After enough Instagram Stories posts of Jennifer Coolidge and a volume of Vulture articles that became too big to ignore, I finally took the plunge on watching The White Lotus last week. (Some of your peer pressure via text, Slack, and other forms of digital communication also played a decisive role.)
The people were right! It was good! As someone who knows that my lane for coverage is movies, and I tend to prefer having a deeper knowledge of cinema than a broader knowledge across multiple forms of filmed media.
We’re living in a real post-Big Little Lies flourishing of the celebrity-filled prestige premium cable miniseries, and I think we’re perhaps at the point of oversaturation where a lot of things that could have been movies are getting unnecessarily stretched out. (I am prohibited from sharing thoughts on something that really fits this bill.) Sure, I think there’s a universe where The White Lotus could have been a good two-hour movie, but I liked getting to see a little bit of extra character and thematic development.
Showrunner Mike White, very much the brains of the organization, nimbly manages to provide both a breadth of experience with the upstairs/downstairs dynamic at a Hawaiian resort and a depth of understanding through revealing micro-moments. I think a lot of today’s creators are conversant in the lingua franca of wokeness, privilege and whatnot but often just pepper in some buzzwords to make their standard issues stories *seem* relevant. The White Lotus actually takes the time to understand not just what the characters say but how it reflects larger crises of race, class, and identity among a group of people desperate to prove themselves as individuals bigger and better than any label that someone could apply to them.
I think it helps a lot that White has a lot of experience across both film and television as a writer, director, and actor. If you recognize him from anywhere, it’s probably as the real Ned Schneebly in School of Rock (available on Paramount+ and to rent through various digital providers), a film he co-wrote. I think the film is a rocking good time first and foremost, but it’s interesting to consider as a predecessor to the overgrown manchild films that defined the millennial wave of comedy as males found themselves trapped in prolonged adolescence.
On the television side, he’s probably best known for the cult hit Enlightened (all seasons available on HBO Max). White caught Laura Dern in a fallow period between ingenue of the ‘80s and ‘90s and icon of the late ‘10s and ‘20s, and he got some career-best work out of her in a prime leading role as her Amy Jellicoe teeters on the verge. (Feel free to watch the “Laura Dern” choral number now, you’ve earned it.) Admittedly, I still haven’t watched the second season of this show — I KNOW, I’ve been meaning to for years — but I adored the first. The way the show explores the collision of the wellness boom and corporate culture feels very ahead of its time.
But it wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t directing you toward some great movies, so if you’re already feeling a White Lotus-sized void in your life, allow me to recommend (or dissuade you from, in one case) some other great movies written and directed by Mike White. I did not watch either The Emoji Movie or Pitch Perfect 3, both of which he has writing credits for, purely for the sake of completism because I am not that much of a masochist.
If you found the Mark Mossbacher (Steve Zahn) story arc interesting on The White Lotus, then you might find a lot to chew over in Chuck and Buck (available for free with ads on Tubi TV). The film’s dark comedy explores the confusing signals males receive regarding how their sexuality is tied up with their sense of masculinity and status. White both wrote the film and stars as the second titular role, an aspiring writer who begins to fixate on an old friend for professional and social support. I will say that it’s genuinely unsettling to watch unfold, and you might be surprised at where it ends up. If you don’t mind an artfully induced cringe, then this might be right up your alley.
The Good Girl, which White wrote, is currently unavailable to stream or rent anywhere, so I won’t tantalize you with too much detail. But a bored Jennifer Aniston entertaining a fling with a very young Jake Gyllenhaal is something the world should be able to see! If you want something in the general vicinity, I highly recommend Aniston’s contemplative turn as the “poor” one of her girlfriends in Nicole Holofcener’s astutely observed Friends with Money (available on HBO Max).
Many of White’s scripts are directed by Miguel Arteta, but he stepped behind the camera for the first time on 2007’s Year of the Dog (available on Paramount+ and to rent through various digital providers). I found this offbeat romance about a woman who struggles to bond with other humans the way she does with a canine companion to be both compassionate and critical. Dogs give us a lot but don’t take from us the same way a significant other does — we just have to calibrate those relationships on different frequencies.
BRIEF INTERRUPTION: A Molly Shannon Moment
Hello! Have you noticed we’re in a golden age of Molly Shannon?
You could be forgiven for not knowing. It began with 2016’s Other People (available on Netflix), the first movie I ever saw at Sundance. When you weep profusely in a dark room with 2,000 other people, you are bound together for life to share that experience with anyone who asks. And tell everyone who doesn’t, as well.
This semi-autobiographical film from former SNL co-head writer Chris Kelly about a son (Jesse Plemons) returning home to take care of his ailing mother (Shannon) did not get much of a theatrical release, shuttling more or less straight to Netflix. Still, it won Shannon a deserved Indie Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress all the same. It’s still sitting there on the platform, waiting to break down the dam that is your tear ducts. This is such a genuinely moving and sincere movie; I really think everyone should watch it.
If you want something a little lighter, then enjoy Shannon as the “momager” Pat in The Other Two (season 1 now on HBO Max, season 2 starts Thursday 8/26). This is the funniest and cleverest show you haven’t watched, people. The Other Two puts an ingenious spin on the failing artist archetype, charting the misadventures of two adult siblings whose own ambitions have stalled out through the prism of their younger brother becoming a YouTube sensation.
Please get on the bandwagon NOW before season 2, and then we can all quote the lines to each other all the time. It certainly looks like Shannon is set to have a much bigger role to play in this season, too.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
Remember when I said to avoid one of Mike White’s movies? It’s this one, Beatriz at Dinner (available for free with ads on IMDb TV via Amazon). The film premiered at Sundance just a day or so after Trump’s inauguration, and I think quite a few people got blinded by the pink pussy hat fervor and vastly overrated it. We’re due for a re-evaluation of the last four years in culture, especially ones that confirmed the anxious worldview of a largely affluent, liberal viewing class without challenging it much. That, in a nutshell, is Beatriz at Dinner.
Having said all that, this clunky morality play about what happens when a clumsy and condescending white dinner party welcomes a Hispanic massage therapist to their dinner party does circle a number of the issues that Mike White would later return to in The White Lotus. So if he needed to make this predictable, phony drama just to get it out of his system … I guess that’s fine. We all need rough drafts; I just usually don’t submit mine to Sundance.
The underrated gem of the Mike White catalog is Brad’s Status (available on Amazon Prime), a film he both wrote and directed. It premiered unceremoniously at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017 before Amazon gave it an immediate, perfunctory theatrical release prior to dumping it on their streaming platform.
I found this a very unique take on the midlife crisis movie, equal parts affectionate for the struggles of Ben Stiller’s Brad and able to call out his patheticness and privilege. Stiller’s reading of the voiceover narration is particularly well-done here, adding a layer of probing introspection to the proceedings. I find this a very happy medium for a type of movie that is usually either wholly in the tank for the average joe or sneeringly removed from his pain.
ACTUALLY, NO, THAT’S NOT THE TRUTH, ELLEN
I’m going to make mistakes, oversights, etc. — so why not name the section where I have to fess up after the most important call for clarification since “Dewey Defeats Truman?”
While in full chaos mode and putting my decade-in-the-making Spotify Starred playlist on shuffle, I grooved to Cerrone’s “Supernature” and was reminded that I left the dance scene from Gaspar Noé’s Climax (available on Amazon Prime) off my list of favorite collective song/dance scenes.
It is wild how on fire everyone in this dance is. And if you know anything about Climax, a film that rapidly descends into horror as a drug-spiked sangria sends the troupe into a frenzy, you can appreciate how in sync everyone is here before it turns into a true every-man-for-himself free-for-all.
(I should also mention that during this song/dance research last week, I inexplicably felt the need to determine who has done the best performance set to “Ribs” by Lorde. I have determined it is this group.)
WHAT I WATCHED
Another week that was heavy on prep for the Venice Film Festival….
But I did take some time to get around town and see some excellent movies. I have an idea brewing about how to convince you all to see Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, a deeply formative movie for me after graduating high school, but let me just say for now … there is something so special about getting to see one of your favorite movies on the big screen. I’ve probably watched this a half-dozen times on streaming or Blu-Ray, but watching it blown up larger-than-life on a 35mm print brought it to life in a new way. It was like seeing the movie for the first time.
Speaking of 35mm prints, I got to see *the only one in the world* of Todd Haynes’ Carol yesterday. It was, unsurprisingly, even more luscious and ravishing this way. I loved letting the swooning sounds and sights smother me. Post-show Q&A with cinematographer Ed Lachman wasn’t too bad, either.
I was also busy in the kitchen as well with some thematic dishes. (#MarshallsMovieMeals, perhaps? We’ll workshop it.) I am watching every Halloween film with Jamie Lee Curtis prior to the world premiere of Halloween Kills at Venice, where she will receive a lifetime achievement award from the festival. Many thanks to my aunt for coming through with this recipe for a pumpkin and chocolate chip loaf, a bit out of season but getting my taste buds in the mood for horror! (The recipe also made *three* portions, so I’ve now got two of these sitting in my freezer for meteorological fall beginning next month.)
I’m also doing a big rewatch for the films of Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who will be at Venice premiering Spencer. That’s the one where Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana. (I think she’ll be good!) I’m all about trying to explore countries both cinematically and culinarily, so I took a stab at making a traditional Chilean cazuela. This is basically a beef stew with a lot of vegetables, almost all of which I was able to source from my local farmers’ market. I can definitely spot areas for improvement if I ever make it again, but it could have been much, much worse.
Also, sports fans, the Malice at the Palace documentary on Netflix is quite good!
WHAT I HEARD
This week’s randoms and, no, there will be no further questions at this time:
Related: I learned this week that David Guetta is 53 years old. I would like to unknow this, although it does make his inexplicable MLK beat drop from last summer make a lot more sense.
I forgot to share last week, but an online friend of mine just launched a new podcast at the intersection of faith and film. It’s not preachy or proselytizing, merely applying a spiritual lens to secular culture. In case the Promising Young Woman discourse didn’t wear you out in the first half of 2021, they’ve got a very interesting analysis of the film that looks at the depiction of forgiveness before delving into a fascinating discussion of how the institutional church handles (and mishandles) sexual abuse. It’s just episode 1 and I’m already hooked!
WHAT I READ
Yesterday, I finished reading The Power of the Dog, which Jane Campion is adapting for her new movie. (Netflix seems serious about it as a major Oscar contender — so far as I’m tracking, it’s the only movie that appears to be hitting all four major fall festivals: Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York.) I can’t say I normally read these more terse Western novels, but I’m certainly glad to have taken the time on this one. I’m now even more excited to see the movie!
As mentioned up top about the number of Vulture pieces on The White Lotus — I found this larger look at the television landscape one worth mulling over: “TV’s White Guys Are in Crisis.”
WHAT I WROTE
I have an exciting Q&A to share later this week with an actress who I was supposed to interview at Sundance over 5 years ago … only to have her leave the press area without talking to me. Delayed gratification can still be gratifying!
Which reminds me, I need to go work on my intro for it now lest I get a buzz from my editor...
That’s it for today! I’ll be back in your inbox on Thursday with a bit of an explainer around the mysterious French director Leos Carax in advance of his new movie Annette, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.
Yours in service and cinema,