Sometimes you find a news story so baffling, you have to blink twice. For instance, Baz Luhrmann’s decision to remake his 2009 movie “Australia” as a television series.
Except “remake” is the wrong word here. The Aussie director is planning to take all of the footage he originally shot for the Nicole Kidman-Hugh Jackman historical drama and re-edit it into a six-part series called “Faraway Downs.”
He promises a new ending – he originally filmed three versions, apparently – and an updated soundtrack, and presumably will keep repackaging “Australia” until someone eventually agrees to watch it. In other words, someone needs to take one for the team before he starts turning up at all of our homes armed with a projector and portable screen.
Now, the last thing we need in this ongoing age of Peak TV is self-styled auteurs adding to our viewing load with reimaginings of their previous work (unless it’s David Fincher repackaging “Zodiac” – in which case, yes please).
There was a time when summer was a dead zone for new series. But then came HBO and the cable channels, followed by the streaming platforms, and now there’s no respite from big new shows. HBO is premiering its biggest show of the year – “Game of Thrones” spin-off “House of the Dragon” – on August 21, and that’s followed 12 days later by Prime Video’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” Netflix, meanwhile, is giving us “The Sandman” on August 5, while Disney+ debuts “She/Hulk: Attorney at Law” on August 17. And, of course, season 4 of “Fauda” debuts in Israel next week (and on Netflix later in the year).
I took a week off from viewing and am now drowning in new shows – which means something has got to connect from the get-go. So, for one week only, I have introduced the “one-episode” challenge: If a show can’t weave its magic by the end of the first episode, I’m done.
Alas, this hasn’t cut down the watch list at all, because I loved three of the shows and was intrigued enough by the other two to keep watching.
My favorite show of the week, just, is Apple TV+’s “Black Bird,” in which writer Dennis Lehane takes a potentially tired idea – a prisoner is offered freedom if he can befriend a serial killer inmate and locate his victims – and reinvigorates it.
Although this 1990s-set series is inspired by a true story, it’s in many ways a greatest hits of Boston writer Lehane’s work: missing girls (“Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone”) and prisons for the criminally insane (“Shutter Island”), mixed in with a dose of “Mindhunter.”
British actor Taron Egerton has clearly been hitting the weight room to play Jimmy Keene, who ends up on the wrong side of the law despite being the son of a long-serving cop (the late Ray Liotta in his final screen role – and it’s a fitting one). When he’s sentenced to 10 years inside for narcotics offenses and illegal possession of guns – yes, it turns out there is such a thing in America – he’s asked to “check into Hell and cozy up to a demon” and, if he succeeds, will walk out a free man.
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Running alongside this is the backstory of the police investigation into the jailed serial killer, Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), by a rural Illinois sheriff (Greg Kinnear, giving his best performance in years).
This is probably the best opening episode of a crime series I’ve seen since “Mare of Easttown.” In fact, I broke my “one episode” rule and have already enjoyed the second and third. So far, “Black Bird” is flying high.
It’s been quite the year for Apple TV+, given its successes with the likes of “Severance,” “Slow Horses” and “The Afterparty.” You can add to that list the hugely enjoyable “Loot,” in which Maya Rudolph plays America’s third-wealthiest woman after receiving $87 billion in a divorce settlement from cheating husband John Novak (a suitably oily Adam Scott).
I laughed a lot during the first 30-minute episode, which with its sensibility recalled “The Good Place” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” as fish-out-of-water Molly comes to terms with her new wealth and independence – which includes discovering she has a foundation that helps the cash-strapped and roof-seeking in California.
It’s here that most of the jokes and best characters are found, in what is basically a workplace sitcom at the expense of the tone-deaf super-rich (I know, crazy concept, right?).
Rudolph (“Bridesmaids”) is always great fun to watch, but the best gags here come from her loyal assistant Nicholas (Joel Kim Booster), who delivers lines like “It’s guys, they’re idiots. There’s an entire channel devoted to fishing because of them.”
Anarchy in the U.K. (but not Boris)
I wrote recently about the launch of Disney+ in Israel and I have two snippets of great follow-up news: Season 2 of “Only Murders in the Building” is now streaming here, tying in with the U.S. release on Hulu; and the FX drama “Pistol” is now also available.
I think I watched the first episode of this show about iconic British punk band the Sex Pistols with a broad smile plastered on my face. Directed by Danny Boyle with characteristic brio and written by Australian writer Craig Pearce – Baz Luhrmann’s regular writing collaborator – the story is told, perhaps counterintuitively, from the perspective of guitarist Steve Jones (it’s based on his memoir “Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol”).
The first hour goes by quicker than a Sex Pistols rehearsal, with the series peopled by an array of wonderful characters: Jones himself (Toby Wallace, who convincingly plays the West London “artful dodger” despite having spent most of his life in Australia); fashion designer Vivenne Westwood (a game Talulah Riley) and, best of all, her anarchic partner Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, having the time of his life playing the larger-than-life Svengali and spitting lines like “I’m creating a revolution here! I don’t want musicians, I want saboteurs, assassins. I want shock troops”).
If you want the true story of the Sex Pistols, check out Julien Temple’s wonderful documentary “The Filth and the Fury.” But if you want a boisterous, very funny portrait of mid-’70s London and the young punks who stuck two fingers up to the British establishment, I heartily recommend “Pistol” (again, I couldn’t resist and am currently halfway through the six-parter).
The two final shows I saw this week weren’t as sensational as “Black Bird” and “Pistol.” But both did just enough to keep me watching.
“The Terminal List” is another Prime Video series that’s heavy on brutal fight sequences and bullet-laden shoot-outs. In fact, it’s so testosterone-heavy, my voice had descended an octave by the end of the first episode.
Unlike its predecessors “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” and “Reacher,” “Terminal List” lacks a particularly likeable protagonist. Chris Pratt is a long way from Peter Quill in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise with his Navy Seal Lt. Cmdr. James Reece, a fun-free zone who looks like he last cracked a smile in second grade – and only then because another kid got hurt.
Will he be able to handle the truth as he plunges fist-first into a rogue investigation into why his fellow troops were killed during a secret mission in Syria, aided only by spunky journalist Katie Buranek (an underutilized Constance Wu)? And more importantly, how much more confusing exposition and hard-to-follow action sequences will I be able to handle before going AWOL myself?
It was a somewhat similar story with the British drama “The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe,” which, like “Black Bird,” is based on a true story. This four-parter – showing on Hot HBO, and Hot and Yes VOD – is written by Chris Lang, who is the brains behind the wonderful cold-case police thriller “Unforgotten” (a fifth season arrives early next year). It also features two of my favorite British actors in Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan.
Both of these facts combined may help explain why I was a little underwhelmed by the first episode, in which Marsan’s John Darwin devises a hare-brained scheme to fake his own death – you can probably guess the mode of transport involved – and have wife Anne claim his life insurance in order to cover their substantial debts.
Given that the first episode begins in Panama seven years after they hatched their scheme in northeast England, you soon realize that this is one of those crazy true-crime stories that keeps on giving. I’m confident it will pick up as the repercussions of the scam play out and the words of a certain J. Rotten start to resonate with members of the Darwin family who are not in on the deception: Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?
Remembering the ‘Jewish cowboy’
None of us can choose how we’ll be remembered, but I think James Caan’s career deserved much better than how a British TV station announced his passing last week: “Star of ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Elf’ dies aged 82.”
Sure, there are people out there for whom the Jewish actor is best known as Will Ferrell’s grouchy dad in the 2003 Christmas comedy. But in the same way it would have been wrong to mark Laurence Olivier’s passing with “Star of ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Clash of the Titans’ dies at 82,” surely Caan deserved a better eulogy than a reference to “Elf” – and I say that as someone who’s a fan of the festive crowd-pleaser (which was written, incidentally, by a Reform Jew who grew up more familiar with menorahs than Santa’s little helpers).
It’s the rare actor whose best roles arrive later in life, as proven by the main cast members of the “Godfather” movies – Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia, Jimmy Caan … how many great performances were delivered after they became bona fide Hollywood stars?
I genuinely wince whenever I see Pacino or De Niro on screen nowadays (check out the trailer for David O. Russell’s upcoming “Amsterdam” to see De Niro playing De Niro – unconvincingly – for the umpteenth time), so we shouldn’t feel bad to admit that their best work is long behind them. Hell, I feel the same about my career. (Interior voice: “You have a career?”)
It’s okay to recognize that Caan’s best work came long before “Elf” and that his career peaked during Hollywood’s second Golden Age in the ’70s. I rewatched “The Godfather Part II” in the cinema a few months ago, and found myself totally transfixed by the concluding flashback scene where his Sonny and Pacino’s Michael are sitting around the table ahead of their father’s surprise birthday party. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Caan, the untamable mobster. And at no point do you ever think: What’s that Jewish actor doing playing an Italian bull (as author Mario Puzo described Sonny).
In a movie franchise full of great performances (okay, maybe not so much Sofia Coppola), Caan’s still stands out for me – especially considering how little screen time he actually has in those first two movies.
Like so many of his peers – most notably, Clint Eastwood – Caan’s rise to the top was not a swift one. He’d spent some time working on, of all things, the rodeo circuit in the ’60s, where we can safely assume the Bronx-born actor was rather unique since he became known as “the Jewish cowboy” (because “the Jewish bull” would have been too confusing given the setting).
He spent a long decade doing minor roles on film and TV before teaming up with Francis Ford Coppola, who gave him his first big break with 1969’s “The Rain People.” Caan was also terrific in Coppola’s often overlooked other Vietnam War movie, 1987’s “Gardens of Stone,” as an aging soldier working at Arlington National Cemetery.
I guess you could call him one of the first modern-day action heroes: a mainstream, unashamedly macho guy who got to flex his muscles more often than his acting skills in the mid-’70s, in the likes of “Rollerball” and “Freebie and the Bean.” More rewarding roles eventually arrived in minor classics such as Michael Mann’s “Thief” (1981), as the “self-employed” safecracker attracting the attention of the Mob, and Rob Reiner’s “Misery” (1990), where his novelist Paul Sheldon found himself strapped to a bed by his “biggest fan.”
But then the stereotyping set in and he was invariably cast as the aging mobster, even if for winningly comic effect in the likes of “Mickey Blue Eyes” (1998), or as the coldhearted putz in “Elf.” Looking through his biography, I don’t recall watching any of his later work, though, such as the TV series “Las Vegas” or “Magic City.”
Caan’s actual life sounded like something Paul Thomas Anderson might have dreamed up for a movie based in ’70s Hollywood – longtime cocaine addiction, multiple marriages, an entire year spent at the Playboy mansion – but his career was much more than just being Buddy’s dad in “Elf.” Just ask the directors who hired him over the years, like Coppola, Mann, Reiner, Wes Anderson (“Bottle Rocket”), James Gray (“The Yards”) and Lars von Trier (“Dogville”).
“Black Bird” and “Loot” are both streaming now on Apple TV+, “Pistol” is on Disney+ and “The Terminal List” is on Prime Video and “The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe” is on Hot HBO on Wednesdays at 10 P.M., or can be downloaded via Hot and Yes VOD, and Next TV.