| May 25, 2020
Television is so much a part of this experience of being locked down… so I’ll skip to those adventures before getting back to movies.
Let’s start by paying tribute to FX. Devs. Better Things. And Mrs. America. This is some of the finest television of the decade.
For me, it’s Devs over Mr Robot. For many, it’s the other way around. But I ain’t gonna argue. Alex Garland is the closest thing we have to Kubrick. The pace can be glacial. He is not going to give you the easiest characters or easy answers. His answer may be something that requires you to marinate on for weeks, if not forever. He is fascinated by the mundane elements of life, but always is trying to figure out how they touch the face of God.
How do you review a show that, like shimmering interior of DEVS, changes a bit every episode. Looking back from the end, it seems that it was all inevitable. But watching from the start, there seem to be at least 4 different shows percolating. This both infuriating and exciting. Garland has a passion for super-dry performances and gooey moist romanticism. As a result, while Sonoya Mizuno is the lead of the show, it is Nick Offerman who truly embodies the two sides of Garland’s spiritual coin. Muzuno does well in the series, but it is Offerman’s eyes that speak volumes. In the last few episodes, Alison Pill also grows into the embodiment of that perfect emotional schizophrenia.
Pamela Adlon loves a good stunt. But what makes Better Things the best half hour on television in the last few years is what is true and raw.
Hulu seems to like to follow up the most recent episode of FX shows with the start of Better Things, Season 1, Episode 1. Watching that episode, it’s quite remarkable how the show has changed, season by season. The first season was very much a collaboration between Adlon and Louis CK. The pilot was directed by CK. Every episode of Season 1 features Adlon and CK as writers with just 2 episodes sharing credit with others (Cindy Chupak on Future Fever and Gina Fattore on Alarms).
After directing just 2 of the 10 Season One episodes, Adlon took over all the directing responsibilities in Season Two, still sharing writing duties exclusively with CK. Adlon’s directing skills were not as polished as the directors of Season One, but there was a fearlessness and intimacy that took the show to a higher level.
The New York Times story on Louis CK landed on the same day as the penultimate episode of Season Two first aired. A season that should have won award after award after award was muted by the situation and the space that Adlon understandably needed to process the public destruction of a work partnership that I first saw on a live stage in Hollywood as HBO was developing a series called Lucky Louis in 2005 or 2006. (She had one story credit on the series and wouldn’t get another until Louie in 2011.)
Season Three took a little longer to happen than before. FX moved it from a September launch to February. The season starts with, perhaps, the most famous single scene from Better Things… Sam (Adlon) in her closet, trying on clothes that she doesn’t quite fit in in anymore. Simple bra and panties and fearless visual self-examination. Episode Two also starts in her underwear (after she rips off her pants), dealing with (perhaps) menopause, then the first peak at Sam questioning her sexual boundaries, and what would become a recurring theme, a caring but caustic look at older people. Episode 4… unwanted sex dreams. Another big theme would be Sam’s similarly aged female friends at various stages in their relationships. Adlon also brings on writing staff and for the first time, even has episodes that she has no writing credit at all.
And this fourth season has had its own flavor again. Deepening. Deepening. Adlon opens the season with a dialogue-free three-minute sequence, just wandering around the house. The themes of the series continue. Broken relationships. The daughters finding out new things about themselves. More of the women dealing with life as they pass the halfway mark.
I think what I love so much about Adlon’s show is that I don’t know what is coming… but it always feels right… and it always leaves me thinking and feeling and wanting more. This is an exceptional thing in any of the arts.
Another COVID “discovery” was Marcella, a British cop show—of a sort. Anna Friel stars and she is roughly glamorous, and so broken. It’s not even clear what she does in the early moments of the first season. She is a mother. She is recently and painfully divorced. She is a mess.
And as it turns out, she is a top end murder police. The question of “whodunnit” flips on her, as a murder case turns out to be close to home and she, in her current state, has blackouts that mean she can’t trust herself in many ways.
The show airs on Netflix and I binged until I passed out.. then finished Season One in the morning. The cast is great. The twists are really unique. And it’s beautifully made.
Second season… not so much. The thing is, much of what is so special about the show is resolved in the first season. And honestly, I was done. I got four episodes into Season Two and lost interest. But man, that first season!
There is a fascinating and terribly important Frontline episode, which you should be able to bring up on the PBS app or elsewhere, on plastics and how the are being and not being recycled. Plastic Wars. I watched with my jar on the ground. Frontline is such a great show… and this episode blew me away.
I had bailed on Mr. Robot sometime towards the end of the second season. I just wasn’t interested in working that hard as an audience member. I know people LOVE the show. But on a too-tight content consumption schedule, it faded.
Then the final season came and all the superlatives that were flying in Season One were back. One friend in particular brought it up over and over and over again. So I leapt right into Season Four. And you know what… I liked this last season more (once I figured a few things out) that anything else I had seen from the show. I think it was because the actual premise was no longer a secret. And the stakes seemed so much more personal than I had felt watching the show before. It was great.
So if you are someone who fell of the Mr. Robot wagon, I encourage you to get back on there.
Shrill was one of those shows I never quite started with. Frankly, the design at Hulu keeps me from hanging around in and wandering around their content offerings. I am loving FX on Hulu, but it is always a challenged to get me to watch something for which I wasn’t already looking.
But the shutdown finally got me to start Shrill and I found it fascinating from start to finish. Aidy Bryant just falls right off the screen onto your couch. She is accessible and vulnerable and fun and dumb and brilliant. And her Annie Eaton on the show may be her in some ways and others not, but she can transfer that energy to her character and it is compelling in ways you never quite see coming.
It is the part of being open – or politically correct, if you like – that we seek to do “the right thing” for people whom we see as vulnerable, but never quite deal with the imposition of how we see those people. Nor do people find it easy to navigate the idea that people know what others see them as and sometimes they don’t feel it and sometimes they feel it deeply and the nature of both of those feelings is often misplaced, by the observer and by the object of the concern.
In many ways, Shrill is filled with the conventional. And then it just flips. and flips. And flips again. But it all makes sense. It just isn’t about nailing these characters – and not just the lead – down. Her parents! God, I loved Julia Sweeney and Daniel Stern as her parents. And Patti Harrison… holy crap… queen of playing the black notes only on the comedy keyboard.
I’m going to stop now. These review pieces have been sitting on the desktop for weeks and I’m trying to find my rhythm pushing it out. So for now, less is more… with more to come.
| May 25, 2020
| May 14, 2020
| May 12, 2020
Bilge Ebiri: "In the wake, are movie theaters, having long since lost their essential place in our culture, going to become relics of the past? Probably not. People are desperate to get out of the house, get their kids out of the house and get back to normal. “When this lifts, none of us are ever going to want to be anywhere close to our couch or our TV ever again,” predicts Richard Rushfield, who runs the popular film-industry newsletter The Ankler. “Our couch is going to have associations for us of this awful time.” One recent survey found that almost three out of four Americans said they missed going to movie theaters — which is significantly higher than the percentage of Americans who regularly went in the before times. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis spoke for many of us when she wrote, “When at last we can go out again and be with one another, I hope that we flood cinemas, watching every single movie, from the most rarefied art film to the silliest Hollywood offering.”
| May 26, 2020
"In the world of performing arts, the coronavirus pandemic has already sunk summer. Now it is felling fall. Even as reopened barbershops, beaches and bookstores herald the resumption of economic life across America, concert promoters, theater presenters, orchestras and dance companies are ripping up their 2020 calendars and hoping 2021 will mark a new beginning. “I think 2020 is gone,” said Anna D. Shapiro, the artistic director of Chicago’s storied Steppenwolf Theater Company. “I’ll be stunned if we’re back in the theater.”
The Autumn That Is Not To Be: Live Producers Shut Down 2020
| May 26, 2020
"I meet Buscemi (he says it boo-sem-ee, not boo-shem-ee) for the first time at an airy Italian restaurant a short walk from his place. Neither of us knows it yet, but this cloudless March Wednesday is one of the last normal days on record, before New York City all but shuts down because of the coronavirus and we are collectively advised to confine ourselves to our apartments. As it turns out, my last sit-down restaurant meal until who knows when is this lunch, with Steve Fucking Buscemi. He has the spinach frittata."
| May 26, 2020
| December 13, 2019
| December 4, 2019
| December 4, 2019