Thoughts on Russian Doll, High Flying Bird, The LEGO Movie 2, True Detective, and more.
At this point I’ve been doing this website for over five years. Writers have come and gone (and occasionally returned), but since we’re all just doing this in our spare time, it’s been impossible to maintain any level of consistency — especially in a democratized internet age where one’s best source of clicks are listicles about video games. Therefore, instead of forcing myself to write thousand-word reviews that barely anyone reads, I’m going to try this decidedly bloggier approach instead. (Unless I just have a lot to say, like once Game of Thrones returns.) Just for me. Just to get some thoughts out there. Maybe you’ll like it? Let me know, because I like affirmation.
RUSSIAN DOLL (Netflix)
The first great new show of 2019, and it’s only four hours long! A clever co-creation from Leslye Headland, Amy Poehler, and Orange Is the New Black actress Natasha Lyonne (who also directs the finale and, of course, stars), Russian Doll inspires easy Groundhog Day comparisons but proves to have deeper resonances than it first appears. Lyonne, in an acidic star-making turn, plays Nadia, a game developer living on the borders of gentrified Tompkins Square Park (the key to the whole story, says Times critic Jason Zinoman); she’s an addict, self-destructive, and constantly testing the patience of everyone around her — including the friends who are just trying to throw her a party for her 36th birthday. But that night ends not in glory, but in Nadia getting hit by a car — only to wake up again at her friend’s dark-tiled sink, Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” still playing outside the bathroom door.
That in itself is not the most original concept, but what Russian Doll does with that setup over the course of eight bingeable episodes sets the series apart. It’s less Groundhog Day than Edge of Tomorrow, video game metaphors and all, as Nadia’s repeated demises seem inevitable (falling down the stairs, a gas leak, a falling air conditioner) no matter what path she takes, even when she makes it to the next morning. But the series nimbly sidesteps the repetitive nature of its conceit by introducing Alan (Charlie Barnett), a young man currently reliving the worst night of his life, at the end of the third episode — then cascading down a series of narrative trap doors as the broken pair search their past and present traumas for a connection, an explanation, and a way out of the cycle.
Russian Doll is morbid, but not bleak. It’s funny, but not mean-spirited — like that other comedy series about death and redemption, The Good Place, it aims to teach its characters that the best thing one can do in this incomprehensible cosmic web is to simply be there for each other. It also prioritizes emotional resolution over fully explaining its mystery-box plot, which shouldn’t annoy you, because it never pretends it would do otherwise. Most importantly, Lyonne rules: She reminded me of a young, wiseass Carol Kane, but also shows a great gift for physical comedy as well as a keen eye for a memorable image (check out Matt Zoller Seitz’s visual breakdown of the finale). It’s absolutely worth the binge, and Headland, Lyonne, and Poehler reportedly pitched Netflix on two more seasons possibly with different characters — I thought this one ended perfectly, but I’m very curious to see what they have planned.
HIGH FLYING BIRD (Netflix)
Despite its pedigree and subject matter, Steven Soderbergh’s latest experiment didn’t entirely work for me. Shot entirely on an iPhone 7 (like his unloved thriller from last year, Unsane), High Flying Bird is something of a fast-talking, intellectual heist film, where you’re not sure what the target is until it’s over, and then you might be somewhat underwhelmed. An admittedly terrific Andre Holland plays a sports agent in dire straits; an NBA lockout has his biggest fish, a rookie played by Melvin Gregg (typecast after a similar turn in American Vandal) getting antsy and ready to drop him, until Holland’s Ray sets a plan in motion to grab the levers of power back from the greedy owners by…well, it doesn’t make a ton of sense, but it’s something.
As a film set almost entirely in various high-rise offices, there’s very little action (Soderbergh even cuts away rather than show the story’s only basketball game). Normally I don’t mind this, as “people talking tersely in rooms” is established as one of my favorite genres, but the dialogue (from Tarell Alvin McRaney, who wrote the original play of Moonlight) isn’t quite clever or memorable enough, and the story is simultaneously convoluted and dramatically inert. Though it hovers around the edges of a timely statement about how black athletes have been treated as commodities and disenfranchised from control of their own lives (ideas suggested through interspersed talking heads from real players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Reggie Jackson), it doesn’t coalesce into anything truly provocative at the end of the film’s 90 minutes.
Mostly, despite Soderbergh’s career-long interest in the intersection of commerce and human dignity, it didn’t feel like he was especially invested in this story — rather seeing an opportunity to make his own Moneyball (which he was once tapped to direct) on a shoestring budget. Is there a chance High Flying Bird proves to be prophetically ahead of its time? Sure; but it’s as least as likely that it disappears from memory entirely. If this was just a normal Netflix release, shot normally by a less famous director, I’m not sure it would be worth remarking on at all. It’s nice to see Zazie Beetz and Sonja Sohn getting work, though.
THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART
Getting fired (or freed, from a certain point of view) from Solo allowed Phil Lord & Chris Miller to devote extra time to the script for The LEGO Movie 2, and the film is all the better for it. What begins as a fairly by-the-numbers sequel — picking up quite literally from the end of the outstanding first film — shows all of its cards in the final third, and ends up delivering a more than welcome message about, of all things, toxic masculinity, and what “growing up” should really mean.
There are written and visual gags a-plenty; these films certainly don’t want for cleverness. And the voice cast — including fun additions Tiffany Haddish, Noel Fielding(!), Richard Ayoade(!!), and Chris Pratt pulling double duty as a raptor-training, spaceship-flying man’s-man sendup of all of his previous roles — is as happy to be here as we are to hear them. But following up on the exhilarating freshness of the first film is an impossible task, and despite the dadaist frenzy on screen, director Mike Mitchell spends much of The Second Part treading water. Perhaps because it’s not his script, Lord & Miller’s ruthless self-editing is somewhat missed here, particularly when it comes to the film’s many extended musical numbers.
Nevertheless, from the Fury Road-inspired opening to an air duct gag that should only be spoiled under pain of death, there’s a lot to enjoy, and the animation from Australian outfit Animal Logic is a riot of sheer much-ness. The LEGO Movie 2 is not “awesome,” but it’s good, and the surprising thoughtfulness of its themes goes a long way.
TRUE DETECTIVE, Season 3 (HBO)
Saying “at least this season of True Detective is better than the last” is faint praise indeed, and I don’t really want to spend the energy it would take to thoroughly dissect what I think is ultimately a self-important and mediocre show. But I do want to give a shout-out to Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff, who are doing their darndest to hold together Nic “Blue Balls…In My Heart” Pizzolatto’s trifurcated plot, which lifts gimmicks wholesale from True D’s generally successful first season but without any exhilaration of the New, or Cary Joji Fukunaga’s visual poetry.
I found the early episodes intriguing despite their deliberate opaqueness, but after waiting another three weeks to get emotionally invested in the story and these characters, I’m coming up as empty-handed as the investigators themselves — not to mention Pizz’s continued inability to write his women as more than Exposition Device or Untrustworthy Object of Desire. Unless the finale really delivers, I don’t think I’ll be back for a fourth season of men in hairpieces staring regretfully into the middle distance.
Quick Hits, including some stuff from January I didn’t get around to writing about:
- After losing some momentum during the stretch of episodes set back on Earth, The Good Place roared back to end its third season as strong as ever. I don’t want to spoil anything in case you still haven’t watched (WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU), but I can sum it up by noting my astonishment that a series that began as “Trashy person learns to be less trashy” has now steered through T.M. Scanlon’s “What we owe to each other” into “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” This is happening on network TV!
- I caught up on some Oscar contenders, including the season’s biggest “villains,” Bohemian Rhapsody (a bad movie, but admittedly entertaining) and Green Book (competent, but bland and obvious and at points insulting). Rami Malek and Mahershala Ali’s talents aside, I still can’t believe we have to take either film seriously. Much better was Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which I found refreshingly understated and character-driven. I’m mainly here for everyone’s Richard E. Grant Appreciation.
- Back to network comedies: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt dropped its final batch of episodes. The series was shaggy and weird and didn’t always work, but it had an extremely high line-to-joke ratio and Titus Andromedon is an all-time TV character (the Cats subplot was undiluted genius). Also, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is on NBC now, where it belongs, and it’s still terrific. Chelsea Peretti’s final episode was the perfect balance of sweet and strange.
- Last year on a friend’s recommendation my wife and I binged all available episodes of Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man on Hulu, and it quickly became one of my favorite nonfiction programs in ages. Then in January the service finally added the most recent seasons, and we devoured those as well. (For a sampler, check out the hysterical Copenhagen episode with Noel Fielding.) Our affection for Ayoade eventually led us to watch all of The I.T. Crowd, which was frequently extremely funny, but writer/director Graham Linehan has since proven to be a generally awful human being and you can see the seeds of that in a number of unfortunate and offensive subplots. Too bad.
- Re-watches: The Expanse on Amazon Prime. If you miss BSG or are just in the mood for cracking space sci-fi, please please please give this a look. (The books are awesome, too.) I’ve also been re-watching Shakespeare series The Hollow Crown after getting the discs for Christmas; yep, it’s still great, especially Ben Whishaw as Richard II, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s take on Richard III. Moreover, I’ve recently been on a serious middle ages kick, and the plays made a great companion to my ongoing re-read of Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses.