My staff pick this week is the most shamelessly nerdy shit I’ve ever posted on this site, but hey, I’ve been here long enough to have embarrassed myself in pretty much every other conceivable way, so here goes: I’ve been obsessed of late with a project called Numberphile. It’s basically an ever-growing collection of videos put together by Australian journalist Brady Haran that go about the task of making mathematics — and, specifically, the intriguing, lesser-known, and/or wow-inducing aspects thereof — accessible to people who are interested in the subject but were never especially good at the number-crunching. If that sounds like you, then get thee to this link (or go straight to the YouTube channel here) — amongst other things, the Riemann hypothesis, Fermat’s last theorem, the Mandelbrot set, and a whole lot of cool shit with prime numbers await you! — Tom Hawking, Editor-in-Chief
I finally got around to watching this Oscar-nominated documentary from 2015, and wow, was it a good decision. Director Matthew Heineman gets an amazing level of access to his subjects, primarily a group of Mexican vigilantes who form a group — the Autodefensas — with the aim of combating the brutal gang warfare of the cartels and the corrupt police who do nothing to stop them. Cartel Land also documents the efforts of a militia group in Arizona that has taken it upon themselves to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border armed with semi-automatic rifles.
Heineman was inspired to make Cartel Land after reading about Dr. José Manuel Mireles, a physician who becomes the leader of the Autodefensas in Michoacán, in the southwest of Mexico. There’s no voiceover narration or talking heads; the film unfolds like a feature, boosting its dramatic tension. It’s particularly fascinating for its granular look at how grassroots social movements succeed — and the ways in which they’re vulnerable to failure. Cartel Land is streaming on Netflix; I highly recommend it. — Lara Zarum, TV Editor
Siobhan McCarthy as Ms. Nellie Lovett; @2017 Joan Marcus
Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theater
Tooting Arts Club’s decision to stage Sweeney Todd (one of about five musicals that I’ll unashamedly defend) within a faux-site specific reconstitution of the cannibalistic pie shop in which the show is set comes with both advantages and setbacks. Hailing from London and directed by Bill Buckhurst, this production of the Stephen Sondheim musical sees collapses the stage/audience dichotomy of the West Village theater version and turns the whole space into a large restaurant (with actual pies, which are not made of people but are incidentally made by Obama’s former pastry chef, who serves the post-presidential pies with mash — for people who’ve purchased them — before performances).
Unfortunately, despite the untraditional seating, a large portion of the play is still performed as though in a proscenium — pressed against the back wall — with the depth and dynamism of a normal stage subtracted. The cafeteria-style tables at which the audience sits take up most of the room, leaving a counter space and a stairwell as the main playing areas. The performers venture into the audience, and onto the tables, at select points, but overall the environmental concept feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.
Except — and this is a big “except,” because it was the thing that really made the production special — this closeness offers the audience a far more nuanced glance into characters that can otherwise feel larger than life. Particularly wonderful was Siobhan McCarthy’s Mrs. Nellie Lovett; this character often works as broad comic relief whose intentions and whose complicity don’t always read on a big stage. But up close, we could see exactly what McCarthy’s Lovett was thinking — and could intuit both the loneliness and resilience (even if said resilience involves stuffing people’s innards into pies) in her character, and the way her twisted ideas manifest through desperation and a series of self-deluding contradictions about the type of “nurturing” person she is.
Our ability to see this makes her comic timing all the more perfect, and odd, small details, like hearing the squishing sound her dough makes against the counter as she prepares her “worst pies in London” are examples of what does really work in the site-specific production. Todd (Jeremy Secomb), whose murderous rage can in some productions feel like nothing but performative musical theater gravity, seemed to come from a more human, and thereby frightening, place here. Alex Finke plays Joanna with a grounded-ness that augments her tragedy. The act of “murder” in bigger Sweeney Todds can feel like more of an amusing abstract — but here, as you watch characters actively pondering it, these people’s moral degradation is a bit more resonant, while maintaining its dark humor. — Moze Halperin, Senior Editor