By Anne Brodie
Former author and full-time wit, Fran Lebowitz agreed to sit down with longtime friend Martin Scorsese and spill; what a treat! The 70- year old’s on-the-mark observations about life in the world’s busiest city are gems of imagination, word usage, speed and fancy, what Oscar Wilde might have been, had he been born a woman in New Jersey. The Netflix series Pretend It’s a City shows Lebowitz in top form, spinning smart and 110% relatable bon mots at breakneck speed, along the lines of the dearly departed Robin Williams. A fixture on New York’s cultural landscape since the mid-seventies, she got her start writing for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, wrote a couple of books but is now in decades-long writer’s “blockade”. But the girl can talk, she’s on the lecture circuit these days, amusing all-ages audiences. If she sounds like an angry, disgruntled old woman, she’s always been like that. She tackles transportation, her pet peeve, culture, libraries, money, smoking (she’s all in), celebrity, the trouble with walking in New York and her former life as a cabbie and cellist. Lebowitz owns 10k books, and no computer or cell phone. I am so grateful to have spent a day wrangling Lebowitz for a TV show and having dinner afterwards.
Dear Comrades! on Amazon Prime Video is a stunning Russia/Italy political drama set in Novocherkassk, USSR, 1962. Food prices are heading up, talking out of reach of the local factory workers. Despite the possibility of punishment, the workers strike. Lyudmila is a devout Stalinist Soviet and Party executive and deals harshly with anti-Soviet activity; she won’t hear complaints. Her teenaged daughter is an activist and they are at odds. Lyudmila’s in a high-level meeting when she witnesses a government-ordered massacre of strikers outside. Survivors scatter as bodies pile up and heavier artillery appears. Her teenaged daughter had planned to protest along with the strikers and has disappeared. Roads are closed, the area is shut down under military guard in a major crackdown, but Lyudmila manages to find a man who may know where her daughter is. Long embedded political views are tough to break, but she begins to face the reality she, as a government hardliner, has helped create a cruel system that deprives people of life’s necessities and murders them. The man drives her out to a remote spot in the country where she faces a reckoning. Writer-director Andrey Konchalovsky directs Yuliya Vysotskaya, Vladislav Komarov and Andrey Gusev in this deeply affecting, fact-based story.
The picaresque comedy-drama The White Tiger follows a low caste Indian as he plots his way out of the slums and into the big city Big Time. Adarsh Gourav is Balram, whose sweet smile and personality become masks for manipulation and crime. The film’s tonal changes follow his own, it begins and all is bright and happy, as the beloved member of a family subsisting in rural slums. Poverty hasn’t darkened his soul. His master, owner of the family’s lives, basically, has a son newly returned from America, the epitome of cool to a slum kid. Balram can’t drive but smiles his way into a job as the son’s driver to be near him. Balram’s exposed to incredible new things, fancy hotels, gracious living, travel and status. He’s kept down, forced to sleep in an underground parking garage and occasionally he’s hit. He bows and scrapes while plotting his dream of scaling the economic and social ladder. He gets his chance. and the film becomes very dark indeed. The stereotypical, western view of Indian poverty porn is kind of ruthless, but the film has plenty of power. Gourav is terrific, showing us the dark recesses of human malevolence sparked by insecurity. Directed by Ramin Bahrani and co-starring Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao. Select Theatres Jan 8 Netflix Jan 22.
Miranda July’s zany and tragicomic Kajillionaire looks at the feral daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) of a couple of scam artists (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins) and how she got out of the hole they put her in when she was born. They scam, steal, rob and cheat for a living; her name Old Dolio, was part of a scam, and she was always that – an accessory. She believes they love her because they split their steals three ways, she’s never had a birthday gift, a kind word or expression of love. The “gang” picks up Melanie a feisty Latina (Gina Rodriquez) who thinks it’ll be fun to run a heist with them. But she realises how broken Old Dolio is when the parents call her “hon”. Old Dolio says “you never called me hon”. Melanie realises how dire is Old Dolio’s life and commits to extract her from it. and what about all these earthquakes? It’s smart, original and just out there enough to be both profound and wacko. and Kudos to Wood and Rodriquez who show true grit and range. On VOD and multiple streaming services.
Evergreen joins a couple spending the holidays in a remote Colorado cabin to determine where their relationship is going if they are anywhere near the same page. Their interactions are increasingly fraught as they attempt to knock down barriers preventing them from being honest and real. Amanda Maddox and Tanner Kalina carry the film with brief interludes with ghosts/memories (Olivia Grace Applegate, David Bianchi)of their prior loves, managing the complex story that touches on Catholicism, mourning, fear, desire and emotions experienced by couples in fluid, unreliable, unequal relationships. Maddox’ character is desperate to connect with Kalina’s but he’s reluctant to engage sexually or emotionally. As the days open and close, we witness acts that reveal flaws and betrayals. While going through his things she finds an engagement ring which may have been his ex-wife’s or intended for her. He’s never straight, won’t answer her questions, keen to keep her near enough and far enough till he is able to cope with a new woman in his life. It’s interesting that what seems to be his narcissism and self-absorption are something else, revealed late. Maddox is terrific as a needy woman who knows what lies ahead. Now on iTunes, Apple TV, Google Play, Prime Video, FandangoNOW .
Apple+ TV released Leigh Whannell’s excruciatingly horrifying drama The Invisible Man some time ago but I only saw it and boom! Seven minutes in or so I was so frightened I had to call a friend to discuss. Whannell’s precision and elegant storytelling as writer and director is abundantly clear here, and thankfully, without the gore/ugliness of the Saw franchise. Elisabeth Moss’ Cecelia is unhappily married to a tech mogul. Their ultra-modern, sharp-edged glass and steel home is a tribute to his prowess and to his paranoia – cameras everywhere, an indoor shooting range, creation labs. Cecelia has long been a victim of his abuse and constant surveillance. One night she grabs a prepacked bag and runs away to her waiting sister who takes her far away to a friend’s house. Her husband kills himself and leaves her his fortune; she’s relieved to begin afresh. But evidence in her friend’s home suggests he isn’t dead and he is after her. At this point, I nearly stopped watching because it was too intense. Her husband’s brother is acting as his lawyer, and he’s ticked he got nothing from the estate but understands the man was an imminent threat. I’ll let you watch the rest. I shuddered the rest of the day and advise, nay beg you not to watch alone, at night or if you’re feeling weird. Whannell’s simmering long shots get under the skin, the ambient soundscape is successfully designed to terrify.
So after that, you’ll need The History of Swear Words now on Netflix. Nic Cage is a Vincent Price type host, sitting in a well-appointed library introducing us to six words I daren’t write out here, for fear of the CRTC. Then follow half-hour documentaries on each word with its roots in Anglo-Saxon language mostly, how meanings changed over the years, from the word’s original descriptor to gaining a sassy side, becoming a slur, and finally, a regular part of everyday language, devalued by overuse. Cage examines the pop culture-usage, science and cultural impact of curse words with experts in etymology, historians and entertainers. “F**k”, “Sh*t”, “B**ch”, “D**k”, “Pu**y”, and “D**n”. You’ll never guess the worst word of the bunch, the one you’ll use if you want to go medieval on their a***s. Taking us through the word trip are Joel Kim Booster, DeRay Davis, Open Mike Eagle, Nikki Glaser, Patti Harrison, London Hughes, Jim Jefferies, Zainab Johnson, Nick Offerman, Sarah Silverman, Baron Vaughn, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.
And after that, you’ll need Headspace Guide to Meditation also on Netflix. The pandemic has found us reaching out to learn to take care of ourselves after watching horror films, foul-mouthed comedians and the news. Many have turned to meditation but few have learned the art of doing nothing. The Headspace app is now a show, eight, twenty-minute episodes hosted by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, with guided meditation, teachings on stress, sleep, and letting go, providing stillness in our anxiety-ridden pandemic and political days. Coming soon, the Headspace Guide to Sleep!