Command Z (2023, Steven Soderbergh)

A grungy little show that feels unsettlingly like an advertisement, with substandard writing by a couple of podcasters. Heart’s in the right place I suppose, with a vidscreen Michael Cera ordering some shabby quantum-leapers to change history by talking evil billionaires out of destroying the planet. Among the culprits for killing the world are businessman Liev Schreiber, the Christian church, weak-willed dem congresspeople, a Ready Player One-style VR game, and Michael Cera (played in the present by Kevin Pollack, haha). Our saviours: standup comic Chloe Radcliffe, musical theater producer JJ Maley, and Roy Wood Jr.

The Underground Railroad (2021, Barry Jenkins)

This took me two years to finish watching, after opening unpromisingly (sound design all rumbling portent, slow-mo slavery-is-bad violence), setting up lead characters Cora (escaping from horrible conditions) and bounty hunter Blackhat Ridgeway with his dapper little companion Homer.

Cora rides the literally subterranean train line to enlightened South Carolina, where she works in a museum of slavery and fellow escapee Caesar works in an explosion factory, but the town’s Negro Betterment Society turns out to be sinister medical experimenters. In hostile North Carolina she finds a supposedly sympathetic family who had no plan beyond letting her live in their attic forever. Blackhat captures Cora here, and we pause to explore his background and family situation… a whole episode of a white guy talking about manifest destiny and the American imperative, oh no. Cora escapes, is joined by Fanny from the attic, finds cute William Jackson Harper at a vineyard town. We know he’s going to die – everyone in this show dies – but while the town is debating Cora’s fate, speechifying in church, putting America on trial, a white posse barges in to massacre them. Cora takes Blackhat to the railroad, finally kills him in an endless scene. More flashbacks, then Cora and Fanny head west.

The music is usually bad, dialogue often shaky, streaming compression fucks up the inky blackness of the train tunnels. Some next-level photography, but if you are a modern master at capturing light on prores video, why make a grueling 10 hour slavery drama with actors doing big corny accents?

Head writer Jihan Crowther did Man in the High Castle, others worked on Moon and The Leftovers. Cora and her mom Mabel costarred in The Woman King… Blackhat Joel Edgerton is the Master Gardener guy… The kid Chase Dillon did a Haunted Mansion remake. Fellow escapee Caesar was Mid-Sized Sedan in Old. Attic homeowners are Charlie Manson (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Mindhunter) and Lily Rabe (American Horror Story). Slaver Foghorn Terence is Benjamin Walker, title star of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Blackhat’s dad Peter Mullan played the Top of the Lake drug lord, and Will Poulter of Midsommar played a photographer.

Cora and Chidi:

Caesar and Poulter:

MVP Chase Dillon as the dapper companion:

Yellowjackets season 1 (2021)

Exasperating to watch this for ten hours and somehow they never get around to the dark-secret culty stuff from the plane crash until the final few minutes, setting up a second season that I don’t have the energy to watch despite now liking the lead actors more than ever. It’s very into its 1990s soundtrack, and I guess so am I, since my choice of favorite scenes was based on whether a Belly song was playing.

Present-day housewife Melanie Lynskey is married to Warren Kole (of Pick Me Up, a fellow high schooler who wasn’t on the plane) and sleeping with mysterious Franco-looking Peter Gadiot. Tawny Cypress (of that “save the cheerleader” series) is running for office, straining relationships with her wife and their messed-up son. Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci are wildcards in their own way. Somebody dangerous is after them, may have murdered fellow survivor Travis, but is it the mysterious boyfriend, the husband, the kidnapped reporter, a political rival, a follower of freaky crash-kid Lottie, or nobody and they’re all being paranoid? If anybody watched season two, please let me know.

After pilot director Karyn Kusama sets the tone, a Norwegian who worked on American Gods alternates with Deepa Mehta(!), an original Blair Witch director, a guy from Empire, a Top of the Lake veteran, and an actual 1990s director (who made the Frances McDormand Madeline). The creators previously did a show called Narcos – joined here by writers from Animal Kingdom, How to Get Away with Murder, 90210 Reboot, Jane the Virgin, Scandal, and Hacks.

The Kingdom season 2 (1997, Lars Von Trier)

Hospital director Moesgaard gets hypnotized by a makeshift-office basement weirdo while the brotherhood is trying to root out occult influences. Bondo gets his cancerous transplant removed, but too late. Hook becomes a zombie due to Helmer malfeasance, becoming a murderous megalomaniac. New guy Christian wants to impress the cute Sanna by becoming the masked ambulance racer Falcon. Mrs. Drusse keeps looking for ghosts, including by helicopter. Rigmor shoots Helmer, who then kidnaps brain-damaged Mona, then loses her. Most importantly, Udo Kier is a gigantic baby in constant agony. Ends on a cliffhanger, but we’ll see you again in 25 years.

The Twilight Zone, Vol. 1 (1959)

I thought I’d do a morning routine of exercising to a Twilight Zone episode, but quit (for now!) after three. Doubtful that I’ve seen more than half of the original show, and not in a couple decades anyway.

101. Where Is Everybody

Earl Holliman (Forbidden Planet, Nightman) doesn’t recall who he is or how he arrived in a completely empty town, becomes increasingly panicked as he searches for human life or some explanation. Right after he logically determines that the town is too detailed for this to be a dream or delusion, we discover it’s a delusion – he’s a would-be astronaut losing his marbles after spending weeks in an isolation chamber.

This aired in Fall 1959, so before the Apollo program was developed. Director Robert Stevens was a veteran of this sort of thing from the early 1950’s Suspense and then-current Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Of the guys in the final scene, one played a senator in The Manchurian Candidate, another would later find TV fame on Peyton Place.

Earl stops to watch an obscure Douglas Sirk film:

102. One for the Angels

TV star and Disney’s Mad Hatter Ed Wynn is good as a street vendor who makes a deal with death (Murray Hamilton, mayor of Jaws) and death deals back. Laboriously told story, but that’s per 2023 me, who is well used to seeing Death in movies. Love how the plot hinges on Death himself getting so mesmerized by modern advertising techniques that he starts buying stuff he doesn’t need – he’s tried to tell us that the hereafter doesn’t consider work/professional achievements noteworthy, but capitalism triumphs over the heavens.

Death checks out the amazing tensile strength of that thread:

103. Mr Denton on Doomsday

Right after the Death episode we’ve got a guy named Fate. Hopefully these head-clunkingly obvious episodes are meant to ease viewers into the supernatural concept and things will get more elegant later on. Killer cast here – Lang regular Dan Duryea is a top gun-turned-town drunk, tormented by local bully Martin Landau (same year as his North by Northwest breakout), until Fate (Malcolm Atterbury of Rio Bravo) steps in and gives Dan a pistol and a fastest-gun-in-the-west elixir (ingredients: hightail lizard, rushroom). It’s not clear whether Fate is to credit for Dan’s weird ability to skillfully defend himself while waving his gun around blindly, though his rum shakes prevent him from shooting straight on purpose. This being The West, a young dude (Ken Lynch, a cop in NxNW) appears instantly to prove himself in a gundown with Dan, but they both drink the same elixir and only blast each other’s hands, Fate’s complex scheme to pacify the West a couple gunmen at a time. This is the first episode with a real lady in it: Jeanne Cooper, last-billed in The Intruder.

Cowboy Landau:

Also watched Dina Hashem’s new thing, which was low-key and good.

Zoë Kravitz is a traumatized OCD shut-in during a global pandemic, working remote for a shabby Siri competitor whose idiot bosses committed a crime within hearing range of their own product. Zoë flirts with neighbor Terry (Byron Bowers, currently on Irma Vep), sees a dentist over Zoom, pals around with Romanian hackers, and reports an apparent crime to company HR (led by Rita Wilson), who continually assure her that they take this very seriously. Will Zoë thwart the criminals, meet the nice neighbor, and leave her apartment, defeating her agoraphobia and the entire pandemic? Of course – it’s not a very serious movie despite the up-to-date pandemic/surveillance themes. She’s even the kind of home-coder who can take out the company hitman (Jane The Virgin’s Dad) and his two thugs using a nailgun. Top cameo by Devin Ratray, as her neighbor who comes over only to get immediately stabbed, named Kevin here in reference to his best role, “Tinfoil Kevin” on The Tick.

A few guys get a job to camp out menacingly in a family man’s house until he retrieves some documents from his workplace, but the documents aren’t so easily retrieved, and somebody dies, and who’s really working for who? It’s that sort of movie, and I could do a whole plot rundown but it’s twisty and fun so I’d rather just forget the particulars and watch it again in a few years. I’ll say that everyone’s sleeping around, all the women are dangerous, the documents are about the auto industry wanting to avoid pollution regulation, and Soderbergh shoots the action with a widescreen lens that perversely distorts everything on the sides.

Besides the superstars, we’ve got family man David Harbour (star of the Hellboy remake which I accidentally bought on blu-ray for a few bucks thinking it was the original, dammit)… his wife, hostage Amy Seimetz (director of last year’s finest film)… and Ray Liotta’s wife is Julia Fox (Uncut Gems).

Not how you want to meet Don Cheadle:

You do not impress Bill Duke:

You don’t want Brendan Fraser pointing his napkin at you:

A barely pre-covid movie set on a cruise ship, haha. Everyone gave the same description of this movie, that it’s about a writer who has to take a trip across the ocean, chooses ship travel and invites her two oldest friends, then invites her nephew to keep them occupied while the writer avoids everyone. Doesn’t sound interesting based on that, but I trusted in the actors and Soderbergh’s rep, and was rewarded with some very natural dialogue mixed with exquisite writing, and an engaging watch despite some clunky bits.

Happy to see Lucas Hedges not end up with spying lit agent Gemma Chan (soon to star in Chloe Zhao’s Eternals, which is hopefully better than The Old Guard). Happy to see Dianne Wiest for the first time in a memorable movie since Synecdoche NY. She and Candice Bergen have scores to settle, which had ultimately less payoff than the Dean Koontz stand-in getting everyone’s respect at the end. Meryl Streep’s second Soderbergh movie in a row (still haven’t checked out The Laundromat). Writer Deborah Eisenberg is a Malick associate, and Soderbergh ought to have a twisty crime drama ready to go when theaters reopen.

I loved watching this, paid attention to the access afforded by the phone-cam cinematography and the always-good Soderbergh editing. But is it just me, or does nothing major actually happen? There’s an NBA lockout, agent Andre Holland threatens status quo by proving that the players can play for big money without the league, and the owners and players suddenly come to an agreement. It’s a strong move within the system, earning the players a small percent higher pay in negotiations, but doesn’t upend the power structure as promised.

The cowriter and costar of Moonlight, along with that Netflix money, apparently gave Soderbergh a chance to revisit his abandoned Moneyball project, dramatizing “the game on top of the game” and cutting away to interviews with sports stars. The movie is all dialogue, but either it’s omitting some conversations or I didn’t pick up on some of the sly maneuvering, since I still don’t know how the climactic one-on-one between rookie Melvin Gregg (excellent as the dupe pawn who never realizes he’s being played) and established star Justin Hurtt-Dunkley is arranged. The excitement around this game, staged only for a community gym run by Bill Duke (Commando, director of Hoodlum) forces a quick settlement between owners-rep Kyle McLachlan and players-rep Sonja Sohn (Kima!). I guess Andre gets fired as Melvin’s agent but keeps his agency, his former assistant Zazie Beetz (Atlanta) who helped pull the strings is moving up, maybe Andre is getting his boss Zachary Quinto’s job, and again I’m missing some details, but it’s pulled off so convincingly.

Immediately after watching a movie by rule-breaker iPhone-cinematographer Soderbergh, roughly his 30th feature, it was fun to catch up with his third, a period piece with relatively subdued editing and energy. The movies would seem to have nothing in common, except that I’d just read David Ehrlich’s review of High Flying Bird, saying that Soderbergh is “drawn to stories about people who try to steal back a measure of self-worth,” and that connects. So now I’ve seen all of his movies except Side Effects, and I guess Mosaic.

Our boy is Aaron, abandoned by both parents due to work and illness, he and his little brother attempt to live in a hotel room in Depression-era St. Louis with no food or income for as long as possible. He tries breeding canaries, dances with an epileptic neighbor, sees the arrest of Adrien Brody and suicide (!) of Spalding Gray while avoiding cops and death himself, and finally escapes the hotel when his travelling salesman father returns.

Gray and Elizabeth McGovern:

Aaron with Lauryn Hill:

Claire Foy (of Nicolas Cage monk-actioner Season of the Witch) makes the huge mistake of confessing suicidal thoughts to her therapist, gets admitted to a psychiatric ward for evaluation for a couple days, which gets extended to a week because she keeps railing against her confinement. She sees her stalker ex-boyfriend working at the clinic, and I thought the whole movie was gonna be the old “are these things really happening or is she actually crazy” routine, but it becomes clear only a few scenes later that he is a dangerous stalker abusing his position of power and her inability to escape. I haven’t seen Side Effects yet, but between this and The Knick and Contagion, Soderbergh has got a thing for dangerous hospitals.

“There is no path to happiness from here.” The stalker is Joshua Leonard of the Blair Witch Project. SNL’s Jay Pharoah helps Claire out, claims to be a recovering drug addict who checked himself in, but is actually an undercover reporter exposing the hospital, or he would have if Josh hadn’t murdered him. Josh also kills unstable patient Juno Temple (the blonde one in Jack & Diane) and Claire’s mom, then miseries Claire’s foot when she runs away. I think she kills his ass in the end, the hospital gets busted for being run like a secret prison, and Claire gets a promotion at work. Whole movie was shot on a phone, with some unique angles and fishbowl views.

I finished two of these shows on the same day, deciding that’s a good amount of TV to write about, and wondering what to watch next. Looking through the archives I started numbering these posts retroactively, just to amuse myself, and this is roughly the 44th roundup of TV shows.

The Knick season 1 (2014)

It’s so hard to decide which Prestige TV Drama I am gonna waste 8-13 hours watching when they churn out a hundred per year and I get around to watching maybe one. This seemed safe, since it’s where Soderbergh had ended up after “retiring” from the film industry. But it took me a year to finish watching, and in that time Soderbergh has released two new films to theaters, so his fake retirement needn’t have been a factor. First half of the season is rocky, mostly unfun, with gruesome surgery scenes (most patients die) and a hella unlikable lead (moody racist drug addict Clive Owen), establishing a whole pile of characters, then the second half lets loose raining down all the drama in the world upon their heads. The writing is trash, actors mostly good, and the style pretty cool, with a terrifically unusual shot every couple scenes and bloopy Cliff Martinez music. Mobile camera, longish takes, some crazy subjective shots and a couple wicked angles per episode. But that trash writing weighs heavy upon the show, and after hate-watching the last couple eps, I’m skipping season two.

Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen, last seen in Valerian) is our hero, a brilliant doctor thinking ahead of his time, addicted to cocaine and morphine and a huge racist, though he becomes enlightened and suddenly stops being racist in episode six, just in time to defend against race-rioting whites in episode seven.

Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson, a Hanks family member in Bridge of Spies) is the new nurse, sent to awaken Thack with coke injections before surgery. They’re having an affair by the end, and she’s on the drugs but not as hopelessly as he is.

Nurse Elkins:

Cornelia (Juliet Rylance of Sinister) is one of the hospital’s all-important rich benefactors. She goes on adventures with the health inspector tracking Typhoid Mary through the city, is a childhood friend of Dr. Edwards, and they have an affair but she decides to marry another rich white person with a pervert father instead.

Cornelia in distress:

Dr. Edwards (André Holland, Kevin in Moonlight) is just as brilliant as Thack, but black, so nobody respects him except Cornelia and post-racism Thack and he ends up opening his own secret clinic in the hospital basement. He’s asked to abort his own baby after getting Cornelia pregnant, is an excellent boxer, and likes to get his ass kicked in bar fights when frustrated.

The hospital boss is Barrow (Jeremy Bobb of the show Godless and Under the Silver Lake) who sometimes seems underwater from all the drama but can be very determined, like when he hires Thack’s opium dealer Wu to murder the gangsters who punched him in the dick. Other major doctors include young upcomer Bertie (Michael Angarano of Red State) whose dad wants him to work someplace nicer with a better salary, and pissy Everett (Eric Johnson, Flash Gordon in 2007) who was supposed to get the position that Edwards holds.

Doctors Edwards, Bertie, Everett Gallinger, Thackery:

And the others… Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer: Max Headroom, Trashcan Man in The Stand) was Thack’s mentor, kills himself in the first episode after the failure of an operation that the others later perfect. Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan of Guardians of the Galaxy 2) is an ambulance driver who steals other hospitals’ patients and starts an underground business with abortionist nun Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour, abused Aunt Linda in Jack & Diane). Everett’s wife Eleanor (Zoe’s sister Maya Kazan, who would play a character named Zoe on Sleepy Hollow) loses her baby, kills the adopted replacement baby, then is sent to the booby hatch where they pull all her teeth. Dr. Zinberg (Michael Nathanson of TV’s The Punisher) is the Jewish doctor who Thack feels is his greatest rival. And Bunky (Danny Hoch of We Own the Night) was the lead gangster/loanshark/pimp killed by foot fetishist Wu (Perry Yung of John Wick 2). John Hodgman does not appear, despite a bunch of people kinda looking like John Hodgman.

Cleary and Barrow:

Bad Medicine: a pregnant woman is told to stick her belly in ice water. A nurse dies putting out an electrical fire with a bucket of water. Barrow puts his head in an x-ray machine for an hour. Thack’s ex Abby loses her nose to syphilis and gets her arm and nose grafted together. Holes are drilled in peoples’ heads, limbs are lost, things are burned and severed and pulled, and towards the end it’s all done without anesthesia because war in the Philippines has caused a cocaine shortage, causing Thack to go increasingly mental from withdrawal and kill a kid with a bad blood transfusion after misunderstanding how blood types work.

The stinger ending is the hospital shareholders vote to move uptown and Thack is given a new drug called heroin to cure his coke addiction.

The lighting is often quite nice:

Weirdly, the writer/creators are best known for a Kate Hudson romantic comedy, a Tim Allen Disney remake, and short-lived sitcoms starring Tony Danza and Jeff Foxworthy.

To make sure I don’t watch season 2, I’m spoiling it on wikipedia… looks like the abortionist nun goes to jail and Cleary blackmails their former clients into bailing her out. Bertie goes to work for Dr. Zinberg then quits after killing his own mom during cancer surgery. The guys start a prostitute clinic, discover radiation therapy, learn how to cure syphillis, and separate conjoined twins. Thack studies addiction, trying lobotomy and hypnotism. Everett becomes a eugenicist, decides to sterilize the poor, and sabotages Edwards’ surgeries. Edwards’ secret wife arrives, and he considers black nationalism. Abby dies during nose surgery. Barrow kicks out his wife, who then blackmails him over the money he’s stolen from the hospital. Nurse Elkins murders her abusive preacher father. Cornelia’s rich dad dies saving her from a fire set by her brother. And Thack performs surgery on himself, passes out, and the show was mercifully cancelled before his fate was revealed.

Assy McGee season 1 (2006)

Animated cop-show parody starring a drunken, mumbling ass with legs who often shoots innocent civilians while failing to solve silly crimes. Not a good show, but the whole season is only an hour so I let it keep running. Larry Murphy (Teddy in Bob’s Burgers) does most of the voices, including Assy, his partner Sanchez, and his angry supervisor. The creators have cred: Carl Adams wrote for Dr. Katz and Matt Harrigan for Space Ghost C2C. Director David SanAngelo worked on Home Movies and WordGirl.

Related shows to check out(?): Ugly Americans, O’Grady, 12 oz. Mouse

BoJack Horseman season 2 (2015)

Maybe the most consistently funny show about depression. BoJack gets everything he wants in this season – a perfect girlfriend who’s never seen his TV show, the leading role in his dream film, renewed friendship with his first girlfriend, and a big-ass boat – and throws it all away because he’s a self-destructive prick. Meanwhile, Princess Carolyn starts a new agency with a coworker/lover, Diane falls into a funk and hides at BoJack’s house for months, Mr. Peanutbutter hosts a hit game show produced by JD Salinger, and Todd joins an improv-comedy cult.

The Good Place season 2 (2018)

I didn’t watch most of season 1, but after hearing about its ending (it was the Bad Place all along and the entire neighborhood is Ted Danson’s torture experiment, which is why there are so many frozen yogurt stores), I joined Katy for this one, which was terrific, opening with hundreds of “reboots” of the experiment, until a desperate Danson confesses and enlists the others to play along so they all don’t get sent to the real Bad Place. Also: Chidi teaches ethics classes, Janet becomes more powerful and erratic and creates a boyfriend named Derek, they sneak into Bad Place HQ and ask mercy from a goofball Judge, then are sent back to Earth for further study.

Tales from the Tour Bus season 1 (2017)

“Paycheck stole Patsy Cline’s car!” I only heard about this from a Robbie Fulks post, am assuming it mostly flew under the radar. Good-natured stories of the highs and (mostly) lows on tour with some country legends, with generous song clips balancing out the bad behavior, animated and rotoed by Mike Judge, who clearly loves this stuff. Will be interesting to see if the new Blaze Foley movie can stand up to his episode here, and how the less country-focused second season will go.

Tammy and the President:

Johnny Cash cameo in the Waylon Jennings story:

Master of None season 2 (2017)

Bookended by double episodes with Dev’s almost-girlfriend Francesca, first in Italy then New York, the middle half has Dev hosting a cupcake show. More movie references than ever, a couple standalone/gimmick episodes, some good flashbacks in a Denise-focused episode (with Angela Bassett as her mom) and lots and lots of food.

Big Train season 2

This belongs in the pantheon of absurd sketch shows, with Mr. Show and Kids in the Hall and Human Giant and Chappelle’s Show. Created by the writers of Father Ted… so maybe that show is good? The three guys from season 1 are now joined by The Dark Haired Woman (Rebecca Front of The Day Today, The Thick of It season 3) and The Woman With The Bouncy Curls (Tracy-Ann Oberman of EastEnders).

Scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Working Class”:

And we watched enough of the Great British Bake Off to last a lifetime – though I’m slightly curious to check out the Boosh-hosted season. Also watched a Todd Barry standup special, the Fred Armisen one about drumming, and probably a few others I’ve forgotten. With limited TV time we still haven’t finished The Deuce or the new Mystery Science Theater 3000, gotten back to Atlanta or Blackish or Steven Universe, or started the latest seasons of Kimmy Schmidt or Search Party or Black Mirror [edit: one of these things is no longer true – stay tuned for details in Season 45].

Maybe a weird choice when my parents were visiting, but everyone loves sexy dancing. I guess it’s about friendship and forgiveness, following your dreams, and sexy, sexy dancing. Good movie, unusual looking in the usual Soderbergh style, all muted colors except inside the club.

Mike (Tater Channing) works at McConaughey’s strip club while saving up to open his own furniture business. He picks up a protege (Alex Pettyfer, star of spy-kid flick Alex Rider) at his construction day-job, who turns out to be a fuckup, and Mike loses his savings bailing the dummy out of trouble. Mike gets a semi-happy ending with the fuckup’s sister (Cody Horn) and the rest of the gang is moving to a new club in another city – despite this, it looks like Tater and all the dancers, but not the fuckup or his sister or McConaughey, appear in the sequel.