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What we’re watching: Stanley Tucci adventures to Italy, ‘When Calls the Heart’ and the friendly Muppets

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 2/26/2021 Michael Phillips, Nina Metz, Tracy Swartz, Darcel Rockett, Scott L. Powers and Lauren Hill, Chicago Tribune
Stanley Tucci, Daniel Lissing, Erin Krakow posing for the camera: This ll be the limited series to beat this year a moving, exuberant, bittersweet marvel of a British import, written by "Queer As Folk" creator Russell T Davies. In 1981, aspiring actor Ritchie, barkeep Roscoe and shy, dear Welshman Colin become friends and roommates along with Ritchie s university friend Jill. Spanning a decade, the five episodes are superbly cast,... © Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune This ll be the limited series to beat this year a moving, exuberant, bittersweet marvel of a British import, written by "Queer As Folk" creator Russell T Davies. In 1981, aspiring actor Ritchie, barkeep Roscoe and shy, dear Welshman Colin become friends and roommates along with Ritchie s university friend Jill. Spanning a decade, the five episodes are superbly cast,...

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“It’s a Sin”

This’ll be the limited series to beat this year — a moving, exuberant, bittersweet marvel of a British import, written by “Queer As Folk” creator Russell T Davies. In 1981, aspiring actor Ritchie (Olly Alexander), barkeep Roscoe (Omari Douglas) and shy, dear Welshman Colin (Callum Scott Howells) become friends and roommates along with Ritchie’s university friend Jill (Lydia West). They’re free, to varying degrees, from the homophobia and parental expectations of their old lives, and as the “Chorus Line” lyric puts it, now life really begins. But word of an American “gay cancer” has started to circulate. Spanning a decade, the five episodes are superbly cast, with some U.S.-familiar faces (Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry) and a host of wonderful relative newcomers bringing Davies’ story to life. (HBO Max) — Michael Phillips

“Mom”

Last week it was announced the current season of the CBS sitcom “Mom” would be its last. I’m not sure “Mom” has ever received the acclaim it deserved. It wasn’t until the show’s second season that it really found its footing and became centered primarily on the push-pull dynamic between a mother (Allison Janney’s brazenly unfiltered Bonnie) and her adult daughter (Anna Faris’s put-on Christy), both of whom are picking up the pieces of their lives after years of substance abuse. Faris left the show this year for unspecified reasons and though the supporting cast (a group of women who attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings together) has always been strong, without that central tension between Bonnie and Christy, the show feels a bit lost without their odd couple energy. So if you’ve never had the pleasure, may I recommend going back and starting with Season 2 and watching through Season 6 or so (Christy’s children vanished without a trace in Season 7; it was weird). Money is often tight — a theme often left untouched on other sitcoms — and relapses are treated with far more realism than the Very Special Episodes of old. These are legitimately messy people, but they feel real and fully developed. (CBS All Access/Paramount+) — Nina Metz

“Life in a Day 2020”

This 87-minute film is a compilation of footage shot around the world on one day, July 25, 2020. The filmmakers said they received more than 300,000 videos from 192 countries for this project, which is a unique look at how people go about their lives. Scenes from Chicago’s Black Lives Matter protests are featured. — Tracy Swartz

“When Calls the Heart”

Eight seasons in, and you’d think there would be no surprises in the frontier town that is Hope Valley. But you would be wrong. “When Calls the Heart” is back on Hallmark to show us just how much a love triangle can take our minds off of a pandemic. This season, Lucas Bouchard (Chris McNally) brings his mother to town, just when we thought we knew which way Elizabeth (Erin Krakow) was going to go. Will she pick the mountie with a heart of gold or the businessman with class? Here’s hoping we know early on so we can see the relationship unfold the rest of the season. Don’t get me wrong, we love the other couples on the show. Rosemary LeVeaux Coulter (Pascale Hutton) and Leland Coulter (Kavan Smith) should be labeled the most perfect pairing in coupledom. But now that Elizabeth has finished her first book, we want to see more growth on her end. Yes, I want more “When Calls the Drama.” (Hallmark) — Darcel Rockett

“Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy”

As an admitted food illiterate, I was always drawn to Anthony Bourdain’s punk take on cultures of the world as told through cuisine. The food was rarely something I would eat, but the lives built around it were always fascinating. Stanley Tucci brings a more sophisticated take to his new CNN series (broadcast Sundays and on demand), which was recently renewed for a second season. Granted, Italy is a more familiar place in both its food and its culture, and Tucci’s clothes and basic Italian speech gives him more of an insider’s look than was often the case with Bourdain. It all works — and makes me want to travel and eat there when this pandemic is finally behind us. (CNN) — Scott L. Powers

“The Muppet Show”

Attention fans: “The Muppet Show” has finally made it to Disney+! All five seasons of the original show of our favorite felt friends — Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear and so many more — are now streaming. I was not lucky enough to grow up during a time when I could watch these puppets every Friday night along with a new guest star, like Julie Andrews or Vincent Price. Instead I grew up with ritual viewings of “The Muppets Christmas Carol” and singing along with Tim Curry and the motley crew of “Muppets Treasure Island.” After having to endure the atrocious “Muppets Most Wanted” and bland “Muppets Now” shorts, I am happy to devote my time to the original Muppets — entertaining, funny and nostalgic. — Lauren Hill

February 19

“Nomadland”

It’s a singular experience, watching Chloé Zhao’s film “Nomadland” — a drama about a woman rerouting her life in far-flung directions, in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown — from the vantage point of our own crises today. It’s a fine and bittersweet beauty in any case. Frances McDormand plays a woman living off the grid, as one of the American West’s nomadic travelers, following the jobs, making friends where she can, getting a little closer to herself. Zhao’s previous film, “The Rider,” is amazing; by contrast, “Nomadland” has its moments of dramatic convenience and contrivance, but very few, and its sense of landscape and character is rare indeed. (Theaters, Hulu) — Michael Phillips

“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel”

The docuseries explores the death of Cecil Hotel guest Elisa Lam, who was discovered in a rooftop water tank at the notorious Los Angeles hotel in 2013. The four-hour project provides new insight into Lam’s death, but only after devoting too much time to wild conspiracy theories. (Netflix) — Tracy Swartz

“Men in Kilts”

“Outlander” stars Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish host this Scotland-based travel docuseries and, charming as they are, I think I was was hoping the show would have less of an earnestly careful “approved by the tourism board” feel to it and embody more of the antic spirit of the road trip restaurant tours hosted by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon throughout various incarnations of “The Trip” (which originally covered locales in north of England and would later expand to include travels through Spain, Italy and Greece). In the plus column, McTavish wears a cable knit sweater and tweed newsboy cap well. “I think we need to bless this van,” he tells Hueghan from the passenger seat. “We love you van, I’ve given you maps to eat.” All said, you could find worse ways to spend a half-hour every week. (Starz) — Nina Metz

“The Equalizer”

“The Equalizer” is one of those shows that if you’ve lived long enough, you’ve seen all the iterations. I am one such person who has seen the 1985 drama with the late Edward Woodward, the movies with Denzel Washington (directed by Antoine Fuqua), and now the CBS version with Queen Latifah in the lead. Granted, I didn’t want to be skeptical, because it’s the Queen, amiright? But I was. After two episodes, I’m skeptical no more. With Adam Goldberg as the tech guy helping Queen’s Robyn McCall — a mom who is juggling saving the world with family life — I’m all in. McCall is a savior without the complex who is battling her own demons. What’s not to like? She is every Black woman I’ve ever known. Needless to say, I can’t stop watching. (CBS) — Darcel Rockett

“A Discovery of Witches”

“A Discovery of Witches,” based on the wonderful book series by Deborah Harkness and now on its second season, is about the reluctant witch and history professor Diana (Teresa Palmer) who meets vampire Matthew (Matthew Goode) in a world where the species are forbidden to love each other. Diana discovers an ancient book full of secrets and truths, sending every creature after her while also allowing her greatest power to awaken. This is not your typical vampire romance. (AMC+, Sundance Now, Shudder, VOD) — Lauren Hill

“The Social Dilemma”

Pandemic documentaries aside, “The Social Dilemma” is one of the most frightening films you can watch. We can debate the use of dramatic license clouding the disturbing message in this 94-minute film. But this remains the story of how Facebook, Twitter and other social media, including news media sites, take our participation and use it to over-amplify our beliefs, accelerate the “us vs. them” stratification of the culture, and at worst, destroy the line between truth and lies. The strengths of this 2020 documentary are the interviews with the Facebook, Twitter and Google executives who brought us here, and wish they hadn’t. All of this begs the question “The Social Dilemma” doesn’t deal with in any satisfying way: “So, now what?” There’s not enough of that, and turning off your phones and computers just isn’t enough in 2021. (Netflix) — Scott L. Powers

February 12

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

What am I watching? Well, how about I tell you what I’m re-watching when I get the chance: “Judas and the Black Messiah.” It’s a Chicago story few know well, and very few know about the FBI informant William O’Neal who, in 1968 and 1969, infiltrated the Illinois Black Panther Party, ingratiated himself with chairman Fred Hampton — and ended up aiding law enforcement officials prepare a so-called “raid” that was, underneath, by definition and conspiracy, a mission to assassinate Hampton. Director and co-writer Shaka King’s bracing, vividly acted drama splits the narrative difference between Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). A bit wobbly in its final third, but well worth seeing. And re-seeing. (In theaters, HBO Max) — Michael Phillips

“Miami Vice”

Don Johnson returns to television Feb. 16 co-starring on the NBC sitcom “Kenan” (with “SNL’s” Kenan Thompson in the title role). While I have so many concerns about cop shows in general, I was inspired to go back and watch “Miami Vice,” the show that made Johnson famous, starting with the 1984 pilot. The show lives in my memory as a very intense primetime crime drama, but the pilot is funnier than I expected — especially the underrated Phillip Michael Thomas. A lot was made at the time about the show’s clothing and music, and really, the look and sound of the show is half the fun. The series became increasingly darker as the seasons progressed, but the two-hour pilot (titled “Brother’s Keeper”) is such a well-made episode of television that works as a stand-alone movie all its own. (p.s. Sonny has a pet alligator named Elvis that he keeps chained up on his boat and it’s meant to be comic relief? I have no memory of this and I hate it.) (NBC/Hulu/Starz/Amazon) — Nina Metz

“I May Destroy You”

Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” was one of the best new television series in 2020. And yet the critically acclaimed show — created, written, co-directed, executive produced and starring Coel — was snubbed by the Golden Globes. The HBO drama series follows British 20-something writer Arabella Essiedu (Coel), an overnight success following her debut novel. She decides to take a break and meet up with friends in London as she struggles to meet the deadline for her second book. When she wakes up the next morning, she can’t remember any events from the night before because her drink was spiked, but it’s clear she was date-raped. The sexual assault pushes Arabella to question her friends, career and her life. (HBO Max) — Hannah Herrera Greenspan

“Search Party”

“Search Party,” which follows four friends trying to find a missing woman who went to college with them, is at its best when it’s poking fun at Millennial narcissism. The recently released fourth season has a darker tone than past seasons as it explores the consequences of the friends’ actions. (HBO Max) — Tracy Swartz

“Resident Alien”

The premise: An alien crashes on Earth and hides in the Colorado mountain town of Patience by assuming the identity of the town doctor. The otherworldly being is up to no good (think extinction event), but even as he pulls wool over the eyes of everyone in the town, one kid can see him for who he is. Blame it on my penchant for the quirky ( I was a fan of “Eureka,” “Warehouse 13” and “Lost Girl”), but watching Alan Tudyk, doing what he does best embodying the unusual and making it memorable, is always worth the time and energy. Add to that Corey Reynolds from “The Closer” doing comedy (he plays the sheriff), I can’t look away. (Syfy) — Darcel Rockett

“The Magicians”

Apparently, I don’t need to be 11 years old to become a magic-wielding expert. According to SyFy original series “The Magicians,” I can go to magic grad school. Called magicians — not wizards — 20-somethings are admitted into Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, a secretive schoolthat can only be accessed with the right training. Over five seasons, Quentin, Alice, Eliot, Penny, Kady and Margo fight villains, discover enchanted worlds and unearth the limits of magic’s power. (Netflix) — Lauren Hill

“Pretend It’s A City”

Among many of her great talents, writer Fran Lebowitz is one of the all-time great talk-show guests. For 10 minutes, she can be razor-sharp perceptive, surprising, off-the-wall as well as intentionally annoying. My question was: Will she continue to captivate over 30 interrupted minutes skewering the Manhattan innocents in her midst and ranting about the unmannered culture of the city? I’m now about a third of the way through Netflix seven-part series on her — directed by Martin Scorsese, who also provides his own, constant laugh-track — and Lebowitz does not overstay her welcome. Leavening the series — which was filmed in a variety of settings and locations from taverns to town halls — are the sequences when she discusses with reverence what moves her. Jazz at the Village Vanguard, the New York Dolls, Motown, Charles Mingus all get the kind of monologues the talk-show format can’t accommodate, rounding her out as much more than a crank. (Netflix) — Scott L. Powers

“Small Axe”

Michael Phillips’ November rapturous review of the first three episodes in British director Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology series is spot on. The final two episodes, too, add to the glorious whole, a deeply inhabited exploration of West Indians in London over several decades. These stories are wrenching for the portrayal of official Britain’s casually brutal racism, but also exuberant in the way the immigrant community and its descendants find and fight for their own space despite those constraints. The fifth episode, “Education,” about a boy in a system that doesn’t see his potential, or even his potential for potential, will break and then partially mend your heart.

A thing I found particularly exhilarating throughout the series is the innovation in McQueen’s use of music. The director delights in giving us whole songs, hanging with them where other filmmakers would cut away: women singing a popular song a cappella in a kitchen, a burned-out teacher at a “special” school whose only interest in his students is their availability as an audience for his dismal (but very thorough!) folk singing. Like many people I watched a lot of television during these pandemic months; for its reach, for the enlightenment it delivers, for its contemporary resonance, and for its visual and auditory beauty, “Small Axe” is the very best thing I’ve seen. (Amazon Prime) — Steve Johnson

February 5

“The Dig”

Even with Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan front and center, little in the trailer of “The Dig” seemed particularly promising, but I gave it a go and it’s good. Some of it’s true, too: Along the east coast of Britain in 1939, with war clouds looming, self-taught Suffolk archeologist Basil Brown was hired by ailing widow Edith Pretty to discover if anything of value lay beneath the earth mounds on her property. There was indeed, and the remains and artifacts of a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon burial ship stunned the world. Fiennes is Basil; Mulligan is Edith; around the halfway point of director Simon Stone’s film, the focus (for better or worse) shifts to others in the orbit of the excavation effort, particularly characters played by Lily James and Johnny Flynn. Based on the 2007 novel by John Preston, “The Dig” freely mixes fact and invention, overloading the crises a bit but generally succeeding. A fair amount of screenwriter Moira Buffini’s dialogue plays out as Terrence Malick-styled voiceover, while the camera focuses on the stark beauty of the surroundings, and men and women actually doing the work. The results are trim, well-made and quite moving. So much for my prejudgments. (Netflix) — Michael Phillips

“Dickinson”

“Dickinson” wants to appeal to people who both paid attention in lit class and watched all the teen dramas on the WB. The story of the great, enigmatic, mid-19th-century western Massachusetts poet Emily, retold with 2021 slang and soundtrack, teeters on the edge of excellence. I stuck with the first season despite a rocky start and was rewarded by the end, as the show found a surer hand with its comedy and a powerful arc as the heroine (Hailee Steinfeld) came into her own as an aspiring poet. But season 2, newly out this year, is a reset through the first three episodes in terms of its deliberate anachronisms — which are again feeling more willful than gleeful — and its dashing of Dickinson’s new-found self-confidence. I’ll stick with it, though, because it’s all breezy enough, and because each episode takes as its backbone one of the poet’s gloriously intense little verses. (Apple TV+) — Steve Johnson

“Grown-ish”

The midseason premiere brings us to Zoey Johnson’s transition from college life to the full-time job of stylist. She’s more self-assured and after the last kiss with Aaron, really feeling herself. But then reality sets in, as it always does. It looks like this third season will be more grown than previous ones, what with new mom Nomi as well as Jazz and Doug taking a break from their serious relationship. Maybe with so many pauses, we can actually see Vivek’s character develop further. (Freeform) — Darcel Rockett

“Ramy”

You probably never heard of Ramy Youssef or his hit show “Ramy” before he won the 2020 Golden Globe for best actor in a television series. This comedy-drama series chronicles first-generation Egyptian American Muslim Ramy Hassan (portrayed by Youssef) as he navigates the awkwardness of being an American millennial and his cultural expectations. Unlike his Muslim friends, Hassan breaks all the rules with porn and premarital sex. The series has been renewed for a third season, so now is a great time to get caught up. (Hulu) — Hannah Herrera Greenspan

“Trading Places”

Maybe it was the unfurling GameStop story that prompted me to revisit 1983 1/4 u2032s “Trading Places,” starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, who give a couple of old-guard stock-market players a sour taste of their own medicine. My thoughts, in no particular order: 1.) There’s the unpleasant reminder that Aykroyd does blackface in the film (the script also tosses around racial epithets, albeit with a purpose), 2.) I still don’t understand the plot’s scheme, which involves frozen orange juice concentrate futures (a real commodity!) 3.) Chicagoans will find it interesting to note that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange would not let director John Landis shoot on location, so New York it was, which is a shame since the Merc closed its raucous trading pits in 2015 in favor of frictionless digital action, 4.) Murray and Aykroyd really are a terrific pairing, as are Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche as the fictional blue bloods who are philosophically not all that different from these types in real life. 5.) Jamie Lee Curtis is wonderful and she deserved better than the multiple scenes wherein she takes off her top for no reason other than titillation. 6.) See if you can spot a cameo from Giancarlo Esposito! (Video on Demand) — Nina Metz

“Headshot”

You’re thinking, “I want a movie that makes a John Woo bullet fest seem like a romcom?” Meet Iko Uwais. Woo’s “Hard Boiled” is still the greatest actioner known to mankind, but this revenge epic is right up there. (Netflix) — Kevin Williams

“Death to 2020”

So much for 2021 being better than 2020, but this British mockumentary from “Black Mirror” creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones is like a greatest hits of the uncomfortable comic routines that were made as the United States seemed to have a nervous breakdown. A star-driven cast — including Hugh Grant as a tone-deaf historian, Cristin Milioti as a dangerously clueless soccer mom and Samuel L. Jackson as a New York Times-like reporter — keep the comic lines coming so when one tanks (and many do) then next one is on the way. News footage brings a sense of truthiness to the 70-minute program, which is about 10 minutes longer than it should be. (Netflix) — Scott L. Powers

“Lupin”

Think “Oceans Eleven” with one man and add a dash of revenge. Played by Omar Sy, a gentlemanly thief sets out to steal a priceless diamond necklace from the Louvre. This French five-episode series keeps you on the edge of your seat as a man tries to avenge his father who was wrongly accused years ago. A tip: Skip the dubbing; it sounds better in French. (Netflix) — Lauren Hill

“Jeopardy!”

When Alex Trebek died in November, it was tough to imagine “Jeopardy!” without him. But Ken Jennings has been masterful as a guest host, and there’s optimism that future guest hosts, including Mayim Bialik and Katie Couric, will add their own special touches. Chicagoans may want to tune out Aaron Rodgers’s upcoming run as guest host, though. Watching him control another game may be too much to bear. (WLS-Ch. 7) — Tracy Swartz

What you’re watching

Lance from Hyde Park wants to remind Netflix viewers of the “sleeper”: “The Devil All The Time”. The film includes “outstanding performances from the entire cast,” including Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson.

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