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TV/Film Culture cheat sheet: Regina King’s directorial debut, Fran Lebowitz, and more

Feb. 15, 2021
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Watch: Let Them All Talk (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a movie called Let Them All Talk just lets them all talk. The film stars powerhouses Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, and Candice Bergen as old friends with old issues reuniting on ocean liner Queen Mary 2; joining them is a precocious nephew brought to life by Lucas Hedges, who has the best active listening skills in show business, and a young, people-pleasing book agent played by Gemma Chan. 

It’s a challenge to write down the film’s plot accurately enough to entice someone to watch it, given that it’s loaded almost exclusively with conversations, but with such profound characterization the plot becomes secondary. Because it is heavily improvised, director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Deborah Eisenberg were more concerned with developing the characters’ backstories, which actually benefited the dialogue more than having it all laid down for the actors to memorize. Streep also divulged that this was the complete antithesis to the usual Hollywood movie set: it was shot with only natural light, Soderbergh filmed all scenes with one camera he rolled around on a wheelchair, and she was only paid 25 cents

The result was a completely entrancing peek into the lives of people so fascinating that I am devastated every time I remember they are movie characters. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, and Streep and Hedges are so convincing as a wildcard aunt-nephew pairing that I did a background check to see if the nepotism industry was behind such a celestial casting (it wasn’t). For the entire first half the movie was just pure vibes—not that this is anything to complain about—until the last quarter hits and you realize you were actually being invited in the entire time, and the pain and shock and reprieve and deliverance that come with its ending throb in you as you sit in front of your screen, jaw unlocked.

I like to think Eisenberg’s screenplay played a huge part in this. Most known as a short-story writer, she wove different vignettes for this ensemble that are distinct enough to be interesting but free-flowing enough to be human. It reminded me of something Rebecca Solnit said in one of her essays from Men Explain Things To Me: “The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that never need end.”  

Let Them All Talk is streaming on HBO Max.

Watch: One Night in Miami… (dir. Regina King)

You can always tell if a film is based on a play if it’s just a sequence of the characters going from one room to another. While often unforgivable, One Night in Miami… makes a strong case as an exception to the rule: Kemp Powers, who wrote both the original play and its big-screen counterpart, based it on a meet-up in a Hampton House motel room between Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) the night he became the heavyweight champion of the world. Many have hypothesized what occurred behind closed doors that night; Powers called it a crucible for the four men as it appeared to be a catalyst for monumental decisions, the most recognizable of which is Ali’s, then going by the name Cassius Clay, announcing he was joining the Nation of Islam. 

An ensemble this prolific can be intimidating, but everyone in front of and behind the camera rose to the challenge. The lead quartet fully embody their roles without overpowering the others, constructing a cohesive but spirited dynamic that made the night come alive despite being spent in a small room with nothing but vanilla ice cream. The unseen star of the film is director Regina King in her feature directorial debut, whose prior work as an actor equipped her with not only the skills but the sensibility to get such powerful and thoughtful performances. The film premiered in last year’s Venice Film Festival, a first for a Black female director. 

One Night in Miami… is streaming on Prime Video.

Binge: Pretend It’s A City (dir. Martin Scorsese)

I hogged the living room on a Sunday afternoon, adamant to drink up all three and a half hours of Pretend It’s A City—politely chopped up into seven thirty-minute episodes—in one delicious sitting. My mom, equally determined to finish the second half of Bridgerton, hovered impatiently. When she realized I wasn’t going anywhere, she caved and asked me what I was watching. But how do you explain this documentary miniseries to someone who is not only completely unfamiliar with Fran Lebowitz, the lone star of the show, but also a non-American who couldn’t care less about New York?

That, I think, is part of its beauty. This miniseries, in which Lebowitz is just recounting anecdotes and commenting on various social phenomena while director and her longtime friend Martin Scorsese laughs off camera, caters only to a specific demographic, but to these people this is like God’s greatest gift. People already endeared to Lebowitz probably screamed, “It’s about damn time!” after years of saying they could listen to her talk about nothing for hours. For the rest of us who only really knew her through this show, Scorsese’s storytelling does a brilliant job of introducing Lebowitz, the adoration that seems to follow her around, and her consequent general disdain toward it.

Each episode has its own theme with some footage plucked out from her speaking engagements. Lebowitz is as New York as anyone can be, donning a large dark coat and a chronic grimace characteristic of someone who has suffered from a subway station closing for five months for an art installation no one asked for (episode 3, “Metropolitan Transit”); or someone disillusioned from the fact that people in auctions applaud the prices and not the Picasso (episode 2, “Cultural Affairs). The best, arguably, is the last episode, “Library Services,” which is about books. She shows us a gorgeous book from the 1900s that she got for her seventh birthday while saying she used to kiss books as a child whenever she dropped them, the same way you do with prayer books. It captures her so perfectly.

Pretend It’s A City is streaming on Netflix.