From House of Cards to Master of None: the best of film and TV streaming in Australia in June

A riot in Litchfield prison, a Quentin Tarantino marathon and the return of Agent Dale Cooper – here’s what to watch on streaming services this month


TV: House of Cards season five (US, 2017), created by Beau Willimon – out now

In 2013, House of Cards began with the stylised premise that a known sociopath was vying for the US presidency, to make a deeper point about corruption and power in politics. I’m not sure if House of Cards renders President Trump’s rise more understandable as a historical reality, but historical reality has certainly made season five’s arcs more relatable.

Where season four ended with what now seems like a perfectly inevitable progression of the show’s dramatic logic and main motif – Claire breaking the fourth wall to join her husband and co-conspirator in glorious political evil – season five launches with a Congressional hearing about Frank’s crimes during his vice-presidency, while Claire takes on the role of spin doctor, urging citizens to watch each other and be vigilant for indeterminate danger.

Though many critics have found House of Cards overblown and overwrought, I always felt its strength was in that vision of democracy as malleable, of Congress as a political soap opera to the more powerful scenes of backroom dealing. Today the conventions of melodrama make for an even more accurate portrayal of politics as theatre and spectacle. Farce and realism are coming together, and House of Cards is the beneficiary.

TV: Orange Is the New Black (US, 2017), created by Jenji Kohan – out 9 June

Another Netflix Original, another soap opera critiquing US institutions. Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black has ridden high atop pop culture’s wave of interest in identity politics, with Litchfield prison standing in for the patriarchy, oppressing a diverse population of women, with middle-class white woman Piper Chapman and her reunited girlfriend Alex Vause at its centre.

In previous seasons, inmates’ stories unfurled through flashback, pointing to poverty and trauma as key motivators for crime. This season opens where season four’s cliffhanger left off: a riot breaking open in Litchfield. It’s a thrilling plot development that transforms the show’s subtext into its primary plot driver: the inmates are now engaged in a literal fight for their rights, a war for agency in a stacked society.

But this plot turn also exaggerates the show’s problems: Kohan continues to find potent but obvious, metaphors for her politics, such as Dayanara shooting a male guard in the groin who tries to negotiate with her in Spanish (“I don’t speak Spanish!”). And as ever, the tone veers from cheesy character-driven comedy to serious social commentary, not always coherently, but OINTB’s compassion and the super-committed cast still have you rooting for its well-loved characters.

TV: Master of None season two (US, 2017), created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang – out now

Master of None is the latest variation on a single-camera, go-nowhere sitcom – a story of second-generation migrant life and identity, in the tradition of alternative comedies Louie and Broad City. Co-creator Aziz Ansari plays Dev Shah, a 30-year-old actor trying to make it while continually bumping up against the racism of showbiz. Brian Chang (Kelvin Yu) is his slightly hipper, cooler best mate. Together they’re two children of migrants in a society that still thinks of itself as predominantly white.

While most of the time the show simmers around absurd, everyday situations, every now and then it detours into innovative formal terrain: season one memorably took us into the childhoods of both Dev and Brian’s fathers, in a series of swift, simple scenes that showed the impossibility of overcoming generational and cultural divides – the difficulties, both universal and specific, of ever really knowing your parents. Season two continues with these kinds of insights and formal experimentations: watching this sitcom grow and evolve is a wonderful thing.

Honourable mentions: Aquarius (film, out now), Into the Wild (film, out now), The Fugitive (film, out now), The Keepers season one (TV, out now).


TV: Twin Peaks: The Return (US, 2017), by David Lynch and Mark Frost – out now, new episodes weekly

The return of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 1990s drama Twin Peaks leaves behind many TV conventions of realism and plot, for stranger, braver, more dispersed territory – 18 hours of experimental film-making, streamed online.

We’ve left the warm, shadowy, familiar terrain of Twin Peaks itself; there are portals to the Black Lodge from as far as New York. Hawk has renewed the cold case to find Agent Cooper, the show’s moral compass, but he doesn’t know that Coop now has more than one doppelganger. The lesson? That the small town of Twin Peaks was just one hub of a world of spiritual distress, of which a new spate of family killings is just one small manifestation.

Is there redemption yet? Will Mrs Palmer free herself of 25 years of grief? Will Laura escape the Black Lodge? Will Cooper get his soul back? Forget about following the plot and hook on to the emotional logic. I don’t know where Lynch and Frost are taking us but I’m happy to embark on this journey into what Agent Rosenfield calls the “absurd mysteries of the strange forces of existence”. And let’s be thankful that Lynch and Frost didn’t go for the easy 1990s nostalgia of pies, coffee and jukeboxes.

Film: Sully (US, 2016), by Clint Eastwood – out 14 June

Clint Eastwood’s Sully: Miracle on the Hudson – trailer

Watch how arch Republican Clint Eastwood turns a simple (and true) story of quick-thinking bravery into soft propaganda for individualism and small government, and natural human concern into US patriotism. It’s not blatant propaganda; it’s stealth propaganda. But you don’t have to agree with the politics to realise this film is a wonder.

As Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, Tom Hanks plays the ageing action hero to a tee. Sully does the impossible – lands a passenger plane of 155 souls after it’s struck by a flock of geese – but the real test begins when government officials and his senior company figures want to play the blame game (a depiction, incidentally, that the real-life investigators objected to): a gruelling board hearing begins, standing in for a bigger metaphor of political struggle.

Here, Sully/Hanks stands in for Eastwood’s vision of a lost America: honourable, implacable in the face of bureaucracy, traditionally family-oriented. The plane-crash sequences, played out twice from different perspectives, are amazingly stressful: this is disturbingly good, emotionally manipulative action cinema.

Films: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003): a Quentin Tarantino marathon – out 9 June

Not enough cinematic violence in your Twin Peaks binge? These four films by Quentin Tarantino – in various directorial and writing roles – arc his evolution from rough-and-ready indie filmmaker to someone whose aesthetic resembles a heavily stylised, live-action cartoon shoot-em-up. Watch with the words of David Foster Wallace in mind, who wrote that Tarantino “has found (ingeniously) a way to take what is ragged and distinctive and menacing about [his] work and homogenise it, churn it until it’s smooth and cool and hygienic enough for mass consumption”.

Honourable mentions: Embrace of the Serpent (film, 2 June) , Deepwater Horizon (film, 26 June).

Amazon Prime Video

TV: I Love Dick (US, 2017), created by Jill Solloway – out now

“How can you be a woman film-maker if you’ve been raised to be invisible?” In I Love Dick, a conventional premise – how one chance meeting can reroute your life – is turned into something deeply unorthodox. It’s a tale of unlikable, obsessive women, of how failing film-maker Chris Kraus’s (played by Kathryn Hahn) imagined relationship with an academic artist called Dick (Kevin Bacon) led to something much greater: a new wellspring as a professional writer.

To translate Kraus’s classic feminist novel – which flows between autobiographically informed fiction and literary/art theory – Transparent creator Jill Solloway has the guts to be spiky, inserting clips of video art, montages of groundbreaking women film-makers such as Jane Campion and even mismatched subtitles from Chantal Akerman films. “It’s some real-life-becomes-art-becomes-life shit,” as one of the characters says. It’s exciting that David Lynch isn’t the only artist making challenging, experimental stories, communicated differently on television. I Love Dick carries on Transparent’s search for new forms of queer, feminist, long-form storytelling.

Honourable mention: A Serious Man (film, out now).

Dendy Direct

Film: David Lynch: The Art Life (US, 2016), by Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes out 7 June

David Lynch: The Art Life – exclusive trailer for the Venice documentary

This documentary will help you understand Twin Peaks: The Return. Journey back in time from Lynch’s cigarette-smoky art studio into the bottomless psychic depths of his childhood, and a few things begin to make sense.

Lynch has never had a normal job: his adult life has largely involved sitting around his studio imagining what people are going through in their homes. His first encounter with a naked woman was as a child outside his home: she was coming toward him, out of the night, on the street, her skin white and mouth bloody from some unknown violence.

The Art Life repositions Lynch as a painter who strayed into film-making. We see process shots of him crafting his Gothic, layered, textured artworks, built up with lashings of paint smushed on with gloved hands, wired up with red emergency lights, often including dialogue in written text (“SOS”) and wired up with red emergency lights. We see archival shots of his 1950s childhood, and begin to understand the family home as the source of all his stories. Narrator-less, this doco has Lynch himself at the centre, with interviews conducted at his studio, and it ends as soon as his film career starts: at the start of production on Eraserhead and the public life of the man we now know as a visionary – and kind of nuts.

Honourable mentions: Toni Erdmann (film, 7 June), Cameraperson (film, 21 June).

Foxtel Play

Film: Patriot Games (US, 1992), by Philip Noyce – out now

Harrison Ford in Patriot Games
Harrison Ford in Patriot Games. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Another impressively crafted action film of rogue US patriotism. When the Australian director Philip Noyce (fresh from making the thriller Dead Calm) got sucked into Hollywood’s whirlpool, Australian cinema was the loser and US big-budget film-making was the winner.

In this spy thriller based on Tom Clancy’s novel of the same name, action-adventure maestro Harrison Ford plays former CIA agent Jack Ryan, who messes with the IRA, provoking revenge from the group (in particular, a dastardly Sean Bean) aimed at his wife and daughter (Anne Archer and Thora Birch).

Ford is as good as ever at looking serious while running fast and doing all the usual grimacing action-hero stunts, but he also has the intelligence and understated acting style to give the film a centre of gravity. Action (or even serious arthouse) films today are rarely this absorbing, finely structured. The film became terribly politically outmoded terribly quickly. Just 10 years later The Bourne Identity came on to the scene (the latest film in the series is also on Foxtel Play), about a remorseful man who wished to be anything but a killer spy. Bourne gave action film-making a new moral conscience and emotional intelligence, changing the genre’s direction forever. Patriot Games was critically trashed at the time but today, it almost seems to come from a more innocent, Cold War-era of pre-CGI action film-making: it’s as fun as mainstream, popular cinema gets.

Honourable mentions: Being John Malkovich, The Graduate, Jason Bourne (film, all out now).

SBS On Demand

Film: Kiki (US, 2016), by Sara Jordeno – out now

This low-budget documentary is an inherently political film about class and queerness. In New York, LGBTQ youth of colour (mostly gay men and transwomen) gather to learn Ballroom, a counter-culture dance style made famous by Madonna’s Vogue music video. Beneath the blue-steel gazes and fabulous costumes, we come to learn these dancers’ backstories of trauma, homelessness, poverty, family abandonment, violence – and resilience. Kiki is told with stacks of energy, love and respect for these youth: it’s an important story delivered with loads of cool and a cut-and-paste aesthetic.

Film: To Die For (US, 1995) directed by Gus Van Sant – out now

A local weathergirl – Nicole Kidman pre-Tom Cruise divorce and Scientology – is arrested on suspicion of murder. The question is never did she do it? But rather, how? And will she manipulate her way free?

Kidman’s performance goes way beyond the “ice queen” toward a portrait of complexity, with a knack for real dark humour. The supporting cast members – Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Wayne Knight (Seinfeld’s Newman) – are just as razor-sharp in their tragicomic skills. Gus Van Sant’s darkly funny crime film is a brilliant satire of the mainstream media – a vision of commercial media organisations as petri dishes of ambition and amorality, as the perfect places for sociopaths to bloom and flourish and grow their cultural power. Made in the pre-reality TV environment, for a country where just appearing on television is still considered to be a grand and noble achievement; ideal viewing today.

Film: Lore (Australia/Germany/UK, 2012) directed by Cate Shortland – out now

The end of the second world war is approaching and Germany is in free-fall. A Nazi officer shoots the family dog, wraps the family porcelain and flees to the Black Forest. Lore, his eldest daughter, leads her destitute siblings across Germany and, as their journey progresses, her brainwashing at the hands of her Nazi parents is confronted and unravelled, as she’s forced to lean on a young Jewish man and comes to realise her father’s role in the country’s atrocities.

Many independent films tend to be heavily dialogue dependent, but Cate Shortland is a highly visual film-maker who creates Lore’s world impressionistically from a fractured, montage-like, shallow-focus approach to photography and editing, and a colour palette of emerald green and sapphire blue. This is, to my mind, the finest of Shortland’s three feature films, owing to the way it links its central character to an ambiguous moral landscape, tying Lore’s abandonment and exploitation as a daughter and a young woman to a more shadowy and much larger historical arc: girl and country, identity and politics, divided from themselves.

Honourable mentions: Radiance, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (film, both out now).

ABC iView

TV: David Stratton’s Stories of Australian Cinema (Australia, 2017), by Sally Aitken – weekly from 6 June

David Stratton: A Cinematic Life trailer

Oh, David! This three-part doco about Australian cinema’s most well-known and much-loved critic treads a sweet line between nostalgia and film history education. It’s a memoir, told through the story of Australian cinema itself.

When Stratton began as director of Sydney film festival in the 1960s, Australia didn’t even have a film industry: there were TV programs and newsreels (which preluded the main film at cinemas) but no funding for feature films. Stratton has lived through the beginnings of the industry to today’s abundant world of strange digital images.

The writer-director Sally Aitken guides us through a sweeping tour of key local films – starting with Baz Luhrmann’s red-curtain trilogy – while Stratton narrates, adding his own autobiographical notes tying into the theme of the film at hand. The series plays like a stream of “best of Australian film” moments: the editor Adrian Rostirolla also deserves credit for unfurling these sampled clips dynamically. Adapted from the original film, for TV broadcast.

ABC iView Collection: Student films hosted by AFTRSout now

Fans of Lore and Mystery Road have a rare chance to go down a film history rabbit hole. Short films, let alone Australian ones, are just barely distributed, let alone for free. This partnership between the ABC and the Australian Film Television and Radio School presents a curated selection of the early works of alumni Jane Campion, Ivan Sen, Cate Shortland, Sue Brooks, Gillian Armstrong and Shirley Barrett. Barrett’s student film, Cherith, about a girl in a parochial town who starts speaking in tongues to fit in, stands apart. It’s as bizarre and observant as anything that’s come since.

This article was updated on 6 June to correct the title of Amazon’s streaming service


Lauren Carroll Harris

The GuardianTramp

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