As many of us emerge from lockdown after months of solid TV, it's natural to be feeling a little feeble, scared and photosensitive; a bit like those forgotten inmates who dreamboat prison warden Robert Redford coaxed out of crime and punishment hell in Brubaker (Stan).
While we may have some outdoor liberties reinstated, we are still weak and vulnerable and it would be ill-advised to eschew TV for exercise and socialisation just yet. There's plenty more streaming potential on that dank, fusty COVID-bum-dented lounge.
So, get back inside, real life can wait.
It's times like these, when I do feel the urge to turn my back on TV, I remember all it's taught me. For example, I remember formative experiences like watching 1980's Brubaker (Morgan Freeman's other jail flick). It helped form an opinion there's no such thing as a bad prison movie.
A fairly watertight cinematic maxim, too, until you factor in the unholy existence of Big Stan (Netflix, not Stan, strangely enough).
There must always be an exception to the rule, which is exactly what God said when he created Rob Schneider.
Jail boils humanity and storytelling down the fundamentals: it's tribal, it's survival.
As Netflix prepares to reportedly reap up to $900 million in revenue from its South Korean juggernaut, Squid Game, it's worth considering the series is, at its heart, a prison tale; sort of a candy-coloured Ghosts... of the Civil Dead, just more violent.
The pop culture phenomenon (Netflix's most popular show across 90 countries) has driven experts to parse everything about the series; from its none-too-subtle messages about capitalism, to its fashions (just in time for Halloween), to its M.C. Escher architecture, to its food, but, for me, it's been watching what happens when humans are incarcerated where the true story lies.
The masks are good, too.
Unlike the jail genre, sci-fi is a vast galaxy of stinkers, space junk everywhere.
We can go back to something like1959's Plan 9 from Outer Space (Amazon Prime) to find awful science fiction, but the camp classic (see Ed Wood, Disney+) has been refiled in the "so bad, it's good" category, so it no longer really counts.
By today's MCU (Disney+) standards, Georges Melies' seminal Le Voyage Dans La Lun (A Trip to the Moon) is a bit crap, too, even if the 1902 black-and-white short is groundbreaking and stunning and beautiful.
Still, no Thanos.
The lowest base for the past couple of decades has been Battlefield Earth (Stan, again, geez Stan), John Travolta's ill-advised passion project to bring one of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's books to the big screen.
It's true, it's terrible and generated (justified) scorn towards white people with dreadlocks.
Before Battlefield Earth (and Jar Jar Binks - didn't he have dreadlocks?), one of Hollywood's biggest sci-fi disasters was 1984's Dune (Stan), the unwieldy epic based on Frank Herbert's revered 1965 novel centring on a (white) planetary messiah with spooky powers and a rodeo rider's aptitude for wrangling giant, desert-dwelling worms.
Famously, director David Lynch disowned the movie after he was forced to butcher his project at the behest of producers Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis. My own DVD copy credits the director as "Alan Smithee", the pseudonym cooked up by the Directors Guild of America (not to be confused with the Spice-addled Guild Navigators of Dune) when one of their number had been coerced into creating an abomination unrecognisable from their original vision.
Many of us still love Lynch's Dune. In so many ways it represents brave, extraordinary filmmaking with lots of pop culture quirks (Sting is in it, Toto did the soundtrack, Brian Eno dips in, too) but, ultimately, it stands as a half-baked lesson in missed opportunities.
Even less-baked than Lynch's commendable effort is the conceptual version of Dune hatched by Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Despite the fact his movie was never actually made, people still like it better than the Alan Smithee cut. (see Jodorowsky's Dune, Apple TV+).
With all this in mind, October 21 marks VD Day (Villeneuve's Dune: Part One), a day when all the wrongs of bringing Herbert's saga to the screen will, allegedly, be righted at the hands of Denis Villeneuve, the director who pulled off the science fiction impossible by making a sequel to Ridley Scott's unimpeachable Blade Runner (Netflix) that came frighteningly close to eclipsing the original.
Sadly, unless you possess a VPN and the IT abilities of the Kwisatz Haderach, you won't be watching the new Dune (the "part one" bit should sound alarm bells, too) in Australia this week because it's on HBO Max. We can't even see it in cinemas until December.
So, while you reacquaint yourself with the old Dune, from Friday, you can also catch Apple TV's slick-looking new sci-fi series Invasion.
Hot on the heels of the same streaming platform's spectacular Foundation (based on the Isaac Asimov novels), Invasion is the story of an alien incursion on Earth seen "through the eyes of five ordinary people across the globe as they struggle to make sense of the chaos unfolding around them".
Star Sam Neill says Invasion is "much more than simple sci-fi". Sam's always right, but there's nothing wrong with simple sci-fi. You couldn't get any simpler than a race of lizard people invading Earth to fill their spaceship freezers with human meat. That was the premise of V, which, like Lynch's Dune, also screened way back in 1984, and it was choice.
A succession of soap
Also screening way back in 1984 was Dynasty and Dallas, Falcon Crest and The Dukes of Hazzard; classic TV series about the machinations of formidable families forever on the precipice of scandal or self-implosion (OK, maybe not so much them good ol' Duke boys, but Boss Hogg did make life very difficult for them).
The new-millennium successor to this style of upstairs-downstairs voyeurism, albeit far, far slicker, Succession has kicked of its latest season (Foxtel, BINGE).
The story begins where we left things a couple of years ago, the head of Waystar Royco, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), under siege from his ambitious son, Kendall (Jeremy Strong).
The snappy scripts, the edgy, staccato performances, the gun-metal cinematography; it's all soap opera on (undetectable) performance-enhancing, hormone-mimicking stimulants and even shares its DNA with the space opera of Dune, which, at the end of the day, is all about the mega-rich, the rise and fall of great houses, the swathe power cuts through the lives of the ordinary and the burden of legacy.
So, imagine just how good Succession will be if Logan Roy goes to jail?
WHAT TO WATCH
The Velvet Underground
"You need physics to describe that band at its height, it had entropy," we're told in Todd Haynes' multi-media exploration of one of rock's greatest enigmas. Physics? Absolutely. The Velvet Underground's second album, White Light/White Heat was more a promise of the outfit's trajectory than a slice of angry, sonic brilliance. There's plenty of geography in this wonderful doco, too. From John Cale's dour Welsh valleys to Lou Reed's Long Island. From there, it's a whirlwind of faces, names and places: The Hayloft, 42nd Street, 56 Ludlow Street, Pickwick Records, The Factory, The Dom, the Tropicana Motel, Max's Kansas City. Fuelled by Reed's literary leanings, his ambition and petulance ("He was like a three-year-old in many ways") and Cale's deep, droning thirst for the new and the hypnotic, the supernova that exploded under Andy Warhol's commercial gaze was pure, tortured genius. The voices here are smart and funny, world-weary with a cool detachment, like the persona of Nico herself. So good.
Only Murders in the Building
Like all great podcasts, OMITB has come to an end (then again, some never end), which means those who weren't there at the beginning can now binge away. Thanks to Steve Martin's bottled-up physical humour finally being uncorked, this week's finale has the biggest laughs of the entire season (more delicious digs at Sting, too). Old hands and old friends, Martin and Martin Short clearly love being together, watching their teamwork is more satisfying than solving any murder in a fictitious New York apartment block. Apart from the script, one of the most dazzling elements here has been the autumnal colour palette. A sticker on a cardboard box harks to a pair of orange headphones, the blue tie of bin bag matches the spine of a Hardy Boys book. All class and genuinely funny.
The Movies That Made Us
A must for Hollywood and pop culture tragics, one of the most heart-warming things about these mini-docs is just how much those behind the scenes truly believed in their work. We've grown accustomed to the trope of the destructive studio executive hell-bent on taking the movie magic away from the real artists, but, as this series shows, if it weren't for the courage of various men and women in power suits, these films would never have seen the dimming lights of the cinema. Another joy is when a low-budget Hail Mary takes the world by storm. Such is the story of John Carpenter's Halloween: made for a mere $300,000, it went on to become one of the greatest percentage hitters in horror history, as did Friday the 13th, not bad considering its only ambition was to slash its way through Carpenter's template.
Had one of Jen Barber's disastrous dates on The IT Crowd actually been a success, this new Australian dramedy might have been the result (as long as she married a backpacking Aussie, moved to Melbourne, had a couple of kids, then broke up). Not quite as spectacularly ditzy as the character which put her on the comedy map in Graham Linehan's wacky workplace masterpiece, British actress Katherine Parkinson delivers something close in Kala Ellis's creation about a working mum taking control of her sexual destiny. The plot device here is a database Parkinson's lawyer, Lauren, uses to keep track of her dating/sex life. The titular spreadsheet may not, in fact, be necessary. The sharp script and funny, tender performances in this eight-part series are good enough to work on their own without a hook that sounds disturbingly like something which might have been deployed in a John Hughes film of the '80s involving teenage boys with a home computer.
New Gold Mountain
SBS On Demand
Being someone who lives in a former gold rush village with a backyard that, 150 years ago, was a Chinese market garden, I have so wanted to love this Australian series. Viewing our lust for the precious metal through the lens of the Chinese perspective is worthy and long overdue. Mostly, New Gold Mountain doesn't disappoint but I find myself looking for some of the authentic grime someone like Robert Altman brought to McCabe & Mrs. Miller or the sophisticated dialogue and humour of HBO's Deadwood. Part of the problem here may be the location. Shot in Victoria's goldfields tourist town of Sovereign Hill (a destination for school excursions), things feel a little prim, and, dare I say it, didactic. Still, New Gold Mountain happily brings to mind the Australian TV series of the '70s, Rush, starring John Waters. Everything old gold mountain is new gold mountain again.
It's tempting to parcel up this series as the anti-Block, a slow TV, highbrow take on our nation's obsession with home renos. That's true, to an extent, but like Channel Nine's blunt instrument, Restoration Australia can pull you in with the people behind the project. The next instalment introduces us to a Wollongong family struggling with health issues as much as the daunting task of bringing a crumbling Queen Anne weatherboard back to her former glory. Less showy than Grand Designs, Restoration Australia is more concerned with keeping the cornices and architraves of a disappearing architecture alive.