Friday, December 8, 2017

Best Movies of the Year












Here's Slant's list of the best films of 2017, which I contributed to.

And here are my top 10 picks and honorable mentions.

My Top 10 
Get Out
Graduation
The Phantom Thread
A Quiet Passion
Faces Places
I Am Not Your Negro
Dunkirk
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Lady Bird (my interview with Laurie Metcalf)
4 Days in France

My Honorable Mentions
For Ahkeem, Tempestad, BPM, Harmonium, Whose Streets?, The Florida Project, Intent to Destroy, Rat Film, Donald Cried, Get Me Roger Stone


Best TV Shows of 2017











Here's Slant Magazine's list of the year's top 25 TV shows, which I contributed to. And here's my 10 top list, plus a bunch of honorable mentions--lots, since there were so many good ones again this year.

My Top 10
The Leftovers (my interview with Ann Dowd)
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Big Little Lies
One Mississippi
The Good Place
Homeland
The Americans (my review of Season 4)
Master of None
The Handmaid's Tale
Chewing Gum

My Honorable Mentions
Bojack Horseman, Narcos, Blackish, People of Earth, Rick and Morty, The Black Mirror, Alias Grace, Insecure, Episodes, Veep, Ozark, Better Things, Girls, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mindhunter, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Silicon Valley, You’re the Worst, Crashing

Get Out












Get Out's central conceit, about a Stepford Wives-ish plot by blithely entitled suburban whites to colonize black people's bodies, is a trenchant metaphor for white supremacy. The timing, character development, and gift for social satire that writer-director Jordan Peele honed as a sketch comedian all translate effortlessly to horror, allowing the first-time filmmaker to entrance his audience as deftly as Catherine Keener's Missy mesmerizes Daniel Kaluuya's Chris with that tapping teaspoon. The Sunken Place where Missy maroons Chris is the film's most indelible image, a stomach-churning representation of how it feels to be stripped of your autonomy and personhood by a dominant culture that remains cruelly blind and deaf to your plight. In a world where almost no one is what they initially appear to be, Get Out anatomizes the evil lurking in the relatively benign-seeming prejudice that plays out as fetishization or envy, a form of racism that doesn't see itself as racist at all. Written for Slant Magazine

I Am Not Your Negro














Except for some questions he's asked by interviewers and a few puny would-be rebuttals by smug debaters, whom he swats away like so many intellectual gnats, James Baldwin's diamantine words—sometimes spoken by the writer himself on video and sometimes read by a subdued Samuel L. Jackson—are the only ones heard in I Am Not Your Negro. Fueled by a perpetually simmering cauldron of grief and rage yet unfailingly compassionate and open-minded, the elegantly world-weary Baldwin traces the thick vein of racism that runs through the heart of U.S. history and culture, identifying it as the original sin the nation must come to terms with if it is ever going to become what it claims to be. “What white people have to do is find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place,” he says, just before uttering the phrase that gives the film its title—though he doesn't use the word “negro.” Raoul Peck borrows his film's structure from an unfinished work in which Baldwin had planned to compare the lives of three black civil rights leaders who were assassinated: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. The film sketches out the differing approaches adopted by the three leaders only broadly, but Baldwin's analysis shines through with brilliant clarity. While Jackson reads from both published and unpublished texts, archival video bleeds into recent news footage about travesties like the Trayon Martin killing, making it clear how distressingly urgent Baldwin's words still are. Written for Slant Magazine

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, Season 4












Daily Show alum John Oliver has surpassed his former boss as the nation’s premier journalist/advocate disguised as a comedian. Jon Stewart’s near-nightly monologues sometimes skittered along the surface of a subject or fell into step with the rest of the stampeding media herd, but Oliver dives deep every week into a single topic, and he always chooses subjects whose bones have not been picked dry by cable news or other late-night commentators. Whether he’s discussing the true face of coal mining, the threat to local news posed by Sinclair Broadcast Group, or the many dubious products peddled by Alex Jones, he lays out facts with deadly precision, nailing what is being done and why it matters while pointing out underlying motivations and patterns. In his final show of the season, which summarized the first year since Trump’s election, he identified the three methods the president is using to undermine our democracy: delegitimizing the media, “what about-ism,” and trolling. Perhaps most impressively, he makes it fun to learn all these dry and/or depressing facts. His research and analysis may be solidly journalistic, but his delivery is acerbically comic, combining explosively expressive profanity and cheerful self-mockery with a classically British mix of verbal adroitness, instinctive distrust of authority, and an outraged contempt for hypocrisy. Written for Slant Magazine

The Good Place, Season 2














The Good Place is to a lot of its fans what its resident philosopher, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), is to bad-girl-trying-to-make-good Eleanor (Kristen Bell). At first, Eleanor’s afterlife adventure felt like a familiar enough twist on standard sitcom tropes that we took it a bit for granted even as we started falling for the series’ heart, its smarts, and how good it always left us feeling—not to mention that brilliant twist at the end of season one. Then this season tossed all our assumptions about the characters, the relationships between them, and the world they live in into the air like so many mylar balloons, and there was no denying it any more: We are in love. An exploration of what it means to be a good person, The Good Place is so buoyantly silly that you might be surprised it earns the approval of a Fordham bioethicist. And, like Brooklyn Nine Nine and Parks and Recreation, two other shows by writer-producer Michael Schur, it has a generosity of spirit and a belief in the power of community that feels particularly necessary these days. Written for Slant Magazine

Master of None, Season 2












The first season of Master of None focused mainly on food-obsessed metrosexual Dev’s (Aziz Ansari) prototypically millennial attempts to attain a solid footing in his love and work lives, though his attempts to make it in show biz were sometimes complicated by his Indian-American ethnicity. This season, Dev’s career and love life more often retreated into the background to make room for other issues—and other points of view. “New York City, I Love You” shifted between a series of characters, like doormen and cab drivers, who generally appear only in passing in Dev’s travels through the city, and Dev was just a supporting character in “Thanksgiving,” a delicately told tale of how his friend Denise (Lena Waithe) came out as gay, first to him and then to her mother and grandmother. Those two standout episodes, plus bits in others like Dev’s decision to out himself as a pork eater to his Muslim parents, transformed Master of None from a very good rom-com about late adolescence in urban America to a rallying cry for the soul of the nation. Written for Slant Magazine

One Mississippi, Season Two












Tig Notaro’s traumedy is a dryly comic, deeply moving reimagining of the time in her life when she moved back home to Biloxi while recovering from two profoundly challenging events: the death of her mother and her own breast cancer diagnosis. Season 2 maintains the first season’s fine-tuned sensitivity to the characters’ feelings and relationships while upping the moral and emotional antes.

Tig and her brother (Noah Harpster) grapple with the guilt and trauma they carry as a result of the sexual abuse that she suffered and he witnessed when they were children. That memory surfaces after Kate (Notaro’s real-life wife, Stephanie Allynne), the producer of Tig’s conversational/confessional radio show, is sexually assaulted by a colleague. And falling for an African-American colleague forces Tig’s socially awkward stepfather (John Rothman) to come to terms with the legacy of racism in America in general, and in the South in particular. Meanwhile Tig and Kate finally become a couple after a long, one-sided courtship during which Kate, who thinks of herself as straight, sorts out her feelings for Tig. Their love feels authentic and hard won, like everything else in this show—which is beginning to feel as much like a chronicle of present-day America as it is of Notaro’s recent past. Written for Slant Magazine

Chewing Gum, Season 2











An extravagant beauty who delights in playing the fool, Michaela Coel plays Chewing Gum’s main character, Tracey, with a near-irresistible combination of wide-eyed gusto and coltish naivete. Add in a hormonal young woman’s determination to escape the Puritanical constraints of her fundamentalist upbringing by having as much sex as possible and you have the perfect heroine for a surprisingly wholesome and endearing comedy about sex and other stupid human tricks—but mostly sex—in and around a British public housing project. This season, which Coel has said is the series’ last, makes excellent use of the actress’ gift for physical comedy, her elastic face, and her ability to telegraph buoyant vulnerability. Swiping on clownish makeup in a botched attempt to impress an ex or striking exaggeratedly alluring poses at a sex club only to face repeated rejection, Tracey is laughable and loveable, a glorious, openhearted self-directed experiment.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Interview: Michael Stuhlbarg on Call Me By Your Name and The Shape of Water












Michael Stuhlbarg was already beloved by fans and critics of New York theater, especially for his role as the childlike, mentally disabled younger brother in playwright Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, when he rose a few rungs on the ladder of fame by playing the title role in A Serious Man. Joel and Ethan Coen's masterful tragicomedy got much of its soul from Stuhlbarg's performance as a middle-class, middle-aged Midwesterner whose comfortable life is upended by a baffling onslaught of calamities large, small and ridiculous. Since then, Stuhlbarg has disappeared into roles ranging from quietly terrifying gangster Arnold Rothstein on HBO's Boardwalk Empire to loyal sidekick Sy Feltz on season three of Noah Hawley's FX series Fargo to brilliant but schlubby Andy Hertzfeld in Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs.

The increasingly in-demand actor met with me at his publicist's Midtown office to discuss two of his latest films, Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name and Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water. Stuhlbarg speaks softly and deliberately, often pausing to think about what he wants to say, yet he's no tortured artist. Smiling or laughing frequently, he often used the word “joy” as he talked about studying with Marcel Marceau, growing up as “the luckiest kid in the world,” and whether he would want to play a character he hated.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Interview: Joe Berlinger on Pushing the Documentary Envelope and Intent to Destroy













After a five-year apprenticeship as a producer for the pioneering documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, Joe Berlinger launched his directorial career with Brother's Keeper. Made in tandem with another Maysles employee, Bruce Sinofsky, the documentary did something near-revolutionary for the time: It used fiction-film techniques to tell the true story of two isolated rural brothers, one of whom was being tried for the other's death. In the 25 years since that influential debut, Berlinger has continued to make waves with films like the Paradise Lost trilogy, which covered the trials of three young men in West Memphis, Arkansas accused of the ritual killings of three boys and uncovered evidence that led to their release from prison.

I recently spoke to Berlinger at his Radical Media production company in downtown Manhattan about Intent to Destroy, a documentary about the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Turkish government's century-long campaign to deny that it happened. Self-assured and voluble, Berlinger talked about the new wave of documentary filmmakers that he has been part of, what Turkey's denial of the genocide has in common with President Donald Trump's “alternative facts,” and why audiences have responded much better to Intent to Destroy than distributors have.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Interview: Laurie Metcalf on the Mother-Daughter Duet in Lady Bird









Laurie Metcalf is a powerfully empathetic actress whose often comic and always ferocious intensity inspires an equally intense empathy in audiences, encouraging us to love our fellow humans not so much despite their flaws as because of them. She invites her viewers to relate to a kaleidoscopic range of sometimes absurd or regrettable emotions and behaviors, not just from one part to the next, but within nearly every character she plays.

A charter member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, Metcalf still prefers live theater, and she recently won a Tony for her role as Nora in the Broadway production of Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part Two. But she has created indelible characters for TV and film as well, including Roseanne Connor's endearingly klutzy sister Jackie on Roseanne and the big-hearted but harried mother of Saoirse Ronan's main character in Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, a coming-of-age story that is, at its core, a mother-daughter duet.

In an interview to promote the film, Metcalf talked about her aversion to working with cameras, why she runs through all her lines before every performance of a play, and how being shy helped her as a young actor.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Interview: Sean Baker on The Florida Project









Writer-director Sean Baker’s brand of neo-neorealism focuses on people, like Tangerine‘s fierce transsexual prostitute or Prince of Broadway‘s immigrant hustler, who’re ordinarily seen only in the background of films and TV shows—if at all. His latest, The Florida Project, offers a non-judgmental, child’s-eye view of life in the Magic Castle, one of the seedy but fabulous motels in the outer orbit of Orlando’s Disney World that function as temporary housing for people one step ahead of homelessness.

While helicopters take off in the background, like emissaries from another planet, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), roam happily through the motel and the surrounding area, exploring their turf like a pack of wild dogs under the indulgent but protective eye of the motel’s manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Meanwhile, Moonee’s very young and rebellious mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), while hustling hard to support them, creates an environment risky enough to trigger an investigation by the Department of Children and Families.

Baker called me from a train from New York to Philadelphia, where the film was about to have a gala preview at the Philadelphia Film Festival. We talked about how he works with first-time actors, why it’s hard to make character studies for American audiences, and the many factors that make it hard for people like Moonee and her mother to form stable, long-term relationships.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Ozark











Ozark delights in toying with our expectations. Its first big reveal is that the central characters, financial advisor Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman, whose natural trustworthiness nicely complicates the man’s buttoned-down efficiency) and his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), aren’t the porn-addicted shyster and clueless, cheery wife and mother that they initially appear to be. More stereotypes are subverted when, in a desperate ploy to save himself and his family after skimming cash from a drug-lord client, Marty spirits Wendy and their two kids to the Ozarks, expecting to find a safe hiding place and plenty of easy marks for a scheme that will allow him to pay back the drug lord. Instead, through a rapid series of downward-spiraling twists, Marty gets stuck between the rock of a south-of-the-border drug cartel and the hard place of an equally vicious hillbilly one. His family, his business associates, and the other people he encounters almost never just go along with Marty’s plan, their own agendas getting in the way of his and further complicating the fast-moving plot. But not all of his surprises are bad ones. Adversity knits together his beloved family, and they find at least one friend in the Ozarks, Julia Garner’s Ruth, who’s becoming a powerful, though conflicted, ally. Written for Slant Magazine

Making a Murderer











The fact that Making a Murderer was the most engrossing true crime story of 2015 no doubt helped build its enormous buzz, the need to know what happens next pulling viewers through marathon binge-watching sessions. But the show’s true greatness lies in its anatomizing of one infuriating example of the abuse of power and scapegoating of the poor that often happens in our legal system but is rarely reported in such detail. After spending months embedded in Steven Avery’s community and years researching his tortured journey through the legal and penitentiary systems, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi tell the story of Avery’s first, 17-year imprisonment for a crime he never committed and his second trial and conviction for another that he may well have been framed for as well. With the help of footage of his second trial, interviews with family, friends, and lawyers, the filmmakers elucidate various aspects of the story, from widespread contempt of Avery as “white trash” to arcane legal arguments raised by the trial, with admirable clarity. And, as the police and prosecutors of Manitowoc County keep trying to prove Avery guilty of some heinous crime, the series finds them guilty of gross miscarriages of justice. Written for Slant Magazine

The Crown



















Once again, The Queen’s Peter Morgan combines extensive research with a highly empathetic understanding of human nature to create a fascinating exploration of the capabilities and limitations of Britain’s monarchy in the 20th century, the enormous personal sacrifices that monarchy required of Elizabeth II, and the strains it exerted on her family. The Crown opens with Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) beloved father, king George (Jared Harris), another reluctant monarch who inherited the role only after his older brother renounced it. It then follows the young queen as, forced to give up her cherished private life after her father’s demise, she grows into the role of queen—and into a form of greatness distinguished by genuine humility and common-sense values. A feminist tale of a patronized, undereducated, and perpetually underestimated young woman who learns to rely on her native intelligence and good sense to help lead a besieged country through perilous times, The Crown makes the case that the best rulers may be those who never wanted the role.

Lady Dynamite











Her endearing eagerness to please, extreme social awkwardness, and hopeless inability to camouflage her feelings makes the semi-fictionalized version of her bipolar self that actor-writer-comedian Maria Bamford plays in Lady Dynamite a kind of human emoji factory, her unguarded face expressing a kaleidoscope of comically intense emotions. Her bafflement and improvised solutions to uncomfortable situations make things we have all struggled with, like dating, feel as freshly and insightfully witnessed as her wide-eyed adventures in Hollywood. Though she’s anything but a stone face, Bamford has more than a little Buster Keaton in her, her cosmic befuddlement and heroic efforts to navigate even the simplest situation highlighting the absurdity in just about everything. Written for Slant Magazine

The 20 Best Original Netflix Shows












Read our list of the 20 best shows created for Netflix so far--including my write-ups of Lady Dynamite, The Crown, Making a Murderer and Ozark--on Slant Magazine.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Interview: Lakeith Stanfield










Lakeith Stanfield has been racking up standout performances in some of the most buzzed-about films of the past decade: as the guarded but sensitive resident of a group home for teens in Destin Daniel Cretton's Short Term 12; murdered civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in Ava DuVernay's Selma; Snoop Dogg in F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton; and the bodysnatched Brooklyn hipster in Jordan Peele's Get Out. He's also a standout in Donald Glover's Atlanta on FX, in which he plays the perpetually stoned and free-associative Darius.

His latest film is writer-director Matt Ruskin's harrowing but unsensationalized Crown Heights, the based-on-a-true-story tale of Colin Warner. Warner was framed as a teenager for a crime he didn't commit and spent 21 years in prison before getting out, thanks to his own efforts and the unfailing support and advocacy of a friend on the outside. In the film, Stanfield gives a powerful but understated performance, richly capturing Warner's warmth, strength of character, and philosophical nature.

In New York this week to promote the film, Stanfield spoke with me about why acting in Get Out was an out-of-body experience, how the internet nurtures creativity, and whether racial justice has made any progress in the United States in the half century-plus since the march on Selma.

Right from the start, you've played interesting roles in movies that got a lot of buzz. Do you just have really good taste, or do you get good advice?

Yeah, well, I'm a member of the Illuminati. [Laughs] I think it's a combination. I have a really hard-working agency behind me.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Interview: Aubrey Plaza on the perils of social media and of having a stroke at age 20











A master of side-eye, Aubrey Plaza became, in her own words, “a poster child for irony” for playing such worldly, antiauthoritarian characters as Parks and Recreation's April Ludgate. Lately, though, she's been getting opportunities to explore other aspects of her elastic and intense range. Plaza's characters always radiate hyper-observant intelligence, but that can express itself in very different ways, from April's sardonic ennui, to the uncanny omniscience of Legion's Lenny, to the warped but tenacious ingenuity of Ingrid, the title character of Matt Spicer's Ingrid Goes West.

In the film, Plaza plays a desperately lonely woman who interacts with other people almost exclusively through social media. After following “taste ambassador” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) on Instagram, Ingrid becomes so enamored of the life portrayed on Taylor's feed that she moves to L.A., convinced that the two will become best friends in real life.

Talking about the film this week at the Crosby Street Hotel, Plaza was quiet and often a bit tentative, seeming as sincere as her early characters seemed snarky. She answered thoroughly and thoughtfully, whether talking about why costar O'Shea Jackson is a natural movie star, how doing TV talk shows is like improv, or how having a stroke at age 20 has informed her work.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Interview: Ann Dowd on The Leftovers, The Handmaid's Tale and Learning to Let Go











After a long but largely uncelebrated career that consisted mainly of minor roles as moms and authority figures in such films as Lorenzo's Oil and Philadelphia, Ann Dowd broke through at the age of 56, playing the harried, self-doubting fast-food restaurant manager in the 2012 film Compliance. That role paved the way for a steady stream of often complex parts in shows like True Detective, Olive Kitteridge, and Girls. This year she's nominated for two Emmys: for her performances as Aunt Lydia, a tightlipped teacher who whips handmaids-in-training into shape, in The Handmaid's Tale, and Patti Levin, a ferociously focused cult leader, in The Leftovers.

Last week, I talked to Dowd, who was in New Hampshire enjoying an annual week-long vacation with her husband, actor Lawrence Arancio, and their children. Radiating enthusiasm, emotional transparency, and an eagerness to connect that stand in stark contrast to Patti's stoic self-containment and Lydia's awkward stiffness, Dowd often slipped into character while talking, sometimes speaking as her own past self and sometimes as one of the women she's played on screen.

You've said that in your 30s, when you were waiting tables while trying to make it as an actress, a voice in your head told you that you'd make it in your mid-50s. Did you have enough faith in that voice to carry you through all those years? Or was it just something that's helped you frame your journey in retrospect, after you finally broke through?

What I knew at the time was that it was true. I had that feeling of: “You've just been given a gift here. Pay attention. Don't despair. Just let it inform you when you go south.”

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Silicon Valley recap, Season 4, Epidode 10: "Server Error"












“Server Error,” the season-four finale of Silicon Valley, checks in with almost all the main characters in Pied Piper's orbit while setting the stage for two season-five showdowns: the battle between Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and Gavin (Matt Ross) for domination of the Internet and the fight for Richard's soul. Richard lurches in the general direction of ends-justify-the-means mogul-dom with exquisite clumsiness, bouncing back and forth between maniacal determination and dejected self-loathing as his team keeps pulling him back from the brink—Jared (Zach Woods) appealing to his morals while Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) ride herd on his ego. Meanwhile, Gavin roars back into top predator mode with sociopathic ease, polishing off the amuse-bouche of Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky) in one ravenous bite before making a beeline for Richard.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Interview: Kumail Nanjiani on The Big Sick's real-life love story









Kumail Nanjiani was following a well-trodden path when he came to the United States from Karachi for college, majoring in computer science (though he did muddy the waters a bit by co-majoring in philosophy) and then working as an I.T. guy (although, he says, he wasn't much good at it). But somewhere along the way he strayed from the path. He traded Islam for atheism; became a stand-up comic, writer, and actor with a talent for appearing in zeitgeist-y shows like The Colbert Report, Key & Peele, and Silicon Valley; and married an American woman who's neither Pakistani nor Muslim.

The Big Sick, a smart, emotionally honest rom-com that Nanjiani co-wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, is a fictionalized retelling of their courtship, which started as a guilty secret he kept from his parents, as his mother set him up with a series of nice Pakistani-American girls in hopes of arranging a marriage. In New York this week to promote the film, Nanjiani talked to me about how his relationship with Emily has made him a better man, the pros and cons of arranged marriage, and whether he might be a desi Sidney Poitier.

I have this theory that you're the desi Sidney Poitier, or one of them. There may be a couple others, like Aziz Ansari, maybe Kal Penn.

[Laughs] No! Really? Guess who's coming to dinner! That would be great.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Silicon Valley recap: Season 4, Episode 9, “Hooli-Con”












The Pied Piper team’s slow-boiling crisis of faith in Richard’s (Thomas Middleditch) leadership, which has been coming to a head throughout Silicon Valley’s fourth season, heats up several degrees in tonight’s episode, “Hooli-Con.” The push-pull between their respect for his brilliance as a coder and their doubts about his talent as a CEO puts the rest of the team in an awkward, can’t-live-with-him, can’t-live-without-him position.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Silicon Valley recap: Season 4, Episode 8, “The Keenan Vortex”












Eager to pass on his hard-won wisdom, whether anyone wants it or not, Richard (Thomas Middleditch) tells Keenan Feldspar (Haley Joel Osment) on tonight’s episode of Silicon Valley to enjoy his success while it lasts because “this can be a tough business.” Keenan, who’s such a good bullshit artist that he wins Richard over by admitting that, yes, he really is a bullshit artist, swats away Richard’s warning, and no wonder: The wheels of Silicon Valley are greased for operators like him. But in the trip-wired world of smart nerds like Richard and the rest of the Pied Piper crew, there’s rarely time to savor a victory before it blows up and knocks them back on their asses.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Silicon Valley recap: Season 4, Episode 7, “The Patent Troll”












On Silicon Valley, good things come to those who do nothing in particular, and what appears at first to be a stroke of good luck often turns out to be quite the opposite—or vice versa. In “The Patent Troll,” Bachman (T.J. Miller) doubles down on his dumb luck in “Customer Service,” when he happened to sit at big-fish Keenan’s table in a coffee shop, and gets himself pity-hired by Bream/Hall. His new position is as unearned as Jian-Yang’s (Jimmy O. Yang) windfall for See Food or Bighead’s guest lecture position at Stanford—maybe more so, since Jian-Yang did enough coding to create a hot-dog/not-hot-dog detector and Bighead shows signs of having some talent for teaching.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Silicon Valley recap: Season 4, Episode 6, “Customer Service”












Tonight's episode of Silicon Valley starts with the Pied Piper team squirming under the imperious glare of their last investor, Gavin Belson, and ends with Richard (Thomas Middleditch), practically vibrating with unease, on the world's most awkward elevator ride with Pied Piper's new backer, Dan Melcher (Jake Broder). Between those two bookends are a series of comic meditations on the friction between socially inept Silicon Valley programmers and the equally quirky VCs they resentfully rely on.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Silicon Valley recap, Season 4, Episode 5, “The Blood Boy”












Tonight’s episode probes the disconnect between worthiness and success in a world where sizzle almost always trumps substance. Exhibit A is Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), whose brittle ego may be collapsing under the weight of a bad case of imposter syndrome. In the cluttered old garage that Gavin has preserved as a museum to “the spirit of innovation,” he shows the Pied Piper team the workstations where he and Peter Gregory created Hooli. It’s a startling moment, partly because it reminds us that Gavin and Peter’s bitter rivalry was initially a partnership, but mainly because it conjures up an unfamiliar image of Gavin as a true visionary with more to offer than Machiavellian maneuvering and unfathomable wealth.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Silicon Valley recap, Season 4, Episode 4, "Teambuilding Exercise"












Taking up where “Intellectual Property” left off, tonight's episode of Silicon Valley opens on Richard (Thomas Middleditch) arriving at the lion's den of Gavin's (Matt Ross) McMansion (it even has a giant lion's-head door knocker) to make a deal on his peer-to-peer Internet idea. Simultaneously satiric and dramatic, their meeting makes us fear for, root for, and laugh at Richard, sometimes all at the same time. Writer Meghan Pleticha and director Jamie Babbit toss in little flavor bombs of observational humor at intervals, like the decorative suits of armor Gavin toppled while rampaging through his living room after he was fired, then wind up the scene with a crisply timed slapstick rim shot as Richard's clumsy attempt at a triumphal gesture sets Gavin's couch on fire.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Intent to Destroy and For Ahkeem












Much as Americans love reality television, we tend to shun documentaries, especially issue-based ones, probably because many of us see film and TV as a form of escapism. So the $100 million left by Armenian-American billionaire Kirk Kerkorian to finance a film about the genocidal killing of as estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish government in the early 20th century went to a fiction film, Terry George's The Promise, which is currently playing in theaters nationwide. Meanwhile, Joe Berlinger's Intent to Destroy has no distributor or theatrical release date after its premiere at Tribeca. And that's a shame, because it's a far better film than George's stiff costume drama. Its depiction of the horrors of the genocide is more unvarnished, and therefore more accurate. More importantly, it explains the importance of that chapter in human history and examines the century-long denial campaign by the Turkish government that's all but erased the tragedy from the world's memory.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Interview: Diane Lane









After he acted with Diane Lane in her first film, 1979's A Little Romance, Laurence Olivier called the then-14-year-old “the new Grace Kelly.” The description still feels apt. Like Kelly, Lane comes off as simultaneously hot and cool, her honey-smooth voice and air of classy self-possession paired with a mischievous sense of fun and unselfconscious sexuality. But fortunately for Lane, as she discussed in our recent conversation, she came along at a much better time for women than Kelly did, a time when Hollywood and the world at large were less prone to stereotyping women.

Lane has played everything from tough to tender in a wide roles ranging from a preternaturally self-reliant teen in Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish to an inchoately frustrated young housewife in Tony Goldwyn's A Walk on the Moon to early reality television star Pat Loud, who embodied so many of the changes that rocked middle- and upper-middle-class America in the '70s, in Cinema Verite. For all their differences, her characters share a sense of integrity and a watchful intelligence that point to complicated inner lives.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Silicon Valley recap: Season 4, Episode 3, "Intellectual Property"












Tonight's episode of Silicon Valley takes a satiric look at some of the ways that the all-important yet elusive concept of intellectual property plays out in the Valley, starting with Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) and Bachman's (T.J. Miller) pitch to the Coleman Blair venture capitalists. Jian-Yang's modest recipe-app idea is quickly passed over and replaced by a purely theoretical but more exciting one: See Food, the kind of potentially transformative app every coder dreams of inventing. It's a hook so sharp and shiny that the VCs throw $200,000 in seed money at it and Monica (Amanda Crew), aware there's no substance behind the flash, uses it to try to lure in her douche-bro nemesis, Ed Chen (Tim Chiou), in hopes of triggering a failure big enough to take him down—or at least take him down a couple of notches.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Interview: Azazel Jacobs









The son of avant-garde pioneers Ken and Flo Jacobs, Azazel Jacobs has the most conventional career in his family. He's still far from a household name, but he's been steadily scooting closer to the mainstream ever since his first feature, Nobody Needs to Know, a satire of New York City's theatrical subculture that doubles as a call to resist the capitalistic powers that be.

His latest, The Lovers, which premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, is a tart, smart, moving, and genuinely dramatic romantic comedy. It stars Debra Winger and Tracy Letts as Mary and Michael, a long-married couple who've both turned to affairs after growing apart but are beginning to wonder if they're even more tired of the affairs than they were of their marriage.

I spoke to Jacobs, who I last interviewed in 2011 for The L Magazine, at Manhattan's Smyth Hotel about taking inspiration from 1950s romantic comedies, the chemistry between Winger and Letts, and how it felt to cede ownership of his latest film to the audience.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Silicon Valley recap: Season 4, Episode 2, "Terms of Service"












In this week's episode of Silicon Valley, Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) takes about a minute to transition from underdog to overlord as PiperChat's new CEO, getting high on his own hot air. But it only takes him another minute to come back to earth, in a crash landing so humiliating and terrifying it even satisfies the perpetually disgruntled Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), whose rivalry with Dinesh is so deep he'd rather see Dinesh fail than see his own company succeed.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Interview: Jon Bernthal









Thanks in part to his hard body, soft eyes, and a formerly broken nose that gives him almost as distinctive a profile as Javier Bardem's, Jon Bernthal has played a lot of cops and ethnic roles, many of them alpha males, though he's been offered a bit more variety of parts since his breakout role as Rick Grimes's best friend turned rival, Shane Walsh, on AMC's The Walking Dead.

I met with Bernthal this week at a Tribeca hotel, where he was promoting two of his latest films, both playing in this year's Tribeca Film Festival. In Jamie M. Dagg's neo-noir Sweet Virginia, Bernthal plays Sam, a hotel manager in a sleepy town who's forced into action when a killer comes to town. He plays another reluctant hero in Brendan Muldowney's Pilgrimage, a grim tale of a group of 12th-century monks enlisted to bring the Pope a sacred relic they have been safeguarding, who embark on their perilous journey under the protection of Bernthal's mute former soldier.

Polite, sincere, and prone to searching for just the right word, Bernthal seemed a bit younger and more diffident in person than he does on screen. We talked about studying theater in Moscow, the surrogate-father bond Sam forms with a young woman that was Bernthal's favorite relationship in Sweet Virginia, and why Frank Darabont and I see him as a latter-day John Garfield.

The Circle











When Mae (Emma Watson) gets a chance to work at The Circle, a fictional tech behemoth, she's so thrilled at the thought of ditching her soul-deadening customer-service job that she can barely fake the chill required to ace the interview, which evokes Google's infamously unconventional and challenging questions. Mae's starry-eyed enthusiasm rhymes with the voyeuristic thrill The Circle gives its audience: a glimpse behind the curtain of a fictional version of one of those companies that collect so much information about us while they simultaneously retain a stubborn sense of mystery about how they operate. Complete with petanque pits and a professional-quality stage where hot bands play at parties that extend well into the night, The Circle's campus might be the glossy love child of a billionaire's private island and the world's best endowed and most exclusive college.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Silicon Valley recap: Season 4, episode 1, "Success Failure"












Richard (Thomas Middleditch) bumbles his way to an unlikely victory at the start of the season premiere of Silicon Valley, posing as an Uber driver in the latest chapter of Pied Piper's comically inept struggle to survive. The nerdily awkward pitch Richard initiates to the venture capitalist in his back seat, video-conferencing with the rest of the Pied Piper team to show off the unexpectedly popular platform they've created more or less by accident, doubles as a reunion for the show's viewers, bringing the main characters together in all their dysfunctional glory.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Tribeca Film Festival: Manifesto









There's no dialogue in Julian Rosenfeldt's Manifesto, just recitations of manifestos about art—plus the excerpt from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's Communist Manifesto that kicks off the first scene. That may sound like a recipe for didactic miserabilism, but the film is vibrant and engaging, even entertaining. What it's not is particularly thought-provoking.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Walking Dead recap: Season 7, Episode 16, "The First Day of the Rest of Your Life"












Skipping lightly across the surface of relationships and individual states of mind to focus on the stockpiling of weapons or the formation of fragile alliances, The Walking Dead's seventh season was almost exclusively about the march to war. Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) sadistically fetishized slaughter of Abraham and Glenn in the season opener established him as a ruthless despot who could only be unseated by extraordinary means. Several characters, including Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Morgan (Lennie James), and Ezekiel (Khary Payton), tried to resist the call to battle that was Maggie's (Lauren Cohan) unwavering response to Negan's psychotic display, but their reservations were swatted away with no real debate, creating the illusion that war was the group's only viable alternative.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Walking Dead recap: Season 7, Episode 15, "Something They Need"












Aside from the armored walker that Rick (Andrew Lincoln) fought in the junkyard where Jadis's people live, it's been months since roamers posed a credible threat to anyone on The Walking Dead. They're usually just a slightly titillating excuse for some action, and the catalyst for a jolt of camaraderie or tension among the humans they encounter. True to form, the barnacle-festooned skeleton that stumbles into focus at the start of “Something They Need,” and the herd that materializes behind it, lurch obligingly into Oceanside just as Rick's arms raid is teetering on the edge of catastrophe.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Interview: Alex Karpovsky on Girls, Politics, and Growing Up









Throughout six years on Girls, a dozen years' worth of indie films before that, and the run of sometimes higher-profile films—including two by the Coen brothers—that he's starred in since the HBO series boosted his profile, actor-writer-director-producer Alex Karpovsky keeps ringing slightly less nebbishy variations on the kinds of men Dustin Hoffman played in his youth. A typical Karpovsky character is introverted but charismatic, handsome in an unflashy and distinctive way, maybe a little too smart for the room, and sometimes callow or neurotic but always essentially a mensch.

In our interview last week, Karpovsky told me that all of his characters are “amplifications” of parts of himself. Sure enough, he comes off as articulate, wryly funny, and wary of self-aggrandizement in person as he does on screen. He talked about the best and worst parts of being on a television show that gets as much love and hate as Girls (which wraps up its final season on April 16), the death of his character's mentor, Hermie (played by Colin Quinn), and what his Russian-Jewish parents think of the state of American politics.

Over the last six years, Girls has been one of most loved, hated, and talked-about shows on TV. What were the best and worst parts of being in the middle of all that?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Walking Dead recap: Season 7 Episode 14: "The Other Side"












The absence of dialogue in the scenes before the opening credits of this week's episode, “The Other Side,” makes Maggie (Lauren Cohan) seem nearly iconic: a legend in the making, as she teaches knife-throwing and does that benevolent-leader thing of acknowledging people by placing a reassuring hand on their shoulder. It's good to see her, since she's been absent from the last few episodes, and particularly gratifying to see her looking good, almost as happy and loose as Rick and Michonne did during their extended supply run in “Say Yes.”

Thursday, March 16, 2017

New Directors/New Films: Person to Person












Dustin Guy Defa's Person to Person started as a short film by the same name, a pungently detailed portrait of a certain slice of pre-gentrified New York in which Bene Coopersmith played more or less himself as a quietly charismatic Brooklyn record-store owner. The feature film is a collection of interwoven, sometimes overlapping character studies that encompass a wider swath of characters and locations with varying degrees of success.

New Directors/New Films: Happy Times Will Come Soon












In Happy Times Will Come Soon, Alessandro Comodin tries to work out a new filmic vocabulary that merges realistic fiction with fable—fracturing time, tracing out just the barest outline of each character and situation, sometimes mixing realism with surrealism, and lingering so long on shots in which the action barely changes that he all but forces us to be in the moment with him. But while the director creates many individual moments of beauty, his film is a mélange of gorgeous tiles that never quite comes together as a mosaic.

New Directors/New Films: Sexy Durga















Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga generates a steady thrum of dread that builds to cringe-inducing levels as it follows a couple, Durga (Rajshri Deshpande) and Kabeer (Kannan Nayar), over the course of a night in the southern Indian state of Kerali. Though their body language and occasional urgent exchanges speak to the tender intimacy between the two, their minimal dialogue tells us almost nothing about them except that she’s a Hindi-speaking northern Indian, he’s from Kerali, and they’re trying to hitch a ride to a railroad station so they can catch a train north. This pointed lack of detail makes the story of one couple’s journey gone horribly awry feel universal, an allegory about the violent misogyny that plagues India.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Walking Dead recap: Season 7, Episode 13, "Bury Me Here"












With “Bury Me Here,” The Walking Dead snaps back to its default position for this season, focusing on how Rick's group and their allies are getting motivated and ready to engage the Saviors. The dialogue gets reset too, laden with expository or aphoristic speeches, so Richard's (Karl Makinen) suicide-by-Morgan death galvanizes other key players to commit to the cause—but only after Richard has portentously warned Morgan (Lennie James) that he will live to regret it if he doesn't abandon his dream of pacifism, then spouted one of those geysers of backstory that always signals a character's death.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Interview: Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen









When Orphan Black debuted in 2013, Tatiana Maslany burst into critical consciousness, like a circus performer leaping through a circle of fire, with her profound creation of a wildly diverse sisterhood of clones. Meanwhile, Tom Cullen, who specializes in bringing to vivid life the emotional vulnerability of brooding men, was continuing to attract increasingly high-profile parts, like a recurring role as one of Lady Mary's suitors on Downton Abbey.

In The Other Half, a moody romance that opens this Friday, the real-life couple—whose relationship started during the filming of 2012's World Without End in Budapest—play opposite one another for the first time. The script, which the actors had been discussing for years with writer-director (and close friend) Joey Klein, is about the deep but precarious connection between Cullen's character, who's grieving over the loss of his brother, and Maslany's, a warmhearted, often joyful woman with bipolar disease.

In a sometimes playful, always mutually supportive and openhearted conversation at a New York City hotel, Maslany and Cullen discussed the pros and cons of playing a love story with your real-life partner, the freedom and challenges of shooting a film on the fly, and what they've learned from each other about acting.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Walking Dead recap: Season 7, Episode 12, "Say Yes"












A lot happens in “Say Yes,” almost all of it compelling. Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) insists that Rick and his crew bring her even more guns than the shitload they reclaimed from the soldier walkers. Tara decides to tell Rick about the Oceanside group. (Might the women at Oceanside be willing not only to join the fight, but to hand over some of their guns to the trash dwellers?) And what is with that giant female walker Rosita encounters with the bloated head and neck? Is that just normal decay or it is some new mutation they aren't yet aware of? It's getting a little tiresome, though, to watch Rosita (Christian Serratos) stomp around in an unchanging state of stony-faced rage, telling everyone she wants to be alone. At least she eases up at the end of the episode, recruiting Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) to help her kill Negan, even though that's unlikely to end well.

New Directors New Films: Patti Cake$









As the bass-heavy, dance club-lit dream that opens writer-director Geremy Jaspers's Patti Cake$ makes clear, Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) is a legend in her own mind, a stadium-thrilling rapper who goes by Killa P or Patti Cake$. But to almost everyone else she's just a fat girl, so large that the bros in Bayonne, her down-at-the-heels hometown, call her Dumbo.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Walking Dead recap: Season 7, Episode 11, "Hostiles and Calamities"












The gods must have heard my prayer. Tonight's episode of The Walking Dead, “Hostiles and Calamities,” takes a break from the hatchet-faced military strategizing and obligatory slicing and dicing that's lately dominated the show to look at Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) Sanctuary, that Dantean dystopia with an Orwellian name. The death count isn't quite zero in this episode, but Dr. Carson's (R. Keith Harris) Holocaust-evoking demise feels anything but titillating or gratuitous. And, for the first time I can remember, not a single walker is whacked, though one does lose its bottom half, along with some gooey innards, as part of its slow slide toward total disintegration.