially if you’re a product of the era it so assiduously and yes, affectionately details, but it’s not really worth your cinema time, and honestly you’d be better off waiting until it’s streaming on your preferred service where you can watch with copious amounts of alcohol at hand because, quite frankly, you will need it.

 

When Your Catfish Is Actually a Fish (w/ Sally Hawkins) #TheShapeofWater

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

 

For those us who have been in the dating scene, and by logical extension, childhood sweethearts aside, that’s pretty much everyone, the heartbreaking disappointment of realising the person in front of you is not what was represented in the online profile, is all too real.

It’s a universal experience that we’ve all had at one point or another, a rite of passage we’d all rather avoid if we can help it.

Still, you have to hand it to British actress Sally Hawkins, currently starring in Guillermo del Toro’s masterful romantic fantasy drama The Shape of Water who keeps the faith, believes in the power of love and turns up to a blind date with a man-sized … fish?

Yup, and he LOOKS NOTHING like his profile. NOT … EVEN … REMOTELY …

Surprisingly there’s chemistry until one weird small miscue blunts Cupid’s arrow in a rather hilarious way …

 

Star Trek Discovery: “Vaulting Ambition” (S1, E12 review)

So someone has an almighty alternate-universe sized secret …(image courtesy CBS)

 

  • SPOILERS AHEAD … AND A SCENE SO POIGNANT YOUR HEART WILL BREAK

SURPRISE! SURPRISE! This is not your grandmother’s alternate universe.

Unless of course she is from the Mirror Universe in which case she may, drenched in blood, anger and betrayal (it’s so “in” in alternate Paris, trust me), absolutely love it and kill you to go back there.

Which is essentially what good old Lorca (Jason Isaacs) who is – MEGA SPOILER ALERT! TURN AWAY NOW – not the Lorca of the old universe but in fact the Lorca from the Mirror Universe who has been rather cleverly hiding from the Emperor Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) in our universe – got all that? Good, there’s a quiz later – did when he manipulated everyone, and I mean everyone, for his own nefarious ends.

The revelation in the closing minutes of “Vaulting Ambitions”, which was delivered with maximum effect and minimum cheese, suddenly made all kinds of things from previous episodes make crystal clear sense.

Remember that time after some hot and heavy sex where Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) mentioned that Lorca, who slept with a weapon under his pillow, was not the same man she knew in her youth? That’s because, ta-dah!, he wasn’t, a realisation cemented even further when Lorca effectively sent Cornwell off to be tortured by the Klingons.

In retrospect the real Lorca, so we’re told, wouldn’t have done that; the genius of Lorca’s portrayal up to this point, both from a writing and performance perspective, is that the Captain simply came across a rule-breaking rogue, a man so passionately committed to the truth, to winning the war, that the ends justified his rather convention-defying means.

We bought it because who doesn’t love a maverick? Someone who darts in and around what’s generally agreed as acceptable and makes merry with it. Of course, now we know who he really is, and how brutally realistic the Mirror Universe is, his behaviour makes sense since where he’s from is about as in love with warm, love and humanity as a certain serving US President is with the truth and compassion.

So yeah we were duped but oh lordy doesn’t it all make the journey that much darker and full of WTF moments?

 

“You’re my what now?” Michelle Yeoh gets her Joan Crawford on minus the coathangers (image courtesy CBS)

 

Take what Lorca did to the King of the Spores, Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) who was left in a coma after 133 jumps, ostensibly to triangulate some Klingon shield data so the Federation could tell where the cloaked enemy ships are.

Again, on the face of it, and here is Lorca’s cruel Mirror Universe genius, a perfectly reasonable tactic – jump all over the universe, whatever the cost to Stamets, because #warreasons.

Who could question that? Who would even dare question that right? It’d be like questioning cute babies or kittens gamboling – you just wouldn’t think to do it, something Lorca counted on.

Alas it left Stamets in a coma of sorts, his consciousness hidden deep inside the mycelium spore network that is a biological network that stretches not just across the galaxy but between mirror universes, where he ended up conversing with the evil Mirror Universe version of himself.

His dark side wasn’t so much desperately evil as narcissistically pragmatic, impatient to get back inside his own body in the Emperor’s flagship (which rather niftily and imposingly seemed to have it’s own mini-sun within itself) even as Stamets had what is inarguably one of the most emotionally-resonant scenes in Star Trek Discovery, or indeed, any of the Trek iterations.

Having glimpsed his dead husband Hugh Culber, dispatched by Tyler/Voq (Shazad Latif) in the periphery of his vision, he left his alternate self behind, running through corridors until he found himself back in his quarters with his husband, where they very tenderly and with immeasurable poignancy, said goodbye to each other.

It was heartbreakingly, achingly touching, a farewell tinged with a small measure of hope that Culber lives in a mycelium after life – if there is a God, he’s a spore people! Worship the mushroom! – that unfolded over a recreation of the couple’s morning routine, which was, for each of them, the most quiet, intimate part of the day.

In an episode packed full of twists and turns and revelations, this quiet moment of soul-stirring goodbye, this acknowledgement that life as they knew it was over, accompanied by Stamets whispered urgent wish that it wasn’t – there was so much emotion packed into such a hushed utterance that it was impossible not to be choked up by it – was the emotional centrepiece of an episode not short of emotionally in-your-face moments.

While you could possibly argue that Discovery had killed off the gay in common with far too many other shows – there is a disturbing trend to leave the white, male characters alive and kicking and kill off the minorities in far too many TV shows – the narrative impact was immense and beautifully handled, a testament to the universality of love that was given due respect and honour, and that a good many conservatives, particularly those of a religious bent, would do well to recognise.

 

The sorrow and ache of goodbye … and the delicious hope that this is not forever even if it feels like it (image courtesy CBS)

 

Wrapped around this masterpiece of agonisingly sad but deeply moving goodbye, Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) had her own moment of “Luke, I am your father” when the Emperor, who kills people with a casualness that is frightening af; goodbye inner circle you know too much! – told Burnham, right before she sentenced her to death for treason, that she was her adoptive mother.

Yep, that’s right not only do the bonds between Georgious and Burnham cross boundaries, but they deepen here in the horrific harshness of the Mirror Universe, but apparently not quite enough to stop Burnham being publicly killed off in the throne room where she, and what a clever ballsy tactic this is, admits she is from the Federation Universe.

Her trump card? Burnham’s Georgiou’s communicator that resonates to another frequency not known to the Terran Empire.

That little moment, which leads to Burnham realises a ton of things such as Interphasic Space not being the way home – the crew of the Defiant went mad, quite mad, something redacted from the intelligence Burnham obtained – and Lorca not being who he said he was, changed everything.

With the Discovery on the way to the Emperor’s flagship to reveal the secrets of the Spore Drive – haha the Emperor said she’ll let them all go if they give over the technology; uh-huh sure you will, sure you will – Burnham realises that it all comes down to her now, that if they’re going to get home it’ll have to be by the mycelium network which is, uh-oh, in danger of dying thanks to Alternate Stamets’ collateral poisoning of it in pursuit of the technology at any costs.

Thankfully Stamets moment with Culber, where his dead husband told him what Alternate Stamets is up to, woke him up, just in time since it looks like the only way they’ll get home is by the mycelium network whose technology cannot fall into the Emperor’s hands.

Burnham has demonstrated she has what it takes to navigate these kinds of tricky situations and frankly she’ll need everything at her disposal to get out of this mess, especially with Lorca poised to execute his own long-gestating plans in the midst of it all.

“Vaulting Ambitions” is exceptionally strong episode in an already narratively-robust series that not only gave us a shit ton of emotionally-resonant scenes – Tyler locked in existential agony until L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) gave him some sweet relief albeit with great reluctance was another highlight, if a small one – but pushed the story ahead by leaps and bounds, while further examining issues of identity, expediency over thoughtfulness and power vs. cooperative endeavour that further burnish Discovery‘s credentials as the most intelligently thought-out Trek since Deep Space Nine.

  • Next week in “What’s Past is Prologue” we meet up again with the slippery hand of destiny and whether our decisions are very our own … yes, it appears Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the script …

+++ VIDEO UNAVAILABLE BECAUSE CBS HAS BIZARRELY BLOCKED ALL VERSIONS OF IT ON YOU TUBE ON COPYRIGHT GROUNDS. MADNESS SINCE IT’S A PROMO TOOL, NOT THE ACTUAL EPISODE +++

A fart in the shape of a man: Further thoughts on The Good Place (S1, E9-13, S2, E1-9)

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

 

  • SPOILERS AHEAD … AND A HOST OF EXISTENTIAL CONUNDRUMS …

When I was first wrote about NBC’s savvy, clever new-ish sitcom The Good Place last October, I remarked on how rare it is to fall head over heels in love with a show on a first viewing.

Most TV shows take most of their first season to really find their voice, to nail that indefinable something that takes their premise from intriguing and flirtatious, and let’s face it, in this age of TV plenty you have to flirt like crazy to catch and hold viewers’ attentions, to the stuff of serious commitment.

But in this day and age of serial random viewing where a new TV show relationship is but a streaming service away, that kind of slow burn can harm a show’s chances of getting the necessary traction needed for viewers to stick around for the long haul.

That’s not a fate that should worry creator Mike Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99) who from the get-go, when Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) arrives in the Good Place aka Heaven to find that she and three soon-to-be friends or soulmates are dead, very dead, has crafted a winningly intelligent show that knows what it is and what it wants to accomplish.

And is damn funny doing it, in a way that many modern sitcoms, captive to laugh tracks, obvious dialogues and paper-thin characterisation, simply can’t hope to emulate.

It’s meant that from the start, viewers have flocked to the show which gives a whole new fantastically hilarious slant to the afterlife, where people end up in either the Good Place or the Bad Place by dint of an algorithm that works out where they belong based on how good a life they lived on earth.

Now, if you’re a committed Christian you may take exception to the idea of works, not salvation by grace determining your eternal fate, but for the rest of us, it’s a very funny concept that is ripe with all kinds of comedic and dramatic possibilities.

The good thing is – see even the premise could end up in the Good Place – that the show has absolutely made merry with its founding idea, giving us a show as apt to ponder the philosophical conundrums of self-improvement, working for the benefit of others (are we really being as selfless as we think?) or ethical enrichment as to give its restaurants really silly, pun-heavy names that incite a giggle every time one of the characters wanders through the beatifically gorgeous town square (Fro-Yo anyone? Clam chowder maybe?).

So having fallen in love with a show gifted with robust substantial, even thoughtful, storytelling and dialogue so witty and funny you could slice a guffawing punchline with it, you could be forgiven for wondering  if the show, like most longterm viewing relationships, might be inclined to take everything a little bit for granted.

 

 

That would be a great and impressive “NO” from Schur, David Miner, Morgan Sackett and Drew Goddard who pivot with a grace worthy of a Russian ballerina in the 13th and final episode of The Good Place to reveal, and if you’ve been paying attention, in retrospect, it makes lots of sense, that the Good Place is in fact … * SPOILER ALERT * … really * SPOILER ALERT * … the Bad Place.

Yup! Uh-oh, no shit and oh wow!

It’s a bold and audacious move that pays off in spades.

Rather than killing the narrative golden goose that kept laying superlative first season episode after superlative first season  episode, this turning of the tables results in an even funnier, more meaningful and immensely clever season 2.

Armed now with the knowledge that they have fallen down, not up, and they are in some sort of twisted bold new experiment to torture people psychologically rather than with four-headed bears or impaling – the demons who had been masquerading as fellow Good Placers are not entirely convinced the change in tactics is a winner; yep, demons are just as conservative as the rest of us, people – and that Michael (Ted Danson) is not a benevolent town keeper but an ambitious denizen of “hell”, Eleanor, ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and kindhearted but dumb as a post Jason / Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto) have quite the problem on their hands.

How do they continue to act like they are in the Good Place when they now know they are but pawns in a game of political control between Michael, and the big boss Shawn (played hilariously well and with deadpan excellence by Marc Evan Jackson) who thinks this bold new experiment in eternal torture and misery is a dubious idea at best (as does Michael’s rival, Vicky, played by Tiya Sircar who portrayed the “good” Eleanor in the first season).

That particular dilemma, which perches precariously on what turn out to be actual demons’ horns, is solved, albeit temporarily, when Michael reboots the whole scenario, convincing Shawn that take 2 will be the charm.

But after reboot after reboot fallen by the fire-tinged wayside and the fake Good Place reaches a dizzying take #802, it becomes readily apparent and the source of much episodic hilarity, that there’s no way they can fake being Good Placers whom are actually Bad Placers who think they’re Good Placers nor, it should be added, can Michael pretend that everything is going swimmingly lake-of-fire well when Vicky has blackmailed him into letting her run the blighted show.

It’s a brilliantly reimagining of the show’s original premise but one which very much hews close to the spirit of The Good Place, which has always been a readily-accessible rumination on good vs evil, altruism vs. self-interest and whether the demarcations between these seeming opposites are as clear cut as we like to think.

 

In fact, one very clever scene in episode 9, season 2, “Leap to Faith” (thank you Søren Kierkegaard; see how clever this brilliant sitcom is? It name drops Danish philosophers) when the four, along with a reformed Michael, who has taken Chidi’s ethics classes and is a changed demon in love with human things like emotions, friendship and stress balls with corporate logos, and AI guide Janet (D’Arcy Carden), are attempting to board a balloon to the actual Good Place, we are given a funny, quite moving lesson in how malleable these self-imposed boundaries are.
As character after character steps on the lit-up lie detector of sorts, only to find the pillars go red (you’re not the best version of yourself) instead of the much-desired green (you are the best version), they each enter the kind of soul-searching that people who have been trying to get ahead of the worst of themselves would quite naturally embrace.
The genius is that this kind of existential angst is taking place, and with witty, thigh-slappingly line after line, in a sitcom, not your typical vessel for rumination on life, the universe and the meaning of life.
These are characters who being quite dead, are fresh out of options – it’s not like they can go to the police as one of them suggests at one point to which Eleanor responds “You do know where you are, don’t you?” – and this is not the stuff of quick, silly trivial punchlines and merry segues to the next scene for them.
It’s pretty serious, meaty stuff, and The Good Place masterfully meshes this sort of high stakes existential rumination with the kind of absurdity and visual gags that would have amused the likes of the Marx Brothers or the Keystone Cops.
The Good Place never puts a foot wrong, either between its pivot between seasons 1 and 2 or the growth and development of its characters who, while heartfelt, are never twee, seamlessly bringing together a taut, cleverly-executed premise, inspirationally good writing and characters who are both flawed and silly and very easy to identify with in a way that marks this as a very relatable sitcom of the highest order.
With everyone now setting off to make their way through the actual Bad Place to get hopefully to an arbiter who can rule on their eligibility for the Good Place – see again clever; we have adventure mixed in with high stakes eternal survival with yet more ethical dilemmas – The Good Place is set for another shake-up.
With most other shows, I’d wonder about its long term survivability since you can’t endlessly shake things up and hope the show will reemerge as engaging as the first day it and we met and fell helplessly in sitcom love; and yet The Good Place, fortified by stellar writing, superlative acting and a delicious sense of the comically absurd, has done, sometimes episode-by-episode so the odds of it not only getting to a third season but making eternally sunshine-y hay with it are extremely good.
So good in fact that if there is an eternal resting place for A-class sitcoms, and history seems to show there is, Mike Schur’s creation should be a shoo-in for inclusion, no further correspondence or Bad Place trickery entered into, thank you very much.

 

Upsetting the social apple cart? The unconventional romance of Splitting Up Together

(image via Spoiler TV (c) ABC)

 

SNAPSHOT
Lena and Martin were once madly in love. But, like many marriages, time and circumstance eventually took their toll. Lena (Jenna Fischer, The Office), the perfectionist, fell into the role of caretaker for everyone, including Martin (Oliver Hudson, Scream Queens). Martin felt he could never do anything right and gave up making the effort. This created a romantic rift between them. Finding themselves in a platonic marriage and acting more like a pair of camp counselors wrangling their kids than a couple hopelessly in love, they decide that everyone’s lives would be better served if they got a divorce. Still wanting the best for their three kids and facing a daunting real estate market, the couple decide not to sell their house and to “Bird Nest” instead. One parent will live in the house as the “on-duty” parent taking care of the kids, while the “off-duty” parent will live in the detached garage, doing whatever he or she pleases. They will switch off every other week.

Their kids, 7-year-old Milo (Sander Thomas), 14-year-old pre-pubescent Mason (Van Crosby) and 15-year-old feminist Mae (Olivia Keville), seem to be taking the divorce in stride. While Lena, the consummate caretaker, has to learn to loosen her reigns, Martin, who has always taken a backseat when it comes to parenting, needs to learn how to step up his game.

Then there are Lena and Martin’s married friends, Camille (Lindsay Price) and Arthur (Bobby Lee). Camille, stunning and way out of Arthur’s league, is sad to lose their best couple friends. Arthur, aware he married up, begins to question the stability of his own marriage when his friends’ falls apart. And Lena’s sister, Maya (Diane Farr), a serial dater who often gets in her own way due to her terrible taste in men, thinks that her sister is too rigid and needs to chill out if she’s ever going start dating again.

As Lena begins to dip her toes into the dating waters, Martin begins to see his own culpability in his marriage falling apart. When Martin realizes that it all began when he refused to dance with Lena at their wedding, he wants to atone for it. He secretly takes dance lessons to surprise Lena by dancing with her on what would be their upcoming wedding anniversary. Could being apart ultimately lead to them getting back together? (synopsis via Spoiler TV)

 

 

Ya gotta love life.

On the surface, it looks really simple – get up in the morning, do stuff, go to sleep.

But, of course, it’s WAAAY more complicated than that, by a good long measure, and what looks like a simple and sane solution that should be easy to execute ends up being a whole lot more difficult than anyone envisaged.

That’s the theme, along with a good deal of the detritus that flows from the life won’t scripts epiphany, of ABC’s upcoming new show Splitting Up Together which tells the story of two people who think their lives can diverge and, well, NOT, at the same time, only to find life isn’t going to be so accommodating.

As an ongoing idea, it’s got legs – it’s partly from the creator of Suburgatory (Emily Kapnek), a show I loved – and frankly if the writing stays this heartfelt and sharp, and well downright goody at times, I am totally onboard.

AND I will stop underestimating life because, you know, SNEAKY.

Splitting Up Together premieres on ABC this March.

Movie review: The Post

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

 

If history has shown us anything, and interestingly one of the protagonists of Spielberg’s masterful The Post describes newspapers as “the first rough draft of history”, it is that power, for all its love of intimidating show, prefers to exercise its less noble impetuses, of which there are many, in the shadows.

This is especially so in democracies where the naked, brazen abuse of power is supposed to be anathema; leave the dictators and despots to openly throw their weight around like wrestlers in the ring, the leaders in a democracy are supposed to govern solely for their electors and not their own doubtful interests.

In reality, of course, this is all fanciful idealising with the elected finding it all-but-impossible to resist the power-draped baubles of government, the chance to make and reshape the world around them far from prying eyes.

That is, in the case of the USA at least, until conscientious objectors such as former military analyst and activist Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) decide enough is enough, smuggling top secret documents out of The Rand Corporation in 1969 that come to be known as The Pentagon Papers in the hope of revealing how the American Government had lied again and again over thirty years about the Vietnam War.

But what would be the point of all this covert derring-do if you didn’t have some outlet for revelations so powerful they arguably played a significant role in destabilising the Nixon presidency which tottered and fellow a number of years later under the successive weight of the Watergate Scandal?

And so Ellsberg teamed up with Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain) from The New York Times, which boldly published graphic revelations from the Papers in supposed direct contravention of America’s espionage laws.

With the Government granted an injunction to stop the publication of thirty years’ of grubby Vietnam War secrets by the Times, the baton fell to then smaller regional player The Washington Post, under then relatively inexperienced leadership of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) who had inherited the paper from her husband Phil upon his death.

 

 

The Post, directed with powerful cinematic understatement by Steven Spielberg, concentrates its impressive narrative heft on the days that follow when The Washington Post, through connections between Ellsberg and one of its reporters Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), is given the chance to continue publication, a decision that comes with considerable political and legal ramifications.

Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), a onetime friend of the Kennedys, is a man committed to pursuing a story come what may and he is all for it publishing and consequences be damned; Graham, however, still trying to prove herself in a male-dominated world which sees her custodianship of the paper as an aberration that will soon be corrected, and emotionally attached to a media entity bought by her father in 1933, is less sure.

She is, after all, close friends with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the Secretary of Defense through much of the 1960s and so consequently the man at the centre of The Pentagon Papers scandal, a connection that resonates with one of the main themes of this remarkably taut and timely film – can the Fourth Estate properly execute its mandate to keep those in power honest when it is effectively a part of that establishment?

It’s a grave question that Graham must answer, and answer it she does in a conversation with McNamara that beautifully underscores her growth as a newspaper publisher first and scion of society second, and its resolution proves fundamental to The Washington Post‘s decision to publish the papers.

This naturally brings the full weight of the bullyboy Nixon Presidency down upon her, the paper, imperiling in the process the recent stock offering, the funds from which are vital to continual solvency of the company.

Add legal culpability into the mix as well, and you have a potent brew of issues – access to the seats of power, freedom of the press, and the healthiness of democracy, all issues that have resonance in tonight’s troubled times which bear a striking corollary to the blighted years of the Nixon Presidency.

For all the bluster and import of these issues and the way they played out in a few short days in 1971, The Post is relatively nuanced, slowly drawing out the story and its implications in a patiently revealing way that really only becomes a little overblown in the final act when Spielberg gets a little too inspirationally showy for his own good.

 

 

For the greater part though The Post is rigorously focused, taking a story that doesn’t have any obvious action tropes – there are no car chases, no gun fights, no bitter, public battles between powerful societal behemoths – and letting it tell its own powerful tale.

Elegantly and forcefully weaving in a welter of issues from misogyny to abuse of power, the right of the State to rule as it sees fit vs. democratic norms, The Post barely puts a foot wrong, calmly assembling the pieces of a narrative puzzle that comes to define not just The Washington Post, now one of the towering influential giants of American media, but Graham herself who proves to herself and others that she is a worthy successor to her father and husband’s media mantles.

The film is effective because at no time does it sensationalise the story nor overplay its hand; Spielberg knows a good story and understands that it doesn’t need any embellishment, not that screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer hand him any, happy to let this gripping tale speak for itself.

Anchored by impressive performances by everyone involved, most particularly by Streep and Hanks who, amazingly, had never acted together before, The Post manages to make a statement without polemic clumsiness, giving us riveting action rife with stakes aplenty and democracy in the balance, and also the confidence that if good women and men speak up that even the most debased of democracy’s inhabitants must be made to heel.

 

 

Too good to be true? Donny the Drone comes alive ready to save the world

(image via YouTube (c) DUST)

 

SNAPSHOT
The film opens in 2022, as Donny – a mapping drone who “woke up” after a midair collision with a bird, and now speaks with the lulling cadence of a new age guru – is being presented with a “Person of the Year” award. Since his transformation, he explains, he’s devoted himself to being an ambassador for machines’ ability to help people. But despite Donny’s big award, not everybody embraces his philosophy – or his vision for humanity’s future. (source: io9)

C’mon you know the type.

They have an epiphanic Road to Damascus moment, see the world more clearly and become convinced they have been granted a special perspective unavailable to the rest of us mere mortals.

Everything’s fine to begin with – they’re more zen, more appreciative of life, more in tune with what matters in life. But alas, not everyone is onboard with their new found revitialised spirituality, their kumbayah languidness and so they slowly but subtlely begin judging, demanding, coercing the world to adapt to them or be seen as the enemy.

It ain’t pretty and that’s where the trouble starts …

Mackenzie Sheppard’s Donny the Drone harnesses this scenario is powerful and very clever ways as a drone become sentient, then more knowing and insightful and then … well watch and find out …

 

Weekend pop art: Follow these maps to a whole new movie experience

Guardians of the Galaxy (image via Gizmodo (c) Andrew DeGraff)

 

Movies are increibly intricate when you think about it.

A ton of moving parts with everything from a perfectly-written script to first-rate actors to an inspired director, pitch-perfect music and dazzlingly good cinematography having to come together having to come together to make it all work.

Sometimes of course it doesn’t – I’m looking at you Bewitched! – but when it does it’s magical, and you can see every last bit of that magic in Andrew DeGraff‘s marvellous artwork which turns films into maps.

You can track the entire length and breadth of these films in his inspired works which he has now grouped together into a must-get publication called Cinemaps, with many of the maps – really they are so much more but as Gizmodo observes it’s the closest word anyone can mind to describe these singularly unique creations.

Bored with life? It’s time to go on a brilliantly-clever journey like no other through the movies you know and love.

 

Jurassic Park (image via Gizmodo (c) Andrew DeGraff)

 

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (image via Gizmodo (c) Andrew DeGraff)

 

Wizard of Oz (image via Gizmodo (c) Andrew DeGraff)

 

 

Book review: Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

 

Though humanity likes to wrap its relationship with the natural world in Disney-esque romantic notions of togetherness and interdependence, the harsh reality is that since we first picked up tools and starting altering our environment, we have been doing the animals around us a great disservice.

This has only accelerated since the Industrial Revolution raised up wholesale destruction and technological advancement upon the altar of progress, elevating humanity’s place on the world stage and inevitably consigning animals to the roles of pets, circus curiosities and zoological diversions.

In Elena Passarello’s exquisitely well-wrought collection of essays, Animals Strike Curious Poses, we gain a harrowing and sometimes uplifting understanding of the fraught connections between humanity and the animals with which we share our planet.

Using as a guide a number of iconic animals that have seized the public consciousness for one reason or another, Passarello examines how our primal fascination with the natural world – she contends that the way we interact with animals goes back to before language was added to our cultural armoury when thought and experience reigned supreme – has shaped us as much as we have it.

In doing so, she draws on her experiences growing up, musing on the way about whether even she, an actor, writer and teacher at Oregon State University with a long fascination with animals, really sees them as they are or rather, like many of us, as we would like them to be.

“Along with sensing, and then ignoring, that the unicorn was phony, I also knew it was probably some kind of victim, though even that didn’t deter my pleasure. I could not yet grasp how costly a real animal’s presence in my imagination could be. Of this I am the most ashamed, because I know a version of that ignorance still lives in me. I didn’t grasp, or I refused to consider, what kind of subjection was possible—the various ways humans open up and alter other creatures.” (P. 183)

While this focus may seem dour and oppressive in some ways – we have destroyed things and altered that which we claim to love – it is in fact immensely rewarding to read, suffused as it is with a deep and abiding love of animals that comes through in every poetically-wrought word.

Passarello is rightly regarded as one of the 21st Century’s greatest emerging essayists, someone who can distill complex and intimate notions that may in straightforward narrative hands be oppressive to the point of exhaustion, but which in her gilded, beautifully-articulated way are eminently accessible and far easier to appreciate and take in.

Given the ongoing degradation of the natural world, which we seem to see through some weird twisted God-given dictum to go forth and subjugate the earth come what may, her book is more pressing than ever; however you get the impression that the intent of Animals Strike Curious Poses is not to weigh readers down with polemic conundrums and enervating portrayals of the fallen natural world but rather to get us thinking of how we approach animals and hence the entirety of the environment around us, divorced though we may be from its realities in our modern digital bubble.

 

(cover image courtesy Kenyon Review)

 

To bring about this epiphany, and that is indeed what results in ways big and small by the end of this marvellously thought-through and poetically enunciated book, Passarello takes on journeys through the lives of animals as diverse as Yuka, a 39,000 BP mammoth discovered on the thawing tundra of the Russian steppes, the starling Vogel Staar that supposedly inspired Mozart to even greater heights of genius musical virtuosity and Arabella, a small cross spider that succeeded in taming the demands of zero gravity far faster and more completely than the humans who placed her aboard Skylab in 1973.

Drawing on evidence that Yuka was hunted to her final resting place by a warrior intent on a kill, Passarello imagines what her final moments must have been like, even as she examines how her modern-day discoverer and his friends viewed her body, as a timeless artifact that was less animal that representative of a time long ago that we even now struggle to articulate a full understanding of and which evades any kind of fulsome appreciation.

With Vogal Staar and Mozart, we are gifted with a stunningly moving portrait of how a diminutive starling, a species of bird known for its complex aerial displays and loyalty and faithfulness that some have compared to dogs, may have driven a man already known for his immense talent and grasp of what musically moves us, to create over 60 new pieces of music in the time the two were together.

“Mozart turns to the bird, which moves closer to the front of the cage and stares. Starlings are more responsive to human eye contact than mammalian pets; they know when they’re being watched and aren’t afraid to hold a gaze. It’s one of the primary traits—along with a high touch response—that allows deep bonding between starlings and humans, as we love eye contact, too. One ornithologist called the starling ‘the poor man’s dog’ for its ability to connect and demonstrate loyalty. And sound assists this connection; what better way to bond than in a duet?” (P. 78)

Possibly one of the most astounding tales is that of Arabella, a tiny spider that, with her dogged determination to spin a web in an utterly alien environment, won the hearts of not just the three highly-professional astronauts who accompanied her on the Skylab mission but the entire population of the United States and likely the world.

These three stories, along with countless other absorbing tales that demonstrate not simply Passarello’s broad and deep knowledge of the natural world but also her considerable love for it too and willingness to be honest about how she interprets it, carry along on a meditative journey into the natural world (and the many fascinating and esoteric ways it intersects with the man-made world; these seemingly divergent elements are drawn into Passarello’s essays with breathtaking ease and elegance).

It’s a world that exists utterly independent of people in certain ways – although the author does touch on how we and animals were once intimately connected prior to the march of industralisation which rent us apart – and yet which has always been interpreted in ways that suited us more so than the subjects of our fascination.

As ruminations on the links between humanity and the natural world go, Animals Strike Curious Poses, is a singularly superlative achievement, one that illuminates the immense beauty and diversity of the natural world, documents how we have impinged upon it, and asks us indirectly to reconsider the nature of that engagement, all delivered with prose so clever, poetic and imaginative that you can’t help be drawn, in life-changing ways, into each and every essay in the collection.

About as romantic as F: new Love, Simon trailer shows love with a great big secret

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

 

SNAPSHOT
Everyone deserves a great love story. But for seventeen-year old Simon Spier it’s a little more complicated: he’s yet to tell his family or friends he’s gay and he doesn’t actually know the identity of the anonymous classmate he’s fallen for online. Resolving both issues proves hilarious, terrifying and life-changing. Directed by Greg Berlanti (Dawson’s Creek, Brothers & Sisters), written by Isaac Aptaker & Elizabeth Berger (This is Us), and based on Becky Albertalli’s acclaimed novel, Love, Simon is a funny and heartfelt coming-of-age story about the thrilling ride of finding yourself and falling in love. (synopsis via Coming Soon)

As a gay man who came out a long time ago, I knew all too well what it is to shoulder the burden of an impossible to utter secret.

Well at the time it feels like you’ll never be able to get the words, with the full import of coming clean about your sexuality seemingly too big an ask.

That’s where we meet Simon who is a typical teenager in every way possible – with the exception of his sexuality which defiantly won’t accede to the heteronormative world around him.

“I deserve a great love story, and I want someone to share it with.”

No one knows that of course but his online friend Blue, a fellow gay student at his school who is the only one who knows the full expansiveness of Simon’s needs and desires.

 

 

At its heart, Love, Simon aka Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, which was a brilliant read in just about every respect, is a pure and simple love story, a beautifully articulated of life that doesn’t fit the norm but is no less wonderful and meaningful because of it.

If nothing else, and there’s a great deal to learn from this funny, wise and insightful story, Love, Simon will go a long way to reminding people once again that love is love and that it is no respector of the labels we apply.

Love, Simon opens 16 March in USA and 29 March in Australia.