The Amazon Prime description for “Lansky” (1999) includes “notorious,” “gambling,” “bootlegging,” “racketeering” and “murder,” but the film – written by David Mamet and directed by John McNaughton for HBO – paints a warm picture of mob boss Meyer Lansky (1902-83). Along with a treasure of a performance by Richard Dreyfuss, “Lansky” is driven by the intrinsic fascination of someone who is a normal family man and skilled businessman, but who is targeted by the U.S. federal government and hated by a percentage of the populace.
If the first episode is any indication, “Big Little Lies’ ” second season (9 p.m. Eastern Sundays on HBO) lacks the zest of the first but has so much momentum in the wake of the death of Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) that there won’t be a shortage of reasons to tune in. David E. Kelley returns to teleplay duties, working from a story co-written with “BLL” novelist Liane Moriarty, but Jean-Marc Vallee has handed the directing reins to Andrea Arnold. The show’s mesmerizing quality ebbs during the memory-refreshing, regrouping episode “What Have They Done?,” even though the transporting theme song by Michael Kiwanuka is back, subtly remixed.
Phil Spector” (2013), the last film from writer-director David Mamet before what has become the longest filmmaking hiatus of his career, manages to be a compelling murder-trial biopic without digging as far into the case as one would assume. Mamet focuses on building a character portrait of legendary music producer Phil Spector (Al Pacino), someone who is brilliant, strange, mostly off-putting, occasionally terrifying, occasionally kind, and possibly murderous.
These are the movies and TV shows I’m looking forward to in the new year:
It’s never before been so hard to pick the 10 best shows of the year, as streaming services deliver strong short series on a regular basis, and cable and network TV have mostly kept pace with the quality. Some staple entries have dropped out of my top 10 not because they got worse but simply because they were supplanted. Here are 10 shows worthy of special mention even in this age of Peak TV.
Sharp Objects” (9 p.m. Eastern Sundays on HBO) takes a familiar genre – a crime journalist investigating small-town murders – and turns it into a gilded-frame French painting. The miniseries is stacked with talent at the top of their respective games, but director Jean-Marc Vallee – who helmed last year’s “Big Little Lies” – is the one I’m most drawn to talk about. In a mere hour, he immerses us in the Southern charms and chills of Wind Gap, in the bootheel of Missouri, and the beauty and tragedy of our heroine, Camille.
Big Little Lies” (which aired earlier this year on HBO, and can now be found on HBO Go or at Redbox) is the best thing I’ve seen from David E. Kelley, and also by far the most tolerable. Although I used to like “The Practice,” it grated on me after a while, and I didn’t make the switch over to the by-all-accounts even-crazier spinoff “Boston Legal.” But this miniseries is only seven episodes long, the perfect length for a viewer to appreciate the Kelley trappings before they overstay their welcome.
When I got a few months of free HBO with my new Dish Network subscription, the first show I programmed into my DVR was “Westworld,” which launched with a 10-episode season in 2016 (and will return next year). Evan Rachel Wood (“Once and Again”) and the universally great reviews from critics and fans (9.0 on IMDB) drew me in, the entertainment value kept me there, and the non-cliched way it delves into the oldest sci-fi theme (“What defines humanity?”) has me still thinking about it.
I intended to round out my top 20 “Curb Your Enthusiasm” issues with seven “big issues.” But really, are these issues bigger than the 13 bits of minutiae explored in my previous post? When you boil it down, no. I’m reminded of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff — and it’s all small stuff,” a wonderfully titled book by Richard Carlson that I haven’t read. Even the big things on “Curb” can be whittled down to small things, and they can therefore be laughed at.
“Seinfeld” was one of the best shows of the ’90s because it explored minutiae; “Curb Your Enthusiasm” was one of the best shows of the Aughts (and will continue to be a top show of the ’10s) for the same reason, but also because it explores bigger societal issues. (And yes, as The Lonely Island recognizes, both shows are by Larry David!)