Wednesday, March 06, 2019

"Roma" and the rest of the "best"

Now that we have passed the peak of awards season, I will be reviewing a range of 2018 films that have received nominations, very high Metacritic ratings, or other accolades.  Starting with my confident anointing of the best of the best, these are reviewed more or less in the order of my recommendation, which will be added to until I finalize my Top Ten (or however many).

I did not expect to dissent from the consensus that the best film of 2018 was Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (MC-96, NFX), and I felt total agreement in watching it.  I’ve loved his films in the past, and as a proponent of the auteur approach to film appreciation, I always look for the autobiographical element in any director’s work.  So I was primed to love Roma, and did.  No one is more of an auteur than Cuarón, since he wrote, shot, and edited, as well as directed, this story from his own early life, in the Mexico City neighborhood of the title.  One word that characterizes the film for me is “density.”  It is solid, substantial, compact.  Each frame is filled with information, through which the viewer must search for meaning.  Everything is encompassed from household dogshit to earthshaking cataclysms, from private grief to societal uproar, all in the frame of a child’s memories of being raised by an indigenous maid in a chaotic but well-off household.  Shot in lustrous and memorious black & white, it follows a year (1970/71 to be specific) in the life of the family, during which it adapts to the abrupt departure of the father.  Though you’ve never seen her before and may never see her again, Yalitza Aparicio will linger in your mind for the absolute authenticity of her character as the maid, and moreover primary caregiver for the four children of the family.  The movie is dedicated to the woman who played that role in Cuarón’s life, and a more beautiful thank-you note cannot be imagined.  And despite the extremely personal nature of the material, the film is unrelentingly sociological, and political in the best way.  It’s clearly a must-see, and after you see it, I recommend this article on the backstory of the film’s making.

Summer 1993 (MC-81, AMZ) is another superb, though much less noticed, memory-piece redolent of personal authenticity.  Carla Simón’s clearly autobiographical debut film is marked by natural performances across the board, but I have to single out the central character played by Laia Artigas.  She’s remarkably poised and charming as a 6-year old orphan sent from Barcelona when her mother dies of AIDS, into the Catalan countryside to live with her back-to-the-land uncle, his extremely sympathetic wife, and their darling younger daughter.  She observes, keeps her own counsel, and acts out, while the whole farm family reaches out to her.  The interactions of the two girls are both a joy and an anxiety to watch, so unforced yet telling, as is the entire film.  Rather than story beats and narrative conventions, Ms. Simón offers the impressions of an at-risk girl in a formative period, fragmented but cumulative to beauty, passion, and delight.  All seen with a child’s eye, but a wise adult’s understanding.

[This spot is reserved for The Shoplifters (MC-93, Hulu), which will come to Hulu later this month.  As an admirer of director Hirokazu Kore-eda, I fully expect his latest to count among my best films of the year.]

What a minefield Jennifer Fox stepped into with The Tale (MC-90, HBO), and what a miracle that she makes it through without mishap!  The result is disturbing as horror film but infinitely more plausible, exhilaratingly complex and multifaceted.  Ms. Fox is an accomplished documentarian making a fictionalized retelling of her own story, the one she wrote in a middle-school creative writing class, and the one she explores retrospectively when her house-clearing mother unearths the pubescent tale, a romanticized retelling of clearcut sexual abuse.  Laura Dern plays Ms. Fox as 48-year-old and Isabelle Nélisse as 13-year-old, both stunningly good as the story switches between them, with some alternate memories repeated with variation, as clarified when the adult character discovers new information or delves into repressed memories.  As clear a demonstration of child sexual predation as you could possibly want, this film is difficult to watch, but astringently honest.  So layered, truthful, and well-made, see this film if you can manage it.

In Tully (MC-75, HBO), director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody team up again after Juno and Young Adult, and bring back the star of the latter.  This time Charlize Theron, as usual playing against the curse of her beauty, is the very pregnant suburban mom of two children, exhausted and disenchanted as the third arrives.  Ron Livingston is her sympathetic but useless husband.  Mackenzie Davis is the title character, a “night nanny” who arrives like a genie from a lamp, to help Charlize through her postpartum depression and reconcile her to her stage of life.  The film is not quite what it seems to be, a light but sharp comedy, and a final twist separates viewers into those who think it’s more and those who think it’s less.  Count me among the more camp.

I consider myself pretty catholic in my tastes and interests when it comes to film, though finicky about the art of cinema and averse to some popular genres.  When critics generally are raving about a given filmmaker, I will take a look and at least discern what the appeal is, even when it doesn’t particularly appeal to me.  So I have previously educated myself to an appreciation of Lucrecia Martel, but I have to confess that I could get no handle on her latest, Zama (MC-89, AMZ).  It’s quite possible that a second viewing would open my eyes to what others have seen in it, but I’m not inclined to put in the time and effort.  Maybe this film is a profound statement on Spanish colonialism in 18th-century Argentina, working tangentially and obliquely on many levels, but you couldn’t prove it by me.  It does have a certain hypnotic power, but I was not drawn into the story, if story is actually the point.  And all the characters remained opaque to me, though maybe that is the point.  Knowing the source novel would have helped.  Maybe an audience full of knowing laughter would have jollied me through, but solo it was a slog.

I’m definitely entering a dissent on Hereditary (MC-87, AMZ), perhaps the most inexplicably high Metacritic rating I’ve ever encountered.  I thought that the presence of Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne might overcome my generalized aversion to the horror genre, but nope, this still felt like trash to me, albeit a slightly higher class of trash.  Really, nothing to see here, folks, just move along.  Save yourself two hours of your life.

Likewise with the ninety minutes of You Were Never Really Here (MC-84, AMZ).  I never really got into it, not being any fan of revenge thrillers (not even Taxi Driver, the obvious model for this one).  Joaquin Phoenix’s performance has been widely praised, with some justification, as has Lynne Ramsay’s direction, with less.  As a violent exercise in style, it may have some virtues to which I am immune, but in terms of story and characterization it is unpleasant and unredeemed.

Safe to say that you’ve never before seen anything like Madeline’s Madeline (MC-76, AMZ).  Whether you’d like to see it is another question.  Many critics bought into its self-importance, but I am of two minds.  Yes, I remained engaged with the story and performances, and admired the boldness of the filmmaking, but was somewhat put off by the overwrought obscurity of it all.  Helena Howard makes an impressive debut, as a talented teenager with a history of mental problems.  Miranda July is her nervous, awkward, but caring mother.  Molly Parker is the leader of an avant-garde dance troupe, who becomes a surrogate mother by both encouraging and exploiting the girl and her problems.  But the choreographer’s pretensions are somewhat mirrored by the director Josephine Decker, with a result that is either powerfully disorienting or disorientingly powerful, as reflected by clusters of Metacritic ratings at 100 and at 40.

[The leaders in the clubhouse, which is to say the candidates for best of 2018 that I have already reviewed are (in alpha order):  Black Panther, Eighth Grade, First Reformed, Leave No Trace, Paddington 2, The Rider, and Support the Girls.]

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Binge-worthy Brits

There’s a vein of British comedy – going back to Beyond the Fringe and through Monty Python to The Office and The Thick of It and Peep Show – that I have mined for decades.  But lately I’ve been digging deeper, and have come up with some gems.  I’ve already raved about Doc Martin and Catastrophe, The Detectorists and W1A, among others, but now I’m prepared to devote a whole post to the subject.  My Anglophilia runs deep and wide, from my mother’s birthplace through my English major education to my son’s current residence, so I tend to find British sitcoms (some, at least) more palatable and amusing (and limited in episodes) than the American variety, though I immediately rule out any with a laugh track.

British comedies are available on many streaming channels, and as with other programs, frequently shift or are duplicated from one platform to another, so the link I offer is just the one that worked for me.  (The especial beauty of the Roku streaming device is its cross-channel search function.) 

My first pick is a good example, available on several streaming platforms, and well worth binging.  Gavin and Stacey (BCG, AMZ), which ran for 20 episodes in 2007-2010, is about the cross-country romance of a Essex lad and a Welsh lass, which relies on some East-West geographical humor that I eventually had to look at a map to appreciate.  But the contrasts of character are clear enough.  The title couple are played by appealing actors I’ve never seen elsewhere, but their respective sidekicks are played by the show’s heavyweight creators, James Corden (now best known for Carpool Karaoke) and Ruth Jones (someone to look for in the future).  Other relatives on both sides fill out the back-and-forth cast, in various odd-couple match-ups.  The show is sweet (mainly Stacey) and sharp (her friend Nessa), and never wears out its welcome.

According to Metacritic’s compilation of tv critics’ top ten lists, the best television show of the year was the BBC’s Killing Eve (MC-83, Hulu).  Though the series is in the vein of a Hitchcock thriller, or a Le Carré spy story, or a psychological character study, its defining characteristic is its humor, as supplied by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of Fleabag fame) in her adaptation of a series of international assassin-for-hire stories.  Humor is also well supplied by Sandra Oh, leading an MI6 taskforce, and Jodie Comer as the gleeful murderer.  Cat and mouse, pursuer becoming pursued (and vice versa), you’ve seen the set-up before, but this series pursues it with wit and vigor, and believable (well, almost) characterizations.  I did find this series binge-worthy, but with a caveat.  I watched too many episodes in a row, and wearied of the plot mechanics, the implausible twists that don’t ring true to the characters that have been established.  Rather than go deep or wide, they simply go fast and furious.  Which becomes wearying, despite first-rate production and acting.  At the end of eight episodes, I was not eager for more, even with so many threads left hanging.  Still, a lot of humor and point is derived from the show’s gender reversals and feminist subtexts.

Expanding the Brit category to include Commonwealth countries, I am particularly pleased to recommend the Australian series, Please Like Me (2013-16, Hulu).  I was led to the show by the exceptionally reliable reviewer EmilyNussbaum, and it’s a real charmer.  Consistently funny in a low-key way, it’s also deeply serious, and unafraid to tackle difficult themes.  Josh Thomas and Thomas Ward play twenty-something housemates who have been best friends since the age of ten (as they have been in real life).  Around them flow a stream of girlfriends, boyfriends, and family.  The material seems highly personal, and has the ring of authenticity.  In the first scene Josh’s longtime girlfriend breaks up with him, and when he asks why, tells him, “Because you’re gay.”  And you know what, she’s right.  As Josh begins to discover for himself, in surprisingly explicit terms.  His wealthy father is now living with a younger Thai woman and his divorced mother is in a mental home after a suicide attempt (where a fellow patient is Hannah Gadsby!).  Joyful and sad, hyperactive and becalmed – as one’s twenties tend to be – Please Like Me is easy to like, thank you very much, and also to believe in.

Two teens meet cute in the high school lunch room; he’s a self-proclaimed psychopath looking to graduate from animal to human victims, she’s an angst-y rebel-without-a-cause who just wants to get out of town – of course it’s a love story.  Could this be another Badlands or Natural Born Killers?  Do you find those comparisons distasteful?  Maybe the title is offputting – End of the F***ing World (MC-81, BCGNFX)?  If like me, you need a little prodding to watch anything with that set-up, let me tell you, this British import is pretty great.  Dark to be sure, but funny and even sweet.  As the crazy kids on the run, Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden are endearing and awful at the same time, but the charm of the story is in its meta-wit, and the sheer velocity of its telling, in 8 episodes of 20 minutes each.  Part of the wit comes through well-chosen music, which offers ironic commentary on the action instead of goosing emotions or lamely providing motivation.  It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that the series will be back for a second season – I’ll be watching.

With so many fine options available, a British sitcom has to connect immediately for me to persist, even through just a six-episode season.  Many are ruled out the instant I hear the laugh track, such as recent well-regarded hits like The IT Crowd and Miranda.  Others seem decent enough, but with nothing that brings me back for more than a single episode, like Fresh Meat or The Inbetweeners, Derry Girls or Friday Night Dinner, Bisexual or Sally4Ever, not to mention Green Wing or Sex Education.  I made it through a season of The Job Lot, an obvious clone of The Office, and may watch more, but I’m not going to suggest that you do so.  So I’ll wrap up this Brit-sit round-up with a mild age-appropriate endorsement, a fervent recommendation, and two more binge-worthy tv shows, from France and America.

So many of these shows are, as you would expect, about young people under thirty (who are never to be trusted, as we are instructed by the reversals of age), so I was inclined to indulge myself with Boomers (BCG, AMZ).  Perhaps the humor was a little lame, but it was directed straight at my demographic, and I grew to find the performers appealing.  Don’t go out of your way to watch it, however.

On the other hand, by all means do look for a chance to take in Mum (BCG, AMZ).  As veterans of gritty dramas by the likes of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, the pair of leads in this gentle, low-key sitcom – Lesley Manville and Peter Mullan – make for a wonderfully underplayed odd couple.  She’s a recent widow coping with a group of hilariously awful relatives and hangers-on.  He’s the divorced old friend who’s pined for her for decades.  So far they’ve danced around each other through two seasons, each covering a year in six episodes.  A third and final season is in the works, anticipating a consummation devoutly to be wished.

So much for British comedy, now I nip across the Channel and renew my recommendation for the third season of the French workplace comedy/drama Call My Agent (Wiki, NFX).  Each hour-long episode features a famous (or not-so-, to an American audience) French actor or actress or director as a client for an agency of four prime film industry insiders, and assorted associates.  Their private lives impinge on the workplace continuously with soap opera turns, and the pace is never less than hectic, as well as satiric.  It may be more my thing than yours, but try an episode on for size.

Actually, that last sentence applies to nearly all the series mentioned in this post.  Same goes for another out-of-category and out-of-character series that I binged on – good reviews, and Netflix’s boast that it had forty million viewers, led me to You (MC-74, NFX).  And I could hardly give up on a show whose protagonist is a bookstore manager (Penn Badgley), kinda cute even if he is a stalker and a psychopath.  He’s got a thing for a privileged blond princess (Elizabeth Lail) who walks into his store, a would-be writer in an MFA program.  The ten-part series is a neat mix of thriller and rom-com about millennials in NYC, with a nice feel for the city and a satiric eye on its denizens.  I found it a guilty pleasure, but doubt I’ll be back for the second season, unless it earns raves.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Year-end miscellany

A few loose ends to tidy up the past year, starting with Springsteen on Broadway (MC-87, NFX).  You might not be as old or as weepy as I have become, but I have to report that I watched and listened to much of Bruce’s solo concert (plus brief assist from Patty) with tears streaming down my face, tears of admiration and appreciation, tears of memory and joy.  Let’s be honest here, the Boss can fake sincerity, authenticity, and intimacy better than anyone, even on Broadway.  To know the guy is to love the guy, and he provided the soundtrack to large swatches of my life.  I don’t always like radically pared-down versions of anthemic songs, but once again the Boss does it better than anyone.  And he has melded his literate autobiography with a varied assortment of his iconic songs into a memorable evening with the man himself.

“Surreal” is not generally a term of approbation for me, but I confess to appreciating the surreal elements of Foxtrot (MC-90, Starz), an Israeli film by Samuel Maoz.  The film, nominally about two parents coming to terms with the death of their soldier son, has a parable-like quality, and a sort of “Appointment in Samarra” storyline.  In the first of three distinct parts, the mother (Sarah Adler) falls in a fit the minute she sees two soldiers appear at the door of the couple’s very stylish Tel Aviv apartment, and has to be sedated.  Alone, the architect father goes silent and nearly catatonic, in a brilliant performance by Lior Ashkenazi.  After a twist, the scene changes in the second part, to see the son “in the line of duty” at some remote desert outpost, where most of the comic surrealism comes in, presumably in coded satire on the whole Israeli military mission.  The third part finds us back in the upscale apartment with the parents, now in disarray, after some time has elapsed, and events we only learn at the very end of the film.  Maoz has a sharp wit and a bravura visual style, as well as genuine human empathy.  There’s plenty of the absurd in this film, but not in the filmmaking.

Andrew Bujalski is building an impressive independent filmography; after early mumblecore explorations of aimless twentysomethings looking for love and work, he has settled into the Austin TX milieu and developed a sociological interest in ordinary businesses and workplaces.  In Beeswax, Results, and now Support the Girls (MC-85, Hulu), we go inside small independent businesses to see what the inhabitants get into, in the way of love and work.  This time the workplace is a Hooters-style restaurant by a highway interchange, whose whole operation depends on the competent and empathetic manager played by Regina King, who embodies the spirit of the title.  The most bubbly of the girls is played by Haley Lu Richardson, in a role that could not be more of a contrast to her lead in the must-see Columbus, establishing her as a young actress to watch.  We follow one day of various mini-crises with deadpan humor, boisterous outbursts, and subtle attention to markers of class, race, and gender.  The film is understated in approach, but capacious in its concerns.

As a rule I don’t watch films about comic book superheroes, which means I don’t see most of the highest-grossing films these days, but I make an occasional exception when something genre-expanding comes along.  So as with Wonder Woman last year, in the name of diversity I made allowance for Black Panther (MC-88, NFX) and was pleased to do so.  Which raises the question – who will be the next Denzel?  Will it be the upstanding Chadwick Boseman, or the appealing but more dangerous Michael B. Jordan?  They face off here, for control of the African utopia Wakanda, and both come off winners, at least as action stars. Black women also get a fair shake in Wakanda, and in Ryan Coogler’s direction.  This is popular entertainment infused with a bit of soul, and all the better for it.

Chadwick Boseman plays another sort of black hero, but with a similarly upstanding character, in Marshall (MC-66, Show).  So add Thurgood Marshall to James Brown and Jackie Robinson in his pantheon of portrayals.  Unfortunately, the film takes a very early and very hackneyed approach to the career of the distinguished jurist, way before the Supreme Court, and even a decade before Brown v. Board of Education.  Here he is a young attorney assigned to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, and forced to take on a semi-comic white partner in Josh Gad.  And it all makes for a standard-issue courtroom drama.

[Click through for more reviews, with special attention to documentaries]

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Stand up for Netflix

[After an extended period of doubt about continuing Cinema Salon without the platform of film programming at the Clark, I’ve recommitted to film & tv commentary and developed a new voice, more as a self-portrait in cinema, rather than ex cathedra pronouncements on this and that.  In line with that change, I’m redesigning the website, as I make a series of posts that will bring me up to the moment.  Feel free to comment as I continue to tweak the design.]

Like other tech disrupters, Netflix is sometimes in bad odor these days, but here I look at one of their many innovations (among which is Roma, well deserving the Best Picture Oscar, with review soon to be posted):  they have become the dominant outlet for stand-up comedy.  I guess a taped solo act represents good bang for the producer’s buck, but also brings new audiences (and practitioners) to this performance art. 

Unquestionably, the most provocative and talked-about performance of the year was Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (NFX), which is funny for a while but then deadly serious, while remaining brilliant.  Hannah is a portly 40ish lesbian from as far Down Under as you can go (i.e. Tasmania), who mines humor from her liabilities in the usual way.  But then partway into her act, she swears off comedy as damaging to herself and others, and deconstructs the art of stand-up (and indeed art per se, as she uses her art history degree, instead of her personal quirks, as material).  This performance would have been powerful at any time, but it found its moment in the year of #MeToo.  I’m not going to give anything away, but only urge anyone who might be as brave as Hannah to listen to what she has to say.

The year’s other major breakout was Hasan Minhaj, with his outstanding stand-up act Homecoming King (NFX), which delves his personal history in the typical way (but with high energy, flashy stagecraft, and the unique perspective of a young Indian Muslim raised in California), and then his topical series Patriot Act (NFX).  With the latter, he follows in the footsteps, and maybe takes a step beyond, his fellow Daily Show alums Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee.  I recommend watching the stand-up act, and putting the series in regular rotation with the others, as a good way of keeping sane in an insane era.

Somewhat stranded on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah is much more natural and energetic, personal and personable, in his own stand-up performances, the most recent being the finely-honed Son of Patricia (NFX).  Along with his fascinating autobiographical material, he’s a terrific mimic in a Richard Pryor vein.

I consider myself a big fan of Tig Notaro (and lament the passing of One Mississippi), but have to report that her latest routine, Happy to Be Here (NFX), left me cold.

On the other hand, I’ve only lately come around to appreciation of Sarah Silverman, with her stand-up special A Speck of Dust (NFX) and her topical series I Love You, America (Hulu).

Another woman who has muscled her way into the male-dominated field of stand-up is Jen Kirkman, following the pattern of “working blue.”  I was eventually won over by her energy and physicality, and wound up chuckling my way through both I’m Going to Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) (NFX) and Just Keep Livin’? (NFX), though I shy away from recommending either outright.

A newcomer to look out for is Aparna Nancherla, who was featured on the best episode of The Stand-Ups (NFX).  Soft-spoken and smart, she’s putting her Amherst education to good use, making delightful humor out of depression, anxiety, and shyness. 

At the opposite end of the energy scale, one youngster worth a glance is Bo Burnham, whose excellent filmmaking debut with Eighth Grade led me to seek out his earlier stand-up performances, of which Make Happy (NFX) is the pick.

In my survey of this category, I also watched routines by Chelsea Perretti (NFX), John Mulaney (NFX), and W. Kamau Bell (NFX), none of which proved memorable or recommendable, though pleasant and amusing enough to occupy an idle hour.

One known quantity that I didn’t really know at all was Dave Chappelle.  He’s recently had four routines taped by Netflix in four different cities.  I watched two of them – from Austin and LA – in “Collection 1” (NFX).  He was as provocative, if not downright filthy, as I expected, but more expressive and trenchant.  Skilled and funny, as well as out there.  So outrageous you had to laugh at the audacity.  Given his up-from-the-’hood vibe, it came as a surprise to learn that both his parents were college professors, but that explains the smarts on display.

Late-breaking postscript:  I don’t know if it’s true that “Everybody Loves Raymond,” since I never watched that show, but I certainly loved Ray Romano’s follow up, Men of a Certain Age, so when Netflix released his first stand-up routine in 23 years, Right Here Around the Corner (NFX), I tuned in immediately and treated myself to a lot of laughs.  Without adjudicating precedence, in this special Ray literally follows in the footsteps of Louis C.K., through the streets of Greenwich Village and down into the Comedy Cellar, and winds up with a slice of pizza.  That Ray has his wife and four grown (or growing) children with him for pizza is indicative of his difference from the other guy, kinder and gentler, though still personal and provocative.  I guess I love Raymond after all.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Merrily down the stream

I was an early adopter of the DVD-by-mail service of Netflix, signing up in June 2000, and maintaining my subscription without break to this very day, when few people watch DVDs anymore and indeed the company itself has orphaned its DVD division, to concentrate on streaming and original content.

As a cable TV subscriber, I was for a number of years happy with DirecTV satellite service with TiVo recorder, especially to follow my beloved Cleveland Indians with MLB Extra Innings, but became an early cord-cutter when streaming options began to supplement DVDs.  The problem there was an inadequate DSL internet connection, which frequently made watching a frustrating experience.

Last year, after four decades in this house, we finally got a cable company to extend the connection to our rural location, and signed up for a package that included cable TV and broadband internet.  The improvement in streaming was enhanced when we got a simple and economical Roku system.  From that moment, I was eager to cut the cable cord again, with news, sports, and Colbert the only hold-ups.  Now I’ve made the break and gone exclusively to a variety of streaming options, and this blog will reflect that change.

The “long tail” that offered so much choice in the earlier days of DVD has atrophied and fallen off, and now we are left mostly with the choices presented by various streaming services.  So instead of DVDs or cable broadcasts, I will be relying on Netflix, Amazon, PBS Passport, Hulu, YouTube, and other streaming channels to deliver my daily viewing.  And as I comment on a film or show, I’ll link to the service through which I watched it.

Not willing to give up my long-term source of DVDs by mail altogether, I’ve cut back to one disk at a time. Once my subscription was for eight at a time, but that was when Netflix had only one warehouse, out on the west coast, so turnaround was up to a week. 

Not altogether coincidentally, I won’t persist in my attempt of recent years to see all the best-reviewed films of the year just past (per Metacritic and other year-end compilations).  I will pre-select more according to my specific interests, and to themes offered by the respective channels.

Here are a few tv series and films that have caught (and held) my eye over the past several months, organized by streaming channel or other provider.  I’m going to power through with the most cursory of comments, just to feel current once again. 

Netflix still leads the list of streaming services, despite changing their focus from depth of “backlist” or reach of coverage to their own original programming, much of it very well done.  (Other services followed suit, and the proliferation of them compensates for the loss in comprehensiveness.) 

As an example, I was already a fan of GLOW (MC-85, NFX), and recommended its first season, but it only got better in its second.  The whole concept of 1980s female wrestling may come across as T&A exploitation, but the creators of this series are almost all women, except for the Marc Maron character who is the impresario and nominal director of the show within a show.  As in that show, the patriarchy is supplanted by a feminist (or at least female) collective.  Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin lead a diverse and talented cast.  Offering a wealth of women’s stories and portrayals, this show has more staying power than Orange is the New Black, in my opinion.

While eagerly awaiting another season of Fleabag from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, I caught up with her other series from 2016, Crashing (NFX), which certainly features her same brand of cringe humor, fearless and clueless, scathing yet humane, bordering-on-disgusting-but-nonetheless-hilarious.  This show is about a group of young people who get to crash in an abandoned hospital - as “guardians” until it is torn down - and makes for a diverting take on the typical Friends template. 

If you only know Hugh Bonneville as the pompous papa of Downton Abbey, you’re in for a treat with two series that show off his comic chops.  W1A (NFX) is the follow-up to Twenty Twelve, but it’s the better show and easier to see.  In each Bonneville plays the same character, Ian Fletcher, as the BBC’s “Head of Values” after serving as “Head of Deliverance” for the 2012 London Olympics.  In the distinguished tradition of dysfunctional British workplaces, from The Office to The Thick of It and beyond, this mockumentary brings us inside the modern organization to observe the (lack of) work done by its denizens.  It was one thing for the BBC to parody preparations for the Olympics, but a delicious layer of self-parody is added in W1A (postal code for BBC headquarters).  Each of the characters has catchphrases that they repeat endlessly, as bureaucratic cover for being clueless or devious.  The dialogue is inventively repetitious, and all the players have the expressiveness and timing to make the phrases, while absolutely predictable, always fresh and frequently surprising.  I don’t remember any show that made me giggle so continuously.

W1A makes fun of the BBC’s reliance on its flagship success, The Great British Bake Off, which was tasty to me, because I have quite unexpectedly become a devoted fan of The Great British Baking Show (NFX), as it’s known in the U.S.  Just as the BBC lost GBBO to a commercial network, with a change of cast, the latest seasons now appear on Netflix instead of PBS, where I watched most of the previous seasons.  I miss Mary Berry and the two original comedians, but the charm of the show still resides in the characters and travails of the contestants.  This is the only food prep reality show that I have ever watched, and I don’t intend to watch another, but I’m pretty well hooked on this one, for its cross-section of British character types.

As Netflix original series go, I have to register disappointment at the sequel to The Staircase (MC-92, NFX), brought back largely to cash in on the true crime serial craze.  I was riveted by the first ten episodes sometime back, but finally made up my mind of the convicted murderer’s actual guilt.  And these extra three episodes, as he is released from prison on a technicality and has to decide whether to take a plea or be subject to retrial, as far as I was concerned, just gave a narcissistic psychopath the chance to perform for the camera.  It was especially annoying because that difficult choice was exactly what was offered so poignantly to the hero of Rectify, one of my all-time favorite tv series.

On the other hand, Netflix’s money was very well spent with Tamara Jenkins’ film Private Life (MC-83, NFX), starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as an artsy Lower Manhattan fortysomething couple trying to have a child “by any means necessary.”  Funny and true, at human scale, with generous acceptance of the characters and their foibles, this film is a delight.  Fertility treatments and adoption interviews consume much of the couple’s time and energy, with high hopes and crushing disappointments.  Hahn and Giamatti are outstanding as the neurotic and dyspeptic pair, who are amusing and affecting by turns.  Kayli Carter offers welcome support as the sort-of-niece who moves in with them and becomes enmeshed with their baby-making hopes and schemes.  This is independent filmmaking at its best, and Netflix deserves credit for throwing a bit of its money in this direction.

To a lesser degree, the same might be said of The Land of Steady Habits (MC-71, NFX), but while Tamara Jenkins outdoes herself, Nicole Holofcener does not come up to her very estimable best.  The title connotes suburban Connecticut, where Ben Mendelson has dropped out of the whole commuter-consumer lifestyle.  The best thing in this Cheever-esque film is his against-type casting.  His characters usually convey a sense of underlying menace or madness, but here he is by turns endearingly and infuriatingly bemused and befuddled by the new life he’s trying to find.  Edie Falco is his ex-wife, and Connie Britton is a potential new girlfriend.  (But where is Catherine Keener, Holofcener’s mainstay, in this man-centered dramedy?)

I doubt the Coen brothers were dependent on Netflix to back The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (MC-79, NFX), but I bet they relished not having to worry about box office gross, while still being in line for film awards recognition.  Though not always attracted to their gleeful mayhem or sardonic (if not nihilist) worldview, I always have to tip my cap to their mastery of filmmaking and witty approach to genre.  This six-part deconstruction of the Hollywood Western is shot and acted exceedingly well, beautifully designed and cannily directed, if a little off-putting in gore, and somewhat hollow at the core.  The gunslinger, the rustler, the traveling thespian, the gold panner, the gingham girl on the Oregon trail (an outstanding Zoey Kazan), the odd assortment of characters on a stagecoach – you’ve seen them all before, but given new life by the literate and visually acute style of Joel and Ethan Coen.

Netflix also unearths some otherwise hidden independent films like Krisha (MC-86, NFX), which won some festival awards in 2016, then disappeared from view.  Trey Edward Shults raised money on Kickstarter to shoot this film, his first feature, in nine days at his mother’s home in Texas, cast mostly with family and friends – but there is nothing amateurish about it.  It’s a typical story of family dysfunction at Thanksgiving, but with a granular particularity that sets it apart.  It plays almost like a real-life horror film, but clearly went to school on John Cassavettes’ A Woman Under the Influence.  The title character, as performed by Shults’ aunt Krisha Fairchild, is an aging hippie with a history of addiction, trying to reconnect with her estranged family.  His mother is her sister, in the film as in real life, and their mother also appears as the grandmother, while he himself plays Krisha’s son, who wants nothing to do with the mother who abandoned him.  It sounds like a prescription for embarrassment all round, but unfolds like an accident pile-up in slow-mo, from which you can’t look away. 

[Click through for further choices from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and other streaming services]

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Tough to be a teen

While I continue to add films to a forthcoming grab-bag review, I just watched two standouts that make a distinctive pair, so I highlight them here.  They each feature a motherless kid, a girl and a boy at opposite ends of the country and circumstance, but equally emblematic of the difficulties of growing up in today’s America.

Two people lift Eighth Grade (MC-89, NFX) way, way above the normal run of teen comedies, writer-director Bo Burnham and star-in-the-making Elsie Fisher.  The former is a 27-year-old YouTube performer and stand-up comic who delivers an amazingly assured film debut.  The latter is a genuine 14-year-old, just out of middle school, who is awkward and endearing and utterly convincing.  He combines the eternal verities of excruciating adolescence with the up-to-date stresses of ubiquitous smartphones and social media.  She combines closed-in shyness with out-there bravado, and emerging beauty with residual gawkiness, as only a person truly in the throes of that particular transition could.  She’s both tongue-tied and articulate, full of understanding and without a clue.  Josh Hamilton deserves a shout-out as her too, too sympathetic dad.  Overall, this winning film offers a perfect mix of the amusing, the touching, and the cringe-inducing.

Lean on Pete (MC-80, AMZ) is the story of the close relationship between a 15-year-old boy and the eponymous horse, but it’s hardly a heart-warming tale – well-shot and well-acted, but possibly too sad to bear.  Again the natural rapport between director and teen actor is crucial to the film’s success, in this case Andrew Haigh (45 Years) and Charlie Plummer.  The boy follows his ne’er-do-well father from job to job around the Northwest (WY to WA to OR), but finds a connection when they move close to a race track and he starts to work for a shady trainer played by Steve Buscemi, with Chloe Sevigny as a sympathetic but wised-up jockey.  But the boy’s supports are removed one by one, till he finds himself alone in the desert with his beloved horse, hoping to reach an oasis of care.  The film becomes a grim picaresque of a desolate landscape, both natural and social, marked by flashes of beauty and empathy, as well as calamity.  Harsh as it is, this film has heart.

P.S.  Now I have to add another superb film that falls under this rubric.  Leave No Trace (MC-88, NFX) is writer-director Debra Granik’s follow-up to Winter’s Bone, and is likely to launch the career of magnetic teen actress Thomasin Mackenzie, much as the earlier film did for Jennifer Lawrence.  I don’t remember anyone who could do so much with the quiver of her chin, and check out her native New Zealand accent in interviews.  She most believably plays the young teen daughter of the always-compelling Ben Foster, a war vet with PTSD, who has turned survivalist in the most basic sense.  The two of them live in a park near Portland OR, not just off the grid but way beyond it.  Foraging outdoors all day, and sleeping together in a small tent, they share a bond that is not at all creepy, but none the less disturbing.  Park rangers and child services intervene and set them up in a house on a horse and Christmas tree farm.  Too much civilization for the dad, so they head out for the territory, for (mis)adventures that are deep and scary, but not horrific.  While the father is determined to leave no trace, the daughter is at an age when she begins to want to make a mark on the world, and vice versa.  Her interactions with other people and animals are poignant with longing for connection, though her love for her father is pure and persistent.  We suffer with her in the push and pull of emotions.  And we rejoice in the maturity of her choices.  Lovely and thought-provoking.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Restless on the Rez

Take note of this name, and look for her films – Chloé Zhao.  She grew up in Beijing, but was educated in the West, high school in London and LA, then Mt. Holyoke College and NYU film school.  But her restless cosmopolitan energy found its focus on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, where she has made two films in a unique blend of documentary and narrative.  I went into The Rider (MC-92, NFX) not knowing what to expect, based strictly on a Metacritic rating that placed it among the best films of 2018 to date.  Not knowing what to expect is the best way to approach the film, as you have to continuously interrogate what you are seeing.  Is this real?  How did they get that shot?  What is intimate access, and what is staging?  So I recommend watching the DVD extras after the film, for some answers and orientation.  I’m not going to give anything away, except to say that Brady Jandreau plays (superbly) Brady Blackburn, who like him has sustained a head injury while rodeo riding.  His sister and father play his sister and father, in a seamless blend of script and improvisation.  Brady is a master of training wild horses, and his duets with various equines are masterpieces of inter-species communication, reminiscent of the great horse-whisperer documentary Buck.  Ms. Zhao and her film-school-classmate cinematographer Joshua James Richards have a marvelous feel for landscape and light, mixing light and dark in mood as well.  A latter-day cowboy story set in Western twilight, The Rider is deeply beautiful, deeply truthful, and deeply affecting. 

The same crew in the same setting, with the same method and some of the same performers, earlier made Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2016, MC-63, NFX), which made for a promising debut, but The Rider is the complete fulfillment of that promise.

Another late addition, falling under this rubric, is Wind River (MC-73, NFX), set on the Wyoming reservation of the title.  After success with the screenplays of Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan gets to direct his own script for the first time, and does a decent job, aided by a superlative performance from Jeremy Renner, and good support all round.  But that’s the problem right there, why does a film set on a Native American reservation center on a white man?  And on the green FBI agent played rather implausibly by Elizabeth Olsen?  And then there’s my confirmed distaste for any more movies involving the rape and murder of young women.  But Renner (along with the snowy high-country landscapes) makes the film continuously watchable; he’s a wildlife service hunter who’s enlisted to help solve human rather than lupine predation.  Some aspects of the sociology of the rez come through, but the Tarantino-like thriller tropes distract rather than enhance.


To write about film, or not to write about film?  That is the question.  Or the one I’m asking myself right now.  After a half-year of preoccupation with family health matters, I am deciding which writing projects to revive.  I’m going to start by writing up a few eminently recommendable recent films, which are easy to praise, and then I’ll do a lengthy but cursory round-up of what I’ve been watching lately, and see if that seems to have any point.  Feel free to weigh in with comments.

First Reformed (MC-85, NFX) represents committed work by all involved, and is intensely watchable, if dark and disturbing.  It’s somehow fitting that Paul Schrader’s career-summing mash-up of Bresson and Bergman is being marketed as a horror film, given the previews on the DVD.  This is Taxi Driver meets Last Temptation of Christ (two of the films Schrader wrote for Scorsese), plus Diary of a Country Priest meets Winter Light.  It’s bleak and beautiful, stark and thought-provoking.  Ethan Hawke’s performance truly makes the film; I’m fully ready to anoint him as the best American actor of his generation, certainly with the greatest filmography.  He’s the pastor of a small historic church in upstate New York; from a line of ministers, his faith has been shaken by the death of a son and subsequent divorce from his wife.  He’s in bad shape, physically and spiritually.  Amanda Seyfried is a young pregnant wife who comes to him for help and guidance.  (That she is named Mary is indicative of Schrader’s willingness to be obvious, as well as subtle and restrained.)  He uses the borrowed set-up to make trenchant comments on contemporary themes, from megachurches to environmental catastrophe to domestic terrorism, while mastering the interiority of a tortured soul.  Appropriate to both his models and the constriction of his Dutch Calvinist upbringing, Schrader confines his film to an old-fashioned aspect ratio, with a stationary camera except for a few bravura moves in what might be taken as fantasy sequences, which will tend to mollify or alienate various viewers.  Not to everyone’s taste, this is a film that is both derivative and very much its own thing.