Tag Archives: what to watch on Netflix

Tig

Tig Notaro is one of my favourite comedians. Although always an amazing, deadpan comedian, she hit the popularity rocket when she did a ground-breaking set the day after she was diagnosed with cancer. She just stood on the stage and bravely free-associated her new reality, and people were floored. Floored.

I mean, if you know her story at all, cancer was just the cherry on top. Weeks before, she’d been in the hospital in crazy pain with a life-threatening diagnosis of C-Diff. She got out of the hospital just in time to make her mother’s funeral, who’d died suddenly after a freak accident, falling in her own living room and hitting her head, a seemingly benign incident that killed her 24 hours later. Then Tig went through a break up, though moments before they’d been considering starting a family. And then: breast cancer. So it was a tumultuous few weeks, and you can only imagine her frame of mind when she wandered on stage that famous night. Although, technically you don’t have to: Louis C.K. was in the audience that night, and helped her put out an album of that set, which for obvious reasons could never be recreated.

So in the wake of her having a double mastectomy, she was suddenly very famous and a very sought-after comedian, one who now had no material since she could never re-perform the cancer bit. Crazy. Tig (the documentary) is a clever reflection upon that crazy time in her life, with the help of similarly funny, famous friends like Bill Burr and Sarah Silverman.

I love stand-up comedy. Like, LOVE love. I love how accessible comedy has become thanks in part to Netflix, but also satellite radio and Spotify – I listen to lots of podcasts in my car these days. Tig is among my favourites, and Sean and I meant to see her at Just For Laughs last year, only she cancelled her set at the last minute, but we saw other favourites of mine, like Maria Bamford, Fortune Feimster, and Carmen Esposito. This year we’re seeing Marc Maron and Fred Armisen. But as much fun as it is to see a live set, it’s such an exciting time to be able to supplement those with bonuses, of which I’d say that this documentary is most definitely one. It’s an incredible story either way, but she’s also a comedian that you just need to get into. She has a very watchable, very bingeable show as well, called One Mississippi. Maria Bamford had one called Lady Dynamite. Jim Gaffigan had one less inventively titled The Jim Gaffigan Show (do you suppose men just reflexively have to slap their names all over things?). Anyway, it tickles me to no end when comedians pop up in things, and I will continue to seek them out, because to my mind, comedy is the absolute hardest thing to get right. Comedies are largely underappreciated and downright ignored by critics and award-givers, but that’s absurd. When humour works, it unites us all in such a base, instinctual way. It’s glorious. But as you know, a lot of humour comes from pain. It takes a special talent to extract the funniness from a horrible situation.

And maybe that’s what makes Tig so special. That she was willing to use her own personal hell, her own heartbreak, not only to entertain us, but to make us whole. Comedy is healing. Laughing is medicinal. Give yourself a Tig injection; it keeps the doctor away.

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The Guilty

How many times in your life have you called 911? I hope the answer is none, but for some of you it will be higher than that, and chances are, it wasn’t exactly a happy occasion. Even if you’re calling on behalf of a stranger, you must believe that it’s an emergency situation, and those tend to be adrenaline-filled and on the harrowing side. I call 911 on a very regular basis, and I’m always grateful for the patient expediency of the person on the other end. Mining someone’s abject panic for important, potentially life-saving information, is not an easy thing to do. Distilling that information into its most salient components while managing someone’s fear and distress takes precision and control. Dispatchers will sound cool and confident on the phone, but that doesn’t mean their job isn’t getting to them. They assist people through the darkest of circumstances. They experience vicarious trauma. The Guilty is one of their stories.

Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is working what seems like a normal shift when he gets a call from what seems like a wrong number. A woman named Iben (Jessica Dinnage) is calling, pretending to be on with her young daughter. Because of his training, Asger manages to ask the right questions in the right way. Iben is making this phone call in front of her abductor, and trying to do it stealthily.

Asger gets more and more attached to the case as he speaks to Iben, to her abductor, to her daughter Mathilde who is not even 7 but home alone covered in someone else’s blood after having seen her mother be dragged violently away. He goes beyond the bounds of his position in order to fulfill a promise to Mathilde to get her mother home safely.

How do you think you’d stack up as a 911 dispatcher? They test for inductive (using specific observations to make broader generalizations) and deductive (using the info you’ve collected to come to a logical conclusion) reasoning, plus memory recall and the ability to read maps and a good old fashioned psych evaluation. And then there’s just necessarily personality quirks like the ability to be still in the face of chaos.

Asger is a flawed hero and not necessarily the best at his job. But he cares about this woman. Tonight, his job goes from hard to nearly impossible. It’s disturbing. The movie will break your heart in a million ways. But if you think it’s hard to watch, imagine how hard it is to live, to take these calls for 12 hours or even 24 hours at a time, day after day, weekends and holidays. It’s a lot to ask of anyone, and Asger is pure proof of the toll this job can take.

Jakob Cedergren is excellent, as he must be, acting almost exclusively against voices over the phone. Through the arc of one telephone call, he experiences a major shift, and almost every high and low on the human spectrum. Director Gustav Moller keeps things very simple and straight-forward, allowing the story’s natural tension to take centre stage.

Support The Girls

Lisa (Regina Hall) is the hard-working manager of a tittie bar. She’s a little defensive about it; you might hear her call it a family sports bar “with curves,” but the uniforms leave little room for debate.

On this one day in particular, Lisa is dealing with a thief stuck in the vents after a robbery goes wrong, an undocumented worker in her kitchen, TVs that aren’t working minutes before a big game, an employee who’s dating a customer, a revolt over a missing pool table, and a half dozen new girls who show up for interviews and training. Plus there’s the impromptu car wash she’s organizing to raise money for another employee dealing with a DUI, which she has to hide from her boss, who’s an asshole. Oh, and her marriage is falling apart.

MV5BN2QwNTNiNzUtMDE2MS00ZWVhLWIyOTMtNzgwMTVjZjYyYzRlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzEzMjg5NjA@._V1_Despite the fact that she’s undervalued and underpaid, Lisa clearly cares about her job, and about doing her best. And she definitely cares about her girls. Usually when your employer starts calling you ‘family’ it’s because they’re about to ask you to do something for nothing. But when Lisa says it, she means it. She’s got misplaced optimism coming out the wazoo but on a day like this, even Lisa’s perky sunshine demeanor will be tried.

Support The Girls is a workplace comedy, but it tackles bigger themes than that. You just might not notice because writer-director Andrew Bujalski has such an impressively light touch. He manages to keep everything witty and bright. His biggest asset is of course Regina Hall, who never stops shining her light. Lisa is doing her best to sell the American Dream, even though it’s not her dream and she’ll never see the profits. Bujalski clearly has compassion for Lisa though Lisa never asks for any. Hall makes sure that her unending kindness is seen as strength, not weakness. These are perhaps tough to pull off amid a cacophony of T&A, but that’s why you buy them. Because integrity is not what you expect to find at your local Hooters, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The smartest thing Bujalski does is that he never, ever underestimates the women in his film.

Far From The Tree

Early in the documentary Far From The Tree, Andrew Solomon says of the book he wrote by the same name “In telling these stories, I was investigating the very nature of family itself.” What he researched, and what the film explores, is children who are very different from their families, and the impact this has in their homes. Solomon grew up gay in a household that believed homosexuality was a sin. He was rejected by his mother.

The documentary, by Rachel Dretzin, visits with 5 families. Jason is a 41 year old man who loves Frozen and has Down Syndrome while his parents of course do not. He lives with a couple of roommates (the Three Musketeers, they call themselves) and a caregiver, but spends a lot of time with his mother. He grew up something of a celebrity, the poster child for “retarded” kids who could learn to read and write and socialize beyond what was normally credited to them. Jack is a 13 year old kid who has severe autism. He doesn’t speak but he’s clearly very intelligent. Though he has little control over his body, he has overcome numerous obstacles just to communicate with his parents. Loini is a bubbly 23 year old woman with dwarfism whose only wish is to be more independent. A convention where she’s finally able to meet other little people is like a welcome eye-opener; finally, someone understands. Leah and Joe are a married couple, both with dwarfism, who give birth to a baby with normal stature. What will parenting be like with a child who quickly outgrows you?

Though these “differences” in the children are nothing more than anomalies of nature, many parents originally blame themselves or feel some sort of guilt – was it a medication taken during pregnancy? a lack of sleep? the bed rest? The film, however, doesn’t give blame any space. Instead it shows parents going to great lengths just to connect with children they don’t necessarily relate to. The paths to love are in many ways the same (Jason’s mom recalls being told that her newborn was a “mongoloid” and that it was best to remove him to an institution immediately, “before a bond could occur” – while of course Jason’s mom had loved him since the moment she learned she was pregnant). In order to thrive as a family,these parents have become devoted to finding ways to connect with children they don’t necessarily relate to but love nonetheless. Love just as much. Leah and Joe talk about how they love each other for their “isms” (dwarfism) not despite them. I can see how this would be a balm to Solomon, who never got that from his own mother. That we can indeed have meaningful relationships with people who are not like us.

The last family (have you realized yet that I’ve only listed 4 of 5?) is a bit different. Their son, Trevor, murdered an 8 year old boy when he was just 16 himself. Can we still apply the lessons we’ve learned from the previous families to him? Can we accept that this is just how he was born, can we not blame his parents for who is he? Certainly, his situation is much different. Perhaps he was born with violent tendencies. Psychopathy may even be hereditary. But murder is still a choice, while Down Syndrome is not. The documentary takes up the same position though: that Trevor’s parents are not to blame. They’re still his mom and dad, they still love him, they still struggle to keep their family intact. But after falling in love with Jason, and having your heart melt over Jack, Trevor is a challenge. Can we, the audience, find the same empathy? Are we meant to?

I like a documentary that challenges me, and lining up Trevor besides these other individuals is indeed a test.  I don’t believe it’s pass or fail, but we’ve all got room for improvement, and if this kind of confrontation leads to more empathy, it can’t be a bad thing.

Operation Finale

This movie is a tribute to the unsung heroes of post-WW2 Nazi hunting.

When notorious SS agent (the architect of the final solution, no less) Adolf Eichmann suddenly pops up on the radar, Israel puts a crack team of secret agents on the case. Peter Malkin, in particular, is the loose cannon of the operation, but ten short years after the war, emotions run high for the whole team because everyone who wasn’t in a camp personally lost someone, or several someones, or everyone to Germany’s ethnic cleansing machine.

MV5BNGQ0YmVkMWItOGVlYS00ZWE2LWFhOTgtYzk1ZTAyZGQ5ZjFjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_Malkin (Oscar Isaac) and company manage to pick up Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) thanks in part to his indiscreet son who still hates Jews all the way from Argentina. They sweat it out in a safe house. For safe travel they require Eichmann’s signature, and Malkin vows to get it. The interrogation is heated; Eichmann is emotionally manipulative and he knows exactly which buttons to push. The agents have agreed to bring him back to Israel for a public trial, but not killing him proves to be a very big challenge for almost every single one of them. Eichmann knows this trial is not likely to rule in his favour, so he delays endlessly, which is also to the benefit of the Nazi rescue party determined to find him.

Oscar Isaac is terrific, of course. Malkin plays it cool, almost sympathetic, but he’s always on the verge of an emotional outburst. Isaac draws a haunted man, bent under the weight of his own grief, and the loss of a whole nation. Ben Kingsley strikes the exact right chord – reprehensible. His hypocrisy rankles. I felt it so personally it was easy to feel for the agents and to admire them for their restraint. But overall, director Chris Weitz’s ability to humanize his characters makes for some very watchable performances.

The scenes between Isaac and Kingsley are the best the film has to offer. Operation Finale is otherwise a little still, a little familiar, a little predictable. It has good intentions but you see them coming from a mile away.  At times it can be surprisingly complacent for a ‘thriller’. It’s an Argo wannabe that doesn’t quite achieve its potential, but it’s nice to hear from this side of history, and it’s fantastic to see Kingsley do what he does best.

 

22 July

22 July 2011. Anders Behring Breivik triggered a car bomb in the government district of Oslo that killed 8 and injured 209. Two hours later he had ferried over to the island of Utoya where a summer cap for the youth division of the Labour Party was held. You likely heard about it on the news, at the very least. Breivik was dressed in a police uniform and armed to the teeth. He opened fire on the group of teenagers and killed 69 more, injuring another 110. The kids were like sitting ducks, and Breivik shot them one by one for the political affiliations of their parents.

The film, by Paul Greengrass, is difficult to watch, especially the beginning, which recreates the attack. Later it focuses on the survivors, and on the court case that wouldMV5BM2RkYThlMDQtZDZlMi00ZGVhLThiYWYtZWJlNzQ4YmQ2M2QzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDA5NjIzMg@@._V1_ keep Norway rapt. Breivik, who orchestrated the attacks to protest immigration and other stupidly racist, extremist right-wing bullshit, claimed insanity in order to avoid prison. But he also desperately wanted to stay in control of the trial, demanding the prime minister be called as a witness, and insisting that he have the opportunity to address the court to spout more of his hate, and so after “playing a role” for court-appointed psychiatrists, he decided to retract and change his plea.

As you can imagine, with 1 in 4 Norwegians in some way affected by these attacks, the whole country was fraught. The lawyers tasked with defending him were targeted themselves. But the movie’s beating heart is one kid, a survivor shot 5 times, who finds the courage to stand up and face his worst nightmare in court. He doesn’t want to let Breivik see his vulnerability, but feels the weight of all the voices who cannot speak for themselves.

It’s a moving film, of course. I said before that the first part was particularly difficult to watch, but for me, Breivik’s cold, rational, hateful testimony in court performed by Anders Danielsen Lie was even harder. Film has more or less desensitized us to horrific violence, but nothing can prepare you for looking into the eyes of a person we know exists, who really carries this hate in his chest in the cavity where a heart usually resides. That’s the tough part: reconciling ourselves with the fact that this villain has walked among us.

Thankfully, a thoughtful and humble performance by Jonas Strand Gravli balances this out. He is not just the spokesperson for the victims; he’s a stand-in for the horrified audience as well. Director Paul Greengrass has made these sorts of films his niche lately (Captain Phillips, United 93) and it’s a god-awful corner to have painted himself into, but I must admit he’s got it well sorted, but the movie’s attempt at dividing up the story gives it a sense of imbalance. It sputters a bit in the middle when it doesn’t quite know which movie it is. But it’s worth the watch. It’s an act of remembrance.

Nappily Ever After

Violet sets her alarm extra early so she can sneak out of bed, fix her hair, and sneak back into bed so her boyfriend thinks she wakes up like this. She does not. An exacting mother made sure that Violent has spent her whole life hiding her true hair. But even with all the tools and chemicals and salon appointments in the world, Violet is still Cinderella waiting for the clock to strike midnight. When it rains, or is even humid, the magic disappears and her hair reverts back to its natural state. So her life revolves around monitoring the weather and keeping her boyfriend’s hands away from her head.

On her birthday, Violet’s hair is perfect (though not without some drama). She is MV5BOTNhMWM0ZDUtZDI0Ny00OTVjLTgzMDctZTk4NWQwZmM3YmFiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODQzNTE3ODc@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_expecting a ring from her boyfriend of 2 years and instead gets a puppy. Boyfriend accuses her of being “too perfect” so a breakup tailspin ensues, including stops at ‘fuck you hair’ and ‘drunkenly buzzing it all off.’ But can Violet change her attitude and values to reflect her newly bald head?

So, okay. I’m white. Violet is black. I am not the best person to review this film. I mean, on some level, many if not most women will relate. So much of our identity is tied up in our hair. But it’s different for Violet, for women of colour. Black hair, for some unknowable reason, has been viewed as…inferior? Is that the right word? Even very young girls may feel that their hair is somehow ‘wrong.’ A black woman who wears her hair naturally may be viewed as unprofessional at work, unkempt at school, perhaps even viewed as her making a political statement to the world. Culturally, hair may serve as a bonding tool, a thing that unites black people (even black men – there’s a whole franchise of Barbershop movies) but it can be misunderstood outside the culture. Black women make up 70% of the hair care market, but the marketing always features white women with long, straight, glossy locks. As do TV shows and movies and magazine covers. So to attain white standards of beauty, black women blow through time, money, and PAIN to achieve the kind of hair that grows naturally out of white heads but not their own. They’ve felt the need to suppress the natural texture of their hair not just to look attractive but to be accepted at work and in the world. But it takes a toll. Viola Davis said in an interview recently how nice it was to wear her hair naturally in Widows (which had a black director, Steve McQueen). She’s used to wigs, weaves, and chemical relaxers just to present ‘the right kind of black’ to Hollywood and audiences. As you know, there’s still a huge gulf to be overcome in terms of media representing people of colour, but even when a film does hire a black actress, she will often arrive on set to find that the hair and makeup team have not thought through her particular needs. They may be unequipped, in terms of tools and experience, to deal with her hair. It is rare to see a black woman on screen rocking her own natural hair. And that’s okay if it’s a real choice. I don’t wear my hair natural either. But for me it’s a matter of style and personal preference. For a woman of colour it may not feel like any choice at all.

So yeah, Nappily Ever After is a romance, but it’s one tied into culture and identity and hair and femininity and acceptance. Sanaa Lathan is really terrific in it, and relatable too. Even though the script itself is very much about the black woman experience, there are universal themes of authenticity that anyone can appreciate. There’s something very powerful about having the courage to be yourself – but I think there’s something even more powerful about living in a world where that wouldn’t be discouraged in the first place, even if that doesn’t exist yet.

 

 

[Women of colour, feel free to correct me or to add to the conversation. And to anyone interested in the topic, Chris Rock (yes, THAT Chris Rock) has a cool documentary about it called Good Hair.]