2018 'Ghost List' Revisits The TV, Books And Movies A Critic Wishes He Covered

Dec 17, 2018
Originally published on December 17, 2018 1:41 pm

It's often said that we regret the things we don't do more than the ones we do. Each December, I'm haunted by all the books, movies and shows that I've loved but haven't managed to get on the air. Wailing in my ear and rattling my shelves, these neglected spirits come together to demand their rightful places on what I call my annual Ghost List.

Paddington 2 (available on DVD, HBO, and streaming on multiple platforms)

In his new London-based adventure, the polite, infinitely trusting Peruvian bear runs afoul of a scheming ham actor — played with hilarious Oscar-worthy glee by Hugh Grant — who frames him for a crime. Directed and co-written by Paul King, the movie is a gift basket of inventive scenes, glorious production design and immaculately timed jokes. It's all in the service of something touchingly rare in today's movies: a celebration of unfailing decency, kindness, and faith.

Heads of the Colored People, by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Atria Publishing)

This witty and perceptive collection of stories offers a keen look at upper-middle-class African-Americans who live and work in predominantly white spaces. Thompson-Spires' writing can be laugh-out-loud funny but, as in the brilliant title story, her work carries a kick of sadness that comes from her awareness that writing truthfully about African-American life means that you can't escape writing about lives cut down in their prime.

Succession (HBO)

In this pop version of King Lear, a Rupert Murdoch-style media baron named Logan Roy battles with his four grown children for control of the family's media empire. It has everything you'd want in a high-class potboiler: scheming, back-biting, Oedipal rage, illicit sex, poisonous put-downs, startling betrayals, superb acting and a plot that keeps building to a brilliant, slyly sinister season one finale.

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, by Craig Brown (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

The most enjoyable biography I've ever read, Brown's book eschews the dull stuff to examine Margaret's literally entitled life from 99 different angles, from her marriage to a husband who gaslighted her, to her hobnobbing with the likes of Peter Sellers and Mick Jagger, to her legendarily breathtaking awfulness — she once flicked her cigarette ash into a passing man's open hand. Every single page of this book contains something interesting — like, who knew that our familiar horoscope, with its 12 signs, had its origin in Margaret's birth?

Happy as Lazzaro (Netflix)

A heady blend of folk tale and politicized realism, this beautiful new film from Italian director Alice Rohrwacher takes its title from its hero, a saintly young fellow who is lured into helping a young marquis fake his own kidnapping. From there, Lazzaro's story takes off in a wholly unexpected direction, one that makes you ask whether today's urban poor are any better off than feudal peasants — and also taps into a mythic wellspring of stories more ancient than Italy itself.

Ingmar Bergman's Cinema (The Criterion Collection)

Over the last 40 years, it's become cliche to declare Bergman wildly overrated, but the pendulum should swing in the other direction with the arrival of this fabulous new boxed set, a collector's must-have that brings together nearly 40 of his films on Blu-ray. Watching them, you see a driven artist who made great, magnificently acted films in vastly different styles — from the bleak realism of Summer with Monika to the Shakespearean comedy of Smiles of a Summer Night to the avant-garde splintering of Persona to the searing psycho-drama of Scenes from a Marriage. Intimacy was his theme — no modern filmmaker spent more time exploring the endlessly complicated relationship between men and women.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. It's that time of year when our critics make lists of the best things they've watched, read or listened to over the year. Our critic-at-large John Powers has a different kind of annual list, one he calls his ghost list, the things he wishes he'd reviewed but didn't.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It's often said that we regret the things we don't do even more than the ones we do. Each December, I'm haunted by all the books, movies and TV shows that I've loved but haven't managed to get on the air. Wailing in my ear and rattling my screensaver, these neglected spirits come together to demand their place in what I call my annual ghost list.

This year's list starts with the partly animated comedy "Paddington 2," the latest adventures of the polite, infinitely trusting Peruvian bear who lives in London. This time out, Paddington runs afoul of a scheming ham actor, played with hilarious Oscar-worthy glee by Hugh Grant, who frames him for a crime. Directed by Paul King, the movie is a gift basket of inventive scenes, glorious production design and immaculately timed jokes, all in the service of something touchingly rare in today's movies - a celebration of decency, kindness and faith.

The world's a far less forgiving place in "Heads Of The Colored People," a mischievously witty and perceptive collection of stories by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, who offers a keen look at upper-middle-class African-Americans who live and work in predominantly white spaces. Yet she does so obliquely, through a girl worried about sweating too much at school or two moms with doctorates exchanging savage one-upping letters about their daughters or anthropology students bickering about the stereotypes in an ethnography report about the bread eaten by Southern blacks. Thompson-Spires can be laugh-out-loud funny. But as in the brilliant title story, her work carries a kick of sadness. It comes from her awareness that writing truthfully about African-American life means you can't wholly escape writing about lives being cut down in their prime.

Life should be much cushier for the ultra-rich characters on HBO's "Succession," a pop version of "King Lear" in which a Rupert Murdoch-style media baron, Logan Roy, battles with his four grown children for control of the family's empire. It has everything you'd want in a high-class potboiler - scheming, backbiting, Oedipal rage, illicit sex, poisonous putdowns, startling betrayals, superb acting and a story that builds to a brilliant, slyly sinister Season 1 finale. You get a brief flavor of the show in this scene when Roy, commandingly played by Brian Cox, surprises his kids with a bullying new request.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

JEREMY STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Dad?

BRIAN COX: (As Logan Roy) Yes?

KIERAN CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Yeah, what's the deal?

COX: (As Logan Roy) So on the family trust, which will decide the situation in the event of my unlikely demise, I'm going to add Marcy to myself and you four.

SARAH SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) Whoa, OK.

COX: (As Logan Roy) And my seat also to go to her on my death.

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) What? Wait; that gives her double voting weight.

COX: (As Logan Roy) Uh-huh. So I've got some paperwork...

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Whoa, whoa, whoa. What, so Marcia will have two votes when you...

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) If he.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Well, no, Rome, it's not an if.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Well, excuse me if I don't want him to...

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Well, it's not really what we want in this case, Rome.

POWERS: Filled with scenes like this one, "Succession" is enough to make you glad you're not rich and powerful - well, almost. Then again, it's probably worse to be one of the royals. Consider the case of Queen Elizabeth's stylish but frustrated younger sister, Princess Margaret, probably the best character on the terrific TV series "The Crown."

Her story gets told in Craig Brown's "99 Glimpses Of Princess Margaret," the most enjoyable biography I've ever read. Ignoring the dull stuff, Brown looks at Margaret's literally entitled life from 99 different angles, from her marriage to a husband who gaslighted her to her hobnobbing with the likes of Peter Sellers and Mick Jagger to her constant, legendarily breathtaking rudeness. She once flicked cigarette ash into a passing man's open hand.

Even as Brown merrily chronicles her awfulness, he's not without sympathy for Margaret, who emerges as a thwarted soul surrounded by rich and famous people who fawn in her presence and trash her in private. Every single page of this book contains something interesting. Who knew that our familiar horoscope with its 12 signs had its origins in Margaret's birth?

The aristocracy is no better in "Happy As Lazzaro," the beautiful new film from Italian director Alice Rohrwacher who offers a mysterious blend of folktale and politicized realism. Set on a tobacco-growing estate worked by sharecroppers, the movie takes its name from its hero, a saintly Paddington-like young fellow named Lazzaro. He's befriended by a young marquis who asks him to help fake his own kidnapping.

From there, Lazzaro's story takes off in a wholly unexpected direction, one that makes you ask whether today's urban poor are any better off than feudal peasants. But Rorhwacher is too gifted a filmmaker to give this question an easy, PC answer. Instead, "Happy As Lazzaro," which is streamable on Netflix, taps into a mythic wellspring of stories more ancient than Italy itself.

Mythology is only one facet of the work of Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker born 100 years ago this past July. Until the late 1970s, Bergman was widely reckoned the gold standard for what were known as art films. But over the last 40 years, it's become routine to call him overrated, hokily symbolic, embarrassingly theatrical, obsessed with a spiritual angst that has grown passe.

But the pendulum swung too far against him. For proof, you need merely look at Criterion's fabulous new box set "Ingmar Bergman's Cinema," a collector's must-have that brings together nearly 40 of his films on Blu-ray. Watching them, you see a driven artist who made great magnificently acted films in vastly different styles, from the bleak realism of "Summer With Monika" to the Shakespearean comedy of "Smiles Of The Summer Night" (ph) to the avant-garde splintering of "Persona" to the searing psychodrama of "Scenes From A Marriage."

Because Bergman was constantly involved with his leading ladies, often to their cost, no modern filmmaker spent more time exploring the endlessly complicated relationship between men and women. Intimacy was Bergman's theme and his genius. In this intimate time of year when everyone gets together, I hope you'll take pleasure in his ghostly company and the company of his companions on this list.

GROSS: John Powers writes about TV and film for Vogue and vogue.com. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Emily Blunt. She stars as Mary Poppins in the new film "Mary Poppins Returns." It has new songs and a new story. Blunt also costarred in "The Devil Wears Prada," "The Girl On The Train," "A Quiet Place" and the film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into The Woods." We'll close with Emily Blunt singing a song from the soundtrack of "Mary Poppins Returns."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN YOU IMAGINE THAT?")

EMILY BLUNT: (As Mary Poppins, singing) Some people like to splash and play - can you imagine that? - and take a seaside holiday. Can you imagine that? Too much glee leaves rings around the brain. Take that joy and send it down the drain. Some people like to laugh at life and giggle through the day. They think the world's a brand-new shiny toy. And if, while dreaming in the clouds, they fall and go kasplat (ph), although they're down and bent in half they brush right off and start to laugh. Can you imagine that?

On second thoughts, perhaps you're right. It makes no sense to take a bath this early.

JOEL DAWSON: (As Georgie Banks) Wait; I want to take a bath.

BLUNT: (As Mary Poppins) Oh, really? Up you go, and in you go.

DAWSON: (As Georgie Banks) Whoa.

NATHANAEL SALEH: (As John Banks) Georgie - what happened?

PIXIE DAVIES: (As Anabel Banks) Will they be all right?

BLUNT: (As Mary Poppins) Well, it is just a bath after all. But then again, it's not my tub.

DAVIES: (As Anabel Banks) Shouldn't you go in after them?

BLUNT: (As Mary Poppins) Oh, no. I had my bath this morning, thank you.

SALEH: (As John Banks) Well, if you won't, I will. Whoa.

BLUNT: (As Mary Poppins) Off we go.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.