What we’ve been watching (and reading)

In response to Michael’s post of recommended films, here’s my list of the various media we’ve been ingesting (movies, TV, books, performances) the last several months. Not all are enthusiastically recommended. But maybe you will get a sense of what I like and don’t like, and can then judge whether to trust my appraisals. This is one value that critics and reviewers provide, if nothing else

Movies were seen via Netflix, Amazon Prime, or at the mighty Carolina Theatre.

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God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man : a saltwater Geechee talks about life on Sapelo Island by Cornelia Bailey with Christena Bledsoe (2000). I read to Liz before she goes to sleep and we’ve found over the years that memoirs tend to be our favored material. This book is an oral history told by Bailey about her life on the Georgia barrier island of Sapelo, populated by the descendants of slaves who had worked cotton on the island. The memoir covers her life from when she was born in the ’50s to the present-day, with lots of cultural history and stories going back to pre-Civil War times. Even in the ’50s, the inhabitants lived in a supernatural world alongside the natural one; she talks about “haints,” interpreting dreams, and the ghosts of dead ancestors always close by as daily companions. Bailey’s easy way with a story and lively memories make this a delightful reading experience. We’ve not gotten there yet, but we will soon hear about the decline of the old ways as the young move off of the island and the few residents who remain fight off pressure from the State of Georgia, which owns nine-tenths of the island. The book’s title derives from the Geechees’ (cousin to the Gullahs) belief in the equal power of God, “Dr. Buzzard” (voodoo), and the “Bolito Man” (luck).

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Tig (dirs: Kristina Goolsby, Ashley York, 2015). A documentary of standup comedian Tig Nitaro, who lived through one of the most hellish years one could imagine and her struggles with transforming some of those experiences into jokes and material, along with rebuilding her life and career. I don’t want to say more, as I came to this knowing nothing of her struggles; as her story would turn a corner and go somewhere new and unexpected, I was swept along and as shocked or delighted as she was. Her bravery in so many aspects of her life — not just shakily rebuilding her career but taking bigger and bigger personal chances too — had me shaking my head in admiration.

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Silicon Valley, season 1 (2014). So great to have a Mike Judge TV series again and this one is so smart and so spot-on in its satire of the Silicon Valley culture. The culture is already so over the top, it’s hard to see how it can be lampooned, but Judge and his writers do it. The skeletal and spectral Jared is my favorite character. Be warned that it can be pretty raunchy, particularly the last episode.

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The Overnight (dir: Patrick Brice, 2015). When did quirk become the new normal? A thin piece that, after the mysteries are explained, starts rousing to some kind of strange life — and then it’s over. Afterward, I started writing an essay in my head on how the story sets up the characters and its themes, deconstructing why do the leading ladies and leading men look alike?, and finding evidence that at film’s end  things are still not as they seem … when I wondered why I was polishing my bucket to hold a drop of water. One of the quips I’ve seen all over the web lately goes, “Some things once seen cannot be unseen.” This is especially true of Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzman’s skinny-dipping scene.

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Hello Ladies, the series (2013) and the movie (2014). How much of this series you can tolerate depends on how much you like the cringeworthy comedies that Stephen Merchant has created with Ricky Gervais. His hapless ladies’ man and lame cool guy routine gets routine pretty quickly, while his character’s willful ignorance, inability to learn his lessons, and punishing trials never seem to go further than trying to raise a larf. When I could get past the plots, though, I enjoyed watching his character Stuart hanging out with his friends and particularly his attractive tenant Jessica, and following their stories with more interest. The characters’ craving for something they can’t have blinds them all, one way or another. Merchant and his co-writers also have an uncanny ability to suggest tenderness and vulnerability peeking out from under the farce’s bedsheets. The series’ last two episodes were the high point, focusing on the characters with the comedy taking a back seat. The movie wraps up the series’ loose threads with a hackneyed plot in the first half that shifts gears in the second to a serious study of this damaged character and his redemption. I was actually cheering for him at the end. And the movie sports one of the funniest sex scenes ever, so there’s that.

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Alice Gerard & Rayna Gellert, Laurelyn Dossett. We went to Duke’s Music in the Gardens series to see these great folk performers. Because live performance by real musicians is what it’s all about. Support your local artists.

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Me & Earl & The Dying Girl (dir: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015). A self-absorbed white high-school boy shakes off his cloud of mope after alienating his black friend and breaking the heart of the dying girl. Oooooo-kay. What makes the movie work is its kinetic storytelling (reminded me of Thank You For Smoking, for some reason) and the movie parodies. And maybe it’s me, but I was really offended by the popular girl offering herself as Greg’s prom date. Why did these characters give Greg the time of day?

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The Audience (dir: Stephen Daldry, 2013) Seen via the National Theatre’s live stream into selected movie theaters. An entertaining collection of vignettes showing Queen Elizabeth II’s relationships with her prime ministers, from Churchill to Cameron. Funny, middlebrow, fast-moving, a few piquant observations on the queen’s role in her country, Mirren is as masterly as they say, and I didn’t believe any of it for a second. I prefer The Queen (2006).

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I’ll See You In My Dreams (dir: Brett Haley, 2015). So good to see Blythe Danner onscreen again, even in a posh Hallmark Channel type of movie; the supporting actors are great, the lines are funny, and Sam Elliott is sly and dry as the man who wakes Danner’s character out of her late-in-life lethargy. Warm, affecting, encouraging. Despite a few lapses (are post-pot-smoking hunger binges really that funny?), everyone acts like grown-ups and it’s nice to spend time with characters who don’t make me cringe. As with most every movie we’ve seen this year, the performers are all appealing and make the material they play shine brighter.

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True Stories (dir: David Byrne, 1986). An art-student type vanity project by Byrne that doesn’t have a proper story, but that’s also not the point. IMDB says there are 50 sets of twins in the movie. Why? Who knows? They’re just there, the way the Talking Heads songs are there, the way the preacher is ranting on SubGenius themes, the way David Byrne stiffly narrates a day in the life of a small Texas town and its amusing small-town characters but never, I think, makes mean or mocking fun of them. He seems to simply enjoy them as they are. I enjoyed the movie’s oddball stance and easygoing pace. John Goodman, in one of his earliest roles, is there with his screen persona fully-formed and grounds the movie with his heart and vulnerability. And, God, but “Wild, Wild Life” is a fun number.

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A Serious Man (dirs: Ethan and Joel Coen, 2006). Larry Gopnik is a nice man, but not a serious man, in the sense that his Jewish community in the Minneapolis suburbs would recognize. And when the trials of Job start assaulting him, he has no idea what to do or where to go for help. No blood, no gangsters, over the top in all the right ways, funny, fantastic period detail (the mid- to late-Sixties), anchored to a fine lead performance by Michael Stuhlbarg. The Coens never explain everything in their movies so there is usually something unresolved at its center. I like having some undefined spaces in a story.

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Love & Mercy (dir: Bill Pohlad, 2014). Because we had seen The Wrecking Crew documentary a few weeks before, I got a kick seeing them portrayed onscreen in several scenes where Brian Wilson is crafting songs for the next Beach Boys album; for me, these scenes were the most fun of the entire movie. Paul Dano is incredible as the young, strung-out Brian Wilson who finds himself as isolated from the people around him as his 40-year-old strung-out self is under the care of a really creepy therapist. I never really bought John Cusack as the older Wilson. All of the “that can’t be true” moments I experienced seem to have mostly happened as depicted onscreen. Wow.

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Welcome to Me (dir: Shira Piven, 2015) Kirsten Wiig is terribly appealing as an unbalanced young woman who wins the lottery, stops taking her meds, and uses her winnings to stage her own Oprah-style show, dispensing bad advice and settling scores with everyone who she felt ever wronged her, from the second grade on up. The movie has the guts to take that premise to its logical conclusion and Wiig goes with it, as her at-first quirkily adorable character sinks into darker places. Hell is inside us and we take it with us wherever we go. This was a movie where, as I watched, I mentally charted the by-the-book plot points, reversals, higher stakes, final push, etc. An OK movie — not bad but not great.

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Philomena (dir: Stephen Frears, 2013). We were on a Steve Coogan kick after enjoying The Trip and especially after falling in love with his TV series Saxondale (2006-07). We’d missed this one on theatrical release. Philomena no doubt follows the same screenplay template as many of the other movies on this list, but I found the performers so appealing, the story so sad, and the anger so fresh, I didn’t notice. The movie tweaked the real-life story, of course, but the bones are there. Coogan and Dench make a good team. Worth your time.

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Still Alice (dir: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland, 2014). I remember seeing a TV movie decades ago with Richard Kiley and Joanne Woodward, where Woodward’s character, a poet, is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and begins slowly falling apart while her husband bewilderedly tries to understand and cope with the loss of his wife. I’ve also just described the broad outline of Still Alice, which sports a fantastic performance by Julianne Moore, and which features a sequence from the novel that had me on the edge of my seat. Aside from those assets, though, I can’t say this movie said anything more to me than that decades-old one did. It’s gorgeously filmed, and themes of connection/disconnection are always poignant. I choked up at the end when Alec Baldwin, as the husband, talks to their daughter; it’s probably the only time I’ve seen Baldwin that vulnerable and it got my attention and past my defenses.

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Vertigo (dir: Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). I backed a Kickstarter campaign for new seats at the Carolina Theatre, and one of the rewards was a backers-only showing of this movie with our backsides in the new comfy chairs. (Nice and cushy but they don’t breathe after about 90 minutes.) It had been decades since I’d seen Vertigo, and watching it on the big screen was glorious — it enhanced the richness of the colors, the swell of the music. The movie has a tone and pace unlike any other Hollywood product of the time, even other Hitchcock movies of the time. I kept trying to squeeze it into a noir box and it resolutely wouldn’t go; it was too brightly lit and beautiful looking (those shots of San Francisco!) to be noir. But its storytelling is less about murder than it is mystery, mood, and tone poem. So many motifs (time, memory, reflections, the abuse of women by men) criss-cross the movie like webbing that its creepiness — especially Scottie’s obsessive remaking of Judy — is hard to shake. Yes, it’s dated, but it has a lingering power and gnawing aftereffect that few movies have.

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