Recommendations: The Rehearsal and The Black Phone

Nathan Fielder stands looking at an array of screens in The Rehearsal
Photograph by Courtesy of HBO

We’re here each week (or most weeks) with recommendations from a collection of our staff. These won’t always be about new things (though sometimes they are), but they will always be about things that we think are worth your time. This week, Caemeron recommends Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal and Paul suggests answering the call of The Black Phone.

TV Recommendation: The Rehearsal

Caemeron Crain: If you’re a fan of Nathan Fielder, I hardly need to tell you to watch The Rehearsal, but I will anyway. Watch it now, as the discourse around the show is building and at least one “regular person” who’s appeared has proceeded to give an interview about his experience. This thing’s bound to continue seeping out of its frame and into the real world in ways that are hard to predict.

If you aren’t familiar with Fielder’s previous work, I equally recommend that you check out The Rehearsal. It would be an interesting place to start, I think, and beyond that, it may well be the most interesting work of television to air this year.  At least, I can’t think of anything quite like it (and that includes Nathan for You).

The premise (to begin with) is simple: Nathan stages rehearsals of coming life events for people. Want to prepare for a difficult conversation with a friend? Why not recreate every aspect of the environment where that conversation will occur and play out every possible permutation imaginable to make sure it goes well?

But things just get more complex from there. The Rehearsal is a comedy, though Nathan’s clients are real people. The humor may or may not work for you, as I can’t imagine it does for everyone if I’m honest, but if nothing else you have to appreciate the very form of this show. We get rehearsals for rehearsals and pretty soon it’s hard to pin down what “reality” might mean.

Go and watch the first episode. If it doesn’t hook you, that’s fair, but if it does I highly recommend you catch up and try to watch the remainder of the season in a timely way over the next few weeks.

The Rehearsal airs on HBO on Fridays at 11 pm EDT, and I’m writing about each episode if you’re interested.

Film Recommendation: The Black Phone

Paul Keelan: Blumhouse films are easy on the eyes but not on the mind. Their latest lives up to their reputation in spades. The Black Phone should open with a disclaimer: Beware of losing brain cells if you dare think during this movie. Everything in the script is manufactured and cheap—vacuous frills superficially crafted to pander to a forgiving audience. The serial killer, The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), has zero motive or psychological complexity—he’s about as well delineated as his stupid name. He carries black balloons and drives a black van both of which serve as nothing but showy, meaningless decor. He then kidnaps children and holds them hostage in his bare-bones basement, but we dare not learn or ask why. And the significant escape attempts of our protagonist—a relocated rug, a giant hole, a missing grate over a small window, etc.—remain utterly, incompetently ignored, despite the obviousness of the alterations.

The supernatural elements are perhaps the most inane aspects of all. There’s a dollhouse, a phone that connects to the dead, a precocious girl haunted by visions—all half-assed tropes that never synthesize or coalesce in a clever manner. Every major development feels clumsily shoehorned in—providing a master class on how to lazily construct deus ex machina. The titular black phone is itself a dumb McGuffin—planted to turn the kidnapping scenario into a “suspenseful” escape room. The whole setup makes no sense. Why or how the dead ghosts appear (in horrendous makeup) is preposterously unexplained. Why they’ve all left clues and getaway routes is unquestioned. How they enjoy omnipresent powers is just presumed.

There is one silver lining, however, that makes it all worthwhile, and that’s Madeleine McGraw. She’s excellent as Gwen, the young firebrand sister to our kidnapped protagonist Finney (Mason Thames). Even when she’s forced to awkwardly commune with the dead or curse or cry, she sells every emotional beat and line. Her eyes radiate with intelligence and emotion. She evokes a level of maturity rarely seen in facile horror fodder—conveying the visceral emotional and psychological underlining of an otherwise empty/shallow role. Stuck in a nebulous script, McGraw shines brightly. She is a verified star, and she alone is worthy of the price of admission.

Written by TV Obsessive

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