David’s Watch Diary: August 2019

Thoughts on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Lion King, GLOW, Veronica Mars, Dear White People, and more.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Well, here we go again. Another Tarantino film means another referendum on Tarantino; another exhausting round of “He’s problematic”/”Yes, BUT” all the way up through when he mounts the Oscar stage to collect another Best Screenplay trophy. As you can guess, I’m not all that interested in that — not that there aren’t plenty of smart writers writing excellent thinkpieces on how once Once Upon a Time in Hollywood fits within the director’s oeuvre, because there are. But speaking only for myself, I’m not emotionally attached enough to Tarantino to address that with any forthrightness. While I’ve enjoyed most (not all) of his work (my favorite is 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, which I feel is still his apex as both impish storyteller and master of staging and pacing), I never had his posters on my wall; I never made a girlfriend sit down to watch Pulp Fiction.

Nevertheless, Tarantino remains a fascinating figure, and that fascination extends into his latest work. Like many, I didn’t warm to the idea of Tarantino incorporating the Manson murders into a gauzy study of Hollywood has-beens and almost-weres, but I was equally relieved to find that Once Upon isn’t exploitative; instead a melancholy reverie on finding contentment in a world losing its grip. I could even describe its final moments as “moving,” which is not a word I’ve ever used to describe a Tarantino film. Are there issues? Sure. One could easily question Cliff’s (a leathery Brad Pitt) did-he-or-didn’t-he with his late wife, or how it treats the real figure of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). In both cases, Tarantino is slippery with time and with memory, leaving his true intentions open for discussion (call it Schrodinger’s harpoon).

Some complaints seem less valid, like the amount of screen time and dialogue given to Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, who is nevertheless centered in a remarkable scene where we see her soak in the audience’s delighted response to her performance in The Wrecking Crew. With great efficiency, Tarantino and Robbie show us that Sharon Tate mattered as a human being — for far more than the manner of her death — and here represents the (extremely relative) innocence of the time that was to be cruelly stamped out.

And then there’s Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in his first performance since he won an Oscar for crawling around in the snow. He’s absolutely sensational here as a TV Western actor coming to grips with being “washed up,” and Tarantino gives him scene after scene of bringing himself back from the brink of destruction. The film’s slightly draggy middle act is mostly dedicated to Dalton’s villainous turn in a new TV pilot, and Dalton’s personal breakdown manifesting in his performance under the curious eye of his eight-year-old co-star (an astonishing Julia Butters). When’s the last time Leo was this sympathetic?

Most of all, the film is a loving, fanatically-detailed recreation of a specific point in time. It’s drenched in authentic radio broadcasts and signage, like Tarantino saw the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! and cracked his knuckles. His direction encourages you to immerse yourself, languidly paced up until the shockingly violent (and uncomfortably funny) climax when the Tarantino of old comes out to play. Once Upon is not my favorite Tarantino, but it’s the most Tarantino, and perhaps the richest text. I may not be looking forward to six months of dissecting the man, but I’m happy to dissect the work.

The Lion King

It’s rare to see so many talented artists work so hard on something so profoundly misguided. While it’s not surprising that Disney — on its way to literal global domination — would add the beloved 1994 film to its unnecessary remake slate, this slavishly uninspired exercise in photorealistic computer animation reveals the mercenary heart of the entire endeavor.

When it comes to the Mouse House assembly line, there’s been an inverted relationship between the quality of the original and the new. That’s true of most remakes — the less you have to work with, the more you can improve, like say, Ocean’s Eleven or The Thing — but is especially, baldly true here. No one had asked for a new Pete’s Dragon, but David Lowery pulled one off. Director Jon Favreau already got it right once with his generally successful update of The Jungle Book in 2016. More recent efforts involving Disney’s “Golden Age” titles (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) have been mediocre at best. On the other hand, next year’s Mulan looks promising because it’s at its heart a historical drama that never needed talking animals.

All of this leaves The Lion King, appropriately, in an uncanny valley: a tremendous technical achievement, and craven cash grab. The truth is that these animals — however visually astonishing, and they are that — simply can’t emote. Photorealism is not inherently superior storytelling, especially when we’re left with expressionless David Attenborough lions. While are there some cool sequences, the most memorable are lifted directly from the original film. There are some winners in the cast (specifically Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Scar like Richard III, and Billy Eichner’s enjoyably meta Timon), but most of them are just… fine. Donald Glover gets blown out of the studio by BeyoncĂ© on their big duet (which is, for some insane reason, set DURING THE DAY), and James Earl Jones sounds every one of his 88 years as “first-time dad” Mufasa, however much his return appeals to the Millennial set.

It’s best to think of these free-money reproductions as Broadway revivals, enjoyable solely for hearing performers you already like doing parts you already know. Because this ain’t a director’s medium.

GLOW, Season 3 (Netflix)

You wouldn’t think it was possible to adequately service such a big ensemble in under six hours, but somehow GLOW does just that in perhaps its most vibrant and character-building season yet. The action has moved to Vegas, with the girls taking a contract at a mid-tier casino (whose manager is played by Geena Davis) that quickly extends from a three-month stint to a full year and possibly beyond. The show-within-a-show is really working, so producers Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch make the choice to roll back the amount of wrestling shown on screen — instead focusing on the performers, their relationships, and anxieties about the future.

And while I certainly miss the delightfully kitschy ring exploits — though it’s worth pointing out that two of the season’s best episodes, “Freaky Tuesday” and “A Very GLOW Christmas,” have tons of it — it’s hard to argue that spreading the narrative wealth to bench players like Jenny (Ellen Wong), Melanie (Jackie Tohn), and Arthie (Sunita Mati) doesn’t pay richer dividends down the line. Betty Gilpin and Alison Brie (who also takes a turn behind the camera) are as exceptional as ever, but I wouldn’t trade for more of Zoya and Liberty Belle if it meant less space for Gayle Rankin’s Sheila to provide the season’s most meaningful arc, or less time around the campfire in “Outward Bound.”

GLOW, even at its most crass or indulgent, remains an exceptionally well-balanced series; at season’s end the status quo has been upended once again, but the humanity written into each and every character makes these upcoming huge decisions — assuming Netflix brings it back for another round — matter all the more. Even decisions that I’ve questioned in the past, like teasing out a will-they-won’t-they with Brie’s Ruth and Marc Maron’s Sam, are handled in surprising and satisfying ways. Long live GLOW, and long live GLOW.

Veronica Mars, Season 4 (Hulu)

Resurrected (again) on Hulu, the former teen detective bounces back from the fan service-y 2014 feature film and goes back to her roots. It’s a single mystery, methodically (convolutedly?) paced out over eight hours, with red herrings and triple-crosses galore — a dream of a sun-dappled weekend binge.

If you’ve watched it, however, that’s probably not what you’re thinking about. Not the great repartee between Kristin Bell and Enrico Colantoni, or the terrific guest turns by Patton Oswalt and J.K. Simmons, but the season’s final few minutes and the death that sends Veronica out from Neptune into (potential) future, more independent seasons. It’s easy to hate showrunner Rob Thomas for the decision — he expects as much — but it wasn’t that hard for me to understand it. At least, that was never the reason why I watched the show.

Points off for still not knowing how to handle its Latinx characters, however. Every one of them is a mugger, biker, cartel assassin, or one waiting to happen. Neptune is infamous for its class stratification, but it seemed overly unbalanced this time around. Anyway: fun show. Hope they make more.

Dear White People, Season 3 (Netflix)

Season 2 made Justin Simien’s satire one of my ten best series of 2018, but I regret to report that the third “Volume” spends half of its run time spinning its wheels, searching for a reason to keep going. It does pick up speed towards the end as some of the show’s disparate threads start to pull together, but there isn’t a single “Chapter” that comes close to the caliber of last year’s Coco-centric or bottle episodes. To wit, it seems as exhausted as the characters.

That, at least, I understand — the idea that the students of Winchester are disillusioned from spending so much time fighting for so little change is particularly resonant right now. Once again, Sam (Logan Browning) is our avatar for this, as she literally takes a step back in the show’s narrative to make room for new and formerly minor characters that aren’t as thoughtfully drawn. The great reveal last year of the school’s “secret society” (and of Giancarlo Esposito joining the story, instead of simply narrating it) is immediately put on the back burner, and never really picked up again. Instead, it slowly twists toward its own version of #MeToo as a black entrepreneur (Blair Underwood) takes the college by storm with his self-care app, but hides a secret of his own. That’s all handled well, but before we get there, we have to watch Lionel, Joelle, Coco, Troy, and the rest tread water for a while.

I hope to look back on this as something of a “gap year” as the show comes firing back (assuming Netflix gives it the opportunity), but long-form satire is hard to sustain. This is still a good show, but once you’ve seen it at its best, it’s hard to settle.

Quick Hits:

  • Even though I was mostly watching out of obligation, the Legion series finale was, at least, true to itself: a visual acid trip, narratively opaque, and performed with commitment by Dan Stevens and company. If any other series pulled the “let’s just reset time” ending, I’d probably be infuriated, but here I only felt relief. Moreover, this season’s big new invention, the creepy Time Demons, were wholly original, and wholly memorable.
  • Everything’s coming up Julio Torres, with the delightful first season of HBO’s Los Espookys (which got renewed!) and now his stand-up (sort of) special My Favorite Shapes that aired last weekend. It’s an endearingly silly reinvention of prop comedy, featuring a shiny and glittered Torres gently pushing against the membrane of reality as a conveyor belt rolls out objects — from a simple magenta square to a giant shoe that holds other shoes — that are significant to him. If you enjoyed Espookys or Torres’s work on SNL, check out Shapes.
  • I caught up with a couple of early 2019 releases, starting with Detective Pikachu. I’m not sure I really followed the plot at all (thought it sure felt a lot like Zootopia), but the Pokemon are so dang cute it didn’t really matter. And it was another valuable lesson in “don’t trust the guy with the holograms.”
  • The other was Tolkien, which I didn’t expect to find nearly as lovely and affecting as I did. Dome Karukowski’s film isn’t especially remarkable in its accounting of the author’s early years, but it taps into a lot of the same feelings that make similar coming-of-age, bonding-in-a-boarding-school stories successful. At least, Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins are good, and if you love Tolkien’s work, you’ll probably enjoy it.
  • I’m pretty much out on The Handmaid’s Tale. It feels endless, and June has become kinda awful. So there.
  • Succession is back! More on that next month, but for now I’m firmly #TeamShiv.
  • The Terror is back too — the second round of AMC’s spooky anthology is subtitled Infamy, and grafts a ghost story onto its account of one family’s experience in a Japanese interment camp. With only one episode to judge from so far, this season is already way creepier, but the characters aren’t as immediately compelling as the crews of the HMS Terror and Erebus. On the other hand, the setting is painfully relevant, and the presence of George Takei lends further gravitas.
  • So I got tired of seeing everyone so excited about next year’s Picard series, and we decided to dive into The Next Generation on Netflix. I did some research and made a list of about half of the episodes of the first two seasons to watch, because those are apparently pretty bumpy. But I’m digging it! Favorites so far: “Symbiosis,” “Elementary, Dear Data,” “A Matter of Honor,” “Time Squared,” “Peak Performance.” On to Season 3!

Looking ahead to: Umm… not much. It’s the dead season before the real Oscar bait comes a-knocking. But there’s Ad Astra (9/20), and John Crowley’s adaptation of The Goldfinch (9/13); on the TV side, Netflix’s new The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (8/30), and Bojack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s experimental second series Undone (Amazon, 9/13), which looks pretty wild. And don’t forget the Emmys on September 22nd!

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