Tuesday, November 12, 2019

My Favorite John Cassavetes Film

I've struggled to write this post for a long time now, because while I love the work of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, I've found it difficult to get across why I find it so affecting.  On the surface level, it's easy to describe a John Cassavetes film. He was one of the most influential independent American filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, shooting his films cinema verite style, with an emphasis on unpolished performances and bare aesthetics.  Most of his films were self-financed, funded by his acting career, and his major collaborators were a small circle of friends and relatives. My favorite of his films, "A Woman Under the Influence," used a crew of mostly students, and was self-distributed. This allowed Cassavetes total creative freedom, and the ability to tinker with his films in ways that few others could.  Many of his pictures have multiple versions and cuts.    

The result is a rawness and intensity to Cassavetes' work that was unlike what anyone else was making at the time.  Many assumed his films were improvisational, but they were almost always fully scripted, presenting a startlingly candid look at intimate relationships and situations.  "A Woman Under the Influence" is about Mabel, a housewife and mother of three, who suffers a mental breakdown and navigates a difficult recovery. She's played by Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes' wife and most frequent collaborator.  Like most Cassavetes protagonists, Mabel is desperate and on edge, unhappy with her life and unable to cope. What distinguishes Mabel, however, is that she's such an ordinary, believable woman. Her stresses - family, lack of privacy, stifling home life - are mundane and familiar.  As depicted by Cassavetes, however, they quickly become alienating and unbearable.  

I have trouble articulating what it is about Rowlands in this movie that is so electrifying.  The film runs for two and a half nerve-wracking hours as we watch Mabel and her husband Nick, played by Peter Falk, fight and rage and love each other.  The two spend most of the film playing the couple in crisis, but you can also see flashes of how they used to function, who they were and urgently want to be again.  There is so much in the performances, especially from Rowlands, that conveys the magnitude of what we're watching transpire. It might be two and a half hours of screen time, but you can feel the weight of years of escalating stress and denial and uneasy compromises.  The relationship has a sense of history to it, of past battles and too much swept under the rug. Falk has never gotten as much press as Rowlands for his work here, but he's fantastic, clinging to any semblance of normalcy he can for dear life.

I've seen complaints that the film is too long, and too bogged down by incidental small talk.  However, this is what makes "A Woman Under the Influence" so unnerving. The audience knows that despite the casual appearances, there's something wrong with Mabel, but not when or how she's going to explode.  And when she does explode, the scale and the severity of it is breathtaking, terrifying. Her world, her sphere, is not equipped to contain it. And what I love about Cassavetes is that he stays with Mabel, with her discomfort and her exhaustion and her devastating moments of clarity.  The entire film is really two long sequences, each building up to dizzying emotional crescendos, but also full of little moments of quiet and contemplation, tension and release. Without that context, the film's effectiveness would be a fraction of what it achieves.    

 I've seen most of Rowland's other film with Cassavetes and enjoyed them, especially "Gloria," where she gets to play a flinty gun moll who discovers her maternal side.  However, many of her other performances feel like variations on Mabel - the disintegrating actress in "Opening Night," and the codependent sister in "Love Streams." The hooker in "Faces" was perhaps a prelude.  They're very good in their own right, but I can't help seeing the echoes of "A Woman Under the Influence" in them. And those echoes keep showing up in so many other films and performances, from "Raging Bull" to "Her Smell."  American independent film wouldn't be what it is now without Cassavetes' efforts paving the way. 

What I've Seen - John Cassavetes

Shadows (1959)
Husbands (1970)
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Opening Night (1977)
Gloria (1980)
Love Streams (1984)


Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Rom-Com Round-Up

I've been very tentatively and gingerly easing back into romantic comedies over the past few months, after many years of avoiding the genre.  There are landmines everywhere, from "Hallmark Channel" schmaltz to brainless raunch fests. I detest some of the tropes that plagued mainstream rom-coms in the 2000s - manufactured problems, horrible cartoonish characters, and outdated expectations about love and romance.  In other words, everything that "Isn't it Romantic" tried to lampoon earlier this year.

However, romantic comedies have changed, putting some of the old notions behind them while doggedly clinging to others.  I watched Netflix's "Set it Up" and the indies "Destination Wedding" and "Plus One" recently, and wanted to dissect them a bit.  Note that two feature Asian-American female protagonists, which is germane to my interests, being an Asian-American blogger. Two feature couples who despise weddings being forced to endure them as singletons, which is germane to my interests as someone who likes watching people being miserable at weddings.

I feel that "Destination Wedding," starring Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, is the outlier here, as it's about two middle-aged wedding guests (and self-described narcissist monsters) who spend the entire film having extended conversations with each other, eventually resulting in a hookup and presumably a relationship.   There are barely any other cast members who appear onscreen and only the barest skeleton of a plot. It's really just the two of them cynically bickering at the sidelines of the joyous affair for an hour, before eventually softening and getting lovey dovey with each other.

This initially appears similar to the premise of "Plus One," where Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid play Annie and Ben, two old college friends who agree to attend a marathon of weddings together as each other's dates, despite not being romantically linked.  Of course, they quickly become romantically linked, unlinked, and relinked before the film ends. However, the characters are much better defined than the "Destination Wedding" duo and at a different point in their lives. Annie and Ben are endlessly sarcastic young millennials, still a little idealistic about love, and willing to be raunchier and sillier with each other.  

In that way they're similar to Harper and Charlie, played by Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell, from "Set it Up."  These two initially join forces to set up their demanding bosses, played by Taye Diggs and Lucy Liu, and end up falling for each other in the process.  Harper and Charlie are both horribly overworked assistants, juggling other demands, and are only taking part in the mutual scheme to try and get their bosses off their backs.  I like that both "Plus One" and "Set it Up" could work pretty well as comedies where the protagonists are simply friends. It's the "When Harry Met Sally" approach, and it still works.       

However, these are also both clearly movies about characters in 2019.  Though there's a lot of fantasy in play, the situations are more grounded.  Casual sex is fine. Comedic besties are off the table. Harper and Charlie both have to wrestle with the spectre of economic insecurity, and "Set it Up" opens with a great montage of frazzled corporate underlings struggling to run endless errands in New York City.  Annie and Ben are more well off financially - enough to afford attending roughly a dozen weddings in a single season - but are also more realistically situated in a web of relatives, friends, and acquaintances who take turns weighing in on the state of their relationship.  

All the movies I watched also made a point of commenting a bit on older rom-coms.  "Set it Up" pointedly shows that the relationship orchestrated by Harper and Charlie, featuring all the usual hallmarks of onscreen romances, doesn't work if it's based on false pretenses and bad motives.  "Plus One" and "Destination Wedding" spend a lot of their screentime having the characters gripe about and make fun of weddings - all of them very traditional affairs with formalwear, speeches, and dancing.    

And yet, some of the old tropes persist.  The women are prone to being a little manic and overly talkative.  The men are idealists, if a bit misguided, and always secret romantics at heart.  Many characters are cynical about marriage and throw shade at excessive consumerism, but in the end "Plus One" makes a nice case for long term commitment and "Destination Wedding" posits that mutual adversity is a great way to meet people.     

Of the three films, "Set it Up" is the clear winner for its good performances and juggling of a lot of different ideas, but the other two are also pretty decent.  And that's a relief.

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Winning "Wild Rose"

I hate country music.  I can't stand it. Country music films, however, are a different matter.  And I wasn't about to pass up a film featuring Jessie Buckley in a starring role after seeing her deliver some fantastic performances over the past year, in projects like "Beast" and "Chernobyl."  In "Wild Rose" she plays Rose-Lynn, a Glasgow ex-con who dreams of going to Nashville and chasing her dream of being a country singer. However, she has to struggle just to get by, working as a housecleaner for the well-to-do Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), and leaning heavily on her mother Marion (Julie Walters), who looked after Rose-Lynn's young children, Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield) and Lyle (Adam Mitchell), while she was in prison.

There are several impressive performance scenes where Buckley does all of her own singing, but I found that "Wild Rose" was worth seeing for the domestic drama and the character study of Rose-Lynn more than anything.  Seeing her struggle to balance her responsibilities as a mother with her attempts to take advantage of new career opportunities is very compelling. The film does this in a fairly novel and interesting way too, focusing on Rose-Lynn's relationships with Susannah, Marion, and her kids, while avoiding any of the romantic storylines that usually feature in ascending music star movies.  Having a musical career requires sacrifice, but rarely have we seen a film show this in such stark and painful terms.  

I like the way that the film plays with the familiar structure of these music films.  Our heroine has to travel a very unorthodox, winding road to get to the happy ending and the big showstopper performance that we know she's going to reach.  Rose-Lynn starts out at a major disadvantage being a country singer in Glasgow where there's not much of a music scene, just out of prison and sporting an electronic ankle monitor for the first chunk of the film.  Then she keeps making choices that run counter to what we've come to expect from similar narratives. Big opportunities keep not panning out, and there's some not-so-subtle material about class and socioeconomic differences.  Writer Nicole Taylor leaves some odd ellipses and convenient plotting in the script, but these are minor and forgivable. I don't even mind that there's a very unlikely third act twist used to get Rose-Lynn to Nashville.    

It helps that Rose-Lynn is always portrayed as a believable human being, immature and flawed.  Buckley is wonderfully engaging and sympathetic, even when Rose-Lynn is breaking promises to her kids, or cluelessly asking Susannah to fund her career.  Part of it is that she's so charming, it's easy to buy into the idea that Susannah becomes her fan and champion. Part of it is that Rose-Lynn is so young, and so clearly a work in progress.  Part of it is that she's clearly a rare talent, and there's every reason to believe that her dream of stardom isn't out of her reach. I think the movie may also have my favorite Julie Walters performance.  She's playing another non-nonsense working class woman, disher of tough love and reminder of harsh realities. At the same time, she's warm and maternal, and it's crushing to see her disappointment every time Rose-Lynn stumbles.

Director Tom Harper is mostly known for his thrillers, including the upcoming "The Aeronauts."  His work here is intimate, mostly keeping us in Rose-Lynn's headspace and emotional sphere. It does a fine job of situating her in relation to the various and disparate environments she encounters, particularly the performance spaces.  This is vital because of the amount of emphasis that is placed on Rose-Lynn's singing as an extension of her personality and her emotional state. As I've said, I have no appreciation for country music whatsoever, but Buckley's vocal performances and the staging of them throughout the film are very appealing and effective stuff.   

"Wild Rose" is probably destined to be a cult film, one that would have probably done better if it was a biopic of a real country singer.  However, it is quietly one of the most satisfying music films I've seen in a long while, and further proof that Jessie Buckley's star is one the rise.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

"Men in Black International" and "Godzilla: King of the Monsters"

Where did it all go wrong?

This has been a pretty poor year for summer blockbusters.  Disney generated billions from four movies (five if you count "Spider-man"), and everyone else was left scrambling.  However, it's hard to feel sorry for them when many of the offerings were so lackluster. Let's take "Men in Black: International" and "Godzilla: King of Monsters" as prime examples.  These were franchise films that looked promising at the outset. They had good casts and interesting talent behind the cameras. However, both movies turned out to be painfully mediocre for various reasons, some of them shared.

"Men in Black: International" is a sort-of spinoff, sort-of reboot where Tessa Thompson's rookie Agent M joins Chris Hemsworth's hotshot Agent H on a globetrotting adventure, trying to fend off an alien invasion by a conqueror species known as The Hive.  Our newbies get some support from Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson as more senior Agents, T and O, and new alien comic-relief from the pint-sized Pawny, voiced by Kumail Nanjiani. All the usual pieces of the franchise's formula are present and accounted for.  And it doesn't work. It's actually kind of fascinating how much it doesn't work.

Thompson and Hemsworth are good performers, but their characters are bland and unexciting.  Hardly anything I enjoyed about the original "Men in Black" movies remains. The fish-out-of-water comedy is gone.  The odd couple dynamics are barely there. The CGI aliens are pretty old hat by this time, and there's none of the wild visual inventiveness that distinguished the original movie.  A couple of fun sight gags and action sequences remain, leaning heavily on the audience's nostalgia and goodwill for the previous movies. There seems to be a reluctance to try anything new, despite all the different settings and parts of the story trying to riff on James Bond.  Considering the talent involved, this is a disappointment on every level.

"Godzilla: King of the Monsters" fares a little better.  Its monster brawls are pretty decently set up and executed.  Unfortunately, those brawls take up maybe thirty minutes of screen time, and the movie runs over two hours.  A direct sequel to the 2014 "Godzilla," it brings back a handful of characters, including Ken Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa, Godzilla's biggest cheerleader.  However, most of the drama is centered on scientists Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) and Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), and their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown).  The Russells have split since the death of their son during the events of the first film, and get swept up in the latest crisis, where eco-terrorists led by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) set loose many of the monstrous "Titans" to wreak havoc on the world.    

The spectacle of the monsters, this time including old Toho favorites Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidora, is perfectly fine.  They've all been lovingly redesigned into new CGI forms, and each get their time in the spotlight. Rodan makes mincemeat of fighter planes.  King Ghidora summons electrical storms. Benevolent Mothra isn't much of a fighter, but she sure brings some wow factor. This installment is much more successful at getting across the idea that some of the Titans are positive balancing forces and should be aided by humanity, even if they are destructive.  Others are pure baddies who we are encouraged to root against.    

The humans, alas, are mostly left to flounder in crisis mode, saddled with awful dialogue and nonsensical plot developments.  New members of the ensemble include Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O'Shea Jackson Jr., and Ziyi Zhang as twins, who I didn't realize were two different people.  Ken Watanabe's Serizawa is the only one who comes off well, being as much of an over-the-top caricature as his beloved monsters, and given a nice hero moment in the second act.    

And where does that leave these franchises?  "Godzilla" will be rolling along to fight King Kong next year, despite "King of the Monsters" being a box office bust.  "Men in Black International" has broken even, and I wouldn't be surprised if it got a sequel. I'm not opposed to either continuation, since these series exist in universes that still have plenty of material left to explore, and offer cinematic joys that are easy and uncomplicated.  However, creative shakeups and course corrections are desperately needed.     

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Fabulous "Fosse/Verdon"

I'm usually wary of showbiz biopics because of their tendency to put their subjects on a pedestal and to follow very familiar, compressed narrative arcs.  The "Fosse/Verdon" miniseries, however, has a couple of factors on its side. First, and most importantly, it's eight episodes long and not afraid to really dig into the tumultuous personal lives of Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams).  Second, it's centered on their troubled relationship, a spectacular creative partnership that produced some of the greatest American musicals of all time, and continued past their rocky marriage.

"Fosse/Verdon" covers its subjects' entire lives, but is focused mostly on the period between 1968 and 1979, when Bob was at his creative height as a director and choreographer, and Gwen's career was in decline.  We witness their marriage dissolve, their struggles with work and co-parenting, and their inability to stay out of each other's lives. Each episode is built around their personal crises, often connected to the projects they're working on, like "Chicago" or "Cabaret."  We also see some of the point of view of their daughter Nicole (Blake Baumgartner and Juliet Brett) who doesn't emerge from her childhood unscathed.  

The driving creative forces behind "Fosse/Verdon" are Broadway vets Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail, who are clearly at home in the theater world.  They bring a wonderful sense of authenticity to Fosse's notoriously intense rehearsals, the backstage drama, and the whole process of putting these big, complicated projects together.  There's a welcome sense of community too - Bob and Gwen have a circle of showbiz friends that include Neil Simon (Nate Corddry) and Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz), who appear in multiple episodes, and we're constantly seeing agents, producers, and various romantic partners played by familiar actors.  Executive producer Lin Manuel Miranda pops up in the last episode briefly to play Roy Scheider.   

Rockwell and Williams, however, are the main event.  Both sing and dance well enough to look like they know what they're doing in the recreations of famous musical numbers, but their primary talents are clearly as actors, to the show's benefit.  These are physically demanding performances, covering decades of Bob and Gwen's lives, from their initial meeting on "Damn Yankees," to Bob's death in the 1980s. 
Bob was an addict and workaholic whose health was increasingly in peril, and Gwen famously lost her voice during the initial run of "Chicago."  I love the way that they're both able to get across the underlying insecurities and traumas that drive them, and the way they react to disappointments and setbacks.  They're both very flawed characters, but made so sympathetic.        

The unsung heroes of the series are the editors, Tim Streeto and Kate Sanford, who take their cues from Bob's autobiopic "All That Jazz" in putting together these episodes that intertwine current events with moments from Bob and Gwen's pasts, and occasionally their futures.  Sometimes it's quick cuts to clips that last only a second or two, creating associations between different situations - Bob's womanizing and his childhood trauma, Gwen's early successes with her later struggles. I like the use of the fourth wall breaking chapter titles that help to frame certain events and keep the audience aware of passing time.  Mostly, they count down to events like Bob's death or heart attack. In one episode they keep a running tally of the awards Bob has racked during an eventful year. 

A notable departure from "All That Jazz," however, is that there are very few fantasy sequences.  "Fosse/Verdon" largely stays grounded in the real world, aside from one or two notable occasions. And though there's plenty of familiar music,  I wouldn't call this a musical either. Instead, it's a mature drama that examines its subjects with all due care and seriousness. There are some laughs here and there - I will never think of Paddy Chayefsky the same way again - but I think the series will best be enjoyed by viewers who like a good melodrama.  

I have some nagging quibbles - Gwen Verdon never feels like she really gets her due, even though pains were clearly taken to show she was an equal partner in her creative relationship with Bob Fosse.  The show isn't able to really capture her at her height. Also, those who aren't familiar with Fosse's work might have trouble following along. Clearly, however, everyone involved in "Fosse/Verdon" was a fan of these two, and wanted to do right by them and their work.  There's so much love on the screen, it's hard not to be won over.   


Saturday, November 2, 2019

"Young Justice," Year Three

It's got to say something about the state of the US media that a third season of "Young Justice" happened.  This is a series so doggedly aimed at existing DC fans, with such high barriers to entry, that I often had trouble working out exactly what was going on - and I watched the first two seasons!  "Young Justice" was resurrected for Warners' new DC Universe streaming service, so they're surely aiming at the right audience, but how much of an audience is there for the show after such a long hiatus?

Still, there's something to be said for being plunged back into a universe that isn't going to wait around for the audience to get reacquainted.  The new season, dubbed "Outsiders," takes place two years after the previous episodes, and follows four of the original core cast: Dick/Nightwing (Jesse McCartney), Megan/Miss Martian (Danica McKellar), Conner/Superboy (Nolan North), and Artemis/Tigress (Stephanie Lemelin).  After an eventful mission, they spend much of the season helping along several younger heroes with newly emerging powers, including Brion/Geo-Force (Troy Baker), Violet/Halo (Zehra Fazal), Victor/Cyborg (Zeno Robinson), and Fred/Forager (Jason Spisak). Dozens and dozens of other DC characters are also in the mix.

I like how "Young Justice" now operates a lot like the later seasons of the animated "Justice League" did.  While there are ongoing storylines that focus on the main characters, each episode will also spotlight several other DC characters.  So in one episode, we might get a subplot about a covert mission headed up by Batman, and in another we get the backstory of the villain Vandal Savage and his followers.  The larger plot is often a challenge to track because there are a lot of moving parts to keep an eye on, and if you don't recognize certain characters from the DC comics, nobody is going to explain who they are.  There's a big exposition dump every few episodes just to keep everyone abreast of the bad guys' nefarious scheme as it's being uncovered. 

Raising the difficulty even further is that little stays static in the "Young Justice" universe, as made clear in an episode where several of the League members who are parents have a playdate with all their kids together.  Also, the "Young Justice" versions of certain characters are a lot closer to the comics continuity, and can be very different from what we've seen in other DC media. For instance, we're at a point in time where Terra and Cyborg are just being introduced, we're on our second iterations of Robin and Kid Flash, and Roy Harper is on friendly terms with both of his clones.  The big guns like Superman and Wonder Woman are around, but they only pop up now and then in a very limited fashion. Iit also helps if you are familiar with some of the current DC media - there's a parody segment in one episode that makes no sense unless you've seen "Teen Titans Go!" and know some of the history of the Doom Patrol.

I'm happy to report that none of the "Young Justice" gang has lost a step during the extended hiatus.  Everyone is back, with their original voice actors, the original show's creators Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti as showrunners, and the occasionally wonky, but mostly pretty solid animation from South Korea.  Dick, Megan, Conner, and Artemis have been allowed to grow up a bit more and relax, leaving the bulk of the personal dramatics to the new crop of teenage heroes. And boy, are there dramatics. All the best superhero soap opera tropes are here, from amnesia and tragic backstories to being mind-controlled by the bad guy.  The content's more adult though, with more graphic violence and darker themes. Human trafficking is big part of the story this year. 

I found the new characters pretty trite - Brion's the typical angry young hothead, and Violet's just the newest spin on the sheltered foreign girl, but they're allowed to grow and change quickly.  And it's a good sign that several of the characters I wasn't keen on in the early days of "Young Justice" are among my favorites now. While I may have missed a few references here and there, it wasn't hard to catch up on where everyone was, and the usual formula of superheroes going on missions and stopping the bad guys meant that individual episodes all remained very watchable, even if I wasn't familiar with the specific characters involved.  

I'd love to see "Young Justice" continue, as this universe is clearly not running out of stories to tell any time soon.  And I'd really like more time to work out a few of the remaining mysteries. Seriously, who is Snapper Carr again?        


Wednesday, October 30, 2019

"Big Little Lies," Year Two

Spoilers for the first season ahead.

There's been a lot going on behind the scenes of "Big Little Lies" that place it in an unflattering light.  Andrea Arnold is credited as the director, but apparently didn't have creative control. David E. Kelly and Liane Moriarty wrote every episode, but this run of episodes never shakes the feeling of being a wholly unnecessary sequel to the original miniseries.  The performances remain strong, and Meryl Streep's involvement is treat, but they're in service of a project that never quite comes together.

The second series of "Big Little Lies" examines the aftermath of Perry's death on the lives and relationships of the "Monterey Five."  Most of the big fireworks involve Celeste and Perry's mother, Mary Louise (Streep) becoming embroiled in a tug of war over the parenting of the twins.  Meanwhile, Bonnie reconnects with her mother Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), Madeline and Ed are in crisis over her infidelity, Renata discovers she's been living in a house of cards, and Jane is dating a co-worker, Corey (Douglas Smith).  Each storyline is fairly separate from the others, though the protagonists often meet up for clandestine huddles to discuss the continuing progress of the investigation into Perry's death.   

Over the course of seven episodes, we watch each story play out, some in very straightforward terms, some obliquely.  Celeste and Mary Louise's battles feel like David E. Kelley falling back on standard legal drama tropes. The implosion of Renata's life is showy and over-the-top.  Bonnie's story is very internal and the closest to Andrea Arnold's usual style - and sadly, the most affected by unfortunate cuts and excisions. I like that each story feels tailored to each actress, so Laura Dern gets to raise hell, Shailene Woodley gets a sweet romance, and Nicole Kidman gets some showstopper monologues.  Compared to the first season, however, it feels like there's much less going on, especially under the surface.  

Maybe it's because the characters are far more transparent now - we know everyone is feeling guilt and pressure from being complicit in the big lie.  There aren't many personal secrets left to uncover, and the few that do come to light feel comparatively minor. The conceit of everyone maintaining this veneer of perfection is mostly gone from the show - the gossipy Greek chorus framing device has been removed, and there's little outside pressure on the characters from the community, aside from a single bullying incident.  Big issues are simplified down to the point where everything feels very telegraphed, and there aren't many surprises. Then there are the loose ends everywhere. Kathryn Newton's Abigail shows up in the first episode to pick a fight with Madeline and then disappears for the rest of the season. One has to wonder why they bothered bringing her back at all.

A lot of the controversy revolves around Andrea Arnold's work being handed over to a team of editors who were tasked with making it look as much like Jean Marc Vallee's work on the first season as possible.  The trouble is that while the two directors' styles may look superficially similar, there are some significant differences. A big one is the pacing. Multiple episodes feel like they run short or have been truncated, because sequences created with Arnold's more lyrical output in mind have been rejiggered to fit Vallee's staccato editing style.  It's all very watchable, but you can't get away from the sense that something's not quite right.

So what's left?  The performances offer some reasons to watch.  Meryl Streep makes Mary Louise into a fantastically hateable villain, a soft-spoken manipulator and rug-sweeper full of terrible insinuations.  She spends the first several episodes creeping around the edges of the story and providing some great moments of tension. Laura Dern is fully unleashed as Renata's life falls into shambles, and there are some wonderfully entertaining rants and rages to enjoy.  Nicole Kidman remains the show's MVP, holding together a lot of the weaker material. And there's an awful lot of weaker material.    

In the end, HBO got more "Big Little Lies," but without taking the necessary time or creative steps to let the creators make something on the same level as  the miniseries. Instead, we got a compromised, oddly-formed new batch of episodes that aren't without their charms, but hardly worth all the fuss.