The big controversy at the Oscars this year was the slap heard around the world, but the day before, the headlines were about whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would make an appearance on the broadcast, which Sean Penn insisted must happen. In the end, there was no video from Zelensky’s bunker on the awards show, but if you are fascinated by this president’s video messages widely circulated on social media and want to see more of him, you can watch Servant of the People on Netflix.
This is the comedy series he helped develop and it ran from 2015-2019, the year he was elected president. He plays a Ukrainian history teacher, who is divorced, struggles to pay his debts and lives with his parents. When he rants about corruption in the country to a friend, a student films his tirade and the clip goes viral to great public approval. This inspires him to run for president, an office he thinks he has no chance of winning. But, a shadowy group of oligarch-like businessmen each think he is in the pocket of another like minded billionaire and they see to it that he gets elected. Of course, he is not the puppet they think he is, hence the title, and the series plays out like a Ukrainian version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
“This is some story – a history teacher makes it into history. I do know one thing: One should act in a way that doesn’t evoke shame when looking into children’s eyes... This is what I promise you, the people of Ukraine,” he says in a speech, knowing his students are looking on.
Zelensky looks decades younger although the first season was filmed only seven years ago. There are a few jokes aimed at Putin, notably in the first episode, when Zelensky’s character’s first decision as president is which luxury watch he wants to wear. But, most of the focus is against the corruption weakening Ukraine, as these sinister businessmen steal the wealth the average citizens labor to create. It’s an earnest series and the jokes are broad, but it touched a chord among Ukrainians. They so loved the president he played on the air that people insisted they would vote for him if he ran, and the rest, as they say, is history.
You may not enjoy this series as much as, say, Saturday Night Live or Wonderful Country (Eretz Nehederet), but we foreigners were never the target audience. But, if you watch it, it will definitely give you insight into who Zelensky is and how this Jewish comedian made the unlikely journey from entertainment to becoming an inspiring and brave wartime leader.
Speaking of the Oscars again, the Best Picture winner, CODA, is available to stream on Apple TV+. It’s a good-natured drama, a remake of a French film about Ruby (Emilia Jones), a teenage girl who can hear but whose parents and brother are deaf – CODA stands for “children of deaf adults.” Troy Kotsur, a deaf actor who managed against all odds to carve out a career for himself in theater and film, won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as the father, an emotional and often profane fisherman in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
MARLEE MATLIN, who blazed a trail for deaf performers by winning a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Children of a Lesser God (1986), is perfectly cast as her sexy, impulsive mother. Matlin mostly appeared on television following her Oscar win and was a regular on such series as Switched at Birth, The West Wing and The L Word. But, the strength of their performances cannot overcome the mediocrity of the movie, the plot of which creates a conflict: Her parents need her hearing skills to help her run their fishing business and fight the predatory businessmen who keep prices for fish too low, while she wants to go to music college to become a singer, a pursuit her parents see as unimportant, even rebellious.
Although her singing voice does not sound all that extraordinary, her eccentric and demanding choir teacher (Eugenio Derbez) insists she is talented enough to obtain a scholarship if she works hard enough. But, in the pursuit of a feel-good finale, every obstacle that the script (for which writer/director Sian Heder won an Oscar that reflected the good will for the film more than its actual quality) set up as critical suddenly disappears so people can clap and hug at the end.
CODA won because it was in the right place at the right time – a movie about disabled adults played by actors with those disabilities (what is called authentic casting) and because it has a working-class setting, which Academy voters adore, but mostly because it is upbeat in a year in which there is so much darkness (the continuing pandemic, the war in Ukraine, inflation, and so on).
There’s a really interesting movie struggling to get out of this clichéd script, about what it’s like to be the only one in your family who can hear – which inspires both guilt, resentment and occasionally, feelings of superiority in Ruby. When she first came to school, she was teased mercilessly by the other kids because she spoke like a deaf person, we are told, but much about her experiences are left unsaid and undeveloped. In spite of this, does it make for entertaining viewing? Yes, for most of its running time, but had it not won Best Picture, you would likely never think of it as a movie of the year.
Minx, the latest HBO series, guaranteed to offend some and entertain others, tells the story of Joyce Prigger (Olivia Lovibond), a Vassar graduate in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, who wants to start a feminist magazine and ends up getting financed by a pornographer and creating a hybrid politics and erotica publication for women. It premiers on Hot HBO on Thursday at 10:45 p.m. and will also run on Hot VOD and Next TV. Loosely based on several real magazines, it also has echoes of an Israeli publication, Bul, which mixed leftist articles with nude shots and the story of which was a part of Avi Nesher’s 2016 film, Past Life, and was run by a married couple.
Minx is fun, but far from flawless. It sets Jane up as a humorless prig (did her name have to be Prigger), only to have her gradually embrace being part of the Bottom Dollar magazine empire created by Doug Renetti (Jake Johnson of New Girl). The comedy comes mostly from the conflict between her buttoned-up, humorless feminist outlook and the compromises she has to make to get her magazine out there. It gets really funny.
The first couple of episodes are a little too on the nose, but if you are willing to give it time, it gets better. Lennon Parham, who made a big impression in just a couple of scenes as a real-estate agent on Mad Men, is a standout as Joyce’s outwardly conservative but secretly adventurous sister. Those who enjoyed Weeds, Orange is the New Black and GLOW will enjoy this.
Obviously, in a series about an erotic magazine, there is a great deal of nudity and much of it is male, so you have been warned.