In this weekly blog series (and stealth newsletter), I briefly discuss what I've been watching, what I've been working on lately, what's coming up that I'm excited about, and any other random thoughts that seem worth sharing. If you'd like to receive these posts as an email newsletter, you can subscribe here.
Like many people, I closed out 2020 by making a lot of well-intentioned plans for 2021. I identified some lofty goals. I drew up elaborate charts and graphs, and debated the merits of various endeavors and strategies. I conducted a very careful accounting of how I might reasonably spend my time, and arrived at specific, concrete goals that seemed challenging but realistically attainable. To achieve these goals, I meticulously blocked out hours and days of time on a color-coded calendar, with different projects assigned different hues, and all the due dates labeled in bright, obnoxious, accusatory red. Finally, thus organized, I announced my plans for the New Year. I used such intemperate words as "ambitious schedule," "regular content," and "renewed drive," and (with mad, self-sabotaging abandon) I provided very specific dates for when things would appear.
And then—predictably, almost inevitably—I blew my first deadline of 2021.
To be fair, I didn't blow it by much, relatively speaking. The last entry in my Independent Study in World Cinema project, after all, was four years late, and this one was only four days late. Surely we can count that as remarkable progress?
Nonetheless, I found it discouraging. It was my very first chance to prove to myself that I could be disciplined and punctual if I really tried—and, as it turned out, I couldn't. Plus, there was danger of a cascading effect: Those four days, after all, were already color-coded for other things, meaning my entire, nerdily elaborate work-plan was now behind schedule. All in all, it did not feel like I was starting the New Year on quite the note that I had hoped.
For the record—to quote my old site tagline—I don't believe anyone really gives a rat's ass about my self-improvement regimen. But I mention it here for two reasons.
First, and least importantly, it helps explain why this weekly blog/newsletter thing will be a little short, and a little short on content. (My plan is that this will mostly be the place where I round-up all the stuff I watch in a given week that I never find time to write about. Usually, that's a lot of stuff, but—starting the year already behind schedule—I really didn't have time to watch much at all this week.)
My real motivation in talking about it, however, comes from more of a support-group vibe: You see, I very much doubt that I'm the only one out there feeling this way. This week, all over the world, I imagine New Year's Resolutions are falling by the wayside. Diets are being broken. Work-out goals are being silently renegotiated. Projects are being postponed or abandoned. Many of us are probably finding an excuse to decide—like Lloyd Bridges in Airplane—that we just picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.
And I'm here to say, on behalf of the Wafflers of America: That's okay. I actually believe the whole concept of New Year's Resolutions is a useful one: It's not a bad idea, at least once a year, to take inventory of yourself and realign your priorities where needed. But resolutions shouldn't become another bundle of sticks with which you can beat yourself up. (Nor—and I say this with all the dubious authority of someone who took 22 years to quit smoking—should they become all-or-nothing scenarios. I slipped up and had one cigarette, so now I should just give up and smoke ALL the cigarettes! Not helpful.)
So I'm trying not to let one missed deadline derail my entire agenda. If your self-improvement plan is—like mine—off to a slow or imperfect start: So be it. That doesn't necessarily mean the plan is flawed. Change, I hear, is a process. New habits take a while to replace old habits, and nobody ever completely reinvented their life at 12:01 AM on January 1st. The important thing, I suspect, is to keep the goals in mind, and to keep moving forward.
At least that's what I'm telling myself. I don't have a lot of time to think about it, because I really want to get this post done today. (It's the next deadline on my calendar, you see.)
On December 29, Nakea and I released the final episode of The Unenthusiastic Critic Podcast for 2020, on the largely forgotten thriller The Silent Partner (1978). I like how this one turned out: I was worried about how this movie would go over with the missus—her last encounter with Christopher Plummer, many years ago, was not a success—but as it happened she appreciated the movie for the tense, well-executed, nasty little gem it is.
Earlier today, January 4th, I published the 14,000-word piece on Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) that I'd been struggling with for (more than) two weeks. I loved the movie, but it turned out to be kind of a monster to write about, with way too many characters and plot-lines and themes to easily organize. (Plus, there's that whole thing where I never really know what I think about something until I write about it, so I'm never the most organized writer to begin with.) Anyway, I'm glad this novella-length piece is finally up, and you can read it here.
This week—I'm aiming for January 7, but we know how that goes—I'll post the first new piece in my resurrected coverage of Deadwood, picking up where I left off, with Episode Eight. I'm loving writing about this show again, and I'm genuinely excited to work my way through the entire series. (As I've said before, it's probably my favorite show of all-time, and analyzing things in obsessive detail is how I express my love.) I hope a few of you will watch along with me, especially if you're watching for the first time. (If you need convincing, I wrote a spoiler-free primer for the series many years ago here.)
On January 12, The Unenthusiastic Critic and I return to our (now bi-weekly) podcast schedule, with…a movie to be named later. (Seriously, I haven't decided yet what we're watching. I should probably get on that. But I'll know by next week, and it'll be great.)
On January 15, the next piece in my Independent Study in World History series will cover Roberto Rossellini's neorealist classic Rome, Open City (1945). I haven't even watched it yet, or begun doing research on it, so that's as much as I can say about that. But I am hoping to make these posts considerably more concise than they have historically been, beginning with this one. Fingers crossed.
Here's how you know I've been hard at work: I somehow only watched two movies this week. (Actually, I blame my wife: There are a few recent things streaming that we both want to watch, so we've been waiting for our schedules and moods to align.)
For new releases, we watched Eugene Ashe's Sylvie's Love (2020), a romantic melodrama about a young TV producer (Tessa Thompson) and a Jazz musician (Nnamdi Asomugha) in late '50s, early '60s Harlem. And I liked it, but I didn't love it. It's nicely directed and designed—the sense of place and time is extremely well done—and Thompson is always a delight to watch. But at this point I'd say Ashe is a better director than he is a writer: His screenplay gets points for avoiding a lot of the predictable, formulaic, we're-falling-in-love-in-a-musical montage sorts of clichés that can plague this type of story, but it also meandered a little slowly and unsatisfyingly for my taste. Still, I'm interested to see what Ashe does next, and a lush period love story like this—from a Black writer-director, with an all-Black cast—is rare enough to be something to celebrate.
We also watched—just because it was on, and we'd never seen it—Love and Mercy (2014), Bill Pohlad's biopic about Beach Boys creative genius Brian Wilson (played as a young man by Paul Dano, and as an older one by John Cusack). I probably avoided this one when it came out because I'm an inveterate hater of biopics, especially biopics about artistic types, and specifically biopics about musicians. But Love and Mercy is—as rumored—a remarkably good movie. Pohlad—who has only directed one other movie in the past 30 years—manages to find interesting things to do with the form, and actually delivers a film that is about something, instead of just a dramatized version of the artist's Wikipedia page. I could take or leave Cusack's twitchy performance as Wilson in the later years, but Dano is excellent, and the scenes of him in the studio—arranging the complex harmonies of his best songs—are worth the price of admission alone.
We continue to move through the depressingly becalmed waters of the winter TV schedule. This time of year it is always sparse-pickings, and the pandemic has only made things worse. The only new weekly show we watched this week was the season premiere of Ru-Paul's Drag Race, which remains campy, catty, deliciously subversive fun. As happens with most reality shows, it is—after 13 seasons—somewhat repetitive fun at this point, but even that has its charms. There's something sadistically compelling about watching Ru try to devise new exercises in mental cruelty to zhush up the format each season, like (as he did this week) holding six "elimination rounds" before the new queens have even unpacked.
The only other new thing I watched this week was the Doctor Who New Year's Day special, "Revolution of the Daleks." And it was…fine, I guess. Watchable, unremarkable, utterly forgettable, like most episodes of the show have been since executive producer Chris Chibnall took over in 2018. Honestly, it makes me sad. Doctor Who is a show I used to describe as a high-wire act: It took absurd risks every week, which either paid off spectacularly or crashed to the earth disastrously. Now, it's just content to plod down the middle of the road, risking little and delivering little more. Just today rumors hit that star Jodie Whittaker is leaving after the next season, which would be a shame, but I couldn't blame her: She has been delightful as the 13th Doctor, but she deserved far better material to work with than she's gotten.
The only thing on the television horizons I'm excited about at the moment is the new season of Alena Smith's Dickinson, the first three episodes of which drop January 8th on Apple TV+. So, naturally I'm rewatching Season One, and it has just confirmed my opinion that this show—which once sounded to me like the premise for a bad SNL-sketch—is just ridiculously, intoxicatingly good. Anchored on the seemingly limitless talents of star Hailee Steinfeld, Dickinson is somehow, simultaneously, one of the best comedies and dramas on television, while also managing to be stylish, inventive, and sexy as hell. Honestly, I'm deeply in love with this show—which made my Best of the Decade list in its first year—and I can't recommend it enough. (I know we all have way too many streaming services, but if you're still on the fence about Apple, this show is worth the fee by itself. For the record, I also really enjoy the criminally overlooked For All Mankind, which returns in February.)
…what's everybody else watching that's worth checking out?