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Clockwise from top left: ‘The Flight Attendant’ — Warner Media/HBO Max; ‘Bridgerton’ — Netflix/Shondaland; ‘The Bee Gees-How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?’ — Warner Media/HBO Max; ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Botton’ — Netflix; ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ — Netflix/Flitcraft Wonderful Films

What will the history books say we watched at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021? That period when some among us gave no heed to travel warnings and indulged in international vacations and reunions, while the majority stayed home and with various levels of cheer, fear and resentment, hunkered down. We drank from glasses of despair and tiny teacups of hope as we tried to put the pandemic-stress tensions behind us and looked towards our rectangular screens for immersive escapism or some reassurance of recognizable human behavior. Here are reviews of some of the shows and films we watched and talked about as we wore adult onesies and brandished our remotes.


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Sophia Loren as Madame Rosa in Netflix’ ‘The Life Ahead’ directed by Edoardo Ponti (Palomar, Netflix)

Sophia Loren is as evocative a name as we’ve ever had in film. Immediately you can picture those eyes which, in a single scene, can invite you, pierce you, warn you, restore you. That deeply resolute, honeyed voice. Cheekbones that enter the room first. A husky, conspiratorial laugh. A body that drapes a housecoat, a suit or a gown in a way that appeals to persons of every sexuality. The sense that she knows herself, can laugh at herself. A woman who once famously charmed that King of Charm, Cary Grant, right into a romance but eventually nestled into a decades-long marriage to the producer who discovered her, Carlo Ponti. A regal woman who prevails (her decades-old inaccurate charge of tax evasion in Italy was finally corrected thirty-plus years later), yet in a moment’s notice, you can see the girl inside, scarred by war and poverty. …


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Photo taken from the film ‘The Go-Go’s’ (Polygram/Showtime)

The new doc ‘The Go-Gos’, much like the band’s music, is brisk, well-paced, and full of sudden depth charges. Getting to hear the entire band reflect from a position of hard-won sanity and sobriety adds a layer of calm to a frenetic burst of a story. Solo interviews with these women (Charlotte Caffey, Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Jane Wiedlin) who are now in their 60s are highly and characteristically appealing, benefitting from an apparent common agreement to tell-it-like-it-was.

The film begins with a blast of thrash and fury. We see how each young woman was attracted to and found a home in the punk scene of Los Angeles, Sunset Strip, San Fernando Valley-style, with important and frank commentary from the band’s co-founding members Elissa Bello and Margot Olavarria. Belinda marvels at how the freedom of those formative days, when traditional markers of musicianship or fashion didn’t matter; the ‘worse you were the cooler you were.’ The film uses a rich trove of photos, flyers, articles and remembrances to summon the vivacity of the clubs and convey the specific, spiky energy The Go-Go’s had in their DNA from their start. …


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Naya Rivera singing ‘Alfie’ from ‘Glee’ Season 6, Ep. 6 — airing on Netflix (Photo taken from my screen)

I was much older than the target demographic for ‘Glee’, but I watched it semi-faithfully for these reasons: A) the intentionally diverse casting and primetime representation of many marginalized groups B) the clever reinvention and integration of pop songs and C) Naya Rivera.

Truth be told, since the show could be so wildly uneven, Rivera was often the ‘A’ reason I tuned in, always hoping she’d get a scene or a number.

Naya Rivera portrayed Santana, the tart-tongued (to put it mildly) captain of Glee’s cheerleading squad. By casting an Afro-Latina actress in the part, the show’s producers were already trouncing on stereotypes; by the year of the show’s debut, curtly dismissive cheerleaders were a staple of teen-centered entertainment, but they were usually white and hetero. As the show progressed, Santana fell for her teammate Brittany, came out to her family and friends, graduated from high school, tried to make her way in the big city, and eventually married Brittany. As a queer Latinx young woman with entrenched defense mechanisms, the character of Santana had to bear a lot of ‘representation’ duty, like an extended cheerleading ‘shoulder sit.’ …


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The radiant Nicole Beharie in ‘Miss Juneteenth’ (Vertical Entertainment, Sailor Bear and Ley Entertainment)

‘They just don’t make them like that anymore’ seems an odd moviegoing cliché to apply to the newly released “Miss Juneteenth.” When did ‘they’ in the world of movies ever truly apply to black filmmakers in any kind of sustained way, and when did we ever see character-driven films that detailed modern-day black life in immersive style with black females at the center?

And yet, ‘Miss Juneteenth’, in its gently humane and even-handed approach, with an eye to the humorously naïve eccentricities of American public life, recalls the specific work of Seventies-era directors like Robert Altman, Charles Burnett, Jonathan Demme and especially the late Michael Ritchie. While Channing Godfrey Peoples’ ‘Miss Juneteenth’ feels as contemporary as anything you could see in a news story today, it’s a truly deserving addition to the small but important canon of film which celebrate struggling Americans in the quirky context of parades, pageants, and restaurant work life. …


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Ameena Matthews in ‘The Interrupters’ (Kartemquin Films, PBS Frontline)

Recently a 15 year-old student in my class said that he yearned for more education to help him understand the signs of the times. “I look at social media, but after a while all I start seeing is box after box after box.” It’s too much and not enough, he seemed to say.

Keeping up with the latest in a long, long line of anti-Black murders, police repression, systemic injustice and civil unrest feels necessary, but may indeed feel like breadth and not depth at the same time. …


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From the 1983 Warner Brothers film “Local Hero”

One of my students told me recently he grieves the many losses he’s facing as the last part of his senior year is spent isolated from his friends. In the next moment he said: “I have to admit I’m enjoying spending more time with my family.” A teenager admitting time with his loved ones is sustaining his hurting heart is an unexpected upside to a time filled with woe.

In practice, the gathering place for many families today is not just the dinner table or the driveway basketball court: it’s the flatscreen. More than ever, the digital machines in our dens or walls have become a portal that lets us escape, distract, and possibly, when the program we watch calls for it, to engage with each other. …


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from the Netflix documentary, “Becoming”

Many famous people are touted for their communication skills, but few seem as naturally adept at just talking — plain, simple, responsive, funny, talking — as Michelle Obama. At one point in ‘Becoming’, the just-released documentary on Netflix about the former First Lady as she crosses the nation on a long arena-sized book tour for her autobiography of the same name, Mrs. Obama explains her ability to engage.

Even in the briefest encounters, she listens with concentration (while trying to sign books) and attempts to hear people speak, just as they are. “When somebody walks up to me, don’t look around, don’t look beyond them, look them in the eye, take in the story.” Some of the best parts of ‘Becoming’ are when the director Nadia Hallgren puts the camera behind Obama or just to the side as a range of people walk up proffering their emotions along with their copies and we see their few prepared or spontaneous seconds in her high beam focus as Mrs. …


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Yes (from the Netflix series “Hollywood”)

Ryan Murphy’s effervescent ‘Hollywood’ starts off like one of the fizzy cocktails Patti LuPone is always sipping in its many bar scenes. Watching the early episodes, it’s easy to feel intoxicated, especially if you have even an ounce of curiosity about the lurid behind-the-scenes machinations involved in producing the ‘wholesome’ American studio films of the thirties and forties. By the end however, you may feel like your liquor has gone flat and someone tossed out your drink and filled the glass with medicine instead.

Trying to cure the industry of its persistent disease of exclusion and stereotyping, Murphy’s series is laudatory for what it wants to inspire and achieve. With a few notable and very serious exceptions (more about those later) ‘Hollywood’ (the series) is a model of diverse storylines which all coalesce into a wistful fantasia that imagines a brave film industry that is rewarded for taking bold inclusive risks in casting and subject matter. (As the series does acknowledge with a glance, the studio system did occasionally make ‘daring’ pictures, such as ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ and ‘Pinky’, though they were problematic in their own ways.) If your brow furrowed and your eyebrow cocked at the thought of a heroic bunch of studio executives fighting for a cinematic Civil Rights movement, don’t expect to relax your forehead muscles much during the last half of this limited series. ‘Hollywood’ sets its focus on the newish genre of alternative history, what could have and should have happened, or perhaps, what needs to happen now.


A brief illustrated analysis of the night Monáe took the Film Industry to Church. (note: the entire performance is linked at the bottom of this page)

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The radical spirit of Fred Rogers was alive and well inside Ms. Monáe at the Oscars

Janelle Monáe is a songwriter/singer/performer who explodes with energy, a gale force propelled by the whirlwind gusts that Prince, Tina Turner, James Brown and Bessie Smith generated before her. Yet when Monáe acts in film, she can hold the screen with a hushed focus that draws your ear to want her every huskily pronounced syllable.

It was a risky move to open with a number that deliberately invokes the very criticisms the Academy has played defense against for at least the last decade, and could feel patronizing and smarmy. The fact that it transcended those limitations is all due to enlisting the help of the perfect person at the perfect time to blast Hollywood’s fusty moral cobwebs and rationalizations about #oscarssowhite right out of the Dolby Theater. …

About

The Couch Tamale

Film, Music, Peak TV, Diversity— Tom Cendejas is sitting on a sofa and unwrapping Pop Culture with a Latino eye, one husk at a time.

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