NETFLIX | A Jazzman’s Blues

Writer-director-producer Tyler Perry puts away the Madea wig and housedress and works in an old-timey, romantic mode with his Georgia-shot A Jazzman’s Blues. It’s a welcome shift, but it’s a shame the genre shift — built on an old screenplay of his — doesn’t lead to a stronger movie. 

A 1987 prologue kicks off the story, when an old Black woman challenges a small-town White attorney and politician to investigate a 40-year-old murder. (The lawyer is like most of the other White characters in the film; they all speak in fake-sounding “Southern” accents, and their dialogue is composed almost entirely of racist comments.) 

In 1947, we meet the old woman as her younger self: Hattie Mae (played by Amirah Vann, who enlivens the film with several rousing blues numbers). She’s the mom of her favorite, teenager Bayou (Joshua Boone) and the older Willie Earl (Austin Scott), whose job in life is to sabotage his brother. Bayou falls hard for troubled new girl Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), and the two spend only-in-the-movies platonic summer nights, sitting in the old yew tree and just a-talkin’. These scenes are supposed to be in North Georgia, which makes the prominent Spanish moss as off-base as the tin-eared Southern accents.

Anyway, Leanne is so fair she could pass for White, and so she does in the second half of the drama, once she moves to Boston. Meanwhile, Bayou and Willie Earl also head north and become stars in a swank theatrical revue. (The fact that Willie Earl, as a horn player, is more the genuine jazzman than his singing brother adds a confusing note to the movie’s title.) 

Though he’s famous and raking in good money, the virginal Bayou pines for the long-unseen Leanne. Though he doesn’t even know where she’s living, he continues to write her letters, which bounce back unanswered from Georgia. Everybody eventually ends up back down South. Tragedy ensues. 

Except for a nice, bittersweet sting at the end, there’s nothing going on here that we haven’t seen done many times before, done better. Boone, as Bayou, is pleasant enough, but he lacks the charisma Scott displays as the villainous Willie Earl. Of all the actors, the underwritten Leanne is actually more villainous than Willie Earl, though the movie itself doesn’t seem to realize it. The character puts herself and everyone else in mortal danger with her decision to pass as White, and Pfeiffer can’t solve that problem. 

An even bigger problem? Bayou and Leanne are pretty stick figures that the script tells us we should root for, yet we have no compelling reason to do so. That means the tragedy the whole film is heading for doesn’t feel, well, very tragic.

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NETFLIX | Blonde 

Not having read Joyce Carol Oates’ very long novel on which the (very long) film is based, I don’t know if the abuses inflicted on Marilyn Monroe in the pages of Blonde are redeemed by an empathetic female perspective. Maybe so. But in writer-director Andrew Dominik’s Netflix adaptation, the tragic actress’s serial episodes of suffering are presented as stations of the cross, crafted to subject her to pornographic male-gaze tortures. This feels like a man-made movie, in the worst ways. 

Pushing the three-hour mark and filmed in lustrous black-and-white with occasional shifts into a faded, Kodachrome-style color, Blonde is beautiful to look at. Emotionally, though, it’s exhausting. In a game, go-for-it performance, Ana de Armas plays Marilyn. We see her first in slow motion (the movie’s long running time is partly due to its copious use of slo-mo, plus all the repetitive shots of Marilyn staring tearfully into mirrors). At our introductory glimpse of her, de Armas’ Marilyn glows in the klieg lights of a premiere, grinning like an insane sort of sex doll. 

In flashback, we meet the child, under her birth name Norma Jeane, and her mentally unwell mom, played by Julianne Nicholson in a skin-crawling portrait of delusion. Then, in a career catapult the movie never fills in, the newly named Marilyn is a popular magazine cover girl and part of a throuple with Eddy (Evan Williams) and Cass (Xavier Samuel), purportedly the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson. This seems to be the most fictionalized part of the Monroe origin story and exists as a louche interlude that gives the film an extra dose of sex. 

Monroe’s film career kicks off after a doggy-style rape by a studio chief (a stand-in for Fox head Darryl Zanuck, who, like the other characters here — The Playwright, the Ex-Athlete — aren’t given actual names). From there, she bounces from the first husband, Bobby Cannavale as the DiMaggio figure, to the second, Adrien Brody as the Arthur Miller double. Both men are there to abuse or be disappointed by her, the role filled by every other man onscreen as Marilyn seeks in each of them the father who abandoned her. 

She even calls both husbands “daddy.” Whether that’s based on fact or is just a cringe-y detail, it only deepens the movie’s infantilization of its heroine. When Marilyn’s comments about reading Dostoevsky and Chekhov are met with dismissive chuckles by the showbiz cads around her, you can’t blame them for their disbelief. The movie and de Armas (or at least the way she’s been directed) never allow us to see the intellect the real-life Marilyn was credited with by those who knew her. She’s a pinup, a baby doll.  When she dies, it’s sad, but she doesn’t seem worthy of the sort of monument the filmmakers seem to think they’re building for her. R.I.P., Marilyn — seriously. It’s time to let the poor dead woman rest in peace already.

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AMAZON PRIME VIDEO | The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

Amazon’s biggest streaming gamble is halfway through its first 10-episode season with The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. While hardcore Tolkienites are almost certainly stewing about minutiae, the rest of us luckily have lives that prevent us from understanding, and I’m digging the elaborate, clearly very expensive show. 

If anything, actually, the expense can be distracting. For an ancient, mythical, mystical world, this place can look overly designed. Take the elves’ woodland habitat. I couldn’t help wondering why these semi-immortal creatures don’t trust and love the dark sacred mysteries of the woods at night. Instead, they zhuzh up the forest with regimented columns of fungal-shaped yard lamps, like the bougiest ever suburban garden party or an IKEA showroom staged by Yayoi Kusama. 

The elves are usually at the epicenter of the show’s glamorous excess. When a troupe of them is sent to their version of the afterlife, a great, glowing celestial gash opens in the sunset clouds to absorb their sailing ship. And, on cue, the elves on board launch into song. It’s all very Maxfield Parrish — in excelsis day-glo.  

And yet . . . and yet . . . the longer the series goes on (and on), it starts to sink its narrative claws in. 

The central plot follows a younger version of the noble Elf Galadriel, familiar from Peter Jackson’s films and here played by Morfydd Clark, as she tracks the evil wizard Sauron. That quest tosses her into the middle of men in the island paradise of Númenor, all whom she urges to journey with her to Middle Earth, where Sauron and his Orcs are rumored to be stirring. Meanwhile, the dwarves and other elves announce a truce long enough to forge the rings of the title. Elsewhere, a bunch of way too “adorable” Hobbit prototypes, centered on the girl Nori (Markella Kavenagh), are dealing with a magical, semi-mute stranger (Daniel Weyman), who literally fell from the sky. 

Yes, there are too many faces, species and names, and those names are ridiculous and nearly impossible to remember. I find myself referring to them as Valiant Single Mom, Her Rotten Son and Hot Sweaty Elf Warrior. (You’ll know who I mean.) Reportedly, some Tolkien trolls (no, that is not a species making an appearance, yet) are pearl-clutching over the casting of POC in significant roles. They need to get over themselves and enjoy the show for what it is: pure hokum — but addictive, fun hokum. 

A special note for IMDb trivia completists: If you like Clark as Galadriel and want to see a very different side to her, check her out as a religious fanatic in Amazon Prime Video’s enjoyably twisted Saint Maud.  

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HBO MAX | House of the Dragon

The geeks and nerds of the world are definitely having a moment. On HBO MAX, that other fantasy prequel, Game of Thrones spinoff House of the Dragon, is also blazing a path through its first season. 

Both of these series are huge in scale and given to repurposing some of planet Earth’s prettiest vistas for their own dramatic purposes. While the Amazon Prime show favors open oceans, mountaintops and verdant forests captured in soaring drone shots, this one prefers darkly shadowed, firelit chambers where sex and skullduggery get doled out in equal, joyless measure. Not that any of that is a bad thing. 

As in The Rings of Power, monsters here are real. If there’s a superficial focus on the dragons of the title, the most monstrous interactions are of the human kind. The show is compulsively watchable — a feast of haggis and blood sausage in contrast to the high tea and fairy cakes served over on Prime. But both shows are comfort food in very different ways. 

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HULU | The Patient and Welcome to Wrexham

I wish I could recommend The Patient to you, but after watching five of the 10 scheduled episodes continuing weekly through October, I’m still not exactly sure what it is.  

In the half hour series, Steve Carell plays therapist Alan Strauss, who’s imprisoned in the basement of a young patient named Sam (Domhnall Gleeson), who commands the doc to cure him of his very bad habit: serial murder.  The show is an odd bird, created by two of the people involved with that great old series, The Americans. It’s a weird mix of psychological query told with the rhythms of a comedy, though the stakes become increasingly serious.

Alan’s frequent flashbacks to memories of his cantor wife, now dead from cancer, and the son who disappointed them with his conversion to Orthodox Judaism don’t seem to have an organic connection to the show’s main storyline. But I’m a week behind on watching. Maybe I’ll dig back in, maybe not. But I just can’t get a handle on the thing. 

I’m also a few episodes behind with the ongoing documentary series Welcome to Wrexham. It helps, being a soccer fan — excuse me, football fan, in the global parlance — but I’m enjoying this shaggy dog tale of two Hollywood knights who set out to rescue the little sports team that couldn’t. In order, they’re It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Mythic Quest writer-actor Rob McElhenney and movie star Ryan Reynolds. 

The sports team is, yes, the Wrexham Football Club in Wales, and it’s McElhenney’s idea to purchase the underdogs and turn their long losing streak around. “I realized I needed something more than TV money,” he says onscreen, explaining why he partnered with Reynolds, previously an only social-media friend he’d never met in person.

The 18-episode show (11 are already streaming) toggles nicely between behind-the-scenes profiles of some of Wrexham’s underpaid team players and the working-class fans who root for them as almost mythic totems for their own lives. (Well, sports of all sorts have that sort of mythic/religious power, don’t they?) The show’s contrasting clash of textures — the working class grit of Wrexham, and the glib world of the two actors — works well and makes for a nice counterpoint to our own (American) football season. 

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NETFLIX | Lou

She won an Oscar playing one of film’s worst moms in I, Tonya and a bunch of Emmys for playing a mom of a totally different kind in, um, Mom. So you won’t be surprised if — spoiler alert — she returns to motherhood once more in this Netflix movie. If you’ve always wanted to see wise, subtle character actor Allison Janney smeared with mud and blood, taking an ax to the shoulder and kicking ass in ways that could knock Ryan Reynolds’ movie-star smirk right off his face, then Lou is for you. 

Did anybody really want to see Janney as a grizzled, gray-braided action hero? Well, she must have, because here she is. If the movie is dumb trash (and yes, it is), Janney does what she’s done for her whole career: She elevates it.

In this rainy, gray, red-streaked Pacific Northwest saga, Janney plays the title character, an off-the-grid cuss who barely tolerates people, including sweet but tough single mom Hannah (Jurnee Smollett) and her daughter Vee (Ridley Asha Bateman), tenants on her property. Hannah, like Lou, has a secret past. For both women, that involves the charming, lethal Philip (Logan Marshall-Green), who brings chaos and a lot of mano a mano (or, in one case, mano a mama) fight scenes to the movie.  

Lately, Netflix has been building its own catalogue of disposable, mindless action flicks (think Jamie Foxx’s Day Shift and Ryan Gosling’s The Gray Man). Lou proves that they’re willing to bring women of a certain age into the fold. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if the women in question are as high-value as Janney is, in even the silliest material. 

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DISNEY+ | Andor

Of all the Star Wars prequels and sequels since 1999, only two of the features have really stood out for me. J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens in 2015 brought us a new hope, even if the following two installments failed to fulfill it. And 2016’s Rogue One was paradoxically one the most successful Star Wars films because it didn’t feel so much like one. It was gritty, interstitial — a backstory about people who were previously mere footnotes in the intergalactic saga, though they were crucial. The new series and Rogue prequel, Andor, stars Diego Luna returning as Cassian, a sort of grimy relative of mercenary Han Solo. I’ve only watched the first episode of the 12 planned for release through November. But I’m already taken by its tone. Fingers crossed, and happy watching to all. 

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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 Steve’s previous Streaming column here.

 





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