David’s Watch Diary: January 2021

Thoughts on The Expanse, One Night in Miami, Lupin, News of the World, and more.

The Expanse, Season 5 (Amazon)

It’s a statement of fact that every season of The Expanse has been better than the last, which by some law of thermodynamics puts its fifth (and said to be penultimate) up there with the best space-fi storytelling in the history of the medium. I’m talking peak Trek, peak Battlestar. It’s that good.

I’m reluctant to say too much about the plot, because while its cult following has only grown since it was rescued by Amazon Prime, I don’t want to spoil you in case you’re thinking of finally checking it out. Suffice to say that Season 5 is based on Nemesis Games, the fifth book in the saga written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (as James S. A. Corey), and the series’ scale has (ahem) expanded to where the fate of Earth is quite literally at stake. But don’t let that kind of apocalyptic derring-do put you off, either, because while The Expanse excels at catastrophic action, its detailed world-building and sprawling ensemble are what make it, as the line goes, “Game of Thrones in space.”

I’ve written before about the series’ remarkable futurism, and the scientific granularity that’s baked into everything from the spaceship design, to the development of inter-planetary colonies, to the constant click-click of magnetic boots. Like GoT this is a fully-realized world, and like GoT, The Expanse is adept at toggling its aperture hour by hour, or scene by scene. (This season has pushed that even farther by splitting everyone up into their own stories that — as of this writing, before the season finale — are finally on the verge of coming back together.) The intrepid crew of the Rocinante, the power players on Earth, Mars, and beyond the asteroid belt, and even the ordinary folks struggling in the margins on backwater moons and space stations are all part of the canvas, and all are compelling.

With Captain Holden (Steven Strait) taking a step back after last season’s metaphysical barn-burner, showrunner Naren Shankar and her team have further elevated the industrious Naomi (Dominique Tipper) and taciturn Amos (Wes Chatham) as they deal with the fallout of a shocking terrorist attack. For the latter, that means finding a way to get off Earth before it’s too late; for the former, that means getting way too close to Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander)… and the son she had with him (Jasai Chase Owens). Tipper, who spends most of the season’s final episodes entirely alone, gets to play Naomi not just as the cleverest engineer in the solar system and the heart of the Roci, but a total badass to boot. There’s also plenty of fan-favorites Camina Drummer (Cara Gee and her eyeliner) and Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo and her saris), but it’s Naomi and Amos that finally have the most to do, and the season is better for it.

I’m curious, however, to see how they’ll write out Cas Anvar’s Alex; a number of women came forward last year accusing Anvar of sexual misconduct, which the producers investigated and acted on. It’s a loss for fans of the books, but the right choice to make — and if it means more action for Frankie Adams’ Bobbie, perhaps even a net positive. Fortunately, it hasn’t cast as large a shadow over this season as I feared — partially because Anvar mostly just pushes buttons and reacts to screens, but also because the rest of it has been so dang good. So Earthers, Martians, Belters — join the family. The Expanse is an all-timer.

One Night in Miami (Amazon)

February 25th, 1964. Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali) has just become the champion of the world. But that night, rather than go out on the town, he opts for a low-key celebration with three close friends: Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. All four, titans of Black American culture. All four, keenly aware that the nation is rapidly coming to a crossroads. What they really talked about in that small hotel room will never be known, but what screenwriter Kemp Powers (based on his 2013 play) imagines in One Night in Miami is the next-best thing: a powerful and lively tribute to these men, with a nuanced central conflict that still resonates today.

Powers, who also co-directed Pixar’s Soul, has a keen understanding of what these icons represent, both in their time and today. Clay (Eli Goree), reveling in his upset victory over Sonny Liston, is about to announce his conversion to the Nation of Islam under the guidance of Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir). The civil rights leader, however, is secretly making plans to exit the organization at great personal risk, and wants Clay, Brown (Aldis Hodge) and singer Sam Cooke (Hamilton’s Leslie Odom, Jr.) to use their cultural platforms to advance the cause, not just take the White Man’s money. Notably, Ben-Adir’s Malcolm isn’t the fire-and-brimstone incarnation of Denzel Washington, but a slight, nerdy, budding photographer who offers his friends ice cream rather than beer, and whose moral backbone is made of titanium. Goree brings the energy and Hodge the deadpan, but it’s Malcolm and Cooke’s philosophical differences at the heart of the story, and both Ben-Adir and Odom give award-worthy performances — all the way to the latter’s final show-stopping performance of “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Like last month’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, this is another example of “staginess” as misnomer. The performances are so dynamic and the dialogue is so rich that it never feels artificial or constrained — a remarkable accomplishment for director Regina King. The Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress has directed episodes of television and non-fiction, but this is her first scripted feature. Though she makes efforts to open up the world, she almost doesn’t have to; every choice she makes in that hotel room is the right one, and her cast is brilliantly dialed-in. King is an extraordinary talent, working with extraordinary talents, in a story about extraordinary talent and the responsibility that comes with it. I can’t wait to see how her career evolves from here.

Lupin (Netflix)

Let’s talk about Lupin! Following in the now grand tradition of Stranger Things and The Queen’s Gambit, the French co-production has burst essentially from nowhere to occupy our hearts, minds, and a spot in Netflix’s (opaquely tabulated) Top 10. With a star-making performance from Omar Sy and style to burn, Lupin amalgamates ingredients from Sherlock, Luther, and Ocean’s Eleven into its own very entertaining (and very French) concoction.

The thing to know, at least in relation to Maurice Leblanc’s wildly popular novels from the early 20th century, is that Sy does not play Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar. Rather, he plays Assane Diop, a chameleon inspired from a young age by Lupin’s exploits. Assane is the smartest and coolest man in any room — unless he is intentionally trying not to be, which is often. As a Senegalese immigrant, he excels at using his marks’ prejudice against them. But now, after a career of honest thievery, he has his sights set on a bigger prize: bringing down the powerful magnate (Hervé Pierre) who framed Assane’s father for stealing a diamond necklace. If he can get ahold of the necklace himself, even better.

Lupin is created by George Kay, who has contributed to Killing Eve and the international series Criminal. In this first batch of episodes (“Part 2” is supposedly dropping in the next few months), a lot is played close to Assane’s impeccably tailored vest. The side characters, including Assane’s sometime sidekick (Antoine Guoy), ex-wife (Ludivigne Sagnier) and the many detectives on his tail, are not especially well-developed. But the series is just so dang fun, with a glossy visual style established by Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance) in the early episodes. And Sy is mesmerizing. I firmly believe he could out-suave Clooney and all the rest.

News of the World (VOD)

If it’s a Millennial aphorism that “if the job you want doesn’t exist, invent it,” we can take some inspiration from Cpt. Kidd (Tom Hanks), a publisher-turned-Confederate soldier whose post-war career is simply riding from town to town, reading interesting and entertaining news stories to regular folks. Save for the ruffians and the constant wilderness travel, I actually think I’d be well-suited for it. Kidd doesn’t just have a keen intellect but a showman’s flair, and he holds his audience in the palm of his hand whether the story is about the railroad finally coming to their dusty neck of the woods, or a thrilling tale of Northern mine workers surviving a cave-in. News of the World, based on the novel by Paulette Giles (and adapted by Paul Greengrass & Luke Davies), is at its best a story about storytelling, and in the more-than-capable hands of Tom Hanks, Kidd’s weary everyman is a bard for all seasons.

Most of the film, however, is a much more conventional story about a lonely man and the twice-orphaned girl he comes to take responsibility for — in this case, Johanna (Helena Zengel, quite good), who has no memory of her birth parents, only of the Kiowan tribe that adopted her before American Progress killed them as well. When Kidd happens across her overturned wagon on the road and learns she was on her way to being reunited with an aunt and uncle she’s never met, he is compelled to see the job to the end — as every Hanks character must — even at great personal risk.

It’s a left-field choice for Greengrass, best known for cinema verite docudramas and the Jason Bourne series, and his style here — though still heavily handheld — could be mistaken for “classical.” With the help of some crack collaborators (especially cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, costume designer Mark Bridges, and composer James Newton Howard) he proves himself as capable of staging an Old West gun fight as a high-speed car chase. His second collaboration with Hanks also yields another exceptional performance, showing a soulful vulnerability that not even Spielberg regularly asks of the actor. Yet, for all of its well-made parts, News of the World is only a solid outing, not a transcendent one.

Quick Hits:

  • I’ll have a lot more to say about WandaVision, but so far I’m loving it even more for its elaborate homages to mid-century sitcoms than the (opaque, for now) MCU stuff. I’m also convinced that if Elizabeth Olsen had been born fifty years earlier, she’d have been the biggest TV star in the world.
  • Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself (now on Hulu) is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s not just a magic act, because DelGaudio is not just a magician. He’s a storyteller, capable of connecting to his rapt audiences’ innermost selves while simultaneously executing flawless slight-of-hand. The special is directed by Frank Oz; watch it knowing as little as possible. Maybe you can’t trust DelGaudio, but you can trust me.
  • The Mayor (NBC), despite its pedigree (Tina Fey & Robert Carlock! Ted Danson!) is not immune to the usual early-episode struggles, and I can’t say that a series about a wealthy businessman who goes into politics as a lark and improbably wins his election is exactly, to use a painfully overused phrase, “what we need right now.” But the ingredients are there, and I’m willing to be patient. For now.
  • Over the last month we finished our first-time watch of Star Wars Rebels on Disney+. Most impressive — and now all the Mandalorian nods to it make a lot more sense. Bring back Thrawn and Ezra, Dave Filoni!
  • Very late to the party here, but I finally watched the first two Small Axe installments on Amazon (Mangrove and Lovers Rock), and they’re both incredible. Though many film critics decided to put one or both on their Top 10s, I’d definitely have found room for Small Axe on my TV list if I’d gotten to it sooner. Highly, highly recommended.

Looking ahead to… Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan are archeologists in The Dig (1/29, Netflix)… Oscar contenders Judas and the Black Messiah (2/12, HBO Max), Nomadland (2/19, Hulu) and Minari (2/26, VOD) finally become widely availableApple TV+’s The Snoopy Show looks cute? (2/5)

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