Thoughts on Chernobyl, John Wick 3, Fleabag, When They See Us, Good Omens, Black Mirror, and more.
Summertime, let’s go!
It was at first a bit bewildering that the TV-watching public (at least the meme-makers of Twitter and Reddit), in the wake of a Game of Thrones finale that some could charitably describe as “disappointing”, immediately seized on this bleak HBO docudrama as our next source of fuel. But maybe it shouldn’t have been that surprising, because Craig Mazin’s five-episode miniseries had many great things going for it: A stupendous cast, led by Jared Harris (our reassuring king of historical fiction), Stellan Skarsgård, and Emily Watson; exacting historical detail, exquisitely staged; and a tense (but so educational!) story that we kinda know already, but not really. Most of my knowledge of the 1986 nuclear disaster came from that one great Call of Duty 4 level, and I have a feeling that’s why many millennials tuned in.
Chernobyl’s first episode smartly throws us into the middle of Reactor 4’s meltdown, a fraught sequence where the full extent of the problem is as hidden to us as it was to the doomed firefighters that responded. With the plant managers in full denial (The core can’t explode, they say; that couldn’t possibly be graphite on the ground, etc.), the only man with a glimpse of the horrifying truth is Valery Legasov (Harris), a scientist who puts his career — and his life — on the line to convince the party men of what needs to be done so the whole of Asia and Eastern Europe aren’t covered in radioactive ash. His relationship with his government handler, Boris Shcherbina (Skarsgård), evolves over the course of the series from antagonistic to a deep and meaningful friendship; the scene in the second episode when the scales essentially fall from Boris’s eyes is one of Chernobyl’s emotional high points, only matched by the sheer horror of what is still to come.
I’m no nuclear physicist, but it’s to the immense credit of Mazin and the other writers that after watching the series, I almost feel like one. Harris and Watson make the jargon not just manageable, but enthralling, and their clinical testimony in the final episode’s trial — when Legasov lays out precisely what happened inside the core, moment by moment, with the aid of colored placards — is as must-watch for how it is filmed and performed as for what it signifies. The story of the Chernobyl disaster may be over three decades old, but its account of a government more concerned with saving itself from embarrassment than telling a life-saving truth is as vital as ever. Right now, it’s the best show of 2019.
John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum
So last month I mentioned that I had finally gotten around to watching the first John Wick; about a week later, I watched the second film, which was gobsmackingly great. (It’s hard to choose a favorite scene; I’ll just say “the whole third act.”) So I wasn’t going to miss the train the third time around, even if my crash course in Wick left me as mentally exhausted as the internet’s newest saint, Keanu Reeves, looks on screen.
Diminishing returns is a real thing, unfortunately, no matter how astonishing these sequences are staged by Chad Stahelski & co., or how much Reeves, Halle Berry, Mark Decascos, or NBA folk hero Boban Marjanovic (not a bad actor!) put into it. Parabellum does give us things we’ve never seen before in a Wick film — Wick on a horse, Wick fighting alongside dogs, Lance Reddick’s Concierge getting involved, Jason Mantzoukas just kinda hanging out — and every bit of it is up to the films’ standard of craft. The Scene With All the Knives had me laughing with delight. Ian McShane is, as usual, treating the film as his own personal playground. It’s a 131-minute adrenaline shot, audaciously entertaining. That is still true.
But — because there is a but — what made the series special was its strange yet mysterious world of underground assassins and High Tables, blood markers and Continentals — and the more we learn about that, the less interesting it all becomes. This is the first time the world building was more underwhelming than intriguing; the role of the Adjudicator (a game Asia Kate Dillon) seemed like it was written for Carrie-Anne Moss, and that (perhaps unfair) suspicion distracted me for most of the film. And in Stahelski and Derek Kolstad’s quest to give us more, more, more, the effectiveness of the film’s climax — when Jonathan fights basically the entire cast of The Raid — is diminished by its excessive length and the inevitability of its final beats. Wick (and Wick) still rules, but Parabellum just didn’t leave me as ready for a next chapter as the previous entry. I’m sorry, everyone! Three stars!
Fleabag, Season 2 (Amazon)
My wife and I started up Season 1 of Fleabag when word came down on how special Season 2 was. The early episodes didn’t blow us away, but we loved Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s unique comic voice enough to keep watching — and boy, were we rewarded. Fleabag is a special, wondrous thing, leaping up in its second season into truly rarified air — a series that is so confident and clever it transcends the medium along with its fascinatingly flawed heroine.
Set one year after the end of Season 1 (but airing three years later), Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is in a healthier place. Her cafe is moderately successful; she’s processed the guilt she felt over her friend’s death. Even her estrangement from her family — especially her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), seems to be thawing when they are reunited to celebrate their father’s engagement to their wicked godmother (the great Olivia Colman). And then she meets the cool, cussin’, distractingly attractive priest who will be officiating (Andrew Scott, effortlessly endearing), and Fleabag turns toward the camera as she so often does, and the choral music kicks in, and we realize this will be a different, far richer story.
Waller-Bridge and Scott’s chemistry is off the charts as they talk love and the divine over drinks, warily circling around each other. He knows he’s getting too close and dreads giving into his feelings; she is in love with the thought that someone finally sees her — really sees her, as Fleabag’s fourth wall-breaking motif, where Waller-Bridge consistently communicates deep wells of comedy and pathos just with a glance and the pop of an eyebrow, startingly (thrillingly!) folds in on itself in a way I won’t dare spoil further. The series’s ending is simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful, altogether true to itself and the kind of story PWB has been telling all along.
When They See Us (Netflix)
A difficult, infuriating, necessary watch. Not a recommended binge, because every episode of Ava DuVernay’s monument to injustice had me wanting to punch something. By now everyone knows the broad strokes of the “Central Park Five” story: a group of black and latino teenagers were wrongfully accused of raping a jogger; the police coerced confessions so the boys implicated each other; the prosecution went full speed ahead, ignoring some pieces of evidence and twisting others; the boys grew into men in prison, and were finally exonerated in 2002.
But what When They See Us lays out in painful detail is how these experiences scarred the Five for life, laying bare the racism and classism still present in our institutions today. After all, the man who put out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the boys’ execution, and never apologized or even admitted he was wrong, is currently in the Oval Office. And we can scream at everyone who helped railroad those boys, but DuVernay really wants to put us inside the heads of Antron, Yusef, Kevin, Raymond, and Korey, to fully feel the weight of what they went through as victims and symbols of injustice — which she does to a devastating degree.
It’s hard to single out individual performances in such a deep and talented ensemble, but the MVP has to be Jharrel Jerome (Moonlight) as Korey, the only performer to portray both the younger and older versions of his character. The fourth episode is his showcase — unlike the others, Wise was tried as an adult and sent to Rikers where he spent years in solitary confinement, and every moment hits harder with the knowledge that Korey was only there because he didn’t want his friend Yusef to go to the police station alone. Each step on these young mens’ journey is harrowing and enraging, but critical to understanding the full scope of our systems’ brokenness. Whatever hope the ending provides is bitter because these men will never get those years back, but it is so important their story is told so maybe, just maybe, we can learn something. I’m sure, like me, you can think of a few people you know who should be forced to sit through it.
Good Omens (Amazon)
Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of his own book (co-authored with the late Terry Pratchett) only had to nail one thing to be a successful translation: the central relationship of the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant) as they reluctantly team up to prevent Armageddon. And even if the rest of the series strains under its meager effects budget and awkward supporting cast (give or take a Jon Hamm), it gets that bit emphatically right; Sheen is perfectly persnickety, and Tennant is gloriously hammy — his most playful role since The Doctor.
It’s simply delightful to watch them squabble like an old married couple for six millennia, secretly aiding each other out of affection or boredom while carrying out their respective plans, slowly “corrupting” themselves. Aziraphale, with his bookshop, and Crowley, with his Bentley and his Queen albums, simply love the Earth too much to see it destroyed, even as the threat of punishment from above (or below) looms ever larger, with both sides mongering for an apocalyptic war they believe they are destined to win. Here Heaven is represented as a sleek, shiny, vacuous office high-rise (Hamm’s Gabriel seems right at home), where Hell is a dank boiler room, its denizens crusting over with scum, itching to take out their misery on angels and humans alike.
Meanwhile, there’s some stuff about a young witch (Adria Arjona), a “witchfinder” (Jack Whitehall), the young budding Antichrist and his friends, and the Four Horsemen, but it’s never quite as interesting or as effective. Good Omens isn’t the sharpest or best-produced series; it relies too much on Frances McDormand’s divine narrator, and the military tarmac climax is something of a big red dud. But it does capture a great deal of the novel’s irreverence (bonus points for David Arnold’s “Victorian whimsy” score, which might send some of you screaming, but I loved it) while streamlining its tangled plot to a brisk six hours. And most importantly, whenever Sheen and Tennant are on screen together, it fuels itself.
Black Mirror, Season 5 (Netflix)
Black Mirror just isn’t an essential series anymore. Charlie Brooker seems to have made all of his points, and can only make them again featuring different technology; I’ve lamented before that the series has become too Americanized, and the episodes too long. That all said, while none of this new season’s stories are as good as recent hits “San Junipero” or “U.S.S. Callister,” none of them are truly dreadful, either.
“Striking Vipers” (B) is a provocative human nature tale and has the best ending, though the legal and game development implications of its central conceit fall apart after five minutes of thought; “Smithereens” (B+) is the classic “what if phones, but too much?” Black Mirror bit that somehow holds its tension for 70 minutes, like Dog Day Afternoon in a Lyft; “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” (B-) is a teen hijinks episode that will appeal to anyone who’s wanted to see Miley Cyrus play a tiny foul-mouthed robot (which, to my everlasting shock, included myself). They’re all…fine. And there are some great performances this year, especially from Anthony Mackie, Nicole Beharie, Andrew Scott, Topher Grace, and Angourie Rice. The series may not have anything new to say, but it can at least stay interesting.
- Catch-22 (Hulu) is unadaptable, I’m afraid. I was excited to see this George Clooney-produced TV adaptation of my favorite non-LOTR novel, and while it does have its moments (anything with Daniel David Stewart’s Milo or Kyle Chandler’s Cathcart), for the most part it struggles mightily with tone, and playing the timeline straight doesn’t do it any favors. The “horror of war” stuff largely works, but the satire whiffs repeatedly. It does get a bit stronger towards the end, though.
- I wish I could have seen Apollo 11 in IMAX — everything I heard about it sounded like an incredible experience. But Todd Douglas Miller’s unconventional documentary, made up 100% of NASA archival footage (most of it never-before-seen) with no narration or interviews of any kind, is still worth watching at home. I’ve always been a space nut, but my kids dug it too. There’s no better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the mission next month.
- Fosse/Verdon ended with a bang in its All That Jazz-inspired “Providence.” I loved it, I love the show, I love Michelle Williams (her scene tearing into Bob as they re-work Chicago is a stunner), end of story.
- So with school out for the summer, I have some time to catch out on films that slipped through the cracks. I started off with Chang-dong Lee’s psychological thriller Burning (now on Netflix!), which all of Film Twitter was raving about last year. And it was a trip, yeah. Not necessarily my kind of thing, but it was stunningly lensed by Hong Kyung-pyo, and I’m glad I watched it.
- Still catching up on Documentary Now, which means I’m not going to stop writing about it. Got around to finishing Season 1 last week. My favorites were the Nanook riff “Kunuk Uncovered” and “Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee.” What a perfect series.
Looking ahead to… the last season of Jessica Jones on Netflix (6/14), Das Boot on Hulu (6/17), Toy Story 4 (6/21), new Dark on Netflix (6/21), Spider-Man: Far From Home (7/2), Stranger Things (7/4), The Lion King (7/19), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (7/26).