Here are a few things I’ve been watching recently…
“I’m An Entertainer” is Wanda Sykes’ first new standup special since 2019. She’s not shy about sharing stories of her own experiences with marriage and parenting, surviving the pandemic, racism, politics, drag bans, and transgender bathroom laws. She also pulls off two perfectly timed callbacks to the title of the special, and a visual gag about Mitch McConnell’s jowls that had me howling. Sykes remains one of the best comedians around. I hope we don’t have to wait another four years for her next special.
“Obit” is a 2016 documentary about the people who compose obituaries for the NY Times. It remains one of the few news outlets that has several full-time staffers digging up details on the famous, the infamous, and the you-never-heard-of-them. There’s nothing maudlin about the job or the movie, a fascinating look at talented reporters who often have to uncover the histories of people they’re not familiar with — and do it on deadline in a single day. There are also several scenes with the Times’ archivist, who — to help provide context or background on some of the subjects — has to dig through what seems to be a completely unruly collection containing millions of clippings and photos. How he found anything in that overstuffed facility is nothing short of amazing. Having dealt with a professional obit writer at Newsday when my mother died in 2019, I have tremendous appreciation for the respectful way all of them gently nudge both the big story and some minutia out of bereaved family members, co-workers, and friends.
“Whatever Works” was a 2009 Woody Allen movie that was never on my radar screen, but when I saw it starred Larry David, it seemed like he’d be the perfect simulacrum (a fancy word I learned from Ricky Jay) of Woody’s screen persona. The plot involves a misanthropic middle-aged man who often breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience and becomes involved with a woman far younger than he — by forty years. She sees him as a brilliant, funny, fascinating guy, while he views her as a southern simpleton who doesn’t understand any of his references. My wife liked “Whatever Works,” but for me it ranks in the bottom 20% of Woody’s output. The supporting cast includes Henry Cavill (four years before he became the “Man Of Steel”), and small roles for Patricia Clarkson, Samantha Bee, and Michael McKean. Oh, and Ed Begley Jr. shows up with the worst southern accent I’ve ever heard on screen.
In addition to his talents as a comedian and TV personality, I did not know that Craig Ferguson was also a screenwriter. “Saving Grace,” one of his first feature film efforts, is the sweet story of a widow who discovers that her dead husband didn’t leave her anything to live on. In fact, he was so seriously in debt that she might lose her home. Brenda Blethyn plays Grace with, well, grace and empathy dripping from every pore. Ferguson plays her gardener, who comes up with a scheme to raise enough money to keep Grace from being tossed to the curb. The story goes seriously silly at one point, but then Bill Bailey (a British comedian I find hysterical) shows up as a low-level drug dealer who quickly gets in over his head. Meanwhile, Grace goes from innocent to clever while the others in her village offer quiet support.
I hadn’t seen Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” since naming it one of the best movies of 2016, but wanted to go back and pick up on small plot elements I missed the first time around. In doing so, I rediscovered how brilliant Amy Adams was as the linguist brought in to help figure out how to communicate with aliens who suddenly appeared in egg-shaped crafts above 12 spots around the globe. Ironically, considering her character specialized in words, Adams said so much with facial expressions and emotions: wonder, fear, joy, and determination. Villeneuve skillfully threaded the thin line between peaceful curiosity and warmongering as nations grew impatient with the scientists struggling to learn how to communicate with visitors who spoke no earthly language. With no action sequences to speak of, the burden of making “Arrival” work fell squarely on Adams’ shoulders, and she delivered, with help from Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker.