David’s Watch Diary: December 2019, Part 2

My last post of the year is a big one: Thoughts on Little Women, The Mandalorian, Uncut Gems, The Expanse, The Two Popes, the end of Mr. Robot, and more.

Little Women

Little Women has a Little Man Problem,” grumbles this Vanity Fair article from last week. Apparently (and unsurprisingly), male awards voters have been reluctant to attend screenings of Greta Gerwig’s latest masterpiece. Put off by the title, I suppose, or by a lifetime of accumulated assumptions about a book that, like me, they’ve never read. But those men are ignorant fools. I didn’t really know what Little Women was about, either. I had a general idea of the setting and I knew something about a young writer and a romance, but I was never assigned Louisa May Alcott’s novel in school, nor did I ever seek it out, or see the 1994 Winona Ryder-starring adaptation or any of the many others filmmakers have attempted over the years.

I didn’t doubt Greta Gerwig, however. I knew that if she had chosen to follow up the extraordinary Best Picture nominee Lady Bird (on my Best of the Decade list) with yet another version of something I imagined (wrongly) was dull and stuffy, she had a good reason, and would tell that story in a way that would resonate anew with a modern audience. And reader, her Little Women is something special indeed. There is so much love in this film, both in its making and on screen. It’s moving, funny, and brilliantly structured, bifurcating its source material so the past is constantly reinforcing the present and vice versa, making poignant visual and thematic connections like reliving your own memories. I bet that when I see it a second time, the power of Gerwig’s screenplay will only be amplified.

Saoirse Ronan, continuing her remarkable partnership with Gerwig, shines as the headstrong writer Jo, who wants far more out of life than romance. As Meg, the aspiring actress and oldest sister, Emma Watson gives her best performance in quite some time. Florence Pugh is both hilarious and devastating as Amy, the froufrou-loving artist who forms the other point of the triangle with Timothee Chalamet’s Laurie, the charismatic boy next door with the impossible bone structure. Laura Dern and Bob Odenkirk radiate warmth and decency. Eliza Scanlen’s Beth has the least to do, but her role is the most symbolic of childhood lost, and her relationship with Chris Cooper’s Mr. Laurence (cast beautifully against type) leads to two of the film’s most moving scenes, one of which features no dialogue at all — just a grieving father sitting on a staircase, listening. That was the first time this Little Women got me, and it wasn’t the last.

The struggles of the March sisters in 1860-70s Connecticut may seem small, but great drama has never been inhibited by lack of scale. By playing both the teenaged and adult versions of their characters, Gerwig’s talented cast is able to shade in a lifetime of sisterly shorthand and shared experience, and I was never once confused about where (or when) we were thanks to subtle color cues from cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. But Gerwig isn’t satisfied with doing only an exceptional adaptation; the film’s cubist ending, without giving it away, is both true to the novel and to Alcott’s original planned conclusion — an innovative piece of sleight-of-hand that reframes everything that came before by transferring, rather than replacing, Jo’s true desire. “It’s not girl gets boy,” Gerwig has said in interviews. “It’s girl gets book.” The March sisters long to create and love and self-actualize on their own terms, even if those dreams don’t all look the same or society expects differently, and Gerwig grants them that in a way that doesn’t feel the slightest bit cheap. It’s not an “update” or modernization of a beloved story, but an evolution into a truer version of itself. Like Jo, and like Alcott, Gerwig is a born storyteller, and it’s a privilege to watch her do it.

The Mandalorian (Disney+)

Ah, to be satisfied by Star Wars. Remember that feeling? I don’t know how many of you would have predicted that the best Lucasfilm release of 2019 wasn’t the 40-years-in-the-making conclusion of the Skywalker saga but the television show with Baby Yoda, yet here we are. (If you haven’t read my standalone spoilery review of The Rise of Skywalker, here you go.) The Mandalorian’s eight-episode run ended this past Friday with “Redemption,” a crackerjack piece of action (directed by Taika Waititi!) that paid off a Jawa crawler’s worth of character beats — Mando’s turnaround on droids, Mando’s origin, Mando’s real name, Mando’s real face, a number of other things not Mando-related — and set the series up for another galaxy-trotting season with his tiny green foundling in tow. What more could you want?

The age of binge-watching (not to mention Game of Thrones) has trained us to expect these new blockbuster TV series to function like 10-hour movies, so it was downright refreshing for The Mandalorian to be… a TV series. Taking as much inspiration from old Westerns like The Lone Ranger as from more recent genre goofiness like Xena: Warrior Princess, many of Mando’s exploits followed a similar “adventure of the week” pattern, and there was no small comfort in that. The hero rides into town, solves a problem, then rides out. A farming village needs defending from bandits. A reward is promised for helping with a prison break. An aspiring bounty hunter wants to learn the ropes. Some of these stories were more successful than others (I adored the Seven Samurai-styled “Sanctuary,” but “The Gunslinger” was a misfire), but their simplicity was appealing, easily digestible, and the traditional once-a-week release schedule meant that we could all talk about it/make memes instead of just launching into the next episode. I missed that feeling as well.

But it wasn’t just fun pulp storytelling; there was some great filmmaking on display, especially from directors Deborah Chow (who helmed “The Sin” and the “Reckoning”) and Bryce Dallas Howard (“The Prisoner,” which had my single-favorite action beat in Mando’s strobed attack on Bill Burr). It’s tremendously difficult to create emotional context when your protagonist never removes his helmet, but smart compositional choices, and Pedro Pascal’s body language and terse line readings, always made Mando’s intentions clear. Ludwig Göransson’s musical theme is instantly iconic, the perfect heartbeat accompaniment whether you’re sneaking into an ex-Imperial base or just getting the mail. It may have been “conventional” TV writing, but it never looked like it, and often the smaller scale (like the climax of “Redemption” when Mando used his new jet pack to take down a lone TIE fighter) worked to its advantage. My favorite scene this week, after all, was when Waititi devoted five full minutes to an Abbott & Costello routine between a pair of nameless stormtroopers.

And of course, there was Baby Yoda, who took the world by storm to a degree that even merch-savvy Disney didn’t seem prepared for. What made it work was that he wasn’t just adorable, but mysterious: Where did he come from? Is he actually Yoda’s offspring, or is there a planet full of the lil’ green guys? Just what is he capable of? Mando may not be the most attentive surrogate father, but their bond — one can’t talk, and the other can’t emote — is weirdly beautiful in its way. Call me an easy mark, or decry the mercenary weaponization of smol, actor-less characters (with Baby Groot as Patient Zero), but LBY is here to stay and should be protected at all costs. Let Carl Weathers holler that to the community theater cheap seats.

Uncut Gems

The experience of watching Uncut Gems is like one of those old carnival rides where the floor drops out and you’re pressed against the wall by centrifugal force, spinning until you vomit. The Safdie Brothers’ jittery, grimy, disorienting fourth feature is cinematic crack, dragging you down in the wake of Howard Ratner’s (Adam Sandler) self-destructive spiral; you’re powerless to intervene as he makes bad choice after bad choice, a swirling vortex of neediness that nothing — not even his perpetual gambler’s high — can fill.

Simultaneously, Benny & Josh Safdie (with their co-writer, Ronald Bronstein) provide a fascinating keyhole into a world-within-a-world: New York City’s Diamond District and the many personalities within. The constant overlapping dialogue suggests side characters and extras in the middle of their their own storylines, but the focus is squarely on Sandler’s Howard, a gem proprietor and sports betting addict who plunges willingly into the worst week of his life. He’s just acquired a stunning black opal from Ethiopia that he plans to auction for a cool million dollars, but allows NBA star Kevin Garnett (as himself) to “borrow” it as a talisman for the NBA playoffs; meanwhile, goons of the impatient Arno (Eric Bogosian) are after him for money he owes, but instead of paying it, he pawns Garnett’s championship ring for cash to put on yet another impulsive bet, and on and on, playing three-card-Monte all around the city with other peoples’ money and property.

The more the walls close in, the harder Uncut Gems is to watch, and the harder it is to stop watching. That’s in huge part due to Sandler, bringing every ounce of his trademark charismatic, sociopathy to bear in his customary twice-a-decade reminder that he can really act when he wants to. Howard is always moving, chattering, ungrammatically texting, buying himself just a little bit more through sheer chutzpah. The supporting cast is a pitch-perfect mix of journeymen and non-actors: The Weeknd and leather-skinned Wayne Diamond play off-center versions of themselves; Broadway legend Idina Menzel and newcomer Julia Fox play Howard’s long-suffering wife and mistress, respectively; Lakeith Stanfield is all cool inscrutability as the member of Garnett’s crew that sets Howard’s crisis in motion. Garnett himself gives the best performance by an NBA player since Ray Allen in He Got Game, matching Sandler’s intensity with almost comical ease. He’s so good, actually, that I almost forgive him for a career spent disrespecting Tim Duncan.

The Safdies had Uncut Gems in development for nearly a decade. The original iteration starred Sascha Baron Cohen and Amar’e Stoudemire; another, Jonah Hill and Joel Embiid. But the directors patiently waited until they had built up enough industry capital — namely, a producer credit from Martin Scorsese — to make the film their way, down to colonoscopy shots and Daniel Lopatin’s eerie electronic score. You can’t say the timing isn’t perfect for Sandler, who’s mostly been making lowbrow comedies under a lucrative Netflix contract since 2014. I won’t hold my breath about some sort of Sandler Renaissance, but if he gets his first Oscar nomination next month, he’ll have earned it.

The Expanse, Season 4 (Amazon)

When Syfy cancelled The Expanse in May of 2018 it was a crushing blow to yet another genre series that had just found its feet. After two seasons of detailed world-building and pulpy action, the third opened things up (literally, in the case of the ring gates) and showed the show’s true potential. It got my attention, at least. I spent the interim devouring the books — eight have been published to date, plus a few novellas, with the ninth and final installment due in 2020 — and rewatched the series with fresh eyes. But I barely had time to mourn what I had only just begun to love when Amazon (or more specifically, Jeff Bezos) answered fan outcry, which included flying an actual plane over the goliath’s headquarters, by giving The Expanse the home it always deserved.

For the uninitiated, the setup goes something like this: A couple of centuries into the future, mankind has colonized the solar system from Mars to the moons of Jupiter. In between is the blue-collar “Belt,” whose residents speak in a distinctive patois and harbor justified resentment against the exploitative “Inners.” The tension is thick when a destructive alien technology called the Protomolecule upends the game board, with the humans scrabbling to control or destroy it until it reveals its true purpose: To open gates to a hundred different worlds in a hundred different systems. The series had always been great hard sci-fi; every detail from the costumes to the ship functions to the politics is extrapolated from Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck’s novels (which they wrote under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey), but it can go pretty weird when it wants to.

Season 4 picks up at the beginning of this land rush, with the hardy quartet of the Rocinante asked to mediate a deadly dispute on one of these new, strange worlds. The Belter colony on Ilus (or “New Terra,” if you’re an Inner) would rather blow up a landing pad than lose their claim to a team of Earth scientists and paramilitary, and the vengeful Murtry (Burn Gorman) won’t hesitate to shoot any colonist who poses a threat. But Roci Captain Holden (Steven Strait) has a bigger problem: The structures left by the ancient aliens who built the ring gates are beginning to wake up, and it’s probably his fault. As the fuse gets lit between the Inners and the colonists, a cascade of calamities befalls everyone on the planet: Tsunamis, whirring razor insects, toxic slugs, and even mass blindness.

That’s just one planet, as The Expanse is still a strong ensemble show. The other storylines don’t come from the Cibola Burn novel, however, and accordingly aren’t plotted as tightly or have the same sense of urgency. But the characterizations remain strong, from ex-Martian Marine Bobbie (Frankie Adams) falling in with corrupt arms dealers, to Avasarala’s (Shohreh Aghdashloo) re-election campaign, to Drummer and Ashford (Cara Gee and David Straithairn) tracking down terrorists; book readers will know these are teeing up explosive future plotlines, but the Ilus sections, shot in anamorphic widescreen no less, are strong enough to make up for any perceived pacing issues. It’s just so much fun to watch Holden, Naomi, Alex, and Amos (Wes Chatham, in particular, really has his performance dialed in) interact with each other. If you still haven’t gotten on board with this cool, cool show, now’s the time.

The Two Popes

Fernando Meirelles’ first feature film since 2011’s 360 (with stints in TV and at the Rio Olympic Games in between) is a low-key affair, at least as low-key as the story of first papal renunciation in seven centuries can be. Every Vatican City conclave, the news broadcasts never hesitate to tell us, is a binary choice between “tradition” and “progress,” but only once in modern times have the two embodiments of those positions been able to break bread together as the scepter of the Holy See is passed on, which is a highly-charged notion any way you slice it.

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten might be the reigning king of the middlebrow after writing The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, and Bohemian Rhapsody back to back, but The Two Popes isn’t saccharine, didactic, or simplistic. The content of the meetings between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and soon-to-be-Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), though highly dramatized and re-contextualized, are largely pulled from the mens’ writings and public addresses. McCarten and Meirelles give these two sharp-minded figureheads room to run, so to speak, volleying quips and arguments back and forth in a pleasingly rhythmic cadence: “You talk about walls as if they as if they are bad things,” says Benedict in his garden. “A house is built on walls.” Francis: “Did Jesus build walls? Mercy is the dynamite that blows down walls.” The two veteran performers at the film’s center elevate this repartee even further: Hopkins as the more difficult and jaded of the two, Pryce as the reluctant ascendant. Both are haunted by mistakes of their past, but only Pryce’s Cardinal Bergoglio gets flashbacks charting his rise, fall, and repentance as a Jesuit priest who collaborated too closely with the Argentine military junta of the 70s and 80s.

Yet The Two Popes is not quite as heavy as it seems on first glance. Meirelles, shooting even the most intimate scenes in the same handheld style he used for City of God, practically turns the film into a buddy comedy for stretches; the two men, far apart ideologically, bond over music, dance, sport, and pizza. Pryce spends much of the film simply reacting to the extravagance of the Vatican and of Benedict’s “summer residence”, but with the actor’s avuncular humility it plays for humor, not outrage — and more importantly, as an uncanny ringer for the beloved Francis. The outrage comes later, when the scandals of Church abuse and cover-up are finally addressed in the most explosive scene for both performers, though if I was to criticize anything in the film, it’d be to suggest it doesn’t go far enough, allowing Bergoglio’s absolution of the broken Benedict to ring hollow as stories have continued to come out in the years since. Nevertheless, The Two Popes is a warm and ultimately affirming experience, floating on divine grace like a feather in the wind.

Mr. Robot, Season 4 (USA)

Did I especially enjoy this final season of Mr. Robot because it took place over Christmas? Perhaps. The season of giving and warmth seemed like an incongruous setting for the famously chilly, brooding, unconventionally framed series… at first. Well, for a while. Well, all the way up to the end. Because despite Sam Esmail’s affinity for emotionally devastating twists, what surprised the most about the finale was how subdued it was. We learned that the Elliot we’ve been following this whole time was yet another personality, but that wasn’t really the point. The final moments, as Mastermind Elliot retreated through the 2001-style star gate to the theater of his host’s mind, showed the real Elliot finally coming back to himself, Darlene at his side. His chaotic and dangerous year — the creation of F Society, his prison stint, the 5/9 hack, Angela’s murder, his final showdown with Deus and Whiterose (BD Wong, mesmerizing) — ends with, of all things, some measure of restoration. Though the presentation was as opaque as ever, I still found it quietly moving.

It was a very good season, all things considered. Overly plotted and a mite slow (I would have been quite fine with 10 episodes instead of 13, if it meant less of the creepy taxidermist or wandering in the woods with Tyrell), but there were at least three top-tier Robot episodes besides the finale. “405 Method Not Aloud,” the tremendous “silent heist,” was an expert flex from Esmail and editor Rosanne Tan: the first half edge-of-your-seat tense, the second with enough chasing to make my own legs feel rubbery just watching. “407 Proxy Authentication Required” was the polar opposite in style: a proper bottle episode, written, performed, and directed like a stage play, featuring career-best work from Rami Malek, Gloria Reuben, and Elliot Vilar. Then “409 Conflict” served as the series’s grand climax, a thrilling and satisfying episode where the 1% of the 1% finally got taken down thanks to the most ingenious and engaging hacking sequences I think I’ve ever seen on screen.

Everything after that — the final three hours — was denouement, which sounds like a lot except that for Esmail, the show was never really about the hacking or the Fight Club-style dismantling of the system, but the Aldersons themselves. There was time for wish-fulfillment redistribution of wealth, and for Esmail’s take on a rom-com airport climax that didn’t give Darlene (Carly Chaikin, who got better every year) and Dom (Grace Gummer, who was always great) a romantic happy ending, but exactly what both their characters needed. What was Whiterose’s machine? What happened to the Dark Army? Doesn’t matter. And that’s okay. When the series debuted on formerly blue-sky USA in 2015, the world was a very different place, and Malek was a relative unknown. Now the actor is an Oscar winner, and the rest of us are ready for a little revolution of our own. Here’s to one of the decade’s most groundbreaking series ending true to itself.

Quick hits:

  • Just one: we rented the Downton Abbey movie, which was a tricky thing at first because I found I didn’t remember where most of the characters ended up at the end of the television series’ run. But the film is duty-bound to service them all, cramming in many hours of plot into a feature-length run time; scandals surface and are quickly diffused; obstacles are presented and overcome; the King and Queen enjoy their stay; Molesley makes a barmy fool of himself; Maggie Smith slings every remaining barb in her quiver. You know, the usual, but this time with drone shots and some CG backdrops.

Looking ahead to: I finally get 1917 on January 10th; Doctor Who returns on New Year’s Day (BBC America); Armando Iannucci’s sci-fi follow-up to Veep, Avenue 5 (1/19, HBO); Picard on CBS All Access, which I don’t have, but I’ll probably still find a way (1/23).

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