SPOILER-FREE Review: “Marriage Story” starring Adam Driver & Scarlett Johansson

This Netflix movie (released also 30 days in theaters) is based in large part on director Noah Baumbach’s own experiences when he divorced actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013. Jason Leigh (the “Jason” was added as tribute to actor Jason Robards- a close friend of her parents), on whom the character of Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) was based, had early success in the teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Baumbach and Leigh previously collaborated on movies together; during the 2009 filming of Greenberg, he and actress/director of Little Women– Greta Gerwig- fell in love. Theater director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) lived in Indiana before moving to NYC; Driver grew up in Mishawaka, IN. The toys shown while Nicole plays w/ son Henry (Azhy Robertson) in the opening are from Star Wars, a reference to Driver’s connection to that sci-fi franchise. Celeb divorce lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern- now winner of Best Supporting Actress Oscar), is loosely based on Laura Wasser (who represented Dern, Johansson and Baumbach) during their divorces. The mediation scenes were filmed in Wasser’s office building.

This film has something for everyone– domestic drama, comedy (arising from realistic situations), music, courtroom drama, etc. Charlie sings Being Alive (which Gerwig admitted Baumbach wouldn’t do), and Nicole sings You Could Drive a Person Crazy from Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company. Many of us know that Johansson can tackle challenging roles (having seen her since she was an ingenue at 16 y.o.); here Driver gets a chance to shine (and whoa, is he bright)! Both actors are very comfortable with each other; they play the quiet and intense scenes well. You really don’t see the acting- as it should be. You will see some similarities to Kramer vs. Kramer starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep; however, in this story- the wife gets an equal voice (which wasn’t given to Streep).

The supporting actors are all well-suited for their parts, no matter how small or meaty. The child actor comes off as very natural. Merritt Wever plays Cassie’s older sis (also an actor); she provides some comic relief, as does the mom (who is a big fan of her son-in-law). Charlie’s theater troupe includes a few familiar faces, such as Wallace Shawn (best know as the villain in The Princess Bride). Alan Alda’s soft-hearted lawyer breaks down what men really go through in a divorce. On the other hand, we see the intimidating/shark-like lawyer (Ray Liotta) who gets results.

New Series Trailers: Turn Up Charlie, Delhi Crime, & Ramy

Turn Up Charlie (Netflix) – This show is now streaming!

This show stars British actor Idris Elba; he worked as a DJ in London & NYC for years in his 20s & 30s.

Delhi Crime (Netflix): March 22nd

NYC-based writer/media critic Aseem Chhabra (who I’ve been following since 2005) posted re: this show on IG. He “loved the first two episodes,” which were directed by his Canadian friend (Richie Mehta). The cast includes Rasika Dugal (Bombay Talkies) and Shefali Shah (who some of you will recognize from her memorable co-starring role in Monsoon Wedding). The show focuses on the Nirbhaya rape case of Jyoti Singh. I’m guessing that most of the actors in this show are theater veterans.

Ramy (Hulu): April 19th

You may have seen Ramy Youssef’s stand-up before. In his 1st series, he plays a young man (NOT unlike himself) who is a first generation Egyptian-American exploring the challenges of being a Muslim in today’s world. His mother is played by internationally-acclaimed Israeli Arab actress, Hiam Abbass (The Visitor; Blade Runner 2049). Mo Amer (another stand-up comic) who is a Palestinian-American/refugee is part of the cast; he has a Netflix special (The Vagabond) that is funny and educational. Dave Merheje, a Canadian-Lebanese stand-up featured in Comedians of the World (Netflix), also has a role; he just won a Juno award this week. Indian-American actress Poorna Jagannathan (The Night Of; Gypsy) is also listed in IMDB for 3 eps; she is a friend of one of my writer friends (from my NYC days).

Netflix Original Holiday Movies

Christmas Inheritance (2017)

This is that (rare) holiday movie that’s NOT totally unbelievable! A self-absorbed New Yorker, Ellen (Eliza Taylor), dubbed “the party heiress” (shades of a young Paris Hilton perhaps?) is sent by her CEO father, Jim (Neil Crone from Little Mosque on the Prairie), to deliver a letter in the small town where he (& his BFF) hatched their (now V successful business). Jake Lacy (who had a memorable role in Carol opposite Rooney Mara) is the innkeeper (also love interest); Andie MacDowell (lovely/sweet-voiced as ever) plays his aunt who owns/runs the local cafe. Ellen learns how to be frugal/practical, helps others less fortunate, and grows to admire the regular folks and their small town values. The actors have good chemistry together; some of the dialogue is cute and quirky. This is a low budget film (obviously), BUT NOT small on charm. 

A Christmas Prince (2017) & A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding (2018)

An editor (who really wants to be a journo), Amber (Rose McIver) is sent to a (fictional) country to cover the coronation of a “bad boy” prince, Richard (Ben Lamb). The widowed queen is played by Alice Kriege (best known as The Borg Queen in the Star Trek: TNG universe). The unique element in these two films (shot in Romania) is the preteen princess, Emily (Honor Kneafsey), who is smart, spirited, yet has an incurable illness (which is handled quite well/doesn’t define her character). To get close to the story, Amber (a likable/optimistic gal) pretends to be the new American tutor for Emily.  The sequel is NOT as interesting as the first film; it deals w/ issues common to planning a wedding, as well as matters of state. I was expecting more from the set design, BUT the outfits and natural scenery were quite nice. There are a FEW twists here and there also. 

The Princess Switch (2018)

This film is one that my lil sis (a BIG fan of the rom com genre, unlike me) recommended when I visited her over Thanksgiving. In the lead is petite/adorable Vanessa Hudgens (a former teen star all grown up) who plays two roles- a baker from Chicago (Stacy) and a countess from a (fictional) European nation (Lady Margaret). Stacy runs into Margaret before an international baking contest; Margaret proposes that they switch places, so she can to live a FEW days as a “normal girl.” After that, Margaret will do her “duty” and marry Prince Edward (Sam Palladio), uniting their nations. Things get complicated when Stacy becomes interested in Edward and Margaret gets close to Stacy’s friend Kevin (Nick Sagar) and his 8 y.o. daughter, Olivia. This is a fun film (also shot in Romania) that will put a smile on your face; the (diverse) actors are pretty good and have a LOT of chemistry w/ each other. I was a LOT more impressed w/ the prince (acting-wise) here than in A Christmas Prince

The Holiday Calendar (2018) 

This movie has a mostly POC cast (a pleasant surprise, esp. in a Christmas movie)! A 20s photographer, Abby (Kat Graham), has a white mom and black dad, as well as a wise (black) grandpa she adores (Ron Cephas Jones from Luke Cage). Abby dreams of having her own studio/getting paid for her type of pics (NOT the boring portraits she takes at her day job). She is overjoyed when her BFF, Josh (Quincy Brown, son of P. Diddy and the recently deceased model- Kim Porter), returns to town after travel blogging all over the world. Gramps (recently widowed) gives Abby an old-fashioned Advent calendar that her grandmother wanted her to have; interesting/unexpected things start happening in Abby’s life. It’s NOT everyday (sadly) that you get to see a happy, successful, and supportive black family in the media. Abby and Josh looked and sounded like real people I’d gone to HS (& college) w/ back in my hometown (Tucson, AZ). Fans of classic films might be interested to see Ethan Peck (also a model); he’s the grandson of Gregory Peck who recently broke into acting. I hope he gets better/more interesting roles than Clint Eastwood’s son, Scott, who seems to have fizzled out fast.  

House of Cards (Netflix): Season 6

DO NOT WATCH THIS SEASON… BUT if you already did (like me), you “wasted 6 hours of your life” (as my lil bro complained over Thanksgiving)! The writing is beyond bad, some plotlines go nowhere, and (new) characters are underdeveloped. Annette (Diane Lane) and Bill (Greg Kinnear) Shepherd are billionaire tycoon sibs hell bent on taking down Pres. Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). As girls, Claire and Annette grew up together in rural Texas, so there is a natural rivalry; we also learn that Annette once had a fling w/ Frank. Some of you may wonder who could be the father of Annette’s 20-ish son? 

Spacey is out, so MUCH so that we don’t even hear his voice on recordings (which Doug Stamper discovered). Doug is back and in (potential) danger in the early eps from Claire; Michael Kelly (he liked one of my tweets- YAY!) does a fine job, as expected. I was esp. happy to see Janine (Constance Zimmer) back, BUT she doesn’t get much to do. Tom (Boris McGiver, now diminished in his job (formerly he was “The Hammer”) gets a few scenes; he laments the downfall and conglomeration of the news biz. Campbell Scott is back (he’s now VP) and so is Patricia Clarkson (an indie movie darling, BUT totally misplaced on this show). Claire wants the former spy around as a gal pal /confidante/roomie. A few characters return in brief scenes, incl. former VP Linda (Sakina Jaffrey). 

As for Robin Wright, she does what she can w/ the (bad) material. Of course, she looks incredibly fit and gorgeous (DUH!); this season her wardrobe is more militaristic in style and coloring. Claire projects coldness, resilience, cunning, and strength- even becoming more violent! But as I’ve noted before, strong actors (no matter how much they try), can’t save a series or movie that is poorly written and laughably implausible. 

Master of None (Netflix): Season 2

NOTE: This review contains MILD SPOILERS for the latest season of the streaming comedy series.

Back in my NYC days, I used to hang out often w/ Bangladeshi immigrants (mainly grad students) and Bangladeshi-Americans (singles and couples aged 20 to 40). One young woman my age (raised in a Queens middle-class family) told me that her younger sister was attending college in Japan. Now, this is quite unusual for a female from an immigrant/Muslim/South Asian background. She went to Japan at age 18; she was VERY familiar w/ Japanese culture and nealry fluent in the language, thanks mainly to her best friend/neighbor.

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Aziz Ansari with his younger brother (Aniz) and parents (Shoukath and Nisha).

As a comedian, I can talk about anything, as long as I make it funny. So it’s pretty cool if I can get people thinking about immigration or feminism or the food industry at my stand- up shows. -Aziz Ansari 

In the second season of Master of None, you’ll find influences from classic Italian cinema, which Aziz Ansari (now 32 y.o.) greatly admires. Some disappointed viewers asked: “Why doesn’t he show India?” or “Why doesn’t he discuss his Indian-ness more?” or something to that regard. The actor/writer/producer is of South Indian/Muslim heritage, BUT was raised in Columbia, South Carolina. I hate to break it to you detractors, BUT one individual can’t show you ALL the sides of being South Asian, Muslim, and/or millennial in the US. (FYI: I know SOME who prefer the term “brown,” BUT I’m not a big fan of that word.) I’m VERY glad (proud even) that Ansari has achieved such a high profile at such a young age; it’s not like he had (conventional) good looks, height, or connections to get him where he is now. Like MANY other desis, he trained (NYU; The Upright Citizens’ Brigade) for several years and worked hard for his success.   

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Dev (Aziz Ansari) rides a bike in Modena, Italy in Episode 1: The Thief.

[1] Master of None does not seize the easy way out which lies ahead when it comes to comic relief, cliché plot twists or predictable character development. No, it truly touched me with its ability to pay intense attention to detail. 

[2] The second season is one of the most creative pieces I have seen for a long time. The smooth conversational style and the imaginative expressions relating to daily lives makes it easy to watch. 

[3] I love shows with this kind of humor… It doesn’t try too hard to be funny, it just is. The characters are like my own funny, silly friends! It’s also so refreshing to see a show with a main character being a POC! 

[4] Full disclosure- I’m not only brown, but Tamil, just like Aziz/ Dev, and actually was born in Chennai, so I may be a TAD biased…

…I have never written an online review- ever- but I felt I had to because I have never seen anything like this. Master of None just unassumingly starts like any other modern comedy (with a nice bang!) , but before you know it you are smiling, laughing, and all warm and fuzzy, all the while watching the characters in the show discuss and experience seemingly serious issues like racism, sexism, and modern social life. I think the beautiful thing about this show is that it doesn’t hit you over the head with messages or even try that hard. It’s just funny. The characters are just funny. It’s just natural and real.

-Various IMDB comments (re: S2)

Food is central to this season; the story picks up w/ Dev (Ansari) in small-town Italy making pasta. In Modena, Dev trains with a family, incl. Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), w/ whom he has great chemistry, BUT Dev is  single and Francesca has a boyfriend, Pino. In E1, Dev meets a cute British woman traveling alone on his birthday, BUT loses his phone to a thief, so is unable to contact her.

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Dev (Aziz Ansari) feeds Arnold (Eric Wareham) some freshly made pasta.

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Dev (Aziz Ansari) and Arnold (Eric Wareham) ride scooters through the countryside.

Dev’s BFF shows up in E2; Arnold (Eric Wareheim) is going to the wedding of an ex-girlfriend in the lovely countryside. The buddies chat re: dating (incl. a new app Arnold is enthralled w/), eat delicious food, and even get stuck in a VERY narrow alley w/ their rental car. Arnold convinces Dev to go to the wedding, gets angry and emotional, BUT it all works out in the end. 

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Dev (Aziz Ansari) at the BBQ festival with the Tickler’s mascot.

Dev returns home to NYC and we get reintroduced to his (hilarious) father, Ramesh (Shoukath Ansari- Aziz’s father). In the much-discussed E3, his dad and mom (Nisha Ansari- Aziz’s mother) tell Dev that he needs to pretend to be a pious Muslim while an uncle and aunt are visiting. Dev’s love of food clashes w/ the religion he eschews. Dev introduces his younger cousin (played by Ansari’s college-aged cousin, Haris) to pork and they end up going to a famous BBQ festival. What I esp. liked about this ep was that the religious elders were NOT one-dimensional. Sure, they planned to go to Mecca, BUT they were also big basketball fans. Dev (finally) read the Koran that his mom has given him when he went away from home! This ep was co-written by Ansari’s younger brother, Aniz. 

…“Religion” took me away from the Islam I see on TV and back to the Islam I’ve lived my whole life. The episode opens on a mother warning her son to abstain from finishing the bacon he’s holding: “Bacon is pork. We are Muslim. We are not allowed to eat pork,” she warns, adding, “That is our religion.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard this exact same phrase growing up. Pop-Tarts, Jell-O, gummy bears, marshmallows, almost anything at a Korean or Italian restaurant…

-Aymann Ismail (Slate)

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A young African immigrant cabbie and Dev (Aziz Ansari) watch Death Castle in Episode 6.

[1] Aziz presents us an episode so unique and incredible, yet barely involves him and his co-stars. It explores in a fantastic and diverse way the city of NYC through perspectives that we don’t take the time to appreciate and understand. The creative use of silence during the deaf portion of the episode was absolutely incredible and has such a powerful meaning.

[2] This was an especially excellent episode, I really loved the way it showed the views of different characters, really made you empathize with them. I really loved the minimalist approach, where you guys let the situations speak for themselves and did not overdo it at all. Achieved levels of empathy I have not seen in many other TV shows/movies.

-IMDB comments (re: S2, E6)

E6 is titled (like the 2008 film)- New York, I Love You. The film Death Castle is based on a rejected script written by Nicolas Cage, who also played the imaginary lead role. This is Ansari’s love letter to working-class immigrants and POCs (incl. a young deaf woman). If you loved this ep, check out the HBO film Everyday People.

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Episode 8: Thanksgiving is a must-see!

E8 is probably the crowning jewel of this season; it features a Hollywood titan (Angela Bassett) and a prolific comic/character actress (Kym Whitley). Much of Denise’s coming out story came from actress Lena Waithe’s real life; she co-wrote this ep w/ Ansari.  Do the Right Thing (1989) is the Spike Lee movie that Dev, Denise, and Nikki are watching during Thanksgiving 2016.  It features the scene where police kill Radio Raheem, paralleling their dinner conversation about Sandra Bland and Sureshbhai Patel.

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Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) and Dev (Aziz Ansari) on a NYC rooftop.

…even though Dev is a adult in his late 20s, this feels more or less like a high school girl next door crush. She is sweet, charming, beautiful and you guys have awesome chemistry together and you enjoy each others company, BUT… she is NOT available. -A viewer’s thoughts on Dev’s relationship w/ Francesca (the main love interest in S2)

The ladies Dev dates (thanks to a Tinder-like app) in E4 (First Date) are ALL different/interesting/unique! They include gorgeous Condola Rashad (daughter of Ahmad and Phylicia), quirky ramen blogger Stephanie (VA-raised comic Aparna Nancherla), and adorable/straight-laced lawyer, Priya (Tiya Sircar). These are ALL women of color who are coming up in Hollywood- VERY cool to see. Check out this show for yourself ASAP!