From La La Land to Veep: the best of film and TV streaming in Australia in May

Prince’s breakout act, millennial ennui, and a John Clarke classic reissued – we’ve scoured the local streaming services to bring you this list of highlights


TV: Dear White People (2017, US) by Justin Simien – out now

Justin Simien’s 2014 film, Dear White People, is a rarity: a film about racism that is more about black voices being heard than making white people feel better. The new Netflix series carries on that tone: though it’s for all audiences, it’s a salty, biting satire that finds laughs in the prickliest places.

Set in a predominantly white, affluent, ivy league college in the US, the series kicks off when white students engage in blackface for Halloween. This sets off the ire of our heroine Samantha White (Logan Browning), who works in student radio and has just started dating a white guy. Black survival in a hostile (white) society is a predominant theme. Many of the punchiest scenes are formed from Samantha’s angry on-air communiques, which give the show its structure unique sensibility of rage-fuelled satire. So many of today’s remakes consist of merely repetition, so it’s heartening to see a new show that extends and stays loyal to its original inspiration.

Film: Casting JonBenét (2017, US) directed by Kitty Green – out now

On the trail of hybrid documentaries, such as The Act of Killing and Kate Plays Christine, comes Casting JonBenét, a Netflix film by Australian director Kitty Green (Ukraine Is Not a Brothel) that recently premiered at Sundance and contains some funding from Screen Australia. The film-makers audition townspeople in Boulder, Colorado (hometown of murdered beauty pageant queen, six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey, in 1996) to play Ramsey family members and police officers in a new film. We see clips from these audition tapes, which then morph into interviews, as the townspeople, fully costumed and on set, reveal their own theories and insights into the still-open investigation.

It’s a layered and experimental storytelling project that, beyond the specifics of JonBenét’s case, speaks to the construction of myths in popular culture. A fantastic true-crime story, somewhere between fact-based and fictional modes of cinema.

Film: Win It All (2017, US) directed by Joe Swanberg – out now

Indie director Joe Swanberg’s latest follows a familiar narrative to most gambling crime dramas – a broke addict, Eddie Garrett (New Girl’s Jake Johnson, also co-writer), gets involved in the criminal underworld after losing $50,000 of someone else’s money. But Win It All is wiser than most: it understands that the irony of Eddie’s problem is that he’s actually addicted to losing.

It’s not a grim watch like many of this genre, such as Owning Mahoney and The Cooler. Johnson creates an empathetic everyman who’s unable to live in any kind of emotional middle-ground, and Dan Romer’s percussive score keeps us synced to Eddie’s anxious heartbeats in some great Texas hold ’em scenes. Another Netflix Original worthy of real attention.

TV: Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On (2017, US) directed by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus – out now

This sex- and gender-themed documentary series is prototypical Netflix Original material: sleekly produced and timely, with a breezy tone much like a Viceland show, it’s a six-part anthology based on the acclaimed feature, Hot Girls Wanted.

Episode one’s highlight is Eliza Lust, a charismatic feminist whose pornography production model involves creating film versions of different women’s sexual fantasies. Episode two, Love Me Tinder, follows James Rhine, a former Big Brother contestant, Tinder monster and serial ghoster who uses dating apps to prop up his view of women as disposable objects.

Hot Girls Wanted is a record of some thought-provoking points along the spectrum of 21st century porn, sex, media, technology and dating.

Honourable mentions: Frances Ha, Blue Jasmine, Adaptation (out now), Into The Wild (7 May), Fantastic Mr Fox (16 May), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt season three (TV: 19 May), House of Cards season five (TV, 30 May).


TV: Black Comedy, seasons one and two (2014-2016, Australia) – out now

Rewatching the ABC’s brilliant sketch show, Black Comedy, I was reminded of Chris Rock’s comments about the myth of “race relations”: “It’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before … That’s white progress.”

Like Dear White People, Black Comedy is another show that cares little for the feel-good comfort of its white viewers, instead taking the conventions of sketch shows (parodies of TV and films, observational and physical gags in self-contained scenes) and spinning them through the voices and vernaculars of different Indigenous Australians.

A Cops-style reality TV show called Blakforce, in which Aboriginal people are arrested for not acting black enough (“He bought a Delta Goodrem album”) is virtuosic. The show’s genius logic is that it rejects one vision of Indigenous culture, instead looking at white Australia through a range of Indigenous viewpoints to critique the absurdity of the mainstream and the toxic normality of a white-centric culture.

Honourable mentions: The Last Metro (film, out now), Chevalier (film, 5 May), There Will Be Blood (film, 12 May), Twin Peaks (TV: 22 May).

Dendy Direct

Film: Jackie (2016, US) directed by Pablo Larraín – out now

Who writes history? How do you believe what’s handed down to you? Don’t be mistaken: this is not a celebratory biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s life in the week after her first husband John F Kennedy’s assassination. It’s more a historical-revisionist emotional horror film.

With an astonishingly sustained performance by Natalie Portman, Jackie does something much more interesting than your average glorifying biopic (think Lincoln, or The Queen). Jackie is directed by a foreigner to the US: as a Chilean, Pablo Larraín’s outsider status gives him fresh insight into a core moment of American political history. Larraín and writer Noah Oppenheimer have upended the usual biopic conventions to meditate instead on how stories are created and sustained in the national imagination – the mechanisms by which history becomes fable – by following Jackie’s efforts to influence, veto and rewrite the work of journalists covering her husband’s death.

Film: La La Land (US, 2016) directed by Damien Chazelle – out 3 May

Yes, I know, Damien Chazelle’s musical about two lovers aspiring to fame in Los Angeles is extremely problematic, as they say, and I don’t for a moment condone the wrongheadedness of the film’s whitewashing of jazz and black culture. La La Land is a strange creation: tonally inconsistent, visually wonderful, and musically forgettable apart from two standout tracks.

If I’m honest, it didn’t make sense to me at all until its final chapter, when Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s romance enters a totally different imaginary realm. At this point, the film’s romantic themes – the fantasy of a relationship do-over with the knowledge of hindsight; the impossibility of knowing your story while it is unfolding, or even knowing it at all – came into full focus. To me, this element of La La Land is extraordinarily beautiful and true-to-life, and what really makes it worth a watch.

Film: Elle (2016, France, Germany) directed by Paul Verhoeven – out now

Paul Verhoeven’s perverse psychological drama is about so much more than the tag “rape revenge thriller” suggests. Isabelle Huppert gives life to an incredibly difficult character, Michèle, grappling with the consequences of experiencing a violent sexual trauma by a masked man in her home. The genius of the film’s sexual politics is that it undercuts expectations – that women always identify as victims of their rapists, or that the police and legal system can offer genuine justice – even subverting the usual conventions of a revenge fantasy.

This is a subtle, subversive and contrary film that, with sly observational humour, is unfailingly attuned to the ways that people communicate, miscommunicate, traffic in denial and self-sabotage. But above, all, it examines how women wrestle to control their lives in a gender-divided society.

Film: Manchester by the Sea (2016, US) directed by Kenneth Lonergan – out 17 May

Manchester by the Sea trailer: Casey Affleck stars in acclaimed drama

This is a big cinematic story woven from the puny, ineffectual moments of daily life, and a domestic drama about working-class Americans. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is forcibly entrusted with the care of his teenage nephew after a tragedy, forcing him to face up to an older, more vicious family wound.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s film is not the kind where characters sit moping in a hospital corridor: it’s too much like life, too mired in the need to doggedly carry on with the minute logistics of the everyday, while the past continues to unfurl and intrude on the present. It’s a redemption narrative, ultimately, but not in the tidy Hollywood tradition. The final, spluttering, emotional scene is the most devastating moment I think I’ve seen unfold on film.

Honourable mentions: The Edge of Seventeen, Paterson (film, both out now).

Foxtel Play

TV: Veep season six (2017, US) created by Armando Iannucci – out now, episodes updated weekly

The team behind Veep have found the key to keeping their political satire as fresh as ever in its sixth season: creating situations that are both politically plausible and can push these despicable characters to ever-darker places. Selina’s downfall as President in season five has pushed her into deeper denial – episodes one and two see her scrambling to create a legacy for herself by writing a memoir, starting a charity and opening a library, but the gap between her folksy public persona and her true cruel, sarcastic self is growing bigger by the day. Jonah is more predatory than ever, Amy more spiteful, Mike more useless, Gary more grovelingly loyal, and Dan more glib and vain as he anchors a morning news show. Subplots in which both Amy and Selina are victims of sex scandals allow Veep to comment on the rank misogyny suffered by women in US politics. The show’s logic feels about right in today’s self-satirising political landscape.

Honourable mentions: Feud: Betty and Joan (TV, out now).

SBS On Demand

TV: Search Party (2016, US) created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter – out 16 May

A noir sitcom that captures perfectly the rootlessness of today’s millennial generation and one of the funniest, smartest programs of the last year, Search Party has finally made it to Australian free-to-air television.

Dory (Alia Shawkat, playing a character who may just be as iconic as her Maeby Funke on Arrested Development) is at a crossroads in her job and relationship, and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of the disappearance of a college friend. But when Dory asks, “Would anyone even care if something bad happened to me?” we wonder if her motive is altruistic, solipsistic or a product of her own lack of purpose.

Wonderfully droll, the show fits the anti-aspirational trajectory that TV comedy from Seinfeld to Broad City has made so successful: no one hugs and no one learns.

Film: Crimson Gold (2003, Iran) directed by Jafar Panahi – out now

Like Kenneth Lonergan, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has a way of inflecting the smallest stories with the grandest significance. Hussein, a pizza delivery man, witnesses first-hand the unequal distribution of wealth via his momentary glimpses through his customers’ doors. When his efforts to do the right thing and return a purse full of expensive jewellery are thwarted, he becomes pushed towards more desperate measures. Hussein is a beautifully realised working-class protagonist; flawed man on an unfairly tilted social stage.

Written by Abbas Kiarostami, Crimson Gold is all about how micro-scaled personal narratives can provide the fuel for incisive political critique. In Farsi.

Film: Alphaville (1965, France) directed by Jean-Luc Godard – out now

In this classic sci-fi of the French new wave, Lemme Caution is sent undercover to Alphaville, a totalitarian state on the edge the galaxy, to sabotage Alpha 60, a supercomputer of social control that is reducing citizens to little more than tranquillised robots. With allusions to Nazi Germany, capitalism and Soviet Russia, Alphaville is a story of the obstacles placed to inhibit conscience and perpetuate blind ignorance.

As the sci-fi turns to romance, the film also becomes story of the manipulation of thought through language (a concept ever more resonant today) as dangerous words like “tenderness” and “autumn light” are disappeared from Alphaville’s dictionary by the day. It’s the kind of sci-fi where there’s not a scene shot in daylight; as winter approaches here in Australia, this mysterious drama of perpetual nighttime makes for lovely noir viewing.

Film: Purple Rain (1984, US) directed by Albert Magnoli – out 19 May

In his first motion picture, Prince made a classic rock drama, a narrative backdrop for perhaps his most iconic album, and a grand creation myth for his birth as a superstar. A precedent for La La Land in its vision of young people’s aspirations for fame, the dramatic arc, dialogue and characters in Purple Rain rarely leave the realm of caricature (the film is deliberately drawn in archetype: Prince’s protagonist, the Kid, leaves an abusive family home to pursue love and stardom; it’s his fate), but the power lies elsewhere: in the live concert scenes of a stream of perfect pop songs like When Doves Cry and Let’s Go Crazy, and in Prince himself. The film’s great paradox is that the man was a terrible actor but brilliant performer: his charisma – that boiled-down essence of pure energy – burns through every frame.

Honourable mentions: Full Metal Jacket (film, 5 May), Happy-Go-Lucky (film, 8 May), The Science of Sleep (film, 5 May), Fargo season three (TV, 10 May), Ex Machina (film, 20 May).

ABC iView

TV: The Games (1998-2000, Australia) created by John Clarke and Ross Stevenson – out now

What a welcome, nimble move on the part of the ABC to reissue this classic comedy, by the late, much-missed satirist John Clarke, on iView. Although we often think of the UK series The Office as the prototype for the now-ubiquitous mockumentary format, Australian series The Games predated Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s creation by three years.

Clarke, one of the show’s creators, stars alongside Bryan Dawe and Gina Riley as a hapless government bureaucrat at the head of the undefined but vital Liaison and Logistics Division of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. His response to a question from a non-English speaking journalist in episode one, The Press Conference, is a precise translation of evasive and noncommittal political rhetoric in the Australian vernacular: “I don’t know whether we might need an interpreter … I hope many of you do speak English, because we in Australia speak a language we’re told is very much like English, and that will enable you, perhaps, to understand aspects of what I’m saying.”

Alongside later mockumentary series like The Thick of It and Veep, Clarke and Stevenson’s classic offers a supreme and hilarious political analysis, and deep insight into how politicians and spin doctors try to cut meaning loose from language.

Honourable mentions: The Warriors, Seven Types of Ambiguity (TV, both out now)


Lauren Carroll Harris

The GuardianTramp

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