In my weekly blog series (and stealth newsletter), I 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 thoughts that seem worth sharing. If you would like to receive these posts by email as a weekly newsletter, please email newsletter@unaffiliatedcritic.
Okay, seriously, how is it only Week 3 of 2021? Everyone was so excited to see the back of 2020, and now the first few weeks of 2021 have lasted at least six months. The insurrection in D.C. was only 12 days ago. The impeachment hearings were five days ago. We are not three weeks from New Year's Eve, and only two months from the election, and both already seem so long ago that I feel like another one of each must be coming up any minute now.
Anyway, I'm not going to talk about all that external, important stuff this week. I'm not going to talk about the impeachment, or how disconcerting it is that Republican lawmakers seem to think there should be a month-long window at the end of a president's term when they get immunity for attempting to overthrow the government and install themselves as dictators. I'm not going to talk about the fact that Trump is scheduled to be out of office at Noon on Wednesday, or my genuine, paranoid anxiety about the possibility that Joe Biden's inauguration might suddenly turn into Trump's Reichstag Fire. I'm not even going to talk about the fact that today should have been Martin Luther King Jr.'s 92nd birthday. (Betty White turned 99 yesterday. I mean, no offense to Betty—who is and always has been delightful—but she's seven years older than MLK was, and we could have used them both this half-century.) I'm not going to talk about how everything that is happening now proves how little has changed in the 52 years since we lost him, or how his radical racial justice and anti-capitalism message has been deliberately misunderstood and co-opted by a lot of the people paying lip-service homage to him today. (I mean, when ICE—the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency—is tweeting about MLK's birthday as if he wouldn't have wanted to raze their offices to the ground, the message has been lost somewhere.)
But like I said, I'm not going to talk about all of that this week. To be perfectly honest, I don't have the energy, and I have a hunch that most people who follow me are not in it for my trenchant political analyses. Plus, this weekly blog/newsletter (blogletter? newslog?) is supposed to be where I round up all the stuff I've been watching, and I didn't do that last week, so now I have a backlog of stuff to talk about. If I don't deal with it now, it will soon congeal into yet another overwhelming, anxiety-inducing guilt-bomb, and that I don't need.
So let's get to it.
Look, I'm behind on everything, okay? That's what I'm saying about 2021: I somehow feel like I'm already six months behind on my master plan for the year, and we're only 18 days in. My lone writing accomplishment this week was that my new Deadwood review went up on time. (To quote the show's character Jack McCall—who later assassinated the man he was speaking to—"That's one in a row for you, Wild Bill!")
I also produced the last entry in this blog series, on-time and everything. I sort of think that should count.
The next post in my Independent Study in World Cinema should have gone up on January 15th, and…it didn't. I had really hoped to have it done by the time this post went out, and that didn't happen either. Anyway, it's on Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City, and one of the problems is that I didn't really love the film. (I sort of hate writing about things I don't love: It slows me down.) But it'll be fascinating nonetheless, and it's coming any day now. Honest.
The next one is on Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946), which I'm looking forward to. I think—rather than being eternally behind and racing to catch up—I'm going to push that one back from the end of January to the middle of February. We'll see how it goes.
My next Deadwood piece should come out on time, which would be Friday, January 22nd. The episode is 1×10, "Mister Wu," and it's a good one. (Honestly, they're all good.)
And finally, a new episode of The Unenthusiastic Critic podcast is dropping this week, as Nakea and I recently sat down for her first viewing of Tom Cruise's breakout film Risky Business, from 1983. Episodes in which my Black millennial wife encounters the formative movies of this white Gen-Xer's teenage years almost always produce a good conversation, so be sure to check that one out. (The episode should drop by Wednesday or Thursday at the latest.)
I've actually watched a fair number of movies over the last couple of weeks. (Maybe this is why I didn't get more writing done.) In a perfect world, I would like to be writing one or two full-length movie reviews every week, but my schedule is a little tricky right now. So here are just very quick, spoiler-free takes on the stuff I've caught up with recently.
Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman is the film I'd most like to have time to write about this week, largely because I find it fascinating but really can't decide how I feel about it. Carey Mulligan gives a tremendous performance in the titular role as Cassandra, a young woman who dropped out of medical school after the rape and suicide of one of her oldest friends. The film is a candy-colored revenge drama that explores rape culture, survivor's guilt, and the myth of the "nice guy" in consistently unexpected ways, but both its general plot and its disturbing ending have proven divisive. It's hard to discuss either my admiration for, or reservations about, the film without giving anything away, but I will say it's interesting, and entertaining, and extremely well-made. (Fennell—familiar to viewers as Camilla Parker-Bowles on The Crown, and Nurse Patsy Mount on Call the Midwife—served as head-writer and showrunner on Killing Eve last season, and announces herself here as a major creator to watch.) I may still try to find time to write about this one at some point.
Nakea and I finally found time to catch up with (and both enjoyed) Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, George C. Wolfe's adaptation of August Wilson's 1984 play. It is the story of a 1927 recording session for "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey (a ferocious Viola Davis), and the arguments that arise between her, her producers, and the members of her band (particularly cocky young saxophonist Levee Green, played by Chadwick Boseman in his last screen role). The play is very "stagey," and so the film was bound to be also, but I actually found it riveting: The entire cast is excellent; the screenplay explores issues of artistic self-worth, generational resentment, and creative exploitation smartly; and Wolfe uses the restraints of the cramped space well to heighten the claustrophobic tensions of the group in dynamic ways. It's no criticism of the film to say that I'm not wild about the play's ending. (There's a certain kind of stage play that always seems to end the same way, and for me it takes the many nuanced, authentic issues of the piece and detonates them in a way that feels blunt and inauthentic. But that's me.) Mostly, Ma Rainey is a powerhouse vehicle for two great performances, and a worthy final reminder (if we needed one) of what a tremendous, versatile talent we lost in Chadwick Boseman.
I watched Julia Hart's I'm Your Woman, but it took me a couple of tries to get through it, and it ended up being a movie I admired more than I enjoyed. It's an interesting and innovative take on the crime-movie genre: the clueless wife (Rachel Brosnahan) of a career criminal, left behind to fend for herself against mysterious threats when he suddenly disappears. But the very things I admire about it in theory—the slow pace, the shaggy-dog plot, the deliberate withholding of information to keep the audience in the same state of uncertainty as the protagonist—were also what made it, for me, a bit of a slog. (And I think I never cared enough about Brosnahan's character to make the slog worth slogging.) It features wonderful direction and some excellent supporting turns (particularly from Arinzé Kene and Marsha Stephanie Blake), but I think the film as a whole is a bit of an acquired taste I never quite acquired.
I quite enjoyed Alan Ball's Uncle Frank, a road trip movie about a gay NYU professor (Paul Bettany) forced to go home to his conservative Southern family, accompanied by his adoring niece (Sophia Lillis) and his longtime partner (Peter Macdissi). Seen mostly through the niece's eyes, and steeped in Southern texture and dysfunctional family dynamics, the whole thing has a very self-consciously Carson McCullers sort of vibe. (McCullers gets a name-drop early, lest we miss the homage.) The third-act is too sentimental and conveniently wrapped up by half, but the cast—particularly Bettany—is wonderful.
For some reason I watched William Eubank's Underwater, which from its previews had looked like nothing more than an Alien knockoff set at the bottom of the ocean. Shockingly, it turned out to be nothing more than an Alien knockoff set at the bottom of the ocean. It wasn't as bad as I had heard, but it wasn't quite good: Some nicely tense early scenes of survival never made up for a lot of absurd plotting and some incredibly murky—in this case, not a pun—storytelling.
I also finally broke down and watched Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7, because I just couldn't help myself. Sorkin is one of those creators with whom long familiarity is apt to breed contempt: I once counted myself a huge Sorkin fan—we're talking Sports Night and The West Wing, here—but repeated exposure to his work has just made it impossible to ignore all his worst habits and most shameless indulgences as a writer. I thought Chicago 7 was remarkably bad: The real trial was fascinating and important, but here it seemed Sorkin stripped out everything real and interesting about it, and substituted clichés from his own overly familiar bag of annoying rhetorical tricks. What it boils down to is this: The real trial was much better written than this disingenuous caca. (For comparison, watch Jeremy Kagan's vastly superior dramatization Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, which was produced for HBO in 1987, and which relied heavily on the actual court transcripts, to far better effect.)
Finally, I heartily recommend Locked Down, Doug Liman's new movie about a London couple (Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor, both excellent) on the brink of breaking up (and possibly cracking up) during the forced intimacy of the COVID pandemic. With incredibly well-drawn details about the relationship, and some surprisingly bold plot zags, it's a little bit Before Midnight, and a little bit Oceans 8. It is also the first pandemic-inspired production that actually feels like a movie: Not just a bored vanity project for its participants, it's smart, and funny, and it actually has an insightful and unconventional story to tell. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The bulk of my TV viewing this past week was occupied with Pretend It's a City, Martin Scorsese's series with humor writer Fran Lebowitz. I suppose we'd call it a "documentary," but really it's just an excuse for Scorsese to capture his longtime friend Lebowitz's sharp, funny, irascible observations about life. Not surprisingly, it's incredibly well-made—Scorsese himself directed all seven episodes—and in some ways it serves as a tender eulogy for the nearly vanished world of literary New York. But its real pleasures come from simply hanging out with Scorsese and Lebowitz, who are just amazing company. Without disparaging for a moment the craft of Lebowitz's humor—a lot of her "material" has certainly been worked meticulously—she is one of those people who just seems naturally, organically funny, dropping constant wisdom and witticisms as if she just sheds them absently as she moves through a world she barely recognizes anymore. She's like the best dinner-party guest you could hope for, so this is a show I just put on while I was eating lunch every day for a week, and basked in the fabulous conversation.
I also watched the first couple of episodes of Disney and Marvel's WandaVision, which so far is a better show in conception than it is in execution. It's an excitingly audacious premise, particularly for the overly careful world of Marvel superhero projects: Avengers Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and The Vision (Paul Bettany) appear—without explanation—to be existing in a shifting series of situations and environments drawn from classic TV sit-coms like Bewitched and The Dick Van Dyke show. There are just enough sinister hints to assure us this is not simply a gimmick, and that there are in fact larger, in-story forces at work here that have yet to be revealed. (Comic fans will have some theories about what's really happening here. I have my own, but I'll keep them to myself.) Olsen and Bettany are both game and winning actors, but the chief failing of the series so far is that its painstakingly recreated homages to those classic sit-coms are neither insightful nor funny. The homage device in each episode feels superficial, eventually tedious, and not—so far—revelatory. Still, it's exciting to see Marvel take a big swing like this at something odd, offbeat, and intriguing, so I'll keep watching to see if it all turns out to be worth the effort.
There was something I meant to say here, and it's going to bug the crap out of me until I remember what it was. (It'll come to me—inevitably—a few moments after I send this out.) But as of this moment I have exactly 32 minutes to get this posted and emailed, if I still want to technically meet my "every Monday" deadline. So I'm going to leave it here. Have a good week, everyone.