STREAMING REVIEW: Class & Consciousness

Published January 23, 2021, 7:55 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

A new release on Netflix is a gripping picaresque about one crazy class-conscious ride to the top; and two new feature films can boast of classy, strong leading ladies’ performances. And a French series about managing star talents is back with a new season. Enjoy!

The White Tiger (Netflix) – Based on the popular novel of Arvind Adiga, this film was adapted for the screen and directed by Rahman Bahrani; and right off the bat, you can sense how much the novel meant to Bahrani. At one point, it’s the classic story of a downtrodden man, driven by his wits and cunning to rise to the top; but in Bahrani’s hands, it evolves to be so much more. It’s social commentary of a high order, speaking of India’s caste system, the avenues of social mobility, and placing a lowly chauffeur of a rich Indian couple, at the center of this cautionary tale. Adash Gourav as Balram is an acting revelation, playing the central character of the aforementioned driver. Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao are Pinky and Ashok, the rich couple that Balram works for and gets enmeshed with.

At times, there’s a modern Dicksenian quality to the enterprise, like it’s a David Copperfield of today, and happening in India. Set around 2010, with much hinging on a visit to India by the then Chinese premier. What’s wonderful here is the confidence of Netflix to cast an all-Indian cast, the only possible concession for the global market being the presence of Priyanka Chopra. Decades ago, a novel like this would have made it to the screen only with some Western actor playing ‘Indian’, as Peter Sellers did in The Party. A film with a strong message, and one that knows how to balance between comedy and drama.

Shirley (Curzon Films – Hulu) – Thanks to Director Josephine Decker, we’re gifted with this Shirley Jackson biopic; that’s unconventional, experimental, and totally effective, if one will be patient. It’s got a slow burn quality; but it does reward the viewer at the end. Elisabeth Moss plays Shirley Jackson, the celebrated Horror & Mystery novelist who is probably best known for her novel, The Haunting of Hill House, and her New Yorker short story, The Lottery. This film takes place during her early years, the late 1940’s, when she was living in a college town with her philandering, college professor/husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg).

The story picks up as a young couple (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) head to the Jackson home. He’s an assistant professor, and she’s his new wife. Immediately, Shirley senses that the young girl is pregnant. The film is filled with razor sharp repartee, such as ‘I’m a witch, didn’t anyone tell you’, and ‘Freud would have had a field day’. There’s a near erotic attraction between two women; and the classic confrontation of two couples, as in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Sure Decker probably took a lot of liberties with Jackson’s bio, but it works in providing heightened drama to this chapter of Jackson’s life.

Let Them All Talk (HBO Max) – Here’s Steven Soderbergh’s latest concept film; and it’s driven as much by the Star Power of it’s leading ladies, as it is by anything remotely connected to narrative or screenplay. It’s almost like Soderbergh had the basic ghost of a premise, was given the opportunity to film over eleven days on an actual transatlantic cruise liner, and just gambled all the marbles on casting. But what a cast; Meryl Streep as the successful novelist about to receive a literary award in England and hates to fly, so she jumps at the chance to go by sea accompanied by two old friends she hasn’t seen in years, and her nephew.

Candice Bergen and Dianne Weist play the old friends, who harbor long simmering resentments towards their more successful friend; and Lucas Hedges as the nephew. Gemma Chan is on board (literally and figuratively) as the book agent of Meryl’s character. Most of the dialogue is improvised on the fly; broad situations described, and Soderbergh just let the three women loose. And how often do you watch a contemporary film with three leading ladies all over the age of 70? It’s a minor delight, a passing diversion; but you will wish there was more story and heft to the project.

Call My Agent – Season 4 (Netflix France) – Known in it’s native France as ‘10%’, referring to the agent’s commission, this series has always been a welcome diversion on Netflix. It doesn’t overstay it’s welcome by virtue of each season comprising of some 6 episodes. Centered on the operations of an Artist Management Agency; part of the fun of the series is watching which real life French icon actor or actress has agreed to come out in an episode, and poke fun at his or her own persona.

Especially loved the 4th episode of this Season 4 where a renowned film & stage actress decides on a whim that she wants to do stand up. Major problem is she isn’t funny at all. Sigourney Weaver pops up in Episode 5 as the Hollywood star shooting a film in France. What’s lovely is how we invest our sympathies on the people who run the agency foremost; their lives, problems, and domestic issues matter to us. Just hope they’ll know when to stop while still on top of the game.