Binge-r #141: Catch-22 + When They See Us + The Perfection
Streaming Service: Stan
Availability: All six episodes now streaming
Is an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s iconic 1961 anti-war novel too timely? Deranged and deadly official incompetence is a continual news ticker in 2019, and what is satirical in Heller’s book can resemble today’s news headlines. As a period piece, this expensive limited series has a curious distance – the ideas resonantly slot into place, but the setting of the Italian campaign during World War II is so far enough removed from today that it all slides sideways. At one point George Clooney’s parade ground bully (the actor has a supporting role, but directs two episodes and serves as a producer), accuses his young U.S. Air Force recruits of “breaking formation while in formation”, and that ludicrous charge – and challenge – hangs over this absurdist game of survival.
As a bombardier, John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott, one of the best young-ish American actors) sits in the glass nose of a B-25 bomber, like the lead sperm except one headed for death instead of life. With gung-ho superiors such Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler) constantly increasing the number of missions a crewman has to fly to go home – thus shortening his odds of copping it – Yossarian is keen to opt out on warfare. He views the hospital as an option, but his belief that only the insane would undertake a bombing mission renders him officially sane, compelling him to undertake a bombing mission. Australian writers David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) and Luke Davies (Candy) don’t dodge his disinterest in serving, let alone valour. He’s a true anti-hero.
The book’s weird gags and caustic bouts of cause and effect litter the story, which meanders and then races forward, much like Yossarian, who is either in quiet contemplation or rattling through the flak-filled skies. It’s true to the circular source material in that it’s not a comfortably paced narrative – the mood is awkward and defeatist in turn, Yossarian’s friends and comrades don’t so much debate his stance as disappear in action, and there’s no thrill in the repetitive bombing runs, which are so tensely repetitive that Yossarian’s survival seems ludicrously unlikely. The occasional point of satire – such as an officer being annoyed that a target is still standing, only to realise it’s the neutral Vatican City – provokes laughter, but this is mostly a subversive salute to sequestered masculinity and military might. It doesn’t break formation.
WHEN THEY SEE US (Netflix, four episodes): If you’ve seen Ava DuVernay’s 2014 civil rights drama Selma, you’d know the American filmmaker has a visceral feel for the power of institutional corruption. If you’ve seen her 2016 Netflix documentary 13th, you’d know she has dissected the racist imperatives of America’s judicial system. This four part historic drama combines those two strands, telling with forceful complicity and tender acknowledgment the story of the Central Park Five: a group of black and Hispanic teenage boys wrongly convicted of a brutal assault and rape in New York’s signature space in April 1989 who had their convictions vacated in 2002. The case was a flashpoint of racial prejudice – yes, Donald Trump was involved – but DuVernay always sees the coerced confessions and legal manoeuvres through the lens of the five boys, who had to carry the crime with them after their release. She captures recriminations with family members who failed the accused and a community’s struggle, and there is always a human element to the harshest moments that makes this four-part series tragic, and compelling, and hugely relevant.
NEWLY ADDED MOVIES
THE PERFECTION (Netflix, 2019, 90 minutes): Full of piercing notes and menacing tones – both sonically and thematically – this deceptive ambitious horror film keeps remaking itself with time shifts and differing perspectives. It begins as a study of ambition and dedication, with former cello prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) returning to her mentor and teacher Anton (Steven Weber), along with his acclaimed new protégé Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Wells, at a competition in Shanghai after the ailing mother Charlotte’s spent years caring for has passed away. Charlotte was Lizzie’s idol, now she’s replaced her, and the film makes the most of Williams’ fixed stare as the two aggressively bond and then run off the rails during a trip in rural China. But the suggestiveness of power and possession, stoked by frenzied flashes and bursts of body horror, it just an introduction to a deeper exhumation of institutional corruption and artistic exploitation. Director Richard Shepard adds slashing interludes and baroque punctuation and while he doesn’t quite land the ending, by then the film has found a furious and contemporary drive.
New on Netflix: Brutally long and lovingly choreographed, Charlize Theron’s action sequences in Atomic Blonde (2017, 114 minutes) are masterful, but too much of this Cold War espionage thriller fails to avoid cliché; a documentary about four American women – including the now celebrated Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who ran for Congress in 2018, Knock Down the House (2019, 87 minutes) is a valuable study of insurgent politics in an era of corporate government.
New on Stan: A sober study of a rare and gifted voice who wasn’t able to truly express herself, Whitney (2018, 121 minutes) is a detailed documentary about the life of Whitney Houston from Kevin Macdonald (Marley); Everything Everything (2017, 97 minutes) is a middling teen romance, well-versed in the Young Adult genre’s clash between grand love and defining illness.
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