I’m bingeing the new season of “The Crown” from Netflix and enjoying it as much as the first two, despite Olivia Colman’s dour portrayal of the queen. What happened to the eager and fresh young Elizabeth? Gone with the new decade and the new cast, it seems. Colman’s cranky mien suggests that being queen is a crummy job. England isn’t in great shape (it’s the 1960s and the government is broke) and that adds to everyone’s bleak mood. The high point of the season for me was Princess Alice, Prince Philip’s dotty mother, beautifully played by Jane Lapotaire. A chain-smoking nun, Princess Alice is the only royal having any fun. Though Princess Margaret is always partying, she never seems to enjoy herself, except when she’s trading dirty limericks with LBJ. Helena Bonham Carter plays Margaret with her usual brio, a striking contrast to Colman’s Elizabeth, who is expressionless most of the time. The poor queen is surrounded by relatives who have nothing productive to do so can’t help getting into trouble. Then she’s expected to tidy things up. Those awful hats she’s forced to wear aren’t making things better. This season feels more tied to specific historical events (a mudslide in Wales, the devaluation of the pound, the moon landing), but maybe I’ve forgotten and the same was true in the other seasons as well. The characters are more fixed in their personalities now with less room to grow and change. The writing is just as good, and with the same terrific production values, it’s still among the most enjoyable TV watching around.
Something totally different on Netflix is the latest Eddie Murphy project, “Dolemite Is My Name.” Flamboyantly crude and laugh-out-loud funny, the film tells the story of the real Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), a struggling comedian in the late sixties who hit it big with party records and then decided to become a filmmaker. Dolemite was the trash-talking persona Moore adopted in his comedy and film. The movie is an affectionate portrayal of Moore’s energetic hustle and of the urban black community that supported him. A strong cast, which includes Mike Epps, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Chris Rock, Snoop Dog, and a hilarious turn by Wesley Snipes, adds a lot to the movie’s depth, and Murphy is always fun to watch. He’s older now, of course, and his more subdued moments have an added sweetness, but he can still bring that intensity to his comic riffs. This is not a movie for the dainty or delicate-minded, but it is a lot of fun.
Netflix is also offering Martin Scorcese’s “The Irishman,” but I’m glad I saw it in the theater on a big screen. This film about Jimmy Hoffa and the mob brings together Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino in another of Scorcese’s investigations of mob life and how it distorts the consciousness of the people involved. De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a truck driver who becomes involved with the Bufalino gang in Philadelphia. He starts with stealing sides of beef from his truck and then graduates to being a fixer for Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and eventually a hit man. Frank’s life changes when he meets Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of the Teamsters union, who encourages him to run for president of his union local. The two men become close friends, and Frank sees Hoffa as his mentor. Old allegiances get in the way though, and Frank has to make a choice. The movie is based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” where Sheeran confessed to killing Hoffa.
Scorcese is in top form in this three-and-a-half hour film, and the performances are excellent. Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Canavale, Anna Paquin, and other familiar faces show up, and they’re all good. Even at that length, there’s no padding; every scene seems necessary. Both De Niro and Pesci use stillness to great effect in their performances. These are not impulsive or hot-tempered men, and they are the more frightening for it. Pacino gives a bigger, noisier performance, as he’s wont to do, but it works. He captures Hoffa’s certainty that no one can unseat him and his enormous self-confidence. Told in flashback by Frank from his nursing home, the film is solemn, almost elegiac, and, if not filled with remorse, it seems suffused with an overhanging regret. This is an old person’s gangster movie; these are not the wild-eyed young men of “Goodfellas” or “Scarface.”
“Our Boys” on HBO is another sombre and painful viewing experience, but suspense-filled and exciting too. Created by Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu-Wael, the series was filmed in Israel and concerns two related awful events. In the summer of 2014, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered, leaving the country outraged and enraged. Two days later, the body of a Palestinian teen was found burned in a forest outside Jerusalem. The 10-episoade series is told from two viewpoints: Simon (Shlomi Elkabetz) the investigator from the internal terror squad of the Shin Bet, and Hussein Abu Khdeir (Jony Arbid), the father of the burned boy. Simon is fearful from the start that the killers are Jews; Hussein is certain they are. The series follows the investigation and then the trial, but it’s more than an extended “Law and Order” episode. The show examines the myriad divisions in Israeli society between secular and religious Jews, the Ashkenazi and Mizrachi communities, as well as Jewish and Muslim citizens. The incident led to the multi-day war in Gaza, and though the show doesn’t go into that, it makes clear that these events destroyed the lives of everyone involved.
If you’re up for more terrific TV, find the PBS documentary “College Behind Bars.” One of the best docs I’ve seen in a long time, this four-part series follows a group of inmates who are enrolled in the Bard Prison Initiative in New York State prisons. A testament to the transforming power of real education, the series by Lynn Novick gives the inmates time to speak at length about what learning has meant to them. We see them doing research, preparing to debate, working on papers, all in the confines of their cells and within the time restrictions of a prison day. It’s astonishing and genuinely inspiring. Many of the prisoners went to jail when they were very young and never got much of an education, either through their own recalcitrance or the dreadful state of much of our public school system. When they encounter good teachers and the challenges of the world’s great thinkers, they are changed in a profound way. A fantastic piece of work.
Lastly, I saw “Parasite,” the film by Korean director Bong Joon-ho that is receiving rave reviews. A sharp-edged indictment of income inequality and rich with tonal shifts, the movie introduces the basement-dwelling Kim family, who are barely getting by, scrounging free wi-fi and picking up odd jobs. Luck strikes when the Kim son gets a gig teaching English to the teen daughter of the uber-wealthy Parks. Little by little, the Kims infiltrate the modernist palace of the ditzy Parks, taking over for employees they’ve managed to sabotage. These early scenes are darkly comic, and the film resembles the mood of “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” The plot veers in unexpected ways in the second part, and the mood changes dramatically too. It’s fun and funny and often a nailbiter, but I’m not sure it deserves the extraordinary praise it has received. Definitely worth seeing though.