TV: Game of Thrones and S1 of Twin Peaks

TV is really slow.  There are only a couple of shows that I watch which are still running and the early fall premiers aren’t here yet so I am doing a bit of streaming.  Thank god for Game of Thrones! 

Season Premier 

Game of Thrones (HBO)

It’s back! Finally!  One would think that in the penultimate season with only 14 episodes remaining that we would start moving quickly towards the battle for Westeros.  “Dragonstone” did not do that but rather followed the traditional 10 minute per character Game of Throne’s structure.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it made me a bit crazy waiting for the Dany to set foot on Dragonstone for 50 minutes.  In the meantime, we got the major players in place:  Arya in a cold- open wipes out the Freys and seems headed to King’s Landing to continue her murderous revenge tour on Cersei; John and Sansa consolidate forces in the North and are not necessarily on the same page – but they have Lyanna Mormont so who cares; Cersei is on the throne and working with Euron Greyjoy (who has had an offseason makeover); Jaime is skeptical of Cersei’s plan; Poor Sam is having a tough time in Old Town but not as bad as Sir Jorah and Dany finally sets up shop in Dragonstone.  We also see Brienne and Little Finger at Winterfell with the latter plotting away.

That leaves Bran who goes through the wall to Castle Black.  This could be (and I think it is) huge.  When Bran was touched by the Night King, the magic that protected the Weirwood and the Children of the Forrest was destroyed.  The same type of magic protects the wall.  By Bran going through, did he break those charms?  I think he did and the White Walkers will now be able to go South from the wall as shown in Bran’s vision.  It will likely be at Eastwatch where Tormund as well as the Hound (due to an intriguing vision by Beric Dondarrion) seem to be headed.  The pieces on the chessboard appear to be positioned for the wars ahead.

I love this show and thought the premier was good (apart from the Ed Sheeran cameo which was just bizarre).  I fully expect things to move much more quickly now with only a handful of stories left to tell.  I am concerned that Arya has gone to the Darkside and won’t be able to come back.  I can’t get Voldermort out of my mind and the horcruxes that contained part of his soul that broke away every time he killed someone.  I am completely and totally Team Stark (I still consider John a Stark as Lyanna Stark is his mother!) and will be devastated if Arya goes to that place.  In the meantime, I’ll be savoring every single minute of the few episodes we’ll get this season and reporting out as appropriate.

Streaming: (I’m watching on Showtime)

Twin Peaks (the original)

The current Showtime revival of Twin Peaks is getting rave reviews so I thought I’d go back and check out the original 90’s show to see what it is all about.  I’ve never seen an episode of Twin Peaks but it has a large cult following so how bad could it be?  I binge-watched Season 1 which was only 7 or 8 episodes.  The show is bizarre.  It takes place in a small logging town in the Pacific Northwest which has several strange inhabitants like the one-armed man, the lady who walks around with a log, crazy eye-patch lady, a very quirky FBI investigator who speaks to spirits as well as lots of people involved in affairs, prostitution and the drug trade.   A lot was going on in this town of around 3,000.  I can see how unusual the show was in its time and why it must have generated a big following.  However, 25+ years later, with all the advances in technology and TV dramas that have occurred, Twin Peaks looks like a cheap soap opera.

Apparently, the showrunners (the key one of course is the brilliant David Lynch) never expected anyone to watch the show let alone get a second season so when it was renewed, they weren’t prepared to do 22 episodes of who killed Laura Palmer and keep it interesting.  The first season primarily held my interest because I knew it was short and I was engaged in who killed Laura Palmer.  So, my big dilemma now is whether I bother with the 2nd season of apparently not very good (yet numerous) episodes or just suck it up, read up on who killed Laura Palmer and skip to the new revival.  I’m kind of leaning toward the latter but will let you know.

TV: Broadchurch, Legion, Casual and Orange is the New Black

Season Premiers:

Broadchurch – Season 3 (BBC America) 

Broadchurch Season 1 was one of the best murder mysteries I’ve seen in years.  Olivia Colman (Mrs. Miller) and David Tennant (Alec Hardy) played detectives investigating the death of a young boy, Danny.  Everything about it was excellent.  Unfortunately, the brilliance of the first season did not extend to Season 2 where the show went off the rails.  Part of the problem was the fact that the showrunners decided to drag the trial for Danny’s murder out over an entire second season and it resulted in a very unsatisfactory outcome making the frustration with the season’s pace even more of an issue.  In the meantime, the best feature of the show, the interplay and relationship between Miller and Hardy was missing as each was bogged down in their own serious personal issues.  Finally, the new case they were involved with was not very interesting or compelling.

For some reason, after that disaster of a second season, Broadchurch was renewed for a third and final season and I, being the sucker that I am, tuned in for the premier and I’m so glad I did.  The hour flew by as Miller and Hardy set out to investigate a new case involving the rape of a middle-aged woman.  The victim, Trisha (played by Julie Hesmonhalgh) gave one of the most emotional performances of the year as the detectives slowly took her through the steps of recounting what occurred.  Miller and Hardy seemed to be mostly back to normal and Colman radiates on the screen.  I am excited about where this show is going in its final season and can’t wait for the next episode.  I am cautiously optimistic that Broadchurch has found its mojo from season 1.

Note:  For those who aren’t familiar with some of the more distinct British regional accents, I recommend you put on the closed captioning.  Also, for those who have not seen it, S1 &S2 are on Netflix and I think you could watch Season 1, skip to 3 and then decide if you want to go back and do S2. 

Clearing out the DVR

Legion Season 1 (FX)

Well the first thing I should mention is that watching 3 episodes of Legion as they aired and then letting the rest pile up on the DVR and not getting back to this trippy show until months later was not a smart idea.  I was already at a disadvantage not knowing the Marvel world which spawned the Legion story.  When I tuned in to Noah Hawley’s most bizarre tale, I found it hard to follow but kind of hung on because it was so unusual.  Returning months later, I was completely overwhelmed with confusion.  To add insult to injury, my comic book expert daughter who watched the show refused to help me understand what was going on.  She told me that I took up too much of her time with Flash which was a much simpler show to explain to a non-comic book person.

I will say that the cinematography is amazing and although I never actually took LSD, this show seems to be one long LSD trip.  Alternative “planes” or universes have never been my strength and Legion has an endless number of them so the lines between real and imagined in this universe are blurred in every episode.  All I need is time travel to totally put me over the edge.  At least there were recaps to fall back on as I attempted to unravel what happened in each episode.  Dan Stevens is great in the lead role and it’s amazing to see how far from his Downton Abby role he has come.

I am clearly not the target demo for Legion but I can tell it is well done and for the Marvel Universe lovers out there, I can understand why they love this show.  I won’t be returning next season but I’m glad I got a chance to finish off this one as it was one of the more unique TV viewing experiences of the year. 

Streaming:

Casual (Hulu)

I decided to check out this critically acclaimed show as I had reopened my HULU account to watch Handmaid’s tale.  I watched all of Seasons 1 and 2.   This is one of the an increasingly large group of 30 minute dramedies appearing everywhere and many of them are excellent. Among the best are Better Things, Catastrophe, You’re the Worst, Fleabag, Transparent and One Mississippi.  I have watched them all.  They are comedies with main characters who are often deeply flawed and always must deal with serious issues such as bi-polar condition, breast cancer, alcoholism, transgender family members, etc. Every comedic moment seems to arise out of a very depressing scene.

Casual is about a brother Alex and his sister Val.  Alex made a lot of money developing an algorithm for a dating site.  Now he pretty much sits around in an expensive home and does nothing except have casual sex with beautiful women, most of whom he altered the algorithm to show that they were compatible matches.  Val is recently divorced after her husband had an affair and she moves in with Alex along with her sixteen-year-old daughter Laura.  Everyone, including Laura has a lot of sex in this show.  Again, there is A LOT of sex on this show.  They are all looking for something deeper (well maybe not Alex) without success.  Alex and Val are messed up primarily because their parents were hippies following the free love movement around the country and didn’t care much about or for their children.  This family probably beats the Pfefferman’s for TV’s most dysfunctional family and that is tough to do.

Casual is well done.  It is very funny but I don’t see that it brings more to the table than the other shows I mentioned.  It isn’t worth getting a HULU subscription to see it but if you already have Hulu and maybe haven’t seen some of these other shows which are on Netflix, Amazon and Cable, check it out.  It is a good summer binge.  I’m sure I’ll get through the current Season 3 soon as TV is slow right now and I want to cancel HULU as soon as I can but I’m not sure I need to go back to Casual next year. 

Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

Whoever thought that an entire 13-episode season should cover only three days of a prison riot was a good idea should look for another occupation.  The emotionally devastating finale last year showing Poussey’s death by strangulation left a huge void in the show without a clear path forward so I’m sure the show runner’s decided to try something unique. It doesn’t work for me.  I’m not sure I’m even going to get through this season so thought I would note how much I disliked what was going on even though I’m only less than half way through the episodes.  The reason that I’m fairly certain I won’t make it is that I am having real difficulty even getting through one episode in a single sitting.  I generally need to break it into two viewing segments.  This can’t be good.

What are the issues?  To begin with, I can’t get past the fact that if there was a prison riot in a woman’s minimum security prison that federal troops wouldn’t move in and quash it rather than standing around outside doing nothing.  The women have only one gun and no idea what they are doing or what they should be focused on yet the authorities don’t bother to intercede. It is ridiculous.  I am also tired of the flashbacks.  By now, we have seen flashbacks for anyone we care about and I can’t even tell who they are doing them on at this point.  OITNB needs to find a new mechanism to bring the inmates stories to life.  Finally, I’m just not interested in anything any of these women are doing during this prison riot.  It is just boring.  So, assume this is my last post ever on OITNB unless by some miracle, the show makes a miraculous recovery and it gains some of its former appeal in which case, I might try it again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Movies: Two Excellent Ones, Maudie and the Big Sick

 

Maudie

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this biopic of the Canadian artist Maud Lewis.  After all, it is the true story of  Lewis (Sally Hawkins) who plays a woman born into poverty,  trapped in a body that has been crippled by juvenile arthritis and yet finds joy in the simplist of things.  Lewis is thrown out of her home by her brother and sent to live with an aunt in her mid -thirties.  Life with the rigid and unfriendly woman is clearly going to be difficult so, in desperation,  she answers an ad for a housekeeper to a local fish peddler,  Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke).   She moves into his house which can’t be more than about 100 square feet only to experience a new level of physical and emotional abuse by Edward.  Despite her horrific early existence with him, their relationship builds and they ultimately marry.  Maud transends the bleakness of her life by painting everything in sight and through a friendship with a local woman, is able to generate a small business selling greeting cards and paintings on boards for up to $5.00.  Her paintings were simple with no shadows but depict happy scenes and lots of flowers.

Sally Hawkins is wonderful as Maud.  She captures her disability without overplaying it while maintaining a twinkle in her eye and a wonderful sense of humor.  Ethan Hawke is also very good as Everett Lewis although I think the character has been humanized somewhat for the film (at least per some biographies).   Even with the “humanizing” of the character, Hawke sees to struggle at times with the cruelty required by the part and it must have been difficult for the actor to take on this role.  This is not the buoyant Hawke as we have seen him in Boyhood or the “Before” trilogy and he gives one of the best performances of his career.

The first half of Maudie is dark but slowly her personality and optimism shine through and despite everything in life seemingly going against her, she becomes moderately famous as Canada’s premier folk artist. The starkness of the first half of the movie sets the stage for the more emotionally fulfilling second half as Maud gains some fame and Everett supports her in what becomes more of a love story than the viewer would have thought possible. Maud’s paintings were bright, cheery and as I mentioned, no shadows or sadness existed in any of them.  How Maud was able to keep such an optimistic view of the world is hard to comprehend but Hawkins captures this spirit brilliantly.   This film is worth seeing.

The Big Sick

The Big Sick could be one of the biggest hits of the summer.  It is the true story of Pakistani born Kumail Nanjiani and his real-life love story with Emily Gordon  (Zoe Kazan).  Kumail is working as a stand-up comic and Uber driver when Emily who is in the audience heckles him.  They start dating but Kumail never takes her to meet his traditional Pakistani family as they are dedicated to him taking a Pakistani wife in a traditional arranged marriage.  When Emily figures this out, she realizes that there is not a future for them as he would never defy his family.  She leaves him and they go on with their lives until Emily suddenly becomes deathly ill and is in a coma in a local hospital.  Kumail meets her parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter who initially are not receptive to him because of the break-up.  However, the three of them develop a strong relationship while maintaining a vigil at her bedside until she ultimately pulls through.

Upon waking from her coma, Emily does not want to start up the relationship but ultimately,  it is a romantic comedy and we know the two got together and wrote this screenplay.  Romano and Nanjiani play off each other so well in this film and Holly Hunter steals the show whenever she is on screen.  Nanjiani’s comedic timing is brilliant and the viewer experiences every heartfelt moment of ups and downs that this couple goes through as they struggle to deal with the messiness of life.  The film’s ability to keep us laughing, even when the subject matter is difficult makes it one of the most emotionally satisfying films of the year.   Saturday Night Live viewers will appreciate Aidy Bryant’s performance as one of the comics struggling to make a living in the same nightclub as Kumail. I loved Zoe Kazan’s performance which enabled the viewer to buy-in to her character and the love story before she was relegated to a hospital bed on life support for most of the movie. The rest of the cast was great as well.

The Big Sick has just opened in a few theaters but is getting rave reviews and will be expanding over the course of the next few weeks.  For those looking for a great Romantic Comedy (and I stress Comedy here), look for this film.  It is worth it.

 

TV: Better Call Saul, the Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, Genius, House of Cards and SYTYCD

 

Season Finales:

Better Call Saul (AMC)

I actually like Better Call Saul better than Breaking Bad.  Saul at least has some with redeeming qualities – particularly Kim and Jimmy McGill before he becomes Saul.  This season was great as we ease closer to the world of Breaking Bad and see some of the characters making choices that will forever doom them.  But the reason I love Better Call Saul is that the characters of Kim, Chuck and Jimmy are complex, interesting and the actors are fantastic.  Michael McKean is brilliant as Chuck who we never completely have a handle on.  Is he mentally ill?  A fake?  The only person who sees through Jimmy and tries to protect the world from him?  Just a jealous brother who makes poor Jimmy’s life miserable or all the above.  Although the finale helps with answer several of these questions,, we will never know all due to the final scene of the season.

What is keeping me going now is wanting to know what happens ultimately to Kim who is not in Breaking Bad.  I can only hope that she finds happiness and moves far away from New Mexico but that would not exactly be in the DNA of a Vince Gilligan show.  Jimmy started down the path towards Saul this year although he still showed he had a heart in the last two episodes.  That will be gone soon.  Mike has made the permanent turn to crime signing on with Gus and Nacho remains an intriguing character.  A good deal of progress was made this season toward where these people are in the Breaking Bad universe so I’m not sure how much of a story is left but I’m totally in until the end.  This was a great season of a great show.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

The Handmaid’s Tale was excellent.  Elizabeth Moss was riveting as was Ann Dowd and even Alexis Bleddel had fine moments (and I’m glad she will be back for Season 2).  The TV series deviated from the book (as can be expected) particularly at the end as it has been renewed for season 2 which must go beyond the book’s story.  Next season, we will be in unchartered territory for the adapted screenplay of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel which provides for some interesting plotlines given the open-ended conclusion to the book.

Handmaid offers a look into what could be a near term world for us all.  It has eerie correlations to our current political environment to the point of being uncomfortable but it is really good and marks Hulu’s entry into well constructed original TV dramas.  Don’t be scared off by getting a Hulu subscription.  It is easy to subscribe and unsubscribe from and it is worth getting a month’s subscription to watch this show.

Fargo (FX)

This third season certainly was filled with death and destruction as only Fargo can provide.  It was good but didn’t grab me the way the first two seasons did although the addition of Carrie Coon was a really good one.  With Leftovers showing at the same time as Fargo, my Carrie Coon fix was certainly satisfied this spring.  The whole Ewen McGregor playing two brothers (Ray and Emmit Stussy) thing I found somewhat tedious but Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ray’s girlfriend was this season’s star.  She was amazing and I felt that her character was the only one that was fully developed.  None of the others seemed to have the completeness she had which made for a less than optimal viewing experience.  It also took me the entire season to realize the evil V.M. Varga was played by none other than David Thewlis who played the loveable Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter series which I have seen more times than I care to admit.  The make-up and vocal changes were excellent for this villain.

I find Fargo hard to watch week in and week out and keeping a handle on everything that is going on due to the fact there are so many other TV shows competing for my time.   I think that this might be better watched all at once to stay on top of the subtleties and nuances in the plot lines. Nonetheless, Fargo has turned out to be a very good series and hasn’t lost its excellence despite changing stories, actors, Directors etc.  each season which I assume is because the Creator, Noah Hawley, is the glue that holds it all together keeping it true to its Coen brother roots. While this was its weakest season, I would still recommend the show.

Genius (National Geographic)

I didn’t love Genius.  I felt there were too many episodes and the story dragged.  This show which premiered for the first time in the spring dedicated its first season to the story of Albert Einstein.  Einstein’s biography is interesting (although every time it discussed the Theory of Relativity in depth, I had panic attacks remembering a college physics course) as I don’t think many people know that much about his personal life.  The show spends a great deal of time on Einstein’s marriage to his first wife along with the affair that led to his divorce and second marriage to his cousin played very well by Emily Watson.  The great Geoffrey Rush plays Einstein in his later years and he was fine but I liked Johnny Flynn even better as young Einstein.

Genius had barely enough going on with action and character development to keep me going and I wish it had been about 6 or 7 episodes instead of 10.  Had it premiered earlier in the year when there was more competition, I doubt I would have stayed with it.  Next year’s “Genius” season will be about Pablo Picasso.  I don’t honestly know if I’ll tune in.

Finished Streaming:

House of Cards (Netflix)

I think I might be done with House of Cards unless all the critics next year exclaim that Season 6 is brilliant.  First of all, 13 episodes was about 3 to many for Season 5.  Most of the episodes dragged and it wasn’t until the last couple that I engaged.   It’s not just that Frank Underwood and his administration have several things in common with the current one that made the drama humdrum, it is that the same old plotlines seem to just keep remerging.  Frank does dastardly things but doesn’t seem to have competent enemies like he used to call him out; Will had potential but disappeared in an airplane meltdown; the Congressman who was going to bring him down is convinced to withdraw his opposition and no other contenders emerge (although the Patricia Clarkson character has some potential).  Then there is Doug.  Why is he back?  Same old, same old and what’s with all the guys named Tom?  Well I guess there is one less of them at the end of the season.

I found all the circuitous storylines swirling around the first 2/3s of the season to be dull and confusing at the same time.  Claire is the only truly intriguing character at this point.  The rest are just blah.  There is too much great TV out there to continue with this series.  I didn’t watch season 3 and came back in season 4 and didn’t miss a beat so maybe I’ll try that again.

Season Premiers

SYTYCD

It’s back, I love it and I’m dumping World of Dance as a result.  Once again, we have great adult dancers, a judge’s panel where at least 2 out of 3 know what they are doing and for that, I can easily ignore Mary Murphy’s screaming.  Hopefully we will once again see some of the great choreographers that provided Emmy winning performances in the early years.  The fact that Mandy Moore (La La Land) was helping out during the auditions gives me a great deal of hope.  I’ll ignore Vanessa Hudgens for the time being and hope my summer go- to -show goes back to its roots after I had to walk away from it the last two years.

 

 

Movies: The Exception and Wonder Woman

It is summer and there is nothing better than spending time in cool, air conditioned movie theaters – especially if you live in Phoenix.  Here are a couple of movies well worth seeing.

The Exception (The Kaiser’s Last Kiss)

I enjoyed this WWII movie starring Christopher Plummer as Kaiser William II who is in exile in the Netherlands as the Germans aggressively begin to move throughout Europe.  Lily James is a young Jewish woman, Mieke, working in his house.  Jai Courtney plays Capt. Stefan Brandt, a Nazi Captain wounded physically and mentally by a battle in Poland who is assigned to the Kaiser as his body guard.  Brandt is “the exception” to the rule that all Nazi’s are murderous villains.  This movie is a little more black and white than some of the recent WWII films that give their characters a great deal more nuance yet it is well done with the requisite tension and suspense.

Mieke is a spy working for Great Britain and she and Brandt develop an immediate sexual relationship upon meeting.  It is unclear whether she initiates the relationship in her role as a spy but it quickly develops into a deep bond with both characters risking their lives for each other.  While their relationship is central to the plot, it is Plummer who shines every moment he is on screen as the irascible monarch whose character is complex and spirited.  He plays along with his wife who works very hard to ingratiate them with the Nazi regime in order to return to Berlin as royalty despite knowing that he will never again be a German monarch.  His wife successfully gets Himmler to dine at their home and we get a brief glimpse into the atrocities that the Nazi’s are planning in a wonderful sequence by the actor Eddie Marsan.

There have been a million WWII movies but there still seems to be an infinite number of stories to mine from the era and this film is no exception.  It just opened this week and is competing against a lot of Indies but if you can catch it, it is worthwhile to watch Christopher Plummer in a fine performance.  It is unlikely that we will see the 87-year-old actor in many more movies so catch him while you can – he is a gem.

Wonder Woman

I loved Wonder Woman.  For someone who spends most of their movie viewing hours watching depressing Indies, it was fun to see a well-done blockbuster.  What is particularly nice is that this is a movie by women, about women.  There aren’t too many of those on the market – especially in this genre.  From start to finish, I enjoyed the journey of Diana (Wonder Woman) from her origins on the idyllic island of Themyscira to modern day Paris.  Her life is shown in flashbacks with the bulk of the story about her relationship with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who she rescues when his plane crashes off her Island during WWI.  Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is perfect in this role as is Pine.  The rest of the supporting cast is excellent as well including the great Robin Wright as Diana’s aunt and David Thewlis as the film’s evil villain.  It is particularly enjoyable to see Thewlis who played the loveable Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies play the opposite type of role (as he has also recently done in this season’s Fargo where he is unrecognizable).  I think he has successfully left the Lupin character behind.

The story moves quickly as Trevor and WW go to the front lines of the war – she to find the evil god of war and Trevor to stop the Germans from releasing poisonous gas that will kill millions.  The relationship between them slowly builds in a way that is both sweet and effective.  The action becomes more intense as WW discovers new ways to utilize her powers.  It is all fun, the music supports the action, the CGI and special effects are wonderful (as are the costumes) and it all culminates in an excellent DC comic film which competes with the best of the Marvel movies.

There have been a lot of super hero movies over the last decade, some better than others but it is great to have one with a female lead and director be well reviewed and a box office hit.  If you have skipped movies in this genre, this might be one to check out.  I urge everyone to go see Wonder Woman.

Books: On the Island

On the Island by Tracey Garvis-Graves

This book has had a lot of buzz.  It was self-published and through word of mouth has had significant sales.  It is highly rated and I guess the reason I read it was because it was dirt cheap on Bookbubs and there were many positive reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.  I should have known better.  It is not my type of book but it may be the perfect thing to curl up in your beach chair with this summer

At the heart of the story is a 30 something year old English teacher (Anna) who was hired by a family to tutor their teenage son (T.J.) for the summer.  He had missed a great deal of school due to cancer treatments.  The two of them are on a small plane to an island in the Maldives (doesn’t every American family spend their summer vacation in the Maldives rather than the Hamptons?) when the pilot has a heart attack, the plane crashes and the two of them are stranded on a desert island for several years.

The whole idea of a love affair between a teacher in her thirties and a teenager creeps me out and reminds me of Mary Jane Letourneau and Vili Fualaau.  While the author carefully constructs her story to try and make it less icky, she didn’t fully succeed in my opinion as it always nagged at me.  The actual sexual relationship conveniently doesn’t occur until T.J. is almost 19 so it is officially legal and when they do get back to civilization, Anna, recognizing that they are at different stages of life, leaves T.J. so he can have the normal life experiences of a twenty-year-old.  I guess there are plenty of relationships out there where the male is 13 years older than a young teenage female that folk consider ok but I don’t care for those either.  It was difficult for me to buy into the love story because of the age gap.

If you can get past all of this, there are other challenging issues with the novel.  While the pair struggles to survive on the island, Anna’s suitcase miraculously washes up on shore containing all the personal products they will need for years as well as earrings that they can use to fish.  Friendly dolphins save T.J. from sharks (Island of the Blue Dolphins anyone?).  T.J. survives a devastating viral attack with nothing other than Tylenol.  Once they get off the island, Anna is fired from her teaching job due to the relationship but she gets a settlement from the charter plane company that basically sets her up for life without lifting a finger. The list goes on.  Every little problem just seems to have a short pat solution.

After finishing the novel, I was left wanting a lot more but it was an easy read and won’t require any intellectual effort on the part of those looking for a book at the beach.

Books: The Sound of Gravel and T.V. (the Book)

The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner

This is a great book.  It is the autobiography of Ruth Wariner,  the daughter of a Polygamist cult leader shot to death by his brother when she was only three months old.  Her mother Kathy married another polygamist, this one an abusive sociopath. Kathy ultimately had 10 children between her two husbands two of whom died during their childhood and a third one was institutionalized with various issues.  Ruth grew up in abject poverty shuttling between despicable living situations in multiple cities in the Southwest and Mexico.  Most of her time was spent in the polygamist enclave of Colonia LeBaron in Mexico founded by her father where she had 39 brothers and sisters across several families.

Ruth’s recounting of her early life is a difficult read but riveting.  Every adult fails her and her siblings.   However, at her core, Ruthie was a survivor and was ultimately responsible for saving her siblings and getting them out of a miserable and dangerous situation.  This story is compelling from the very start and the book is hard to put down.  I don’t know what it is about stories describing cults but this one is fascinating and a page turner.  While she endures one horrific event after another, there is still an enduring love for her mother and siblings that transcends the day to day difficulties.  The fact that Ruth could ultimately receive an education and write such a heartfelt chronicle of her childhood is a testimony to the strength and resilience of her character.  You’ll want to read this book.

TV (the Book) by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz

This is the latest book by prominent TV Critic Sepinwall and this one is co-authored by another well-known critic Matt Zoller Seitz.  It chronicles the best 100 TV shows ever using a series of somewhat subjective criteria but complicated enough that it takes an entire chapter to describe it.  There are also lists of shows that they liked that didn’t make the final cut either because they weren’t eligible due to the fact they are still in production or because the critics still loved them despite not making the top 100.  This is a book that is only for the die-hard TV fan.  I did not read all of it.  Each show had a description and explanation for why the critics liked it but if it was a show that I will never watch, I didn’t bother to read what was said about it.

I follow Alan Sepinwall closely and have a great deal of respect for his reviews.  He always influences which TV shows I decide to watch.  I do wonder, however,  whether a more diverse voice as his co-author would have made for a different list.  Specifically, a great female critic (like Maureen Ryan) might have had a very different perspective on the rankings.  I found the rankings to be heavily populated by shows that I find to be more “male-oriented” like violent cop shows and some animated ones.  For example, I’m not sure the Simpsons would have been voted the top TV show of all time had a female voice been counted.  Other shows like “Big Love” might have cracked the top 100 and Sports Night may have been ranked higher along with countless other shows that appeal more to women.  The top five shows were:  The Simpsons, The Wire, The Sopranos, Cheers and Breaking Bad.  These would not have been my five shows but it is hard to argue that they aren’t deserving of a high score.

Everyone can argue the order of the rankings based on their personal favorites but the book is an exhaustive read with lots of thoughtful insights into many shows of the past 50 years. The arguments the authors used for their selections are solid and not particularly controversial.   For TV lovers, it will give you ideas for what you might like to binge watch in the future.  For others, it is likely a pass.  I’d love a book from a couple of female critics to see how their rankings might play out.  Until then, I’ll keep this around as a useful reference book.

 

 

 

TV: Orphan Black, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and World of Dance

TV premiers and finales have wound down but we still have a few.

Seasons Premiers: 

Orphan Black (BBC America)

Orphan Black premiered this past week for its fifth and final season and the fate of all our favorites clones is up in the air.  Sarah is wounded and crawling around an island trying to find Cosima.  There is some sort of weird monster lurking on said island in addition to the crazy cult which is holding Cosima hostage. The potential cure for her resperatory disease needs to be injected in her uterine wall so she escapes her cabin to go find it.   Alison and Helena are still camping although Art, with his super dangerous new partner,  captures Alison while Donnie escapes without helping her.  Despite the fact they didn’t get Donnie or Helena, the latter is speared by a piece of wood into her uterus as she tries to escape.  We can’t lose Helena’s babies!  Rachel is now apparently second in command in the bizarre group that runs the commune and offers to inject Cosima saying they need to stay on the island and find a cure for all the clones.

Orphan Black has certainly had its ups and downs over the past 5 seasons and I totally lost the ability to understand what was going on during the season that had the male clone army but now that we are winding down, I hope we get some answers and happy resolutions for the best of the clones.  Tatiana Maslany is so amazing and what she has done with these many characters is groundbreaking.  This show is probably a good summer binge if you haven’t seen it.  I think being able to watch it all at once will make for a better understanding of the crazier plotlines. 

House of Cards (Netflix)

I don’t watch every season of House of Cards all the way through but I thought last years was good so I tuned in this season.  As usual, I didn’t remember what happened 12 months ago but one doesn’t have to in order to get the basic gist of what is going on.  I’m about one-half way through this season and with a crazy sequence of events, Claire is Interim President and she and her husband are manipulating everything in sight in order to make that permanent.  Joel Kinnaman is an effective “villain” trying to prevent that from happening .  Doug Stamper is back with unclear motives – is he the newest bad guy?  If he is, that could make for a most interesting plot-line.

I can see that although the Showrunners of House of Cards wrote and filmed this season well before the 2016 US Presidential election, the stories are eerily similar.  House of Cards is so out there and our real White House is like a dystopian novel.  These two together create an environment where reality and fiction are indistinct from each other.   I’m not sure how long viewers will stay tuned in when entertainment inadvertently becomes a reality show.  The show, with all its fine acting, just isn’t strong enough, in my opinion, to transcend this issue.  Perhaps if it was the best series on TV, people might find this exaggerated dose of reality intriguing but that’s just not the case.  I’ll do a final report when I get through the entire season and hoping for stronger episodes in the second half. 

Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

Ouch, the reviews are in for this season and they are not good.  The entire season takes place over the course of a 3-day prison riot and apparently, nothing works well with this new format. I have watched the first episode and I’m not sure I buy into any of the reactions of the various inmates to their circumstances.  The character development so carefully crafted over the last several years seems to have been abandoned for many of them during this time of crisis at the prison.  Samira Wiley’s Poussey is sorely missed as a character both within the show and for the viewer.  I have always enjoyed OITNB so I will give it at least half of a season but if it is as bad as the reviewers have said, I’m not sure even I can get through that.  More to come on this one. 

World of Dance

I’m not a big reality show person.  I watch the Voice from time to time and I watched So You Think You Can Dance for years until it deteriorated to the point where I just couldn’t watch a couple of summers ago.  I will try it again this summer to see if has gone back to its roots but in the meantime, a new dance show premiered that I thought might have some potential.  World of Dance has Derek Hough, Jay Lo and Ne-Yo as the judges along with Channing Tatum’s wife Jenna as some sort of backstage cheerleader.  I’m not sure what her role is.  At any rate, the show brings dance acts from across the world doing all kinds of dances and divides them into age groups.

I’ve seen a few shows and I’m not very impressed.  Some of the acts are good but others seem picked just because they do something different, not because they are very good.  There is nothing new or particularly innovative here and it can’t compare with the quality we used to see on SYTYCD.  If the latter is even close to its original level when it premiers later this summer, I’ll dump the former in a heartbeat. In the meantime, there are only 10 episodes and hopefully we’ll be to the next level of competition soon and the acts will become stronger.

What I’m streaming this summer:

  • I have started in on a Game of Thrones rewatch but it is slow going and I’m sure I will not have made much progress before the new season premiers on July 16th. Nevertheless, it is fun to be back in Season One amidst the many characters who have long since been killed.
  • My big watch this summer will probably be the Wire. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Movies: I Daniel Blake

 

I Daniel Blake 

I, Daniel Blake won the BAFTA for best British film of 2016 as well as well as the 2016 Palm d’Or at Cannes but has just been released in the US.  It is the story of a blue-collar construction worker, played by Dave Johnson, in Newcastle UK who is on government benefits after having suffered a heart attack.  For some inexplicable reason, the government decides to take him off the benefits despite his doctors telling him he can’t go back to work.  Daniel’s travails as he tries to work within the system to reinstate his benefits will resonate with most viewers –  particularly the hours spent on the phone “on hold” waiting for a representative only to get a bureaucratic response that is useless.  In addition, Daniel, like many in a similar situation, is computer illiterate but forced to apply for benefits on-line.  His mostly unsuccessful attempts as he tries his hardest to do what is asked of him are heartbreaking.

While giving it his all to work within the system, Daniel meets another victim, Katie (played hauntingly by Haley Squires), a single mother of two who has been forced to leave her home in London for a government sponsored apartment in Newcastle.  She is unable to find work and struggles to put food on the table for her kids.  He befriends her and helps fix things around the apartment to help her out. Daniel, a widower with no children, is also friends with his neighbor, a young Black man who is in to selling Chinese sneaker knock-offs out of his car but always looking out for his older mate. The unrelated people form somewhat of a “family”, looking out and caring for one another while life continually delivers them hard knocks.  Katie’s attempts to get a job and better her situation culminate in a devastating scene where she is so hungry that she takes the top of a can of beans in a food bank and tries to get the food in her mouth while she is breaking down.

The Director, Ken Loach has effectively depicted a story of how poor working class people who want desperately to be contributing members of society fail because  the “system” destroys them despite their best efforts.  There is a call-out against what seems to be the privatization of part of the British welfare system at the beginning of the film as a faceless American company “health worker” denies Daniel his benefits without any real understanding of his situation. Apparently, Loach’s political views are far left and his movies represent his perspective.  I Daniel Blake is no exception.  You will come out of this movie exhausted and sad,  questioning not only England’s state sponsored programs but what it must be like in the USA for Vets trying to get medical care via a somewhat similar system.  Although I found the film to be excellent, it is a tough, tough movie to watch – there is no happy ending here.  The themes of resilience and perserverance are prevalent throughout the film but despite a few moments of glory, and even a few comedic ones, the good people are all crushed.

TV: Three Big Finales – The Leftovers, The Americans and Billions.

Series Finales:

 

The Leftovers (HBO)

The Leftovers ended it three season run with a moving and yes, satisfying ending universally heralded by critics as a masterful conclusion to a brilliant final season.  This makes me happy for Damon Lindeloft who was the major force behind the show as he was with “Lost”.  The man who I think is perhaps the best TV creator out there deserved a big win after years of controversy about the Lost finale and he got it.  The Leftovers evolved into perhaps the best TV show of this century and Lindeloft gets much of the credit.

This last season has been a roller coaster ride with Tasmanian sex boat, A sex crazed lion, a machine that can take humans into another dimension, death and resurrection, and parallel universes but in the end, it was a simple love story that prevailed.  As Lindeloft said at the beginning of the series, we will never know why 2% of the world disappeared one fine day – just that they did.  The story is not about them but those that were left behind and how they grappled with the loss while trying to put their lives back together.  The finale focused on one love story, that of Kevin and Nora, and what they had to do to be able to be together.  It also wrapped up several other storylines in a creative way via a short dialogue between Nora and Kevin about what had happened to the people in their lives in the intervening years that they were apart.

Now for the acting.  Carrie Coon is fantastic in this finale “The Book of Nora”.  Her eyes tell it all.  They should win an Emmy by themselves. Her scene with Christopher Eccleston (who also was great in this final season) as her brother Matt just as she is about to “leave this world” is gut wrenching.  Her final scenes with Kevin, played equally brilliantly by Justin Theroux, are some of the finest I have seen in years.  These actors should all win every award out there although I have scant hope that they will.

Every television critic in America has weighed in on the Leftover’s finale today and much more eloquently than I can hope to do so I won’t go into any more detail on it.  In addition, there are numerous interviews with Damon Lindeloft out there to further enhance the understanding and appreciation of this series and the finale.  I’ll just conclude with this.  If you haven’t seen the Leftovers, this summer would be a great time to watch it end to end.  You need to understand that the first season is dark and depressing.  It closely follows the Tom Perrotta book and is a tough slog but necessary to understand the depths of grief created by the departure of 2% of the world’s population.  The critics and audiences bailed from the show in droves after the first season but the critics at least returned when the second and third seasons stormed back in a massive way with creative and less depressing plotlines.  The writers could do this because they were freed from the constraints of the book having finished that story in Season one.  I am going to miss the Leftovers.  It has been a great ride and I can’t wait for Damon Lindeloft’s next series.

Season Finales:

The Americans (FX)

As readers of the blog know, the Americans has been my favorite show for several years (although the Leftovers surpassed it this year for me).  Next season is its last and so in this penultimate season we have been slowly winding down the story of the Jennings.  When I say slowly, I mean slowly and too slowly.  This was not my favorite season.  The show moved between two major story lines; Oleg’s in Russia and the Jennings in America. I didn’t care about what was happening in Russia except for my pure joy at seeing Martha again but the rest wasn’t compelling and took away from the story that I wanted to spend time with.  The new cases for the Jennings, that of the wheat shortage and the Evgheniya/Pasha/Tuan plot did not interest me in the slightest leaving just the plotline of the Jennings struggle with their way of life as the storyline that kept me coming back.

Then there were the teaser side stories.  The writers got me excited about Philip’s son Misha coming to America to find his father only to send him home before a meeting occurs.  Will Misha ever meet his father? Is Stan’s girlfriend a spy (I think so) and if so, who does she work for?  Will we ever know?  Why are we spending so much time on Henry and boarding school?  These plot twists remained unresolved and frustrating for many viewers.  I can only hope that some of them pay off in the final season.

The most compelling development, that of Philip and Elizabeth’s increasing disillusionment with their jobs, sets us up for next season with a twist in the finale.  The Jennings were set to return to Russia when one of Philip’s targets becomes head of a key Soviet department in the US government causing Elizabeth to say that they could not go back as long as they had access to this individual.  Philip clearly cannot continue at the same level he has been operating at and is crushed.  So, we are now 10 episodes from the series finale and I have no idea how it will end other than Stan must find out that his bestie neighbors are Russian spies.  It is difficult for me to believe that the Jennings are going to drag their children to Russia but I guess that could be an option.  I can only hope that the fast-paced spy stories of previous seasons will be part of the final journey.

Although this season of the Americans was one of its weakest, it was still better than 95% of the shows out there.  It is hard for me to contemplate what my TV world will be like with the Leftovers, the Americans and Game of Thrones all coming to an end.  I don’t see any great replacements lining up.

Billions (Showtime)

I finally got through all my remaining episodes of Season 2 of Billions and it was well worth it.  Billions might be the only Showtime series that improved in its second season.  The testosterone battle between Chuck and Axe is not enough to sustain me through an entire season and it took the introduction of Taylor, played by a Gender Non-Binary individual both in real-life and as a character to add depth and complexity to life at Axe Capital.  Maybe a show about a bunch of rich white guys making millions at the expense of everyday investors is appealing to the Wall Street crowd but it doesn’t keep me engaged and the addition of Taylor was great.  Not only was the introduction of this character historical in terms of TV but also to the environment of all the high-end investment firms filled with Ivy-League educated white guys.  Having a brilliant non-binary character trying to find their way in this environment added a lot to the story-line this season.

Another improvement was that the female characters of Lara and Wendy were given more to work with in Season 2.  Although I might quibble with the act that finally drove Lara to question her marriage and start looking out for her own self-interest, she did do just that.  We are reminded of the bad-ass that was initially introduced to us early in Season 1 but who had faded into a more subservient wife role since that time.  Wendy’s motives are less obvious and her character is certainly evolving and I wonder just how the whole Dominatrix thing will play out in the war between the alpha males.  We did get a potentially strong third female character at the end of the season with Mary Louise Parker’s George and I hope she’ll be back as a major force next season.  I think we are going to have to rely on these three women to be the most interesting as those in the Federal prosecutor’s department leave me cold.

I’m not sure how long I can watch this battle of deplorable males continue but during the few moments when Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti are in the same room speaking to each other, it is television at its finest.  This season’s second to last episode with the Ice Juice play was amazing and perhaps the best episode of TV I have seen all season up until the Leftover’s finale.   I’ll be back for the next season of Billions but I hope Showtime and the Billion’s show runners have a plan to wrap it up without dragging it out well beyond its expiration date.  The overall plotline seems to me somewhat limited and as the two lead characters become more disgusting with each episode, it is hard to imagine where the viewer will find charters that keep them involved with the show.