You can’t call it “fun” viewing, but following the Supreme Court’s abolishment of Roe v. Wade, the HBO Max documentary The Janes is a vital watch.
Between 1968 and ’73, a small Chicago coalition of mainly women who called themselves The Janes helped 11,000 women get abortion care. For many of us, safe, reproductive rights have been the U.S. standard for most or all our lives, so it’s important to recall that before 1973, women were terminating unwanted pregnancies, whether it was “legal” or not. But they sometimes sacrificed their own lives, too, in bloody transactions with people who lacked the medical skills to help them. And those people were often Mob-backed.
Jazzed by their involvement in the antiwar and Civil Rights movements, the idealistic Janes banded together to surreptitiously create a system that let women in need call a number, ask to speak to Jane, and explain their situation: age, how far along in pregnancy and what they could donate on a pay-what-you can scale. (The Janes wrote down clients’ info on index cards, a charming old-school system — but not a practical one, since getting rid of the information prompted a couple of the women to try to eat the cards as they were driven to the police station.)
There’s a prankish, mission-accomplished sense of camaraderie among the Janes (including a scattering of men) that lends the film a slightly bittersweet flavor.
In our streaming-crazy reality right now, there are a million more entertaining films or series you could watch. But this one’s important, if only for historical context. In light of last week’s news from Washington, this glance at the past could, shockingly, be a preview of the days or years ahead.
HULU | The Old Man
Oscar winner and Hollywood icon Jeff Bridges transitions to television with this eight-episode adaptation of Thomas Perry’s novel The Old Man. He’s playing Dan Chase (not his real name), an off-the-grid former CIA agent who’s been in hiding from his old bosses for decades. Living alone with Dave and Carol, his Rottweilers, Chase kills a would-be assassin who breaks into his home. But he makes a mistake, forgetting to discard the silencer attached to the intruder’s gun. The small-town police who respond to his 911 call suspect right away that this was meant to be a professional hit, not a random home invasion. So Chase hits the road before his old friend and nemesis, FBI agent Harold Harper (the great John Lithgow), can locate and bring him in.
As he flees pursuit, we learn through flashbacks that Chase as a young man (Bill Heck) and a young Harper were both involved in the Soviet-Afghan war in ways that left each of them compromised. Chase in particular seems to be targeted from afar by a warlord he may have gotten a little too close to. Neither wants the facts of the past coming out now, and if Harper has to have Chase silenced, so be it.
What distinguishes Old Man, in addition to the fine-vintage acting by Bridges and Lithgow, and also an uncharacteristic, serious turn by Alia Shawkat as an FBI agent, are the fights. They’re brutal, but not in a typical punch-slam, OTP Hollywood way. Down and dirty, they show us how Chase, despite his years, can still get the better of guys half his age. Among the shows I’ve watched over the past weeks, this is the one I’ll for sure stick with.
HBO MAX, CRITERION CHANNEL | Irma Vep series, film
The charmingly rough-edged ’96 movie stars Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love). She’s playing, well, Maggie Cheung, a Hong Kong actress hired to star in a remake of director Louis Feuillade’s 1915 silent French film series Les Vampires, about a gang of thieves led by cat burglar Irma Vep. Cheung is tossed into the welter of a Parisian film set. She speaks no French herself; one of the film’s running jokes is miscommunication and speculation about her by the crew. The chaos is (barely) managed by the unraveling director René (François Truffaut alter-ego Jean-Pierre Léaud), whose antics make the project virtually uninsurable.
The movie is in many ways slight, atmospheric. It drifts along on wry humor — that is, until a late-night scene follows Cheung as she taps into the identity of the burglar she’s playing. Pilfering jewelry from an unsuspecting neighbor at her hotel, she emerges on the rooftop in Irma’s catsuit, rain pouring down on her from the Parisian sky. It’s a grand moment of nocturnal glamour and makes you understand what Assayas saw in Feuillade’s source material. After making the film, Assayas and Cheung married. Though they divorced after a few years, he directed her to great acclaim in Clean, for which she won the best actress prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.
As opposed to the film, the series so far has more traditional, TV-friendly plot arcs, for better and worse. Oscar winner Alicia Vikander is the lead here, playing not a version of herself but an actor named Mira who is balancing the lucrative gigs she enjoys in Marvel-like sci-fi extravaganzas with more personal, artistic projects. Here the remake of Les Vampires is a TV series directed by a shambling new René (Vincent Macaigne) who, in a meta touch, himself directed a previous film version of Irma Vep, starring the woman who would become his wife, called Jade Lee. Played by Vivian Wu, Jade shows up in episode four as a sort of hallucinated version of Cheung, gently upbraiding René for making a remake without her. (Cheung herself retired from acting some years ago.)
Vikander makes a charming Mira, but that’s almost a problem. While Cheung’s inscrutability to her French-speaking crew gave the original film much of its energy, Mira is something of an open book. Her affair with her former assistant Laurie is pretty much known to everyone; there’s no real mystery to the character. But the show is enlivened by some sharp supporting work, especially by a delirious outré Lars Eidinger (Babylon Berlin) as a crack-smoking, upchucking German actor. In either of its forms, Irma Vep is a love letter to seat-of-your-pants filmmaking.
HULU | Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
He’s a sex worker she’s hired for a hotel session to explore the sort of sexual fulfillment she never experienced with her late husband. A former schoolteacher, Nancy is hardly a sophisticate. Thompson overdoes a little of the character’s jumpy skittishness when she and Leo discuss terms. She settles in, though, and still has the ability to catch you unawares when she turns her emotions on a dime. If Nancy starts off too jumpy, Leo — though nicely played by McCormack — is too idealized, a kind of SexWorkAngel.
Where the film falls short is in Katy Brand’s screenplay, which features Nancy trying to learn too much personal stuff about Leo, and Leo forced to deliver tired, Drama 101 revelations about his difficult relationship with his mother. Still, Good Luck has worthwhile ideas to explore about sex, aging and body acceptance.
DISNEY+ | Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Probably the best thing about the eye-popping CGI monstrosity known as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is that it’s directed by Sam Raimi. He was in charge of the first three Tobey Maguire-starring Spider-Man movies, but the latest film has more in keeping with Raimi’s Evil Dead flicks. It’s more of a full-bore horror film than we’re used to finding in the Marvel Comics Universe.
Benedict Cumberbatch reprises his role as the wizard Stephen Strange, fighting to protect a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). In the world of IP crossover, some folks will know that Wanda, in the Disney Plus series WandaVision, held a small town hostage to her delusionary belief in a happy life with her partner Vision (Paul Bettany) and their two adorable sons. The catch was, Vision no longer existed, and the boys were imaginary. Nevertheless, Wanda wants to drain America’s superpower — the ability to travel at will between alternate universes — to find a reality where these imaginary kids still live. It’s convoluted.
By the end, surprise cameos abound, and so do some creatively gruesome deaths. Oh, and zombies. This and other MCU movies are so well made, it’s easy sometimes to ignore that they’re all just a series of gobbledygook dialogue stitching together CG-enhanced fight scenes, wrapped in very expensive FX light shows. But these days, it’s Disney/Star Wars/Marvel’s world and we just live in it.
DISNEY+ | Obi-Wan Kenobi
His vigil is sidelined when the young Princess Leia (Vivien Lyra Blair) is kidnapped from her royal family home by imperialists using her as bait to winkle out the Jedi-in-hiding. Adventures — and some pretty sharp light saber battles — ensue. So does lame dialogue spouted by two-dimensional characters.
McGregor always makes an inviting center to any of his projects. But a downside to the series is that the makers just can’t generate much suspense out of a narrative whose outlines we know really well. The same problem afflicted George Lucas’s prequel trilogy in the early 2000s.
NETFLIX | First Kill
It’s shot in Savannah and uses that town effectively as a backdrop. But the vampire romance First Kill (eight episodes) kind of, um, sucks. A bloodless (yeah, I’m full of ’em today) remix of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight, with a same-sex romantic overlay, it stars Sarah Catherine Hook and Imani Lewis as Juliette and Calliope. High school classmates, Juliette is a day-walking vampire expected to graduate into her fangs by draining her first victim, while Calliope comes from a family of monster hunters, determined to kill all monsters like Juliette. Alas, the girls fall in love. And alas, reader, after two hours of lame dialogue and way-too-familiar lifts from better versions of this sort of story, I gave up.
NETFLIX | Snowflake Mountain
Seeing these whiners develop a little spine is enjoyable, but the rules are arbitrary and the grand prize, $50,000, is a big downgrade from the $1 million Survivor set as precedent when it started 22 years ago. So if it’s nothing close to a good show, it can satisfy your desire to see some brats get a little comeuppance.
NETFLIX | Stranger Things
Steve Murray is an award-winning journalist and playwright who has covered the arts as a reporter and critic for many years. Catch up to last month’s Streaming column by Steve here.