Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Period pieces

Perhaps you think that Jane Austen is an author who has been squeezed dry by repeated film and television adaptations – you’re entitled to your opinion, but mine differs.  Any effort to revive my touchstone novelist will lure me in, whether a Masterpiece-y re-creation or a contemporary update, though there are some that wind up repelling me.  Sanditon (MC-71, PBS) falls a bit short, but does not fail to satisfy the basic requirements of all but the most devoted Janeite.  Adapter Andrew Davies has cut a wide swath through the 19th century British novel, from Austen to Dickens, with many stops and sidetrips along the way.  Now he makes bold to complete the novel that Austen had just started at the time she fell ill and soon died, perhaps feeling a bit less constrained, and free to add dollops of sex and social issues.  The premise is simple, a humble but well-educated rural girl (played by Rose Williams) gets the chance to go and stay with the developer of the coming seaside resort of the title.  He has a Darcy-ish brother (Theo James); pride and prejudice are exchanged, sense and sensibility demonstrated.  There’s an old dowager (Anne Reid), for whose favor and inheritance various parties vie.  The setting is delightful and picturesque, the characters flavorsome, the intrusion of sex and slavery not altogether inappropriate (as in the excellent Mansfield Park of 1999).  It’s not Austen, but Austen-ish, and concludes in a manner that begs for another season, which I’m not sure I will want to see, but probably shall.  I tried to give up on this one, but nonetheless persisted.  

[P.S.  I've been admonished by one of those devoted Janeites that I was much too tolerant of this drivel, the taste of which she felt compelled to get out of her mouth by an umpteenth viewing of the Jennifer Ehle-Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice.  Not sure whether I should point out to her that screenplay was written by the very same Andrew Davies, or whether that fact merely proves that he can adapt great texts but not write himself.] 

A few years ago, Davies branched out and adapted Tolstoy.  I happened upon his War & Peace (2016, MC-72, Hulu) when Wild Rose sent me looking for more of director Tom Harper and star Jessie Buckley.  I wound up enjoying it so much that I went back and re-watched two older film adaptations of the book, for a compare and contrast exercise.  (I did not go so far as to reread the fat novel, but my partner in viewing did, so I kept asking her, “Is that the way it is in the book?”  For example, the brother-sister incest that also crops up in Sanditon – is that just a telltale Davies obsession?) 

Anyway, this is a version I have no problem recommending, a lavish production with settings to rival The Crown (though shot more in Baltic states than in Russia itself).  And with many familiar actors who grow into their roles, most impressively Paul Dano as Pierre, though Lily James makes a surprisingly successful transition from Disney Cinderella into a believable Natasha, and James Norton is a credible Andrei (with the likes of Brian Cox, Jim Broadbent, and Gillian Anderson filling subsidiary roles, as well as Jessie Buckley as Princess Marya, quite a change from a Glaswegian country singer, or the Russian fireman’s wife in Chernobyl). 

There was never any doubt whether I would watch this series through to the end.  My one quibble was one I rarely take note of, the inferior visual quality of HD video vis a vis actual film, though I appreciate the difference in expense that makes such farflung and grand-scale location shooting possible.  Nonetheless if you’re only going to watch a single epic adaptation, this is the one.

As for the 1956 King Vidor version of War and Peace (AMZ), I had unfinished business.  When it came out, I was nine and attending the Saturday kiddie matinee at my neighborhood movie theater, and happened to stay over for the first showing of the evening feature, probably wanting to see the battle scenes.  The problem was that I had never seen a movie with an intermission, and left at that point thinking it was over (or maybe I had to get home for dinner), missing the battle of Borodino.  So I was eager to revisit this film and see the rest, even though it was far from great.  Henry Fonda was badly miscast as Pierre, and while Audrey Hepburn was enchanting as Natasha, she was too old and too regally self-possessed for the character, and her actual husband Mel Ferrer was mistakenly given the role of Andrei. 

This was a time when the movies were trying to go big to compete with television, and they mounted monumental productions, of which this was one.  So it is sometimes clunky and sometimes impressive.  (Reminding me how each innovation in film technology involves a step backward in film artistry, until it is absorbed into practice, whether it’s the coming of sound, or of color, or of widescreen, or digital cinematography.)  The film turned into a monumental flop in this country, but as a cultural exchange in a Cold War thaw, became a big hit in the Soviet Union.

Stung by the cultural appropriation, the Soviets decided to mount the most massive film production in their history, a moonshot to rival the Americans in the same era.  Sergei Bondarchuk’s Voyna I Mir (CC) came out in four parts in the late 1960s, and in some ways it’s redolent of the Sixties, with a mix of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and oh-wow-psychedelic effects.  Though massacred by a dubbed and abridged release in the U.S., it was the first Soviet film to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.  The newly-restoredversion now on Criterion Channel is certainly the best I’ve ever seen.

With rubles no object, the result was predictably spectacular, in peace but especially in war, with fifteen thousand Soviet troops on assignment as well as hordes of extras.  While Vidor relied on impressionist sketches in battle scenes, and Harper had use of CGI enhancements, Bondarchuk mounted reenactments of the battles themselves and filmed them from every conceivable angle, including god’s eye view.  The effect is sometimes overwhelmingly real, and sometimes a bit tedious (where exactly are all those calvary galloping off to? can we glimpse a familiar face in the general chaos and mayhem?), which in fact fits my memory of reading the book oh-so-long ago.

Bondarchuk himself plays Pierre, not badly but nowhere near as well as Dano, who is closer to the character’s age.  A ballerina plays Natasha with the appropriate gamine quality and looks reminiscent of a younger Audrey Hepburn.  I thought the Prince Andrei was quite good, if suitably stiff, but his friendship with Pierre seemed overshadowed by the on-set enmity between the two actors.

Mixed in with its spectacle of ballroom and battlefield, and expressionistic flourishes like freeze-frames and superimpositions, the film is over-reliant on voice-over narration rather than dramatization, but it’s big and bold and oh-so-Russian, as well as Soviet.  A mixed bag, but a full one.

As we learned in textual studies back in the day, whether in English or history or bible analysis, any historical document is more reflective of the period it was written in than of the period under discussion.  This seems to apply to these films as well, more indicative of the times and means and aims of their production than of the original source material, whether it’s Hollywood in 50s, the Soviets in the 60s, or the BBC in this century.  But Tolstoy’s story endures – and compels.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Songs of innocence and experience

It took continuing acclaim, and over-the-top reviews for its second season, to induce me to watch the hormonal high-school comedy-drama Sex Education (MC-80, NFX).  Last year I dismissed it as giggly raunch after a 15-minute sampling, but this year I happily binged all sixteen hour-long episodes.  And now I’m prepared to put it in a class with Freaks & Geeks, high praise indeed. 

Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson lead a brilliant cast of newcomers and mostly unfamiliar faces.  He’s a 16-year old with a lot of sexual and social anxieties, but comprehensive knowledge derived from his sex therapist parents.  She’s his divorced – and altogether too candid and straight-talking – mother.  He’s got a gay African best friend (Ncuti Gatwa), and a bad-girl/bright-student mentor (Emma Mackey) who enlists him in a business scheme of selling sex advice to fellow students (both well-played by first-timers).  Laurie Nunn is the show’s thirtysomething creator, with half the episodes directed by Ben Taylor of Catastrophe, complemented by three female directors, with a host of writers contributing authentic storylines. 

This is a British show with a decidedly American vibe, taking inspiration from John Hughes films, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and other teen sex comedies.  Purposefully adrift in time and location, the series was actually shot in a bucolic area of Wales.  One of the series’ charming attributes is the unremarked (and perhaps unrealistic) diversity and intersectionality of the characters, which gives it an air of fairy tale fantasy as well as graphic realism. 

The show is funny, but full of honest feeling (and solid sex advice), so the raunchy giggles are well-earned by genuine characterizations and storylines, with on-the-nose but enjoyable music cues.  In its sustained amplitude, this series surpasses a previous favorite of mine that shares some of the same dynamic, The End of the F***ing World.  Really, this one is likely to exceed your expectations much as it did mine.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Catching up with last year

If it’s not obvious already, I have to confess that what I offer here are not reviews, far less criticism, but purely personal reactions, from the perspective of a lifelong obsession with film.  Whether that obsession is deep or shallow I leave to the reader.  I am merely sharing my own enthusiasms and warnings, in the random order of my viewing as 2019 recedes in the rearview mirror, and the best films of the year arrive on one streaming service or another.  I’ll keep adding to this viewing diary, as I get around to seeing the best-reviewed films of the year.

Nakedly and obsessively autobiographical, Johanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (MC-91, AMZ) emerges as piquant and elliptical, about a romance that is both nightmare and puzzle.  The affair transpires between a privileged young film student with an apartment in Knightsbridge (though it isn’t on the soundtrack, it’s appropriate to think of “Play with Fire” by the Rolling Stones) and a posh but sketchy, somewhat-older man with an art history degree, who purports to work for the Foreign Office (when he isn’t taking heroin).  The title references a Fragonard painting with which he woos her.  She’s played with refreshing milky openness by Honor Swinton Byrne (her mother impersonated by actual mother Tilda Swinton); he’s played with exiguous oily charm by Tom Burke.  Her apartment, which Hogg replicated meticulously as a film set, is in the vicinity of Harrod’s, where the couple periodically dines in high style (and one of the film’s most enigmatic scenes recreates an IRA bombing there in 1983).  So this adds up to a portrait of the filmmaker as a young woman, in the midst of a toxic but self-defining relationship.  The style of personal authenticity in film is both discussed and exemplified here, and yet I was not as enamored of it as many critics were.  This is one of those films that requires a second viewing that I am not inclined to give.  I file it under Rich People Problems.

The Report (MC-66, AMZ) succeeds in at least two ways: as antidote and refutation to Zero Dark Thirty (and other apologists for torture); and as a showpiece for the young male actor of the moment, Adam Driver.  Annette Bening is also a plus, playing Diane Feinstein as the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for whom the eponymous report is being produced, almost single-handedly by the Driver character, over five years of research in windowless rooms, at the CIA and elsewhere.  The report belatedly debunks the rationale for Extreme Interrogation Techniques, the Cheneyesque euphemism for torture, which the CIA had already acknowledged as a failure in a secret internal report.  Scott Z. Burns creates an inaction thriller about political conspiracy and governmental whistleblowing, which sustains interest while staying close to the facts.  And it lands at a moment that makes it all the more relevant.

Silly but endearing, Long Shot (MC-67, HBO) is a confection concocted out of dozens of romantic comedies, but sweet and tasty nonetheless.  Lip-smacking you might call it, especially given the presence of Charlize Theron, as a do-gooder Secretary of State initiating a presidential run.  She hires schleppy journalist Seth Rogen as a speechwriter, since she used to babysit for him when they were both teens.  Unlikely sparks fly, unextinguished by comic comedowns.  Rogen is okay despite the evident beauty-&-the-beast implausibility, but Theron proves once again her amazing versatility, to go with astounding beauty.  She can project power, but also vulnerability and slapstick.  I second Anthony Lane in calling her “the spiritual heir to Barbara Stanwyck.”

Christian Petzold is the rare German filmmaker whose work I follow, and his latest is Transit (MC-82, AMZ), which is strangely engrossing.  Most of his earlier films, including Barbara and Yella, centered on Nina Hoss, but here the captive and captivating woman is a secondary character, embodied by Paula Beer.  She in effect plays the Ingrid Bergman role in this twisted and twisty re-imagining of Casablanca by way of Kafka, set in present-day Marseilles, with political exiles trying to flee the fascist stormtroopers who already occupy the rest of France, and waiting for transit papers to reach Mexico.  Three men in turn hope to sail away with this woman, and the most Bogart of them is played by Franz Rogowski, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix.  Though based on a World War II novel, the film is set in the imminent present, the troops wearing modern day riot gear, and bears heavily on the fate of refugees today.  As always, Petzold’s direction is unflashy but deeply layered, with most of the action internal, in the sorting out of personal and moral dilemmas.

Wild Rose (MC-80, Hulu) successfully pushed a lot of my buttons, and will send me in search of more work by director Tom Harper and exploding star Jessie Buckley, who by herself is reason enough to seek out this film.  She plays a wild Glaswegian girl who dreams of going to Nashville and becoming a country phenom.  She’s already a feature on Glasgow’s version of the Grand Old Opry, but fiercely committed to breaking out and making a bigger impact.  A jail term and two children she had before the age of 18 stand in her way, though her mother (Julie Waters) is helpful as well as critical.  The country music soundtrack and especially Ms. Buckley’s own singing are a treat, and the story artfully combines Ken-Loach-like kitchen-sink realism with show-biz fantasy, to an unexpected but satisfying conclusion.  I was with this movie all the way to the very end, and through the final credits.

Crossing media but sticking with this post’s heading, I come to the miniseries Chernobyl (MC-82, HBO), whose continuing accolades steeled me to the task and test of watching.  It truly is horrific, both in replicated detail and in radiating implications, which the winds blow in our direction.  On one level, it’s a well-made disaster thriller, unfolding inexorably through ever-expanding challenges.  On another, it’s an eye-opening lecture on nuclear physics, and almost a negative image of Apollo 11 in its portrait of scientific ingenuity and technical expertise.  On a third, it’s a universal parable of the perils of governmental lying.  It helps that our way into the story is eased by a familiar cast: Jared Harris as the nuclear scientist who leads the response, Emily Watson as a composite character representing the other scientists working on the reasons for the disaster, and Stellan Skarsgard as the Soviet minister assigned to deal with it (the latter two in a weird reunion from Breaking the Waves).  Hard to figure out how something like this could come from the screenwriter of Hangover movies and the director of music videos (Craig Mazin and Johan Renck, respectively), but the production values are impeccable, and while incorporating some familiar dramatizing tropes, the series does not completely falsify the story, which is cautionary in the extreme.  So grit your teeth, strap on a strip of metal to protect your genitals, and get busy confronting this disaster.

There are as many varieties of cinephilia as there are of sensibility, but my own could hardly be more opposite from Quentin Tarantino’s.  My reactions to his films range from mild amusement at the absurdity of it all, to disgust at the cartoonish violence.  That said, my view of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (MC-83, dvd) leans toward the former before veering toward the latter.  His effort to traverse the terrain of popular culture in the late Sixties, from media and music to commercials and clothes, kept me entertained for stretches, but not for the ridiculously-long running time.  The redeeming feature of it all is the cool and collected performance of Brad Pitt, as stunt man and factotum to fading action star Leonardo DiCaprio, once a TV headliner, now reduced to bad-guy guest shots and spaghetti Westerns.  The typically appealing Margot Robbie features in an adjacent story.  And all the various cameos are quite entertaining, from Al Pacino to Lena Dunham.  Technically accomplished and adept at pastiche, Tarantino has wit and enthusiasm, but no sense or empathy.  This time around, I didn’t hate his work, but certainly didn’t love it either.  If you want to watch a movie about the manias of moviemaking, I would re-direct your attention to Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night, one of my all-time favorite films.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Documendations update

Whether or not Walter Pater was correct that “all art aspires to the condition of music,” my contention is that all cinema aspires to the condition of documentary, bringing visual confirmation of worlds we would not otherwise encounter.  Here I’ll be offering a survey of recent and recommended documentaries, the straight stuff, so to speak, real-to-reel life.  This list includes four of the recently-announced Oscar nominations.

Yet one more reason to be wistful for the Obamas is the first film from their “Higher Ground” production deal with Netflix, American Factory (MC-86, NFX).  Trust Barack and Michelle to find and fund Julia Reichert, a documentarian I have favored since Growing Up Female (1970), Union Maids (1976), and Seeing Red (1983).  Here partnered with Steven Bognar, she follows the fate of a GM plant in Dayton OH, from its closure in 2008, through its 2015 purchase by a Chinese billionaire as a plant to produce auto glass, to the difficulties encountered in melding the two cultures into an effective workforce.  Many other themes are adumbrated in this deep and wide cinematic exploration, about work and business in the 21st century global economy.

Another telling insight into modern Chinese culture is provided by One Child Nation (MC-85, AMZ).  Director Nanfu Wang came from China to America for college and film school, and returns when she has a child of her own, to explore the wide-ranging implications of the one-child policy in force at the time of her own birth in 1985.  This is a cautionary tale about the government takeover of human fertility, encompassing not just unrelenting propaganda, but forced sterilization, abortion, and even infanticide, and the costs of compliance on individuals.  Emotionally disturbing but thought provoking, this is a pointedly personal exploration of a public issue, with a nod to the opposite problem of choice in this country.

It’s likely that the Academy will make a political statement by honoring the Obamas, but as a film – in its beauty, novelty, and fable-like resonance – Honeyland (MC-86, Hulu) is the best and most surprising documentary of the year.  In remote Macedonia, a lone Turkish woman lives in a deserted village with her elderly and ailing mother, tending bees both in the wild and in her own hives, carefully attuned to their well-being.  A large and boisterous family moves into one of the abandoned properties and makes a feckless stab at farming.  Our heroine tries to be welcoming to the interlopers, especially the children, but only one serious-minded boy actually appreciates the crone’s wisdom.  As in many documentaries, the appeal lies in the entry into an unknown and mysterious world, but this one is extraordinary not just in its access, but in the extreme grace of its cinematography, which illuminates the inner beauty of a magnificently ugly old woman.

Another lesson in sustainability is provided by The Biggest Little Farm (MC-73, Hulu), a charmingly eclectic retelling of an attempt to reclaim the played-out monoculture of a California farm, into a natural Eden of diversity, despite all kinds of adversity.  The film is good-natured in every sense of the word.  Accomplished wildlife photographer John Chester directs and narrates the story of how he and his foodie wife Molly determined to live a life of purpose by developing a viable all-natural farm, following the precepts of a biodiversity guru.  Augmented by interviews and even animation, the story unfolds across several years, through all the challenges and triumphs of trying to live in perfect harmony with nature.  I’d bump up its Metacritic rating by ten points.

In Hail Satan? (MC-76, Hulu), what looks initially like a satiric view of an oddball group of sketchy cranks, gradually morphs into a celebration of a different sort of diversity, one enshrined in the “establishment clause” of the constitution.  In Penny Lane’s documentary, the Satanic Temple grows from an island of misfit toys into a stalwart defender of religious and personal liberty, against those who would falsely claim the United States as a “Christian nation.”  These Satanists are less like a cult or coven of dark rituals, and more like a Dada-esque group of political and cultural provocateurs, with a credo that is frankly more rational and inclusive than that of their fundamentalist antagonists.

Though highly regarded, Apollo 11 (MC-88, Hulu) was a documentary I approached with some of the same skepticism and indifference I had for the moon landing itself, fifty years ago, when I studiously avoided all tv coverage of the event.  And today more than ever, it seems like a stupendous waste of energy and ingenuity, not to mention money, which could have been much better spent addressing terrestrial problems.  That said, this compilation of previously unseen NASA footage and official live audio calls up the event with remarkable and thoughtful vividness. 

Ask Dr. Ruth (MC-68, Hulu) fills in the Westheimer backstory in a way that makes her seem more significant than just a pop culture icon as talk show host and guest.  From her kindertransport survival of the Holocaust, which claimed her parents and other relatives, through three marriages, a stint as a sniper in the Zionist war in Palestine, followed by education in France and the U.S., and a career-defining stint with Planned Parenthood, which led to her becoming a pioneering media spokesperson for supportive sex therapy.  Put this in a category with RBG or Iris, though not quite in their class, as a celebration of the vitality of little old ladies.

I suspect that Hulu hoped to hit the same sweet spot as Minding the Gap with Jawline (MC-74, Hulu), which turns into a near miss, as an intimate look at the lives of teens in dead-end Rust Belt towns in a culture of social media.  The problem is the too-exclusive focus on one 16-year-old hoping to transcend his dismal circumstances by building a Bieber-esque following online, and then in public appearances.  The sociological phenomenon is of more interest than the individual, and the best thing I can say about this film is that it provides context and background for the excellent feature film Eighth Grade.

Note the surprisingly estimable line-up of documentaries on Hulu, but now we turn to a more traditional source of quality nonfiction film, PBS.  It’s always worth keeping up with the documentaries of interest offered in various series like “Independent Lens” and “POV” and “American Masters,” but here I highlight recent offerings on “American Experience” and “Frontline”

On the former, McCarthy (PBS) usefully recapitulates the brief transit of the senator whose name has become a byword for the persistent strain of American politics that relies on outright disregard for truth, coupled with demonization of marginal populations (sound familiar?).  In the Fifties, at least, there were some guardrails on the American political system, and some Republicans (including Ike) with the backbone to resist.  Rest assured that the spirit of Roy Cohn lives on, and Trump seems to have found his avatar in William Barr.  As in the classic Emile de Antonio documentary Point of Order, one of the most telling scenes is from the Army-McCarthy hearings, when Cohn is reacting to the moment when the senator self-destructs on national tv, back in the day when no politician actually believed he could get away with shooting someone in plain sight on Fifth Avenue.

Speaking of which, the reliably informative news series “Frontline” recently featured a two-part program on “America’s Great Divide,” with two hours each devoted to the Obama and Trump presidencies, as they solidified the division into partisan rancor, one inadvertently and the other purposefully.  The recapitulation was coherent and telling, with many voices on both sides.  Pointedly poignant – not to say nostalgic – and then enraging, the best part for me came from extended sequences I’d missed at the time, such as Barack’s singing “Amazing Grace” at the services for the Charleston church shooting.  I gather this production is available on Amazon Prime as well as PBS Passport.  Worth the time, if you can stand it.

Frontline also provided the platform for one of the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature, For Sama (MC-89, PBS).  Waad Al-Kateab’s film puts a face (and mangled bodies) on to the bland assertion that Syria is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis (though there is Olympics-level competition for that title).  She’s a student in Aleppo when the protests against Assad escalate, and soon becomes a television journalist.  She covers the years of air attacks by the regime and the Russians, until the resistance is broken.  Along the way she marries a doctor and has a daughter (the Sama of the title), while documenting the airstrikes specifically targeting hospitals.  The protracted siege is an unimaginable situation, but you are there with the family, and with the beleaguered community, whether you want to be or not.  Hard to watch, but worth the effort.    

To round off this post, I return to another Oscar nominee from Netflix, Edge of Democracy (MC-81, NFX).  This is also a first-person film directed and narrated by a young woman; Petra Costa examines the political history of Brazil during the course of her lifetime, from the institution of democracy after military rule in the 1980s to the revenge of authoritarianism with Bolsonaro (Brazil’s Trump, in one of many scary parallels to American politics).  She has a unique perspective – as granddaughter of an influential oligarch, but daughter born to young radicals in hiding from the regime – and privileged access to Lula, as the union leader turned popular President is universally known, and Dilma (Rousseff), his hand-picked successor as President.  In an impeachment trial that was more of a sham and hoax and witch hunt than the USA’s, Dilma was removed from office.  Lula was sent to jail on a seemingly trumped-up charge, thereby forbidden to run in 2018 though released in 2019, paving the way for right-wing forces to install the useful idiot Bolsonaro.  It can’t happen here?  Maybe it already has.

It is worth noting that while women have been notoriously left out of Best Director nominations at the Academy Awards, all five Best Documentary Features candidates were at least co-directed by women.  The world would certainly be a better place if more films were made by women, and more attention were paid to them.

Martin Scorsese recently made a stir by opining that the superhero films that dominate the multiplexes are not “cinema,” but I believe he would agree with me that these documentaries are certainly what cinema was meant to be, what Roger Ebert defined as a “machine to generate empathy.”

Friday, January 10, 2020

A confession

When I made my list of the best TV of 2019, I cheated and included season three of Better Things (MC-96, Hulu), even though I’d only seen a few minutes of it.  I found the commercial-interrupted streaming on FX intolerable, so I had to wait impatiently for the third season to finally join the first two on Hulu.  I’d timidly rated it #2 on my list of half-hour comedies, but now I will boldly move it into #1 (Brits had a separate list, but I’d put Better Things in a tie with Fleabag for the very best comedy). 

(This show by itself warrants a trial subscription to Hulu – commercial-free option essential – but if you go beyond their featured network programming, there’s a lot of good stuff hidden in the margins, among foreign and indie films, and documentaries especially, which I’ll be covering in my next post.)

I also confess that I am a little in love with Pamela Adlon, squat and squawky-voiced as she may be, but so original and authentic, brash and out-there, in this heavily autobiographical series, as the fiftyish single working mom of three teen or tween girls.  In the third season, she writes and directs as well as stars, brilliantly on all counts, leaving behind the taint of association with Louis C.K.  The girls are great too, as is the whole ensemble of LA creative types.

There are gags galore, salty language and toilet humor, with plenty of embarrassing situations, but in the context of unflinching observations of real life – work and family and friends – from a pointedly female perspective.  As an implicit feminist without portfolio, Adlon’s defining characteristic is forthrightness.  She’s going to open her mouth, and only occasionally put her foot in it.

From a different generation and the opposite coast (though Adlon was born in Albany), I miss many of the show’s cultural signifiers, and am unfamiliar with most of the music, but they seem exceptionally well-chosen.  If you can handle the brazen situations and potty-mouthed dialogue, I strongly recommend this show.  Better Things may not be one of the more memorable titles, but the series remains one of the best things on TV.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Netflix in excelsis

Since I last celebrated “Netflix originality,” their prodigious production schedule has become even more impressive.  All these within the past month:

Exhibit A: The Crown (MC-84, NFX).  I loved the first two seasons, but I adored the third; don’t know how to deliver my accolades without inflation, but this series has already secured a place in my top ten of all time (maybe in a tie with Borgen).  As great as Claire Foy and all the rest were in the first two seasons, the acting is even more stupendous in the third, the production values just as spectacular, and the drama even more finely tuned.  Olivia Colman’s Oscar-winning turn as Queen Anne was showy and expressive, but her middle-aged Queen Elizabeth is an even more amazing performance, reserved but deeply felt, showing the power of one tear versus many.  Tobias Menzies makes an equally rigid but more understandable Philip, Helena Bonham Carter a force of nature as Margaret, and Josh O’Connor a poignant and true-to-life Charles.  And so many of the subsidiary roles are filled by familiar and welcome faces, from Britain’s vast stock of high-quality acting.  The mix of history and soap opera, the personal look behind the impersonal façade of royalty, the blend of comedy and drama, the farce and force of monarchy – all of it comes through marvelously, sympathetic but not sycophantic.  Peter Morgan clearly knows this world, and the series continues the tradition of his film The Queen (a story he will cover again in season four), and his play The Audience, which revolved around the Queen’s tête-à-têtes with different Prime Ministers.  The Crown does not take down the Royals with the sweet venom of Succession, but has a similar vibe of voyeuristic  vengeance.

Exhibit A+: The Irishman (MC-94, NFX).  Martin Scorsese has been there and done that with mob movies, but still has something new to say within the genre.  With a personal point of view that enriches all his films, Scorsese in his late 70s is understandably exploring the theme of aging and death.  Even if our everyman is a hitman (or “housepainter,” in the lingo of the source book), the film is about the costs and consequences of survival, as well as the varieties of demise.  Getting the band “together again” for the first time, DeNiro and Pesci and Pacino do some of the best acting of their respective careers, aided by computer-assisted de-aging techniques.  DeNiro is the title character, a trucker who forms a fortuitous relationship with Philly-area mob boss Pesci, who in turn introduces him to Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa, head of the Teamsters and antagonist of the Kennedys.  In a series of nested flashbacks from the aged DeNiro’s nursing home, the film covers a large swath of mob activity from the Fifties to the turn of the century.  You might call it a compilation album of the Mafia’s Greatest Hits, with excellent supporting performances from familiar faces.  It’s all very engrossing, and no more violent than it needs to be, more about the nature of relationships, family in every permutation, than about mayhem per se, which is notated in cursory fashion.  A film that moves deliberately but seems much shorter than its three-plus hours, this is a mature piece of work in every dimension, and a capstone to many distinguished careers.

Exhibit B:  Marriage Story (MC-94, NFX).  At 50, Noah Baumbach has made his best film since his third, The Squid and the Whale, which for me was the best of 2005, returning to the theme of an artsy Brooklyn duo uncoupling, this time more from the perspective of the adults than the children.  Another point of comparison is Kramer vs. Kramer, which Baumbach has matched or even bettered by putting Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in place of Hoffman and Streep.  Add Laura Dern as her lawyer, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as his, Merrit Wever and Julie Hagerty as her mother and sister, and you have one heck of a cast delivering the director’s cutting dialogue, harsh and funny with an undercurrent of genuine sentiment and sympathy.  Then you have the time-honored antagonistic opposition between NYC and LA, and even two wonderful performances of Sondheim songs, along with a Randy Newman score.  No longer slavishly imitating the French New Wave, Baumbach has successfully incarnated its spirit into his own personal story.  What’s not to like?  As long as you can handle raw emotion, and a rueful embrace of truth. 

Exhibit C:  Atlantics (MC-85, NFX).  Having taken the Grand Prix at Cannes, Mati Diop’s film is set in Dakar, Senegal, where construction workers at a luxury tower are being stiffed out of their pay, and decide to take to the ever-present sea in hopes of reaching Spain.  One of the workers has a beautiful girl friend, who is unwillingly promised to a wealthy ex-pat.  The first part of the film almost feels like a very engaging documentary about the intermingling lives of rich and poor, men and women, Muslim and secular, cellphones and the supernatural.  But then the story takes a magic realist turn that leaves me behind to a certain extent.  I’m not going to give away any more, because the film is meant to be puzzling, as well as lush and sensual.  I was absorbed by watching its exotic and alluring visuals, if not finally convinced by its narrative turns.

Exhibit D:  Dolemite Is My Name (MC-76, NFX).  Eddie Murphy makes a big comeback as the real 1970s comic and “blaxploitation” filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore, who revived his career by adopting the persona of Dolemite, an unabashed “deep down in the jungle” character, both pimp and kung-fu fighter, as well as proto-rapper, first on scabrous comedy albums and then on film.  Craig Brewer directs a star-studded cast, in a return to his first success, Hustle & Flow.  The film is better in its first half, with its focus on Murphy’s reinvention of his character, rather than the more diffuse second half, about the slipshod making of the ridiculous project that became a surprise midnight-movie hit.  Still, as a celebration of the rougher edges of black popular culture, this movie shines (if you’ll excuse the expression, since it has to take what it's dishing out).

Stand-up update:  I don’t intend to dig as deep as I did last year into Netflix’s line-up of stand-up comic performances, but there’s one I want to highlight, while earnestly hoping they will soon present Hannah Gadsby’s latest performance piece.  Just recently I’ve found another satirist to follow regularly, if not obsessively, besides my handful of Daily Show alums, and that is Seth Meyers.  I rarely watched SNL when he did Weekend Update, and have never watched his late night talk show, but recently caught some of his “Closer Look” segments on YouTube, and found them to be on par with John Oliver as extended riffs, informative and funny.  So when his new stand-up routine Seth Meyers: Lobby Baby turned up on Netflix (MC-tbd, NFX), I tuned in, and have rarely laughed out loud so many times within one hour.  He’s sharp but humane, and a very skilled performer, mixing the personal with the political, as much about his wife and children as about Trump.  Highly recommended.

Random notes on random viewing

There’s nothing systematic about what I’ve been watching for the past month and more, and nothing especially coherent for me to say about it.  But to sustain this long streak of reviewing as it approaches its 15th anniversary, I will offer some casual commentary and a few real finds.  I’m in process with two composite reviews (“Netflix in excelsis” and “Coming to the crux of the current year”) which I will post as they reach critical mass, continuing my effort to offer friendly advice to the thoughtful consumer of streaming media.  (For a guide to cord-cutting choices, see my post “Streaming along.”)

Silicon Valley (MC-84, HBO) makes an appropriate addendum to my recent post “Good as they ever were,” as the sixth and final season unfolded with undiminished wit and glee.  Just as I get much of my political news from Colbert et al, virtually everything I know about the world of big tech comes from this well-written and well-acted comedy (with pre-history supplied by the excellent dramatic series Halt and Catch Fire (MC-75).)  This season brings us up to the present, ripped from the headlines you could say, with a focus on the ethics of tech, and the potential for bad results as well as good, evil as well as virtue, in tech disruption.  The thinking is big, the writing is sharp, the acting is fantastic.  Many witty delights add up to make this one of best shows of the decade.

With Veep gone to its reward, Silicon Valley was now paired on HBO with the limited series Mrs. Fletcher (MC-72, HBO).  I found the series limited in a lot of ways.  I can’t quite say it was limited to the appeal of Kathryn Hahn, because a lot of the cast was pretty good.  It certainly felt unusually truncated at seven episodes, cutting off just when the diverging stories converge, of a kid off to college and a divorced mother left alone for the first time, each trying to explore a new sexual landscape.  Maybe that’s the set-up for future seasons after all, with the writer of the source novel Tom Perrotta running the show, and working off the success (so I’m told) of The Leftovers.  Personally, I won’t feel compelled to watch.  A nice little workshop, however, for exclusively female directors

As another postscript to “Good as they ever were,” let me say Doc Martin ended its ninth season on a high note, and I hope to see more in the future.  Meanwhile, I had occasion to revisit a few episodes of The Detectorists, which has sadly but wisely concluded after three all-too-short seasons.  Together these two shows offer ample reason to subscribe to Acorn TV for a month or two, but earlier seasons are available on a variety of streaming channels.

Within the realm of British comedies, I have to report enjoying the second season of The End of F***ing World (MC-77, NFX), but can’t recommend it as enthusiastically as I did the first.

I have a certain resistance to Ken Burns, the man and his work, but somehow he always seems to overcome it when given a chance.  I wouldn’t have chosen to watch his latest protracted, self-important effort, but my housemate was doing her exercises to it, and I was eventually drawn in, and wound up watching six out of the eight two-hour episodes in his Country Music (MC-80, PBS).  As long as he avoids portentous narration over lingering still images set to syrupy music, and can rely on live archival footage, Burns provides a valuable service despite the tendency to go on and on.

Not only that, the series set me off on a country music viewing jag, starting with the superlative documentary The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash (MC-tbd, YouTube), which is authorized but not sanitized, much of the narration taken from audiotapes made by Cash himself while composing his autobiography.  And director Thom Zimny is far from a paid hack, giving the film a distinctive visual style, around the delightful performance clips from every stage of the Man in Black’s long and fruitful career

I even watched (parts of) a Dolly Parton tv special celebrating her 50 years at the Grand Old Opry, and now I’m tracking down two feature films I remember quite fondly, Coal Miner’s Daughter and Walk the Line, in order to re-view them.

Though I no longer have a professional interest in films about painters, I’m still inclined to watch them, so on PBS I caught up with the play Red on “Great Performances” and the documentary Rothko: Pictures Must Be Miraculous on “American Masters.”  Alfred Molina is pretty great, if over the top, as Rothko, but the assistant who is his interlocutor is too “theatrical” for my taste, and the stage business generally unconvincing, but the dialogue definitely had merit as insight into Rothko’s approach to art.  The interrelated documentary was workmanlike but worthwhile.  I’m still on the lookout for two recent features about painters, Never Look Away and At Eternity’s Gate, and will report when I see them.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Final sort of past year's film & tv

Using Metacritic’s list of 100 best films of 2018, I weigh in with my own comparative list, which you may note pointedly excludes most of the Oscar “Best Picture” nominees.  Now that they're all available on one streaming channel or another, I fall back on my traditional distinction between “Exhortations” (which I urge you to see) and Recommendations (which I advise you to see), and try to rank them by urgency of endorsement, with some calibration of likeability and importance, and maybe a little special pleading.

Roma (#1)
Shoplifters (#3)
The Rider (#7)
The Tale (#15)
Private Life (#50)
Cold War (#11)
Eighth Grade (#14)
Leave No Trace (#22)
Paddington 2 (#20)
Free Solo (#52)


First Reformed (#38)
Summer 1993 (#67)
Wildlife (#80)
Bisbee ’17 (#32)
The Guardians (#68)
Lean On Pete (#75)
Burning (#12)
The Death of Stalin (#18)
Black Panther (#25)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (#28)
Support the Girls (#36)
They Shall Not Grow Old (#6)
Amazing Grace (#2)
Minding the Gap (#5)
Tea with the Dames (#37)

As for television, my best of the year is not predicated on date-of-release calendar, but rather on all the shows I’ve watched over the past year that I would recommend, ranked and categorized loosely into hour-long drama (or documentary) series and half-hour comedies, with a sidebar on must-see British comedy.  Watch and enjoy. 

Better Call Saul
America to Me
When They See Us
Gentleman Jack
The Deuce
Howards End
The Victim
Call My Agent
A Very English Scandal

Russian Doll
Better Things
High Maintenance
End of the F***ing World

Best of the Brits
Doc Martin
The Great British Baking Show
Please Like Me
Gavin & Stacy
Upstart Crow

You will find commentary (and further links and info) on all these in my previous posts.