"John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch" and "Widows" are this week's picks.
Twitter is full of prompts, where one user will ask their followers to answer a simple question ostensibly because they are interested in the responses but really to get a bunch of retweets and, thus, more followers. Then other people will copy their work and ask a similar question. Most of these prompts are bad. There was one floating around this week, however, that was good: Which movie do you like more than most other people?
I like this for two reasons. First, they didn't refer to these movies as "guilty pleasures," which is a stupid phrase. Like what you like, and don't feel bad for doing so.
Second, this question gets rid of any remaining pretentious feelings and, I hope, makes people think about why they like whichever film comes to mind. For example, my answer would be "You, Me and Dupree," an objectively stupid movie by any metric. But I have watched it more than 10 times. Why? Because Owen Wilson's asides kill me. The scripted jokes can be rough, but Wilson's asides, like about the movie "Fletch" ("It's in my top five, but it's not my favorite") and Lance Armstrong ( "The guy's done more with one testicle than you or I could do with three") are delivered with such perfect timing and sincerity that it's hard to hate his character, who is a nightmare. You can do a lot worse than watching Owen Wilson show his slacker charm for 90 minutes.
This is a surface-level example, but I hope people see the value in considering why they like certain pieces of art and don't like others, instead of saying "I don't know, I just liked it, OK?" You learn so much more about your own tastes this way, and it helps you connect on a personal level, which in turn will help you appreciate everything you watch. It's a cycle of learning and discovery.
Binge Blog was created, in part, to help ease you into that cycle. So, newbies: Come take your first step. (And to the veterans: Welcome back.)
Netflix, rated TV-PG, 70 minutes
I don’t know if this is technically a movie, but if it was, it would be in my top five of last year.
The thing is, I don’t know if this is “technically” anything at all. John Mulaney has done something singular here, creating an homage to the weird-ass variety shows of his youth while also pushing forward and skewering how death-obsessed our culture has become, even in the minds of elementary school kids.
“John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch” is better watched than described to get the vibe, but it can be summed up like this: Comedian John Mulaney found some outgoing kids with insane comedic timing and hired them to sing choreographed songs about various topics. You know, normal kid things, like how everyone is always mean to your grandmother’s new boyfriend or the possible joys of comforting a random, sobbing woman you see on the street and treating her to Pret A Manger.
In between, the Sack Lunch Bunch (and a few special guests) do skits and answer questions about mortality, their biggest fears and other cheerful things. I cannot stress enough how happy this special is, sonically, and how dark it is, tonally, considering the stars are mostly kids. Is this special for kids or adults? Honestly, I don’t know, and that’s what makes it wonderful.
The whole thing is great, and I could spend another 1,000 words talking about the joys of seeing, for instance, Talking Heads vocalist David Byrne singing about how people only pretend to pay attention when kids perform songs or plays for their families, but we really need to get to brass tax.
We need to talk about Jake Gyllenhaal.
What Jake Gyllenhaal is doing here, portraying a man named Mr. Music, who is, in no uncertain terms, teetering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown from reality, is nothing short of perfection. It is one of the most powerful comedic performances I have seen in my life, and honestly, you can probably drop that “comedic” qualifier.
I expected him to phone it in, but if anything, he is trying harder here than he has tried since, I don’t know, maybe “Nightcrawler”? The faces he makes alone are worth watching the whole thing. He flails his arms like one of those inflatable things in car dealership parking lots. His mustache is unnerving. His voice sounds like a carny who just took too much cocaine. He is basically Mr. Noodle from “Elmo’s World” if Mr. Noodle was actually a musical demon from the depths of hell.
His segment is the last musical segment of the special, and they absolutely saved the best for last.
The whole thing is only 70 minutes. Just watch it! Live a little!
HBO, rated R, 129 minutes
That’s it. That’s the whole blog.
OK, it’s not, but it could be. He’s not the star of “Widows,” the taut Steve McQueen-directed crime thriller that got completely boned at last year’s Oscars for reasons I still don’t understand, but he’s the one you’ll be thinking about for weeks after the credits roll.
He is terrifying in this movie, portraying Jatemme Manning, the right-hand man and brother of political candidate/mobster Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). He does this thing with his eyes, swarming you with them like buzzards on a carcass, not letting you look at anything else no matter which way you turn. He doesn’t say much because he doesn’t have to say much. His eyes say it all.
Maybe the most remarkable thing about the performance is height. Kaluuya isn’t a tall guy. IMDB tells me he’s 5-foot-8.5; Google says 5-foot-9. Those both seem about right. In “Widows,” Kaluuya looks up at the people he’s trying to intimidate. Usually, the “heavy” in movies like this is a towering figure, but McQueen was smart enough to know he didn’t need that here. He needed Kaluuya, a man who scares not with physical strength but with how quickly he snaps.
I mean, the scene in the bowling alley alone … goosebumps. Trust me.
If Kaluuya burns the brightest (and quickest; his role is comparatively small), the rest of the cast is content to slowly watch the candle wax drip away from the wick. The plot is complex: A group of widows bands together to finish a heist their husbands died trying to complete, while subplots involving Chicago politics and systemic racism give viewers plenty of thoughts to roll around their heads. There’s a lot of great performances. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki rule as the titular widows, Cynthia Erivo adds life to the film halfway through as someone who gets wrapped up in the heist, and Colin Farrell is convincing as a mayor who cares about the plight of his constituents less than he should.
As the Ringer’s Alison Herman wrote upon the film’s release, it’s also the rare action movie about a group of women that makes their gender seem integral to the thesis, not just plugging them into rebooted male roles and asking for a pat on the back:
“Representation, at least for groups underserved enough to push for more of it, can be roughly sorted into two camps: the ones that call attention to their exceptionalism and those that take it as a matter of fact. The ideal, of course, is enough of each for neither to stand out …
"'Widows,' remarkably, manages to straddle both schools at once. The movie isn’t interested in being about women, or even womanhood, so much as the specific women we watch mature from partners of convenience into true equals."
Debicki's character, especially, is one who could have easily been played by the film as, "Look at how empowering this is!" It doesn't, opting for something much more nuanced. Her performance is spectacular and has me quite excited for her role in Christopher Nolan's upcoming action film "Tenet," alongside John David Washington and Robert Pattinson.
The Oscars ignored "Widows," but you shouldn't.