The Last Dance – 8.8

A remarkable ten-episode study of Michael Jordan and his championship Chicago Bulls teams – remarkable both for the inside look it offers at professional athletes and the ambivalent picture it provides of the man who offered this access. I was neither a fan nor particular follower of MJ during his career, but this documentary clearly supports the view of him as the greatest basketball player ever and, along with Muhammad Ali, one of the two most internationally recognized athletes ever. At the same time, it shows that he was not a nice person, as most people would define that term. Not evil, but selfish, inconsiderate and egotistical, a bully when it served his purpose. All of which, it could be argued, made him the winner he was.

Ten episodes might seem long, but the filmmakers kept my attention by constantly toggling back-and-forth between the past and the present (the ’86-’87 season, the “last dance”) and by focusing large chunks of episodes on the almost-as-interesting supporting characters: Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, Phil Jackson and lesser figures such as Steve Kerr and John Paxson. Interviews with media figures, such as the always reliable Bob Costas, provided distance, while shots of MJ smoking cigars and watching interviews of his adversaries on an iPad brought an unusual immediacy to the project. Entertaining and riveting.

My Brilliant Friend – 9

Brilliant, indeed. Elena Ferrante’s novel, the second of the quartet, is brought to life by the subtlest of expressions on Lila and Lenu’s faces. Lenu, in fact, makes a total of two short speeches in the course of eight episodes, yet we feel we know what she is thinking every moment. Lila, by contrast, is an enigma, one of the great enigmatic characters of fiction (Ahab? Steerforth?). No one, least of all her best friend Lenu, can read her mind, but we can’t take our eyes off her. Somehow we are able to follow the constellation of the Naples neighborhood that requires an Index of Characters in the book. The settings are gritty and real, but no moreso than the people. Already I miss them.

Da 5 Bloods – 7.5

A hit-and-miss affair from Spike Lee–nowhere as polished as BlackKklansman, but provocative in its looks at race, Vietnam, friendship, greed–remarkable in its aspirations if not its execution. First off, I should say that Delroy Lindo should be a lock for an Oscar nomination, at least, for his performance. Next best was having a range of six Black characters fill the screen; so you didn’t see them as “Black,” you saw them for their distinct personalities. The plot (which I assume was borrowed from Treasure of the Sierra Madre), was serviceable, but that was about all. It was mainly an armature allowing us to get to know, understand and empathize with the Bloods. At the same time, the French woman (white) was great.

Seeing Da 5 Bloods shortly after watching When the Levees Broke about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina made clear how relevant and important Spike Lee is to the moment of national consciousness-raising we are going through.

When the Levees Broke – 6.5

“Requiem” is a better term than “documentary” for Spike Lee’s four-part history of the people, mostly Black, who suffered through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. There was little forward momentum in the film: Lee sat us down and made us wallow in the misery of the poor residents and the incompetence and inattention of the government at all levels, from Bush on down. The movie fully and graphically explored the horror of the catastrophe and introduced us to a diverse cast of characters, giving us a real feel for at least one section of New Orleans life. There is another side to the story–perhaps several other sides–but a rounded picture was not Lee’s goal. Instead, he has shown us a picture that, more than anything I’ve seen so far, sets up the two Americas and explains the racial turmoil we’re living through today.

Normal People – 7.6

They say the course of true love never runs smooth, and this sure was a rough ride for Marianne and Connell, so obviously meant for each other but forever finding ways to confuse the issue. The series’ length rather taxed the viewer: C’mon, why are you messing around with that other person, we kept saying. But doe-eyed Daisy Edgar-Jones looked so stunningly beautiful I kept wanting to watch, even as I got impatient with Connell, who couldn’t make up his mind or put together a complete sentence. Her personality, too, was more interesting; and she did a better job aging from high schooler to college graduate than Paul Mescal, who looked closer to 24 all along.

Inside Bill’s Brain – 7.5

Getting such a close-up, personalizing look at one of the major figures of our time alone makes this a worthwhile watch. The succinct, clear elaboration of the three projects addressed in the three episodes – public sanitation, polio eradication, and nuclear power – is skillful. Ultimately, though, the takeaway is a negative one: Bill Gates can offer the brainpower and financial support to solve some of the world’s enormous problems, but mankind’s political pettiness, greed and lust for power stand firmly in the way. (Netflix)

The Painter and the Thief – 3

This documentary is sort of like Normal People, except the people are unattractive, uninteresting, inarticulate and not erotically charged. Barbora is a better painter than interviewer and it’s never clear what she’s looking for or finding in Bertil, who was so drugged he can’t remember why he stole her painting or what he did with it. The only thing more puzzling than why someone made this film is how they did it.

The Restaurant – 6.5

If by having Calle proclaim his undying love for Nina, though they’re both married to others, in the final scene, the makers of The Restaurant hoped to hook me for Season 2, they were sadly mistaken. Manipulate me once, shame on you; manipulate me every five minutes, forget it! What started out as a new and intriguing scenario – a restaurant in post-war Stockholm – with interesting characters, started bouncing all over the place, crisis upon crisis. The beautiful Nina, a free-spirited life force starting her own jazz club against all odds, turned into an unattractive dope addict, bad wife and sister, worse mother. Younger brother Peter, who seemed good, smart and calm, began liaisons with a gangster and the unpleasant, greedy wife of his boss. Gustaf, repulsive from the beginning, alternated between dumb and evil acts without being shown off the stage. And, somehow, the colorless waitress Margareta was elected chair of the restaurant workers’ union, bringing feminism, gay rights and workers’ rights to Sweden while raising a young son as a single mother. By the end of episode 10, there was no one I wanted to spend any more time with. Downton Abbey also occasionally overplotted, but the twists and turns, if too frequent, were more inherently plausible, and the people were so much more charming.

Lost Girls – 8

What a relief, after watching soaps that have no ending (most recently, The Restaurant), to watch a 90-minute movie that has a premise and characters, develops them, builds dramatically and has a resolution – even if, as the opening credit warns us, it’s an “unsolved” mystery. Amy Ryan is sensational as the obsessed, albeit very flawed, mother who launches a crusade after her daughter, a young sex worker,  goes missing. Gabriel Byrne, one of my favorite actors, is the beleaguered police commissioner in charge of the case, and the similarly wonderful Thomasin McKenzie is the remarkably stable sister of the victim. The film, by Serin’s first boss Liz Garbus, has a message, but it never gets in the way of the story. Her directorial flourishes are a bit obtrusive, but they add a big-budget gloss to low-budget sets and settings.

Sanditon – 8

Much of the charm is supplied by the charming Rose Williams’s expressive face, voluptuous body and bottomless pit of dresses, which materialize out of the blue. The rest comes from the smoky Theo James as Sidney Parker, the love/hate cynosure of Rose’s Charlotte. We get to know a dozen other denizens of, and visitors to, the rising beach resort of Sanditon, and they are all sharply delineated and sufficiently interesting. It is easy to fall into the world of Jane Austen’s fiction (easier than it was in the recent Emma), and if we feel cheated at the end (a manufactured tease designed to permit a second season), that is a compliment to what we know from reading Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice, in our pasts. Once again it was our affection for the female lead that made us race through eight episodes.