If you’d asked me a week ago to name the world’s most famous Amanda, I’d have struggled to come up with anyone other than “Hugginkiss” (thanks, Bart Simpson). And if you’d asked me to pick out a brilliant young American poet, I’d have found it almost as hard as naming a Fox News commentator I admire.
Yet the name Amanda Gorman is now trending in all the right places after reciting her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, in the most stunning piece of television last week.
In a sense, the youth poet laureate’s awe-inspiring performance on the steps of the Capitol was the true cultural launch of 2021 – and a welcome and necessary reminder that, even in the darkest of times, talent still emerges when you least expect, and most need, it.
Until Gorman blew the world away with her precocious talent, my main cultural concern last week was wondering which Republican politician would be stepping into Donald Trump’s sweaty shoes and becoming the go-to punch line for late-night TV hosts over the coming months and years.
Early front-runners include Moscow Mitch, Josh Hawley and a member of the Trump klan, sorry, clan. And while it’s still early days, my money’s firmly on Sen. Ted Cruz – the lawmaker who repeatedly managed to be outwitted by the guy who thinks remembering “person, woman, man, camera, TV” makes you a genius, and who compounded his recent antidemocratic misdemeanors by putting himself in the crosshairs of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
If there’s one thing you’d think the Texan senator would have learned by now, it’s the danger of him or anyone in his family being associated with crosshairs.
Fans of shows with protagonists called Alice should be in, well, wonderland right now. The comedy-drama “Finding Alice,” with Keeley Hawes in the title role, just started airing in Britain. Meanwhile, the Israeli thriller “Losing Alice,” starring Ayelet Zurer, just arrived on Apple TV+ (the first three episodes are available now, with new episodes dropping every subsequent Friday until February 26).
The show aired in Israel on Hot last year as “Le’abed et Alice” (“To Lose Alice”), and it’s fair to say it didn’t exactly wow local critics – certainly not in the way the likes of “Chazarot” (“Rehearsals”) and “Manayek” did.
- I was about to watch a TV show called ‘The Grave’ – and then my dad died
- From ‘Fauda 4’ to Clinton's impeachment – the shows to look out for in 2021
- A legendary Jewish New Yorker is never lost for words in Netflix’s ‘Pretend It’s a City’
Like “Tehran” before it, though, “Losing Alice” clearly charmed executives at Apple TV, who made it a rare “off-the-shelf” purchase for the streaming service. Incidentally, HBO Max is also proving a steady buyer of Israeli shows, having just acquired another Hot series, “Uri and Ella,” to air this spring following its purchase of “Possessions” last year.
I’m currently halfway through the eight-part “Losing Alice,” and can completely see why Apple got its checkbook out. It’s a thoroughly engaging yet enigmatic Hitchcockian thriller that likes to toy with the audience, revealing its storyline teasingly through flashbacks, flash-forwards and films-within-the-show (not one but two of them).
Actually, labeling “Losing Alice” as Hitchcockian isn’t quite accurate. At times it’s more reminiscent of the works of Brian De Palma, that Hitchcock obsessive whose movies, even at their best, are rarely subtle but are wildly entertaining (“Dressed to Kill,” “Blow Out,” “Body Double”).
There were also times when the show reminded me of Roman Polanski’s erotic thriller “Bitter Moon” combined with the playfulness of David Lynch in one of his head-scratchers like “Mulholland Drive.” I’m not saying “Losing Alice” is quite in that league, but I salute its ambition and think it’s successful more often than not. It’s certainly never less than intriguing.
In fairness, the set-up couldn’t be more Hitchcockian: Two women meet on a train and discuss swapping murders … sorry, wrong film, let’s try again. Two women meet on a train headed north from Tel Aviv. One of them is Alice Ginor (Zurer), a filmmaker who’s put her career on hold to look after her three young daughters while her actor husband David (Gal Toren) brings home the kosher bacon after enjoying some commercial success.
The other woman is the far younger Sophie (“Sofi” in the original, but Anglicized here and played by Lihi Kornowski), the kind of character lazy writers – hello!! – would describe as free-spirited yet troubled. Recognizing Alice, she immediately tells her she’s her biggest fan (hide that sledgehammer!), overshares (“There was a time I’d bring home guys just to reenact the pasta scene,” she gushes, leaving no doubt that we’re not talking about a cookery show here) and, finally, reveals that she’s sent a script for an erotic thriller to David and may well be working on it with him.
Add to the mix the oft-fraught marital situation between Alice and David, which is most definitely not helped by the presence of his creepily clingy mom (Chelli Goldenberg), plus the equally creepy neighbor (Yossi Marshek) with voyeuristic tendencies – and you have just some of the show’s tasty ingredients.
The playful nature of “Losing Alice” is established right at the start with a quote from the late French-American artist Louise Bourgeois: “Art is a guarantee of sanity.” As the series proceeds, it’s clear that said guarantee is about as useful as one from Sen. Lindsey Graham about Supreme Court justices.
What I really love about creator Sigal Avin’s series is that it’s told through the eyes of the female protagonist and revolves around her dangerous relationship with Sophie and her career-motherhood struggles. (I’m not sure if a male creator would have insisted on quite so many shots of Gal Toren in his briefs.)
This makes it the rarest of beasts in an Israeli TV landscape where so many genre shows are still testosterone-driven and the women are too frequently little more than set decoration – yes, I’m looking at you, “Fauda.”
Alvin also has a lot of fun creating the films we see within the show. One of them is Sophie’s script, called “Room 209,” about a girl who kills a friend in order to keep dating the friend’s father. The other is “Restricted,” a pretentious arthouse movie that sees David’s character confined to a wheelchair and only a handful of overwrought facial expressions.
I guess you could call Zurer the Gal Gadot of her day: an Israeli model-turned-actress who broke out internationally – in the former’s case with a starring role in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” and “Da Vinci Code” sequel “Angels & Demons.” She was older than Gadot when she got her big break, though, and for whatever reason didn’t stick around too long in Hollywood.
Unlike some star names we could mention, it looks like Zurer didn’t fight the aging process and looks like a normal woman in her 40s (she’s actually 51). As a result, her face is still able to, you know, convey emotions and she’s a mesmeric presence. Kornowski also leaves a strong impression in the showier role of the coquettish but damaged young woman who will doubtless leave much carnage in her wake.
Alvin says “Faust” was a big inspiration, using the old “sell your soul” trope to examine the question of how far an older woman is willing to go in pursuit of success and to recapture former glories. It’s certainly proving devilishly entertaining.
The French are coming
There are so many mysteries in life: Why did Entertainment Weekly never change its name when it switched to a monthly? Why isn’t there a cat poop-flavored dog food when it’s clearly all canines ever want to eat when they’re outside? Then there’s the question of French television and why it has constantly been the poor relation to its celluloid cousin over the decades.
No one can doubt French film’s place in the cinematic pantheon, but it’s come at a cost for that country’s television industry, which was years behind the rest of the world in recognizing the true worth of the small screen – a battle not helped by the fact that French cinema is comparatively well funded and remains a place where young talent is still encouraged to cut its teeth.
But things have been changing. It started with the great police drama “Spiral” (“Engrenages”) in 2005, and continued with stylish shows like horror-drama hybrid “The Returned” (“Les Revenants”) in 2012 and spy thriller “The Bureau” (“Le Bureau des Légendes”) in 2015. And now the local TV industry is starting to benefit from “the Netflix effect.”
I’ve written before about the wonderful comedy show “Call My Agent!” The fourth and final season just dropped on Netflix, and I’d put watching it just behind “Get COVID vaccine” on your list of things to do this year.
Set in the world of Parisian entertainment agents, each just as vain and egocentric as their clients, this show’s as far removed from the world of “Entourage” as it’s possible to get while still revolving around “10 percenters” (as it happens, “Dix pour Cent” is the show’s French title).
It’s probably quite telling that, despite being a TV show, “Call My Agent!” is indebted to French cinema, with each episode featuring a giant of the silver screen having fun with public perceptions of themselves. The stars include Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche, Monica Bellucci – and even Sigourney Weaver in the final season (that episode was originally written for Jane Fonda, but the “Alien” star ultimately jumped at the chance to appear in one of her favorite shows when La Fonda wasn’t available).
Because of its success on Netflix, “Call My Agent!” has become the first French TV show to trigger remake fever: The Guardian reported that there are already local versions in French-speaking Canada and Turkey – where, shamefully, the sexual orientation of the lead character has been switched from gay to straight. Other versions are planned in China, India, Vietnam and Britain, and there’s even talk of a U.S. version. But forget all of those and make sure you savor all 24 episodes of the original and its wonderfully bitchy cast, led by Camille Cottin.
“Call my Agent!” first aired on French TV in 2015, becoming a sleeper hit after being picked up by Netflix a year later. Now, five years on, the streaming site is enjoying its first homegrown Gallic hit with “Lupin,” a crime-heist actioner that does for gentleman thief Arsène Lupin what Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss did for Sherlock Holmes a decade ago – breathing new life into a fusty yet beloved national institution. Unlike “Sherlock,” though, the story in “Lupin” is inspired by Maurice Leblanc’s series of books rather than drawing on them for its actual narrative.
Told in five snappy, suspenseful parts (a second five-parter is set to follow later this year), “Lupin” is one of the most purely enjoyable shows I’ve seen in quite some time – the perfect popcorn accompaniment given that our movie theaters are still largely shuttered. It’s unashamedly mainstream fun, topped off by a charismatic performance by Omar Sy (“The Intouchables”) in the lead role.
Netflix says around 70 million have already watched “Lupin,” which is hugely impressive for a foreign show that had little fanfare when it dropped earlier this month and isn’t exactly a known global brand – a problem the French have previously struggled to overcome when trying to sell the likes of Asterix and Little Nicholas to the world.
What’s particularly intriguing about “Lupin” is that it was created by a British writer, George Kay – suggesting a new kind of international cooperation that the culturally proud (nay snobbish) French haven’t always been so keen to adopt. Plus ça change? Au contraire, mon chéri.
New episodes of “Losing Alice” are on Apple TV+ every Friday. “Call My Agent!” and “Lupin” are both out now on Netflix.