Thursday, June 10, 2021

MVP of streaming channels

In the interests of consumer guidance, I’m going to be writing a series of posts that focus on various streaming channels, as a follow-up to “Streaming along,” my primer for cord-cutters.  Fact is, the best-known of the streaming services, Netflix and Amazon Prime, have gone long in the tooth and would be in line to have subscriptions suspended, except for venerability and the occasional original new production.  Netflix floods the zone with generic programming, but also produces the occasional unmissable prestige presentation.  Amazon has cut way back on its own slate, and offers more product pay-per-view than free on Prime.  Neither is a particularly good place to see either recent or classic films of interest (likely to change some now that Jeff Bezos has gobbled up MGM and its back catalogue).  But a Netflix subscription is a two-decade habit of mine (going back to DVDs and then Blu-Ray) and Amazon’s is just an add-on to free shipping.
Truth be told, there is no streaming channel on my Roku (or whatever your device of choice may be) that I go to more frequently than YouTube, for news and sports, comedy and music, history and science, author talks and interviews.  I was late in discovering just how much is available on YouTube – well duh, granddad! – so I may be telling you something you already know.   (And you are probably aware of how they feed you more of what you want to see, based on what you’ve watched or searched for, even if you never sign in.)
I first had recourse to the YouTube channel on Roku after cutting cable service, looking primarily for a place to watch Stephen Colbert on a regular basis.  There are other satirists I look at from time to time, but the other regular segment that I watch consistently is “A Closer Look with Seth Meyers” – I didn’t often catch SNL when Seth ran Weekend Update, but now I find his political breakdowns indispensable.
The PBS Newshour – which has been the only daily news show that I’ve ever watched, since its debut as The Robert MacNeil Report in 1975, later joined by Jim Lehrer, through Margaret Warner and Gwen Ifill, up to the current anchor Judy Woodruff – is available through the PBS Passport streaming channel, but delayed till later in the evening, whereas YouTube carries a livestream starting at 6:00 pm, so that’s my regular channel for viewing.
Similarly, I never listen to podcasts, but when I am following the news, which blessedly I have felt less compelled to do lately, no longer in a perpetual state of alarm over the malevolent idiot in the White House and other disasters, I like to watch the “Pod Save America” boys on YouTube.
YouTube is not good for live sports, but great for game recaps and highlights, and superb for sports history.  During the pandemic lapse in current sports, I took to reliving past highlights like the Cleveland Browns NFL championship in 1964, and the Cleveland Indians World Series win in 1948.  Once I saw how deep the visual archives went, I also checked out the Brown season highlights during the Otto Graham era (ten straight 1st place finishes from 1946-1955), as well as those of QBs Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar.
It’s so easy to stumble upon themes and subjects that go as deep as you might want to go.  Two that I recently dived into myself, with great satisfaction, were British Archaeology and New England Forests.  I’ve also found decent copies of old films unavailable elsewhere (e.g. when the pandemic sent me in search of On the Beach, for an apocalyptic scenario that haunted my youth).  So I urge you to pick any topic of interest and explore all that YouTube has to offer.  (While you develop a filter for the good from the bad.)
And it’s all free, with fewer and shorter (and often skippable) commercials than broadcast channels.  In coming weeks, I will be commenting on other streaming channels that have taken precedence over the oldtimers like Netflix and Amazon – i.e. HBO Max, Hulu, and the Criterion Collection (with a glance at Kanopy).

Monday, May 10, 2021

Collateral viewing

I’m still tracking down award-worthy films from last year, and also taking a keen interest in the resumption of something like normal baseball for my hometown team (which shall remain nameless, though I hope soon to be rooting for the Cleveland Blues), but around the edges I’ve been watching this and that, mostly documentaries or docudramas, and I collect my responses here.  Usually my viewing is more targeted, but this entry is rather like random channel surfing.  It does, however, begin and end with strong recommendations.
Starting with what may be the best of the bunch, I point to the latest on the consistently-rewarding PBS program “American Masters”:  Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (MC-83, PBS).  Even if you are not a fan of Sacks’ writing, or only know him as portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie of Awakenings, you will be fascinated to make his acquaintance in this film by Ric Burns.  Though only shot after Sacks’ diagnosis of terminal cancer, the film contains archival material of his entire life, from obsessive mama’s boy childhood in England, through flight to San Francisco after his mother declared him an “abomination” when he came out to her.  There he became a weight-lifting, speed-taking, leather-clad motorcyclist, before settling into his career as outcast neurologist turned celebrity sage, making a compelling case that wisdom is the best revenge.  His is a life worth knowing, and this film a fine introduction to his personality and thought.
On the other hand, I’m not generally a devotee of “Great Performances,” but Romeo & Juliet (MC-92, PBS) drew my attention by starring Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley as the doomed pair.  They are indeed excellent, and so is the entire cast.  In a stripped-down adaptation, shot in a warehouse-like setting under Covid lockdown, many qualities of Shakespeare’s play shine through, but for me the performance was something less than great, though not a bad way to spend 90 minutes.  But like Jessie B. without her red hair (though with her Irish accent), there was something just a little off about the whole production.
My tangential association to the art world was enough to make me look at Made You Look: A True Story about Fake Art (MC-tbd, NFX).  Barry Avrich’s documentary looks at the fall of Knoedler Gallery, New York’s oldest art dealers, in a scandal of forged paintings.  Almost entirely through talking heads, it tells an absorbing story that raises large questions about authenticity and value in art, as well as the people who buy and sell it.  Chalk this up as one I would be happy to show at the Clark, if I were still programming films there.
I thought I’d be one and done with Worn Stories (MC-79, NFX), but I continued to fill the odd half-hour with an episode of this anthology series, about different sorts of people and their individual connections to their clothes.  It reminded me of the Netflix series History of Swear Words in the way it was put together, though I’m inherently more interested in language than in clothes.  Plus this series seemed to foreground LGBTQ stories somewhat disproportionately.  But it grew on me and drew me back for more.
Easy to see why I missed Rush (2013, MC-74, NFX), since I’m not a fan of motor sports, nor of the stars and makers of this film, but I was led to it by a NYer recommendation from Anthony Lane.  I was ready to be pleasantly surprised, as I was by Ford v Ferrari.  I knew nothing about the epic competition for the Formula 1 Grand Prix racing crown in 1976, between raffish Brit James Hall and technocratic Austrian Niki Lauda.  And I needed the end credits to determine that the actors playing them were Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brűhl   I recognize Ron Howard more as the child character Opie, than for any of the many films he’s directed, but here he does show a knack for action sequences.  Peter Morgan’s script hews to the facts of the rivalry (as checked on Wikipedia), and conveys the contrast of characters convincingly.  Through the noise and bravado of boys with their toys, a parable of two approaches to excellence emerges.
I had contrary reactions to two HBO documentaries.  I imagined Our Towns (MC-tbd, HBO) as the initial program in a series.  I would happily keep puddle-jumping with reporters James and Deborah Fallows in their little plane, from one American town to another, exploring examples of decline and revival in different parts of the country.  It did however work as a 90-minute film as well, quite handsomely filmed by Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan. 
On the other hand, for all of the brilliance of Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro), I found the four hour-long episodes of Exterminate All the Brutes (MC-83, HBO) excruciatingly protracted.  The thesis of the series – about the historical intertwining of imperialism, capitalism, and racism – was well-taken and intermittently well-expressed and well-illustrated, but repetitive and self-important.  Some animation, graphics, found footage and old movie clips were instructive and illustrative, but most of the historical reenactments were tedious.  Brought in as a film under two hours, this would have been far more persuasive.
There are 2½ good reasons to watch the third season of the NatGeo series Genius: Aretha (MC-66, Hulu).  The first is that Aretha Franklin really was a generational genius, spanning the era from MLK to BHO.  The second is that Cynthia Erivo is a stunning performer, perfectly able to carry the weight of Aretha’s artistry.  And Courtney Vance is more than half-good as her father, the irreverent Rev. C.L. Franklin.  The other performers are okay too, but spread out over a mishmash of eight hour-long episodes, their effect is dissipated.  I persisted through the series for the snatches of musical performance, even though I would have been more satisfied with a documentary of that duration.  On stage or in studio, this show rocks; offstage it’s rocky and a bit rock-headed.  I also found ineffective the attempt to arrange episodes around themes, rather than chronology.  It’s one thing to have b&w flashbacks to Aretha as a 12-year old starting out on her father’s gospel music tour (and having a baby), but the jumping back and forth within her adult career just compounds the confusion, and the inability to conceive a clear sense of her life.  This show was created by the woman who wrote the recent Billie Holiday movie, which is an indication not a recommendation.  For better stories of powerful Black female singers, see here.
I sampled a couple of Hulu offerings in passing.  Hysterical (MC-76, Hulu) is a documentary about a number of female stand-up comedians, most of whom I had never heard of.  I enjoyed some snippets of material, and respected the film’s arguments about the misogyny women face in penetrating a male-dominated profession, but it didn’t lead me to pursue their work, even if I have been thoroughly engaged by some women in stand-up, notably Hannah Gadsby and Tig Notaro.

Looking for a break from some heavy viewing, I gave the teen comedy/drama Spontaneous (MC-78, Hulu) a chance after the NYT cited it as a hidden gem.  Well, not quite, but still a witty and metaphorical approach to the horror of high school, at least for two-thirds of its duration.  Manic in its movie parodies, and appealing in its leads, Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer, this splatterfest mixes genres freely, until Brian Duffield’s film becomes all too much, and evaporates in the mind immediately.  Basically, kids start exploding at random in school, and the panic in the corridors calls up intimations of school shootings and other disasters, along with memories of the hellmouth under Buffy’s Sunnydale High.
I also stuck with another of those NYT “hidden gems,” even though I again lost patience with its “third act”:  Man Up (MC-69, HBO) is further proof of how hard it is to make a romantic comedy in this day and age.  Simon Pegg and Lake Bell are quite engaging as the leads, and early walk-ons by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Sharon Horgan promise a Fleabag/Catastrophe vibe that never really delivers.  Ben Palmer directed the popular British comedy Inbetweeners (a laugh track prevented me from watching) and the FX series Breeders (MC-65), with Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard (I’m currently watching the second season, but don’t actually recommend it).  Nor do I recommend this film, unless you’re desperate for a contemporary rom-com. 
Another film I rather liked till the final third was Beast (2017, MC-74, AMZ), which I watched only to see Jessie Buckley’s film debut (I’ve been a fanboy since her breakout in Wild Rose).  It’s totally apt that the flame-haired Irish actress got her start as a teenage contestant on a BBC talent show called I’d Do Anything, since that seems to be the motto of her career, and certainly her approach to this role, which features volatility and psychological ambiguity.  Is she mad, is she violent, or merely misunderstood?  Is she the beast of the title, or is that her bad boy friend (Johnny Flynn)?  In writer-director Michael Pearce’s debut film, set atmospherically on his native Channel Island of Jersey, the plot and characterizations are twisty, until they spin off into absurdity.  You could pick out different points where the story goes off the rails, but you’ll have to agree it’s a wreck by the end.

To bring this post back to a high note, let me register a ringing endorsement for the latest Mitchell & Webb series, Back (MC-85, Sund), which recently completed its second season.  If you’ve seen Peep Show (and if not, you’re really missing something), you’re aware of the longtime comedy duo of David Mitchell and Robert Webb and their well-honed back-&-forth, and you won’t be disappointed in this new show, created by Simon Blackwell, who wrote for The Thick of It and Veep.  Here the odd-couple pair portray faux-brothers vying to run the cozy family pub The John Barleycorn, a sort of Cheers in a Cotswold village, where a plethora of character types congregate and kibitz.  Mitchell is the rightful heir to his just-deceased father’s establishment, having returned from a failed legal career in London.  But at the funeral, Webb appears as another claimant, having spent with the family the best half-year of his transient life in foster care, and having kept in touch with the father while ricocheting around the globe in a variety of sketchy enterprises.  Is Mitchell a paranoid neurotic, or is Webb a con-man out to take over both family and business?  Or maybe the latter is a genuinely helpful sort that people just naturally like?  Whichever, this show has the hilarious doubleness of Peep Show, with an engaging setting and array of characters, ranking with the best of British comedy.
In a 2013 departure that turned out to be a dead end, Mitchell & Webb starred in an odd hybrid comedy-drama, Ambassadors (BCG, Britbox).  In the fictional country of Tazbekistan, Mitchell is the ambitious new British ambassador and Webb is his deputy, a multilingual old hand in the place.  Neither the comedy nor the drama really takes off over the course of three hour-long episodes (instead of the traditional six half-hours), though there are ample rewards along the way.  You can see why it wasn’t renewed, not least because of the impressive but no doubt expensive on-location shooting in Turkey.  This show does not quite make it into the company of comparables like The Thick of It and A Very English Scandal.
I took a month’s subscription to Britbox in order to watch 63 Up (MC-89) at last.  I’ve been an avid follower of Michael Apted’s monumental documentary series from 7 Up on, commenting on 49 Up here and 56 Up here.  If you’re not familiar with the series (all available on Britbox), I’m not sure where you should jump in, but I can’t stress strongly enough that you ought to do so, maybe with this latest episode (and likely last, since Apted himself has died since this film’s 2019 release).  Revisiting the same 14 Brits (with some dropouts) every seven years from 1964 on, the series is about many things besides the characters portrayed – British life and history; class, gender, and psychology; work and family; hopes, dreams, and harsh realities; time itself.  I went into this film with sky-high expectations, and they were exceeded.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

What this is all about

Here’s what I’m doing here, in creating these memoranda re: my viewing history.  First off I’m preserving my own memories and reactions against the erosions of time and age, but moreover I’m convinced that it’s a service I am able to provide that is worth something in an age of proliferating media:  a string through the labyrinth, to help you find and enjoy treasures buried under the avalanche of streaming availability.
I do not profess to write criticism, or even reviews in the usual sense, but aim to offer consumer guidance and covert autobiography, in a telegraphic style.  Not much more than giving a thumb up or down, I do try to offer a recognizable thumbnail sketch of each film or show, with my own fingerprint upon it.  After nearly sixty years of assiduous cinema engagement, I have fair confidence that my seal of approval signifies.  Not everyone will agree, to be sure, but if your reading on the barometer of taste ranges between “high-middlebrow” and “low-highbrow,” then I am likely to be a reliable guide.
In that same range falls my fellow Williams alum John Sayles, for whom I have just posted a career summary.   As time goes by, I expect to be adding more career summaries to the column on the right (as viewed on a computer), to express my enthusiasms more fully and to provide a different sort of guide from the mere notice of recent releases.
Having committed to keeping Cinema Salon going, I’d like to develop more readership (for utterly noncommercial reasons), so if what you find here amuses or edifies, then please forward link to any friends who might find it entertaining or useful.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Catching up with Oscar

[Updated through end of April.  By now the Oscars have been announced, but there are several prominent films I haven’t seen yet, including The Father, Minari, and Soul.  So this post will go on.  I was gratified to see Nomadland take the three major awards I anticipated it would, though I would've given the award for cinematography too, and maybe thrown in editing and adapted screenplay as well, even though Chloé Zhao did not really need to take home any more hardware.  I would have been okay with Carey Mulligan snatching Frances McDormand’s Oscar, since she had two already.  Anthony Hopkins will have to astonish me with his performance as The Father to justify the upset of Chadwick Boseman.  Daniel Kaluuya was certainly deserving, but I strongly dissent from the documentary and international feature winners (Collective would have been better in either category).
I focus this commentary around the Oscars even though I rarely respect the Academy’s selections, and almost never watch the ceremony itself.  It’s all part of the culture of celebrity (“being famous for being famous”) that I typically deplore.  But like other annual events (looking at you, Super Bowl), it becomes a whirlpool of public attention, sucking in observers on all sides.  So I enter the conversation to offer my views on something the public at large is looking at (or maybe not, which has also been one strand of opining).  This was a year when it felt as though I had a horse in this race, rooting for Nomadland to sweep the field.  But I note the reasonable manner in which the minor awards were distributed to other worthy films.  See my own ranking of the best films of 2020 here, though some Oscar nominees will actually fall into my list for 2021.]

began this survey on the day the Oscar nominations were announced and will end it after the Academy Awards are actually given, catching up with various nominees.  Two of the notable Best Picture snubs were One Night in Miami and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, while the lesser (and later) Judas and the Black Messiah got the nod.

And then a Best Actress nom went to Andra Day as the title character in The United States vs. Billie Holiday (MC-52, Hulu), which is not even close to those other portraits of Black historical figures.  Ms. Day does a creditable impersonation of Lady Day (though not up to Renee Zellweger’s Oscar-winning turn in Judy, or Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues for that matter), but frankly Lee Daniels’ film is a mess, unable to make a coherent story of the character’s life, uncertain whether to foreground the music, the relationships, the drugs, the institutional racism of the FBI, or the activism implicit in the singer’s refusal to stop performing “Strange Fruit.”  And the musical performances are needlessly tarted up by excessive editing.  I watched this film all the way through, but I don’t advise you to.
A surprise nomination for Best Documentary Feature went to My Octopus Teacher (MC-76, NFX), so I caught up with this worthwhile but hardly award-worthy nature film, about a South African filmmaker who at a low point in his career decides to return every day for a year to the same ocean spot near his house, for some icy free-diving.  In the process, he develops an intimate relationship with a female octopus, and so enters into underwater life in a more consequential way than the typical cinematographer.  The octopus is certainly a fascinating creature, the diver somewhat less so, unbalancing the film a bit, but still offering an unusually detailed natural history experience.
I’d pass if I were you, but you’re welcome to have Another Round (MC-80, Hulu).  Enough people liked this Danish film to earn it a nomination for best Foreign Language Film, but Thomas Vinterberg’s libation was decidedly not to my taste, despite his unlikely nomination for Best Director.  Four high school teachers decide that alcohol is a performance-enhancing drug, and start drinking during work, to largely predictable results.  This film did not reach me in either its manic or depressive moments.
To comment on Promising Young Woman (MC-72, AMZ), I have to confess that I’ve never seen, and have no desire to see, Fatal Attraction.  On the other hand, I admit to seeking out anything that stars Carey Mulligan, and this femme fatale role demonstrates another arrow in her quiver, masterfully aimed.  So my reaction to Emerald Fennell’s film is mixed, as is the movie itself.  Is it a rape revenge thriller or a black comedy, a satire on toxic masculinity or a case study in self-destructive PTSD?  Yes to all, but no to coherence, or targeted thematic approach.  Creatively cast (with the likes of Bo Burnham, Connie Britton, and Alison Brie playing aslant type) and designed (with multiple looks for the star, and the settings, as well as spot-on music selections), this #MeToo film elicits a firm “Yes, but…”  Up against Nomadland for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and other categories, I can’t see this film coming away with anything but a consolation prize.
The Romanian documentary Collective (MC-95, Hulu) garnered two Oscar nominations, for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Film, and deserved them both.  Like Spotlight, Alexander Nanau’s film illuminates the process and the potency of investigative journalism.  After a horrific nightclub fire in Bucharest kills 27, even more people die in the burn hospital in following weeks.  The editor of Sports Gazette, an unlikely muckraking rag, forms a team to investigate.  The first half of the film follows their efforts to delve into medical malfeasance, which leads to the government’s resignation, and the installation of a technocratic caretaker administration.  The second half retains astounding access, now to the boyish new health minister, as he discovers just how deep the corruption goes, all the way from top to bottom it seems, aside from a few incredibly brave whistleblowers.  And the worst part is how relevant it seems to politics in this country; we can’t just say, “Oh, that’s Romania – a bunch of Draculas.”  Is our only choice between mobsters and mob?
Don’t know whether to call The Mole Agent (MC-69, Hulu) a documentary, let alone a nominee for best of the year, but Maite Alberdi has made a charming film, implicitly about gerontology.  A detective hires an 83-year-old man to go undercover and gumshoe an old folks’ home in Chile.  The geezer’s a tidy charmer and soon all the old ladies (who outnumber the men 10-1) are aflutter over him, and opening up about their lives and loneliness, in front of the documentary crew that was planted along with our mole.  John Grierson would turn over in his grave if this were to get the Oscar for Best Documentary, but he’d have to admit the film meets his definition of the term as “a creative treatment of actuality.”  But then, why not Borat too?  Collective is the clear favorite in this category, but Time and Crip Camp are worthy contenders.  [My Octopus Teacher shouldn't have been a surprise winner to me, I guess, since the Academy almost never honors the real best documentaries of any given year.  See my list for 2020 at the end of this post.]

Well, by now I’ve seen the Bosnian film that definitely should have won the Oscar for Best International Feature, Quo Vadis, Aida? (MC-97, Hulu).  A tough watch to be sure, but made with exhilarating sureness of touch by writer-director Jasmila Zbanic, the film details the Serbian genocide of 1995, when thousands of Muslim residents of the UN “safe city” Srebrenica were rounded up and summarily executed in what became known as the worst European war crime since WWII.  Our point of entry is a local schoolteacher recruited as a UN translator (an intense and impressive Jasna Djuricic), present in “negotiations” between the Serbian general and the Dutch commander of the helpless UN “peacekeepers,” with the town’s desperate leaders present but powerless.  Her husband and two sons are among those seeking refuge on the UN base, so her official role is superseded by frantic attempts to keep them safe.  The film has all the rising tension of a thriller, combined with a you-are-there potency of empathetic horror for the plight of all the world’s war-torn refugees.  A must-see, if you can bear it, and certain to make my best of 2021 list.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Apple in my eye

I keep an updated worksheet of films and shows I want to see, arranged by streaming channel.  When I build up enough titles to warrant it, I will sign up for a free trial and/or one-month-only subscription to catch up with a channel’s desirable offerings.  Over a period of time, I built up a number of programs to watch on Apple TV+, so here is a record of my choices.
At the top of the pops reigns Ted Lasso (MC-71), which overcame lukewarm early reviews to finish at #5 on Metacritic’s compilation of tv critic top ten lists, and tucks into my best of 2020 ranking right between Better Things and Pen15.  The show has gone on to achieve cult status, win awards, and be renewed for two more seasons.  The title character, played by SNL alum Jason Sudeikis, had an unprepossessing provenance in a series of ESPN commercials, back when they started broadcasting Premier League soccer games.  He plays an American football coach from Kansas, classically Midwestern-nice but apparently clueless about soccer, who is hired to coach a West London team on the verge of relegation to a lower league.  As in Major League, the owner is a woman (Hannah Waddington) who wants the team to tank.  With experienced showrunner Bill Lawrence, the series was written by Sudeikis and two of his co-stars, playing his assistant “Coach Beard” and the team’s gruff elder captain.  Initially Coach Ted’s optimism seems silly and insipid, but as the season unfolds, we begin to understand the method to his niceness.  There’s a fair amount of across-the-pond comedy, in language and behavior, but an underlying message emerges about cross-cultural understanding and acceptance, and an argument about approaching others with curiosity rather than judgment.  The show put me in mind of Parks & Recreation and Lesley Knope, as a workplace comedy where Amy Poehler started off as caricature and wound up as admirable.  Likewise with the lesser characters, here including Juno Temple as a seeming airhead model/groupie who turns out to be among the wisest and funniest of them all.  You don’t have to be a soccer fan to appreciate this show, which both exploits and subverts classic sports movie tropes.  And the way it meets our cultural moment may be suggested by Sudeikis having played Joe Biden repeatedly on SNL.  Believe the hype, and seek this one out.
Another Apple original series that has elbowed into the circle of my recent favorites is Dickinson (MC-66/81).  The reclusive poet is having her pop culture moment, with this half-hour comedy series pairing nicely with two recent estimable biopics, A Quiet Passion and Wild Nights with Emily.  Though the show takes a parodistic approach to literary-historical fact, and peppers the proceedings with current music, attitudes, and language, creator Alena Smith brings to the project truthfulness and respect for literature and history.  The always-appealing Hailee Steinfeld is fierce and funny as Emily, the twenty-something poet in the 1850s.   Ella Hunt is appealing in a different way as Sue, her best friend and lover, soon to be the wife of Emily’s brother.  Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski are Emily’s parents.  Despite the anachronistic flourishes, the texture and feel of Victorian era Amherst seems quite authentic, and the stories are largely true to life but embroidered entertainingly (it’s unlikely that Emily dispensed opium at a party, on a wild night when her parents were out of town).  The series wanders from fact into reasonable speculation, with cameos for H.D. Thoreau (in a “Pond Scum” portrayal mitigated by the likeable John Mulaney) and L.M. Alcott (Zosia Mamet accentuating her frankly mercenary approach to writing).  Each episode illuminates a different Dickinson poem.  I’ve just caught up with the ten episodes of the first season, and will comment further after seeing the recently-completed second season.  
[P.S. I felt the second season went fuzzy around the character of Samuel Bowles – publisher of the Springfield Republican, friend and editor of Emily – and in the transformation of Sue from sympathetic to unsympathetic, but brought everything back into focus by the final episode (not the series finale, already renewed for another season).  Sam Bowles was indeed a journalistic innovator, here a parody of a tech entrepreneur, but I’ve seen no support for the idea that he was womanizer flirting with both Emily and Sue, though he was indeed a long-time friend of both.  Contrariwise, the cameo for Frederick Law Olmstead was funny but seemed a genuine reflection of his character.  This season jumps ahead to 1859, and culminates with news of John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry.  Alena Smith adds five short extras on the historical underpinning of the series, jauntily animated with period illustrations, which indicate how seriously she approaches the era, as well as its contemporary relevance.  With my own obsession with the antebellum years in the North, Dickinson hits a sweet spot, particularly to my taste.  It will certainly lead me to read more of Emily’s poetry than I have heretofore.]

One more Apple series to recommend:  Little America (MC-85) is an anthology of eight half-hour true-life tales of immigrants to America, from India, Mexico, Nigeria, etc. etc.  High-level writing, acting, and production are the norm for these diverse stories, each unfolding an aspect of the immigrant experience – what drives people from their homeland, what draws them to America, and what challenges they face here.  Some stories are inherently sad, but all have a modest buoyancy, from adversity overcome with some semblance of success.  On the whole more amusing than wrenching, the series details many concrete aspects of displacement, but cumulatively celebrates what all these different people from different places bring to, and get from, this country.  Pick any of eight originating spots on the globe to sample, and I bet you’ll be back for more.  Each episode ends with a photo of the real person whose story has just been told.  Many hands make something special.  As Hamilton raps, “Immigrants – we get the job done.” 
Among Apple’s film offerings, Boys State (MC-84) won the top documentary prize at Sundance 2020 for partners Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters).  A thousand teenage boys congregate in Austin TX to enact a simulacrum of democratic politics, divided arbitrarily into two parties, who each pick a chairman, develop a platform from scratch, and nominate candidates for governor and other state positions.  As in most of these school-age competition documentaries, by reverse-engineering we follow from the beginning those who will emerge as the most prominent characters.  The two party chairmen are a double-amputee Reagan fanboy, and a Black recent immigrant from Chicago who has “never seen so many white people in my life” but turns out to be fluently persuasive.  One candidate for governor is the son of Mexican immigrants, who beats out an opportunistic white boy for the nomination, and then runs against a pretty boy son of Italian immigrants.  That’s a surprisingly diverse slate for an overwhelmingly white convention that seems to settle on two issues, anti-abortion and “gun rights” (the previous year a proposition passed for Texas to secede).  This is less a youthful celebration of democratic governance than a cautionary tale about the inherent dynamics of party politics and performative polarization.  It definitely fits in with my top docs of 2020.
Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks (MC-73) is so fixated on “rich people problems” that even the appeal of Rashida Jones and Bill Murray is not enough to make it palatable.  We eat caviar, dine at 21, motor around Manhattan in fancy cars, shop at Cartier, talk Hockneys and Twombleys, weekend in Mexico, all bemoaning our fate.  Rashida is supposedly an author, but we never find out what she’s supposed to be writing, in her home office that looks like a Prada showroom in SoHo.  She’s mainly just worrying about whether her husband is having an affair, and Bill as her father is helping her sleuth out the situation.  Who is supposed to care, in this low-key comedy-drama?
A much more satisfying Apple original was Hala (MC-75), the story of a Pakistani-American girl in suburban Chicago, a rebellious high-school senior with a penchant for poetry and skateboarding.  Derived from the life of writer-director Minhal Baig, the film offers a novel angle on a familiar story of teen life.  It’s rather like Lady Bird in a headscarf.  Muslim girls wanna have fun too.  The title character is beautifully and touchingly portrayed by Australian actress Geraldine Viswanathan, who carries the film, even when in later stages it falls short of early expectation.  The name may be hard to remember, but the face is unforgettable, and will be looked for – and at – in the future.
Wolfwalkers (MC-87) comes with some expectation, having earned the Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon a profile in The New Yorker, not to mention an Oscar nom for best animated feature.  And it’s certainly in the running to win, representing the culmination of the studio’s trilogy on Irish folklore (following The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, as well as the estimable Afghani story The Breadwinner, all previous nominees).  A canny combination of history and myth, the film is set in 1650, when Kilkenny was occupied by the “Lord Protector” (i.e. Oliver Cromwell), who was determined to wipe out not just the wolves and woods of Ireland, but any vestige of Catholic or pagan belief.  An English girl forms an alliance with a wolfwalker, a woodland spirit who becomes a wolf when she’s asleep, to save the essence of the land.  The story is highly resonant and the characters engaging, but it’s the continuously and sinuously inventive hand-drawn animation that makes this “cartoon” a distinctive and transformative experience.
At $5 per month, Apple TV+ definitely earns its keep, month to month if not year round.


On with the show

In this post, I will accumulate comments on films of 2020, or even earlier, that I have finally tracked down on streaming.  First off is the latest from one of my very favorite filmmakers, which I’ve been awaiting since its film festival premiere in 2019, though technically it remains eligible for my best of 2020 list.
After winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda took the opportunity to make his first film outside JapanThe Truth (MC-75, SHOW) – and went total fan-boy, enlisting Catherine Deneuve and Juliet Binoche into a cinematic love letter that plays like a mash-up of Autumn Sonata and Call My Agent!  Kore-eda has a much gentler soul than Ingmar Bergman, and his portrait of the troubled relationship between a performing mother and her scarred adult daughter is less ravaging to the spirit than it was for Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann.  Deneuve and Binoche are caustic, yet with a twinkle that kept me quite amused throughout.  Deneuve plays an acting diva much like herself (the character has her real middle name), who’s just published an autobiography called The Truth, which the book is definitely not.  Binoche is a screenwriter in the States, married to tv actor Ethan Hawke, who returns to Paris for the book’s publication, and is roped into a role as on-set assistant to her mother.  She’s in a silly sci-fi film, as the elderly daughter of a space-traveling mother who has never aged, which continuously resonates with her own difficult mother-daughter relationship.  She took the role because her young co-star seemed an avatar of her long-deceased best friend (shades of Deneuve and her sister, Françoise Dorleac).  Deneuve is a sly monster of self-regard, and Binoche does her best to look plain as well as pained; Hawke is goofy and endearing, and as their daughter Clementine Grenier contributes another excellent child performance for Kore-Eda.  This may not have the overall impact of his other great films, but is full of small delights for the dedicated cinéaste.
To see that film, I took a free trial of Showtime, so I looked around that channel for anything else to watch, and came up with a sleeper, Driveways (MC-83, SHOW).  Films about the relationship of an old man and a young boy have a history of pleasing crowds, and this is no exception, but rather than treacly, Andrew Ahn’s direction is modest and subtle.  It stars Brian Dennehy in one of his last roles, and has a touch of elegy about it.  Lucas Jaye debuts delightfully as the 9-year-old Asian-American boy who moves in next door to the isolated widower.  His mother has come to clear out the house of her estranged and deceased older sister, who turns out to have been a hoarder (filmed in Poughkeepsie NY, I found out later).  These marginalized people gradually form a bond, in a way that warms the heart, without being “heartwarming.”  Brief and understated, with no twists in the tale, this film is mild but lingers in the mind as a paean to companionship, wherever it is found.
Digging deeper into Showtime’s offerings, I came up with Dark Waters (MC-73, SHOW).  Directed by Todd Haynes, though you’d never know to look at it, this is really Mark Ruffalo’s show (even more so than I Know This Much Is True).  Out of their shared environmental concerns, exec producer Ruffalo plays a corporate defense lawyer in Cincinnati, who changes sides when a farmer friend of his grandmother back in West Virginia comes to him with evidence of his herd being killed by toxic water run-off from a DuPont facility.   The film follows the tangled proceedings of the actual case over two decades, emphasizing the drudgery and dogged commitment of lawyer Rob Bilott, in a stand-out performance from Ruffalo.  Though the genre formula for such investigations into corporate malfeasance is pretty well set, Haynes keeps the complications and ramifications of the case clear and involving, without his usual stylistic flourishes.  Bill Camp and Tim Robbins stand out in the solid supporting cast.  When we’re told that corporations are people too, my friend, this film reminds us that if so, then those people should be considered sociopathic and committed to an institution.
I recently commented on “Aggressive silliness,” and have just come across another palatable example.  Extra Ordinary (MC-72, SHOW), plays like Ghostbusters in an Irish village.  Enda Loughman and Mike Ahern are the writer-directors of this supernatural rom-com starring Maeve Higgins, as the dumpy but endearing woman who renounced her ghost-detecting talents after a bad experience, and now makes a living as a driving instructor.  Her services are still in demand, but she only takes on another exorcism when appealed to by a widower played by Barry Ward, to whom she takes a nervous fancy.  Meanwhile Will Forte is a one-hit wonder who has retreated to an Irish castle, and is literally making a deal with the devil to revive his musical career.  It all moves along in fast and funny fashion, in the manner of Simon Pegg’s genre parodies, and does not overstay its welcome.   
This post has turned into an encore to “Show-me-time,” to which you can refer for other recommendations should you take advantage of a month’s free trial of Showtime.  After the Academy Award nominations come out, I will follow up with a post on “Catching up with Oscar.”

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Favorite films of 2020

Usually I don’t compile my best films of the year list till halfway into the next year, but 2020 was a year when everything was unusual, so this time around I’m in advance of the Oscar nominations (I’ll add another post after they're announced). 
Definitely a year when boundaries were blurred:  film and video, movies and theater, fiction and documentary.  I already listed my best tv series and documentaries of the year, so here I throw in everything else.  So was Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” a tv series or five separate movies?  Why was David Byrne’s American Utopia considered a film, while Hamilton was apparently considered filmed theater?  But then Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami were filmed plays as well.  And so on.  So I put all these variants into two categories, “Must-sees” and “Worth seeing,” in rough order of my enthusiasm, and will update the list as tardy candidates emerge.  (For comparison or futher exploration, see Metacritic's ranking of the best films of the year.)
Small Axe: Lovers Rock/Mangrove/ Education/Red White & Blue/Alex Wheatle
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
First Cow
The Trial of the Chicago 7
One Night in Miami
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Sorry We Missed You
The Truth
Worth seeing
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
David Byrne’s American Utopia
Sound of Metal
Promising Young Woman
Saint Frances
Palm Springs
The Assistant
Ordinary Love
South Mountain
40-Year-Old Version
What the Constitution Means to Me
The Easy Girl

Please spread the message

It seems to me that this website is now more relevant, timely, and useful than it has ever been, as more and more people are drawn to what’s streaming right now – either from cable-cord-cutting, or increased appetite under pandemic lockdown, or general cultural currency.  And there’s so much out there that it’s difficult to keep up with what’s worth seeing.  And that’s where I come in. 
Even though I filter my own viewing through a highly-selective lens, I still watch more than any reasonable person would do.  So for those who know me and/or come to have some sense of my approach to cinema, I can provide a second filter to help make sure that you spend your viewing time wisely, informatively, and enjoyably.
Conveying my own views in a brisk and concentrated style, and trying to increase viewership and appreciation for the best in film and tv available through streaming, I also link to each film or show’s Metacritic entry, where you can see trailers, cast-lists, and a range of critical opinion.  Though streaming availability is a volatile thing, and dependent on what channels you subscribe to, I also indicate where I managed to watch whatever is under discussion.
So I ask you to forward the Cinema Salon link to any of your friends or acquaintances who are media-curious.  Though the metaphor has taken on a whole world of unfortunate associations, what I’m hoping for is a bit of viral spread for this website.


Black History Month on PBS

The flagship show for PBS last month was The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song (MC-85, PBS), in which Henry Louis Gates Jr. follows up his series on Reconstruction with a survey of music and worship at the heart of the Black American history.  Well-produced and well-illustrated – except perhaps for the repeated shots of PBS "celebrity" Gates walking through various vacant Black churches, alone with his cane – the two two-hour episodes cover a lot of ground, from African roots through emancipation, and between the push and pull of respectability vs. resistance, even to the margins of hiphop and the Nation of Islam.
On “American Experience,” they offered an encore of Going Back to T-Town (PBS) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre in 1921.  At the time the documentary was produced in 1993, there were still personal voices testifying to life in the Greenwood neighborhood, known as “Black Wall Street,” both before and after the murderous white riot that left three hundred Blacks dead, and most of the neighborhood burned to the ground.  It’s vital to remember these buried stories if this country is ever going to confront and repair its history of violent racism.
The newest American Experience episode was Voice of Freedom (PBS).  I wasn’t sure that the story of Marion Anderson’s free concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, promoted by Eleanor Roosevelt after the DAR prevented the singer from performing at Constitution Hall, was sufficient to warrant a two-hour treatment, but it turned out to be well worth the time, broadening its scope to include not just her entire against-the-odds career, but the history of the Lincoln Memorial from its dedication in 1922, where African-Americans were ironically segregated and excluded, to MLK’s March on Washington in 1963, when Marion Anderson sang again from the very same spot, covering an arc of America’s history of race relations.
On “American Masters,” How It Feels to be Free (PBS) similarly related how six Black female entertainers – including Lena Horne, Nina Simone, and Cicely Tyson – broke down barriers and advanced the cause of Black liberation, from the 1940s into the 1980s.  Again, I found it well worth the two-hour running time.
On the other hand, I can neither recommend nor warn you against the “Masterpiece” program The Long Song (MC-78, PBS).  I felt I’d seen enough after the first hour-long episode, but found myself going back for the other two, largely for the lead performance by Tamara Lawrance, as a house slave on a Jamaica plantation in the 1830s, immediately before and after slavery was abolished in the British empire.  I was less taken with Hayley Atwell as the plantation mistress, who verged on caricature, a disappointment to me after I was so impressed by her in Howards End (perhaps the Marvel universe is where she belongs, but I’m never seen any of her many appearances as Agent Carter).  Her performance seemed schizophrenic, while the male lead seemed muddled and befuddled in his relationship to both women, and his switch from freedom-lover to belligerent overseer.  There was, however, a definite aura of authenticity in the plantation’s Black community, and the historical moment is certainly of interest.  Too bad it was so Masterpiece-y.


Sunday, February 21, 2021

Aggressive silliness

Usually not my thing.  In fact, essentially the opposite of my thing (passive sullenness?).  I am simply incapable of sharing the widespread enjoyment of entertainments like Wes Anderson movies or sitcoms like Schitt’s Creek, unless imbued (as with John Oliver for example, or GLOW for another) with substance and purpose.  But for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reveling in two goofy tv shows from decades past, escapist entertainments with a certain sauce that makes them delectable to me.  I reviewed both after a generous sampling, but have returned following the full repast, to append further remarks.
I expected the frantic DayGlo charm of Pushing Daisies (MC-86, HBO) to wear off, but I was surprised to find myself bingeing all 22 pie-laden episodes, from two seasons (2007-09) truncated by the writers’ strike.  Maybe I miss some things by paying no attention to major network shows, but every once in a while a winner comes into my purview.  This ABC series got a fair amount of appreciation and numerous Emmy nominations in its brief span.  Wikipedia describes it succinctly as a “forensic fairytale,” known for “its unusual visual style, eccentric production design, quirky characters, fast-paced dialogue, and grotesque situations,” often using “wordplay, metaphor, and double entendre.  Stop for a minute and the show makes no sense at all, but it moves so fast there’s no stopping.  All the characters are finely-etched caricatures and the whole has an in-your-face quality that some might find off-putting, but I found engaging and hilarious.  Among the lead characters Lee Pace as the Pie-Maker was the only familiar face to me (as the Don Draper-ish star of Halt & Catch Fire), but each of the others has had an extensive professional career.  Anna Friel, as the Pie-Maker’s crush called “Chuck,” is British, though you’d never know it, with a theatrical background.  Chi McBride, as the sardonic but good-hearted P.I., has been in dozens of shows that I have never seen.  Likewise with Kristin Chenoweth, as the Pie Hole waitress pining for her boss; her Broadway musical background figures in several episodes.  But that all makes sense, since it requires a lot of training and experience to believably deliver dialogue at the pace (no pun intended) they are required to by the unrelentingly rapid-fire script.  The show’s relatively short run is probably a blessing; they were likely to run out of gas and push their already overextended boundaries.  Not for everybody, to be sure, but worth a sampling for anyone with a taste for verbal and visual wit.
On the other hand, it’s hard for me to imagine anybody not liking Freaks and Geeks (MC-88, Hulu).  Upon reviewing, the NBC one-season wonder cemented its position amid the pantheon of my favorite tv shows of all time.  This Paul Feig and Judd Apatow creation is the missing link between Happy Days and Pen15, the point at which this high-school shit got real.  Excruciatingly funny and truthful, delivered by an outstanding cast destined for great things, this show holds up after more than twenty years, which is roughly the time between its making (1999) and its setting (1980).  Some things about the teenage years are perpetual and universal, and this show nails them.  It’s a lesson in something or other, possibly criminal negligence, that this show was canceled after 12 episodes, leaving 6 in the can, only to be released elsewhere later.  But the 18 existing 44-minute episodes are a multi-course feast as is – complete, tasty, and filling (despite the spit-takes).  Don’t miss it.
[As of now, I have updated previous post with a review of the much-awaited Nomadland, and will continue to add new important new releases as soon as they become available for streaming.]