Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog

May 3 2016 12:23 AM

Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn Are Bad Moms in this Red Band Trailer

The trailer for Bad Moms was released Monday, promising the kind of R-rated bacchanalia co-writers and directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore made their names with when they wrote The Hangover. This time, the debauchery is female-led, with Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn playing moms who have absolutely had it. Fortunately, the key to this kind of movie is the payoff, not the setup, because the “harried mother” section looks as bad as the “henpecked fiancé” stuff was in The Hangover.

But once things are off the rails, it looks like the film gets depraved enough to be really funny, from bourbon to whippits to reckless driving, and the cast is worthy: Transparent’s Kathryn Hahn’s timing is particularly excellent. And really, what great journey of the spirit doesn’t begin with someone saying “I say we go punch that chick right in the tits?” Kunis, Bell, and Hahn will face off against Christina Applegate in theaters on July 29.

May 2 2016 11:29 PM

Crash the Met Gala With These Glitzy, Glamorous Movies

Tonight’s the big night: the Met Gala, when everyone who’s anyone converges to mix, mingle, and show off all the opulence their hard work and perseverance has afforded them. But if your invitation was misplaced this year, Slate has you covered. We’ve chosen five films that perfectly embody the glamorous, glitzy ethos that undergirds Manhattan’s most exclusive party. So put on something expensive, fire up the television, and make any night Gala night!

May 2 2016 6:08 PM

Oprah Winfrey Will Star in HBO’s Adaptation of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Oprah Winfrey doesn’t take many acting jobs, busy as she is maintaining a media empire. When she does take on a role, however, she tends to knock it out of the park. And from the looks of it, her next such gig is well worth some excitement. Winfrey will star in (and executive-produce) HBO Films’ The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She will play Henrietta Lacks’ daughter, Deborah, the character through whom the story is told. Broadway’s George C. Wolfe, meanwhile, will write and direct.

The film is an adaptation of Rebecca Skloots’ best-selling 2010 nonfiction book of the same name, which told the story of Lacks, a black American woman who, while being treated for cervical cancer in 1951, became an unwitting source for the first “immortal cell line.” Her cells greatly benefited biological research in the years after Lacks’ death, even as their use raised issues of medical ethics and racial politics.

Winfrey made her Academy Award–nominated acting debut in The Color Purple and most recently received plaudits for her roles in 2014’s Selma and Lee Daniels' The Butler in 2013. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks looks to be another apt showcase for Winfrey’s underutilized dramatic chops. 

May 2 2016 3:43 PM

When Did Audiences Stop Taking “Middlebrow” Television Seriously?

This article originally appeared in Vulture.

If you paid attention to the conversation around The X-Files’ 10th season, you would probably think the new episodes wrecked the integrity of the original series. But the problem with The X-Files’ new season isn’t that it was outright terrible—it’s that it didn’t evolve to meet the expectations that come with being a “Golden Age” TV show. See, the new X-Files wasn’t all that different from the 1990s version audiences fell in love with: It was always a rather hokey, thoroughly middlebrow show, veering from excellent monster-of-the-week episodes to overarching mythology ones involving alien conspiracies, with plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. Its divisive return was a stark example of how much the medium has changed since the show’s original run, the complicated relationship audiences have with middlebrow entertainment, and why shows from House of Cards to Game of Thrones choose to mismarket themselves as prestige TV.

Distinctions like “midbrow” and “highbrow” may seem like awkward descriptors within the current, massive television landscape, but they can provide a useful lens in terms of distinguishing what types of stories we find culturally important. Prestige television, as we’ve come to define it, boasts high production values, an interest in weighty themes, and, more recently, high-profile actors and behind-the-scenes talent. We can see the beginnings of this in The Sopranos continuing in recent years with Mad MenBreaking BadRectify, and The People v. O.J. Simpson. Comedies like Veep and Louie can fall into prestige television, but much of what we deem “prestige” hews toward darker subject matter, presented with literary flair. Looking at some of the shows dubbed prestige over the last decade—the forgettable Bloodline, pure soap opera House of Cards, and exploitation-tinged Game of Thrones—you can see that the label doesn’t necessarily indicate consistent quality or depth but the appearance of it. Bloodline also shows that looking like a prestige show, or even being one, doesn’t necessarily guarantee you public attention or awards—the problem is that shows like Bloodline seem to think they need to be viewed as highbrow to get the right attention (more on that in a minute).

May 2 2016 2:25 PM

The Dixie Chicks Just Recognized Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons” as a Country Song. Will Country Radio?

Although it couldn’t match the shock of hearing Beyoncé take her husband to the woodshed over his apparently infidelities, one of Lemonade’s bigger surprises was the inclusion of the lilting “Daddy Lessons,” the Texas native’s first straight-up country song. She’d flirted with country as far back as 2006’s “Irreplaceable,” which songwriter Ne-Yo patterned after hits by Shania Twain and Faith Hill, even joining Nashville hitmakers Sugarland for a joint version on the American Music Awards. But there’s nothing coy about “Daddy Lessons”’ embrace of the big-hat genre. Before she starts singing, Beyoncé murmurs “Texas” twice, just so you’ll know where she’s coming from.

May 2 2016 1:13 PM

There’s One Show That Could Fill All the Holes in Your TV Viewing: Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful, which returned for its third season on Sunday night, is one of the least-buzzed-about shows on TV, especially considering how many of its characters have occupied space in the popular imagination. Showtime's series, which takes its name from cheap, lurid 19th-century British fiction, finds a collection of figures from Victorian horror living together in tightly packed London. But this is a modern TV show, so they fight, fornicate, and stare longingly into each other’s eyes in between staking vampires.

Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), father of Dracula’s Mina Murray, requests the medical expertise of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and attends parties with the immortal decadent Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), who in turn goes out of his way to make friends with (and bed) Ethan Chandler, the American gunslinger with a lupine secret played by a very grown-up Josh Hartnett sporting a vaguely Western accent that absolutely should not work yet does. It’s like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, if that movie were genuinely good in addition to kitschy and ridiculous. And it meets the requirements of several food groups that might be going unsated in your hearty TV diet.

Are you looking for something to fill the Jessica Jones–sized hole in your heart? The central protagonist of Penny Dreadful, if it has one, is its most original character: Eva Green’s stunning Vanessa Ives. Vanessa is a “complicated woman” without any of the patronizing subtext this might entail in a lesser show; she’s fought off demons, witches, and vampires, acts as a magnet for nearly every other character on the show (with whom she has several rather complex relationships) and, most interestingly, continues to struggle with her deep Christian faith over her many sins. (The first season of the show closes with a priest asking Vanessa if she truly wishes to be normal.)

The show’s commitment to its female characters is impressive, and part of its long game: The second season revolves around a coven of witches attempting to capture Vanessa—the male characters are supportive of Vanessa but never truly helpful in her struggle against the witches, whose most successful gambit involves turning Sir Malcolm into a blithering idiot. While the ensuing war of chanting and not-quite-voodoo between Vanessa and the coven is mesmerizing, the season’s true climax comes not from a supernatural battle but the fully realized potential of Lily (Billie Piper), a character who would ordinarily be classified merely as the Bride of Frankenstein but instead claims her own path, absent the control of men. The show does not play up its political elements to the point of distraction; you can come to them on your own.

Penny Dreadful invests as much thought into its setting as it does its characters—the show is an excellent period piece. The costumes kill, from Vanessa’s elaborate dresses to Ethan’s dusty work clothes. If you’re still in mourning for Downton Abbey or loved the Victorian episode of Sherlock, try Penny Dreadful’s lush, skeevy version of London, a teeming metropolis that manages to engage with superficially repressive Victorian social norms while never once sneering at the simple-mindedness of their adherents.

Penny Dreadful also serves as a rather effective horror show, a more-than-able replacement for the diminishing returns of American Horror Story. If the rampant policing of bodies and near-lawlessness are characteristic of how things were, Penny Dreadful suggests, it’s not too far from how they are now. If you’re missing out on the dearly-departed Hannibal, Penny Dreadful is perfect for you: Not only is it genuinely creepy, it’s also quite queer, sporting bi characters mingling with trans women, and the best use of witchcraft as metaphor for sexual awakening this side of The Craft. (Also with Patti LuPone.) Penny Dreadful is obsessed with the body in a brutal, visceral way. Dr. Frankenstein cuts open corpses. Vanessa smears blood on the floor in the shape of a scorpion. Everyone is at risk of catching the plague. All of this is filmed without too much stylization—it all looks real. Here, there are monsters.

Like the best horror movies, and unlike most TV shows, Penny Dreadful has managed to keep its most explicit, scariest creatures close to the proverbial vest. It’s taken over two seasons for the show to even hint at its most obvious villain. Jack the Ripper has yet to be given a prominent role, instead hiding in the shadows of London’s alleys and threatening anyone foolish enough to be out after dark. Frankenstein’s Monster has yet to prove truly menacing to his creator—if anything, he’s the show’s weak point, a bit too much of a sappy romantic to be much use to anyone. And the series' emphasis on the power of fame and reputation in a far-flung, interconnected world hits upon one of Penny Dreadful’s biggest assets going into Season 3: It’s improved on some of the best aspects of Game of Thrones.

One of the early appeals of Thrones was its expansiveness, the sense that you were watching parallel stories happening all over a scattered fantasyscape. Daenerys existed in the same world as the Night’s Watch at the Wall and the backstabbing Lannisters at King’s Landing. These characters talked about each other, and their plans intersected, and part of the fun was wondering how it would go down if and when they eventually met. (As it turns out, it’s supremely boring.) At the beginning of this season of Penny Dreadful, the characters are spread out far across an actual globe, one that isn’t so complicated that it needs to be physically represented in the title sequence.

When we find Sir Malcolm, he’s in Africa, burying his son. The Creature, fleeing from Dr. Frankenstein, heads to Antarctica. Ethan is in the American Southwest, on track for train robberies, shootouts, and a reckoning with his family. And even the show’s version of London manages to contain an ornate network of social classes and spaces, from Dr. Frankenstein’s apartment-turned–ramshackle lab to Vanessa’s therapist’s professional offices to Sir Malcolm’s abandoned mansion. (When was the last time Game of Thrones remembered that there were poor people in King’s Landing and actually wanted to know what their lives were like?)

It would be easy, and effective, for Penny Dreadful to delve even further underground, into the crypts and caverns of London’s occult demimonde, rather than expansively exploring the rest of the world. Instead, the show is poised to, if not interrogate the then-nascent nature of global networks, then at least play out the consequences of some of their early growth, throughout Victorian England and beyond. These days many of our best narratives explore the connections and intricacies of networks, from the dial-up spy complexities of The Americans to the legal brief, counter-brief, and cartel negotiations of Better Call Saul—a storytelling mode that largely got its start with serialized Victorian narratives. It’s nice that TV finally managed to catch on.

May 2 2016 12:49 PM

Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, and More to Play Mega-Concert in October, aka “Oldchella”

Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, the Who, and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters will perform on the same billing for the first time ever in October, according to the Los Angees Times. Who is responsible for bringing together six of the biggest classic rock acts of all time? Oddly, Goldenvoice, the organizers behind Coachella, are also responsible for the mega-concert, which will take place in Indio, California, earning it the nickname “Oldchella.” The event will be stretched across three days, the Times reports, with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones opening the festival on Oct. 7, followed by Young and McCartney the following night, and then concluding with the Who and Waters on Oct. 9.

Five of the six acts have teased the festival on Facebook over the past few days (the exception being Young) with similarly mysterious videos that give no more detail than a single word: October. They’re all intriguingly minimal, particularly McCartney’s, but it is the Who’s song choice for their teaser that is perhaps the most suited to the occasion.

May 2 2016 11:54 AM

Radiohead Slowly Disappears From the Internet, Proving That Thom Yorke Really Is “the Eraser”

Whether your late-weekend routine entails reading music blogs, casually browsing the whole of the internet, or compulsively typing “Radiohead next album release date” into your search engine of choice, you were in for some strange news yesterday: Radiohead … has gone missing! Well, sort of. The headlines coalesced around the choicest Radiohead puns (“Radiohead have disappeared completely”; “Radiohead have erased themselves”; “Radiohead fade out”; “Not OK, computer!”). The articles themselves all delivered the same basic details: Radiohead’s website is now just a blindingly white page, Radiohead’s Twitter page is suddenly tweetless, Radiohead’s Facebook page and Google+ page have gone similarly blank, and frontman Thom Yorke cannot be found for comment. (Band members Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway seem to still be with us, though. Phew—for a minute there ...)

Upping the intrigue was the weekend’s other weird Radiohead news: On Saturday morning, some of the band’s U.K. fans received leaflets in the mail (or “in the post,” as it were) containing the following cryptic message: “Sing the song of sixpence that goes/ BURN THE WITCH/ We know where you live.” And as the most fervent of Radiohead-heads will tell you, “Burn the Witch” is the rumored title of one of Radiohead’s many long-gestating, as-yet-unreleased tracks.

So, what does it all mean? Let’s break it down: There’s a tour starting in less than three weeks. There’s probably an album coming soonish. There might be a single coming even sooner. But beyond that, we’ll just have to wait and see. Despite what they might claim, Radiohead loves surprises.

May 2 2016 10:44 AM

How Game of Thrones Made Sunday Night’s Big Reveal So Satisfying

Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones, Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, and Pietás (all of them).

In its second week, Season 6 of Game of Thrones continues its commitment to big reveals in the last scene. Last week it was Melisandre; this week, Jon Snow was in the crosshairs. The same creative team worked on this episode—director Jeremy Podeswa, cinematographer Gregory Middleton, and editor Crispin Green—but they used a completely different bag of tricks. While Melisandre’s reveal was accomplished with rack focus, an elegant trick with a mirror, and by cleverly playing off audience expectations for Game of Thrones nudity, this week was all about blocking and camera movement. 

May 2 2016 10:44 AM

John Oliver Helpfully Explained the Year 2016 to Cicadas From 1999

The cicadas are coming! It feels like just yesterday that the last batch of cicadas overran the northeast, but it’s been 17 years since this new brood of cicadas was conceived, and now, in just a few weeks, billions—yes, billions with a b—of the shrieking, swarming creatures will once again emerge from their underground retreat to rejoin the rest of us in the daylight. Fortunately, though Last Week Tonight is on a break this week, John Oliver is still around to school these time travelers from 1999 on all the cultural and political milestones they’ve missed in a special web exclusive.

A lot has changed since the late ’90s: We no longer have dial-up, the Red Sox finally won a World Series, and Beyoncé is the queen of America (“On your knees before the queen, cicadas!”). Then again, despite their long absence, the eerie, red-eyed insects should feel right at home in 2016—as Oliver points out, a plague of locusts seems oddly appropriate right about now.

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