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CULTURE ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

Kelsey Grammer and Kristen Bell Are Tear-Inducingly Great in Netflix’s “Like Father”

About two years ago, I found myself scrolling through Netflix offerings, looking for a comedy — any comedy. If you’re familiar with the streaming service, you know how difficult it can be to sort through its barrage of vaguely recognizable movies buried under the wrong category titles. I landed on one called For a Good Time, Call…, directed by Jamie Travis and written by Katie Anne Naylon and Lauren Miller Rogen. Its premise: two frenemies moving in together to start a phone sex hotline. “OK, fine,” I thought. At least it might be National Lampoon’s level of dumb. About twenty minutes in, I realized I was watching a nuanced, thoughtful portrayal of female friendship that transcended its schlocky premise with crisp dialogue and sense of realism often missing in indie comedies: I believed these characters deeply cared for one another.

Fast forward to now, as I’m watching the new Netflix release, Like Father, starring Kelsey Grammer as Harry and Kristen Bell as Rachel, an estranged father and daughter who end up on a Royal Caribbean honeymoon cruise together after Rachel is left at the altar. What an implausible premise! Surely, this will be a dumb romp to showcase its two stars’ talents for comic hyperbole! Nope. And thank God. Because Like Father, it turns out, is an emotional, heartfelt depiction of what it’s really like to reconnect with a loved one after they’ve hurt you irreparably, but with some solid laugh lines and none of the melodramatic sap. Against all odds, this little indie (possibly bankrolled by the cruise line?) delivers a powerful punch. I was not at all surprised to find it’s the feature directorial debut of Lauren Miller Rogen, whose writing in For a Good Time, Call… had left such an enduring impression.

Grammer hasn’t embodied his character Frasier Crane in fourteen years, and yet it’s still something of a shock to see him play against that type. Here, he takes the form of a good-natured, wincing, soft-spoken bachelor. In cinematographer Seamus Tierney’s lighting, the crow’s feet around Grammer’s eyes are pronounced, charming. (Tierney’s work here is startlingly fine, with careful compositions that play with the natural light of the open ocean.) Miller Rogen shows Harry flaws and all, both visually and in her writing. Harry left Rachel and her mom when Rachel was only five. As the title suggests, Rachel has become the same kind of distant workaholic her father was, but Miller Rogen doesn’t throw that in our faces. Each character possesses a depth of dimensions to prevent a simplistic plot of mirroring.

What’s most striking is that Miller Rogen again and again trades the too easy punchline for the poignant glance. And as the story goes on, multiple moments of reckoning between Harry and Rachel elicited tears from me every time; the movies usually like to put long-lost family members together with a big hug and an unearned “I love you” in the end, but Miller Rogen seems to understand that’s too treacly to be real. Here, Bell, who straddled the comic and dramatic so memorably in Veronica Mars, feeds off Grammer’s subdued performance. At one point, Rachel loses her temper and bursts into tears while her voice breaks, and I realized how seldom Bell is allowed to stretch into dramatic roles. These are two phenomenal performers giving their all to a sharp family drama disguised as an outrageous cookie-cutter comedy. I had no idea how much Like Father was something I needed.

Like Father
Directed by Lauren Miller Rogen
Available on Netflix

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

TV Wants Even More of Your Time. But Does It Deserve It?

This week I sat down to watch new episodes of a few returning series, and found each had the same problem: They were attempting to reconfigure themselves to continue on rather than wrapping up when it made sense for the stories to end. I loved the early seasons of Netflix’s prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black and its college football docuseries Last Chance U; ditto the first season of the reality TV–skewering UnREAL, which aired three seasons on Lifetime before its fourth and final batch of episodes was unceremoniously dumped on Hulu on Monday — the same day the season was announced, and just a few months after the third concluded.

It’s no secret that TV wants your time. All of it. It wants your sweet, sweet eyeballs, even if they’re glazed over with indifference. Shamelessness is all the rage, baby, and now executives just come right out and admit that all they really want from viewers is our precious data. “I want more hours of engagement,” declared John Stankey, the chief executive of Warner Media who, after the recent merger of AT&T and Time Warner, now oversees HBO, in a speech to the cable channel’s employees that was quickly leaked to the New York Times. “Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions.”

Just stick an IV in me, Stankey, and take the blood right out of my veins! It’ll be a lot easier and probably less painful than watching thirteen hours of the fourth season of a show I got tired of halfway through its second. Yeah, you might say I have the streaming ughs. That I’m streamed out. Ex-stream-ly tired of watching series zoom past their best-by dates and yet still march on, like the undead characters of The Walking Dead, or, you know, The Walking Dead.

From a business standpoint, it’s not hard to understand why we are where we are: According to Reuters, Netflix boosted its original programming by 85 percent in the first three months of 2018, with a total of 483 hours of series and movies released. The service has pledged to spend a record $8 billion this year on 700 original series (including existing shows like Orange), some 80 of which will be foreign-language programs, plus 80 original films.

Successful network shows have often outstayed their welcome, such as The Big Bang Theory, which premiered eleven years ago and, like many a CBS sitcom, is basically an ad delivery system for sixtysomething white people. TV creators have always been beholden to their corporate overlords. But the appeal of a streaming series, like cable before it, used to be a certain finiteness, a quality control guarantee that this was a fresh product that wouldn’t be spoiled by the oily hands of greedy men in suits. At this point, even streaming, now the dominant distribution model, is starting to resemble the stupefied, dead-eyed zombie walk of capitalism itself: growth for growth’s sake, no matter if it effectively ruins the product being sold. It’s an arms race to compile the most #content on any given platform, quality and demand be damned. It’s why we now have four seasons of Jay Leno’s Garage, or ten of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, when we didn’t really need either to begin with.

What’s more frustrating than these endless series is the slow deterioration of shows that actually used to be good. In retrospect, Orange Is the New Black probably should have ended after its fourth season, in which a beloved character, Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), was killed in the chaos of a prison riot. That season closes on the image of inmate Daya Diaz (Dascha Polanco) pointing a gun at a corrections officer; the format-breaking fifth takes place in the aftermath, with the inmates taking their overseers hostage. In the sixth, which lands on Netflix next Friday, the women of the minimum-security Litchfield Penitentiary find themselves in max, awaiting the results of an investigation to determine which of them will be held responsible for the hostage situation.

The show seems to be straining to replicate the dynamics between inmates that once proved so engaging. The new season has its moments, but overall feels devoid of tension; where are we going with this story, and why? Orange Is the New Black remains an unflinching look at the horrors of the American prison system, and still features one of TV’s best and most diverse ensemble casts. More seasons means more backstories of the incarcerated women, more of those flashback scenes that have offered some of the most revelatory moments of the series. But having a template you can fill with more story is not the same as having a story itself.

Take Last Chance U. In the first two seasons, it was a joy to see talented young men, most of whom who were unlikely to ever become famous, get the full, glossy docuseries treatment. Much of the appeal lay in the connection between these college football players and their school guidance counselor, Brittany Wagner, whose job was to make sure her charges didn’t self-sabotage and flunk out of school, thereby forgoing their football careers. Wagner left East Mississippi Community College at the end of the second season, though, and so the producers of Last Chance U found another school in which to film the third season.

It’s not as if the students of Kansas’s Independence Community College are any less deserving of the spotlight than the ones in Mississippi. And yet season three plays like a watered-down version of the original, which was inspired by a 2014 GQ article by Drew Jubera. It’s tricky to re-create that magic year after year; the show is still about a group of underdogs, but now it all feels more templated, as if director Greg Whiteley already knows what notes he wants to hit and has set about seeking them out rather than discovering them. In place of the portly, loudmouthed coach Buddy Stephens, we now have the portly, loudmouthed coach Jason Brown (who obnoxiously hams it up, clearly enjoying the role the show has cast him in); in place of the tough-love Southern guidance counselor Wagner, we have the tough-love Southern English teacher LaTonya Pinkard. But you can’t manufacture the kind of chemistry Wagner had with her students, or Stephens with his players, and here the connections feel forced.

UnREAL in particular has suffered from rote attempts to re-create the elements that made its first season so indelible. At its start, UnREAL was a compelling and complex look inside the machine of reality television, centered on two women who present themselves as unapologetic feminists — even as they run a Bachelor-type series called Everlasting in which they stage-manage women into humiliating themselves for an audience of millions. Showrunner Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) and her protégé, producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), were fascinating contradictions: boss bitches who could never quite escape the temptation to buy into the “princess fantasy” their show broadcast. And it’s hard to deny the chemistry, however unlikely, between Rachel and Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma), the “suitor” of the first season, a dashing British bachelor who swept the cynical producer off her feet — and then blew her off.

UnREAL struggled mightily in its tone-deaf sophomore season, in which Rachel and Quinn introduce the show-within-a-show’s first-ever black suitor — a premise that could have been illuminating, had the writers not placed these two white women at the center of a season that quickly devolved into melodrama. It never quite regained its footing in the third, which featured a female “suitress.” And its fourth, featuring the “all-stars” of Everlasting, is another repeat of what’s become a tired, and tiring, conceit. It’s not hard to imagine Everlasting stretching into yet another season — the real Bachelor franchise has been going strong since 2002, with international versions and spin-offs galore, and still attracts millions of viewers a week. But it’s depressing to see UnREAL become exactly what it parodied so well at the outset.

The fourth season marks the fourth time Rachel has dragged herself back to the set of Everlasting for another punishing job, despite her own mental health issues and against the advice of every friend and medical professional she’s ever consulted. At this point, she’s less a character than a hostage.

Rachel is apparently the executive’s ideal viewer: someone who keeps showing up, season after season, despite her misgivings. Taken together, these stale series present a streaming-age cautionary tale. Once-beloved shows become annoyances, one more fly buzzing in your face and begging for your attention. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of scripted series on TV roughly doubled, from around 200 to a little over 400. Now, Netflix alone is putting out nearly double that. It’s no wonder traditional TV networks and competing streaming platforms are afraid of losing their subscribers to Netflix, which offers more content than most humans could possibly watch, for a very low price.

But, as we should all know by now, if you’re paying little to nothing for a product, chances are, you are the product. Executives like Stankey want to keep us tuned in not to entertain us, but to collect information on us — to “monetize” us. We get more hours of #content that we could take or leave, but likely will take because it’s right in front of us and we’re already here on the couch.

And so we become our own little islands in the stream, passively bobbing in its current, tasked with swallowing ever-more content not because it’s part of our sacred Thursday night routine, but so that rich white dudes can have our data. TV is now almost totally divorced from the calendar, from time, from any real reason for being where it is when it is. Here’s eight hours of UnREAL, kids — fetch! It’s clear these platforms want to monopolize our time. If only they had more respect for it.

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Film Poll Comments: A Year of Upheaval

On #MeToo and the Weinstein Reckoning:

“…and the increasing public awareness that the proclivities of terrible men are not just a behind-the-scenes concern but are instead much of the reason that so many studio (and major indie) releases are so limited in their thematic reach.” —Alan Scherstuhl

“We shall see if it has significant impact on hiring — not just firing — going forward.” —Anne Thompson

“My hope is for a domino effect across all industries. So far the winds of change have mostly blown in entertainment and politics, which makes sense, I suppose, since these are highly visible positions. Where are the shamed bosses at, I dunno, General Motors, and every other big corporation? The U.S. Department of Agriculture? Your local Panera Bread? Or a tiny stationery store with a terrorized employee who works the quiet shift? Bosses are bosses no matter where you go, and many of them are abusing their power. This is a fact. Maybe this will change.” —Jordan Hoffman

“I have repeatedly tried to write about this, but it went from shock to cliché in about two weeks. There has been some excellent writing inspired by the #MeToo campaign and critics, mostly women, coming to terms with their now-tainted appreciation of Woody Allen and Louis C.K., but if I read one more ‘review’ of Wonder Wheel that spends 600 words calling Allen a pedophile, you will be able to hear my scream in New Jersey.” —Steve Erickson

“That was a loooooooooong time coming!” —Craig D. Lindsey

“Hollywood started taking sexual harassment and assault seriously, even going so far as to erase certain individuals from the public eye completely. I shed no tears for them. But let’s not kid ourselves. Taking down a few bad apples won’t in and of itself dismantle structural sexism and racism. This could very well be another self-congratulatory gesture from a pseudo-liberal industry that loves nothing better than patting itself on the back.” —Michael Sicinski

“Still waiting for Woody Allen and Roman Polanski to experience some of those consequences though!” —Ren Jender

“Prefaced by the fallout from the Faraci–Alamo Drafthouse controversy, the reckoning begun by the Weinstein allegations seemed even more of a shake-up to the current power system. There is more to be done, but at least women’s voices are being heard and believed.” —Elizabeth Stoddard

“Harvey Weinstein is no more. And as he went down so too have a slew of other alleged abusers. We’re saying ‘enough’ with a bullying and abusive culture that has too long thrived in Hollywood (and beyond). And we’re already seeing a shift with the reshoots of All the Money in the World, the cancellation of I Love You, Daddy’s release, and more. I’m hopeful these waves will continue to rock the film world, and from it will rise a more inclusive and healthier system that’s nonetheless creative and thrilling. After all, there’s plenty of artists out there who don’t need to bully to be great.”
Kristy Puchko

“May he rot in hell.” —Odie Henderson

On Twin Peaks and category anxiety:

Twin Peaks: The Return was the clear cinematic event of the year, hence it deserves my number one slot. But it’s not a film, hence it doesn’t deserve any slot. I’m a man of compromise, hence it gets my number ten slot.” —Eric Henderson

“I expect to see outward ripples from David Lynch’s magnum opus through the whole of filmmaking for years to come.” —Alice Stoehr

Twin Peaks: The Return: This was a season of television, not a film. Big Little Lies: also not a film. The season finale of Nathan for You: also not a film. Some random episode of Barney Miller: also not a film. This Is Not a Film (2011, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb): a film.” —Mike D’Angelo

“Please do not send me your angry category fraud comments about Twin Peaks, we’ve done this dance many times already. The ballot said it was OK!” —Vadim Rizov

On Netflix, Amazon, and Hollywood’s ongoing “distribution fuckery”:

“For better, worse, and all the rest, including Cannes jury bickering, Netflix made its intentions to be, if not the home of the best original films, definitely home to the most original films.” —Alison Willmore

“Mainstream movies are officially boring. In 2017 — somehow even worse than in 2016 or 2015 or 2014 — the only films to hit major screens were franchise entries. Variety is the spice of life, and the multiplex is now (more than ever!) an unseasoned bowl of gruel or those slimy bug bars the proles eat in Snowpiercer. I know, the market has spoken, and the ‘adult’ fare that used to fill screens before and after summer blockbuster season moved over to Netflix and Amazon. But I don’t have to like it. Things have gotten so bad I now miss middlebrow biopics and reductive history lessons and vanilla dramas. I hated those films too, and once upon a time I wished they’d go away forever. I now realize I’ve stumbled into my very own version of The Monkey’s Paw: They did go away, but in their place came nothing but interchangeable comic book movies. Bring back blandly inspiring docudramas! Bring back Scott Hicks!” —Matt Prigge

“This was actually a great year for film, but because of theatrical distribution fuckery, even attentive audiences who regularly went to art houses missed out on some of the best films, most egregiously BPM (Beats Per Minute) but also Thelma and Netflix-distributed films like Mudbound and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).” —Ren Jender

On films that showed HIV+ people having sex:

“Not only did HIV+ people get to have sex, they got to feel sexy doing it. BPM, in particular, understands the political implications of being queer on a molecular level.” —Kyle Turner

And another thing…:

“2017 was a bad year in many regards, but the cinema continues to provide us with a vibrant cultural conversation on an array of topics. Oh yeah, and Twin Peaks came back and it was awesome.” —Sean Mulvihill

I, Tonya: 120 minutes. Thor: Ragnarok: 130 minutes. Molly’s Game: 140 minutes. The Last Jedi: 152 minutes. Movies have gotten too damn long.” —Michael Sicinski

“2017 was a sensational year for cinema. The superhero genre got sophisticated with Logan. Monsters danced. Man-eating mermaids sang, and the world fell hard for Wonder Woman, Rey, and an angry misfit who calls herself Lady Bird. Instead of the standard parade of stern biopics for award season, we were gifted foul-mouthed heroines, a peachy gay romance, a dreamy love story where girl meets beast, and a fearless and challenging horror movie. It was a year full of surprises and films so beautiful, moving, and unique that many felt like miracles.” —Kristy Puchko

“Here’s what you should do in 2018: Once a week this year, watch a movie that was made before the year you were born. Make sure one out of four each month is in a language other than English. (Assuming English is your native tongue, that is.) FilmStruck will help, and FilmStruck is a blessing. But: If you live in New York City, you have no excuse not to see a lot of these IN A THEATER WHERE THEY BELONG. The Quad, MOMA, MOMI, BAM, Anthology, Film Forum, IFC, Metrograph, the Alamo Drafthouse, the French Institute, and others are mixing it up for you every single night. Money is tight, I know, but bag your lunch Monday and Tuesday and you’ve earned your Wednesday ticket. (Bring in Junior Mints from Duane Reade.) Movies at home are OK, but it’s really not the same.” —Jordan Hoffman

 

To see the winners from this year’s Village Voice Film Poll, click here

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Film Poll: The Year in Performative Distribution

If you’d like to understand the conundrum facing film distribution in the year of our Lord 2017, look no further than Call Me by Your Name. Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel was quite literally the film of the year, premiering to wide acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January of last year and presented by Sony Pictures Classics, which had purchased the movie for $6 million shortly before the festival. Sony rolled it out slowly over the following twelve months, with play dates at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and the New York Film Festival in October. It picked up more praise over the next few weeks, and as it tiptoed into limited release over Thanksgiving weekend, the year-end lists and awards kudos began trickling in. Now, Call Me by Your Name has four Oscar nominations, four BAFTA nominations, and six Film Independent Spirit Award nominations. And, last but certainly not least, it came in fourth in the Village Voice Film Poll.

If only those accolades meant anyone went to see it. Sony gave the picture the de rigueur “platform” theatrical release, opening it in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles, then gradually taking the film wider as it accumulated praise and buzz. But in contrast to Phantom Thread or Lady Bird (number one and number two, Best Film, respectively), which each spread from four screens on their respective opening weekends to over a thousand by their fifth weeks, Call Me by Your Name played eight weeks at fewer than 200 screens, only bumping up to 815 the week before its four Oscar nominations were announced. Somehow, the film’s box office take decreased the week after the Oscar nominations, and the week after that, it was dropped from 234 screens.

This information alters the high quality and considerable power of Call Me by Your Name not one whit; it’s still a potent, sexy, evocative piece of work, and will linger long after I’m done tsk-tsking over its mediocre receipts. But it says quite a bit about how we see movies now, and the speed with which we expect them to be at our disposal. By the time Call Me by Your Name finally crawled into so-called secondary markets, its buzz wave had long passed; the think pieces had been written, the reviews had been posted, and the full backlash and backlash-to-the-backlash cycles were over. The normals who were then finally allowed to see it may well have lost their enthusiasm for the film, and frankly, it’s hard to blame them.

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A shift away from traditional platform distribution was probably inevitable, but the actions of a “disruptor” have no doubt expedited the perception that such a pattern is stodgy and out of step with our what’s-new-right-now culture. At that same 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix purchased another fall prestige picture, Dee Rees’s Mudbound (number nine, Best Director). As Call Me by Your Name was creeping into four theaters in two cities, Mudbound was available for anyone with an Internet connection, in nearly 200 countries. That’s film distribution with the click of a mouse, which is refreshing for filmgoers who’ve grown used to the industry moving at the speed of molasses.

No industry player has more fully dominated the conversation about how we see movies now — what, indeed, a movie is — than Netflix. The trouble is, it’s a conversation that so often boils down to the barest, nuance-free basics, a question of good or evil, devil or angel, hero or villain. Netflix will, most likely, neither save nor destroy cinema. But its growing dominance demands that those who think about movies critically hold two thoughts in their heads at once.

In many ways, Netflix does a disservice not only to movies in general, but particularly to the movies it acquires and finances. Voice critic Bilge Ebiri’s pick for the best film of 2017, My Happy Family, was bought and streamed by Netflix, but good luck finding it; that film, like so many of the movies the service has picked up at festivals and even produced itself, was denied the smallest theatrical release, barely advertised, and is all but impossible to discover via the site’s notoriously nonresponsive user interface. The same fate has befallen the likes of I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore., Tramps, Win It All, and Small Crimes. Even seemingly splashy Netflix originals (and Voice Film Poll faves) like Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Mudbound, and Wormwood only saw the barest of theatrical releases (thanks to the company’s exhibitor-unfriendly insistence on same-day streaming, which has resulted in boycotts by most of the major chains), and they were all soon disappeared off the Netflix home page in favor of the following week’s big new thing.

Yet it’s also important to note that, were it not for the deep pockets of the streaming giant, films like these may have never escaped the festival circuit — or, in the case of Okja and Wormwood, might not have been made at all. And if something like Tramps, a low-budget character study from the director of Gimme the Loot, is tossed into the pool with a sink-or-swim shrug by Netflix, rather than nurtured through a careful theatrical release by a distributor like Sony Pictures Classics or A24, its director isn’t complaining: Adam Leon told the New York Times that when he got word that Netflix had acquired his movie for $2 million, “I was literally crying in the hotel room. I was given so much opportunity by the people I worked with, and now it was going to work for them, and for all the people who invested in it.”

The trouble is, that tenuous paradigm may already be shifting. Netflix’s inaugural foray into franchise filmmaking, December’s Bright — a Will Smith–fronted “high concept” cops-and-aliens flick from the director of Suicide Squad — was a terrible movie but a mini-cultural phenomenon, critically derided but widely viewed, primarily because, well, it was there. Netflix claimed blockbuster numbers (without divulging too many specifics, as is its practice), and upped the ante on stunt distribution this month by acquiring Paramount’s troubled and long-delayed third Cloverfield movie, debuting its trailer during the Super Bowl and only then announcing that The Cloverfield Paradox would be available to stream immediately after the big game. It was a brilliant gambit for recouping its investment on a shoddy product — poor quality offset by immediate access. Put another way, it was the anti–Call Me by Your Name.

But if Netflix determines there is more subscription money and cultural capital to be made by betting big on “event” movies like these, the days of hefty paydays for the likes of Tramps, Okja, and Mudbound may be over. In 2016, Netflix and Amazon each bought six movies at Sundance; last year, Netflix left the fest with ten titles, and Amazon bought five. Neither service purchased a single film during Sundance 2018. Why? Reuters reports Amazon “plans to shift resources from independent films to more commercial projects,” and Netflix seems to be shifting to buzz-grabbing buys and originals like Bright, The Cloverfield Paradox, and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming gangster picture The Irishman.

So where does that leave the current theatrical distribution model? It’s hard to say. Boutique distributors like A24 and Neon (and Fox Searchlight, should Disney choose to keep them in business) may continue to find success with the carefully cultivated platform model that Sony used for Call Me by Your Name, though even those skilled curators couldn’t turn good movies like The Florida Project (number five, Best Film) and Ingrid Goes West into commercial successes. The traditional release-it-everywhere-at-once strategy of the major studios only favors the franchise-sturbation that’s become the cornerstone of their slates. If that approach eventually fails (a big “if,” mind you), and if the superhero movie of the late 2010s becomes the roadshow musical of the late 1960s, the current model may well be broken beyond repair; studios won’t just be able to substitute in hungry young filmmakers and forward-thinking executives to make it work again, as they did in the 1970s. Modes of consumption have changed, and expectations with them. Thus, as consumers, we’re less concerned with cinema than we are with #content — and less interested in whether it’s any good than if and when it’s there.

 

 

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Jessica Williams’s Romantic Comedy Is Sadly Not Good Enough to Save 2017

Sometimes critics and filmmakers agree. We suggested, in our 2015 review of People Places Things, that writer-director James Strouse should please give more screen time to supporting actor Jessica Williams. Now, in his new rom-com for Netflix, The Incredible Jessica James, he turns the camera directly at the former Daily Show correspondent. It should be satisfying to see Williams lead as Jessica James in a light romance, her character connecting with that of co-star Chris O’Dowd through ping-ponging one-liners. But Strouse drops the ball with this meandering, flat film that shows few signs that he effectively coached his actors, as they rush to recite their dialogue.

Please don’t misread me: Williams deserves to be the multidimensional lead in a rom-com. And despite the apparent lack of direction in this film, she and O’Dowd still get an occasional crackle of chemistry. Jessica asks for complete honesty on their first date, and Boone (O’Dowd) obliges. “I’m also very good at cunnilingus,” he boasts, to which the confident Jessica responds with uncharacteristic goo-goo eyes and, “That’s very good to know.”

But rarely, if ever, does Strouse support the budding romance with any choice that would suggest this is an amorous story — an issue I also had with People Places Things. The actors are awash in harsh light, even in supposedly low-lit restaurants, suggesting the only reasoning behind Strouse’s lighting schematics was making sure we could see people’s faces. The color is flat and drab without a hint of mood, looking like the whole film was shot on a Canon 5D someone had lying around. And the music that clicks in whenever Jessica and Boone get intimate is a twee track that might have been sourced from a a royalty-free website. It’s almost as though Strouse is leaving these integral elements to chance rather than using every tool he has available to build his story. Hell, the story he’s telling isn’t even all that clear.

We’re told Jessica only cares about theater and making it as a playwright. She collects rejection notes from theaters and fellowship competitions and pastes them on her wall (a nice, realistic detail). And she has an ex-boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield) she’s trying to get over. But we’re never shown the stakes — what she’s working toward in her career or how in love she was with her ex. For all the times Jessica says, “Theater is, like, the only thing I care about,” she doesn’t seem to spend much time sending out her own plays or going to see others. Also, I didn’t think it was possible for Stanfield to be unfunny in anything on-screen, but here we are. What a waste.

The only scene that convinced me Strouse wasn’t completely asleep at the wheel comes when Jessica returns home to Ohio for her sister’s baby shower. The director focuses on oddball New York artist Jessica, at sea in a gaggle of Midwestern women delicately forking cake into their mouths and opening pink presents. He backgrounds the sequence with a speed-metal track, which emphasizes both how totally bland these people are and how disconnected Jessica is from her Ohio roots. If Strouse had put that much care into the rest of the film, this might be a worthy vehicle for Williams to become a new and much-needed update of what the movies are sorely missing right now: a Meg Ryan–like rom-com lead.

The Incredible Jessica James premieres July 28 on Netflix

 

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Bateman and Linney Break Bad in Netflix’s Backwoods Crime Drama “Ozark”

When Skyler White challenged her husband’s secret fun life of crime on Breaking Bad, the backlash to her reaction drove Anna Gunn to write an op-ed in the New York Times. Gunn revealed that a number of disturbing “hate boards” had often conflated her with her character, inspiring some to threaten her personally with violence. Those fans’ hatred of Skyler, expressed online, revealed a dark attachment to Walt and a kind of ludicrous power fantasy of a smart white dude beating the cartels at their own game — how dare the morally grounded Skyler disrupt his plans of murder and drug dealing! But that response had been set up by Breaking Bad’s creators, whose premise pitted the family man against his wife, and that series — groundbreaking as it was — stung with that familiar feeling of latent misogyny. As Skyler turned against Walt, I often wondered: What if the writers had chosen to let the Whites descend (or ascend) into a life of crime together?

Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams’s new Netflix crime series, Ozark, takes the entire family into a criminal enterprise. Marty (Jason Bateman), Wendy (Laura Linney), Charlotte (Sophia Hublitz), and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) are the Byrdes, a seemingly charming family living in a Chicago suburb, who quickly get thrust into decision-making mode: Move the family down to the Ozarks and launder money for a cartel kingpin, or die. Unlike Walter White, Marty and Wendy are already comfortably deep in the business when we meet them, but theirs is still a white-collar existence in which guns and murders involve other people. In the Ozarks, they’re suddenly their own muscle. Meanwhile, absolutely nobody trusts these new faces in a town where word travels fast and folks already have their own hustles.

The series suggests Breaking Bad pushed through a Winter’s Bone wringer. What’s that? You haven’t seen the 2010, Debra Granik–directed, Ozarks-set drama that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career, about a young woman trying to keep her family together after her father is murdered by a local meth gang? If you haven’t, you’re missing a chilling distillation of poverty and white supremacy into one compact, award-winning thriller. In the meantime, Ozark portrays the impoverished and working-class whites of the area with empathy and humanity, even as its creators discourage viewers from fetishizing the characters as a down-home American ideal. Some are criminals, every bit as ruthless as Marty and his bosses, and don’t take kindly to Marty trying to buy up all the cash-only businesses in town to “clean” his boss’s money.

Bateman’s character proves eerily similar to his well-meaning numskull dad in Arrested Development, but there’s a darker edge to him here. The pilot episode, which Bateman also directed, is a taut nail-biter with pitch-black humor (an element slightly downplayed over the rest of the series). In it, Marty angrily stomps to the front door of Wendy’s lover’s high-rise condo building to confront her for cheating, but stops short when the lover’s body splats on the street in front of him. Marty’s eyes blink as though he’s trying to wake himself up. He stares at the body, looks upward to where it came from, attempts to piece together what the hell just happened. And in the next moment, Ozark cuts to a close-up of a windshield edging close to a hanging tennis ball — you know, the one that tells you when to stop the car in the garage. The tennis ball gets just a little tap; Marty may have watched a dude die on his way home, but he’s still a careful fellow.

That kind of winky visual metaphor courses through the series, offsetting the tough talk, the violence, and the harshly colored look. (The show is so blue-gray, it’s like we’re watching these people swimming around a grimy fishbowl, constantly butting up against the sides.) Even though Wendy isn’t the one laundering the money, she’s still in the mix, dealing with the sudden death of her lover, whom she often calls from their Ozarks home, just to hear his outgoing message and chat with his voice mail. Linney subtly shades her character’s weaknesses and strengths, revealing Wendy’s vulnerability while still making damn sure you’d absolutely fear her in confrontation. In one scene, Wendy is driven ninety minutes to a store to buy “organic pistachio ice cream,” only to find it’s not there. She lets loose on the doofus stock boy with a fury on the edge of tears. In another, she helicopters a dead raccoon over her head and tosses it at local teen Wyatt (Charlie Tahan), who once played a joke on her daughter. The madder she gets, the more fun she is to watch.

Holding down the locals’ story lines are two tremendous young actors: Tahan, as Wyatt, and Julia Garner, as Ruth, cousins from the same petty-crime family. The slight Garner gets the role of a lifetime as a trash-talking toughie who at first steals Marty’s money, then joins his operation, managing a strip club for him. Ruth has to choose between Marty’s almost fatherly guidance and her imprisoned father’s suggestion that she kill her new boss and take over the business.

Dubuque and Williams most famously made Ben Affleck’s confusing and borderline-offensive autism-as-superpower thriller, The Accountant, which for some reason is getting a sequel. That lackluster film had way too many plot lines for a two-hour flick, but the ambition plays better on television. This sprawling series can accommodate a chaotic style that teases out information over the course of episodes. But this series also reveals the duo’s ability to fully flesh out its female characters. They’re not foiling the fun — they are the fun.

Ozark premieres on Netflix July 21

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Netflix’s Gorgeous, Despairing “Chasing Coral” Bears Witness to the Planet’s End

In February of 1995, Charlton Heston called Rush Limbaugh’s radio program to read from Jurassic Park — the book, not the movie. In his best Old Testament boom, Heston declaimed a speech about man’s hubris that Michael Crichton had written for Dr. Ian Malcolm, the chaos theoretician played on-screen by Jeff Goldblum. It opens with this: “You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity!” It peaks with this: “We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try.” The lesson, both actor and talk-radio host concluded, was simple: It is the height of arrogance to assume that human activity could alter so vast and ancient a system as our planet. For years afterward, Limbaugh — the man who demonstrated how wildly profitable it could be to poison the minds of white America — would play the tape on Earth Days or whenever Al Gore was in the news, essentially asking his millions of listeners, Who you going to believe, most scientists around the globe, or Moses himself and this one scientist that a novelist made up?

Crichton and Heston didn’t live long enough to see what such humility has wrought. In 2016, rising sea temperatures killed 22 percent of the Great Barrier Reef. In Jeff Orlowski’s new film, Chasing Coral, the scientist and reef specialist Charlie Veron — born in 1945, three years after Crichton — throws a pained look at a millennial marine biologist and sighs, “I’m glad I’m not your age.” During the 1980s, the decade in which Crichton wrote Jurassic Park, Veron never believed that the majestic reef he studied and showcased on television could be in existential danger; now, he looks stunned at what humanity and climate change have wrought. His hope isn’t so much that the reef to which he dedicated his life might still be saved; he hopes instead that outcry over its death might at last spur the world to act to prevent the loss of coral elsewhere.

The oceans are warmer, of course, because our release of carbon dioxide has thickened the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, trapping heat that once would have bounced out into space. The seas absorb much of that heat, sparing those of us on land from radically increased temperatures — but not sparing coral, which after steeping in too-warm water blanches white and then dies. One scientist in the film notes that if a human body increased in temperature as much as sea water has in recent decades, that body would die, too. He knows what Crichton and Limbaugh don’t: The true humility is the honest attempt to understand our place within the systems of our planet, and to strive not to upset them.

Rather than just a globe-trotting report on the crisis afflicting our oceans, Chasing Coral is about ad man Richard Vevers’s efforts to find a way to focus us on the problem. Orlowski (Chasing Ice) tracks a race to document rather than one of discovery, with a team of scientists and photographers traveling to endangered reefs to capture, with time-lapse cameras, the bleaching of coral and the death of the vibrant ecosystems that thrive around it. (The scientists continually compare coral to forests and cities, the point being that marine life depends upon it — and many of our lives, too.) At first, Orlowski’s reliance on reality TV–style interviews about process and emotions struck me as indulgent padding, but by film’s end their necessity is clear. We watch this crew emerge from the depths stunned and shaken, their hearts ripped open by their work: bearing witness to the slow death of a world.

The film is a devastating success, moving in its beauty and wrenching when that beauty withers: Acres of coral waste away to chalky ash before our eyes. Charlie Veron and the team dare to exhibit some hopefulness, a belief that the loss of the reef might spur our species into taking action to limit emissions at last. It’s not easy to be roused by the cheery final minutes, as the thrust of the rest of Orlowski’s documentary is our species-level obstinance. The film climaxes with images to weep over, reminders that the Earth’s rhythms aren’t as slow and mysterious as we might prefer to believe — that the true hubris is to believe that we’re incidental to those rhythms. The movie’s on Netflix; demand that people Limbaugh’s age watch it, too.

Chasing Coral premieres July 14 on Netflix.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

“To the Bone” Offers a Uniquely Honest Look at Eating Disorders

About ten minutes into Marti Noxon’s eating-disorder drama, To the Bone, Ellen (Lily Collins) sneaks away from her overbearing stepmom, Susan (Carrie Preston), to chug warm water from a public-bathroom faucet (a trick to fool the body into thinking it’s full so that it will burn more calories). A fellow “ ’rexie” bursts into the restroom — they’re at a facility to see if they’re eligible for radical treatment — and questions Ellen: “So you had some crazy fan or something?”

Ellen barely reacts. She flutters her eyes, then lights a cigarette. The “crazy fan,” we find out later, is a young woman who became obsessed with Ellen’s caustic, anorexia-themed artwork on Tumblr and killed herself. This storyline, which is teased out subtly, is an emotional touchstone for Ellen. Collins gets a lot of mileage out of every minute facial movement, and it’s understandable that any real person would be deflective whenever people bring up such a topic, but her flat reactions are not quite dramatically interesting to watch. That’s the problem in a nutshell with this startlingly authentic film about a young woman’s long road to recovery — Ellen is a character who literally wants to disappear from her own story.

The few times we see her really react are when she’s trading jabs with her stepmother’s Latina housekeeper (Joanna Sanchez) or her earnest stepsister, Kelly (Liana Liberato). The latter is but a teen yet a saving grace of sanity, the only one who can tell Ellen that she wants her to live without it sounding like a selfish request. Otherwise, Ellen’s stuck with her mom (Lili Taylor) and mom’s wife, Olive (Brooke Smith), who are prone to hysterics and can’t seem to stop arguing with Susan long enough to focus their attention on the girl vanishing before them.

When Ellen is in treatment in a tough-love group home, she becomes even more passive. She’s surrounded by bigger personalities, such as the unicorn-obsessed, infantile Pearl (Maya Eshet), who’s so sick she has to be fed through a tube. But Luke (Alex Sharp), a former British ballet wunderkind prone to theatrical outbursts of jazz standards, is the biggest of all.

Luke is at first annoying, citing Raymond Chandler as his “muse,” carrying a copy of Jonathan Gold’s Counter Intelligence around like a Bible. But as Noxon turns her focus on Luke’s burgeoning friendship with Ellen, he becomes a full and fleshy character and role model, not just for Ellen but for the viewer. He’s positive. He believes he can recover. His humor is not a defense mechanism. As the most charismatic person in the story, one who slowly but steadily recovers, Luke functions to romanticize getting well, not staying sick.

Noxon has said that this story is loosely based on her own experience with eating disorders, and her film is infused with some stark and horrific truths — the frank talk about calories, about the bingeing and purging. (“Ice cream’s my favorite. It comes up easiest.”) But accurate on-screen portrayals of disorders and mental illness may be at odds with the demands of Hollywood: Movies star beautiful people, speaking lines that are better than what we hear in real life, inherently romanticizing the affliction being portrayed. The evidence here suggests that “accurate” and “entertaining” may be mutually exclusive. Still, though To the Bone isn’t quite enjoyable to watch, it’s acted well and is, in its depiction of this all-too-pervasive disorder, essential.

To the Bone premieres July 14 on Netflix.

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NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Heat Wave Will Destroy Your Social Media

Yesterday night, while we were blasting the A/C indoors, catching up on the second season of Breaking Bad via Netflix, we noticed that the reliable video service was down. So we decided to snap a picture of the screen, add a Hudson filter and upload it to Instagram. But that wasn’t working either. Finally, after two technological fails, we tried our fall-back social network: Pinterest.

Static? What was happening?

Last night, the Internet was rocked with power outages that left the three procrastination titans down and out. Now, you might be asking, how does cyberspace shut down?
Well, In Virginia, there is an Orwellian place called the Elastic Compute Cloud, where Amazon runs a data hub that controls Netflix, Instagram and Pinterest. With heavy winds and extraordinary heat, the center collapsed, leaving the social networks high and dry. And the tweet world was abuzz with angry comments by people who presumably had nothing else better to do on a Friday night.
Netflix and Pinterest were shut down for some time but service was restored by the end of the night. Instagram, on the other hand, remains totaled: as of this moment, my Instagram feed is down due to a “Response Error.” This does not prove well for any of us; or, as Gawker‘s Louis Peltzman points out, “If you don’t Instagram your Saturday brunch, is it even worth the empty calories?” Brunchocalpyse?

With temperatures yesterday and this afternoon hovering around 95 degrees, it looks like the heat wave last week was just the beginning of what is proving already to be a helter swelter. But, this time, it seems as if it’s back with a vengeance: in the past two days, millions of people have lost power due to 100+ degrees – in Washington D.C. had its highest temperature recorded for June yesterday with 104. Severe thunderstorms have inflicted damage across the country and more is expected to come as we move into Sunday.

But forget the actual physical damage. In the Information Era, trees falling down are outmoded by data towers falling down. In other words, it is hot. And we cannot photograph one minute of it.
Oh, the social networking horror.