What I’m Watching (January 2023)

Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape (2016) – An alternatively exuberant and depressing documentary about the history of the cassette tape (invented in 1963) and its democratizing effect on music culture. Includes interviews with celebs like Henry Rollins, enthusiastic collectors, and the near-monosyllabic Dutch inventor who acts like he’d rather talk about anything else.

Little Children (2006) – After seeing Tár, I wanted to re-re-visit Todd Field’s film about the superficial conformity of white suburbia and the soul-crushing angst it can cause in anyone with an inner life. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson star. Highly recommended.

Tár (2022) – Actor Todd Field has only done two movies previous, with his second (Little Children) becoming a cult classic. Tár is bound for the same destiny. Cate Blanchett is the eponymous star, a world-famous conductor who eventually runs afoul of her ego, her appetites, and her desire for artistic achievement. The diacritic over the “a” in her name is the least pretentious thing about her. It’s a meditation on power, feminism, and cancel culture. Sure to stir controversy and animated post-viewing discussion. Recommended.

Prisoners (2016) – Denis Villeneuve has been knockin’ ’em out of the park lately with his sci-fi blockbusters (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, Dune), but I’ve just now gotten around to this crime-thriller starring Hugh Jackman as an American everyman so desperate to find his missing daughter that he’ll stoop to kidnapping and torture. Jake Gyllenhaal co-stars as a rule-bending cop trying to solve the case, with Paul Dano as the hapless target of Jackman’s wrath. It’s a superior production, well-acted, well-directed, but the drumbeat of sadism and depravity was so ick-inducing I can’t say I’d recommend it.

Imperium (2016) – Daniel Radcliffe made his fortune off Harry Potter by the time he was a grown man, and he’s used that financial freedom to take on crazy roles (see Swiss Army Man, Guns Akimbo, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story) and serious roles (see Escape from Pretoria and the under-rated Jungle). In Imperium, he plays an inexperienced FBI agent who goes undercover to foil a plot by white supremacists to explode a dirty bomb in DC.

The Wonder (2022) – Florence Pugh stars in this parable of reason-vs-faith set in 19th century Ireland. Recommended.

Pelosi in the House (2022) – Alexandra Pelosi delivers an excellent (albeit understandably biased) documentary look at her mother’s tenure as America’s first woman Speaker of the House, including the infamous events of January 6th and the second impeachment of Donald Trump. Recommended.

Windfall (2022) – A tedious, pointless, anti-thriller about a bungling burglar (Jason Segel) who improvises a hostage situation when a billionaire (Jesse Plemons) and his wife (Lilly Collins) unexpected arrive at their desert home. There’s no edge, no real menace, nothing to make us care who wins or dies. Skip this one.

Chernobyl (2019) – Rewatch of this top-notch miniseries dramatizing the events of 1986-7 that killed hundreds (perhaps thousands) but could have been much, much worse were it not for the heroic actions of bureaucrats, soldiers, and scientists who did the right thing at great risk despite the crushing corruption of the late Soviet system. (The show’s companion podcast is worth a listen, too.)

Private Life (2018) – Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn star as married middle-agers who don’t like themselves, or each other, but somehow think spending all their time and money to conceive a child is a good idea. I get that some people are like this–that they desperately believe that childbearing and childrearing will somehow validate them and lead to a life of happiness and security–but frankly it’s excruciating to watch.

Fear the Walking Dead Season 7 (2022) – My god, where do I start? This companion series to The Walking Dead started out in California, wandered into Mexico, and ended up with a madman nuking Texas at the end of Season 6. The logic of nuclear fallout and how it might interact with geography and weather patterns has been thrown out the window, and beloved characters now do any and every ridiculous thing in the service of moving the plot in a particular direction. A shortened Season 8 (out later this year) is supposed to end the series, and in this case it’s a mercy killing. Skip it unless you’re a TWD completist.

Argentina, 1985 (2022) – An excellent courtroom drama based on the true story of the civil prosecutors who tried top Argentinian military commanders who authorized torture and murder of civilians under that country’s last dictatorship. It’s already won awards, and it’s a sure be to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Picture. See it.

Fleishman Is in Trouble (2022) – This Hulu miniseries tells the story of the eponymous Manhattan doctor (Jesse Eisenberg) who struggles to keep his sanity and his family together after his ambitious ex-wife (Clare Danes) suddenly ghosts him and the children. Fleishman turns to college best-buds (Lizzy Caplan and Adam Brody) for comfort and meaning, but they’re dealing with their own midlife crises. It’s a heartfelt (and at times heartrending) story, but viewers will struggle to find any message other than “live life while you can.”

The Pale Blue Eye (2022) – Not a big fan of murder mysteries, but this one, set in 1830, features Christian Bale as a retired police detective who teams up with young cadet Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling, who’s come a long way since his days as Harry Potter’s cousin Dudley) to solve a series of murders at West Point. Beautifully shot, but marred by the usual implausible switcheroos endemic to such stories, and some less-than-stellar supporting turns from Gillian Anderson and Robert Duvall.

The Last of Us pilot episode (2023) – A lot of us have started to suffer from zombie ennui (zombui, if you will), so at first flush, HBO’s The Last of Us seems like an offering that’s arrived far too late to grab the sci-fi audience’s attention. Based, apparently, on a popular video game that I know literally nothing about, it stars Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey (both Game of Thrones alumni) in an alternative present where not a virus, but rather a fungus, has turned legions of human beings into mindless killers. Pascal plays Joel, a gruff everyman who finds himself the reluctant protector of Ellie (Ramsey), a valuable girl who is apparently immune to the ravages of the fungus. It’s well-acted, well-produced, and takes its time to set up the central quest, but it doesn’t really offer anything particularly fresh in the sub-sub-genre of zom-drams. I’ll be watching nonetheless.

The Walking Dead, Season 11 (2022) – An uneven end to one of the best sci-fi series ever. Without Andrew Lincoln, it couldn’t follow the comic book source material as closely as fans would have liked, but it still gives us plenty of opportunities to swell our chests or dab our eyes as the zombie apocalypse settles in for the long haul. Most of our survivors find themselves in the Commonwealth, a huge (by post-apocalyptic standards) settlement of 50,000 people that’s much like the world of “before,” with a little Brave New World mixed in. Brace yourself for the three new spin-offs coming in the months and years ahead.

She Said (2021) – Fact-based drama about the New York Times reporters who helped expose the decades-long sexual misconduct of producer Harvey Weinstein. Somebody’s gonna win an award. An excellent entry in the subgenre of “true life journalism stories,” joining more recent offerings like Spotlight and classics like All the President’s Men.

The Menu (2021) – Billionaires and influencers are having a moment at the movies lately, and not in a good way. In a story that could exist in the same universe as last year’s Glass Onion, Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy star in this stylish and darkly humorous thriller about a collection of rich elites and their hangers-on who attend an exclusive dinner on a tiny island. The mockingly artsy multi-course meal (which includes such things as bread accompaniments sans bread) is supervised by Chef, a sadistic perfectionist who pushes his guests to the limits of endurance, punishing them for consuming food like a spectacle and not for the joy and sustenance it can provide. You’ll never think of a cheeseburger the same again.

After Fate (2022) – This forgettable confection–the latest entry in the New Year’s Eve rom-com genre–stars Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia) and Thomas Mann as total strangers bound together by an improbable accumulation of coincidences (including that a 21st-century 20-something man’s favorite movie is Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

The Guilty (2021) – Jake Gyllenhaal stars in this faithful (but unnecessary, in my opinion) remake of the acclaimed 2018 Danish thriller. The story follows an L.A. cop assigned overnight duty in a 911 call center when he receives a call from a kidnapped woman. The unfolding revelations will shock you to the core. Worth a watch, but I’d recommend the original instead.

The Guilty (Den skyldige) (2018) – Danish crime thriller. Holy shit, you have to see this film. Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), a police officer asssigned to the emergency response center, takes a 911 call (actually, in Denmark, it’s “112”) from a distraught woman he believes has been kidnapped by her ex-husband. Although the entire story takes place at Asger’s workstation, its twists and turns will have you on the edge of your seat until the shocking, devastating conclusion. (This film inspired an American remake of the same name starring Jake Gyllenhaal.)

Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace (2000) – Biopic about the German clergyman and resistance fighter who was ultimately executed by the Nazi regime just weeks before the end of World War II. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing continues to be influential even in the 21st century, and how a liberal theologian ended up involved in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler is a fascinating paradox. Not a bad film, but not the big-budget deep dive this man’s life deserves.

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