Screening Room: ‘Belushi’

For a few years in the 1970s, John Belushi was one of if not the biggest name in American comedy. Then he blew it all up.

The new Showtime documentary Belushi tells the story in dramatic, well-rounded fashion. My review is at The Playlist:

“Belushi” can be seen as something of a riposte to Bob Woodward’s 1984 biography “Wired.” The book is seen by people in Belushi’s circle as a cold, scathing, and exploitative take on their friend’s drug-related death in 1982 that ignores his talent and warmth. Cutler’s version is definitely sympathetic and somewhat of a family affair; resembling at times nothing so much as an Irish wake…

Screening Room: ‘Kingdom of Silence’

In Rick Rowley’s documentary Kingdom of Silence, a bevy of diplomats, security experts, and fellow writers come forward to tell the story of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered by the Saud royal family after his critical columns in the Washington Post.

My review of Kingdom of Silence, which starts on Showtime tonight, ran at The Playlist:

While Khashoggi’s presence brings an unusually impactful human touch—particularly the aching style of his writing, read in soulful beats during a few more mournful segments that seem to carry in them all the tragedy and thwarted promise of the modern Middle East—where “Kingdom of Silence” is most effective is using his story as a personal mirror to the geopolitical dramas that crash all through this movie…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘Lovecraft Country’

HBO’s latest entry into politically relevant genre adventure is Lovecraft Country, an ambitious and messy 10-part series that bites off far more than it can chew but deserves some applause for trying.

Lovecraft Country starts this Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

Based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel, it keeps one foot planted firmly in the real (Black characters trying to make their way in segregated 1950s Chicago) and another dipping into various pools of the unreal (sorcerers, Lovecraftian beasts, haunted houses). The combination makes sense more than it should, at least at first. That’s largely because while head writer Misha Green (Underground) is exquisitely aware of the ways race factors into nearly every aspect of its characters’ lives, she doesn’t allow that to define them entirely…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘The Plot Against America’

In Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, it’s 1940 and Hitler is rampaging across Europe. Only in America, Franklin Roosevelt is facing serious political competition: fascist sympathizer and popular hero Charles Lindbergh. A Jewish family in Newark, drawn in part from Roth’s childhood, starts realizing they may have to chose between fleeing to Canada or facing pogroms in New Jersey.

My review of HBO’s The Plot Against America, a six-part adaptation by David Simon (The Deuce, The Wire), ran at PopMatters:

in 1940, the idea of a white supremacist president in league with a fascist foreign power was hard for many to contemplate. Even a fully-fledged racist like Woodrow Wilson had not colluded with enemies abroad. And nobody truly imagined the likes of Donald Trump as president until The Simpsons Movie in 2007. It was a different time. The Wire was only in Season 3.

TV Room: ‘Watchmen’

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Regina King as Sister Knight in ‘Watchmen’ (HBO)

Damon Lindelof’s wonderfully strange and deeply political Watchmen series is more interested in exploring the further ramifications of Alan Moore’s groundbreaking graphic novel than producing a faithful reenactment. It’s a high-risk move but one that appears so far to be paying off.

My article on Watchmen is at PopMatters:

The first episode, a direly ironic hour, kicks off in Tulsa during the 1921 massacre in which whites rampaged through the black neighborhood of Greenwood. Jumping to an alternate-historical 2019 Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which the racially-mixed police wear masks to protect their identity from a murderous white-supremacist underground called the Seventh Kavalry (for Custer’s unit decimated at Little Big Horn), the episode uses the massacre less as plot point and more as ominous overture…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: Season 2 of ‘Ozark’

Jason Bateman and Laura Linney in ‘Ozark’ (Netflix)

In the second season of Netflix’s Missouri noir Ozark, the Byrd family finds themselves being mired ever deeper in a cycle of moral compromise.

My review is at The Playlist:

Like almost every other show on Netflix, “Ozark” follows the “If Only BBC” rule. (Meaning things would have been a lot snappier if they’d lopped off two, three, even four episodes. Unless we’re talking about the new seasons of “Arrested Development,” in which case full cancellation is the only answer.) The first season started off with a hell of a setup. Early episodes were packed with grit and speed like some godsend of modern noir. Season 1 soon lost its way, not sure just how Southern Midwest gothic it wanted to go. That same schizoid attitude, a little from here and a little from there, prevails in Season 2…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘Fahrenheit 451’

Michael B. Jordan in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (HBO)

Indie director Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo, 99 Homes) takes a detour into the land of splashy classic literature adaptations with his take on the great Fahrenheit 451, which premieres on HBO this Saturday.

My review is at The Playlist:

There’s a lot left out in this noisy and luridly shot but thin adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel. A prescient fable about the death of the imagination and individuality in the postwar war, it imagines a world where the houses have all been fireproofed and firemen race through nighttime streets looking for books to burn..

Here’s the trailer:

Nota Bene: Margaret Atwood isn’t Getting Rich from ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Series

So even though Hulu is going into its second season of their adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, don’t assume that means piles of cash for Margaret Atwood.

In an essay about women, money, and power—and how rarely all three are allowed to align—Atwood points out that the hit series isn’t sending much money her way:

The Handmaid’s Tale television series was not my deal. I sold the rights to MGM in 1990 to make a movie – so when the TV rights were sold to Hulu, the money went to MGM. We did not have a negotiating position. I did get brought on as an executive consultant, but that wasn’t a lot of money. People think it’s been all Hollywood glamour since the TV show happened, but that’s not happening to me. But book sales have been brisk, so there’s that.

(h/t: Bookforum)

TV Room: ‘Altered Carbon’

Richard K. Morgan’s cyberpunk noir novels posited a future world where death is mostly a thing of the past. Everyone’s mind can be downloaded into a surgically implanted “stack” which at the point of death can then be “resleeved” into a new body of whatever gender or race one prefers. It’s a fascinating concept that Morgan mined for a hardboiled capitalist critique but is worked out for mostly action-junkie hijinks in the derivative 10-part streaming adaptation of Altered Carbon, the first novel in the series.

Altered Carbon premieres on Netflix February 2. My review is at The Playlist.

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘Wormwood’

Launching Friday on Netflix is Errol Morris’s immersive new six-part series Wormwood, which mixes hardboiled investigative documentary filmmaking with David Lynchian recreations. A four-hour theatrical edit is also playing in limited release.

My review is at Film Journal International:

When Eric Olson was still just a child in 1953, his father Frank died while away on business. The official explanation was that Frank fell or possibly jumped out of a hotel room. “At that moment,” Eric says in Errol Morris’ epic new investigation of the mysteries surrounding Frank’s death, “the world stopped making sense entirely.” That burning ember of uncertainty stayed with Eric the rest of his life…

Writer’s Desk: Work in Groups

The writer’s life is a solitary one. That’s true, until it’s not.

Take the example of Aleksandar Hemon. The Bosnian writer had always followed the expected path:

[My writing] had taken place in the self-imposed isolation of my head. I don’t take part in workshops or writing groups; I don’t share ideas or drafts with my fellow-writers for feedback; I make all the decisions and am responsible for every word in the book that I am writing, acknowledgments included.

But then, like many writers out there in a world of hundreds of television shows needing scripts, he joined the collaborative workforce of televisual scriveners. Working out scripts for the sci-fi series Sense8, he discovered a new process:

… my role was to make proposals that would be taken up by the other people in the room and spun around a few times. The version of the proposal that emerged would have little to do with the original, yet belonged to me as much as to everyone else … I’d never experienced the pleasure of temporarily losing my intellectual sovereignty—of watching my bright idea be destroyed, only to be transformed into something entirely different.

Sometimes a writer has to hew closely to their original vision, come hell or high water, for it to be worth a damn in the end. More frequently, another pair of eyes, or five or ten, can make all the difference in the world.

Notes: Not All Alternate Histories are Equal

Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why, in quite simple terms, any comparisons between The Man in the High Castle and the upcoming HBO series Confederate don’t hold water:

It is illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany. The Confederate flag is enmeshed in the state flag of Mississippi.

In one conflict, the defeated acknowledged their loss and paid a price. In the other, the defeated quickly got back to their old tricks. 

In other words, imagining a world where the white Southern racist establishment won may not be far different enough from reality to warrant the term “alternate history.” 

TV Room: Jason Bateman’s new Missouri Noir ‘Ozark’

In the new Netflix family crime series Ozark, Jason Bateman plays a Chicago financial adviser forced to uproot his family’s entire life in order to save their lives.

Ozark premieres on July 21. My review is at The Playlist:

There are a few things guaranteed to strike terror into the heart of your average Chicagoan. High on that list would be having your family threatened with a cruel and slow death by a drug cartel, as happens to Jason Bateman in the first episode of his new Netflix culture-clash crime series “Ozark.” Nearly as frightening, and definitely more relatable, is the solution that Bateman’s character improvises to save his family: pack up and move to the Lake of the Ozarks in southern Missouri. Set against relocating to the shores of the artificial lake resort region that one character tartly terms “Redneck Riviera,” there would probably be at least a few Chicagoans who would look at the cartel gunmen and decide, nah, let’s play the odds…

Here’s the trailer:

Shameless Self-Promotion: ‘Monty Python FAQ’

Have you any inkling what this T-shirt refers to?

Did you ever hop around on one foot while shouting, “’tis but a flesh wound!”?

Can you sing “The Philosopher’s Song” without referring to notes?

Was there a point during the United Kingdom’s recent snap election where you wondered whether there should have been a candidate from the Very Silly Party?

If you answered “yes” or asked “what’s all this, then?!” then it’s about 583% likely that Monty Python FAQ is the book for you!

Scribbled down in crayon by yours truly and his boon companions Brian Cogan and Jeff Massey, and then lovingly transcribed into proper book form by the dedicated editors at Applause Books, Monty Python FAQ is just about everything you ever wanted to know about the Python boys. That includes:

  • Words! Pictures! Lots of ’em.
  • An exegesis of every single Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode.
  • More than one could ever want or need to know about fish-slapping.
  • The deep, dark secret behind the one American Python, who hailed from the mystical, faraway land of … Minnesota.
  • Exploding penguins, dead budgies, Grannies from Hell … you get the picture.

It’s on sale now. Here. And hereAnd here. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

And now … this: