Maybe it's because I went two weeks ago to a wedding, which neither of the grooms' parents chose to attend. Maybe it's also because of the replay, in Florida and elsewhere, of the LGBTQ population's being demonized for cynical political gains, as happened in the 2004 presidential election. Whatever the reason, the hour-long HBO Max special Jerrod Carmichael: Rothaniel struck me in a powerful place.
Directed by comedian Bo Burnham, it's not a great, deep or especially lasting work, and it's more confessional than laugh-out-loud funny. In that way, it slightly resembles Hannah Gadsby's Nanette from 2018. A comedian I wasn't very familiar with, Carmichael takes the stage with an affable ease. He tells the live New York audience at the Blue Note Jazz Club to settle in: "This only works if we feel like family."
That comfort leads to some fascinating, supportive talkback from some of the folks watching his show. They're words of encouragement or sincere questions, more than any sort of heckling, once Carmichael drops his big, long-hidden secret: He's gay. The initial response is a mix of awkward silence, then a smattering of cheers and applause. Carmichael has some funny observations about the seismic shift the news has made on longtime people in his life, like a pal who feels he's been "tricked into having a gay best friend." But friends' adjustment is nothing compared to the way the news is received, badly, by the comic's parents in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Rothaniel is partly Carmichael's way of processing his disappointment and partly a way of reaching out again to his folks, who he knows will watch the special. The show feels like a very personal experiment, made public, and it's a touching, brave one.
HBO MAX | The Batman
If Rothaniel is pleasurably brief, The Batman represents tentpole Hollywood maximalism at its most swollen, for better and worse. After a gazillion Batman iterations before it, with Ben Affleck's grumpy masked vigilante turning up in three recent DC films (plus two special editions of Justice League and Batman v Superman), we haven't exactly forgotten who Bruce Wayne is. Most people have clear recall of Christian Bale in Christopher Nolan's glum trilogy. It's those latter movies, if they'd mated with the morose David Fincher aesthetic of Se7enthat The Batman resembles (and, at three hours, the butt- and bladder-straining epic length of Lawrence of Arabiabut without the intermission).
The director here is Matt Reeves, who proved his remake bona fides with Let Me In and the two final films of the recent Planet of the Apes reboots. While it's punishingly long and woefully self-serious, his take on Bob Kane and Bill Finger's comic book hero has its own dingy-glamorous integrity. The new baby Bruce/Batman is Robert Pattinson. While it helps that he has a jaw that looks fantastic in a cowl, the actor, like his Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart, has developed a very adventurous career since those dumb flicks. Not that he gets to do a whole lot in this new one besides brood and bust bad guys.
They include an unrecognizably latexed Colin Farrell as The Penguin, and John Turturro as shadowy crime lord Carmine Falcone. Their lair is a subterranean club, secret magnet for Gotham City's corrupt politicos - including the mayor (Rupert Penry-Jones) and the D.A. (Peter Sarsgaard, cashing a Batman paycheck just as his wife Maggie Gyllenhaal did in Nolan's The Dark Knight). It's this corrupt cadre that a sadistic serial killer self-named The Riddler (revealed eventually as a giggly Paul Dano) begins to target, leaving cards and provocations addressed to Batman at his crime scenes.
The action scenes and special effects in The Batman are top notch, but what makes it all worth watching (on top of your device's Pause button for bathroom breaks) is the strong supporting cast: Jeffrey Wright as Commissioner Gordon, Andy Serkis as a scruffier version of Alfred than we're used to, and especially Zoë Kravitz as a slinky, proudly non-binary Selina Kyle. So yes, The Batman is worth the (very long) watch. But the franchise has strayed so grimly far from the Bam-Pow campiness of the 1960s TV version, like me you might long for some of the cheery kink of the first two Tim Burton films.
NETFLIX | Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story
If Americans learned not long after his death that a beloved public figure was secretly an aggressive pedophile during his many years in the spotlight, it would somewhat approximate the shock felt in the U.K. when that exact criminal behavior was revealed after the beloved entertainer and philanthropist Jimmy Savile died.
The two-episode documentary Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story drops us into the decades-spanning career, in showbiz and sexual abuse, of a white-haired, pop-eyed, cigar-munching personality. Through our unaccustomed Yank point of view, he looks like a giant creep from the jump. You may wonder how someone with such an oversized presence could have pulled off both celebrity and serial crime all at once. The truth is, he was hiding in plain sight. There were rumors galore about all the time he spent in hospitals and institutions full of vulnerable kids. But nobody wanted to believe it about the man who was best known for raising money for charities and making kids' wishes come true on his popular Jim'll Fix It show, which ran for 20 years. The enormity of both the man's crimes and his cunning is staggering.
The Savile story ends with a (spoiler alert) upsetting lack of closure, because the creep never faced charges while alive. To its credit Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes (spoiler alert) doesn't lack the same problem: we know the killer of 33 boys and young men was executed in 1994. But the end of the three-episode docu-series offers us photos of the victims, served up in all their sweet-goofy, shaggy-haired 1970s glory. I was in high school myself at the time, and it was a little like looking at a very sad yearbook of lives that did not move beyond those pages. For true-crime fans, the show is worth a watch - though the details of the sex assaults and murders, combined with Gacy's blithe sociopathy, can make for some gruesome viewing.
NETFLIX | Russian Doll
Though it came to a trippy, satisfying conclusion in its first season in 2019, Russian Doll has returned for a seven-episode follow-up. In its first incarnation, gravel-voiced Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) dies on the night friends are throwing her a birthday party . . but finds herself alive again, back at that same party. Stuck in a time loop, Nadia tries to learn how to break out of it. Instead, she keeps dying and reviving in ever more creative ways. Her luck changes when she encounters a stranger, Alan (Charlie Barnett), who's also experiencing the same space-time glitch. At the end of those original eight episodes, Nadia and Alan have rectified their timeline. But in season two, new weirdness is at work.
This time, for inexplicable reasons, Nadia finds that a subway line she normally takes now drops her off in 1982, the year of her birth, where she encounters - in fact, is stuck in the body and consciousness of - her flaky mom Lenora (Chloë Sevigny). The plot involves the theft that year of the family's greatest possession, a bag of Krugerrands, brought to the States from Hungary after World War II by Lenora's mother. Nadia determines, traveling back and forth between time lines, to recover the loot. Meanwhile, in a much smaller subplot, Alan takes a train that carries him to East Berlin in 1962, and into the mind and body of his grandmother.
Does any of this make sense? Not so much. It's the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories. The reason to watch is the rude and edgy convictions of its star, whose wisecracking, strutting Nadia is one of streaming's great creations. You probably wouldn't want to spend any actual time with the character, but she's fine while contained by a screen.
HBO MAX | Julia
A screen is what brought the late, great Julia Child into the homes of so many when she launched her seminal public-TV show The French Chef in 1963 Boston. Though it's hard to believe now, when so much airtime is devoted to what we eat and how it's made - from Netflix's The Great British Baking Show to Guy Fieri's fiefdom on Food Network - the idea that anyone wanted to watch a woman whip together Gallic-style cuisine was seen as unlikely. Especially if that woman was the tall, gangly, flute-voiced Child.
In Julia (eight episodes), the great star of the British drama Happy ValleySarah Lancashire, stars as Child, with David Hyde Pierce as her devoted, dweeby husband Paul. They may not be as dazzling a match as Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci in the film Julie & Julia, but the two small-screen stars strike an easy, charming rapport. Bebe Neuwirth plays Julia's culinary editor and friend Avis DeVoto, while Fran Kranz plays Russ and Brittany Bradford is Alice, two (fictionalized) WGBH producers; Alice is a Child fan, Russ is more of an antagonist.
The show's running time sometimes feels padded with conventional subplots: Russ' stress at becoming a dad, Alice's uphill struggle as a Black female professional in the 1960s. These take us away unnecessarily from Julia at home and in her kitchens. But the show is like an amusing dessert, minus the pesky calories.
Also on HBO Max, the comedy series Our Flag Means Death has a great premise, the notion that an 18th century toff named Stede (Rhys Darby) decides to invest his money in the pirating trade and take to the high seas. Problem: He's very far from the lawless type, a fact derided by his grumbling crew of scalawags. Amiable enough, the show seems more like a fun idea for an SNL sketch than the basis for a fully realized comedy. Granted, I've only watched a couple of episodes, and haven't yet met the usually inspired Taika Waititi as the infamous Blackbird. So your (nautical) mileage may vary.
AMAZON PRIME | All the Old Knives
In the film All the Old KnivesHenry (Chris Pine) and Celia (Thandiwe Newton) were lovers when they worked as colleagues at an Austrian CIA office in 2012. One winter's day, an airline commandeered by terrorists landed at the Vienna airport. When the hijackers' demands weren't met, well, things ended very badly for the hostages - and also for Henry and Celia, whose relationship ended at the same time.
Eight years later, Henry is tapped by his old boss (Laurence Fishburne) to try to ID a mole at their old office, someone who tipped off the hijackers about officials' plans to storm the plane. Given the possibility that it was Celia, Henry flies to Carmel-by-the-Sea, where his old flame has retired from the spy life, married, and had two kids. His unspoken task: If suspicions are right about her, Henry is responsible for, um, taking her out to avoid an embarrassing public inquiry about the international incident.
The core of the film unfolds at a posh seaside restaurant where Celia and Henry reunite in an afternoon that stretches into the night, purportedly to reminisce about their time together. Celia is too shrewd not to suss out his real purpose, and the movie leapfrogs between the restaurant and snowy Vienna, where flashbacks reveal an extended cast of colleagues/suspects at their office (including the always welcome Jonathan Pryce) and delivers a tick-tock account of the tense couple of days during the hijacking.
The focus is largely on Henry and Celia, in the present day and the past, and Pine and Newton make a charismatic couple. Which makes it all the more melancholy for the viewer, knowing that one of them is likely the secret traitor. Knives isn't a gangbuster flick by any means, but it will appeal to fans of spycraft on celluloid.
Here's an interesting footnote: Novelist Olen Steinhauer, who adapted his book for the film, was inspired for the two-people-at-a-table structure of Knives by a poem written by Christopher Reid about two old lovers meeting years later for a meal in London. A film adaptation of this, The Song of Lunchwas shot in 2010 starring Emma Thompson and the late Alan Rickman, reuniting after Love Actually. At 50 minutes, it's a slight work, but any chance to watch these two actors together is even more of a treat than the Pine-Newton pairing. Song is currently streaming on Amazon Prime as well. Though there's no spying or terrorism on its menu, you might consider it as an interesting double bill with the new film.
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.