TV: Glow (US, 2017) by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch – out now
Produced by Jenji Kohan of Netflix staple Orange is the New Black, Glow is a comedy set deep in the artifice and sexism of 1980s Los Angeles showbiz. Alison Brie’s (Community, Mad Men) Ruth Wilder confirms my suspicion that the out-of-work actor is a brilliant source of comedic narrative: a series of desperate turns pushes Ruth into the cast of a bodgy new TV show, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, an exploitative excuse to get desperate young women in lycra to do stupid things that are more about physical soap opera than the sport of wrestling.
Ruth is that endearing hero who takes herself a little too seriously but can nevertheless elicit the empathy needed to keep you watching. Marc Maron (of the WTF podcast) is the cranky antagonist, Sam Sylvia, the show-within-the-show’s producer with a moustache full of cocaine, while the wrestling cast is a diverse bunch of women with a no-bullshit attitude as they hold their own in the morally murky realm of cheap television production.
It’s so wonderful to see women with different types of bodies on television, and the plotting is cleverly structured to withhold and then build-up to the women’s first wrestling show. With Madonna-meets-Xanadu art direction, Glow creates a vivid world of high-cut leotards and failed ambition.
Film: The Fugitive (US, 1993) directed by Andrew Davis – out now
This film belongs to what you might think of as an orthodox subgenre of thrillers: the wrongly accused man on the run (a Hitchcock favourite). The Fugitive is an expertly constructed action-drama, structured around a series of gradually expanding flashbacks as Harrison Ford’s Dr Richard Kimble uncovers the conspiracy that framed him for the murder of his wife, Helen (Sela Ward). Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz calls it a “one damn thing after another movie” – the perfect description for Kimble’s waking nightmare as he strives to solve the case, clear his name and evade an obsessed US marshall (Tommy Lee Jones in his only Oscar-winning role).
In relentless action sequences in downtown Chicago (this is a classic Chicago film), Kimble moves between suppressed grief due to Helen’s murder, and teeth-grinding paranoia in the grim, indifferent streets of urban America and the hostile landscape of the icy forests surrounding them. Using this emotional turmoil to drive the film rather than just chase scenes, director Andrew Davis ensures the viewer can’t rest until Kimble does.
Honourable mentions: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (film, out now), Okja (film, out 28 June).
Film: Magic Mike (US, 2012) by Steven Soderbergh – out 28 July
Steven Soderbergh has a career full of cold, clinical genre films and political manifestos with a quasi-documentary feel, but his 2012 dramatic comedy about male strippers in Miami is warm and compelling – so much so you might miss the post-GFC commentary.
It’s the classic American dream narrative: Channing Tatum (Mike) is an honest working-class guy, who supplements casual labouring jobs with late-night work in a troupe of super-buff, cashed-up male strippers, run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Mike’s aiming to save up to start his own business but the high life might just get the best of him – particularly after he takes the wayward 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing.
Subtext aside, of Soderbergh’s films, Magic Mike is closer to Ocean’s Eleven than Che or Contagion. It’s a crowdpleaser – especially for appreciators of Tatum’s moves in the brilliantly choreographed club scenes. As Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw wrote: “When Tatum takes his clothes off, it’s like the scene in Terminator when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s flesh gets burned away to reveal the sleek robo-skeleton. These are not buns of mere steel but of some unimaginably dense substance that forms the Earth’s core. Tatum’s buttocks probably affect the tides.”
Honourable mentions: Muriel’s Wedding (film, out now), Broad City season 3 (TV, out 19 July).
Film: Weiner (US, 2016) directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg – out now
There’s a particular subcategory of political documentary that I find very hard to tear my bloodshot eyes from, and a new brilliant iteration of it pops up every year or so: the ill-fated US campaign.
Weiner first appears to be an observational documentary, made from a place of deep immersion in the re-election campaign of Congressman Anthony Weiner, a charismatic underdog Democrat and man of the people. As Weiner’s ego overtakes his political nous and he’s overwhelmed by sex scandals, the film becomes a more sinister affair: a portrait of a marriage in (terminal?) decline and a moral tale warning against ego.
Weiner’s wife, the beautiful, intelligent and reserved Huma Abedin (herself an extremely competent politician and senior advisor to Hillary Clinton), assumes an almost silent but righteous presence in the documentary – you come to pity her, but more so her husband in the wake of her wrath. This is a disaster film of the non-action variety: a public trainwreck of miscarried ambitions in both relationships and politics.
Film: Sherpa (Australia, 2015) directed by Jennifer Peedom – out now
Another in Dendy Direct’s current collection of former Sydney Film Festival highlights, Australian Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa is the prelude to her new release, Mountain. Peedom set out to capture the 22nd ascent of Mount Everest by Phurba Tashi, a climber attempting to break the world record for most trips to the top. But, as with many of the best documentaries, the story’s scope shifted when the filmmaker stumbled on something new: Tashi’s ascent was marred by the most dangerous icefall in climbing history, and the Sherpas (local Indigenous people employed by wealthy western tourists and business operators to perform the most perilous mountaineering work) went on strike to demand compensation and better safety measures.
Sherpa became a political story about how Everest’s tourism industry is built on the labour and knowledge of an Indigenous community, for whom the mountain is not an object to conquer but a sacrosanct spirit to worship. Told with striking aerial photography in ode to the natural sublime, Sherpa combines the conventions of a travelogue with an unexpected struggle for workers’ rights atop a spiritual landmark.
Honourable mentions: T2 Trainspotting, Loving (films, both out now).
TV: Top of the Lake season 1 (NZ/UK, 2013) by Jane Campion – out now
A good time to revisit auteur Jane Campion’s first excursion into longform storytelling – and a major precursor to The Handmaid’s Tale in feminist television – before the imminent release of Top of the Lake’s second season.
Elisabeth Moss plays Robin, an idealistic cop who returns to her hometown (and her own history of trauma) when a pregnant 12-year-old girl walks into a lake and doesn’t come back. It sounds like the sort of premise we’ve come to expect from television – violence against women as both a lazy trigger for mystery and unexplored exploitation. But in Campion’s hands, the intrigue takes Robin to a female-only society called Paradise, and pits her against the impunity of police violence. Shot deep in the haunting mountains of New Zealand, Top of the Lake is a boundary-pushing and sensitive reverie of hope set against women and children’s trauma.
Honourable mentions: Romeo + Juliet (film, out 1 July), Collateral (film, out 22 July).
Predestination (Australia, 2014) directed by Peter and Michael Spierig – out now
This tidy genre film preempted the wave of transgender storytelling that’s entered the mainstream since Jill Soloway’s Transparent. Where most Australian genre films tend to be outback horrors, this one’s a noirish sci-fi that plays like an immaculately produced American studio film. Like much sci-fi, it expands on a high-concept short story – in this case, All You Zombies by Robert A Heinlein.
Ethan Hawke plays a federal “temporal agent” (a type of time-travelling cop) pursuing a criminal, the Fizzle Bomber, who has eluded him across the years. He encounters a stranger at a bar (Sarah Snook), who could help unlock the crime and a new passage through time.
In the hands of writer-director team the Spierig brothers, a tale about time travel becomes a story of shifting identity. It’s an impressive trick: by linking the narrative twists to the development of characters we’ve grown attached to, the reveals never play as gimmicks. A smart, surprising mystery.
SBS On Demand
Film: Zach’s Ceremony (Australia, 2016) directed Aaron Petersen – out 2 July
After debuting at Sydney Film Festival and touring nationally, Aaron Petersen’s acclaimed documentary has finally made it to an NITV broadcast, and just in time for NAIDOC week.
Similar to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Petersen follows a young Indigenous man, Zach Doomadgee, through his teen years toward the initiation ceremony in which he will officially become a man. Of particular concern is the relationship between Zach and his dad, Alex, as they work out how to be themselves between the contradictory visions of masculinity offered by contemporary Indigenous society on one hand and alpha-male capitalism on the other. As Zach veers between whining, bratty teen and amazingly self-aware young man, the audience is given a unique insight into the strange and confusing headspace he has to inhabit: being a responsible man in one world and a regular kid in another.
For the most part, Petersen sticks to the conventions of factual television programming, but the innovation is in the subject matter. It’s rare to see this kind of negotiation of Indigenous identity onscreen, and the documentary also treads carefully around giving the audience a sense of the richness of Aboriginal law while still respecting traditional protocols of secrecy. A fresh, personalised insight into what ancestral customs mean for young Indigenous men today.
TV: The Handmaid’s Tale (US, 2017) by Bruce Miller – full series out 6 July
Absent from Australian screens since it’s launch in April, the hype for The Handmaid’s Tale has been swelling, with the Guardian’s Sam Wallerston calling it not just a superb adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 feminist classic but a narrative that echoes loudly through today’s political fog, with “fear of freedoms, rights and long-established orders disappearing overnight ... Apposite timing for the adaptation.” Indeed, the story feels less like an alternative America than a propitious story of oppression and insurgency. The words of heroine, Offred, ring true: “Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution, we didn’t wake up then either.”
Elisabeth Moss is front and centre and in full close-up almost all the time as an enslaved member of a fertile class of women in an otherwise barren society hijacked by an armed religious autocracy. As the series follows Offred’s trajectory toward political rebellion, the camera’s tight focus puts us right inside a thick but surprisingly familiar atmosphere of fear-mongering and dread. The Handmaid’s Tale is tough-going, with a neurotic power that has more substance than most dystopian tropes. Perhaps it is not a warning but a prophecy of empowered action.
Film: Radiance (Australia, 1998) directed by Rachel Perkins – out now
Three estranged sisters (Deborah Mailman, Rachel Maza and Trisha Morton-Thomas) are brought back together by the death of their mother. In her old house, between sugarcane fields and the ocean, a lifetime of family secrets unroll over the course of a night. Though its dramatic conventions can feel dated and lacking in subtlety, Radiance is worth watching for the moment it represents in Australian cinema: a time when it was near impossible to see anything made by Indigenous storytellers in the mainstream.
This is Rachel Perkins’ directorial debut, an adaptation of a play by (non-Indigenous) Louis Nowra, that sent her on to become one of the most successful commercial film directors in the country (you may have seen her latest, Jasper Jones, earlier this year). First-time cinematographer Warwick Thornton – whose heavily symbolic interstitial shots of tall, rustling cane and high rolling clouds provide painterly moments of emotional abstraction – went on to direct his own films and win the Caméra d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Furthermore, the film marked the time at which Deborah Mailman, fully committed to her role as the youngest daughter, became a firm presence in the Australian film and television landscape.
Radiance is an honest, compassionate film, with three complex female characters who will genuinely move you.
Film: Top Knot Detective (Australia, 2016) directed by Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce – out now
Not exactly new to SBS On Demand, but a recent discovery that must be seen. The next time you’re sorting the fake news from the real news, take a moment to remember Top Knot Detective’s brilliant spin on the real and the imaginary in the media.
West Australian comedy geniuses Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce (of the recently closed SBS Comedy) have given a 1990s samurai series, Top Knot Detective – which may or may not be a real show – the Spinal Tap treatment. Created by dodgy TV producer-turned-murderer Takashi Takamoto, legend has it that Top Knot Detective failed quickly in Japan, but gained the kind of late-night cult status in Australia that hasn’t been seen since Monkey Magic.
So much thought has gone into every little part of this weird comedy-mockumentary creation – it even commences with an opening shot of a 1990s video piracy ad. McCann and Pearce have made a loving, low-budget ode to VHS culture, the old-school SBS, myth and media trickery. Please tell me it’s true.
Film: We Don’t Need A Map (Australia, 2017) directed by Warwick Thornton – out 23 July on NITV
“Are we a monoculture? Are we worried some bloke’s gonna steal our barbecues and beers?” Artist and filmmaker Warwick Thornton’s new film (fresh from Sydney Film Festival) about the Southern Cross is an unexpected history lesson: a cannonball into the idiocy of Australian nationalism and a tour-de-force of Indigenous knowledge for broad audiences.
Plastered across bare calves, flags and news footage of race riots, in recent years the Southern Cross has become a symbol of nationalism and division. But Thornton delves into the Cross’s significance for different Indigenous nations. As the film more deeply explores Aboriginal astronomy and spirituality, we come to realise that the Southern Cross’s symbolism in contemporary Australia might just be the most grotesque instance of cultural appropriation ever.
Though its origins as a television documentary undermine its more poetic aspirations, this beautiful film tells an old story to a new audience: about the tragedy of a twisted symbol, and of how colonialism didn’t just steal the land from Indigenous people on this continent, but everything up to the stars.
Honourable mentions: The Family Law season two (TV, out now).
Cleverman season two (Australia, 2017) directed by Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell – out now with new episodes on Thursdays
Cleverman remains one of the most interesting Australian television creations of the day. The first season of the futuristic drama told of an Indigenous superhero, Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard), whose mission is to break down a segregated society, at the bottom of which lie the Hairies (people with powers of great mysticism and athleticism, who are covered in excessive hair).
For Koen, that task means defeating his own brother Waaru (Rob Collins), who has gone over to the dark side – selling out his own people to (white) corporate interests.
The strong allegories from the first season are extended in this new six-part series, introducing the audience to a shady, eugenics-like technology that will weed out the Hairies, as well as broadening the show’s geographic and visual scope, taking us beyond the grimy dystopian city to the eucalypt-rich mountains. Cleverman mixes science-fiction, political allegory and Indigenous mythology to build toward a unique and potent kind of contemporary mythology.
Walkabout (Australia, 1971) directed by Nicholas Roeg – until 6 July
This classic of Australian cinema (by a British director nonetheless) immediately struck overseas critics as a masterpiece, only to disappear for decades until a new theatrical release in the 1990s, followed by video and digital distribution, saved it from oblivion.
Walkabout traces the fates of two white children who are saved by an Indigenous tracker (David Gulpilil) in the desert, following a terrible trauma at the hands of their father, who has failed to find happiness in the big, grey city. Walkabout is one of the first films that tried to find a new way to capture the desert on its own terms – abstractly, beautifully – rather than as a desolate nothingland. US critic Roger Ebert called it a classic film about “the mystery of communication,” but Australia’s Paul Byrnes is more cryptic: “It is not a film to be read literally, but symbolically and visually. Walkabout is not a particularly accurate depiction of Aboriginal men, nor of schoolgirl sexuality. It’s more like mythological allegory, and a great introduction to the transforming power of photography.”
Honourable mentions: Lantana (until 6 July).