Screening Room: ‘Escape from Kabul’

The new documentary Escape from Kabul premieres this Wednesday on HBO.

My review is at The Playlist:

Jamie Roberts’ terse, painfully precise documentary “Escape from Kabul” zooms right in on one episode—the massive last-minute airlift of Afghans and remaining American personnel from Kabul in August 2021—and never looks away, even when you might wish that it did. It’s a close-quarters kind of war film that moves in tight and leaves little room to breathe. This seems an appropriate stylistic decision for a movie that is mainly about tens of thousands of people trying to escape a country as it is being reclaimed by medieval fanatics whose promises of equitable treatment were not widely believed…

Here’s the trailer:

Streaming Review: ‘The Rings of Power’

The first half of the first season of Amazon’s expansion of the Tolkien universe, The Rings of Power, have streamed and as yet not a single ring in sight. This, and the heavy reliance on Galadriel (pictured) is probably a good thing.

My review is at Slant:

The pressures of trying to retain fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Peter Jackson film trilogy while attracting new ones, though, do not visibly inform the start of the series. For the most part, The Rings of Power moves ahead with the confident, measured, contemplative speed of a hobbit taking a mid-afternoon stroll. Holding true to the idealized chivalry of Tolkien’s Nordic saga-infused tales, showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne steer clear of George R.R. Martin-style bloodbaths and soap-operatic celebrations of carnality…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Gray Man’

Netflix’s next big bet to produce $200 million blockbusters to stream on the small screen is the Russo brothers’ The Gray Man, an assassin-versus-assassin thriller with Chris Evans and Ryan Gosling that shows a sharp drop-off in quality and imagination from the Russos’ MCU movies.

The Gray Man streams on Netflix tomorrow. My review is at Slant:

If all you knew about the C.I.A. was what you saw in Anthony and Joe Russo’s The Gray Man, you would think it was solely devoted to assassination. The entire plot of the film revolves around the psychopathic Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) trying to take out his former colleague, Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling), a.k.a Sierra Six, after the latter uncovers unsavory secrets about the agency, which wants to eliminate every trace of Sierra, a poorly considered program that turns convicted murderers into government-sanctioned killers. If this sounds like the plot of every Jason Bourne film, that’s because it basically is…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’

In the romantic comedy, Cha Cha Real Smooth, a charismatic-ish slacker (played by writer/director Cooper Raiff) falls for an older woman (Dakota Johnson) while sort of trying to get his post-graduate life together.

Cha Cha Real Smooth has been playing some festivals and will be available on Apple TV this Friday. My review from the Tribeca Film Festival ran at PopMatters and dealt with, in part, the movie’s “bullying need to be liked.”

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Janes’

The new documentary The Janes, which has been playing festivals and will start on HBO this Wednesday, is about the underground cadre of activists who helped women have safe abortions in pre-Roe v. Wade Chicago.

My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

A transmission from a foreign-feeling past that could yet also auger what is to come, The Janes is a disarmingly cool and matter-of-fact yet utterly crucial documentary about some of the most daring, radical, and largely unsung heroes ever put onscreen. Many books, movies, and articles have been produced about late 1960s and ’70s breed of grand-standing activists: the Weathermen’s amateur bomb-makers, Yippie pranksters, the Black Panthers’ parading fist-pumpers, and various would-be guerrilla cells staging bank robberies and kidnappings in a haphazard war on the Establishment. But while those theatrics dominated the headlines, the women activists of the Chicago-based Jane Collective pursued a quieter yet likely more impactful campaign for change…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘The Invisible Pilot’

The new HBO documentary miniseries The Invisible Pilot starts on Monday.

My review ran at The Playlist:

Some jobs do not prepare you for much of anything else. Work as a barista and you will know how to make a great latte, perhaps with that cute little leaf in the foam, but that is it. Other jobs provide more marketable skills. The buzzy new three-episode HBO documentary series “The Invisible Pilot,” for example, reveals that being a crop duster was excellent training for anybody looking to set up shop as a drug smuggler. The skill sets are roughly the same—flying heavy loads, often in bad weather, low to the ground, and landing on rough ground—only, when the cargo is illegal drugs, the pay is quite a bit better…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘Slow Horses’

The new Apple TV series Slow Horses is an adaptation of the first entry in Mick Herron’s superbly semicomic spy novels. It stars Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas and premieres this Friday.

My review is at Slant:

The six-episode series at times recalls The Americans, with which it shares an executive producer, Graham Yost, and an appreciation for the workaday realities of spies’ tradecraft, as well as a tendency to resort to sudden bloodletting. Slow Horses similarly breathes life into a somewhat moribund genre due to its grumpy antihero, Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), and the nontraditional gaggle of spies whom he has to rely on to save the day…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Power of the Dog’

The newest film from Jane Campion is a somewhat tortured and brooding but still surprising drama set on the high plains where Benedict Cumberbatch makes a surprisingly believable rancher.

The Power of the Dog is playing on the festival circuit right now in what looks like a pretty certain play for the Oscars before being released on Netflix in December. My review is at Slant:

Nobody is where they should be in The Power of the Dog, and everybody seems to be searching for something, somebody, or somewhere else. Set in 1925 Montana, Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 book tracks the obsessions, miseries, and passions of a group of people who inhabit a cavernous house in the middle of a vast ranchland and make each other miserable until blood is finally shed. The film looks at times like a stiff-jawed period piece, but it ripples underneath with a prickly modern sensibility…

The trailer is here:

Screening Room: ‘Encounter’

The new thriller Encounter is perhaps not the most original genre movie you are going to see this or any year. But as seems to keep happening, it is more than worth your time for the lead performance from the ever-underestimated Riz Ahmed.

Encounter is slated for release on Amazon in early December. My review from the Toronto International Film Festival ran at Slant:

As alien invasions go, the one that opens Michael Pearce’s Encounter is fairly low-key. Bright meteor-like flashes cut across the night sky. Close-up shots of squirming insects and human bloodstreams infected with clouds of swarming parasites suggest a quietly multiplying bug menace. But what Pearce doesn’t show is made up for in the fervid imagination of his raggedy, impassioned protagonist, Malik (Riz Ahmed), who’s frantically planning to go off the grid to get away from whatever the meteors have delivered to Earth…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Watch TV and Learn

Say you have written a book. You have been lucky enough to have your book published by a major house. Maybe you have even gotten some good press. But nevertheless, the income stream is negligible. What do you do to keep writing and not have to hold down a separate job?

Maybe write a book that has a better chance of being optioned for a streaming or television adaptation. In “The Rise of Must-Read TV,” Alexander Manshel, Laura B. McGrath, and J. D. Porter note how streaming services like Netflix (which has had great success with book-sourced series like The Queen’s Gambit [pictured above]) have been on a “buying spree” of book properties.

The writers studied what makes a book more appealing to the interests of TV producers looking to populate a big, broad-appeal series. They identified a few common characteristics:

Although not every novel under contract for potential adaptation shares all of these features, they do seem to possess a consistent set of what we call “option aesthetics”: episodic plots, ensemble casts, and intricate world-building. These are the characteristics of contemporary fiction that invite a move from the printed page to the viewing queue.

These are just dramatic choices you can make. If (and only if) they work well for the story you have in mind, then run with it. Remember: Jennifer Egan modeled A Visit from the Goon Squad on The Sopranos.

TV Room: ‘The Underground Railroad’

In Barry Jenkins’ 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, the famed abolitionist rescue network is made into an actual railroad that spirits enslaved people out of the South.

The Underground Railroad will be streaming on Amazon Prime starting May 14. My review is at PopMatters:

Jenkins is generally more experiential than plot-driven, and so the show ripples with the kind of silently evocative and luxuriantly filmed moments that gave Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Speak much of their power. But still, even though the series also has its share of sinking-gut horror and hairbreadth escapes, Jenkins ultimately delivers a subtler and yet grander impact by telling the story as a unified whole rather than a string of attention-grabbing peaks and valleys to jolt viewers out of pandemic streaming torpor…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘Night Stalker’

My review of the new Netflix true-crime series Night Stalker ran at Slant:

Netflix’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, a four-part series about Richard Ramirez, the sadistic serial rapist and murderer who terrorized the citizens of Los Angeles and San Francisco in the mid-1980s, is dramatically satisfying but structurally rote. Director Tiller Russell glosses the story over with more cinematic panache than you might see on 48 Hours, all straight from the Southland-noir template, including eerie tracking shots of a full moon behind dark palm trees and Michael Mann-ish overhead views of nighttime highways. But despite a story filled with big-hearted good guys, a depraved villain, and an edge-of-your-seat finale, the series feels overly pat and formulaic…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

Ron Howard’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir of dysfunction (societal and familial) is pretty much what you would expect. Hillbilly Elegy is playing now in limited release and hitting Netflix on November 24. Who knows? Glenn Close might get an Oscar.

My review is at Slant:

After the election of 2016, many shellshocked Americans sought out books to help rationalize Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. One of those books was J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir about the culture of his Kentucky Appalachian family, many of whom moved to Ohio but never quite adjusted to life there. Vance used his book to highlight what he saw as his people’s failure to raise themselves out of poverty, seeming to blame them for self-destructive cycles of addiction, violence, and dependency. While Ron Howard’s adaptation showcases those same societal ills, it takes a more personal and less sociological approach. By zeroing in so closely on Vance’s family melodrama at the expense of the broader forces at play, the film produces a generic narrative…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Life Ahead’

In this Italian-set adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel The Life Ahead, a Holocaust survivor (Sophia Loren) and a 12-year-old Senegalese orphan (Ibrahima Gueye) find common cause despite a rough first meeting when he steals her pursue.

The Life Ahead will be available on Netflix this Friday. My review is at Slant:

The Life Ahead transfers the story from Paris to the southern Italian seaside town of Bari, whose palm trees and buttery sunshine contrast with the hardscrabble realities of life for the characters. The star of the piece is ostensibly Sophia Loren, who brings a combative hauteur to the role of Madame Rosa, an Italian-Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and former streetwalker who runs a kind of ad-hoc nursery for the children of her colleagues out of her apartment. While presenting herself as diamond-hard, Rosa is beginning to chip a little around the edges, and more in need of a friend than she would admit…

Here’s the trailer: