David’s Watch Diary: July 2021

Thoughts on Loki, Black Widow, No Sudden Move, Summer of Soul, I Think You Should Leave, and more.

Loki (Disney+)

Love your neighbor as yourself. This is hardly the place for Biblical exegesis, but I couldn’t help but think of that verse while watching the latest — and far and away most successful — MCU series, and how our favorite trickster god would claim to identify a flaw in Jesus’s commandment: What if you don’t even love yourself? “I crave attention,” he admits to Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), who’s been serving up an infinite loop of groin-kicking. “I’m a narcissist, and I suppose it’s because I’m scared of being alone.” He’s broken, a misfit, unwanted by both his real and adopted people, forever a second fiddle to his more handsome and powerful brother — but Loki can never hate Thor as much as he hates Loki. His evil schemes are not really about power (though that helps), but the adulation that comes with it. He’s a Words of Affirmation guy, to put too fine a point on it.

In that sense, Loki the series (created by Michael Waldron, and entirely directed by Kate Herron) performs a genuine miracle: turning the MCU’s most interesting villain into a hero without making him any less interesting. The second miracle is like it: creating a television series that isn’t just a way station to The Next Thing (though I’ll get to that later, spoilers ahoy), but its own vibrant, focused, confident, successful Thing. It helps to have Tom Hiddleston, who knew back before anyone else that Loki was the role of a lifetime (“Marvel Rolls Dice, Casts No-Names,” chortles this 2009 headline), and has poured every ounce of his stage-trained intensity and charm into each appearance such that one know longer knows where Hiddleston ends and Loki begins. If nothing else, Loki the series is a well-deserved playground. That it’s so damn good is the icing on the green-tinted cake.

I, at least, was into it immediately. I loved the aesthetic of the TVA (Production Design: Kasra Farahani!), which is what a 1970s science fiction writer might imagine “the office of the future” to look like. I loved the score (Music: Natalie Holt!) which is so otherworldly and cool and, like the titular character, has a flair for the dramatic. I loved the cleverness of the writing as our Loki “Variant,” who exists only because of the Avengers’ meddling in Endgame, is rendered powerless — lots of little touches that reminded me of Douglas Adams, like the printout of all of his speech, or the goofy/unsettling “Miss Minutes” video (Tara Strong). The introduction of Owen Wilson’s Mobius made me jump for joy; the two actors have such different energies (one low-key, one Loki), but both radiate wry intelligence, and their early tennis matches were delightful. When the series initially seemed to set up a sustainable formula in the first two episodes — Loki and Mobius, Time Cops! — I was thrilled. I’d actually love an MCU procedural with this cast, especially with a concept so renewable. It could, and should, run for years. Doctor Who certainly has!

Loving this Midnight in Paris sequel

But as you know, that’s not entirely what Loki had in mind. Waldron and his writers’ glorious purpose was always to have to serve two masters, yet they ultimately pull off the balancing act better than WandaVision and Falcon & Winter Soldier ever could. It’s not just about being charming, or weird, or dropping loads of easter eggs (though there was plenty of that, especially in the standout, LOST-y Void episode), but telling a compelling story. Make us care about the characters on an emotional level, not just as action figures. Over the course of six episodes, Loki did just that — and not only for its lead, but for just about everyone. It’s horrible that I’ve waited this long to mention the fierce, brilliant Sophia Di Martino as Sylvie, and her pas de deux with Hiddleston; the sparks flew whether they were fighting, fleeing, scheming, or just having a quiet moment of understanding while the world literally crashed down around them. Romance — real romance — is not an area where the MCU has excelled. Steve & Peggy, that’s about it. Only Loki is narcissistic enough to fall for another version of himself, and only Loki is crazy enough to try it and succeed, where their tenderness doesn’t feel like a betrayal of their characters, but genuine, touching growth.

And then… Kang. Though the name is never spoken, his presence loomed large over the series long before he appeared, as he’s the iconic supervillain you think of whenever one starts messing with time. I never thought he actually would show up, to be frank. We’d been burned before — there was no Mephisto reveal in WandaVision, and I don’t want to talk anymore about Sharon Carter. The “man behind the curtain” was just going to be another Loki, right? Wrong! It was Jonathan Majors, who seems to have been given just one piece of direction: Go big, and go weird. It shouldn’t have worked. You don’t throw in a new character right at the end to tie everything together, and you definitely don’t make the bulk of the episode that character just sitting behind a desk doing page after page of villainous monologue — but. But. Majors’s performance is so uniquely odd (big Andrew Scott-as-Moriarty vibes!), and the scenes were so well structured, suddenly the choice to not just do another incoherent third-act fight made perfect sense. Characters talking in rooms, what a concept! But that was Loki’s secret sauce all along, and how it drew from my beloved LOST in more ways than one: it’s the first MCU project to actually put philosophy before the action.

Ugh… I could keep going, but I think you get the idea. Loki is great, Loki is great, bring on the Kangs.

Black Widow

Loki‘s excellence notwithstanding, it would have been easy to view Black Widow as a letdown, for multiple reasons. Disney kept kicking its release date down the field, determined to put it in theaters only as soon as it could justify doing so; as a consequence, it’s coming on the heels of three Marvel television series that, whatever you think of them, have each tried to push their superpowered storytelling in new directions. The film is already late enough in coming; development didn’t even begin until 2017’s Wonder Woman demonstrated that yes, audiences would be interested in a female-led comic book film — but what if the character was already dead? Instead of a bold and welcome piece of character-building sandwiched between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, we have a flashback movie, about a character whose unfortunate fate is already sealed, tossed off to the masses with an “oh right, we made this too” while the Marvel Machine spins up whatever Phase 4 is going to be.

And yet, despite the corporate missteps and questionable optics, Black Widow stands on its own as an entertaining, butt-kicking action film — both as a swan song for Scarlett Johansson’s perennially underused Natasha Romanoff, and as a baton pass to the next generation of (eventual) Avengers, personified by Florence Pugh’s Yelena. Widow‘s filming took place right before the 2019 release of Midsommar, so you could say Marvel scooped Pugh up off the waiver wire at precisely the right time. And here, as Natasha’s sardonic-yet-haunted (who isn’t, in the MCU) little sister, she grabs the steering wheel at her first appearance and doesn’t let go, almost to Johansson’s detriment. But it’s still a Black Widow movie, after all, and though Natasha’s superpower may just be “Gun” and Yelena makes fun of her constant posing, Johansson continues to make a compelling (if wildly indestructible) action heroine in a story that’s far more James Bond or Mission: Impossible than MCU. In fact, the only special powers belongs to her “father,” Alexi (David Harbour, having a great time with a hammy accent), who was the USSR’s boastful answer to Captain America before his government assigned him to Ohio in a prologue straight out of The Americans.

Director Cate Shortland, who was directly recruited by executive producer Johansson, is the latest indie talent to be squeezed into the Machine. She proves a more than competent action director (that prologue, and a later sequence involving a helicopter and an avalanche, are a lot of fun), but she’s more interested in the dynamics of Natasha’s childhood family: the acid-tinged banter between the sisters, and the justified anger they both feel towards Alexi and Melina (Rachel Weisz), whose job required them to prepare both girls for their entrance into the Widow program first glimpsed in Age of Ultron. Here the film does more than just gesture towards darker ideas as both women describe how their agency — and reproductive organs — were taken from them by force, in service of a megalomaniac (Ray Winstone) who has done the same to hundreds (if not thousands) of girls over the decades. Once the film’s mission — to bring down the “Red Room” once and for all — is revealed, we’re off to the races, and we know that the catharsis is going to be satisfying.

The film’s belated release, not to mention its placement on the timeline, carries a hidden advantage — you don’t really have to know or remember anything else from the MCU to enjoy it. It doesn’t require deep dives about infinity stones or what the appearance of a new character or location may portend for the future (give or take the obligatory post-credits scene). It’s just a solid, well-staged, well-acted thrill ride that happens to finally give one of the original “Big 6” Avengers her due. And judging from the $200 million (including Disney+) it raked in for its opening weekend, audiences welcomed that. I know I did.

No Sudden Move (HBO Max)

Glory be, it’s a new caper from Steven Soderbergh! Don’t mistake this, however, for a breezy Ocean’s film (or their southern-fried cousin, Logan Lucky); this time the highly prolific director offers something darker in tone and palette. No Sudden Move, written by Ed Solomon (Men in Black, the Bill & Ted movies), feels on its face more suited for the twisty-crime oeuvre of the Coen Brothers. Actually, it probably has the most in common with the most recent season of Fargo, right down to one character’s goal of moving to Kansas City. But this is 1955 Detroit, where “progress” and “industry” meet the reality of gentrification and redlining, leaving men like ex-con Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) without any good options.

He’s been hired, along with Ronald (Benicio del Toro) and Charley (Kieran Culkin) for a simple job: “baby-sit” the family of a GM executive (David Harbour) who is being forced to steal a mysterious document from his boss’s office. But things go sideways, as they often do, and a trio of crime bosses (Bill Duke, Ray Liotta, and an aging-into-Orson Welles Brendan Fraser) get involved, as well as a G-Man played by Jon Hamm, plus an unbilled third-act cameo I won’t spoil; it turns out that the story’s time and place were not chosen arbitrarily. The film certainly delivers on the double- and triple-crosses the genre demands; while these are no gentlemen thieves, you can’t help but root for them anyway.

Mostly, No Sudden Move is another patented Soderbergh exercise in genre style. Solomon’s plotting is labyrinthine, meant to leave you floundering — the better to enjoy rewatching later. I decided early on not to work too hard to piece it all together; fortunately, the performances are fun (especially Harbour and Culkin, who’s always fun), and Soderbergh gives the film an distinctive, if unconventional, look with fisheye lenses that warp the edges of the frame. Any character that isn’t centered looks a bit like they’re in a funhouse mirror, and even simple camera moves like a pan or track can be disorienting. I could try to justify a thematic reason for the choice, but even if it’s just Soderbergh being Soderbergh, that’s reason enough.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Hulu)

Television producer Al Tulchin knew he had gold on his hands. The footage collected throughout the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a free-to-the-public concert series held over six dizzying, jubilant weekends in then-Mount Morris Park, showcased a who’s who in Black music — a cornucopia of Motown, Gospel, Blues, Jazz, and Soul stars. Stevie Wonder. Nina Simone. Sly & the Family Stone. The 5th Dimension. Gladys Knight and the Pips. Mongo Santamaria. A lineup that impressive had just graced the smoke-filled stages at Woodstock, a hundred miles away — yet while that festival was seared into our cultural memory, the HCF was not. Tulchin even tried selling it to broadcasters as “the Black Woodstock,” but no one was interested. So the tapes collected dust for decades, never seen or even remembered except by those who were there — until Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, in his directorial debut, assembled them here for us in this joyous, historically resonant documentary.

It’s difficult to describe the pure euphoria of Summer of Soul. The music, of course, is sensational. Every chosen performance, often captured in close-ups so raw you can see the performers’ fillings, is exhilarating. Yet this is not just a concert film, but a document of a moment in time — the moment, as Al Sharpton says, where “Negro died and Black was born.” It was a generational shift in culture, music, fashion, and outlook on the world. The three hundred thousand attendants took time to acknowledge what they’d lost (Mahalia Jackson & Mavis Staples’s performance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” a year after his assassination, is beyond words), but also to look hopefully into the future, though they might disagree on the best way to get there. Security was provided by the Black Panthers, and Nina Simone, as part of her barnstorming performance, read a poem asking the crowd if they’re ready to pick up arms for their freedom; the fervent tambourine shaking of the Edwin Hawkins Singers didn’t countermand this, but allowed for the Black community to hold onto both ideas at once.

Throughout the film, Thompson supplements the kinetic concert footage with interviews with performers and attendees, and everyone has a fascinating story to share. Musa Jackson, who was in the crowd as a child, shyly describes Marylin McCoo of The 5th Dimension as his “first crush” — then we hear from McCoo herself, whose voice cracks when she describes backlash from her own community they’d previously received for being “the Black group with the White sound.” Thompson even devotes time to the Moon landing, which held the fascination of (White) America but mostly elicited shrugs from Harlemites who’d rather watch The Temptations’ David Ruffin hit impossible falsetto notes in the park. As a time capsule, Summer of Soul is exceptional; as an experience, it could have been twice as long (or a miniseries) and there would still be more music to hear and stories to tell. A gift that will never be forgotten again.

I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, Season 2 (Netflix)

Two years ago, I Think You Should Leave announced itself as the new gold standard for cringe comedy, dropping six bite-sized episodes that became not just meme fodder, but the lingua franca of the Too Online: a single image of Robinson in a hot dog suit has been used as shorthand for everything from national politics to the NBA. Most ITYSL sketches follow a familiar patten. You take an everyday setting — an office meeting, or a house party, or a restaurant. You insert a character, usually played by Robinson, who paints himself into a socially uncomfortable corner — a white lie he has to keep feeding, or a prank that goes too far, or simply refusing to admit an error. In a sweatily desperate bid to save face, he rains down chaos on the hapless onlookers until, mercifully, the series hard cuts to the next sketch.

If that’s your thing (and it is mine, when it’s done well), Season 2 offers more of the same. Loud and crude but also bone-shakingly funny (those are your dollars!), Robinson, Zach Kanin and company keep the formula fresh enough with surreal commercials, guest stars (Bob Odenkirk!), and, most importantly, a new, weird, child-centric show for Sam Richardson to host in “Little Buff Boys 2021.” My favorite sketch, “Drivers Ed,” features Patti Harrison in a series of bizarre instructional videos involving defiled folding tables and horror movie characters. But after this past year and a half, the social contract holding us together has never felt so fragile, and ITYSL is most interested in stretching that rubber band until it snaps — over, and over, and over again.

In the first episode, Robinson plays a man on a ghost tour who takes the guide’s tossed-off “say whatever you want” as license to be as gross as possible; in “Dan Flashes,” one of the season’s best, it is gradually revealed to Robinson’s officemates that he’s been spending his per diem on gaudy designer shirts. In both cases, and many others, a key step in Robinson’s spiraling is a plea for sympathy. He is always the one misunderstood or done wrong; it’s his colleagues’ fault for not understanding that he only nearly choked to death on a hot dog he was trying to secretly eat out of his sleeve because they insisted on pushing lunch back to take that meeting. An undercurrent of melancholy runs through the series, never stronger than during Odenkirk’s appearance as a man who takes Robinson’s lie about the ice cream shop being closed as a launchpad for a fantasy where his wife loves him and his many, many fancy cars. Robinson characters are indignantly confused about a world they refuse to learn to properly navigate. We all know at least one.

Quick Hits:

  • So Apple TV+ has quietly been building a top-shelf roster of shows: Ted Lasso, For all Mankind, Mythic Quest, and Central Park, which we recently started from the beginning and have fallen totally in love with. Created by Bob’s Burgers‘ Loren Bouchard, it boasts dozens of catchy original songs, warm and fuzzy storytelling, and a dizzyingly talented cast including Hamilton’s Leslie Odom, Jr. & Daveed Diggs, Tituss Burgess, Kathryn Hahn, Stanley Tucci, and (for the first season) Kristen Bell. It even makes me like Josh Gad! The second season is currently underway, so more next month.
  • You probably know that I’m obsessed with The Mole, one of the best — if not the best — competitive reality series of all time, cruelly cancelled after just two seasons. (No, the “celebrity” editions don’t count.) Its lo-fi blend of espionage and social game show was unlike anything else; to my joy, I discovered that both original, Anderson Cooper-hosted seasons have been recently added to Netflix. And despite some early 2000s corniness, it really holds up. If it’s new to you, you have my solemn guarantee that you’ll love it as much as my kids do — and let’s get excited together that Netflix is bringing it back (under a new name) in the near future.
  • We made it to the end of Justified Season 5, which is assuredly the weakest season (too many Crowes, too much Michael Rapaport), but even lesser Justified is still pretty good TV. We’ll pick it back up after the Olympics.
  • Monsters at Work, the latest bit of IP mining to cross the Disney+ transom, is fun enough. I guess that’s all I need to say? It’s not bad, it’s amusing, it’s fun enough.
  • I’ve also been watching a lot of new-to-me movies in my free time, starting with the 1939 Jean Renoir classic The Rules of the Game and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (seriously), then filling in the blind spots with a couple of major filmmakers. For the Coens: The Man Who Wasn’t There (odd!) The Ladykillers (not good!), and Intolerable Cruelty (fine!). Then this past week was all about Steven Spielberg: Amistad (good, but ponderous) , The Color Purple (flawed, but Whoopi’s incredible), The Sugarland Express (a lot of fun, actually!), Always (saccharine claptrap), and — sigh — 1941, which was as bad as advertised. But now I’ve seen them all, so that’s something!

Looking ahead to… the triumphant return of Ted Lasso (7/23)… a quartet of interesting films on July 30th: David Lowery’s long-awaited The Green Knight, Jake Johnson-starring Ride the Eagle, metaphysical ensemble drama Nine Days, and Disney’s Jungle Cruise, which if nothing else features a hammy Jesse Plemons villain… James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is here to make you forget about the original (8/6)… new series Mr. Corman stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a burned-out teacher (8/6, Apple)… Reservation Dogs is a Taika Waititi caper series with a young, all-indigenous cast (8/9, FX)… What If…? asks the biggest, strangest questions of the MCU (8/11, Disney+)… Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s final, shortened season promises to be different from anything that came before (8/12, NBC)… and oh yeah, the Adam Driver/Marion Cotillard musical Annette sounds completely bonkers (8/20).

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