Fall is here, if you can believe it, and we’re still hunkering down and staying safe to stop the spread of COVID-19. Nonetheless, it’s the weekend, and it’s best spent in the company of household-sharing loved ones, distancing out in nature, or enjoying some great entertainment at home. Here are our picks for things to do this weekend. Have fun, but be safe.
Like every other beloved annual event, this year’s L.A. Times Festival of Books has gone virtual this year. Upcoming programs include a discussion on crime fiction with three L.A.-based crime-fiction writers (Oct. 23), Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction winner Marlon James in conversation with writer Tananarive Due (Oct. 25), and Natalie Portman discussing her new book of fables (Nov. 1). [More info]
On Friday and Saturday, Chinatown tea room Steep L.A. is launching a new weekly outdoor dining experience Steep After Dark (aka SAD) in the courtyard at Mandarin Plaza. Offerings include dishes by guest Chef Shawn Pham of Tsubaki and Ototo in Echo Park, along with Chef Tim Wah, and tea-based libations by Philip Ly. Hours are 4-9 p.m. [More info]
Tom Petty’s 70th Birthday Bash
Friday, October 23
This annual celebration of late rocker Tom Petty’s birthday usually takes place a long way from L.A. (in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida), but this year’s virtual fest is for fans from coast to coast. Look for appearances and performances from a bananas lineup that includes Beck, Eddie Vedder, Lucinda Williams, Lenny Kravitz, and many more. [More info]
Molly Shannon, Paul Rudd, Michael Ian Black, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Showalter, A.D. Miles, Chris Meloni, and the rest of the cast of the 2000 cult classic comedy Wet Hot American Summer are reuniting for a live read and Q&A to raise money for the Biden Victory Fund. Special guests from subsequent iterations (i.e. the Netflix series) are also on board. [Tickets here]
Highland Park’s own Billie Eilish had to halt her arena tour because of the pandemic, so she’s created an immersive livestream experience for fans. According to Rolling Stone, “Using multiple cameras and state-of-the-art XR technology, the event will be a virtual concert in a 3D rendered environment. Performing live with her brother Finneas and touring drummer Andrew Marshall, Eilish is expected to retool elements from her halted 2020 arena tour and reconfigure them for the virtual event alongside new elements.” [More info]
Friendly House Virtual Gala
Saturday, October 24
Friendly House, an L.A. addiction treatment center for women, is hosting its 31st annual gala virtually. The event, emceed by Lena Dunham, features celebs including Russell Brand, Katey Sagal, and Boy George, and a silent auction offers goodies like a painting by David Lynch or a 20-minute Zoom chat with Margaret Cho. The event is totally free to attend, but donations are very welcome. [More info]
Education nonprofit Para Los Niños honors United in Harmony – Camp Harmony at its 40th anniversary virtual benefit, hosted by Mario Lopez. Some of L.A.’s best restaurants—Kali, Rossoblu, Redbird, and more—are donating a portion of the proceeds from takeout orders placed on Sunday to the nonprofit, too.
A drive-thru Halloween experience suitable for all ages, Haunt’oween comes from Experiential Supply, a firm that typically creates sets and effects for Hollywood productions. The experience will have photo ops, a jack-o’-lantern tunnel, and a pumpkin patch for picking your own pumpkin to take home (after it’s sanitized, put into a single-use bag, deposited in your trunk though contact-free delivery). Of special note is the trick-or-treat experience, featuring a spooky “neighborhood” populated by (masked) actors who will hand out candy to kids via poles and buckets that offer distancing. [More info]
In honor of Dia del Los Muertos next month, UCLA’s Fowler Museum teamed up with Self Help Graphics to present a free virtual workshop on how to make your own calaca cartonería, or papier mache skeleton. Artist William Acedo walks viewers through the five-part process, which takes four or five days to complete (so give yourself plenty of time!) [More info]
To adapt to 2020, the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride had to drop the “hayride” part–but they’re still haunting. The event is now billed as a “first of its kind immersive experience” where you stay in your car through a multimedia show, that includes video and real-life performers. Fittingly, the theme is a haunted drive-in movie theater. Tickets for this weekend are sold out, but there are a handful of dates still available. [More info]
Enjoy a traditional gourd-gathering mission–with COVID protocols, of course–at Mr. Jack O’Lanterns Pumpkin Patch, which opens this weekend for in-person shopping or online preorders. You can explore the sanitized patches and pick up everything you need to decorate your seasonal squash. [More info]
The air is (a little bit) clearer, and the shops and restaurants along Montana Avenue in Santa Monica are hosting a series of special outdoor events. Look for sidewalk sales and special outdoor seating arrangements for diners, and don’t forget your face mask. [More info]
Movie theaters are still closed and all of those pop-up screenings sell out fast, but the L.A. area’s stationary drive-ins don’t require advance tickets and have plenty of great movies to check out—and double features galore. It’s a throwback that’s become very welcome during the era of social distancing.
It feels like we’re living through one interminable Monday under this global house arrest, but it technically is the weekend. So why not take a break from the news and the glitchy Zoom meetings and watch something fun? Check out what we have in this week’s roundup of streaming recommendations because sometimes the best things to do are the most low-effort of all.
Looking for even more things to watch, eat, and do during the COVID-19 outbreak? Check out our Inside Guide.
“Fail fast” is one of those mantras tech founders love to recite, the idea being that getting mistakes out of the way quickly can lead to success. If that’s the case, whatever Jeffrey Katzenberg does next is going to be extraordinary.
Quibi died as it lived: little watched yet widely mocked.
Before Quibi even had a single subscriber, Katzenberg and his CEO, Meg Whitman, raised $1.75 billion from studios like the Walt Disney Company, Sony, Viacom, NBC Universal, and Time Warner and financial institutions like JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. With a team of execs drawn from studios, cable, and the trades, they locked in every A-lister you could imagine from Steven Spielberg to LeBron James to produce five- to ten-minute shows (or “quick bites”) that would be delivered exclusively to subscribers’ phones.
Nearly a year before he launched or even named his platform, Katzenberg told Variety that he hoped it would be bigger than DreamWorks SKG. When Quibi finally debuted in early April, after a splashy but awkward keynote at the CES in Las Vegas and some very pricey Super Bowl commercials, it was met with universal viewer indifference. (That the industry and the press—the latter of which Whitman compared to sexual predators before launch—met it with outright disdain is another story.)
Nobody, it seemed, wanted to watch shows like Dishmantled, in which meals were shot into the faces of blindfolded chefs who recreated them from taste. Even a celebrity as beloved as Chrissy Teigen couldn’t elicit more than shrugs for her Judge Judy riff. After its initial free trial, Quibi lost 90 percent of its subscribers, pushing its expensive content (some reportedly costing as much as $100,000 a minute) to just 72,000 paid viewers.
Visiting Quibi’s 49,000-square-foot offices in Hollywood before its launch felt a little like visiting a “tech startup” set built for a TV show. There was a wall of jars filled with penny candies that guests could enjoy—as if anyone working in the film and TV business would be caught dead eating, especially around development people. There was the requisite ping pong table in the courtyard where a long in the tooth ex-Comedy Central exec held forth for a group of young employees who looked like they were taking a break from being Instagram influencers. In the men’s restroom, a bluetooth radio blared “Don’t Stop Believin’,” as if needle-dropped by a hacky music coordinator.
And in a corner office was the wizard himself. At the time, Katzenberg was 69 and had gone from being disdainfully called “Sparky” as a young comer at Paramount and Disney to a grey eminence who’d co-launched the first new Hollywood studio in a generation.
Why on earth would someone who helped create The Lion King and American Beauty and was worth a reported $900 million want to run a startup, I wondered.
Turns out, Katzenberg didn’t know either. “My ambition has always been to exceed the expectations of my customer or my audience,” he told me blandly that day. “That’s all. That’s the win.”
And yet, in every way other than the glittering constellation of stars he’d assembled, he’d failed to do that with Quibi.
The app itself was not ready for primetime, launching without any sharing function, something unthinkable in the social media era. (No bother: users filmed their screens and mocked Rachel Brosnahan’s hammy turn as a woman whose golden arm is killing her in the Sam Raimi-produced 50 States of Fright, creating the exact wrong kind of viral content for the company.) Furthermore, TurnStyle, Quibi’s much-touted screen-rotating technology, was immediately subject to a lawsuit by a company claiming its patent had been infringed upon.
The shows, what little people saw of them, were half-baked. Many felt like toss-off jokes about high-concept Hollywood dreck. One producer I spoke with called many of the shows on Quibi MOPs, or “most often pitched,” vanity projects that other platforms and networks normally pass on.
Then there was Quibi’s entire value proposition: charging viewers $4.99 a month to watch expensively produced mini-TV shows when they could be watching TikTok, YouTube, or Snap videos for free and continue to pay for Netflix, Disney+, HBOMax, and Hulu. It was a classic case of a tech company trying to fill a need that literally no one has. Add to that the fact that it was run by execs in their 60s but largely aimed at the under-25 set. For all his mega success, Katzenberg revealed that he’s a man out of time trying to push a product into a world that doesn’t want it.
“It’s just sort of my old-school bias, but I love water cooler conversation,” he told me then. Burning through nearly $2 billion in less than two years (less than one in front of viewers), Katzenberg is definitely the subject of conversation now. The fact that no one under 40 has probably ever seen, used, or talked around a water cooler tells you all you need to know about how out of sync Quibi was with the times.
For its founder, Quibi’s failure has gotta hurt, but at least it was fast.
No matter what’s going on outside, staying safer at home is always a good idea. Our weekly roundup of movies and shows to stream will keep you entertained while you flip on the platform of your choice and chill.
What to Stream This Week
This new Hulu original from Dear White People creator Justin Simien boasts an all-star cast, including Lena Waithe, Elle Lorraine, Laverne Cox, Nicole Byer, Kelly Rowland, Vanessa Williams, and Usher. The horror satire about a woman in the 1980s who gets a weave to fit in among image-obsessed entertainment types—an evil weave, that is—premiered to fanfare at Sundance just before the pandemic struck, and now hits Hulu just in time for Halloween. Hulu
The Queen’s Gambit
Set in the 1950s and ’60s, this limited series, based on the novel by Walter Tevis, follows the journey of a young orphan girl who becomes an astonishing chess champion. Along the way, she struggles with addiction, coming of age, and the classic tension between genius and madness. Critics have compared the look and feel to that of another Netflix period piece, The Crown.Netflix
Roald Dahl’s The Witches
Director Robert Zemeckis reboots the beloved 1980s screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved book about evil sorceresses who turn children into mice. While it may not thrill people familiar with the story (or the original film), the Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney says that “for young audiences encountering the story for the first time, The Witches should cast a spell, while older viewers will enjoy the contrasting comic approaches of Hathaway and Spencer doing what they do best.”
Blackpink: Light Up the Sky
One of the biggest musical acts on the planet, all-female K-pop group Blackpink, get the rock doc treatment. The film shows how the group formed, the intensive training, and their meteoric rise, including the group’s electric performance at Coachella 2019, and is directed by Caroline Suh of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Netflix
This short-form “mockumentary” purports to follow the career of John Bronco, a rugged, 10-gallon-hat-wearing Ford car racer and spokesman of the late-1960s. In reality, the character is a fictional creation, played by Vice Principals and Righteous Gemstones actor Walton Goggins. Hulu
The Trial of the Chicago 7
The latest film from West Wing and Social Network scribe Aaron Sorkin, this piece of historical fiction was in the works for over a decade–but ultimately seems to have dropped at a particularly resonant moment. Sacha Baron Cohen plays activist Abbie Hoffman, and Eddie Redmayne plays politician Tom Hayden, who would go on to represent the L.A. area in California politics for many years. Netflix
Raised by Wolves
Created by Ridley Scott, this series finds the human race near extinction, having torn the Earth apart amid conflict and religious strife. It is, we’re told, science fiction and definitely not a documentary. HBO Max
Based on the fantastic podcast of the same name, this limited series sits down with artists to talk through the process of creating one iconic song. Host Hrishikesh Hirway meets up with Lin-Manuel Miranda, R.E.M., Ty Dolla $ign, and Alicia Keys, along with a host of collaborators, for an inside look at the creative process. Netflix
The Haunting of Bly Manor
More spooky season content comes in the form of this new film, a follow up to The Haunting of Hill House, loosely adapted from Henry James’s 1898 The Turn of the Screw, updated to a modern setting. Netflix
In this eight-episode anthology series based on Nathan Ballingrund’s short story collection North American Lake Monsters, human characters run into a variety of strange beasts–from mermaids to internet conspiracists. Hulu
Created by Gone Girl‘s Gillian Flynn, and adapted from a U.K. show that ran in the 2010s, Utopia centers on a group of comic book lovers who discover that their favorite series about an apocalyptic viral pandemic (and wildfires) is actually true, and set out to save the world. Riann Wilson and John Cusack star. Amazon Prime
Emily in Paris
Lily Collins stars in this frothy new series from Sex and the City and Younger creator Darren Star. Collins plays Emily, a wide-eyed young American, sent to work in a (very romanticized) version of the Paris fashion world. Netflix
Savage x Fenty Show: Vol. 2
Rihanna has called on her celebrity friends for a second installment of her fun, fierce, music-video-slash-fashion-show extravaganza to showcase her Savage x Fenty lingerie line. Look for appearances and performances by Lizzo, Normani, Demi Moore, Paris Hilton, Big Sean, Indya Moore, Bad Bunny, Miguel, Roddy Ricch, Travis Scott, and so many more. Amazon Prime
The Good Lord Bird
A new mini-series based on the novel by James McBride, The Good Lord Bird is told from the point of view of a young freedman who finds himself at the side of abolitionist John Brown as he campaigns against slavery and stages the 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. Ethan Hawke, Daveed Diggs, and Joshua Caleb Johnson star. Showtime
In this drama, a teenager confesses to murdering a friend. When her parents desperately work to help her cover it up, the family weaves a web of lies–which quickly begins to unravel. Amazon Prime
Fargo: Installment 4
Anthology series Fargo jumps to a new setting, era, and story for each season. This time around, the show finds itself in 1950s Kansas City, with two rival mobs–one Black, one Italian–vying for control of the territory, and observing racism in America in the process. Chris Rock, Jason Schwartzman, and Timothy Olyphant lead a stylish ensemble. FX, Hulu
Taco Chronicles: Volume 2
Netflix returns to Mexico for another series of episodes highlighting regional variations of your favorite food. This time around, birria, suardero, and even the “American taco,” each get their shine. L.A. Taco editor and cookbook author Javier Cabral serves as the show’s associate producer and “taco scout” on the scene. Netflix
Agents of Chaos
This timely two-part doc from Alex Gibney (Going Clear) is the product of years of reporting on exactly how Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election–and how we remain vulnerable to foreign meddling in our democracy today. HBO
This 2018 documentary about the life and legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is poignant viewing in light of the iconic justice’s passing. Hulu, YouTube
This new spy series from the director of Homeland was made for Israeli television, but picked up for U.S. audiences by Apple. The story of a female hacker-spy for the Mossad on a mission in Iran has won praise from Foreign Policy, where writer Jonathan Ferziger remarked on the show’s “flouting of stereotypes about life in a strict Islamic society.” Apple TV+
We Are Who We Are
Call Me By Your Name filmmaker Luca Guadagnino takes us back to Italy in his new series, We Are Who We Are, which follows two American teenagers as they come of age while living on a military base. HBO
Thirty-three-year-old middle schoolers Maya and Anna are back for season two of Pen15, the Emmy-nominated hit comedy about the travails of tweendom. As the BFFs confront slut shaming, the “seesawing between naïve, gleeful girlhood, and teenage growing pains is even more jarring than it was last season,” the New York Times says.
Chef’s Table: BBQ
The latest iteration of Netflix’s seductively-shot Chef’s Table series features chefs who play with fire. Episodes feature Rosalia Chay Chuc, the Mayan woman bringing new light to traditional cooking in the Yucatán, 85-year-old Texas pitmistress Tootsie Tomanetz, and others. Netflix
Janelle Monáe leads the cast of this time-travel thriller in which a modern-day author from Virginia finds herself transported back to the era of slavery against her will and attempts to escape the torture to which she’s subjected. Video on Demand
This One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest spin-off from Ryan Murphy focuses on the character of psychiatric hospital nurse Mildred Ratched. Sarah Paulson stars as the elegant-on-the-outside, troubled-on-the-inside nurse. Netflix
You Cannot Kill David Arquette
A dalliance with wrestling became a punchline that David Arquette blamed for the stalling of his acting career. This documentary catches up with him years after that first ill-fated bout, as he decides to go all in on a midlife pivot to pro-wrestling. Amazon Prime
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President
While many of us might think of Jimmy Carter as our most wholesome ex-prez, this doc sets out to show that he was a bit of a hipster. The film pieces together footage and recollections of Carter the music-lover and his encounters with Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers, and other ’70s stars. Laemmle Virtual Cinema
An Inconvenient Truth: Truth to Power
Al Gore produced this follow-up to his 2006 eco-doc in 2017, responding to the election of Donald Trump and the risk he poses to the environment. While the sequel never gained the popularity of the original, as we find ourselves amid heat, fire, and a climate crisis that is accelerating rather than coming under control, it seems like a good time to give it a watch. Amazon Prime
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Oscar-winner Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) adapted and directed this new film based on the bestselling novel by author Iain Reid. The story of a woman’s unravelling emotions amid a surreal visit to her boyfriend’s family stars Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, and Toni Collette. Netflix
CNN described Love Fraud as “a Lifetime movie turned, for better and worse, into a salacious Showtime docuseries.” The true-life story involves a con man spent 20 years hooking women online to catfish them out of their life savings–and the female bounty hunter who ultimately attempts to bring him to justice. Showtime
Disney’s long-anticipated live action remake of Mulan finally arrives for at-home streaming on September 4. Beyond the lush filmmaking, the movie’s release will be a closely watched business story in Hollywood, as studios wait to see if audiences will shell out $29.99 on top of standard subscription fees to watch a new release online. Disney+
This six-part docuseries looks at America’s immigration system, sharing the stories of people seeking asylum, those living in the country without documentation, and the family of people who have been deported or disappeared while attempting to reach the United States. Filmmakers say they were granted unprecedented access to ICE to film operations. Netflix
Bill & Ted Face the Music
The long-anticipated third installment in the Bill & Ted franchise is landing in scattered cinemas around the country (including a handful of “secret” drive-in screenings around L.A.), but most of us will be catching up with Keanu and co. via streaming. Fandango, Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube
Anyone who lived through the “golden age” of video gaming–or just wants to learn how today’s super-sophisticated e-sports industry came to be–will enjoy the warm-hearted docuseries High Score. Featuring extensive interviews with key players dating back to the 1970s, the series delves into how the world fell in love with games. Netflix.
The Vow: A NXIVM Story
Stories of the NXIVM “self-improvement group” and its connection to sex trafficking, racketeering, conspiracy, and manipulation of vulnerable people played out in must-read headlines. Now filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer lay out the story in the words of the people who lived through it in this compelling series. HBO Max
H.P. Lovecraft was, in real life, a vicious racist. In Lovecraft Country, a fictional series based on a novel by Matt Ruff, Black people make their way across segregated, 1950s America, forced to face the terrors of a racist society–and monsters inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s tales. The show has an impressive behind-the-scenes crew, including producers J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele. HBO Max.
Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies
From the earliest silent films, the depicting–and regulating–on-screen skin is a story as old as Hollywood itself. This documentary examines how our culture has accepted and sanctioned filmmakers showing the human body in their work, and what that says about society’s values and power dynamics. Amazon Prime.
In this Netflix Original action flick, Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Dominique Fishback attempt to uncover and dismantle a shadowy group flooding the streets of New Orleans with pills that offer average humans five minutes of a surprise super power. Netflix.
Love in the Time of Corona
Too soon, or right on time? This four-part rom-com about “the hopeful search for love and connection during this time of quarantine” has received mixed reviews, but the concept of an entirely pandemic-made show (FaceTime calls as major narrative device, etc.) might be intriguing enough to try. Freeform.
Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante’s new film finds its setting amid his home country’s post-civil war upheaval, where ghosts of Indigenous victims haunt the perpetrators of rape and genocide. Not to be confused with last year’s The Curse of La Llorona, AV Club credits it with being a “more intelligent” take on the legend of the Weeping Woman. Shudder.
An original docuseries from Netflix takes a deep dive into wellness–from ancient practices to a modern, billion-dollar industry. Episodes look at subjects including ayahuasca shamans and a “cult-like pyramid scheme” selling essential oils. CNN’s Brian Lowry says that “the scientists and journalists interviewed paint a coherent picture of how people can be manipulated, and the…way these products are often promoted and sold through apparatus like multilevel marketing companies.” Netflix.
I Used to Go Here
Indie filmmaker Kris Rey (formerly Kris Swanberg) was set to debut this comedy about the angst of being in your mid-30s at SXSW in March, but those plans were derailed by the pandemic. Love’s Gillian Jacobs stars as a writer who’s overwhelmed with nostalgia when she returns to the town where she went to college. Sheila O’Malley of RogerEbert.com says the movie could have been dark, but definitely isn’t. “I Used to Go Here, grounded by a beautiful performance from Gillian Jacobs, treats its subject light-heartedly, while still managing to be honest,” she says. VOD on multiple platforms.
Produced by National Geographic, this documentary about Jane Goodall shows the her doing the work with chimpanzees that has come to define her life. Much of the archival footage of the young naturalist–shot on 16mm by Nat Geo photog (and later, Goodall’s husband) Hugo van Lawick–has never been previously released. Disney+, Hulu.
This 1992 satire of the movie business-slash-murder mystery, now on Criterion Channel, was directed by Robert Altman and features an “astonishing Hollywood who’s who” of the ’90s. Criterion recommends staging a double-feature of The Player along with Robert Townsend’s 1987 film, Hollywood Shuffle for best effect. Criterion Channel.
Each year, 1,100 teen boys from across Texas head to the state capitol in Austin to stage a mock government. This documentary, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance back in January, follows one session–including watching how Steven, a progressive child of Mexican immigrants, navigates the overwhelmingly white, conservative space. Apple TV+.
Slay the Dragon
As we enter yet another election year and wrap up the 2020 census, this documentary following a group of grassroots activists in their fight against partisan gerrymandering feels particularly timely. According to Variety, “it may prove to be one of the key political films of the decade.” Multiple Platforms.
An American Pickle
Based on Simon Rich’s novella of the same title, this fish-out-of-brine story follows Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogan), an immigrant laborer preserved in pickle brine for 100 years, who wakes up in modern-day Brooklyn. He meets up with his great-grandson (also Seth Rogan) for help navigating contemporary life. HBO Max.
The Speed Cubers
Maybe you feel like you’re just sitting at home, twiddling your thumbs–but you’re not on the twiddling level of Cerritos-reared Max Park and his friend–and arch rival–Feliks Zemdegs, the pair of superstar competitive Rubik’s Cube-solvers at the center of this new documentary. Netflix.
Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis, and Dolly Parton are among the ensemble of this classic 1989 mom-comedy/drama based on a true story. Southern twangs, pithy put-downs, and enormous ha(aaaa)ir abound. Amazon Prime.
Black Is King
Beyoncé’s third visual album is streaming on Disney+ and, according to Rolling Stone, it’s her “most elaborate visual work yet.” An abstract version of the Lion King narrative (which was based on Hamlet), Black Is King explores the idea of Africa, “paying respects to the continent’s very real inhabitants and cultures while also presenting it as a symbolic North Star for generations of Black people around the world to come.”
Set in the World War II-era English countryside, Summerland stars Gemma Artherton as a woman who doesn’t fit in—as explored in two different periods of her life. Her love interest is Gugu Mbatha-Raw in this soapy, grown-up drama by playwright-director Jessica Swale, whose “gentle creation allows for the possibility of magic—or, at the very least, good things—to work their way into even the worst of times,” says Indiewire’s Kate Erbland. “Even when the film leans toward predictability, the sense of reality melding into fantasy aids in digesting some of the film’s bigger risks.” VOD on multiple platforms.
The Muppets have been around since before the moon landing, and their adventures on the screen have been as dramatically up and down—especially after creator Jim Henson died and veterans like Frank Oz retired their puppeteering hands. But by all accounts Disney’s newest iteration, made in typical meta fashion for the YouTube era, restores the characters to their early, variety show glory. “In this beyond-stressful world, who doesn’t need some Muppets in their life?” says Jen Chaney of Vulture, who argues that any generation can enjoy this new series “and believe it connects directly to their own sensibility, a quality that the overly adult, straining-to-be-edgy The Muppets lacked.” Disney+.
This film about a family of Mexican immigrants in New Mexico, starring two real-life brothers and rooted in autobiography, reminded Eric Kohn of The Florida Project. “The bittersweet new feature from director Samuel Kishi plays like a thematic variation on the same beguiling premise in the context of the American immigrant experience. The result is an absorbing coming-of-age story about migrant life through the prism of its most innocent figures.” HBO Max.
Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My MindandThe Go-Go’s
This weekend brings two new music documentaries with very little overlap. Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian troubadour who took American ears and emotions by storm in the 1970s, is celebrated by filmmakers Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni in “a thoroughly engaging retrospective of a hard-working, hard-living performer who survived to tell the tale,” says Kevin Crust. Meanwhile, the first all-girl band in America to write and perform their own songs are chronicled in all of their chart-topping highs and attendant lows (a misogynistic music industry, drug addiction). “The story of The Go-Go’s is prime fodder for a documentary like this one,” says Gwen Ihnat, “even if the stories behind the songs … are likely darker than some fans would have expected. [Director Alison] Ellwood’s most valuable views are these more candid, honest looks, as there’s something refreshing about the band coming clean, revealing all its dirty laundry in a no-holds-barred manner.” Virtual cinemas / Showtime.
Ron Howard continues to train his softhearted gaze on non-fiction stories with this documentary about the 2018 wildfires that turned Paradise, California into Dante’s inferno. The film opens with a montage of “devastatingly cinematic images” from that November day, says Ben Kenigsberg, and “while the subsequent visuals aren’t as striking, the drama scarcely ebbs.” Virtual cinemas.
She Dies Tomorrow (Drive-In Release)
Director-actress Amy Seimetz continues to prove her flair as a filmmaker with this darkly comic, apocalyptic thriller starring Kate Lynn Sheil as a broken, alcoholic woman living in a state of confusion (in suburban Los Angeles). She Dies Tomorrow “combines classic David Cronenberg body horror with the scathing surrealism of Luis Buñuel,” says Eric Kohn of Indiewire. “Envisioning a disease where the afflicted believe they’ll die by morning, the movie taps into a timeless anxiety with hilarious and disquieting results, often delivered in the same dose.” At Vineland Drive-In and Mission Tiki Drive-In and on VOD starting August 7.
We Are the Radical Monarchs
If your heart is weary from images of tear gas and violence, here’s an uplifting protest story about a troop of alternative Girl Scouts who are trying to save the world. The Oakland-based Radical Monarchs “create opportunities for young girls of color to form fierce sisterhood, celebrate their identities, and contribute radically to their communities.” In this documentary, which was completed in 2018, director Linda Goldstein Knowlton “presents a vibrant view of the Oakland community,” says Kevin Crust of the L.A. Times. “To see the girls embrace subjects such as Radical Beauty and Radical Pride that speak to who they are and where they live and meet inspiration Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, is to feel a surge of optimism.” PBS.
It took five years and a few regime changes to come out, but this animated kids musical—which involves magical cookies and is filled with A-list vocal talent (John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Ian McKellan, Danny DeVito, Sylvester Stallone)—is finally here and it’s… fine. “If Animal Crackers is another hideous reminder of how aesthetically catastrophic the rise of computer-generated animation has been for low-budget kids fare,” David Elrich says with extreme lukewarmness, “[director Christian] Sava’s debut is also proof that a decent script, some delightful voicework, and a few choice Lord of the Rings references can blend into the kind of charm that money can’t buy. For all of its limitations, the movie is good. Ish.” Netflix.
Jim Gaffigan: The Pale Tourist
Jim Gaffigan definitely has a lane—self-effacing jokes about being overweight, eating junk food, and raising five kids in New York City—and he owns it. But few veteran stand-ups are as reliably funny and endearing, and The Pale Tourist takes him out of his home and around the world for two specials based on his international travels…and the pale, American observations he made along the way. Since you’re unlikely to travel the world or see Gaffigan perform live anytime soon, this is a nice virtual substitute. Amazon Prime.
The filmmaking debut of actor Romola Garai (Atonement), this “feminist horror movie” is about a former soldier in London with guilt-loaded PTSD who becomes a live-in repairmen in a house with a dying old woman…who might just be cursed. The film slowly transforms “from an eerie cerebral horror fantasy into a full-blown rape-revenge parable of cowardice and sin,” says Toussaint Egan at AV Club. “Amulet elevates these themes of repentance and sin through deft editing, strong performances, and a chilling score. It’s an evocative, confident debut, recalling the metaphorical horror of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook or Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow, even as it announces the arrival of a singular new voice.” VOD.
This new noir—directed, written by, and starring Edward Norton—wasn’t well received by critics when it came out last fall, and was completely ignored by the Academy. But for my money, it’s a worthy successor to Chinatown, a jazzy, moody tale of bureaucratic corruption and double crossing, packed with an impeccable cast (including Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, and Cherry Jones), boasting a melancholic Thom Yorke ballad, and skating on the live wires of racial discrimination and Tourette syndrome with grace, humor, and sympathy. It’s a rarity: a smart, winning, romantic studio movie for grownups. HBO Max.
Before he returns as Bill (of the “excellent” Bill and Ted) this fall, Alex Winter directs this documentary about the light and dark sides of being a child actor—and the unique obstacles to surviving into adulthood, both literally and vocationally. Winter, a former showbiz kid himself, rallies the likes of Henry Thomas, Mara Wilson, Wil Wheaton, and Evan Rachel Wood for an unflinching, empathetic portrait of a glamorized but grueling way of being a kid. “While each of the grown actors has an individual story to tell, clear themes emerge from their collective memories,” says CNN’s Brian Lowry. “They’re the kind that make you want to grab the contemporary kids—the ones whose families still harbor those dreams of Technicolor stardom—and urge them to click their heels and go back home.” HBO Max.
30 Rock: A One-Time Special
Unlike the early pandemic reunion of its NBC sister Parks and Recreation, this hour-long special liberates the 30 Rock cast (Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan) from the halting horrors of Zoom and, somehow, brings them out into the remotely filmed sunshine. It’s partly a lavish commercial for NBC’s new streamer, Peacock—to the point of inspiring several local affiliates around the country to boycott airing it, though thankfully not in L.A.—but it wouldn’t be 30 Rock if it didn’t feature the TGS crew roasting its corporate daddy. Help us, Liz Lemon; you’re our only hope. Airs Thursday at 8 p.m. PT; Peacock on Friday.
Brave New World
Speaking of Peacock, NBC attempts to play with the big boys with this new adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian saga, starring Alden Ehrenreich and Jessica Brown Findlay. With some technological upgrades and lots of NSF-NBC orgies, the story about a drug that keeps citizens euphoric but numb feels all too timely—and maybe an apt metaphor for yet another streaming service. “You realize the show isn’t just commenting on the modern world, but its own role within it,” says Ben Travers of IndieWire. “As long as it’s not boring, people will keep watching, and if people keep watching, they’ll keep using Peacock, and the world will go round and round without anyone questioning the nature of this self-perpetuating hype cycle.” Thankfully, Travers argues, this Brave New World is “an emotionally intelligent thriller, and it looks damn good to boot.” Peacock.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
This quasi-documentary, about the motley regulars drinking out the last day at a Las Vegas dive bar, shakes and stirs the line between scripted drama and reality. But it’s so “bursting with humanity, grounded in humility, and in love with the poetry of faces,” says Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com, that it doesn’t really matter what’s real and what’s not. “This movie appreciates every person that passes in front of its lens. It throws spotlights on magic moments even when the people they’re happening to don’t know they’re happening. It sees people’s potential even if they’ve never capitalized on it. It sees their pain when they can’t admit or describe it. It sees their struggle when they try to hide it. It’s a documentary of compassion.” VOD on multiple platforms.
Broadway sensation Cynthia Erivo emerged a full-fledged movie star from this biopic about Harriet Tubman, a real-life wonder woman whose superpowers include divine visions and a singing voice to call her sisters and brothers to safety. Directed by former actress Kasi Lemmons and co-starring Janelle Monáe and Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr., Harriet is “a rousing and powerful drama, respectful of both the historical record and the cravings of modern audiences,” says The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott. And despite the tale’s supernaturalism, “Erivo’s performance is grounded in the recognizable human emotions of grief, jealousy, anger, and love. There is also a formidable intelligence at work, both tactical and political, and an elusive, almost mysterious quality as well. This is someone you want to know more about.” HBO Max.
Before the world ended, this Lonely Island sci-fi-rom-com made headlines as the priciest purchase ever made at Sundance. No doubt Neon, who co-bought it with Hulu, had big theatrical plans for the film, about a guy (Andy Samberg) and a gal (Cristin Milioti) stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque infinite time loop at a wedding in the desert. But then, maybe our quarantine time loop is the perfect backdrop for watching such a story. “It’s certainly funny,” says Vince Mancini, “but seems to have more in common with Charlie Kaufman or Michel Gondry or the Coen Brothers—as stylish as those in its construction, but with a more internet-age sense of comedy and timing.” Hulu.
The Old Guard
Here to save the superhero genre from a slow, exhausting death of artlessness is Gina Prince-Bythewood, director of Love & Basketball, who infused this tale about immortal warriors with her own mortal sensibilities. Starring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne, The Old Guard “is filled with such human moments, both frivolous and profound—quiet reveries, declarations of love, dreams about eternity, regrets over families and loves left behind and lost forever—and in the balance of the film, they hold equal weight with the action scenes, because ultimately everything feels connected,” says Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri. “I watch The Old Guard and try to imagine a new world, one where other comic-book movies are this well made and breathtaking.” Netflix.
Another female director offering a very different take on an old genre (the Western prefigured our current superhero glut), Kelly Reichardt slows the mythology of the frontier down to a gentle, soft-spoken trickle with a story whose central action is literally stealing milk to make biscuits. It’s sure not to be everyone’s cup of buttermilk, but critics went gaga for First Cow when it quietly played theaters in March. The L.A. Times‘ Justin Chang said it “may be the most suspenseful and entertaining demonstration yet of Reichardt’s rigorous attention to detail—her patient, genuine and remarkably cinematic fascination with the workings of process and minutiae. All of which makes First Cow both a captivating underdog story and a brilliant demonstration of the pluck and ingenuity of American enterprise in action.” VOD on multiple platforms.
A cynic could argue that, like Wes Anderson or Nicolas Cage, Tom Hanks has become a self parody—leaning so heavily into being America’s Dad that he’s folded into himself like a black hole. But Hanks gonna Hanks, and Greyhound finds him playing yet another good-guy daddy hero, a Navy captain guiding Allied boats across the Atlantic with German U-boats in hot pursuit. (The actor even wrote the screenplay.) “There’s enough juice in Hanks’ personal, human-scaled interest in ordinary heroism under fire to make the movie … work on its own terms,” says the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips. “At its sharpest Greyhound uses its preferred Law & Order pacing and frequent fade-outs and fade-ups between scenes to roll forward, while the actors keep the one-to-one interactions as honest as possible.” Apple TV+.
Mental illness meets haunted-house terror in this debut from director Natalie Erika James. Starring Emily Mortimer as a middle branch in a sick family tree, Relic fits into the “intergenerational trauma” subgenre of horror alongside Ari Aster’s Hereditary. “James’s slow-burn horror is an incredible achievement of patience for a first feature, and the gradual suspense…eventually builds to a monstrous climax,” says Dilara Elbir at the Playlist. “While horrifying and tense throughout, Relic has a sharp awareness of stigmatizing mental illness and disorders like dementia and refuses to lean into easy exploitation.” VOD on multiple platforms.
Have you heard of this musical? OF COURSE YOU HAVE. But you may not have been one of the lucky ones to score an exorbitantly priced ticket to see the original cast, and now you get a prime seat at the feet of Lin-Manuel Miranda and company in New York, circa 2016, from the comfort of your own butt-dimpled couch. “It’s hard to imagine a more receptive backdrop for a drama that ingeniously recasts the Founding Fathers as people of color, placing America’s oft-repeated ‘nation of immigrants’ rhetoric into the most literal terms imaginable,” Justin Chang says about watching Hamilton in July 2020. “Nor can I think of a better moment for a musical that reminds us anew that the language of hip-hop is a language of protest.” Disney Plus.
John Lewis: Good Trouble
The 17-term congressman who marched with MLK in Selma, who’s been making waves and getting arrested for all manner of “good trouble” during his incredible life, gets a well-deserved documentary from Dawn Porter—a former attorney who has trained her legal eagle eye on the camera (see: Bobby Kennedy for President). “Unlike King, Malcolm X and other assassinated civil rights figures, Lewis isn’t frozen in time as a symbol. He’s a living, legislating link to our recent history, and a reminder that the battles fought for desegregation and voting rights weren’t all that long ago,” says Katie Walsh, who called the film “a lovely tribute to Lewis, with so many moments from his story remaining urgent and relevant.” VOD on multiple platforms.
Family Romance, LLC
Werner Herzog is back and weirder than ever in this quasi-scripted documentary about the Japanese industry of rental families (and other social units). Blurring the line between fact and fiction, a man who runs one of those operations plays a version of himself, hired to play the father of a girl whose real dad abandoned her when she was little. “They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional,” says Diego Semerene. “It’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.” MUBI.
Another film from Japan (sort of) about actors playing actors, this is writer-director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s follow-up to Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or in 2018. The Truth is actually his first non-native feature, and stars French acting legend Catherine Deneuve as a French acting legend, Juliette Binoche as her daughter, and Ethan Hawke as her son-in-law. It’s a story about “the permanence of film versus the impermanence of memory,” says David Erlich, “suggesting that even the living can entomb themselves in the memories we invent for ourselves. Memories are what moor us to the world, and they’re also what make it so difficult for us to move through it freely. They may not be accurate, but they tend not to change once the die is cast; when something is printed on the film of our minds, it’s often projected through us for the rest of our lives.” VOD on multiple platforms.
The Baby-Sitters Club
“You couldn’t be a young girl in the 1990s and not know of Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club,” says Kristen Lopez. Well, I was not, and I did not—although I did laugh (a lot) at The Baby-Sitters Club Club, a podcast where two lovable idiots tackle it book by baby-sitting book. Regardless, Netflix’s new adaptation of the beloved series, created by Glow producer Rachel Shukert, is drawing raves. Lopez says it “isn’t just the perfect show for girls right now, it’s the balm for the soul we need as an audience. Watching a group of intrepid young women start a business, deal with irresponsible teens, and get their homework done is a level of responsibility to which we should all aspire.” Netflix.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
Michelle McNamara introduced herself to the world in the pages of this magazine, with a 2013 investigative essay about a serial rapist and murderer from the 1970s and ’80s that she dubbed the “Golden State Killer”—a disturbingly prolific predator most of us had never heard about. That led to a book deal, and she was hard at work on I’ll Be Gone in the Dark when she died in her sleep in 2016. Her passing was tragic for many reasons—not least because, soon after the book came out posthumously, the killer was captured. This six-part HBO docuseries is as much McNamara’s story as it is the killer’s, and much like the author’s powerful and deeply empathetic writing, the focus is on the beautiful lives that were lost. Premieres Sunday on HBO.
The third season of this murder mystery-slash-comedy, starring Alia Shawkat and John Early, moves from TBS to HBO Max after a hiatus of more than two years—and it arrives as a breath of pandemic-free fresh air. “Search Party’s earlier seasons found joltingly dark humor in the absurdity of four clueless, sheltered, relatively young adults playing detective and then committing and covering up a murder,” writes Niv M. Sultan at Slate. This season, which features Louie Anderson in a small part, “rivals its predecessors in its intoxicating blend of bleak cynicism and irreverent comedy, but embraces a more exaggerated, madcap sensibility.” HBO Max.
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
The great jazz singer gets her due with this documentary, which features a trove of archival footage and interviews with family members and famous admirers. “A suitably affectionate documentary portrait that walks us through her life and career, from her first appearance, as a skinny, nervous teen, on the stage of the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night, to her death in 1996,” says Michael O’Sullivan at the Washington Post. “The film’s most satisfying passages are when the talking heads shut up for a moment and let us listen to Fitzgerald, who … ‘almost single-handedly elevated the American popular song to the status of art.’” Streaming at theavalon.org, afisilver.afi.com, themiracletheatre.com, and cinemaartstheatre.com.
Not an easy watch, but an important excavation of the case against predatory Olympian doctor Larry Nassar and the system that protected him for so long. Told through the lens of the complaint brought against him by American swimmer Maggie Nichols, “Athlete A works as both a meticulous unpacking of the case against Nassar,” says IndieWire’s Kate Erbland, “and an emotional unburdening for his many victims. By its end, however, its revelations demand nothing short of the full-scale dismantling of every facet of USA Gymnastics.” Netflix.
St. Elmo’s Fire
Joel Schumacher died this week, causing many people to revisit his long and wildly diverse filmography. Even though it was poorly reviewed at the time, one of his most cherished films is about a group of 20-something friends who run up against the difficult, and even tragic, reality of adulting. As L.A. Times’ Mary McNamara wrote this week, St. Elmo’s Fire offered “the relatively new notion that friend groups could save us, even from ourselves. Adult friends were, in fact, the new, improved family.” Showtime.
The Princess and the Frog
An underrated, post-’90s renaissance film from Disney, this was their first fairytale to feature a Black princess, a return to hand-drawn animation, and a vibrant celebration of New Orleans music, food, and culture. It also undoes some retrograde princess morals, and features one of the creepiest, most seductive villains in the canon and a rollicking songbook by the Louisiana-loving Randy Newman. Disney just announced that they will re-theme the ride Splash Mountain from its current Song of the South trappings (a film so tainted by racist stereotypes that the company buried it long ago) to a Princess and the Frog theme—a great excuse to remember this latter-day classic. Disney Plus.
First-time filmmaker Oge Egbuonu was ready to share this timely documentary with the world before the pandemic hit, and now it only feels more crucial. “A love letter to Black women,” the film “brings to light the invisible otherizing of African American women in America,” according to Julie Miller at Vanity Fair. “It features Black female academics and everywomen looking back on the historical oppression of Black women, honoring the strength and perseverance of generations rendered invisible by society, and reframing the narrative around the population in their own words. As Egbuonu, an associate producer on 2016’s Loving, [said], “This is me saying, ‘I hear you. I see you, and you matter.’” VOD on multiple platforms.
A former beauty queen and single mother tries to convince her teenage daughter to sign up for the Miss Juneteenth pageant she won—the top prize being a scholarship to a historically black college. This debut feature by Channing Godfrey Peoples contends with the legacy of slavery and racism in the more intimate context of black girlhood. “Instead of just depicting the myriad ways black women carry their communities,” writes Lovia Gyarkye at the New York Times, “the movie goes further to explore how these women and black girls support each other in a world that often fails them. VOD on multiple platforms.
You Should Have Left
Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried vacation in a cool house in Wales—and, in the grand tradition of haunted house stories, the home has other plans. Directed by David Koepp (better known as the screenwriter behind movies like Jurassic Park), it’s a concise, tightly wound thriller and a “rare horror film that makes more sense the more you think about it,” says the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle. “It’s more than an adrenaline rush. There are ideas here.” VOD on multiple platforms.
This ain’t your grandmother’s Perry Mason. The new HBO series casts Matthew Rhys (The Americans) as the famous defense attorney in his younger years—before he was a bear in the courtroom and still a scrappy private eye investigating lurid crimes in 1930s Los Angeles. Also starring John Lithgow, Tatiana Maslany, Juliet Rylance, and Stephen Root, “the greatest joy of viewing Perry Mason comes just from having so many amazing performers playing off of each other,” says AV Club’s Gwen Ihnat. “Rhys deftly unfurls the enigmatic character layer by layer, crafting this degenerate into a more recognizable version of the legal icon revered for decades.” Premieres Sunday on HBO.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt hasn’t been seen on the screen since 2016, and this claustrophobic thriller gives the actor a welcome showcase for his return. A tense story of a hijacked airplane, told entirely from the confines of the pilot’s cockpit, “the result overcomes the reductive premise and archetypal characters through its adrenaline-pumping pace, dexterous camerawork, and a frantic performance by [Gordon-Levitt] that ranks as one of his subtlest turns,” says IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. Amazon Prime.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee doesn’t pussyfoot around. His last film, BlacKkKlansman—which earned the director his first Oscar nomination—may have found humor and undercover-caper fun in the true story of detective Ron Stallworth, but it was also angry, political, and finally a gut punch of denuded racism. His newest, Da Five Bloods, is a treasure-hunting adventure set in Vietnam with its own funny bone—but it, too, is mainlined Spike. “This long, anguished, funny, violent excursion into a hidden chamber of the nation’s heart of darkness,” says the New York Times’ A.O. Scott, “isn’t like anything else.” Netflix.
Far from a staid history lesson your substitute teacher might wheel in on a sleepy afternoon, Ava DuVernay’s film—about Martin Luther King Jr.’s (David Oyelowo) strategic campaign of nonviolent protest to force America’s hand on suppressing black votes—is a poetic, subtle, beautiful film full of channeled rage and optimism, and the herald of a major talent (even if the Academy ignored it out of spite). The Oscar-winning end song by Common namechecks the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri—a fierce declaration that this story doesn’t reside in the past. Amazon Prime.
Aretha Franklin returned to her gospel roots and gave the performance of a lifetime at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts in January 1972. Amazingly, it was captured for posterity on film—even though it took 40 years to be seen—and it is a church service that might convert the devil himself. “The lift-you-to-the-rafters intensity of Franklin’s voice remains so pure and galvanic that Amazing Grace is one of the few movies you could watch with your eyes closed,” wrote Justin Chang at the L.A. Times, “though you would hardly want to.” Hulu.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
The Academy completely and inexplicably ignored this gem from last year, about a young man named Jimmie Fails (played by… Jimmie Fails) squeezed out of his beloved but rapidly gentrifying city, trying to hold on to the last remnant of his little piece of it—an old house that once belonged to his family. Stylized almost like a fairy tale, but grounded in hardscrabble reality, it’s a gorgeous and moving film that features a glorious score and a stunning performance by Jonathan Majors. Amazon Prime.
The influential jazzman, mogul, record producer, film composer, mentor, and legend, “Q” has been there from “bebop to doo-wop to hip-hop to laptop,” in his words, and this touching documentary is a celebration of his legacy that also captures the magic and inspiration he seems to effortlessly exude, despite an unthinkably painful childhood and no shortage of racist BS. Watching the film is like sitting by Quincy’s side, wrote IndieWire’s Jude Dry, “holding his hand as he narrates one of countless stories stored away in his ever-sharp and creative mind.” Netflix.
This film escaped a lot of 2019 year-end lists and the Academy Awards conversation, which is a shame. Destin Daniel Cretton’s drama is about real-life civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, played by a riveting Michael B. Jordan, trying to free an Alabama man (a stellar Jamie Foxx) wrongfully on death row. The film “keeps its emotions on a low simmer,” wrote the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, “its absorbing, tautly designed drama finally coming to a climax that is satisfying on one level, and absolutely shattering on another.” Free on VOD in June.
Spike Lee’s newest joint, Da Five Bloods, drops next weekend on Netflix. In the meantime, catch his 1992 opus about one of the defining black leaders in American history, played by Denzel Washington in an Oscar-nominated performance. It “showed that epic filmmaking could be politically urgent, and that a biopic could contain multitudes,” A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times. “Malcolm X, changing its visual palette and its mood to match each decade of the story, is a comedy, a love story, an almost-musical and a whodunit, held together by Denzel Washington’s somber, witty, altogether electrifying performance.” Netflix.
If you want to understand just how much the deck is stacked against anyone born black in this country, watch Ava DuVernay’s gripping, righteous documentary about the legacy of slavery in our modern incarceration system. “Powerful, infuriating, and at times overwhelming,” the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote, the film “will get your blood boiling and tear ducts leaking. It shakes you up, but it also challenges your ideas about the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States.” Netflix.
I Am Not Your Negro
One of America’s most insightful, incisive writers on the subject of race was James Baldwin (If Beale Street Could Talk), who is both the subject and posthumous author of this 2016 documentary directed by Raoul Peck and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson from Baldwin’s own words. “By assembling the scattered images and historical clips suggested by Baldwin’s writing, I Am Not Your Negro is a cinematic séance,” wrote The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman, “and one of the best movies about the civil rights era ever made.” Amazon Prime.
This Sundance winner from director Josephine Decker, an imaginative portrait of horror novelist Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) told through the prism of the author’s gothic style, features an original score by Tamar-kali—a composer who made her scoring debut with Dee Rees’ Mudbound. Tamar-kali’s background as a punk rocker and classically trained singer lends a unique vibe to her scores, which also never forget the importance of subtle suggestion and storytelling. Shirley was one of three films she scored that premiered at Sundance (The Assistant and The Last Thing He Wanted being the other two), and together they “announce her as a major player in the almost lost art of old-fashioned (in the best sense) film scores,” says Sheila O’Malley at RogerEbert.com. VOD on multiple platforms.
Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992
“What’s past is prologue,” Shakespeare said, and this sober, human documentary from 2017 about the Rodney King uprising—and the accumulating mountain of grievances and tension that formed in the decade prior—is incredibly enlightening in our city’s current moment of protest. The two events differ in many ways, but there are so many echoes, it’s eerie. Director John Ridley deftly wove archival footage into an extensive oral history with a vast number of former police officers, South Central residents, key witnesses, and bereft family members—resulting in an opus that is “so powerfully elucidated by the movie’s commitment to context and nuance,” wrote the New York Times’ Jeannette Catsoulis, “that even too-familiar tragedies—like the agonizing beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denny—arrive freighted with fresh insight.” Netflix.
The Vast of Night
A paranormal mystery set in 1950s New Mexico, this debut feature by Andrew Patterson stirs a little bit of The Twilight Zone, H.G. Wells, vintage Spielberg, and even the Coen brothers into a throwback to classic drive-in fare. (You can, in fact, see it at the Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair tonight.) Justin Chang at the L.A. Timescalls it “ingenious,” and says the film “exists somewhere at the intersection of radio, television and cinema, and … excavates some of our fondest old-timey memories of all three in order to build something playfully, strikingly new.” Amazon Prime.
Yes, this is a recommendation for an entire streaming service. The latest heavyweight to enter an overcrowded ring—mustering the armies of HBO, Warner Bros., DC, New Line, and the Turner family—debuted this week, and it offers a feast to just about every taste. Whether you love classic films (from Casablanca to Apocalypse Now), classic sitcoms (from Friends to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Studio Ghibli anime, dramatic TV masterworks (The Sopranos), Batman, Harry Potter… you get the idea. If you don’t already have free access through an existing HBO subscription, you can sign up for a seven-day trial.
On the Record
One of several new offerings on HBO Max is this “absorbing, emotional gut-punch of a documentary,” according to the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, about music executive Drew Dixon and her 2017 sexual assault allegations against Russell Simmons. “On the Record would be mesmerizing enough simply as a portrait of a young woman who, having majored in history at Stanford University, pursued the music she loved all the way to its sizzling epicenter in the 1990s,” Hornaday says. But directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering “wisely pull the lens back to enlist an impressive group of black feminist intellectuals to comment throughout,” turning “an already worthy portrait of individual courage into a breathtaking and deeply moving survey of the precarious position occupied by women of color throughout history.” HBO Max.
Somebody Feed Phil
On the way lighter end of the spectrum is the new third season of this travelogue food show, hosted by the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. Phil Rosenthal is a goofy, lanky, lovable embodiment of dadhood, and he is admittedly far from an expert on culture or cuisine. Instead, he brings boundless enthusiasm, curiosity, and wry humor to his adventures—this season, that includes to Seoul, Marrakesh, and Montreal. Skype calls to his adorable parents and an emphasis on our planet’s shared humanity just add to the delight. Netflix.
End of Sentence
This father-son drama stars John Hawkes and Logan Lerman, here playing against type as a hardened criminal, in a story about inherited trauma and the fallout from bad parenting. “Lighter than it sounds,” says IndieWire’s David Erlich, the film is “casually cathartic at times, cathartically casual at others, [and] knows that some wounds never heal, but it’s never too late to stop the bleeding.” VOD on multiple platforms.
In a phrase that was unimaginable ten years ago, Julia Roberts starred in the first season of this Amazon original series based on the popular podcast. Season two subs in Janelle Monáe as an amnesiac trying to piece together the mystery of who she is and why she wakes up on a rowboat in a lake. It continues the first season’s narrative about the Geist Group and its meticulous homage to 1970s thrillers, but expands more into psychological territory, surrounding Monáe with the luminous likes of Chris Cooper and Joan Cusack. It’s a handsomely made, deliciously bingeable (30-minute episodes!) throwback to tight, old-school mysteries, and it also features a glorious musical score. Amazon Prime.
Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, writer Emily V. Gordon, have been keeping my wife and I sane and laughing in sync with their quarantine podcast, so the least I can do is recommend his new movie. Originally scheduled for theaters (weren’t we all?), this action rom-com reteams Nanjiani with The Big Sick director Michael Showalter, and pairs him with Insecure star Issa Rae. “A farcical murder mystery, it turns out, provides just the right backdrop for an exploration of why long-term relationships can fizzle out—and why doing the work necessary to maintain them can be worth it,” says Beandrea July at the Hollywood Reporter.Netflix.
The Trip to Greece
Dueling celebrity impressions, bromance road trips, five-star cuisine, and gorgeous travelogues, The Trip films are also sneakily somber meditations on aging, marriage, and grief. The fourth and final trip finds Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, in the land of Odysseus. “The film doesn’t try too hard to adhere to any kind of mythic structure,” says Bilge Ebiri at Vulture. “But what does remain at the end of this final and most despairing of the Trip entries is a sense that the past is never quite done with us, that today’s heartbreaks and passions and tragedies are merely variations on ancient patterns.” VOD on multiple platforms.
The Wolf House
Ben Wyatt expressed his cooped-up depression through stop-motion animation, and now you can relieve your own with someone else’s. Two Chilean filmmakers created this strange, surreal nod to the Three Little Pigs story—from the pigs’ perspectives—using painstaking stop-motion and hand-drawn animation. “How does one go about describing the stomach-churning terrors of Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León’s The Wolf House?” asks Matt Fagerholm at RogerEbert.com. “Its visual landscape is unlike any I’ve experienced, and though everything about it is aggressively repellant, it still managed to hold me in a constant state of gobsmacked awe.” “These filmmakers have a perspective and a voice that feels entirely new,” says the New York Times’ Glenn Kenny. “The film surprises, with incredible force, in every one of its 75 minutes.” KimStim Virtual Cinema.
Another week, another heartbreaking loss—this time it was funnyman Fred Willard. (I’m lucky enough to have interviewed Fred a few times, as recently as April.) There are plenty of great performances to remember him by, but I’m going to recommend a less celebrated but no less deserving one. Christopher Guest’s most recent (and possibly last) faux-documentary took the competition conceit of Best in Show to the world of mascots, and features many of his regular players and an all-timer, cry-laughing routine involving a plumber and an oversized toilet (trust me). And as with basically every movie he ever graced, the funniest scenes are the ones with Fred Willard, here playing an aging mascot trainer with no filter. Netflix.
Josh Trank had gloriously ascended from directing his first feature at 27 (Chronicle) to being handed the keys to his own Star Wars film and the star-studded Fantastic Four reboot…before he gloriously flamed out on the set of the latter bomb. Now the local prodigy is back with a vengeance—writing and directing a brash, ballsy tale of the final days of Al Capone, played by Tom Hardy. The actor is known for going to extremes (Rob Harvilla describes his voice here as sounding “like a Muppet gargling the remains of another Muppet.”) But “Trank and Hardy are firmly entrenched on the same earnestly grim wavelength,” says Scout Tafoya at Consequence of Sound, “and their joint creation…is so unwieldily that even if it didn’t work (it does), the sheer volume of effort to create something so deliciously antisocial and grotesque would still have to be commended.” VOD on multiple platforms.
Muppet Guys Talking
Jim Henson died 30 years ago this weekend, and his old pals Frank Oz and Dave Goelz are reuniting with two other Muppet veterans (Bill Barretta and Fran Brill) to talk about him and his legacy—via laptop cameras, of course. Oz (the Bert to Henson’s Ernie, the Fozzie to his Kermit) directed the similarly themed documentary Muppet Guys Talking in 2018—but if you’re like me, you can’t get enough of Henson and his merry band of misfits. Oz, who’s using the event to raise money for non-medical hospital workers in Queens, told Los Angeles’s Jared Cowan, “I’m going to find out things about Jim that I didn’t know, I betcha.” Streams Saturday at 1 p.m. PT at muppetguystalking.com/jim.
I Know This Much Is True
A number of actors have played twins on screen: Nicolas Cage, Jeremy Irons, Armie Hammer, Zach Galifianakis. Add to the list Mark Ruffalo, blessedly freed from Marvel prison to do some dramatic heavy-lifting as Dominic and Thomas Birdsey in this six-part HBO adaptation of a 1998 novel by Wally Lamb. It’s a dark story about abuse and trauma, and “often a tough watch,” says Sheila O’Malley at RogerEbert.com. “There are times when ‘compassion fatigue’ sets in, particularly in the final episode. But seeing actors do what they do best, with [writer/director Derek] Cianfrance giving them the space to do it, makes I Know This Much is True a real feast.” HBO Go.
Marie Antoinette meets The Favourite meets an R-rated The Princess Bride in this loosey-goosey telling of Catherine the Great’s mission to enlighten a barbarous Russia. Elle Fanning stars (she’s also an executive producer) alongside a grinningly, callously awful Nicholas Hoult as Peter III. Written by The Favourite’s Tony McNamara, it’s a crude, contemporary spin on history that—at ten nearly hour-long episodes—may be a bit too long. Still, “the caustic brilliance of McNamara’s scripting cannot be overstated,” says Paste’s Allison Keene, “but I was also truly emotionally invested in the season’s final crescendo to Catherine’s desperate power grab. … The Great’s exceptional, understated cast made me genuinely care for all of these madcap players, and the stakes became incredibly high.” Hulu.
Notes on an American Film Director at Work: Martin Scorsese
A detailed peek behind the scenes of one of our great directors, Martin Scorsese, collaborating with one of our great actors, Leonardo DiCaprio, on one of the great modern crime dramas, The Departed, is now streaming for free. The late avant-garde director Jonas Mekas was given VIP access on the set of the 2005 film, and the result “gives Martin Scorsese fans an up close and personal look at the filmmaker,” says Zach Sharf at IndieWire. “Mekas’ approach is unobtrusive and much of the documentary is real-time footage, providing one of the best windows into Scorsese and his cast and crew at work.” Vimeo.
Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl
For Angelenos, one of the most crushing casualties of the pandemic was announced this week: the complete and utter cancellation of the Hollywood Bowl’s 2020 season. It’s almost too painful to imagine a whole “summer” (for now it can only be summer in name only) without it—but thankfully, the iconic amphitheater has appeared in many films, TV shows, and Bugs Bunny cartoons over the last century, so why not take a virtual trip to the Bowl? This 1980 concert film “may be accurately described as Python lunacy of a purer grade,” wrote the New York Times’ Vincent Canby when it was released in 1982. “This photographed recording of the stage show is not a conventional film, but it’s the next best thing to seeing the Python troupe in person.” Amazon Prime.
Damien Chazelle clearly loves jazz. The director introduced himself with Whiplash, a blood-soaked diary about the highs and lows of being a jazz drummer, and he won an Oscar for La La Land—which let Ryan Gosling (a guy from the Mormon, Canadian suburbs) explain why jazz is so great. Chazelle directed the first two episodes of The Eddy, a new miniseries about an American musician (André Holland) who runs a struggling jazz club in Paris, and Vulture’s Jen Chaney says the show itself “behaves like a work of improvisation. It meanders into various lives and musical performances while telling a story that bops from crime thriller to meditation on grief to portrait of the thrilling agony of being a musical artist.” Netflix.
Brian Dennehy, the great bear of a character actor, died in April—and one of his final roles was in Driveways, an indie movie about grief and the unlikely bond between a little boy and Dennehy’s gruff widower, Del. Far from a cliché retelling of similar stories, Justin Chang at the L.A. Times says the movie often lingers “in that rueful gray zone between humor and sorrow,” and called Del “as forceful and tender a creation as any in this great actor’s body of work.” VOD on multiple platforms
Dead to Me
For many of us, dark humor is the best humor—especially in dark times. This Netflix series, starring Christina Applegate as a new widow and Linda Cardellini as her new friend (with a secret), likes to splash around in the inkiest part of the comedy ocean. “A funny thing happened between Dead to Me’s very good first season and its second,” writes CNN’s Brian Lowry. “[It] became an even better, twistier show, with—in very Big Little Lies-like fashion—a female friendship frequently tested by one impulsive act, and the escalating consequences that flow from it.” Netflix.
In Brockmire, Hank Azaria—best known for his circus of Simpsons character—plays a disgraced baseball commentator who has gone from the minors to the majors, to now flat-out running Major League Baseball. The series came to an end on Wednesday, and even though the fourth season depicts a blisteringly bleak near future (riddled with scorching climate, lawlessness, food shortages, and “supercancer”), Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall argues that “among the amazing accomplishments of these last eight episodes is how they wind up feeling oddly comforting for this strange and scary moment in which we all find ourselves.” First three seasons streaming on Hulu, fourth season on IFC.
How to Build a Girl
Beanie Feldstein, whose supernova charm expanded from a supporting role in Lady Bird to co-leading last year’s Booksmart, is finally headlining her own movie. And doing it in a convincing British (specifically Wolverhampton) accent to boot. Adapted from British music journalist Caitlin Moran’s memoir-novel, How to Build a Girl is a coming-of-age comedy that’s “as fun as a night in the mosh pit with your best mate,” according to Leslie Felperin at the Hollywood Reporter. “[S]upercharged by Feldstein’s intense charisma, this crowd-pleasing comedy has smart things to say about class, sex, and female identity.” VOD on multiple platforms.
In the “sadcom” spirit of Fleabag and Catastrophe comes Trying, a new series about a young couple (played by Esther Smith and Rafe Spall) who work humdrum jobs and, having failing to conceive a baby, decide to adopt. What begins with “a simmering goofy energy,” says IndieWire’s Steve Greene, crystallizes “into truer, more endearing doses of reality.” Apple TV+.
A Parks & Recreation Special
Only a pandemic could convince this band to get back together. And even though the lousy legacy of TV reunion specials—and the prospect of an ensemble comedy shot on iPhones where every actor is isolated from each other in their own actual homes—doesn’t necessarily portend success…doggone it, this is one of the best comedies ever made, and it’ll just be nice to see everyone in character again. As someone currently on their fourth rewatch of the series on Netflix, I can attest to the salve of escaping into a consistently funny utopia where hardworking, unfailingly optimistic people work in American government. Hopefully this special will, if nothing else, provide a taste of that delicious sauce. Airs Thursday at 8:30 p.m. on NBC; streaming on NBC.com and Peacock starting May 1.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live Riff-Along
At this point we’re probably all riffing movies, both good and bad, at home—so why not let the professionals take over? Forced off the road but running on the momentum of their recent live tour, a new traveling company of human and robot riffers will apply their sarcastic craft to the short Circus Day (circus-related shorts are a grand tradition in MST3K), and will riff an ancient 1990 episode, Moon Zero Two, alongside the original joke track from the show’s OG Comedy Channel cast. “We tend to ignore the first season, because we got so much better the next season,” Joel Hodgson told AV Club, but “there’s so much in there.” The creator and original host of MST3K will also be on hand to answer fan-submitted questions on social media. Airs on Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook on May 3 at 3 p.m. PDT.
We lost the respected Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan this week—a great excuse to rewatch some of his films and pay special attention to his quiet, unassuming charisma. Khan was already well into his acting career in 2008, but Danny Boyle’s vibrant, Oscar-sweeping film introduced him to American audiences. As the detective who questions Dev Patel’s teenage character, “Khan’s mixture of tough, careworn authority with a hint of gentleness makes him just right for the role,” says Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian. HBO Go.
Never Have I Ever
Mindy Kaling co-created this teen rom-com, loosely based on her own experience as a first-generation Indian growing up in America. Kathryn VanArendonk at Vulturecompared it to Jane the Virgin, both shows possessing “a fizzy combination of a slightly heightened fictional world that’s grounded in insistently realistic emotions.” “I watched every episode as quickly as I possibly could,” VanArendonk says, “and when it ended I was furious I hadn’t forced myself to slow down.” Netflix.
Star Wars Day on Disney+
Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion may be a literal ghost town right now, but don’t feel bad for the colossal corporation: they’re still printing money thanks to endless new Star Wars content. But some of that content’s pretty good! On May the Fourth (get it?), you can watch the finale of the popular animated series The Clone Wars, stream the “final” entry of the nine-part movie saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and dive back into Baby Yoda’s world courtesy of the eight-part documentary series, Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian. Mandalorian is arguably the best thing to come out of the galaxy far, far away in a long, long time, and this promises a rich bounty of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of Werner Herzog interacting with adorable puppets. Disney+ starting May 4th.
Since we’re all thinking about death a little more these days, it might as well be funny. Greg Daniels applies his satirical skewer to the afterlife in this sci-fi comedy about a man at death’s door, after a terrible car accident, who opts to “upload” himself into a virtual heaven. It’s a darker and more adult show than Daniels’s previous creations, Parks & Recreation and The Office—and than co-creator Mike Schur’s cousin series, The Good Place—but “despite the big concept central to the show’s premise,” says Adam Chitwood at Collider, “deep down Upload is very much a show that’s interested in humanity—the best and worst of us, and how we persevere in the face of a stacked deck and insurmountable odds.” Amazon Prime.
Better Call Saul
It’s gone from a suspect, even foolish-sounding concept—a prequel series to the untouchably great Breaking Bad, centered on the fun but almost cartoonish lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk—to proving one of the best dramas ever made. Better Call Saul wrapped its penultimate season this week, in cliffhanging fashion, so if you haven’t caught up with the whole series yet, now’s the perfect time. Season five “was a bleak, beautiful masterpiece,” says Miles Surrey at the Ringer, “a triumph on the levels of writing, performance, cinematography, direction, and, of course, dank montages. This was always a great, if somewhat underappreciated show, but there’s never been a better time to say the other quiet part out loud: Better Call Saul has surpassed Breaking Bad.” First four seasons streaming on Netflix; season five available on AMC.
Little Fires Everywhere
Another critically hailed drama wrapped up this week. It may sound like something Hulu executives cooked up while playing Big Little Lies bingo—adapting a popular airplane read with a similar-sounding title, starring Reese Witherspoon in a women-centric melodrama. But this series is its own midwestern animal, which has “gone from a slow start to a straight-up explosive drama,” says AV Club’s Saloni Gajjar. “The show overall acts as quite a showcase for [Witherspoon] and Kerry Washington’s talent. Every expression they serve up, ranging from despair to heartbreak to seething rage, is spectacular.” All episodes now streaming on Hulu.
An animated film, starring the voices of Martin Short, Jane Krakowski, Will Forte, and Maya Rudolph, adapted from a Lois Lowry children’s book about a kooky family cooped up in their house together. Too soon? Maybe, but this darkly comic tale in the spirit of Roald Dahl is a movie that Monica Castillo at RogerEbert.com argues, “For all its candy-colored silliness, The Willoughbys is a surprisingly sweet story about chosen families. … It’s a message both timely and timeless told through a whimsical story fit for most children of any age.” Now streaming on Netflix.
Peter Debruge at Variety calls this HBO film, based on a true story, the best work Hugh Jackman has ever done. The charming Aussie plays a charming superintendent of a New Jersey school district who is secretly embezzling millions of dollars, with the help of a superb Allison Janney. “Here’s a star at the height of his powers leveraging his own appeal to remind that even our heroes are fallible and that you can never really judge someone from the outside.” Premieres Saturday on HBO.
Beastie Boys Story
Spike Jonze started out as a music video director, working with bands including the Beastie Boys, before “going pro” with feature films like Being John Malkovich and Her. Now, Jonze has reunited with the surviving Beastie boys, Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond, for a “live documentary” filmed in Brooklyn last year, which A.O. Scott at the New York Times says is “a jaunt down memory lane and also a moving and generous elegy.” Streaming on Apple TV+.
It’s never too late to visit Bakersfield, where Zach Galifianakis plays twin brothers—Chip, a sad sack rodeo clown, and Dale, the dean of “the first open-carry career college”—and Louie Anderson plays their exasperated mother, Christine. In the fourth and final season, Christine “continues to anchor the series with an immense amount of heart,” says Allison Keene at Paste, “which has helped turn Baskets from just an experimental comedy to an essential, emotional watch.” All seasons now streaming on Hulu.
Ricky Gervais is one of the more polarizing comedians in the biz. You either find his acerbic, take-the-piss-out-of-Hollywood shtick insufferable…or hilarious. You either find his performance as Derek, a nursing home worker with special needs, heartwarming and hysterical…or saccharine and obnoxious. But if you like the cut of his jib, you’ll likely love After Life, another Netflix series he created where he plays a caustic widower in a small English town. Allison Shoemaker at RogerEbert.com says the new season continues to feature “a career-best turn from Ricky Gervais; a willingness to let tart and even bitter punchlines rub alongside things much more fragile; ongoing acknowledgment of the complexity and messiness of grief; a complete disinterest in saintly suffering.” Both seasons now streaming on Netflix.
Cate Blanchett plays anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly in this ten-part miniseries about the 1970s feminism movement, with Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem and a host of other great actors including Uzo Aduba, Margo Martindale, Tracey Ullman, and Elizabeth Banks. “At its best, the series gives you the contact high of a heist picture,” writes Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz. “The vault is patriarchy, the locked-up fortune is equal rights and equal wages, and the recurring strategic question is whether to keep gently turning the lock back and forth until the right combination reveals itself, or just blow the bloody doors off.” First three episodes are streaming on Hulu.
The Last Show on Earth
Saturday Night Live is having to adapt to the new abnormal, and now one of its farm teams—the Second City—is doing it too. Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock fame hosts this home-quarantined version of a weekly sketch show, featuring new sketches by current cast members and famous alumni, musical performances, and even rare archival footage. The premiere episode has Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Fred Willard (one of sketch comedy’s elder statesmen), and Saff from Tiger King. Airs Thursdays on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.
What We Do in the Shadows
TV adaptations of films don’t always work, but Jemaine Clement figured out a way to turn his and Taika Waititi’s 2014 film, a mockumentary about the quotidian grind of a group of vampires, into episodic gold. The second season premiered this week, and AV Club’s Katie Rife says that “it’s exciting to see that the show is getting a little more ambitious in its action scenes and with its special effects—ghost-Jesk’s demonic severed head looked great!—while keeping all the things that made the first season click.” Airs Wednesdays on FX; first two episodes are streaming on Hulu.
The Innocence Files
Netflix has been as responsible for the recent glut of true crime documentaries as any other entertainment company. But in contrast to some of the more salacious fare it’s produced, this new series focuses on the consequential work of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that’s been fighting to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners since 1992 (mostly through DNA evidence). Across nine episodes, the series “delivers a captivating and powerful exposé that balances frustration and outrage alongside triumph and hope,” says Tom Reimann at Collider. “In short, it’s some of the best nonfiction television Netflix has ever produced.” Streaming on Netflix.
The Last Dance
For anyone missing live sports—or anyone (like me) who prefers a riveting sports documentary to an actual game—ESPN is here to scratch your itch with a sprawling, ten-part docuseries about the glory days of Michael Jordan’s 1997-98 season with the Chicago Bulls. The show, which features rare footage and interviews and has been compared to O.J.: Made in America, is “both a perfect diversion and a tribute to shared sacrifice,” writes Phil Rosenthal in the Chicago Tribune. Premieres Sunday on ESPN.
Tales from the Loop
This American spin on a Swedish sci-fi art book about a midwestern town built on top of a device “built to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe” is part Twilight Zone, part ’80s Amblin movie, with a uniquely ponderous and melancholy tone. The series features Jonathan Pryce and Rebecca Hall, and “is that rare sci-fi show,” according to Jacob Oller at Paste, “that trusts us to breathe in deep the oddities of its world, accept that we aren’t going to know everything, and climb aboard anyways. That trust, built with its tactful scene-setting and human-sized troubles, allows for easy investment in deceivingly simple dramas.” Streaming on Amazon Prime.
A Goofy Movie
It’s the goofy, gawky little brother of the Disney animation renaissance, slipping out in the wake of pretty princesses and dashing boy heroes. But for a certain wave of ’90s kids, A Goofy Movie is up there with the best of cartoon releases. The father-son-road-trip musical turns 25 this week, and Disney fan club D23 is throwing a virtual watch party and cast-crew reunion Friday night. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager can relate to Max’s feelings of embarrassment about his, well, goofy dad—and anyone with a heart will enjoy their journey to warm understanding. (And Powerline still slays.) The reunion starts at 4:30 p.m. PDT on Disney+.
The slow-burn-to-beloved series came to an end this week, which means you can finally binge the entire run from start to finish. Starring Canadian comedy royalty Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara and introducing new talent—including two of Levy’s children, Sarah and Dan, who cocreated the show with his dad—Schitt’s Creek was the little Pop TV series that could and a welcome escape from pandemic panic into a rustic wonderland of heart-filled humor. While it began as a somewhat broad, rich-people-out-of-water farce, over the course of six seasons, “everything about Schitt’s Creek has grown warmer,” writes Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk. “The Rose family has become a bedrock of supportive love for one another and the community.” Seasons 1–5 are on Netflix; season 6 is on the Pop Now app.
Her Royal Highness, Dame Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is back on the small screen. After a dizzying victory lap for her show Fleabag, Waller-Bridge reteams with creator-director Vicky Jones (who helmed the stage production of Fleabag) as an executive producer and in a small supporting role in Run, a new HBO limited series about two old flames (Merrit Weaver and Domhnall Gleeson) on a train, which mixes comedy and Hitchcockian mystery. But this is really Weaver’s show, as Alan Sepinwall writes in Rolling Stone, “the star vehicle she’s earned through years of endearingly loopy scene-stealing work in TV and film.” Premieres Sunday on HBO
There’s a good chance you’ve already seen the Best Picture-winning, buzz-heavy black comedy from South Korea; it was one of the rare non-English-language films to find a broad audience in America, a film that seduced every last critic—like Justin Chang, who says it “begins in exhilaration and ends in devastation, but the triumph of the movie is that it fully lives and breathes at every moment, even when you might find yourself struggling to exhale.” But in case you haven’t seen it, or you just want to go back inside the Park mansion to revel in the Rube Goldbergian twists and turns in Bong Joon Ho’s serrated dissection of class war, Parasite is now streaming. Watch it before HBO turns it into an American miniseries. Hulu
Just in time for the first Passover via Zoom, this four-part series, loosely based on a popular memoir, is about a teenage bride who escapes her marriage and her uber-conservative Hasidic community in Brooklyn, fleeing to Berlin to find her estranged mother. Detailed, sympathetic, and timely, “it’s a kind of espionage caper,” writes James Poniewozik in TheNew York Times, “a thrilling and probing story of one woman’s personal defection.” Netflix
The CW musical comedy ended last year after four seasons, but now’s as good a time as any to discover Rachel Bloom’s messy antiheroine fantasia—which Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz praises for “going the distance,” “digging progressively deeper into its heroine’s psyche, and continuing to deliver consistently clever, sometimes dazzling musical numbers.” Most of those songs were cowritten by Fountain of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, who, at just 52, was one of COVID-19’s victims. Schlesinger earned five Emmy nominations for his work on the show; watch it for his hilarious and catchy numbers if for no other reason. Netflix
Tim and Eric are back on Adult Swim, this time skewering the ’80s/’90s family-sitcom format. They’ve played with these conventions (phony laugh tracks, corny theme songs) before, but Beef House is a full-on series in the Full House mold—they even employed the same cameras used on Fuller House—only here that mold is filled with the funky Jell-o of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s cockamamie, cheerily dark style of non sequitur humor. The cast features several Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! alumni, and the AV Club says it’s “cooked to perfection.” Airs Sundays at 12:15 a.m. on AdultSwim.com; first episode can be streamed at AdultSwim
Some Good News with John Krasinski
Fighting off the pandemic of bad news (and his own encroaching cabin fever), Krasinski created a YouTube show to supplement your seventh time binge watching him as Jim on The Office. In the first episode (of how many, and how often, we don’t know), he highlights several recent acts of kindness and humanity that were shared on the internet, interviews a teen girl who recently finished chemo, and reunites with Michael Scott himself, Steve Carrell (via Zoom). Uplift yourself! YouTube
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
One of many buzzed-about films set adrift in the lockdown’s shuttered theatrical release market, this intimate drama concerns two teenage girls on a journey from rural Pennsylvania to an abortion clinic in Manhattan. Critics gave the film, directed by Eliza Hittman, near-unanimous high marks—with Variety’s Andrew Barker writing: “At once dreamlike and ruthlessly naturalistic, steadily composed yet shot through with roiling currents of anxiety, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a quietly devastating gem.” VOD on multiple platforms
Want to escape humans for a while? Travel somewhere exotic? Hear the silky strain of your new Angeleno neighbor, Meghan Markle? Elephant checks off all the boxes, as the Duchess of Sussex narrates a Disneyfied story built from sumptuously shot footage of real elephants (in the grand tradition of Disney nature documentaries, going back to Walt’s day—many of which can also be found on Disney+). Justin Chang of the L.A. Timessays it “emerges a generally charming, sometimes cloying exercise in wildlife anthropomorphism.” (Also dropping this weekend is the Natalie Portman-narrated Dolphin Reef.) Disney+
Shudder, the one-stop-shop horror streamer, offers a free seven-day trial—and now is a good time to bite. Its new original series, Cursed Films, explores the freaky accidents, deaths, and (possibly) supernatural shenanigans that have plagued several famous horror movies. The first episode delves into The Exorcist and the many mysterious deaths and on-set traumas linked to William Friedkin’s 1973 classic; future episodes will cover The Omen, Poltergeist, and Twilight Zone: The Movie. Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com says the series “isn’t some cheapo scare tactic, focusing just as much on human stories and on-set details as it does the rumors of curses and bad karma around these movies.” First episode on Shudder.com
This seven-part docuseries is like the wildest of white-trash reality shows … but it’s actual reality, told in prestige documentary style. The addictively bingeable story has polygamous sex cults, throuples, guns, amputations, blood feuds, contract killings, bad country music videos, mullets, expired meat—and lots and lots of tigers. Vanity Fairsays it’s “a portrait of a world that’s entirely alien, and yet also reflective, and diagnostic, of this country as a whole.” Netflix
Some of us like to imagine worst-case scenarios in the midst of a disaster—or at least commiserate with A-list actors in a similar situation. Contagion may be the bleaker and more recent pandemic movie, but Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak has 1995-era Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Rene Russo … and monkeys. Its fictional virus kills you within 24 hours by liquefying your organs, so it might actually cheer you up about COVID-19. In his review, Roger Ebert calls it “the kind of movie you enjoy even while you observe yourself being manipulated.” Netflix
The O.J. Simpson Trial
Speaking of 1995: that summer was a simpler time, when the world was sheltered in place not because of a pandemic, but to watch the “trial of the century.” Now you can watch the actual murder trial of O.J. Simpson, unedited and in all of its undramatized, VHS-era glory. YouTube
Alex Garland, the writer-director mastermind behind modern sci-fi gems Ex Machina and Annihilation, takes to the small screen (via FX and Hulu) for a slow-burn murder mystery set at a mysterious tech company. The series id led by Nick Offerman with serious ancient-prophet hair energy. The New York Timescalls it “a cold and beautiful machine.” Hulu
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
This Sundance darling documentary, produced by the Obamas, is a time machine to the Catskills in the 1970s, at “a summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies.” Directed by a former camper and using a bounty of archival footage, it’s a feel-good sleepover that has a social activism motor. It’s “buoyant and inspiring,” according to Vox, “a tale of people working together through difficulty and opposition to change the world.” Netflix
The Way Back
You may have missed it in theaters, where it came out way back on March 6, so Warner Bros. has conveniently made it available to view in your home-quarantine theater. Ben Affleck plays a divorced alcoholic who gets conscripted to coach a boy’s basketball team at his old Catholic high school. What sounds like a recipe for cornball cliché is actually an understated, complicated character study that feels like it’s flowing out of Affleck’s actual opened veins. “[T]his sober little studio movie is so uncommonly effective because of its steady insistence that life can’t be lived in reverse,” IndieWire says; “that, contrary to its title, there’s no going back.” VOD on multiple services
The Imagineering Story
If you’re one of the many people desperately missing Disneyland and other Disney parks, you can scratch that itch with The Imagineering Story on Disney+. The six-episode series is a delightful well of archival and behind-the-scenes footage, tracing the story of cutting-edge animatronics and family-friendly thrill rides from Walt’s original vision to occasional missteps to the latest innovations. It may be “sentimental” and “self-congratulating,” The Hollywood Reporter writes, but it’s also “by far, the most appealing and intellectually engaging offering from Disney’s new nostalgia-driven SVOD streaming service.” Disney+
On Wednesday, Sacramento judge dealt a blow to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s efforts to investigate those private GOP ballot drop boxes when he refused to order state Republicans to turn over information about the program.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, although Becerra, a Democrat, believes the investigation is essential to determine whether the boxes are legal and to ensure the ballots are properly handled, Judge David I. Brown ruled that the GOP’s refusal to comply with a subpoena seeking information about voters whose ballots have been collected and the location of the boxes poses “no immediate harm or irreparable injury” to the state.
Republicans say a 2016 state law that allows voters to “designate a person” to deliver their completed ballot to an election office makes their program legal, although until this election they had derided that same law as “ballot harvesting.”
Democrats counter that the GOP tactic violates the law because a drop box is not “a person.” The situation has been even murkier because many of the boxes were initially labeled “authorized” or “official.”
In his court filing, Becerra wrote that the drop boxes “caused confusion among voters, prompted complaints from county elections officials alarmed about their use, and raised serious concerns about whether the appropriate chain of custody was being observed for ballots deposited.”
Republicans counter that misleading box signage by “overzealous” volunteers has been removed and, therefore, there is no issue. They have refused to disclose how many private drop boxes there are, or how many ballots have been collected.
“The California Republican Party will continue to help Californians vote safely and securely by continuing to gather ballots in trusted places, and deliver them promptly according to law,” a GOP rep said in a written statement.
The ruling does not prevent Becerra from returning to court to continue challenging the legality of the boxes, and a spokesman for California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in statement Tuesday that complaints about other ballot collection efforts in the state are being investigated, though he didn’t give any specifics.
Landscape by Ted Soqui ◍ Portraits by Catherine Opie
Michael Govan is on calls all day, every day, without a break—conference calls, Zoom calls, multiple calls at a time even. “I’ve mastered the art of having one call in each ear with two devices. It’s hard, but your brain can learn to switch back and forth,” says the 57-year-old CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during yet another call, this one with me, from his new “command central” in the dining room of his LACMA-funded Hancock Park home. “It’s hard to set down a big museum like LACMA, and a lot of issues have come up. But we’re good. I think we’re doing a good job weathering the crisis.”
The crisis Govan is referring to is not just the pandemic, which shuttered the museum on March 14—the county has no plans to reopen indoor museums as of this writing—but also the one precipitated by his relentless, decade-long campaign to demolish four of the five buildings on the museum’s eastern campus and replace them with a single, sprawling, architecturally ambitious structure designed by 77-year-old Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.
Of the countless controversies that have roiled the Los Angeles art world in recent years, this one—the not-entirely-transparent process that has paved the way for the Zumthor building—has been the most triggering of all. Govan’s crusade has inspired the formation of two anti-LACMA activist groups, unleashed an avalanche of critical press, and wrecked a long, multimillion-dollar relationship with a donor who played an instrumental role in the museum’s founding. Depending on whom you believe, the glass-and-concrete building will be “a mastery of light and shadow” (Brad Pitt) or “suicide by architecture” (Los Angeles Review of Books). But however one feels about it, the $750 million David Geffen Galleries (so named because the entertainment mogul pledged $150 million to the capital campaign) is poised to become the new repository of LACMA’s vast encyclopedic collection, and a long-standing addition to the city’s cultural landscape.
Among the project’s most vocal detractors is Christopher Knight, chief art critic for the Los Angeles Times, who was awarded a Pulitzer this past spring for a series of sharply critical stories that dubbed Zumthor’s design “the Incredible Shrinking Museum” for its lack of on-site art storage and off-site curatorial offices. (While estimates vary, the new museum will also suffer a reported 10,000- to 45,000-square-foot loss of gallery space.) Proponents argue that the original campus was perpetually leaking (employees jokingly nicknamed it LEAKMA), seismically vulnerable, and crammed with awkward exhibition spaces. With no funding or appetite to retrofit those crumbling structures, they say, the most efficient solution was to knock them down and start fresh.
“This was a museum with a series of buildings that had been added to and painted and patched and repainted, and it was just tired,” says Stephanie Barron, senior curator and department head of modern art, who started working at LACMA in 1976. “When it rained, we knew where to put the buckets.”
Whether the Geffen Galleries are an architecturally, curatorially, or art-historically responsible gambit is almost beside the point now that the demolition is already nearly finished. But the toll this politically fractious and chaotic process has exacted on LACMA and the county, which is on the hook for $125 million for what may ultimately be a $650 million building (for a museum that draws less than a million visitors per year), is certainly worth further examination.
When LACMA was completed in 1965, it was short on art but full of light, with unhindered views across the Ahmanson atrium in every direction. Even back then, however, the museum’s design was controversial. Had Richard F. Brown, the museum’s inaugural director, and Norton Simon, the industrialist who was one of LACMA’s chief original funders, gotten their wish, the campus would have been filled with buildings by modernist icon Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. But instead, an up-and-coming Angeleno architect named William L. Pereira—the brains behind the LAX Theme Building—was hired for the job. Soon after the buildings were unveiled in 1965, Brown was forced to resign by the board of trustees in part because of public backlash against Pereira’s designs. Some of L.A.’s top artists were similarly unimpressed. (Ed Ruscha set the new structures ablaze in his seminal painting The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, which now resides in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC.)
In those early years, says Barron, “It wasn’t a very distinguished collection. So the museum made a decision in the ’60s to focus on major special exhibitions, which it did, and built a reputation rather quickly for those.”
“I used to cut school to go to LACMA. They had a good coffee shop downstairs that was real cheap. It was the only place a truant officer wouldn’t follow me,” remembers Billy Al Bengston, the Venice-based artist whose paintings were the subject of one of LACMA’s most notable early special exhibitions in 1968. (It came on the heels of Ed Kienholz’s landmark 1966 retrospective featuring the controversial assemblage sculpture Back Seat Dodge ’38, which depicted a couple copulating in the back seat of the car. L.A. County’s Board of Supervisors deemed the work pornographic and threatened to withhold financing to LACMA as a result. “That was a big deal,” says Bengston.)
As time passed, the campus began to grow on the public. Suspended above reflecting pools and accessed via footbridge, LACMA’s sun-drenched galleries and renegade programming were eventually woven into the fabric that supported the broader L.A. art world. The affection for the museum and campus only deepened as the collection grew to become the largest encyclopedic holding west of the Mississippi, home to 142,000 objects, some dating back 6,000 years. Many Angelenos are outraged that Govan is excising this history, and especially furious that the buildings came down at the height of the pandemic.
“We always knew that when they came down there would be a bit of bittersweet sadness, because those buildings did a lot of good—people learned about art, they hosted memorable events,” says Govan. For some, the loss of the familiar buildings is more bitter than sweet.
“It seems like such an affront to the community to destroy the buildings now,” says Enrique Martínez Celaya, the Cuban-born artist who won LACMA’s Young Talent Award in 1998, and whose work is in the permanent collection. “And then the final straw that makes LACMA build this building is ultimately the opinion of an actor? Really? This town is so confused about what the role of art is.”
The actor Martínez Celaya is referring to is Brad Pitt, who showed up with Diane Keaton last April to the final county-supervisor meeting to testify on behalf of Zumthor’s vision. (Supervisor Hilda Solis posted pictures of herself with the stars on social media after voting to approve the funding.) Despite the celebrity endorsements, Change.org launched a petition shortly after the meeting blasting Govan’s plan and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors for voting unanimously to approve it. “In doing so,” the petition complained, “they ignored serious recent criticism published by the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Curbed L.A., Architectural Record, The Art Newspaper, The Architect’s Newspaper and hundreds of public comments running 83 percent against the project.” The petition garnered nearly 4,000 signatures.
Zumthor’s name, as it happens, popped up at LACMA years ago, even before Govan took over the museum in 2006. Back in 2001, Govan’s predecessor, Andrea Rich, initiated a competition to find an architect for the $200 million job of fixing or replacing the Bing Theatre, the Ahmanson, the Hammer, and the Art of the Americas buildings. Ultimately, Dutch architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas got the gig, with a design for a tabula-rasa single structure covered by an airy, translucent tent. Money for the project never materialized, and it never got built, but Rich did take the Rotterdam-based architect and five LACMA curators on an inspiration-gathering tour of museums in London, Berlin, Vienna, and Paris. One of those curators was J. Patrice Marandel, who turned out to be a Zumthor fan; he even handed out books of Zumthor’s architecture to his colleagues during that selection process.
“They said, ‘Who is that?’” recalls Marandel, who retired as chief curator of European art after 24 years in 2017. “That was the first time most of my colleagues had heard of Zumthor. And they all returned the books to me, and that was the end of Zumthor.”
Not quite. Flash forward to 2013, when Govan stunned the L.A. art world by announcing that he’d chosen Zumthor to reimagine LACMA’s campus. “There was no competition and no choice,” notes Marandel. “Govan chose Zumthor, and the rest is history.” Nor was there any scouting trip to European museums. Instead, curators were allowed to gather photos of museums they liked and disliked and present those to Zumthor during a single boardroom meeting. Says Barron, “It was more of a presentation than a conversation.”
Govan unveiled the first sketches of Zumthor’s LACMA plans during a 2013 exhibition of the architect’s work. The architect’s bold vision for the new building resembled a gigantic amoeba crawling up the north side of Miracle Mile. It’s asphalt black skin mirrored the aesthetics of the neighboring La Brea Tar Pits. The design has since evolved quite a bit, into a bone-white futuristic structure that looks more like Starfleet Academy than a home for priceless artworks and antiquities.
Right from the start, Zumthor rubbed some people the wrong way. “We were dealing with an architect who was out of his depth,” says Joseph Giovannini, an architect who has served as the architecture critic for New York Magazine and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. “I’ve been in and out of the museum world for quite some time, and I felt this scheme was unexpected. Not only because it was a floating amoeba, but the fact that the floor plan was all scrambled.”
So what drew Govan to Zumthor in the first place? The Swiss architect (he’s actually trained as a cabinet maker), who declined to comment for this story, had a long career before he was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the Oscars of architecture, in 2009. But his greatest hits before the LACMA commission were the architectural equivalent of indie art flicks: fanciful buildings that were praised as “magical” and “spiritual”—like his cast-concrete and glass-sheathed Kunsthaus Bregenz museum in Austria or the sail cloth-sheathed, oak-floored pavilion he designed to honor the witches burned at the stake during Norway’s 17th century witch trials on the island of Vardø. But he’s done nothing on the scale of the LACMA project. For Govan, Zunthor’s thin resume wasn’t a problem. “What Zumthor has is a tradition of creating space that feels lasting and solid, of real materials; not painted Sheetrock but, rather, concrete, hard plaster, stone,” he says. “And he contrasts that with a very subtle sense of light and shadow.”
Zumthor’s anonymity outside rarefied architecture circles presented Govan with an opportunity: to “discover” a new and exciting talent. Govan could have picked, say, Frank Gehry, whom he’s worked with for decades (they liaised on the Guggenheim Bilbao; and Gehry collaborated with Govan on several LACMA projects, including the new galleries that house the museum’s modern collection). But he recognized that the Geffen would be just another note in Gehry’s hit parade, and probably less buzzworthy than Disney Hall or any of the acclaimed architect’s other iconic edifices. But Govan had higher ambitions.
“Michael, in his heart of hearts, wanted to work with me. He never told me that, but I felt it. Of course, he had to go his own way.” —Frank Gehry
Before he arrived here, Govan told WSJMagazine that “L.A. is a rung down” from other art capitals like Rome, Paris, New York—even Athens. “I don’t care what anybody says,” he said. To bring LACMA up a rung or three he wanted its new building to make an entirely original statement, an impulse that Gehry completely understands. “I looked at some of Zumthor’s work, and it seemed minimalist. But it seemed to have a passion that exceeded the minimalism,” the 91-year-old architect says. “We’ll see where it goes. Michael, in his heart of hearts, wanted to work with me. He never told me that, but I felt it. Of course, he had to go his own way. I trust him because I’ve been through it with him. He sticks to his guns, and he’ll make it work.”
The exact nature of Zumthor’s plans, especially for the museum’s interior, have, until very recently, been kept under seal. The true floor plans were not made public until after the supervisor vote and period of public comment had ended last April. According to Govan, the delay was deliberate. He told me in March that the public isn’t shown “the inside of hospitals—they let the experts design them. But everyone will see them. The plans will be out. People will see this over the course of time. We’re actually going to have a certain pleasure in releasing details and getting people excited about the building toward its opening.”
Govan took such pleasure on September 17, when he invited a small group of journalists on a Zoom tour to view the final layouts of the clustered concrete galleries he has likened to a sidelit “European village” filled with core, terrace, and courtyard galleries that invite visitors to embark on a choose-your-own-adventure experience. The showing also added definition to Zumthor’s controversial plans for a bridge across Wilshire Boulevard, connecting LACMA to an abandoned parking lot that will someday house a new theater (half the size of the now-demolished Bing). The bridge has drawn especially heavy fire. In his scathing, 7,000-word “Suicide By Architecture” critique in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Giovannini dismissed the slickly dramatic span as “pure Cecil B. De Mille.”
“It’s an iconic street,” notes Gehry. “I was once asked, 15 years ago, when LACMA bought the lot across the street, how I would join that site. I designed a very Zen, simple bridge that you almost didn’t see. Like the wings of a butterfly, it was very light. When you cross an icon and cover it, that’s probably a hot ticket for people to pounce on.”
Many detractors also complain that Zumthor’s two-story lateral behemoth doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for art. While offering 110,000 square feet of continuous exhibition space and various outdoor plazas, the old buildings actually had more room for the museum’s ever-expanding collection. Giovannini, who has recently become something of an anti-Govan activist (he’s behind the Citizens Brigade to Save LACMA, which collected 13,000 signatures of support, marshaled an anti-Zumthor design competition, and placed ads against the design in the New York Times) personally financed a quantitative analysis of Zumthor’s plans that concluded the new museum would lose some 86,000 square feet of gallery space, with room for only 26 galleries instead of the original 115. Recently unearthed county records cited in his latest critique paint an even bleaker picture, suggesting there may be as little as 27,000 square feet of true gallery space by the time the structure is completed.
Govan says that’s much ado about nothing. He believes that Zumthor’s “lateral spread” is the wave of the future, and he plans on using the space he does have more equitably by creating new and unexpected adjacencies between the collection’s Western classics and areas like Islamic art that few people visited on the upper floors of the Ahmanson. This nonhierarchial, decentralized museum may be well-suited for our current political moment. “When I would use phrases 10 years ago like ‘structural racism’ and the museum’s ‘need to decolonize,’ it was an uphill battle,” says Govan. “But there’s never been a more important time in art history, because now we have the tools to do something about it.”
The museum is already bringing the collection to underserved neighborhoods throughout L.A., be it at Charles White Elementary, the Vincent Price Art Museum, a planned gallery at Magic Johnson Park, or utilizing LACMA trucks to spread art across the city, all of which Govan views as a dramatic expansion of LACMA’s footprint.
Naima Keith, who left her job as the director of the California African American Museum to become senior vice president of education and public programs at LACMA, believes that at least some of the fury over the new building is based in fear. Some Angelenos, she says, are understandably frightened by the tectonic shifts in the LACMA landscape; seeing their favorite Picasso disappear from its regular nook in the Ahmanson might indeed be jarring. But she doesn’t believe change has to be a bad thing, especially if that Picasso gets replaced (or juxtaposed) with works that aren’t normally considered part of the traditional canon. “Curators and art historians have been uprooting this linear view of art history for a long time,” she says, noting MOMA’s acclaimed rehang that juxtaposed the likes of Picasso with artists of color. “It’s a welcome change for those of us wanting to see not just diversity but a change in the way museums think about art history.”
Museum directors are the politicians of the art world, and Michael Govan’s charm and savvy political instincts have helped propel him to the top ranks of the international art scene. While his undeniable charisma and stunning command of technical data and art history should put him in league with JFK or Barack Obama, many of Govan’s detractors have compared him less charitably to Donald Trump.
“I’m not the only one to make that comparison,” says Marandel. “He’s not Obama, believe me. He’s not democratic at all. And no one you ask will give you that opinion. He has a wonderful gift of speaking. He’s very eloquent. He’s very charming. But his message is kinda scary sometimes.”
Martínez Celaya believes that Govan’s relentless push to complete the Zumthor building has been driven by his desire to burnish his own reputation. “I think he’s like the Gavin Newsom of the art world,” Martínez Celaya says. “High aspirations, very crafted persona in the world, nothing comes out of his mouth that is not calculated but somehow he always reveals his calculations. It’s very transparent. He’s not Clinton or Obama because he’s not there yet—but he’s hoping to be. He seems so important in L.A. because he’s hanging out with celebrities. But in the international pecking order of the art world, the head of the Louvre, the Metropolitan, the Prado, the National Gallery are much higher positions. He’s aspiring to those.”
Govan is very much the high-flying, Central Casting version of a museum director. He pilots a single-engine 1979 Beechcraft Bonanza to Catalina on weekends. Before COVID-19, he commanded a regular table at Tower Bar. He also enlisted Leonardo DiCaprio and Eva Chow to cochair the museum’s annual Gucci-sponsored Art + Film Gala, where individual tickets are $5,000 and tables run to $100,000. The producer Brian Grazer, a former LACMA board member, describes Govan as a creative genius. “He has an ability to inspire people and attract them to his vision that is very rare,” Grazer says. “Michael is great at doing PR at a high level,” adds Marandel.
And he has a lifestyle to match. For the past six years, Govan and his wife, fashion executive Katherine Ross (they have a daughter, and Govan has another daughter from a previous marriage), have resided in a $6 million museum-owned mansion in Hancock Park. (Last month the museum announced it was selling the property and relocating the Govans to less pricey digs.) Govan takes home more than $1 million a year in salary; he’s the only West Coast museum director to earn as much. But he’s also running the largest museum outside of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he’s spent the past 14 years at the helm of LACMA overseeing major public projects that have greatly expanded the museum’s profile in L.A. and across the world.
Born in North Adams, Massachusetts, Govan attended the prestigious DC prep school Sidwell Friends, then majored in art history at Williams College, where he caught the eye of Thomas Krens, the professor-turned-director of the college’s museum of art. “I would say, looking back, I had maybe 3,000 students during the 17 years I taught there,” recalls Krens today. “Michael was clearly No. 1.” When Krens was appointed director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1988, he took Govan, then 25, to New York with him, making him a deputy director. (Another young protégé, Max Hollein, would later go on to become director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) It was a time of major expansion for the Guggenheim, with Govan helping Krens establish the Gehry satellite in Bilbao.
After six years at Krens’s side, Govan departed in 1994 to become president and director of Dia Art Foundation. He spent the next 12 years modernizing and expanding that organization’s footprint, nearly doubling its collection and converting an old Hudson Valley Nabisco factory into the Dia:Beacon (even enlisting Zumthor on some unrealized plans). Then, in 2006, he was approached for the LACMA gig.
“When you’re looking at that level, you’re looking for a museum director with some level of achievement but young enough to make a mark, that’s implicit. Los Angeles in many ways was a perfect place to do it because it’s the media center of the world. Its cultural institutions were not as well developed as those in New York. It was a fantastic opportunity for L.A. to get Michael and Michael to go to Los Angeles,” says Krens. “But you’ve got to navigate the complexities of powerful personalities in Los Angeles, the complex political machinery. You’re going to stir up opposition no matter what you do, it just comes with the nature of the thing. But to get the project as far as he has despite the criticism and fire power that’s been mobilized against him, Jesus, that’s amazing.”
Though his predecessor, the late Andrea Rich, accomplished a great deal during her decade-long reign, Govan is widely credited with turning LACMA into the international landmark that it is today. It was Govan who enlisted John Baldessari to reimagine LACMA’s logo when he first arrived. It was Govan who secured the money when Chris Burden wanted to increase the size of his Urban Light installation from 140 to 202 lampposts. (The installation soon became the most popular public artwork in Southern California.) It was Govan who engineered the epic installation of Levitated Mass, Michael Heizer’s 340-ton granite megalith excavated from a quarry near Riverside. But whatever good will these efforts marshaled in years past has been quickly forgotten (or overshadowed) by the impending arrival of Zumthor’s megaplex.
What galls Govan’s critics most isn’t necessarily Zumthor’s floor plan or his potentially disastrous sky bridge. Instead they complain that LACMA’s director autocratically froze out the rest of the community and made decisions for the rebuild largely by himself.
“From the moment I first set foot in this city, I was told that LACMA was interested in expanding,” says Govan, who adds that the board was reconsidering an alternate plan by Renzo Piano (whom Govan tapped for the Resnick Pavilion) when he threw out Zumthor as “a wild card.”
Traditionally, architects for huge projects like LACMA are hired after a competition. But Govan never wanted one. According to The New Yorker, when Govan first called Zumthor about the LACMA project the architect replied, “I don’t believe in competitions. And would like to work with you out of public view.”
Govan says that Zumthor’s “wild card” plan was less a blueprint than a “set of ideas, a philosophical-curatorial speculation, and the board had a chance to think about it and they liked it well enough to encourage me to develop it. They had no idea how much it would cost or how we’d get it done, but they liked my ideas.”
Govan’s unshakable adherence to those ideas wrecked at least one of LACMA’s long-standing partnerships, with the billion-dollar Ahmanson Foundation, an organization that helped the museum acquire $130 million worth of European old master paintings and sculptures over six decades. Govan’s refusal to commit permanent space in the Zumthor village to Ahmanson works reportedly marred the relationship. “The foundation would have given money [to the Zumthor building],” Marandel insists. “What Michael lost is a $100 million endowment. If any other director in the world did that, they would be fired within 24 hours. It wasn’t necessary—it was just a matter of pride and stubbornness.”
Another thing that infuriates his critics is Govan’s Teflon resistance to controversy. Earlier this summer, for instance, several seasoned museum directors and top curators from as far afield as the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and SFMOMA were ousted from their jobs over alleged microaggressions, endemic racist policies, or tactless comments. Yet Govan, who has rankled at least half the L.A. art establishment with what they consider macroaggressions, has managed to survive without a scratch. Recently, he was dinged a bit by activists on Instagram denouncing what they saw as LACMA’s lack of diversity (“All the white men using museums to grow their personal wealth”). He also found himself dealing with a brewing scandal over longtime trustee Tom Gores’s ties to the prison telecom industry. (Gores resigned his position in October.) But, for the most part, none of the criticism seems to stick to Govan.
Still, passions over his rule at LACMA are running so high that the director’s critics seem to be suffering, at times, from Govan derangement syndrome. They’re even feuding over who hated him first. Giovannini was originally assigned his “Suicide By Architecture” story by Norman Pearlstine, the executive editor of the Los Angeles Times. But Pearlstine killed the piece after passing it to a few of the paper’s editors and critics for their review, including veteran art critic Christopher Knight. In the ensuing month the Times would publish two of a half-dozen columns by Knight slamming the LACMA plan. Giovannini complained to Los Angeles that the Times‘ award-winning series was “a violation.” (Knight, who has been nominated for the Pulitzer twice before, declined to comment. Pearlstine angrily dismissed Giovannini’s charges as “garbage.”)
In any case, Giovannini says he’s grown exhausted by his LACMA battles. “I’m so sick of this I can’t even tell you,” he said last spring. And yet he continues to write about the saga. His most recent broadside, in the New York Review of Books, debuted just as this article went to press.
Stephanie Barron thinks it is now time for the curators to take control of the narrative. “At this point there’s been so much ink spilled about people having opinions about the building…but now the building is down and we’re going to start construction,” she says. “I think it’s going to be on us to create interesting stories to get the public interested to come” to the new Zumthor building.
Giovannini isn’t hopeful. As he wrote in the NYRB, “If the design succeeds in hijacking the institution, Los Angeles will be living for a long time with a wanton act of architecture and the bitter memory of a very expensive betrayal of the public trust.”
Despite all the chaos and drama that follow in his wake, Govan has managed to gracefully evade the slings and arrows of the art world. He’s particularly beloved by LACMA’s board of directors, which now includes fewer art world types and more deep-pocketed philanthropists and celebrities. (When Rick Brown served as director of LACMA during the Kennedy era, the museum’s board led by the genial Dutch still-life aficionado Edward W. Carter. The museum’s current board is led by Vegas hotelier Elaine Wynn and Atlanta Hawks owner Antony P. Ressler.)
While the pandemic has pinched many other cultural institutions, Govan is confident he’ll soon have the funds he needs to start building Zumthor’s monument, even if the recession continues.
Govan says the project is on budget and on schedule. While critics contend the building cost may balloon to a billion dollars post-pandemic, a LACMA rep insists: “The David Geffen Galleries will not be a billion dollar building. LACMA has carefully managed the cost of the new building, which is $650 million, including a substantial contingency. All buildings at LACMA have been built on budget.” Pledges from the county and major donors like Geffen will cover that sum, and Govan insists that patrons tend to be more committed in times of crisis, not less. If critics want to take potshots at him, he’s OK with that. It’ll be up to future art historians to judge the value of the Miracle Mile landmark he and Zumthor are preparing to build.
When Govan arrived at LACMA, it was 120,000 square feet. If it’s three times that size when he leaves—on Wilshire and all those other decentralized locations he’s planning beyond the Fairfax area—Govan believes he’ll have done his job. “All I’ve ever done is build museums,” he says. “It’s hard, it’s complex, there are a lot of misunderstandings. But I love what we do, and there’s a joy in it. So I won’t let anybody spoil that.”
Bryan Washington’s new novel, Memorial, (Riverhead, October 27) is set in Houston and centers on Ben, an African American day-care worker with promiscuous tendencies, and his boyfriend, Mike, a Japanese American cook with a doughy physique and a slacker mindset. When Mike learns that his estranged father in Osaka is dying, he abruptly flies off to tend to him one day after his mom, Mitsuko—sardonic and wary about Mike’s choice in men—arrives on the couple’s doorstep. Ben and Mitsuko become reluctant roomies, slowly bonding over meals of Japanese comfort food, which Mitsuko lovingly whips up from scratch.
Washington says he was compelled to write such a story because he hadn’t seen fictional lead characters in situations like these before. “I know that’s not the sexiest answer, but it’s really as simple as that,” he says. “It’s important for me to have these characters from these communities, which are marginalized in the States, and not have their marginalization and whatever trauma might be associated with it be the sole crux of the narrative. I wanted to write a love story and just see what could come from that.”
In his short but acclaimed career, the 27-year-old author has made a habit of writing about people and places rarely seen in contemporary fiction. His debut short-story collection, Lot, features Jamaican adulteresses, Latino hustlers, and a half-black gay narrator.
Barack Obama called it one of his favorite books of 2019, and the former president is hardly the only one praising Washington. The Houston-based writer is one of the publishing world’s brightest young stars. Last year, he was a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” prize and he won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Memorial has garnered critical raves and enthusiastic blurbs from a who’s who of contemporary writers, including Ocean Vuong (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), Ann Patchett (Bel Canto), and Kiley Reid (Such a Fun Age).
The novel’s diversity of characters reflects Washington’s childhood in Houston, where his neighbors were Nigerian and French, Japanese and Vietnamese. “I had a lot of folks coming from a myriad of places, and we would all eat at each other’s houses,” says Washington, a self-described “queer baker” who has written about food for The New Yorker. “I think I’ve always been aware of race to some extent. I don’t think I had that epiphany about race that a lot of my white friends have had or that many white acquaintances seem to be having now.”
Washington is currently working on his second novel and writing scripts for a TV series based on Memorial. While film and television adaptations are known for taking unattractive characters and making them less so, Washington insists that won’t happen with lumpy Mike and not conventionally handsome Ben—though the issue has come up.
“[The producers] were like, ‘Would you be comfortable with casting this actor, who may be a lovely actor but not at all the body type of Benson or Mike or any of the other characters?’” he recalls. “The answer was no.”
» Local music venues and performance spaces say they’re facing a “doomsday scenario” without pandemic relief. Business owners still hope for federal intervention, but many also express frustration with local and state leaders. [Los Angeles Times]
» L.A. Al Fresco, the policy that has allowed local restaurants to serve customers on sidewalks and parking lots during the pandemic, could become permanent. The transportation committee of the City Council voted in favor of making the rule permanent; now it moves to the full council for a vote. [ABC Los Angeles]
» Four private primary schools in Los Angeles County will be allowed to bring students back to campus. The schools received a special waiver to have in-person lessons for students up to second grade. [Daily News]
» The Forest Service has millions of acres of forest management projects ready to go in California and other western states–but the federal agency doesn’t have enough money to do the work. Experts say funding the forest management could help slow the growth of wildfires. [Los Angeles Times]
» Developers have announced plans for a large new hotel in Koreatown. The hotel would sit on two adjacent lots that are currently housing units. [The Real Deal]
Burgers Bourbon + Beer Fest Flips to a Drive-In Burger Crawl
For many of us, it’s been months since we’ve gotten together for some burgers and drinks with friends. That’s why Los Angeles has put together a socially distanced edition of our annual Burgers Bourbon + Beer event, so we can all enjoy some food and drink together, while staying safely apart. This year’s BB+B will find participants driving in at locations to pick up burger and cocktail kits to enjoy at home, outside, or wherever you (safely and legally) decide.
Last August, soon after the start of the University of Southern California’s fall semester, Dr. Greg Patton, a 53-year-old professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business, was on a Zoom call, delivering an afternoon lecture on public speaking to 70 students in the full-time master’s program.
Patton, a genial instructor and Pacific Rim business consultant, had taught at USC for over 20 years. He had given the same lecture dozens of times before, including three times that day. His class, Communication for Management, was meant to teach students effective skills for communicating in global markets.
Patton was explaining that filler words, like um or er, are distracting because they interrupt the flow of ideas when making presentations. To illustrate his point, he introduced a Mandarin word that literally means that, and is more commonly used to mean um. He says in a video of the class that’s been widely circulated on social media, “This is culturally specific . . . Like in China, the common word is that—that, that, that, that. So in China, it might be nèige—nèige, nèige, nèige. So there’s different words that you’ll hear in different countries, but they’re vocal disfluencies.” To Patton, who has used the same example for years, the class was utterly unremarkable.
The first hint of trouble, though, came near the end of the session, when a student sent him a private message on Zoom. Some people were uncomfortable with the Chinese example he used, she said. A second student emailed him that afternoon, suggesting he replace the Chinese example in future lectures. Coincidentally, midterm evaluations were scheduled for that same day. Alarmed, Patton went into the system and saw that the nèige example had been mentioned in three separate student evaluations. “My heart just sank,” he says. “The last thing I want to do is distract or hurt my students.”
“This is a Chinese word that has a different sound, a different accent, different pronunciation. It never once crossed my mind it would lead to this.”
Patton emailed an apology to the entire class early the next morning, on August 21, right around the time that an incendiary complaint entitled “Subject: A Callous, Reckless Illustration in Management Communication” arrived in the inbox of newly installed Dean Geoffrey Garrett. In the letter, an anonymous group of Patton’s Black students accused the professor of racism and harming their mental health by using a Chinese-language word that sounded “exactly like the word NIGGA.” Their letter referenced the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and said that “social awakening across the nation” had motivated their complaint. “We are burdened to fight with our existence in society, in the workplace, and in America. We should not be made to fight for our sense of peace and mental well-being at Marshall,” they said. The students alleged that Patton had acted with malicious intent, a charge he vigorously denied.
Soon the story had made its way into the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, and dozens of international publications. Patton declined most interview requests. But in an interview with Los Angeles in September, he described the incident as a colossal misunderstanding. “This is a Chinese word that has a different sound, a different accent, different pronunciation. It never once crossed my mind it would lead to this.” He adds, “We’re a global university. A third of our business students are international. We’re deeply entrenched on the Pacific Rim—our first Chinese student graduated in 1892. You would expect to have examples from Japanese, Korean, and Chinese brought into class. You wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t.”
“He’s a white American. He knows what it sounds like, right?” said Brittany, a graduate student involved in the complaint letter, in an interview with NPR. (She withheld her last name for fear of backlash.) “It was distasteful because you know what it means to people. You know what it sounds like. And you didn’t care how it came off to Black students in your class.”
The incident came just a month into the tenure of Garrett, who had been poached amid much fanfare from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to lead the business school at USC, his fourth business-school deanship in less than ten years. The 62-year-old Australian native is married to a woman from California, and he previously taught at USC and UCLA.
Soon after receiving the student’s complaints, Garrett suspended Patton from teaching the course, pending a USC investigation. Marshall administrators offered the Black students a host of academic alternatives, including independent research, but they pushed for the professor’s dismissal. This prompted outraged letters from pro-Patton faculty members as well as Chinese students and alumni, leaving the dean beleaguered and the professor in limbo.
It took no time at all for the campus controversy to metastasize into a bitter international debate. The right-wing blog Campus Reform was the first to pick up the story, noting that Patton had “agreed to take a short-term pause.” As the story spread, the university’s response factionalized the campus and stirred negative news coverage of USC worldwide. Even the The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah joined the fray. “Here’s my question for you,” Noah said to Chinese standup Ronny Chieng. “If ‘nèige’ is, like, just a thinking word, then isn’t that confusing to you when you listen to rap music?” To which Chieng deadpanned, “Yeah, to be honest, Trevor, sometimes most rappers sound like they’re really unsure of themselves.”
For most of those caught up in it, the controversy has been no laughing matter. “A lot of the faculty are nervous,” one business professor says. “I might make a verbal miscue—do I lose my job for a mistake? Is this administration going to support me?” An internal survey of 105 professors conducted by Marshall’s faculty council was leaked to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Peppered with emotional words and phrases like “livid,” “betrayed,” “scared of students,” and “scared to teach,” the report showed a loss of confidence in Garrett as a result of the affair.
Over the weekend of August 21, following a meeting with the aggrieved students, USC initiated a deep review of Patton’s decades at the business school, scrutinizing thousands of student evaluations for signs of his racial or cultural insensitivity. None were found. Some of the claims mentioned in the grievance letter—that Patton had ignored previous complaints and had erased class recordings of the incident—also proved to be untrue. (A university probe found no evidence that the students had attempted to communicate with Patton prior to lodging their complaint.)
The trouble at USC is just the latest manifestation of a much broader battle in academia, where administrators have struggled to balance a newfound commitment to confront racist microaggressions on campus with the imperative for open dialogue and academic freedom. The incident drew hundreds of letters from alumni—many of them Black—who were infuriated by what they saw as the university’s retreat from those principles. On Instagram, a Black member of USC’s class of 2024 called Patton a “scapegoat” and warned that the university’s response would be used to “gaslight” Black students with legitimate grievances. “I’ve already seen people reference this situation and say we blow everything out of proportion, when the majority of us never took issue with this situation in the first place.”
For USC, where more than 22 percent of students are from China, the controversy has had an unexpected consequence. Days after the story broke, the Chinese media jumped on the incident, offended by what they saw as USC’s disparagement of the Chinese language. “U.S. Political Correctness Implicates a Chinese Filler Word” blared a headline in China’s Global Times. On Weibo, China’s Twitter, hashtags about the controversy were shared more than 9 million times.
Ninety-four recent graduates of the MBA program, most of them Chinese, likened the university’s response to the incident to the “spurious accusations against innocent people” that shadowed Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
USC has always been reluctant to offend Chinese sensibilities. Max Nikias, USC’s former president, reportedly scrubbed photos of a historic visit by the Dalai Lama from a contemporary history of the university so as not to anger the Tibetan leader’s opponents in Beijing. International students tend to come from wealthy families that can afford to pay full tuition, and Chinese tuition dollars are an important fiscal pillar of the university.
The investigation into the professor ended without fanfare on September 25. The university’s Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX concluded there was no ill intent on Patton’s part and that “the use of the Mandarin term had a legitimate pedagogical purpose.” In a follow-up email to students and faculty, the dean appeared to tiptoe between concerns of the complainants and the strong opinions of faculty and students. Garrett described the complaint letter as “genuine and serious,” apologized for appearing to prejudge Patton, and assured students and faculty that he meant to cast no aspersions “on specific Mandarin words or on Mandarin generally.”
For the moment, the controversy has lifted, and the business school has descended into an uneasy peace. It may just be a matter of time before issues like this are litigated again at USC or on other campuses. Patton believes that the findings are an important step toward restoring his reputation, but he says his future is unclear. He will transition to teaching other programs within the business school in the spring and summer but has agreed to step away from the school’s MBA program indefinitely. “I know that I’m going to have a thousand conversations about this in the next five years. Now I just want to get back to helping my students.”
Los Angeles-based right-wing “guerrilla artist” Sabo has struck again and he’s taking aim at one of his favorite targets: California Governor Gavin Newsom.
On Tuesday evening, a gruesome, six-foot-tall depiction of Newsom’s severed head—bloodied with the words “RECALL” scrawled across the Governor’s forehead—was hung at the corner of Main Street and Rose Avenue, where the City of Santa Monica intersects with Venice Beach. It dangles 30 feet in the air, attached to the hand of artist Jonathan Borofsky’s colossal Ballerina Clown sculpture, which was originally erected in 1989.
The stunt comes as pockets of California—mainly in more conservative enclaves—and members of the business community grow increasingly frustrated with the state’s coronavirus safety measures, considered some of the most stringent in the country. Earlier this week, Disneyland Resort president Ken Potrock attacked Newsom’s newly announced protocols regarding the reopening of California theme parks calling them “arbitrary” and “unworkable.” Disney CEO Bob Iger resigned from Newsom’s COVID-19 economic task force earlier this month after the company announced it was planning to lay off 28,000 employees. Furthermore, a petition calling for Newsom’s recall has also been circulating although it is unclear how many signatures the effort has received because it’s intended to be printed out and signed, rather than simply signed online like many petitions in the digital era.
But California’s measures appear to have helped slow the spread of the virus. Recent reports have shown that California is among five states that are seeing a decline in the number of new coronavirus infections while much of the rest of the country are seeing increases. A spokesman for Newsom’s office did not return a call or email seeking comment.
In recent years, career provocateur and Proud Boys fan Sabo has become known for similar stunts. He almost exclusively targets Democratic politicians and the communities that support them. In 2018, he altered a billboard that was advertising a Halloween remake, swapping out an image of serial killer Michael Myers and replacing it with one of Maxine Waters. Later that year—playing off the Oscar-nominated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—Sabo hijacked three billboards just days before the Academy Awards in Hollywood and attacked the entertainment industry for allegedly shielding pedophiles. In 2017, he went after then-candidate Newsom by hanging “do not disturb”-style door hangers mocking Newsom just days before a fundraiser was set to take place at the house of actress Reese Witherspoon.
Quibi was designed to be short-form–but, little did the company’s founders realize, the business itself would be over in the blink of an eye. The start-up, which raised nearly $2 billion in investments and spent lavishly on star-studded original content, is reported to be shutting down. It launched just six months ago.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, the entertainment super-exec who co-founded the company with former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, made initial calls to investors on Wednesday morning with the news, according to The Wall Street Journal. A more formal call detailing the financial future of the company is expected to take place before the end of today, during which investors–including Walt Disney Co., AT&T, and NBCUniversal–will learn more about what is to come.
Questions are expected to include what will happen to the sizable catalog of original content already produced. Reports in recent days had indicated that an attempt was made to offload programming to NBCUniversal or Facebook, but it appears those deals failed to materialize as of today’s announcement, perhaps in part because, the Journal notes, Quibi does not actually outright own many of the shows, instead having lured A-list talent with deals intended to revert rights to creators at some future point.
While Quibi-skeptics abounded even before the platform’s launch, timing may have complicated things for the company. Quibi’s raison d’être was to fill short bursts of time throughout a user’s day–say, commuting on the subway, waiting for an appointment, or in between school classes–with five- to 10-minute mobile-only “bites” of content. Pandemic stay-at-home orders meant that, just as the service was attempting to attract subscribers, many of those potential subscribers were staying at home, watching full-size televisions, and not finding themselves out and about, in need of mini-shows.
Quibi execs had initially projected the service would sign up 7 million paid subscribers in its first year of operation. Reality is understood to have fallen far short of that, though by exactly how much is somewhat difficult to confirm, as the company has not published conclusive numbers. The Information reported earlier this month that the number may be between 400,000 and 500,000. According to The Verge, more than 90 percent of users who signed up for a free trial of Quibi ultimately unsubscribed at the end of the trial, rather than converting to paying customers (Quibi issued a statement after the publication of that report calling the analysis “incorrect,” but did not produce specific data refuting it).
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