Culture Crash 19-10: Netflix’s Russian Doll

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

Streaming TV services like Netflix and Hulu have revolutionized the medium, in part, simply by expanding access. Hundreds more scripted shows are being made right now than ever have before, and this has meant more diverse writers and creators. But Netflix, in particular, is responsible for another revolutionary idea: dropping entire seasons of shows all at once. It’s become something of a signature for the company, which encourages binge-watching entire seasons of shows like Stranger Things and Ozark in a day or a weekend. With that, many creators have started to say it feels like they’re making a 10-hour movie instead of a TV show.

And that line of thinking has been a little controversial. The problem with that thinking is that, of course, it isn’t a 10-hour movie, it’s a TV show. Critic Alan Sepinwall frequently notes that the nature of TV is episodic. Even if you encourage binge-watching, some viewers will go one episode at a time and each episode needs to be entertaining in its own right.

Well, Netflix may have finally answered the bell and delivered a show that truly feels like an actual extended-length film. It’s called Russian Doll, and it comprises of eight episodes that are each roughly 23 minutes in length. This makes the entire season a little over three hours long, which makes it actually feasible for a lot of people to watch it all in one sitting. And that might be the ideal watching situation.

Russian Doll is similar to Groundhog Day or Happy Death Day, in that it focuses on someone stuck in the same moment. Star Natasha Leon plays Nadia, who keeps dying and being reborn into the same moment at her birthday party.

Russian Doll is a bit of an enigma. It’s sort of like NBC’s The Good Place in its mysterious structure and the central theme of what we can accomplish when we all help each other.

Toward the beginning of the season, I was a bit confused, unsure what exactly I was watching. But around episode 3 or 4, the story really kicks in and it sprints through the finish line. 

It is like a long movie, and it works well all at once. It also works well split in half or sure, episodically.

Russian Doll is now streaming on Netflix.

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Culture Crash 19-06: Missing Gems in the Deluge of ‘Peak TV’

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

Vulture reported that 495 scripted television shows were broadcast and streamed for the first time in 2018. That’s up from the 216 series that aired less than a decade ago, back in 2010.

With such a boom in the sheer volume of the medium, thanks largely to the growth of streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video… it can be easy to lose track of everything you’ve been meaning to watch.

Case in point for me is the Showtime limited series, Escape at Dannemora. The show began airing just a few months back in November, but in TV time, that’s eons ago. Anyway, I meant to watch the show when it was coming out but forgot all about it until the show began hitting the awards circuit. Patricia Arquette specifically has won both a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Award for her turn in the series, and that was what finally reminded me to give the show a try.

Boy, am I glad I did. Escape at Dannemora is based on a real 2015 prison break in upstate New York and stars Paul Dano and Benicio del Toro as two prison inmates, and Patricia Arquette as a prison employee who becomes tangled up in their web. All seven episodes of the series were directed by Ben Stiller, but make no mistake: this show is a dramatic thriller, not a whimsical comedy. It’s really good and now streaming on Showtime’s various web apps.

But Escape at Dannemora isn’t the only shows I missed in the waterfall of TV content.

High on my to-watch list are AMC’s The Little Drummer Girl, based on the John le Carre novel of the same name and Netflix’s Bodyguard, which is a hugely successful political thriller that originally aired on BBC One. Of course, at some point I may need some comedic relief, in which case I’ll turn to, maybe Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Netflix’s American Vandal, two shows I’ve started but have not finished.

The reservoir of TV content is very, very deep. Sometimes, that can be daunting. And sometimes, that can mean stumbling back on something that dominated the zeitgeist for a few fleeting moments several months ago, and having a blast discovering those things for yourself.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 19-05: On Ethan Hawke and Oscar Snubs

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

Every year when the Oscar nominations come out, there is a wave of backlash in regards to the people and the films that were snubbed. This year, one of those notable snubs was actor Ethan Hawke for his work in First Reformed. It would have been his fifth Oscar nomination and his third as an actor since he has two as a screenwriter, but it also really felt like it could have been his first Oscars win.

Now, First Reformed isn’t my favorite movie. It was good, it challenged me and made me think. But it just didn’t all click with me the way it has for others. What is definitely true, though, is that Ethan Hawke was great in that film. It’s frustrating to me, and others, that his work with this wholly original character is overshadowed by so many impersonations and imitations. What Christian Bale and Rami Malek did in embodying Dick Cheney and Freddie Mercury is impressive, but it still boils down to just being really good copy-cats. There is something magical about an actor you love becoming a new person you’ve never laid eyes on before, as they do in original fictional films. And for that, I do think Ethan Hawke was deserving of a nomination, if not an outright win.

But there’s something deeper at play, too. We feel for Ethan Hawke because we like Ethan Hawke. He’s been a working film actor for 34 years and he’s been in the spotlight since 1989’s Dead Poets Society. Through his subsequent roles in Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy and Boyhood, as well his work in other films like Gattaca, Training Day, Reality Bites, and countless others, Ethan Hawke has earned our affection.

It’s in Hawke’s collaborations with Richard Linklater that I and so many others really opened up a space in our hearts for Ethan Hawke, because he’s charming and honest, and because it really feels like he’s playing versions of himself. Hawke’s character in the Before movies went through a divorce right as Hawke was dealing with his own public divorce. Hawke’s character in Boyhood tells stories just like Hawke does on late-night programs. And he lights up the screen with Hawke’s natural combination of charisma and charm with philosophical meanderings and good comedic timing.

So yeah, many of us were hoping Ethan Hawke would win his first Oscar for First Reformed. Instead, he’s a notable snub. And that stinks, but to cheer ourselves up we have his whole catalog of great films to look back on. And his work in First Reformed didn’t go anywhere, it still exists. Awards don’t limit our capacity to like the things that we like.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 19-03: Movies to Look Forward to in 2019

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

With a new year always comes new things to look forward to, so let’s take a look at some of the movies people are anticipating the most in 2019. As a warning, there are a lot of them.

Of course, superhero tentpoles aren’t going anywhere. Marvel will release Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far From Home. While DC will release Shazam! And a cinematic universe-adjacent take on Batman’s archnemesis called Joker. Not to be outdone, the X-Men label will put out two films in 2019, Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants.

But it’s not all superhero movies, even if it feels that way. 2019 will also see Netflix release Velvet Buzzsaw, which will couple Jake Gyllenhaal back up with director Dan Gilroy after their last team-up, Nightcrawler, thrilled audiences. Director Richard Linklater will be back this year with an adaptation of the hit novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, starring Cate Blanchett. The Toy Story franchise will see a fourth installment hit theaters in June, Quentin Tarantino will debut his 1969-Manson-Family-era film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Al Pachino in July. Ang Lee returns with Gemini Man, a sci-fi thriller starring Will Smith, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch’s adaptation comes out in October, starring Sarah Paulson, Nicole Kidman, Ansel Elgort, and Jeffrey Wright.

Is that all? No, not even close. Additionally, Stephen King fans will once again fill the theaters for Pet Sematary, coming in April, and IT: Chapter 2, which will conclude the Losers Club’s tale in September. And, buckle up: 2019 will mark the theatrical return of Downton Abbey, a re-imagination of The Addams Family, a reboot of Charlie’s Angels, and an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. There will be a new Godzilla movie, a new Men in Black movie, and even a live-action/animation hybrid version of Sonic the Hedgehog. None of this is to even mention that Frozen 2 and Star Wars: Episode 9 will be released during 2019’s holiday season.

Phew! That’s a lot, and what’s crazy is there are still so many other titles coming out this year. For example, I can’t wait for the new James Grey sci-fi movie, Ad Astra. For years, experts have lamented the death of moviegoing and yet, 2018 marked the highest grossing movie year of all time. Clearly, with this 2019 slate of releases, the movie industry is looking to outdo itself once again.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 19-02: True Detective

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

Tonight marks the long-awaited, sometimes excitedly and sometimes with dread, but long-awaited, return of True Detective. The TV phenomenon of 2014 and possibly the biggest letdown of 2015 is back for its third season, and the early reviews suggest this should be more like the incredible first season and not like the dud of a season two.

Still gone is season one directing wonder Cary Fukanaga, but back is writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto, who has been attached to the show all along. This time he’s sharing the directorial duties with Jeremy Saulnier, the acclaimed director of Blue Ruin and Green Room, and Daniel Sackheim, an Emmy nominee with credits on Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, Ozark, and many other shows and movies. Even in his writing, Pizzolatto has sought some help from Graham Gordy and TV legend David Milch, who both co-write separate episodes of season 3.

Back on season 2, Pizzolatto faced a tough turnaround time, scrambling to make a second season that debuted just over a year after the first season finished. The end product seemed rushed, poorly plotted, and was generally hard to follow, even compared to the labyrinth first season. This time, Pizzolatto and co. have had more than three years to write a new season, that can hopefully recapture the old magic.

This go-around will be headed by Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali and takes place over three time periods in the Ozarks. The details are being mostly withheld, but it appears it will once again delve into a complex investigation of deeply macabre and disturbing crimes.

True Detective was a marquee hit for HBO back in 2014, and despite its stumble in 2015, it still represents a huge name-brand show for a network that will see its biggest hit, Game of Thrones, come to an end this summer. This is a show that matters for a network that still carries weight. For tonight, and the next seven Sunday’s, all eyes will be on HBO and True Detective. Let’s hope it rights this ship and enthralls us once again.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 18-51: Roma

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

A new movie recently popped up on your Netflix homepage. It’s called Roma, and it’s director Alfonso Cuarón’s passion project. You may know of Cuarón from Gravity, Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También, or even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In Roma, he tells the story of Cleo, a young maid in Mexico City during 1970 and 1971. She and her fellow maid, Adela, live with a family and end up being the people most responsible for keeping the home together. They cook, clean, they even help put the kids to bed.

Cuarón has been forthcoming about the fact that the movie was inspired by his own childhood. It’s even dedicated to his family maid, Libo. One of my favorite things about Cuarón is how Cuarón filters his memories through Cleo’s experiences. When the Corpus Christi massacre starts taking place outside the window of a shop Cleo is in, the camera doesn’t shift to show this moment in history. It stays with her, and we follow her back into the world through the chaos. 

Roma is a Best Picture contender and a Best Director contender, but even more important, it’s a masterpiece. You truly get to know and care for Cleo. You understand her struggle. And further, the film is technically brilliant, with beautiful cinematography and featuring such realistic sound design that I actually turned around in the theater on two different occasions, thinking someone was making noise inside the room, when in fact, it was coming through the speakers. It’s a movie that is well-served to be seen in theaters, but if that’s not an option near you, then that’s where that Netflix subscription comes in handy. Roma is now streaming– Just make sure to eliminate distractions and let yourself be swept up in the story. It’s a trip into the past that is worth taking.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 18-50: A look ahead at the movies set to dominate awards season

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine American culture–what’s new and old in entertainment.

Awards season is officially upon us. The Golden Globes have already announced their nominees, which are as questionable as always. Year-end lists are being finalized, and Oscar buzz is reaching a roar for some contenders. But now is also the time when many of these movies are being released in the first place. So, here’s a guide of what to keep an eye out for to get ahead of the nominee pool.

A Star Is Born and First Man are two contenders that have already spent some time in theaters. While First Man has begun to fade a bit and failed to generate much interest from the Hollywood Foreign Press, it did grab a nom for Claire Foy. And, it would be a minor shock if she and Ryan Gosling were both shut out of the actor races at the Oscars, while the film is still strongly in the mix for Best Picture. Of course, A Star Is Born may be the centerpiece of this year’s field- with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga poised to each receive multiple nominations. Cooper for acting, writing, and directing; And Gaga for acting and songwriting.

Beyond those, Barry Jenkins has released his follow-up to Moonlight with If Beale Street Could Talk. A wonderful adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, the film expertly uses lighting and cinematography to celebrate black love… and to tell the heart-wrenching and familiar tale of a corrupt criminal justice system. The Favourite is another strong contender this year. Its trio of actresses- Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz have garnered a lot of attention for their roles in this comedic take on the royal period piece that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. And Netflix’s big swing this year comes in the form of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, a Spanish-language film that is inspired by Cuaron’s own childhood in Mexico City. Roma is in a limited number of theaters and is now streaming on Netflix.

Of course, there are other contenders as well. BlacKkKlansman and Eighth Grade are streaming on-demand. Black Panther is on Netflix. Adam McKay’s Vice will be released on Christmas, and other contenders like Widows, Can You Ever Forgive Me, and Green Book are all in theaters now.

It’s a busy time of year for all of us- and especially for the film community. The options are out there, and the time to stay in the loop for nomination season is now.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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