I usually at least try to appear supportive of these recommendations, but goddamn, I hate Netflix’s reality programming. I hate how cheap and exploitative it is and how they shoehorn that fucking neon circle into each show. Every time I see it, it feels tackier.
I’ve seen the contracts for these shows, and I know they’re shot for next-to-nothing, and very rarely do contestants get nothing but grief, even if they win — come on, $200K? In this day and age? — but Netflix itself almost always turn a massive profit, which makes it even worse.
That said, I have been watching reality shows since the modern makeover in the early naughts — yes, I’m old enough to have live-watched the first season of SURVIVOR (which I’ll note had a $1M payout) — and watched more than my fair share of PROJECT RUNWAY seasons — most of them live — as well as wanna-bes like one-season weirdos like THE CUT.
NEXT IN FASHION is very clearly Netflix’s very cheap take on PROJECT RUNWAY.
I’ll note: I am married to a fashion historian. When she was in college I helped her with her collections, because she needed more hands and mine were the closest, and I take instructions well. I’ve worked on websites for a bunch of designers, attended a number of illustrious fashion events — I’m very familiar with this world in a way I never would have expected.
The thing about PROJECT RUNWAY is that: both of the leads were not just experts in their field, but proper and established mentors. That was the allure. You’d actually learn from them, as opposed to simply being judged.
So, NEXT IN FASHION is very lucky to have Gigi Hadid. Tan, while engaging, is clearly out of his element here. He has nothing to offer but mild quips and grey tips. Gigi, on the other hand, succinctly explains — and articulates — why certain looks do not work.
That said, reality shows are built on the backs of their contestants. And I’ll note that NEXT IN FASHION’s contestants have a better reputation than most. They’re not starving artists or fresh-out-of-school; most of them are far more established than those you’d see in early seasons of PROJECT RUNWAY.
That’s what makes the show far more interesting to watch, because you know you’re watching seasoned workers just here for promotion instead of thirsty amateurs that barely know what they’re doing. I’m so used to the latter regarding reality TV shows that I was absolutely surprised to realized — halfway through the season — that no, that’s not the tact they took.
I love watching skilled people do what they love, but that’s a rarity with reality TV! I realize most just want to see people fuck-up via terrible shit, but I don’t! I want to see people revel in doing what they thrive for; I want to learn from them, even from their mistakes! I’m a stupid nerd, but I endlessly want to be taught, and this show helps with a bit of that, despite Netflix’s shenanigans.
Me, to myself: “Wait, seriously? I’ve never written anything about San Junipero?”
Me, checks my archives. “Nope.”
Me: “Seriously? Never?!”
Me: “Apart from bending everyone’s ear about it and repeatedly watching it with your wife, nope, but it’s Valentine’s Day and you already wrote about HARLEY QUINN so hey, you be you.”
Obviously, the show BLACK MIRROR has become shorthand for dystopian anthology nightmare fuel, and rightly so. It’s intentionally subversive in all of the well-meaning ways, but also usually in very oft-putting ways. The show literally kicked off with the prime minister fucking a pig, which ended up being more truth than fiction somehow.
However, San Junipero is something different, and something I’ve desperately missed with speculative fiction. I’m old enough to feel terribly beaten down by the world for so many goddamn reasons, I often just want a few creature comforts. I’ve had too much of the unrelenting misery porn of the past 15+ years of what passes as ‘high-concept melodrama’. At least THE SOPRANOS had its moments of levity as opposed to say, the nihilism of THE WALKING DEAD. (At least THE LAST OF US has a lot of dad jokes, but those are all penned by fathers inserting words into daughter figures so …yeah.)
San Junipero delivers all of the goods: it’s a very sweet meet-cute, it’s an adorable and safe and welcoming queer story, and it’s a sweeping romance that goes through ages that -also- manages to be wildly sci-fi.
It has everything and delivers it in under a goddamn hour and it is amazing, but it’s also astounding because it’s literally the story of someone finding a safe space, and finding accepting (and sometimes loving) arms.
I’ve written briefly about this before, but I cannot underscore it enough: find a space where you feel comfortable. Surround yourself by folks who don’t judge you, folks you can talk to. Find a loving partner that accepts you. If you can, move somewhere that is explicitly know for being accepting.
San Junipero espouses all of that and does so in a vividly entertaining way! It’s all about misfits reaching out, helping each other, moving on, but also being in the same orbit, and it scarily mirrors parts of my club-centric youth.
It is a surprisingly hopeful and non-traumatizing depiction of a long-lasting relationship, and the goddamn episode makes me glow every time I watch it. It’s emblematic of just wanting the best for your protagonists, your favs, those you muse over, and also yourself, and they get a proper and heartfelt ending.
It is legitimately one of my favorite pieces of media in years, and again, I can’t believe I haven’t penned hundreds of words about it already, but here we are.
OH! And goddamn, the needle drops! Best use of “Heaven is a Place on Earth” ever. Just watch it already. I’ll shut up now.
For whatever reason, Ebertfest is a film festival that is often overlooked, despite the fact that it’s been running for over twenty years, despite the fact that it was the singular vision of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, who shaped the field of film studies for years to come and is still wildly revered today, Ebertfest — for some reason I can’t figure out — simply isn’t sexy enough.
Yes, it’s true: it doesn’t traffic in exclusive premieres. Yes, the screenings occur in the beautiful and sizable Virginia Theatre, but it resides in the college town of Champaign, IL, where Roger Ebert got his start writing reviews for the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign newspaper.
However, after attending my first Ebertfest — Ebertfest 2022 — I’m flabbergasted as to why so few cinephiles don’t see this as one of the few North American waypoints of film festivals. It’s by far one of the friendliest film festivals I’ve ever attended. It lacks the snobbery you often see in genre film fests, or the ‘there to be seen’ vibe some attendees exude. Additionally, all of the special guests invited to introduce and/or discuss the film afterwards? They’re clearly absolutely tickled to be there.
I’m not sure if this is because Ebertfest was created out of love for film from a man who was extremely generous championing cinema and his alma matter, or whether it’s because it takes place in a smaller midwest city, or perhaps because it has been around for over twenty years and many of those who attend are locals who have attended the festival for many years.
Either way, it was utterly delightful, and I wish I had made the journey earlier. His wife, Chaz, has kept the festival going since the world lost Roger, and with her enthusiasm, spirit, and love for film, Ebertfest is in great hands. Without further ado, here are some brief musings on the films I managed to catch:
FRENCH EXIT (2020)
(Starz/VOD) This year’s Ebertfest unofficial theme was ‘overlooked films’, honoring the films that slipped through the cracks for one reason or another, and there are few better examples of a film that was give short shrift due to the pandemic than FRENCH EXIT. The latest from Azazel Jacobs (THE LOVERS, DOLL AND ‘EM) featured the return of Michelle Pfeiffer to the silver screen, but its theatrical rollout was muted and, thanks to a very delayed VOD release, was mostly ignored.
The lack of attention, critical or public, is a damn shame because FRENCH EXIT is a thoughtful throwback of a 90s indie ensemble film with a modern sheen. FRENCH EXIT — based on the novel by Jacobs’ good friend Patrick deWitt, who also penned the screenplay — features Frances (Pfeiffer), an acerbic, flinty NYC widower whose rich husband, Franklin, died under suspicious circumstances and left her with a rather valuable estate and assets. Her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, perhaps best known for his role as Danny in LADY BIRD), is a curious but rather aimless young man, and he’s been spinning his wheels about telling his mother about his fiancée Susan (a rather under-utilized Imogen Poots). Frances comes to the realization that she’s finally spent through everything, has to liquidate her cherished home, and finds herself moving to a more affordable abode in Paris with Malcolm.
What follows is a mesmerizing character study that unfurls into a surreal web of human connections. It’s a story that feels unmoored of time, both the passage of and any concrete notion of era, although it does seem to be firmly affixed anywhere-but-now. The end result isn’t necessarily satisfying, but it is captivating with its visual construction and vibrant flourishes of color as the camera traverses through the streets, then gliding through Frances and Franklin’s living spaces. (Look carefully and you can see a few nods to Jacques Tati’s masterpiece PLAYTIME, noted in the post-film discussion by the director himself.)
While Pfeiffer is the obvious draw for the film — rightfully so, as she perfectly conveys Frances’ sense of pride tinged with a hint of self-dissatisfaction — the rest of the cast boldly embellishes the film: television mainstay Valerie Mahaffey brings some well-received laughs, Frances’ best friend is Susan Coyne (best known to fans of Canadian television, and who co-created and occasionally appeared on the best show about theatre, SLINGS & ARROWS), Danielle Macdonald (DUMPLIN’, BIRD BOX) provides significant snark as a professional medium, and Tracy Letts has a role that I’ll let you discover for yourself.
(Netflix) If you only saw Rebecca Hall’s glorious black-and-white adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel of being a Black woman in Harlem in 1929 via streaming through your TV (or, heavens forbid, on your phone), then you are missing out. Yes, PASSING’s grand pull is the dynamic performances from Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, but visually it is so exacting — almost, almost! clinically so — that it merits several rewatches on the largest screen possible. The way Eduard Grau (who also shot Tom Ford’s A SINGLE MAN) utilizes the overhead lines of the urban landscape, how he finesses the camera through Irene’s (Thompson) home and then echoes the same motions near the very end of the film is astounding precise in a way that enthralls without calling too much attention to itself.
There’s a lot to love, to think about, to extoll, to muse over with PASSING, but to fully appreciate it and its visual achievement, its best done in a theater.
GOLDEN ARM (2020)
(hoopla/kanopy/VOD) GOLDEN ARM, penned by best friends Anne Marie Allison and Jenna Milly, was self-described by them as “BRIDESMAIDS meets OVER THE TOP”. Now, if you’re a certain age like I am, you may fondly remember OVER THE TOP; it was a quintessential ‘only in the 80s’ type of ‘underdog takes on a niche professional sport’ film that featured Sylvester Stallone as a trucker working his way up through the rungs of the arm-wrestling world to regain custody of his son and get his own trucking company off the ground.
GOLDEN ARM opens with Danny (Betsy Sodaro, who you’ve probably seen or heard in a comedy at some point in your life), a very squat, very brash woman tearing through an arm-wrestling playoff competition, her eye on heading to the finals when Brenda, The Bone Crusher (Olivia Stambouliah) walks in and swiftly dashes Danny’s hopes by shattering her wrist.
Danny, desperate for revenge, seeks out Melanie (Mary Holland, HAPPIEST SEASON, VEEP, and so many other works) her best friend from college, who she recalls as having a deceptively strong arm. Danny finds Melanie in the midst of divorcing her terrible dudebro of a husband while helming her long-gone grandmother’s failing bakery, trying to scrounge up enough cash to replace her faltering oven. Long story short: Danny talks her into filling in for her on the circuit, and we’re treated to the requisite number of training montages and heart-crushing loses, loses that quickly become buoyed by rollickingly amusing feel-good moments.
GOLDEN ARM is an extraordinarily winsome film, one led primarily by its hilarious cast — if you are a comedy fan, it’s wall-to-wall talent, including: Eugene Cordero (THE GOOD PLACE, LOKI), Aparna Nancherla (A SIMPLE FAVOR, MYTHIC QUEST, so much voiceover work), Kate Flannery (THE OFFICE (US)), Dot-Marie Jones (GLEE, Olympic athlete and multiple world arm-wrestling champion) Dawn Luebbe (GREENER GRASS), and of course since it’s about wrestling, you know comedian Ron Funches (POWERLESS, and also so many voiceover parts) has a prominent role.
However, it’s Betsy Sodaro who really stands out. She brings a physicality to her hyperactive, over-enthusiastic, pansexual character that consistently entertains and befuddles. It’s rare to see a film lean into a woman throwing herself around and against everything in this day and age — pratfalls are hardly trendy in film right now — and it’s damn refreshing. Here’s hoping someone is penning a BLACK SHEEP-like film for her right now.
While GOLDEN ARM could coast by on its quips, slapstick, and charm alone, first-time feature director Maureen Bharoocha and cinematographer Christopher Messina provide a colorful contrast between the bright costumes of the wrestlers and the dingy, filthy, tiny shitholes everyone has to train and perform in. More often than not everyone’s tightly framed, not only emphasizing the wide range of expressions of the elastic performers, but also lending a sweaty, authentic claustrophobic feel to the material.
GOLDEN ARM is a crowdpleaser of a film and, unfortunately it appears that it won’t receive the wide theatrical rollout it deserves, as it’s a perfect summer comedy. It’s now available on VOD, so invite a few friends over, make a theme night of it, and get that word of mouth going.
GHOST WORLD (2001)
(epix/Paramount+/Prime/VOD) Part of the allure of Ebertfest is that each and every screening is paired with a post-film discussion featuring directors, writers, producers, actors, etc., often folks who rarely bother with appearing at film festivals unless it’s contractually required to do so for promotional purposes. Because of Ebert’s prominence, and because his and his widow Chaz’s festival is so well-regarded, they’re able to wrangle some big names, folks that are more than happy to show up and shoot the shit for however long they want.
GHOST WORLD closed out the penultimate fest night, and they managed to wrangle both Terry Zwigoff and Thora Birch to treat the night right. Zwigoff opened with an ‘anti-semitic review of GHOST WORLD’ read in jest by the recently departed Gilbert Gottfried (you can hear it here), who was slated to attend Ebertfest alongside the relatively recently documentary about Gottfried’s life, GILBERT. Birch was presented with the award all first-time attendees receive: the Ebert Golden Thumb.
Once the credits rolled and the curtain closed, both Zwigoff and Birch were back out on stage, regaling us with on-set stories, musings, jokes, pokes at the industry, and the like — Birch in particular was quite blunt and forthcoming about her experiences. There was a game enthusiasm in the air, an easy rapport that is often not found in film fests, one that’s emblematic of the general spirit at Ebertfest in general.
(Netflix) A haunting film — adapted by Maggie Gyllenhaal from the novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante — about what’s doing right for you, even if it’s wrong for everyone else, and living with the repercussions of your actions.
I am not the right person to write about this film that is fundamentally about the hurt of motherhood; mothers who don’t feel parental; of a personal reckoning. It features both Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, it fucked me up and I loved it, and I am disappointed it wasn’t discussed more prior to the Oscars. Instead, I will link to others talking and writing more insightfully about the film than I could:
Documentaries are by far the most undersung filmmaking genre — no doc has ever won an Oscar for Best Picture — and short documentaries have the worst of the lot. Some of these filmmakers have spent years and years filming their subjects, then whittle their hundreds of hours of footage into a publicly-palatable half-hour. It’s a shame that the Academy are pushing this group of nominees to the sidelines for the 2022 broadcast because these filmmakers — even when they make something that doesn’t quite cohere — invest so much time and work and emotion and empathy into their subjects.
AUDIBLE is the latest from filmmaker Matthew Ogens, best known for his documentary CONFESSIONS OF A SUPERHERO which followed around a set of Los Angeles costumed superheroes, but it’s also produced by Peter Berg, of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS fame. Like FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, AUDIBLE focuses on a high school football team, but this is an all-deaf team from the Maryland School for the Deaf. While the doc dives into how they communicate on-and-off the field, it excels at emphasizing the empathy and a specific kind of bonding that is rarely found in even the closest of social groups. Its use of subtitles, and insistance on displaying them, is also worth banging the drums for.
LEAD ME HOME
From longtime documentary workers Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk, LEAD ME HOME is an affective look at the homeless situation in tech-boom cities, notably San Francisco and Oakland, where tent cities are now very visible, as captured by their drone footage and contrasted by all of the modern construction work.
One of the more heartbreaking stories is that of Patty, who solely has her dog to keep her sane and safe from an abusive partner, and there are a litany of publicly posted signs stating ‘No dogs allowed’ in any space she would otherwise be able to use to bide the night.
THE QUEEN OF BASKETBALL
“Have you ever heard of Lucy Harris?” That’s the question posited from Ben Proudfoot (THE OX) and it’s a good one, as she was a revolutionary basketball player in a pre-WNBA era. Presented in a very face-forward Errol Morris way, this is an effortlessly pleasing doc that imbues Harris’ charms while also detailing how limited options for sport careers were for women — honestly, still probably are — even those courted by the Jazz.
A disheartening, slightly faltering, look at Shaista, an under-educated Afghanistan trying to escape from the opium trade by enlisting in the army. While well-shot and well-shaped by Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei, especially when it comes to capturing the surveillance state that Shaista percieves, it leaves you wanting something a bit more thanks to a rather perfunctory end. Sadly, sometimes that’s just how spending years with a subject will work out.
WHEN WE WERE BULLIES
The documentary that dares to ask the question: “What if bullies were the victims all along?”
It’s a doc from prolific short film director Jay Rosenblatt that wants to examine mob mentality, youths’ desire to fit in — even if it means violence — but instead pivots to slight interviews and then almost completely writes out the actual victim. The hand-crafted animations used to set, and reset, the tableau of the bullying incident that incited the impetus for the film inject some liveliness into the film, but then leans far too heavily on it.
Despite the Academy’s sidelining of these works, you can still see them in the theater, as these shorts are currently playing in the Chicagoland area at the WILMETTE THEATER, 1122 Central Ave, Wilmette, IL 60091, USA!
(HBO MAX/Netflix/VOD) I’m not big on possession films (although I have seen, and enjoyed, most of THE EXORCIST films) and I have no love for the pristine, far-too-clean look of most mainstream modern horror movies, including THE CONJURING films, but THE CONJURING 2 really impressed me. Its camerawork, blocking, production design, and visual scene construction are absolutely fantastic, plus I can’t help but adore seeing a loving, middle-aged couple on-screen.
Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson do a lot of the leg work that make these films work. While their characters don’t break any gender norms — he’s very obviously the muscle and she’s the empath — it’s a welcome change from the world-weary, loner protagonist. (That said, I don’t have any interest in discussing the real-life analogues, either them, or the cases they seek out.)
I’ll note that I don’t quite understand why this is a film franchise eight films deep. (Also, I haven’t watched the side-films, such as THE NUN or ANNABELLE.) This feels like it should be TV series, even down to the haunted item collection. (See: FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES or WAREHOUSE 13.) FOX turned THE EXORCIST into a brilliant TV anthology series (although it’s a shame no one tuned in to watch so it only lasted two seasons). Film or TV, THE CONJURING 2 is an entrancing work and, while it could have been tightened up a bit — seriously, possession films do not need to run over two hours — it does indulge in some very fun-but-frivolous scenes that I quite enjoyed, such as Patrick Wilson recreating an Elvis song.
(Netflix/VOD) I watch more horror films than the average filmgoer, and I read a fair number of thrillers and murder mysteries, but I’m rarely disturbed by them. Call it desensitization or practiced separation, but all too often I see it as an academic matter.
THE SINNER S1 fucked me up. It’s a nasty, heartbreaking story but, more than anything else, it’s an extraordinarily cruel tale of abuse, one that I can rarely verbally discuss without finding a bit of a hitch into my breath.
THE SINNER S1 is about a woman, Cora (Jessica Biel), who goes to the beach with her husband and toddler, who then kills a man kissing a woman in broad daylight, amongst a number of witnesses. Cora is arrested, confesses to the killing, and Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) gets assigned to the case and he becomes obsessed with deducing exactly why she killed this man.
The first season of the show is based on the 1999 novel of the same name, written by Petra Hammesfahr, widely considered Germany’s Patricia Highsmith. (I disagree with that comparison because, for better or for worse, there will never be another Patricia Highsmith.) While the show hews relatively closely to the book, it does drop some of the darker and stranger elements* while also modernizing the material, tweaking the locale, and changing one noteworthy song.
I won’t go into the hows or whys, but it cuts to the quick of trauma in a way that made me very uncomfortable, but can’t help but extoll. Once I finished the final episode, I immediately started rewatching it, not to see how the pieces added up, but to examine how they pieced Cora’s character together. It’s a surprisingly controlled effort from first-time show runner Derek Simonds, one to be applauded.
The following second and third seasons are completely separate cases and allegedly, apart from Detective Ambrose and his private life, have nothing to do with the first season or the novel. (I have not seen them, so I can’t say for sure.) A fourth season is in the works.
Yes, the book is quite a bit darker than the series. I read the novel a good year or so after watching it, so I’d forgotten what quite what the show excised, but it was probably for the best. For a list of differences, check out the following spoiler-filled article: https://www.indiewire.com/2017/09/the-sinner-book-differences-incest-murder-nazi-abortion-orgy-usa-network-1201878805/
(Netflix) I’m not going to say that THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is good, and I’m definitely going to ignore the author of the source material — I haven’t read the original novel and have no plans to do so, but if you need some backstory, here you go: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/11/a-suspense-novelists-trail-of-deceptions — and I can certainly see why Tracy Letts was drawn to it. If you’ve seen (previously recommended) BUG, you know how entranced he is by writing about Hitchcockian women, plus it allowed him to indulge his love for classic Hollywood films. (The film runs through the gamut of Hitchcock’s many suspense films and thrillers, but especially the previously recommended THE LODGER and, naturally, REAR WINDOW.)
Allegedly, it got away from him, but it does seem like the film started off with good intent. While the Brooklyn townhouse seems wildly unrealistic as an urban space, I can’t help but marvel at the use of color, space, and general production design. The cast is tremendous, and it’s well-paced, at least until the final act.
Again, I don’t want to oversell this film. Letts has gone on the record saying that adapting it was an extremely unpleasant experience due to the litany of studio notes, and then there were endless rewrites and then reshoots, and I can’t wait for the inevitable oral history of the production that’ll come about in five years or so. That said, if you can overlook the reveal, ending, and epilogue, it’s far more interesting than say, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN.
(Netflix) James Acaster is an English comedian that, with REPETOIRE, embodies the playful, albeit formalist, comedy I absolutely love. His storytelling and setups are accessible, but if you love plays on logic or toying with language, you’ll completely fall for him.
However, Acaster isn’t simply content to play with language, as the specials dabble with color and structure, breaking up his epic four-hour comedy special into four parts, then breaking up those parts into subparts punctuated by blocking and small props, such as how he utilizes his watch.
It’s very smart, oddly thrilling for stand-up comedy, and surprisingly re-watchable.
It’s worth noting that Acaster has taken a hard turn from his prior observational/fictional comedy to focus more on self-reflective storytelling bits regarding mental illness, so REPETOIRE isn’t exactly representative of his current comedy, but it’s still damn good.
(fubo/Hulu/kanopy/Netflix/tubi/VOD/Vudu)? No, not John Carpenter’s adaptation of Stephen King’s CHRISTINE — a fine horror film, but you hardly need me to tell you that — this is a dramatized depiction of Christine Chubbuck, a local TV news reporter in the 70s who struggled with depression. The film details her personal and professional troubles as she tries to grow her career and realize the life she wants.
There are other facets of Christine’s story that you may or may not be familiar with. I’m not completely sure whether detailing them would improve a viewing, so I’m going to err on the side of caution and intentionally bite my tongue.
If this were a fictional film, I’d feel a lot better about it, and it wouldn’t have the ending it has. Every thing leading up to that is a smart, nuanced portrayal of a complicated woman, bolstered by Rebecca Hall’s amazing performance. It’s fantastically cast film — Michael C. Hall as Christine’s fellow news man, Tracy Letts as her boss, Maria Dizzia as her co-worker, J. Smith-Cameron (from the previously recommended RECTIFY) as her mother, and VEEP’s Timothy Simons as the weatherman — but this film wouldn’t work without Rebecca Hall’s nuanced handling of Christine. She’s a persona we rarely see on-screen: a smart-but-flailing woman, clearly awkward in general, but so goddamn determined to succeed, and to hide from and survive her mental issues.
Again, if it were fictional, it’d be a triumph. While it’s still a stunningly scripted movie, it just feels… dirty. But that’s a matter for tomorrow.