Mega post! Thoughts on The Trial of the Chicago 7, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Ted Lasso, Dick Johnson is Dead, Lovecraft Country, Enola Holmes, and more.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)
I’m still something of a sucker for Sorkin. Look — I know, I know. His politics are naive. There’s nothing he can’t mansplain. He self-plagiarizes to a ludicrous degree. A lot of his older work — however groundbreaking it was at the time — hasn’t entirely held up. But when he’s at the top of his game (The Social Network, Moneyball, even Steve Jobs), it’s some the best screenwriting of this century, and he’s going to have my attention with each new project. Chicago 7 is no different, and it serves as the distillation of what he cares the most about: principled people making impassioned speeches, especially in a courtroom.
Of course, your mileage may vary on whether you find the renderings of anarcho-communist Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), tucked-shirt liberal Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Watchmen‘s Yahya Abdul-Mateen) and the rest credible or consistent with the real-life figures, but the true story of the trial is almost too farcical to be believed. Between the constant interruptions, various stunts, and the prejudiced judge well out of his depth, it was already made for primetime, and in Sorkin’s hands, it moves at a wildly entertaining clip. Sorkin is especially gifted at connecting ideas across different moments in time; as for the film’s own timeliness, with its depiction of police brutality, politically-motivated injustice, and the many different flavors of leftism? Same as it ever was — including Sorkin’s belief, despite all evidence, that the right high-minded oratory can change the world. “I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before,” muses Hoffman. And when those thoughts include “stop sending young men to die in a senseless war,” those doing the sending don’t want to hear it any more than they did in 1969. Despite the many liberties taken with the material, Sorkin knows which themes to lean into.
Perhaps, now that he has transitioned from Screenwriter Emeritus to Writer/Director with the flawed Molly’s Game and now Chicago 7, you have to ask whether he still needs another voice in the mix to bring out the best in the material. His unflashy and workmanlike staging doesn’t hurt the end result, but it keeps it from being the knockout it would have been if Spielberg had just directed it himself, as originally planned over decade ago. At least then Baron Cohen would have been young enough for the part, though he’s memorable and funny here. The supporting cast is truly an embarrassment of riches, from the wry weariness of Mark Rylance to the stubborn ignorance of Frank Langella, but my pick for MVP is Succession’s Jeremy Strong as blissed-out yippie Jerry Rubin, who has many of the film’s best lines and is much wiser than he appears. This thing is going to get more Oscar nominations than it deserves in this truncated season, but I hope Strong is one of them.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Amazon)
“My name Borat, my wife is nice, high five!” begins Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, as if Sacha Baron Cohen wanted to get the stale callbacks out of the way immediately. Filmed largely in secret over the past year, we see Kazakhstan’s most infamous (fake) journalist freed from the gulag for a special mission: To present a special gift to “Vice Premier Michael Pence” and restore his nation’s global standing. Back in 2006, Baron Cohen’s fearless way of getting Americans to reveal their worst selves was shocking and novel; looking back on it now, it was a warning of what was coming. Right-wing protestors in 2020 singing along about chopping journalists up “like the Saudis do?” Sure. A couple of QAnon guys in a cabin fervently describing how Hilary Clinton drinks the blood of children? We’ve heard it. A pastor at a pregnancy clinic more focused on stopping a potential abortion than that the girl might have impregnated by her father? No further capacity to shock.
And yet, the sequel (directed by Nathan For You veteran Jason Woliner) has two things going for it: how the story is suddenly and irrevocably affected by COVID-19, and the film’s ace in the hole, unknown Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova as Borat’s spirited teenage daughter, Tutar. After stowing away in her father’s crate on his journey back to America, she becomes a key piece of his plan and must learn how to act like “a real American girl” in order to impress whichever high-ranking official she’ll be offered to. For Tutar, it’s fulfilling the dream of being the next Melania; unfortunately for Borat, that means unlearning everything she knows about sleeping in cages, being forbidden to read or drive, or receiving fatherly affection.
Despite all odds, Tutar’s arc forms Subsequent Moviefilm’s emotional core, and with the brilliant Bakalova matching Baron Cohen stunt for stunt (all the way to the climactic Rudy Giuliani encounter that’s already made headlines), she ensures that the film doesn’t feel like it’s returning to a dried-up well. It’s every bit as uncomfortable and gut-bustingly funny as the original, even if Americans no longer need prodding from a weirdo in a costume to act like ignorant bigots.
Ted Lasso (Apple)
This was a breath of fresh air. The concept (based on a 2014 NBC Sports ad campaign, which evokes memories of the DOA Cavemen series) is too dumb to support a full-blown television series — or so I thought. Instead, as developed by Scrubs‘s Bill Lawrence and Detroiters‘s Joe Kelly, this warm hug of a show ingeniously justifies its existence with strong characterizations, quick and clever dialogue, and themes that redefine masculinity in the post-Bad Man era of television. Like Lasso himself (winningly played by co-creator Jason Sudeikis), you don’t have to know anything about the English Premier League — or soccer in general — to have a good time, but it might make you a fan anyway.
As the titular college football coach spontaneously hired to manage a struggling (fictional) side in West London, Sudeikis’s aw-shucks optimism is infectious. To the show’s credit, it doesn’t spend much time trying to evolve Lasso into a tactical genius (in fact, it doesn’t spent much time on tactics at all). What Lasso is, to the consternation of the tavern locals and the new team owner (Hannah Waddingham) who only wants to drive the club in the ground to spite her predatory ex-husband, is an effective leader of men. He doesn’t accomplish this through inspiring speeches or a dominant attitude, but through the hard work of empathizing with everyone he comes into contact with — from the perpetually angry veteran (co-writer Brett Goldstein, consistently hilarious), to the squad’s prima donna (Phil Dunster), to the meek locker room assistant (Nick Mohammad) who might have an idea or two.
There is nothing mean-spirited or cynical about Ted Lasso, or about Ted Lasso. It slots beautifully next to Parks and Rec, Schitt’s Creek, and other recent comedies that make you care more about how the characters evolve than whether every single joke lands perfectly (though most certainly do!). Other standouts include Juno Temple, whose introduction as an obnoxiously superficial player’s girlfriend belies her inner strength, and co-writer Brendan Hunt as “Coach Beard,” the assistant coach with the beard. But trust me: I signed up for Apple TV+ just to watch it, and I’m so happy I did. It’s funny, of course, but equally moving, and perhaps the biggest surprise of the television year. “Do you believe in ghosts?” Lasso is asked. “I do, but I also think they need to believe in themselves.”
Lovecraft Country (HBO)
The one thing you can’t say is that it didn’t take big swings. And Misha Green’s series certainly started brilliantly, with one of the most compelling pilots in recent memory. Early episodes signaled an anthology-style approach: a haunted house here, a subterranean museum heist there, and a reality-hopping spotlight for a supporting character that defied description. Each hour delivered something new, or something old in a fresh way. It was also consistently revolting, putting images on screen that my squeamish self will not soon forget (to say nothing of the the terrifying, dancing pickaninny caricatures of the eighth episode, “Jig-a-Bobo.”)
Eventually, though, it all had to tie together into something, and that something proved to be less than the sum of its graphically-rendered parts. The finale, “Full Circle,” was mostly an hour of blood magic and chanting; the more the series focused on its lore, the less engaging it became. What made Lovecraft initially hit like a bolt of lightning was the feeling of possibility, the unknown — the show that could be anything and do anything, and certainly tried. The existence of such a high-flying genre exercise getting HBO money to tell stories of black trauma, redefining the storytelling style of the racist author that gave the series its name, is itself praiseworthy. And I certainly enjoyed the performances from Jonathan Majors (already one of the great on-screen criers!), Jurnee Smollett, an always-surprising Abbey Lee, and the rest. Mostly, I’m just bummed to find I don’t have more to say about it now that it’s over.
Dick Johnson Is Dead (Netflix)
“A daughter helps her father prepare for the end of his life.” That’s the logline for Kirsten Johnson’s followup to Cameraperson (one of the best documentaries of 2016, or any year), and from that alone, you’d expect it to be a heavy watch. An elegiac tear-jerker, perhaps, with all the rawness the medium can provide. Instead, however, Dick Johnson Is Dead is a joyful experience — a loving paean to a unique man who, as of this writing, is very much alive.
The younger Johnson accomplishes this, hilariously, by “killing” her father over and over again. Dick falls down the stairs; he gets crushed by an air conditioner; he gets skewered by a piece of lumber. Sometimes Kirsten uses stuntmen, or asks her delightfully amenable dad to lie in a pool of fake blood. It’s the kind of thing, she explains, they could only do together now, and have to do before his mental faculties slip away. They already watched that happen to her mother, and Kirsten has precious little footage to remember Mrs. Johnson by. This time she wants to celebrate the man as he was, while he still is. The result is moving, wryly funny, and shot through with love.
Kirsten creates an “afterlife” for him, with floofy clouds and a Jesus stand-in who “heals” Dick’s clubbed feet so he can dance alongside a woman wearing a giant cut-out head of his late wife. There’s even a fake funeral sequence where he lies in state as his best friend fights real tears during the pre-emptive eulogy happening a few yards away. Everyone involved is a good sport, but there’s something almost holy about the entire experience. When death is inevitable, even — or especially — for those we care the most about, what is more worth celebrating than a life well lived?
Enola Holmes (Netflix)
It’s good, actually! While I wonder which came first — Enola’s repeated, Fleabag-style asides to the camera, or the hiring of Fleabag director Harry Bradbeer — in any case, this potential franchise starter is a charming romp, buoyed by a wildly charismatic Millie Bobbie Brown.
Based on Nancy Springer’s YA novel The Case of the Missing Marquess, Enola Holmes reframes the deerstalker & pipe mythos around Sherlock’s little sister. Spunky, clever, and capable of winning a fistfight, Enola lives in the shadow of her brothers, and under the eclectic tutorage of her mother (Helena Bonham Carter), until the latter’s disappearance brings the family back together just long enough for Enola to hop a train to London in hopes of solving the mystery herself. In between, Brown breathlessly tells us of her childhood (accompanied by cutely animated, vintage-style photographs) and of her adoration of Sherlock (played with intelligent handsomeness by Henry Cavill). Mycroft is here, too (Sam Claflin), but he’s a twat who only wants Enola to learn how to be a lady and then get married. We shake our fist at him, because this is clearly unacceptable, even when she meets the cute, flower-loving Marquess in question (Louis Partridge).
Anyway. It might not be the kind of film you dissect in detail and there aren’t any huge surprises, but there’s plenty of danger afoot (with at least one gruesome-for-the-target-audience death), a cheerfully progressive message, and as I said above, Millie Bobbie Brown is a special talent. I would watch another.
- Yo, can we talk about Earth to Ned on Disney+? Have you even heard about it? What if I told you that the Jim Henson Company has delivered a hilarious, family-friendly heir to Space Ghost Coast to Coast about a multi-armed, charmingly narcissistic alien who is sent to invade Earth, but instead decides to host a TV show where he talks to various celebrities about all that humanity has to offer (art, sports, Star Wars, etc.)? Well, they have, and it’s freaking delightful. The puppeteering is top-notch, the voice work (from Freakazoid‘s Paul Rugg, with Michael Oosterom as his anteater-like sidekick) is great, and the writing is genuinely, unequivocally funny. Lights! Lights! Lights!
- Fargo is having some trouble out of the gate in its most self-indulgent season yet. It seems like every single scene has to include a monologue, and it doesn’t yet have the narrative thrust of the first two seasons (or even the unfairly maligned third). There’s still much to recommend (Ben Whishaw! Jessie Buckley!), and Hawley’s Swiss-watch plotting deserves the benefit of the doubt for now. It’s just not, you know, fun.
- Schitt’s Creek‘s final season was also not its best (a common complaint hurled at its feet as it delivered the first Emmys comedy sweep in history), but it aired at the right time, and was as warm and witty as you could have hoped. Someone really should write an essay about how programs like Creek and Ted Lasso have taken over the conversation where darker “prestige” series (see above) have faltered. Whatever the reason — though come on, just look around — I support it.
- Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime defies hyperbole as much as it defies description, and if you’ve seen the first two (and if you haven’t, watch them!), this one is just as much of a masterpiece. The animation is stunning, but the storytelling burrows into your mind like a memory planted by the lover of your future clone.
- I watched The Social Dilemma because my wife had to for work. It didn’t really present anything new, and the dramatized sequences were fairly cringeworthy, but I hope people got something out of it.
- After we finished Ted Lasso we jumped into Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet on Apple+. It definitely gets better as it goes along. More thoughts next month.
- If you’re looking for something to fill that Nathan For You-sized hole in your heart, HBO’s How To with John Wilson — produced by Nathan Fielder, and premiering last night — oughta do it.
- The Great British Baking Show is back, and not a moment too soon. No further comment, just rejoicing.
- It took about nine months (there’s so much going on!), but we finally Season 5 of Star Trek: The Next Generation! Lots to appreciate, especially episodes “Darmok,” “The Next Phase,” “Cause and Effect,” “Conundrum,” and “The Inner Light.”
Looking ahead to... The Queen’s Gambit miniseries just went up on Netflix, and I’ll probably write about it next month… The Mandalorian is back, baby (10/30, Disney+)… Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are doing TV again in Truth Seekers (10/30, Amazon)… The Crown triumphantly returns for Season 4 (11/15, Netflix)… Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield is finally available on demand on Nov. 17th… Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me comes to HBO as a 90-minute special (11/22).