Friday, July 1, 2022

The Best and Worst of Streaming Series: Mid-Year Report


We're just halfway through 2022, and I've already spent more time stretched out on my sofa, binging new streaming series, than I should probably admit. I haven't watched everything, by any means, but I've seen enough that I feel confident in passing on some recommendations. 

It's going to be a long, hot summer. Here's what to watch - and what NOT to watch - when you're hiding out in the AC over the next couple of sweltering months.

Or you can do what I'm going to do and turn the TV off for most of the next two months!  All these shows will be waiting for you on your streaming apps when the leaves start to fall and you're ready to stay in and curl up with a hot beverage.

(All thoughts here are COMPLETELY subjective, of course. As a blogger friend of years back used to say, "Your mileage may vary..)


A Very British Scandal (Amazon)

Not be confused with the earlier Amazon series, A Very English Scandal,. But, much like that darkly comic Hugh Grant series from a few years back, this is a true story of upper-class Brits behaving badly. Only this time, the tone is deadly serious, brittle and sad. Clare Foy and Paul Bettany play the very unhappily married Duchess and Duke of Argyll. The Duke is cruel and vicious; the Duchess seeks solace in the beds of other men. Their scandalous divorce proceedings, depicted in the final chapter, are a masterfully staged and acted pageant of hypocrisy and slut-shaming that, sadly, doesn't feel entirely removed from our own era. Foy and Bettany are electrifying in their roles, and the three-part series is an irresistibly easy binge, if not quite a feel-good experience.

Barry (HBO Max)

I've watched many, many black comedies, but Barry is simultaneously the blackest and the funniest of them all. Bill Hader's deeply conflicted Afghanistan-vet-turned-mob-hit-man-turned-actor continues to be the most radically complex character on television.  Hader also writes the series, and directs some of its most accomplished episodes.  There are two particularly brilliant set pieces from him this season. First, a delicious, deadpan scene in which Barry seeks help from a ridiculously cheerful customer service rep when the phone app he's using to detonate a bomb fails to get the job done. The second is a stunningly filmed motorcycle chase that comprises several shootings, but from which Barry emerges unscathed; it takes place in a single, breathtaking tracking shot. 

 The supporting cast (which includes Henry Winkler, Stephen Root, Sarah Goldberg and Anthony Carrigan) is consistently brilliant. And some of the happier surprises of season 3 are guest performances by actresses who haven't been onscreen nearly enough in recent years. It's
wonderful to see Elizabeth Perkins and Laura San Giacomo tearing fearlessly into their meaty featured roles.

The Dropout (Hulu)

I haven't ranked these series, but if I had to pick a number one favorite, The Droupout would be it.

I assume you are familiar with Elizabeth Holmes, the almost comically wide-eyed, baritone-voiced  CEO of Theranos, maker of instant blood-test machines that were installed in Walgreens stores around the country, but never actually worked. Holmes' downfall from celebrated entrepreneur to convicted corporate fraudster has already been the subject of documentaries and podcasts, but this eight-part drama gives Holmes' story greater nuance and context. 

Having worked in technology myself, I can assure you that committing to delivery dates for new systems without being entirely sure how you'll get there is part of the job.  You're encouraged to set difficult goals and expected to achieve them - or to be absolutely transparent about the reasons why you can't.. Unfortunately Holmes never learned that last part.  The Dropout shows, with impressive and authentic clarity, the dangers of covering up your over-ambitious goal setting with endless piles of deflective bullshit. Big-name investors and media outlets fell for Holmes' wide-eyed idealism and bogus 'girl power' vibe, and her employees enjoyed the pep rally atmosphere of the Theranos workplace. But her product, based entirely on faulty science, was always doomed to fail. 

The Dropout effectively juggles and integrates a whole lot of serious themes here, including the significance of a woman leading a Silicon Valley enterprise and the way our work culture has come to overvalue speed and hyperbole over diligence and thorough research. It steadily escalates the dramatic tension as the supporting character's lives are upended by Holmes' carelessness, while the uniformly excellent cast gives their personal tragedies genuine impact. Amanda Seyfried (a no-brainer casting choice based on her looks alone) gives a stunning lead performance, capturing not only Holmes' shameless overconfidence, but also her fear and an almost Asperger's-like inability to understand how her negligence hurt the people who worked for her.

Ozark (Netflix)

Ozark is a very, very dark series about amoral (and often violent) people who stop at nothing to get want they want. And although it's very hard to watch at times, I couldn't stop. (In fact, I binged the first three seasons in under two weeks to get to the final season which aired this year.) Maybe we chalk that up to the exceptional acting, particularly by Jason Bateman, Laura Linney and Julia Garner.  Or maybe because it reflects some of what we see n our own world. In Ozark, the most privileged of the villians  - the ones who don't really understand or appreciate the culture they've infiltrated and made money from - walk away unscathed, never taking responsibility for how their actions destroy the people around them.  Any of that sound familiar from real life?

Severance (Apple)

Severance is a smart, visually stunning sci-fi drama that's about three parts dystopian nightmare to one part satire of meaningless corporate work incentives. The "macrodata refinement' team at Lumon Industries strives to meet work quotas in order to earn prizes like an "egg buffet" or the eagerly coveted '"waffle party." They also have chips installed in their brains which allow them to lose of all memory of their home lives while they're at work - and, conversely, to have no memory of work while they're at home. Over the course of the first season, the disadvantages and dark intentions of this odd work situation are gradually exposed.  The masterfully sustained vibe is both eerie and melancholy. The raft of great actors who bring their A-game  (among them John Turturro, Adam Scott, Christopher Walken and an over-the-top Patricia Arquette) are just the icing on the cake. Ben Stiller directed the first four episodes.

Somebody Somewhere (HBO Max)

Somebody Somewhere gave me a whole new appreciation for singer/comic Bridget Everett, whose off-color, in-your-face performance style has never been my cup of tea.  In this autobiographical series, Everett returns to her roots in a small, conservative Kansas town. After months of self-isolating, following a beloved sister's death, she succeeds in finding her tribe - a mutually supportive and loving group of oddballs, gay men and trans people who gather for a weekly 'church choir practice,' (in reality, a free-wheeling, open-mike cabaret). Everett is uncharacteristically vulnerable and touching here. If the idea of finding this kind of community within a small, uptight farm town is a bit far-fetched, I don't really care. I loved the show's good heart and optimistic spirit too much to quibble.

The Staircase (HBO Max)

I came to The Staircase at a distinct advantage, having never watched the very popular Netflix docudrama on which it is based.  Here the 'true crime' angle is muted, and the focus is on the complicated marital and family dynamics of the purported killer, his wife, and their large blended family of young adult children. Any time you've got a cast that includes Colin Firth, Toni Collette, Juliette Binoche, Michael Stuhlbarg and Parker Posey, you're more than halfway to a great viewing experience before you even start.  And these actors do not disappoint. Assuming that you haven't seen the Netflix docudrama either, I'm going to let you go in go into this one with no more information. Going in cold is the best way to experience its unexpected twists and turns.


Hacks (HBO Max)

In Season Two, the stand-up comedy act of Deborah Vance evolves and becomes more personal, but still never made me laugh. (A weakness this show shares with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; see below). But Jean Smart continues to deliver a beautifully modulated performance as the Joan Rivers-esque comedienne undergoing a personal transformation. There's more fine work as well from Hannah Einbinder, playing her much younger gag writer, Ava. The season opens with Deborah suing Ava for slander over an explosive email written when Ava was pissed off and over it.  Over the course of eight episodes and many well-crafted two-hander scenes, they find rapprochement  But the season is marred by the poor use of the usually delightful Laurie Metcalf as an eccentric tour bus driver and a whole subplot about the extremely annoying assistant to Deborah's manager.  It's not without its pleasures, but it's a bit more uneven than Season One.

The Gilded Age (HBO Max)

Julian Fellowes, the creator of wildly popular Downton Abbey, now turns his focus to the socially prominent families of l9th century New York, just at the time when they're about to be invaded by the social climbing nouveau riche. It's a milieu well documented by novelist Edith Wharton in her day; I strongly prefer Wharton's take, but this show is not without its pleasures. Chief among them are the performances of Christine Ebersole as an old money doyenne, Cynthia Nixon as her sweet-tempered spinster sister, and Carrie Coon as the vulgar, newly rich lady across the street. A veritable plethora of Broadway musical stars pop in regularly in non-musical roles (Kelli O'Hara, Donna Murphy, Debra Monk and Nathan Lane, among others). 

The weakest link, I'm sad to say,  is Louisa Jacobson in the ingenue role. Much of the story revolves around her, but she's merely as sweet and bland as vanilla pudding - and frankly her character doesn't seem to be worth all the fuss.. I'm holding out hope for some complications in season two that will give Jacobson a chance to shine.

Julia (HBO Max)

I'm not sure why we we needed a six-part biographical series about Julia Child when Nora Ephron's beautiful 2008 film, Julie and Julia, told her story so well and so completely. As much I love Sara Lancashire in the title role and enjoy learning about the challenges of creating a cooking show, I'm equally troubled by the characters and situations that were invented out of thin air for this show. For starters, Julia Child never had a female producer on her show, let alone a black female producer whose presence in a story set in the early 1960s introduces a whole new set of entirely fictional complications. The notion of Child creating a cooking show out of menopausal sadness over never having children seems a bit far-fetched, too.  Every biographical film or television series is tweaked here and there to heighten the drama, but Julia goes to lengths of speculation and invention that don't seem entirely conscionable.  

Man vs. Bee (Netflix)

What if Mr. Bean was a sad sack single dad with a normal speaking voice? And what if a pesky, persistent bee invaded the high-tech mansion where he works as a housesitter?  Ponder those questions and you'll get a good idea of what you're in for here. Rowan Atkinson remains, at 67, a master of physical comedy, and there are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the first half.  But, thanks to unnecessary plot complications, the series runs out of gas well before its finale. (On a side note, I have NO idea why this was a series and not a movie; it's comprised of eight chapters, each of which clocks in at under 12 minutes, and each of which seamlessly segues, mid-scene, into the next.)

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)

This series has repeatedly made a lot of noise about how much Midge Maisel will have to sacrifice to achieve stand-up comedy stardom. But we haven't actually seen her give up much.  Despite being fired from Shy Baldwin's tour and reduced to making jokes between strippers' acts in a burlesque house, Midge still gets to live in a swanky Upper West Side apartment, wear cute clothes and generally make everything about herself. Enough already!  I get that, in real life, it can take a performer many years to achieve their career goals. But we're four seasons into a five-season series, and our heroine doesn't seem to be anywhere near wised up.  And her stand-up still really isn't that funny, although the audiences she plays to seem to eat it all up.  

The best reason to watch this season?  The continuing friendship - and tantalizing chemistry - between Rachel Brosnahan's Midge and Luke Kirby's Lenny Bruce. The final episode feels like one we've waited years for..

Under the Banner of Heaven (Hulu)

A true crime series about the investigation of murders committed by a Fundamentalist Mormon cult.  Andrew Garfield gives a standout performance as the investigating detective who is himself a devout Mormon and whose faith is severely tested by what he finds.  It's well made, but the finer points of Mormonism that are key to the developing plot are often difficult to comprehend, let alone follow.  (Reading the recaps on Vulture, which are written by a ex-Mormon, will help.)

WeCrashed (Apple)

Yet another 'true scandal' drama, this one about the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of WeWork, a shared workspace concept that burned bright and fizzled fast thanks to the hubris and empty promises of its founder, Adam Neumann and his pretentious wife, Rebekah. Jared Leto, at his absolute Jared Leto-est, disappears entirely behind a thick Israeli accent and a constant stream of empty corporate-speak, while Anne Hathaway commits fully to Rebekah's narcissistic cluelessness. It's not that the story isn't compelling, nor that the series isn't competently made.  It's that Leto and Hathaway inhabit their characters so completely that they wind up being as annoying and grating as the real people must have been; a little of them goes a lo-o-o-ong way. Had the story been compressed into three or four episodes instead of eight, this might have ended up in the "Best" category.


Anatomy of a Scandal (Netflix)

Good actors (Sienna Miller, Rupert Friend, Michelle Dockery) wasted in a mildly engrossing courtroom drama with an absolutely preposterous, completely unbelievable 'big reveal' at the end. I won't spoil it, in case you're still curious enough to watch. But don't say I didn't warn you.

The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)

Why on earth was a second season of The Flight Attendant deemed necessaryThe initial season was a well-crafted thriller with stylish and skillfully blended elements of suspense, comedy and pathos - and it was enjoyably complete in and of itself.  In season two, the title character (Kaley Cuoco)  has relocated to Los Angeles where she lives in a picture perfect bungalow and dates a nice, dependable guy while struggling to maintain her sobriety.  AA requires her to perform community service as part of her program, so she works as a civilian 'volunteer' for the CIA. Really? Does that even make sense?  The plot in this season is nearly incomprehensible. There's an entirely gratuitous and horrifying suicide scene along the way, and a lot of subplots that aren't particularly well integrated into the main story thread.  The only reason to watch is for Sharon Stone's chilling appearance as Cassie's weary, long-estranged mother.

Gaslit (Starz)

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein recently appeared on the Stephen Colbert show to talk about Watergate.  Bernstein recalled the day when Martha Mitchell called him up at the Washington Post to tell him that her husband, John (Nixon's attorney general) had left her and invited him to come over and go through her husband's diaries and papers. After consulting the Post legal department, he and Woodward did just that. They arrived to find Martha clutching a "birdbath-sized" martini and giving them access to a whole closet of Mitchell's papers. "We got some stories out of it," Bernstein recalled with a grin.

God, how I wish they'd put this incident in Gaslit

This series promotes itself heavily on the performance of Julia Roberts as the maligned Mrs. Mitchell. Even the title is a reference to how she was treated by Nixon's henchmen when she dared to tell the truth about Watergate.  And her performance is magnificent, as is Sean Penn's, playing John Mitchell under a shit ton of artfully applied latex and makeup.

But Martha's troubles are teased out in fits and starts, and only occasionally does she get to be the focus of the story. Far too much screen time is given to John and Maureen Dean (the former played by British actor Dan Stevens, affecting a just barely credible American accent.)  Stevens is bland and annoying, and although Dean clearly had a pivotal role in the scandal, Gaslit gets really boring every time the focus is on him. Every time I was forced to watch the newlywed Deans making out, I found myself wondering what Martha was up to. (There's also a lot of sensationalistic hoo-hah about G. Gordon Liddy, who really was more than a little nuts. But those were just more scenes I wanted to fast- forward through to get back to the Mitchells.)

Like the recent Hulu series, Mrs. America, this series about a major political event of the 1970s is written and directed by people who weren't even born (or, at best, were toddlers) when it took place. And it shows.  C_SPAN actually aired a far more engrossing docuseries on Watergate a few weeks later, in which the appearance of the real John Dean managed to be a highlight.

Ten Percent (Amazon. Sundance Now)

It must have seemed like a good idea to make an English language version of the popular French Netflix series Call My Agent, but this remake is nothing special.  The first few episodes, in fact, are just scrupulously faithful remakes of the French episodes, except transferred to a London talent agency and cast with British stars like Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West.  Once they leave the French story lines behind, the show gets a little better, but it's still hard to care about any of the characters … with one notable exception in the show's only entirely original character, Simon Gould. Once a promising actor, his career was derailed by his heavy drinking and crippling anxiety. One of the older agents takes Simon under her wing to find him the kind of role he's always deserved. He's played by Tim McInnerny, my favorite British actor that hardly anyone in America knows. (He was Hugh Grant's best friend in Notting Hill and was briefly on Game of Thrones, among many other roles.) He's the best thing in Ten Percent.

The Thing About Pam (Peacock)

The thing about Renee Zellweger is that she's in a fat suit for the first few episodes, and her latex jowls are so unconvincing (on my UHD television anyway) that she looks more like Fat Bastard from the Austin Powers movies than a murderous housewife with a taste for Cherry Coke Big Gulps.  This is yet another true crime drama in which Zellweger portrays the sociopathic woman who murders her best friend and then just keeps getting into more trouble. I normally like Zellweger, but this is not a good role for her. Other good actors (among them, Judy Geer and Josh Duhamel) are wasted here, too.

Friday, March 25, 2022

My Cranky Last-Minute Oscar Post

 "It's Oscar time again. Pardon my asterisks, but I am completely out of f*cks to give."

That's how I opened my annual Oscar post five years ago.  And with each successive year, I have felt less and less enthusiasm for this annual pageant of the film industry's self-congratulation. In fact, I haven't even bothered to write an Oscar post since 2018.

It was not always thus. For most of my life - since the age of 11, in fact  - the Oscars have been to me what the Super Bowl is to die hard football fans. And while I still look forward to gathering with my friends - eating, drinking, and dishing the red carpet looks and awkward acceptance speeches - there is a very big part of me that just doesn't care anymore.  I don't know that my apathy is necessarily related to the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the embarrassing spectacle of this week's Ketanji Jackson confirmation hearing... all the things that matter so much more. It's just that, with every passing year, it becomes more obvious to me that these awards have only an ephemeral and tenuous connection to enduring artistic achievement. 

And that's still true this year, even with a mournful, slow-moving three-hour Japanese film about grief and loss in the running for Best Picture (Drive My Car, which is beautiful, but demands your full attention. Carve out time on a rainy afternoon and stream in on HBO Max while you can.)

In truth, there are a number of worthy and wonderful films and performances on the ballot this year. But there are others that have been unfairly overlooked, not just by the Academy but by most other awards-giving organizations as well.

So here are my terribly important (and completely subjective) thoughts about who/what will win, who/what should win and who/what was the most unfairly overlooked:

Best Supporting Actress:

Will win: Ariana De Bose for West Side Story 

And I've got no problem with that. DeBose was a joy in a film I liked very much. This win will make history, with DeBose winning for the very same role for which Rita Moreno won the Oscar in 1962.

Should win: Ariana De Bose

Although Jessie Buckley was pretty damn good in The Lost Daughter.

Overlooked; Dakota Johnson for The Lost Daughter, Teresa Saponangelo for The Hand of God

Everyone loves Buckley and Olivia Colman, both terrific actresses who dazzle us in every performance. But Johnson is every bit their equal here, and I can't understand why she hasn't received the same awards love as her co-stars.

Saponangelo was the hilariously volatile mother in Paolo Sorrentino's Best International Film nominee. Frankly I'd like to give a special Oscar to every actor who played a member of the young protagonist's family; watching them was possibly my happiest experience in a movie theater in 2021.

Best Supporting Actor:

Will win; Troy Kotsur for CODA

There's been a groundswell for Kotsur in the weeks since the nominations were announced. He's not my first choice is this category, but I certainlhy won't be outraged if he wins. CODA deserves some Oscar love, and this is the most likely category in which to receive it.

Should win Kodi Smit-McPhee for The Power of the Dog

Smit-McPhee was, quite deservedly, the early front runner in this category. And he could still take home an Oscar this year. But I predict he'll be back before long. He's still quite young and already too good an actor not to be nominated again.

Overlooked: Toni Servillo for The Hand of God, Mark Rylance for Don't Look Up and Simon Helberg for Annette

Three of my favorite 2021 performances haven't received any nominations anywhere. So I'm going to sing their praises here and now.

Servillo is the cheerful, very funny father in the aforementioned Italian film.  A frequent player in the films of Paolo Sorrentino, he is always good - but especially so here.

Rylance's tech mogul manages to send up both Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, yet feels like a very specific but wholly original characterization. He's not in the film much, but when he is, everything feels funnier and more inspired.

Almost no one saw Annette, and most of those who saw it weren't crazy about it. (I, however, loved it.) Still Helberg deserves recognition for being both hilarious and heartbreaking in a sung-through musical, playing the conductor who pines, mostly unrequitedly, for an opera singer (Marion Cottillard.)

Best Actress:

Will win: Jessica Chastain for The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Chastain is going to win, and I am here for it.  She found the the heart and humanity behind the false eyelashes and the startling facial prosthetics. The film is itself was nothing special, but Chastain was great.

Should win: I don't care...

Honestly, in this category it's more about who shouldn't win.

I'm fine with Chastain, Olivia Colman or Penelope Cruz walking off with an Oscar. Just please, God, do NOT let it be Kristen Stewart for that Godawful overrated Spencer. Nicole Kidman shouldn't be here either.

Overlooked:  Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit

Lady Gaga in House of Gucci is the first and most painfully obvious choice here. Jennifer Hudson, who channeled the late, great Aretha Franklin to spectacular effect in Respect is another glaring omission. But I'm going to champion Pfeiffer, who has been killing it for the last few years, playing hilariously acerbic women in films that don't get enough attention. French Exit is a regrettably flawed adaptation of a very good novel in which Pfeffier's unfiltered, unsentimental, formerly rich widow is the powerful center around which all the other actors orbit.  It's worth seeking out on streaming, and if it works for you at all, it's because of Pfeiffer.

Best Actor

Will win: Will Smith in King Richard

I'm not sure how Smith is getting so much award love in a year which also gave us Benedict Cumberbatch's mesmerizing turn in The Power of the Dog, but Smith is the shoo-in here. A win for Smith feels more like an lifetime achievement/Mr. Congeniality award to me. But I'll admit, if grudgingly, that Smith is pretty damn good in this film.

Should win: Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog

Here's what I wrote about Cumberbatch's performance after first seeing The Power of the Dog at the 2021 Chicago International Film Festival: "Cumberbatch is electrifying in every scene, always managing to suggest a vulnerability - or at least some unplumbed complexity - behind every wincingly nasty wisecrack. When I walked out of the theater that night, I was certain That I had seen the next Best Actor Oscar winner at work. But I had not.  This year is Will Smith's year.  And Cumberbatch very likely has more great work ahead of him.

Overlooked: Nicholas Cage for Pig

Critics seems to agree that Cage is phenomenally good in this odd but powerful indie film, and he's received many nominations for low-stakes critics' awards.  But even a single nomination for a major acting award has inexplicably eluded him. I'm mighty disappointed not to see the Oscar nomination that would have signaled the Nicholas Cage comeback. (Reminder: he already has one Oscar, for Leaving Las Vegas.)

Best Picture:

Will Win: CODA

In addition to the support building for Troy Kotsur, the film itself is gaining momentum for the top prize. I'm going out on a limb to predict that voters will find CODA to be the perfect heartwarming, life-affirming film for these troubled times.

Should Win: The Power of the Dog or Belfast

The Power of the Dog (my personal choice for Best Film of 2021) still may pull through to a victory. It's been the front runner in this category ever since the nominations were first announced. 

Belfast is not considered to be a serious contender; however, its blend of gentle comedy, feel-good reminisce and artfully evoked onset of 'the troubles' in Northern Ireland manages to be relatable both to the current state of the world and to our need for the reassurance of family ties.  I'm holding out a little hope for a surprise upset.

Overlooked:  Mass

The best film to be largely ignored by awards-giving bodies is probably the hardest to watch.  A meeting between the parents of a school shooter and the parents of his victim, it's written and acted to perfection. But it's grueling and sad.  In a perfect world, all four actors (Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) would have acting nominations, and Mass would have received nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. But, of course, we don't live in a perfect world...

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Quick Take: Rifkin's Festival


I wasn't sure I was allowed to like Rifkin's Festival. For that matter, I'm not sure I was even supposed to watch it. These days, choosing to participate in the release of a Woody Allen film - whether by acting in it or just paying to see it - comes with a built-in moral dilemma. Whatever decision you make, it's somehow considered to reflect your belief about whether the director molested Dylan Farrow.

Frankly, Rifkin's Festival is too lightweight and inoffensive a film to bear that kind of moral weight. At it's best, it evokes the kind of longing and romantic preoccupations that characterized Allen's films of the '70s and '80s.

Mort Rifkin (Wallace Shawn) is a writer and former film studies professor married to a movie industry PR rep (Gina Gershon). He tags along with her to the San Sebastian film festival where she's preoccupied with the young, hot French film director whose PR she handles (Louis Garrel). Rifkin believes Garrel's new film is pretentious and overpraised; he also believes his wife may be having a affair with her client. Feeling a little queasy, he seeks out a doctor, Joanna Rojas (Elena Anaya), who shares his intense love of  classic European film and with whom he begins a rather sweet, wistful flirtation. And when Mort sleeps, his dreams are scenes from his favorite European films, but with his wife, friends and family members playing all the parts.

It's those dream sequences that make the film, skillful reproductions of famous moments from Breathless, 8 1/2, Jules and Jim, The Exterminating Angel and others, but tweaked and played for laughs. The 8 1/2 parody is every bit as visually sumptuous and exciting as the corresponding scene in Fellini's masterwork, and a parody of  Bergman's Persona  - with Gershon and Anaya in tortured, overlapping extreme close-up -  made me laugh out loud twice in the space of about 20 seconds. (It's every bit as funny as the corresponding Persona parody played by Diane Keaton and Jessica Harper in Love and Death, yet the premise is completely different.). 

Shawn is particularly good here, playing what is essentially a stand-in for Allen himself - or at least, the characters Allen used to play. There's more warmth and yearning in his performance than there is neurosis; he makes a potentially very annoying character into a likable and sympathetic man. He and Anaya establish a lovely chemistry that had me seriously rooting for them to wind up together. And the beautiful shots of San Sebastian, Spain only add to the romantic vibe - more great work from cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.

So that's the best of Rifkin's Festival. At its worst... well, its disappointments are pretty much the same as those in most of Allen's decreasingly satisfying recent work.  Too often, the dialogue feels as though it came from a rough draft rather than a finished script, with actors delivering large chunks of plot exposition as if giving junior high book reports on the situations they're portraying. (Douglas McGrath's delivery of the doctor's back story is a particularly glaring example). And even though his characters have cell phones, Allen still hasn't figured out how they actually work. When Shawn asks McGrath for the doctor's home phone number - even though both men are clutching their phones at that moment- McGrath fumbles for a pen and piece of paper to write the number down.)

And that moment with the confusion over the cell phones isn't the only scene in Rifkin's Festival that feels like it was written by your out-of-touch, politically incorrect grandpa. There are throwaway moments here and there that made me cringe a little. (In one, a very attractive young woman - we'd have called her a 'starlet' back in the day - is offered the role of Hannah Arendt by a lascivious film producer. It doesn't play well on this side of the Me Too movement, even though Allen's intentions are benign.)  However, I'm not inclined to quibble over the occasional moments of outdated humor. At 86, Allen is still managing to crank out a movie a year, which is a remarkable thing. He may not have another Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanors in him. But if we can get a few more Rifkin's Festivals, I won't complain.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

2021 in Review: These are Not the Best Films of 2021 (or are they?)


This is the final post in a series looking back at film and television in the past year. Previous entries in this series can be found here, here and here.

Before we get to this year's list, a couple of standard disclaimers:

Why is this list called "NOT the best films of 2021"?

Because, as my blog title proclaims, I am a PART-TIME cinephile. I am not a professional film critic, just a cinema-loving civilian, so to speak. I don't prioritize seeing every single movie out there to the exclusion of time spent with friends, family or other interests. If a particular film doesn't appeal to me at all, I feel no compulsion to follow critics' recommendations to see it. (And when I do, I frequently regret it. Last week, I watched the Palme D'or-winning Titane, a movie that takes the cinematic "body horror" genre to a whole new level of gory depravity. It can't even tell you how badly I want those two hours of my life back.)

Not that I didn't make a solid effort: I saw 104 of the films that were released last year, and that's a personal record of which I'm ridiculously proud. But it's still only about half of what a professional film critic would see in any given year, and I never got around to a number of the year's best reviewed titles. (These would include The Green Knight; Cry Macho; The Disciple; This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection, Zola and Red Rocket.)  A few others (Drive My Car, Memoria, The Souvenir Part 2) had only brief, late-December runs at arthouse theaters in Chicago neighborhoods I no longer visit after dark. (Or during daylight hours, for that matter. Google "Chicago crime rates" to learn more.)

Which brings us to the second standard disclaimer on my year-end posts:

The eligibility requirement for consideration on my list is that the film must have entered general release in the Chicago area during the calendar year of 2021. (Film festival screenings alone don't count.) This means that some films generally considered to be from 2020 were considered for my 2021 list.  (among them Nomadland, The FatherPromising Young Woman, The United States vs. Billie Holliday) It also means that some 2021 films, which either opened here just this week or are yet to arrive (Parallel Mothers, Flee, Petite MamanCyrano, The Worst Person in the World) will be considered for my 2022 list.

And there is yet another disclaimer that I haven't applied before. It's been a very emotional year for me. I inherited my deep love of movies from my father who passed away in 2020, and I've felt his loss even more acutely this year, especially as I've watched so many movies he loved - or would have loved, if he'd lived to see them. As I'll explain in some of my capsule reviews, I've found it difficult to sit back and look at films with a cool, critical eye this year. I've chosen a fair number of my favorites based on my intense emotional reactions alone.

In spite of all that, however, I think you'll find that the list below doesn't look all that different from most professional critics' "Best of 2021" selections. So perhaps, despite my limitations and periodic laziness, these really are the best movies of the previous year.

I've included 'where to stream' information for all ten entries; "Available to rent on the usual platforms" is shorthand for 'Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Redbox and Vudu.'

In reverse order of preference:

Pig (directed by Michael Sarnoski)

I haven't seen a Nicholas Cage film in years (hyper-violent schlock doesn't much appeal to me). And when I heard that Cage was a playing a disheveled hermit whose life comes apart when his beloved pet pig is stolen, I can't say I was eager to end my long run of Cage abstinence.  But the respectful, even rapturous, reviews for Pig piqued my curiosity, and I have to say, those reviewers were correct. Cage's performance is superbly measured, suffused with melancholy and tightly controlled anger. Not just any actor  - let alone one whose character is unshaven, unwashed, dressed in rags and bleeding profusely from multiple face wounds -  can convincingly summon the quiet moral authority to shame and intimidate a celebrated chef in his own restaurant. Have I piqued your curiosity now?

Pig is available to stream on Hulu with a subscription or to rent on the usual platforms.

The Last Duel (directed by Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott made two movies this year; House of Gucci may have brought in more box office receipts, but this is the better film.  The setting is 14th century France.  Matt Damon and Adam Driver are knights (or squires? I'm still a little fuzzy on their titles.) Damon is a bit of a doofus whose loses the king's respect, but still manages to marry a beautiful woman with a sizable dowry (Jodie Comer). Driver, the far savvier member of the court, parties with the apparent Hugh Hefner of the 14th century French nobility (an unrecognizably blond Ben Affleck, providing comic relief), but yearns for Damon's wife. So while Damon is away, Driver stops by his estate and basically helps himself to Comer. Was she raped? We get three versions of the story - one each from Damon's, Driver's and Comer's point of view. This conceit works remarkably well, with subtle as well as obvious differences in nuance and inflection in each telling. Much as I hate to employ cliches, I truly was on the edge of my seat as that last duel was fought to determine Driver's guilt or innocence (because, especially in those days, a woman’s testimony counted for nothing.) Medieval history meets the Me Too movement, with a particularly fine script by Damon, Affleck and Nicole Holofcener. 

The Last Duel is available to stream on HBO platforms with a subscription or to rent on the usual platforms.

Mass (directed by Fran Kranz)

Probably the hardest to watch of any film on this list, but the writing and acting are so exceptional that it's worth the effort. In a church basement, two couples meet to talk. One couple are the parents of a boy killed in a school shooting; the other are the parents of the shooter.  The conversation is tense, emotional - and ultimately breaks through to forgiveness and shared sorrow, well befitting its church setting even though God is never directly invoked.  The actors - Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs and Reed Birney - all do stunning, exceptional work. Mass will leave you emotionally shredded, but also awed by what it achieves.

Mass is available to rent on the usual platforms.

The Hand of God (directed by Paolo Sorrentino)

You can read my rapturous review from the Chicago International Film Festival here. I don't have much more to say, except to confirm my love for this film, even without the big screen experience. I've since re-watched in on Netflix and it held up beautifully. I particularly love Sorrentino's incarnation of his own family - their humor, their naughtiness and obvious love for one another other are a joy to witness.

The Hand of God  is available to stream only on Netflix with a subscription.

Annette (directed by Leos Carax)

No one has a lukewarm reaction to Annette. You either give yourself over fully to its surreal, grand operatic styling or you declare it irredeemably bonkers and turn it off in disgust. Obviously, I'm in the first camp, but even I can admit that it may be the year's weirdest movie. (Even considering that it lost the top prize at Cannes to the story of a young woman who has sex with a car and ends up pregnant. See my disdain for Titane expressed above.) Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard play, respectively, an iconoclastic stand-up comic and a opera singer who fall in love and have a baby (the titular Annette) who is played by an animated puppet. Simon Helberg (best known as Howard from The Big Bang Theory) has a very affecting supporting role as the orchestra conductor who yearns for Cottilard. If I didn't tip you off sufficiently with the above reference to grand opera, this is an entirely sung-through musical with a few infectious, memorable tunes, but mostly just dialogue sung as recitative. (The opening number, May We Now Start had damn well better get a Best Song Oscar nomination.)  Annette has a little to say about say about toxic masculinity, and a little more to say about parents who use their children to fulfill their own needs without ever seeing them for who they really are. But, mostly, it's just consumed with its own crazy/glorious vision.

Annette is available to stream only on Amazon Prime Video with a subscription.

West Side Story (directed by Steven Spielberg)

I have found it impossible to process my feelings about this film in any kind of intellectual terms. My reaction to West Side Story is purely emotional. This is the first of two films on this list which brought me to tears, repeatedly, without me being able to fully understand why I was crying. Sometimes I think it was just because I’d forgotten how beautiful that Leonard Bernstein score really was. But in other scenes, I felt my heart swelling with joy (most notably during the America number, which in this version spills out into the streets and ultimately gets the whole neighborhood dancing.) I know as a critic, I'm supposed to to put my emotions aside and look carefully and analytically at whether the revisions made by Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner actually make sense or enhance the original musical in any important way. I can’t do that with a cool eye, but my heart tells me they succeeded.

West Side Story is not yet available on streaming. A streaming release date has not yet been announced.

Licorice Pizza (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)

To quote my own thoughts from my previous post (re: the French film One Sings, the Other Doesn't): "Sometimes the best recommendation for a film is that its characters are just fun to hang out with." That's definitely the appeal of Licorice Pizza. Its cast is headed up by two fine young actors; both are charming and instantly likable, but neither is intimidatingly beautiful. They look and act like people you might actually know. Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Haim stumble through a year or so of adventures and misadventures around the fringes of the early 70s Hollywood scene.  There's not much plot to speak of, just an amiable rambling from experience to experience. There are fun cameos from Sean Penn and Christine Ebersole as barely fictionalized versions of William Holden and Lucille Ball respectively, plus a screamingly funny one from Bradley Cooper as hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters. Only in this case, Peters' identity is in no way camouflaged.  This week, Bradley Cooper told Stephen Colbert that Jon Peters made it possible for him to finance his version of A Star is Born by deferring his own fee. (Peters had been a producer on the Barbra Streisand version.) I wonder how he feels about seeing Cooper portray him as angry macho dickhead who seduces women by offering to make them peanut butter sandwiches.

Licorice Pizza is not yet available on streaming. A streaming release date has not yet been announced.

Nomadland (directed by Chloe Zhao)

This is a sad story. But when I remember the film, it's not the sadness I think about, but rather its beauty. The gorgeous musical score and the breathtaking cinematography that takes in so many natural wonders of the western United States. The sense of community that develops between the modern-day nomads who have lost their homes and live out of their vans and trucks, while eking out meager livings from temporary service jobs.  Many of the characters in the film are real-life nomads who are profiled in the non-fiction book on which it is based. I've not read the book myself, but people who have read it assure me that their actual lives are a good deal more dire and hardscrabble than the film version fully depicts. Still, I respect Chloe Zhao for finding something transcendent in the lives of people whose hardships we barely know. She turns the story into visual poetry, anchored by a reliably brilliant performance by Frances McDormand.

Nomadland is available to stream on Hulu with a subscription or to rent on the usual platforms.

Belfast (directed by Kenneth Branagh)

Here is the second film on this list to have brought me to tears, repeatedly. Belfast is a lot of things, all at once, seamlessly interwoven with one another: a child's-eye version of life in a Belfast neighborhood at the start of The Troubles; a warm-hearted, autobiographical reminiscence of family life; and (least predictably) a window into a film director's earliest formative influences. (In Branagh's case, they range from John Ford westerns to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.) It's shot in impeccable black-and-white by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and acted to perfection by a cast including Judi Dench, Ciaran Ciaran Hinds, Jamie Dornan and Outlander's Caitriona Balfe. It's sweet and sentimental, but never cloying. As with West Side Story, I find it nearly impossible to convey my appreciation of this beautiful film in intellectual terms alone; it, too, worked its magic directly on my heart.

Belfast is available to rent on the usual platforms. (However, as of 1/16, premium pricing is still in effect which means a two-day rental will run you $19.99.)

The Power of the Dog (directed by Jane Campion)

Until just a few days ago, The Power of the Dog was bouncing between second and third place on this list. Then I decided I to watch it a second time on Netflix. (I'd previously seen it on a big screen at the Chicago International film festival, as I wrote about here.) 

When I re-watch a movie - even one I really love - it's no big deal to me to hit "pause" now and then so I can go to the kitchen to make a cup of tea or fix a snack. I might even return a text or read a quick email every so often. It's not like I don't know what's gong to happen next.

But, even though I wanted to do some of those things during The Power of the Dog, I simply could not will myself to divert my attention for one millisecond.  I was too completely absorbed in every fine detail of the performances, the dialogue, the cinematography. Where my initial experience of the film was mainly about being blown away by Benedict Cumberbatch, this time I took special note of the fine, nuanced work of Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jesse Plemons. Because I already knew how the film would end, I was able to watch closely for the clues to that final, heart-stopping twist that were carefully sprinkled throughout its final chapter. It was the most rewarding second viewing of a film I can remember, and it pushed Jane Campion's magnificent psychological thriller/Western into the number one slot. Definitely the year's best film - and many 'real' critics agree!

The Power of the Dog is available to stream only on Netflix with a subscription.

A few more thoughts:

Honorable Mention: CODA, Dune, The FatherLamb, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, Promising Young Woman, Quo Vadis Aida?, Supernova, Undine

2021 Nominees to the Academy of the Overrated: Titane, Spencer, The Card Counter*

(* The Card Counter was demoted from Honorable Mention last night after I watched director Paul Schrader's 1992 film Light Sleeper, which is pretty much the same movie, just set in the world of drug dealing instead of casino gambling. I had to deduct points for self-plagiarism.)