Yes, it’s an eye-grabbing headline, and I plead guilty to coyness. But during a time when most of us are partly or completely at home, as “non-essential” business orders keep us out of the workplace, the following are some movies and television shows I have been watching during the infancy of the Covid-19 crisis.
These selections are by no means essential, but one might argue that diversion will keep the home bound whole until we can return to other pursuits and hobbies suspended for the time being.
Pre-dating the pandemic, I began viewing Better Call Saul’s fifth season. Saul is the Breaking Bad spinoff that has endured in spite of meandering and, oftentimes, hard to believe story lines. It’s been an act of self-flagellation to keep up with the show, but like a long, stuffy car ride I’ve come this far and can see home—and I just want to get there rather than bail out.
I wouldn’t call Saul binge worthy, and if you never watched Breaking Bad much will be unrelatable, but there are enough glimmers of interest to keep the already initiated sticking around to see how things resolve. I used to DVR episodes and catch up with them when I could, but for the past few weeks I have been front and center Monday nights at 9pm when the show airs on AMC.
Though many businesses are in stasis during the crisis, one that seems to be thriving is Netflix. Not that it wasn’t before, but with millions at home both the streaming and DVD services are a godsend. In this regard, I’ve been able to catch up on things I’ve missed while also viewing new content.
I may be one of the few to admit this, but until recently I never watched a minute of The Walking Dead. We’re not living in a zombie apocalypse, but some may feel that way, and I found this show in the Netflix trending list. Intrigued, I committed to watching the first season (made all the way back in 2010).
It’s a six-episode run, and I won’t be continuing. Partially, it’s the staggering amount of other seasons and episodes I find daunting (not to mention a spin off titled Fear the Walking Dead), but also because the show just didn’t do it for me.
Perhaps I was late to the party. In the last decade, zombie-related material has proliferated faster than a zombie virus. The market feels saturated, and The Walking Dead did not stand out to me as captivating, even if it did inspire much that was to follow. Had I begun with the show and grew with it, I might feel differently. Alas, it was not to be, and the cheap production value of the program does not help. Though the conundrums the characters face in a truly lawless world are at times interesting, overall The Walking Dead felt pastiche and pedestrian.
Next up (or down) was Rambo: Last Blood. I won’t be the last to point out that some producer saw the success of the Taken series with Liam Neeson and said ‘let’s have Rambo do that.’ This movie bears no visible relation to First Blood or even the other, if hammy, sequels. The character, the story, the plot, the dialogue—all are in another universe, and the movie could easily be just any D-grade revenge, shoot-em-up story. Sylvester Stallone has had a legendary career, but this may be his worst effort. At 73, let’s hope he has a few more gems left, as opposed to this clunker.
From action and suspense, I shifted to comedy. Booksmart was a surprise hit this year. It’s the story of two holier-than-thou, intellectual high school senior girls who realize they’ve missed out on wild times the last four years. Determined to show they can party, they set out to have one night of mischief and bacchanalia before they graduate. This movie was the female answer to Superbad or Harold and Kumar Go to Whitecastle. Or, seen a slightly different way, it’s a latter day Clueless.
It may rival Superbad and Harold and Kumar, but it’s not Clueless. It’s high octane and slapstick from the word go, with snappy dialogue but predictable story lines and moments. Booksmart is like an internet meme: it grabs your attention and elicits a chuckle but will be lost in the ether soon enough. Clueless endures as a teen saga, while Booksmart is a poetaster.
Having caught up on movies and shows I had never seen, I decided to revisit some old favorites. My son mainly inspired me here. I hadn’t watched an episode of Cheers in 25 years, but old friend Netflix carried the show. How a 10-year old could be interested in this goofy, 1980s comedy about a Boston bar and all the knuckleheads therein baffled me, but at his insistence we have plowed through a few seasons now.
Cheers was one of the hottest shows of the 1980s and probably in the top 25 of all time, yet it does feel dated. By this I don’t mean the references but the style of comedy. In comparison to say, The Office, Cheers is frequently sluggish and one-note. There are some great characters and genuinely funny episodes, but through today’s lens I fail to see the rabid appeal it once had. I can watch an episode of I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners, and they still really work, but at least for me, Cheers doesn’t cook up that same classic flavor.
Keeping with the comedy theme, we also went back to the Austin Powers trilogy. The first is a true original if too dependent on potty humor. Although I had to pause the movie many times to explain all the references to my son, many of the gags are timeless. The two sequels were excruciatingly repetitious and even more reliant on the prurient, but even so there are flares of hilarity throughout. Thank goodness they stopped after three, though this also presented a nice opportunity to explain to my son the origin of the term “jumping the shark.” Even in the abyss of staleness and anatomy jokes there was something to be learned.
From the past, I leaped forward to the present and what else…Tiger King. One episode was enough for me. Yes, the people are crazy and the story to be filed under truth being stranger than fiction, but all the players felt like they were mugging for the camera—all self promoters who knew the ‘documentary’ would boost their visibility. It’s like being in on a joke while others stand on the outside gaping. You know it’s tom foolery and delight, more than the jest itself, in others’ earnestness.
As of this writing, I want to conclude with the best piece of material I’ve seen while in shut down mode. Netflix clearly tracks (hooray for Big Brother) what I watch and recommended, based on other viewings, the 2012 film Killing Them Softly. If one can get past the Weinstein Company logo on the header, this is a very different gangster film than we are used to seeing. This may be why the movie went completely unseen and unnoticed by people when it was first released.
Set against the economic troubles of the 2007-08 Great Recession (a parallel to the present moment?), a Mafia-card game is robbed by some low-level hoods. Hitman and fixer Brad Pitt is called in to clean up the mess. This is the simplistic plot, but the movie is less about underworld revenge than economic hardship and human weakness. Besides dreamy Pitt, no character looks good in this film—from greasy junkies to overweight and jowly murderers to facially pock-marked lawyers. The visuals are also bleak, the action taking place in an unnamed city which has been devastated and is the epitome of urban blight. It’s hard times for everyone, for the mob, for assassins, for petty thieves and junkies. Everyone is scratching to survive.
The violence in Killing Me Softly is highly stylistic, and some may think the director and cinematographer are working too hard here. But these moments can be overlooked, as cynicism appears to be the heart of the movie. Cynicism for politicians and America itself where, amidst financial collapse and attempted rousing talk by both left and right, personal, pathetic, and deadly dramas are playing out too.
Indeed, the most interesting (and some may say bizarre) passage of the film occurs when hitman James Gandolfini is brought in to help Pitt with his killings. Instead of confronting and murdering the card-game desperados, Gandolfini spends his scenes stuffing his face with food and booze and whining about his own troubles with the law and domesticity. It’s a surprising choice, but it works well and sets Killing Them Softly apart from other crime films.
Besides Gandolfini, a few other Sopranos faces pop up in the movie, in addition to an all-star cast, which, after Pitt and Gandolfini, includes Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Bed Mendelsohn, and Sam Shepard.
I have JoJo Rabbit next up in my queue, and with restrictions on business and gathering still uncertain, it seems I will have even more time to get my entertainment game on. In this regard, I’d like to hear from anyone reading this log: what have you been watching and what might you recommend?
Whatever your choices, stay safe and healthy, and I look forward to returning to the theater itself when the curtain has lifted on our lives and the stage.