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Five for Friday - May 21, 2021

The Underground Railroad: Director Barry Jenkins has suggested not binging this. That is a kindness, and a reminder that you can press pause on the tragedy and brutality at the heart of this Amazon Prime series, whereas those who lived and died through the events it depicts did not.

Adapted from Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the story follows Cora and Cesar, who were enslaved on a Georgia plantation, as they make their way along the railroad, reimagined as a real rail system. Pursuing them is slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway and Homer, a 10-year-old Black boy. Jenkins constantly navigates a deft balance between presenting the harrowing acts of racism and anti-Black violence that inform Whitehead's story and the trauma of depicting those acts over and over again in productions like this. That said, there is an ongoing palpable sense of unease and dread through all the episodes I've watched (six as of today), even when Jenkins has the cameras trained on nature. The world he captures is alternately indifferent to the harrowing events that are unfolding or equally cruel in its own way.

Although Thuso Mbedu, who plays Cora, is the heart and soul of this series, and continually brings elements of resolve and agency to the fore even as she is fighting for her life, there are two other performances that are equally astonishing. Fred Hechinger is somehow even more monstrous and unsettling as a young Arnold Ridgeway than Joel Edgerton is as the adult Ridgeway. At times, Hechinger's countenance is almost serpentine. But the real discovery here is Chase W. Dillon as Homer. Dillon has a comportment, a presence, that belies his youth and gives Homer a rich inner life that, at least up to episode six, we are not quite party to. An impressive performance in an even more impressive production.

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On: I think many people see the album's title as a question. But there is no question mark there. Although there is interrogation through out this landmark recording, Gaye intends the title more as a setup. Talk to him so you can see what's going on, he says.

And Gaye talks at length about what was going on. Fish full of mercury. Too many people dying in war. Picket lines. Picket signs. Punishing brutality. You forget 50 years have passed since he made this album. Apart from the specifics of the war, and other details, he could be singing about what is going on now.

Like Jenkins, Gaye tempers the hardships, heartaches, and hatred that inform the lyrics, but with gently insistent mid-tempo Motown grooves. They lull. They soothe. But Gaye keeps pulling the bandage off. He testifies and serves as his own choir. He outlines the injustices we visit on others based on creed and color. He decries how we desecrate our world. He wants to holler. He does. And you can hear the hurt all these years on. Because it is has been picked up on and magnified by many other artists over the years. If, after all that, you you still see the album's title as a question, here's your answer: 'Same ol' same ol'.'

Hacks: What have we done to deserve Jean Smart? Not only is she killing it in Mare of Easttown, we are now blessed with this acerbic comedy in which she plays a Las Vegas comedian who is paired with a young comedy writer who jeopardized her career with a tweet.

Yeah, the setup is pretty familiar, but there is no sentimentality and little feel-good here. Smart revels in playing an unapologetically caustic comedian who knows her value even if her material and her age have others questioning it. This has been a strong year for comedies and now, with her at the helm of this prickly gem, it's even better.

Amazon in talks to buy MGM: When MGM put itself up for sale a few months ago, my initial thoughts were 'Amazon or Apple will scoop it up.' It just makes sense. Both have slender catalogs compared to Paramount+, Peacock, Disney+, Netflix, and whatever the the combined WarnerMedia-Discovery thingy will be.

The reported price is $9 billion, which seems steep for a studio that is a long way from its glory days, has traded hands several times, and lost a chunk of its iconic intellectual property as a result. But MGM still owns thousands of titles from United Artists, PolyGram, Orion, and the Samuel Goldwyn Company. And they have IP such as Rocky, Pink Panther, and the James Bond films. So it wouldn't surprise me if Amazon does put the studio in its basket and proceed to checkout.

Cher's 75th birthday was this week: I think we're safe to celebrate that. That is, unless, she could turn back time.

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