TV: The Last of the Spring TV Finales: Broadchurch, Orphan Black and Nashville

As the summer winds down the last few shows the I watch ended and as I wait for fall TV to start up later this month, here are some thoughts.

Series Finales:

Broadchurch (BBC America)

Broadchurch had a brilliant first year, a not so great Season 2 and a good third and final season which just finished.  I wasn’t totally thrilled with the finale given that the rapist in this season’s crime turned out not to be one of the several suspects the show had been focused on all season.  After all the red herrings in practically every episode, to introduce basically a new suspect as the perpetrator at the end was cheap even though one of the suspects was involved.  Nonetheless, the finale overall was satisfying and wrapped up many of the plotlines that had developed over all three seasons.

Alec and “Milla” successfully solved their latest case; The Latimer family had some cause for hope although Mark is still very broken.  Alec’s relationship with his daughter got stronger but he passed on a more personal relationship with Ellie.  The Reverend is moving on as is Trish (the rape victim) and her family; The local town newspaper woman who was fired for being ethical is going to be a blogger in a closure that I loved.  I’m going to miss this small town but more than anything, the activing of David Tennant as Alec Hardy, Olivia Colman as Ellie Miller (“Milla”) and this year’s victim Julie Hesmondhalgh who played Trish Winterman so well.  Jodi Whittaker is very good and I was happy the writers found an interesting way to keep her involved in the plot this season.  I may just try Dr. Who to see her as the first female Doctor in that series. The final words of the show (“See you tomorrow Milla”) were perfect as were the fading pictures of the cliffs which so defined the town and its story.

Despite the dip in Season 2, Broadchurch is a very good show which should delight anyone who enjoys British murder mysteries.  It will be missed by many.

Orphan Black (BBC America)

Orphan Black ended its five-year run with a satisfying finale in which our clone “Sestas” got their happy endings.  I loved the first two years of this show and then I spent the next two having no idea what was going on.  Tatiana Maslany’s acting was so fantastic, however, that I couldn’t stop watching.  Each character she portrayed was as if an entirely different actress was playing the role.  She is just riveting on screen no matter what kind of crazy wig was worn.  In addition, the primary clones (Allison, Sarah, Cosima and Helena) completely engaged the viewer in their respective stories.  The supporting cast while small was quite good including Jordan Gavaris as Felix, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Siobhan, Kristian Bruun as Donnie and Kevin Hanchart as Art.

I never understood the whole male clone storyline nor exactly what the evil “Neolution” organization was.  It was hard to follow the ins and outs of who was in it and who wasn’t but in the end, that didn’t matter as it was all about the “Sestas” and having them finally finding some happiness in life.  So, goodbye Orphan Black.  You brought joy to my heart for at least a couple of years and I’m going to miss Tatiana Maslany playing all of these fascinating characters.

Season Finale

Nashville (CMT)

Nashville is an evening soap opera so why do I keep watching it?  I don’t generally care for country music although the music on this show often draws me in; I don’t care for several the characters, particularly now that Connie Britton has departed and in fact, I actively dislike several of them (Scarlett, Maddie and Daphne); The plotlines are often goofy and predictable so what is left?  There are characters I do generally care about.  Charles Esten as Deacon and the frat boys (Jonathan Jackson as Avery, Sam Palladio as Gunnar and Chris Carmack as Will) are great.  Hayden Panattiere is very good despite suspect writing for her character and her relationship with Avery is compelling (unlike Gunnar and Scarlett).

Nashville completed its spring “half” season – the first without Rayna Jaymes.  With the loss of such a critical character, it struggled to find its footing.  There were new character introductions which didn’t particularly work; The increased importance of Maddie and Daphne was tough to take – particularly the storyline of Daphne and the homeless girl.  These young actors are not good enough to have such plot lines revolve around them.  Gunnar and Scarlett just need to implode so we never have to watch them break up, get together, break-up, and kind of get together again before breaking up.  Enough is enough.  Will’s storyline seemed to just float in the wind and Zach’s storyline never resonated with me.  So, again, I get back to what I liked; Deacon dealing with grief; Juliette and Avery (not Juliette and the gospel singers), Will, Avery and Gunner’s “Three Men and a Baby life” and some pretty good music here and there to keep me going.  I don’t know that when Nashville reappears again next season competing against many more TV shows that I’ll have time to watch it but it is ok summer fare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TV: The Keepers, The Last Tycoon, Casual and Diana Our Mother

There isn’t much original programming on TV right now so I have mostly been streaming aside for every Sunday night when I get to watch Game of Thrones!

The Keepers (Netflix)

The Keepers isn’t the “can’t stop watching” sort of true murder mystery that say the “Jinx” is or “Making of a Murder”.  That might have to do with the lack of an arrested suspect to focus on.  It might also have to do with the fact that it is the story of two women (same high school class as myself) who are investing the murder of a beloved nun they had for a high school teacher in the late sixties.  The process of this work is slow and painstaking as is some of the TV show.  I am perfectly happy to watch women who are my peers become more effective investigators then the Baltimore police but that might not work for everyone.  Nevertheless, it is a compelling story that brings a different dimension to the Catholic Church abuse stories that we have been exposed to over the past few decades.

This seven-part series is like watching “Spotlight” only squared.  It is a deeply disturbing trip into the sexual abuse of countless girls by a priest in a Baltimore Catholic High School in the sixties. There is mystery, intrigue and even the Wire can’t compete with this true story of corruption and cover-up encompassing the Church, police, and what seems like the Who’s Who of Baltimore. The most compelling individual in this story is a woman, Jean Hargadon Wehner who suffered abuse and then blocked it from her memory for decades.  She started to recall disturbing elements of her ordeal and filed suit against the Church and the perpetrator priest in the early 90s.  “Jane Doe” as she was known as during the lawsuit is remarkably open about her experiences and every time she is on the screen, she completely owns it.

As the individuals who participated in the murder and cover-up have died, it is unclear if we will ever know for sure who committed the murder of Sister Cathy.  The dogged determination of two wonderful women, Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins have opened up the case and brought the story of the abuse and murder to the forefront of many Americans.  The Keepers is a powerful TV series (although I found it dragged in parts) and it is most effective when the camera just lets the survivors tell their stories.  While other similar programs like the aforementioned “Jinx” or “Making of a Murder” might be more riveting, “The Keeper”s is well worth checking out – particularly if you are interested in the subject or just a murder mystery buff.

The Last Tycoon (Amazon)

Yes, Matt Bomer is perhaps the best-looking actor in Hollywood but he can act and he does it well in this new Amazon series based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel that was unfinished at his death.  I watched the entire nine-episodes and enjoyed it.  It is a period piece that takes place in 1930s Hollywood amidst a backdrop of Nazi bankers and the Great Depression.  The strong acting and visually appealing sets will remind the viewer of Mad Men which isn’t too surprising as they share the same costume designer.  The pilot wasn’t the greatest but after that, the story of a small movie studio head (Kelsey Grammer) and his creative genius partner (Bomer) trying to keep their heads above water while attempting to make great movies was entertaining.  Bomer plays a Jewish character, Monroe Stahr, who is still in love with the ghost of his movie-star wife who perished in a fire.  Grammer’s character, Pat Brady, has several flaws, including a strong jealousy of his partner, which prove in the end that a completely immoral streak probably is required to become a great success in Hollywood.

Lily Collins plays Brady’s daughter who inexplicably is given a major movie to produce at the age of 19 with absolutely no experience.  I didn’t love this plot line nor Collin’s performance in a role which I thought required more acting ability than Collin’s is currently capable of.  Jennifer Beals (Flashdance) makes a very strong appearance in several episodes and it was great to see her back.  Grammer and Bomer were especially strong and anyone who thinks the latter is just a pretty face should watch what he does in this series.  His reaction to Brady cutting him off at the knees was magnificent as was his performance at the engagement party.  The costumes were fabulous and along with the camera work and scenery take the viewer back to a time forgotten.

It is unclear as to whether the Last Tycoon will be renewed for another season (or more) but it ended on a cliff hanger and I’m sure there is a lot more story to tell.  The novel upon which it is based was apparently only half finished so the writers could go several different directions with it.  My only fear would be that it moves toward the Lily Collin’s character running the studio, the groundwork for which has been laid.  There are several other plotlines that could be explored in more depth including the Nazi impact on the studios and the Jewish establishment in Hollywood.  The first season certainly touched on these themes but the story could get quite fascinating as WWII becomes a reality.  I don’t want to spoil the finale but I’ll just say that I need Bomer to return to the series if it goes another season.

Casual Season 3 (Hulu)

This story revolving around the completely dysfunctional members of the Meyers/Cole family spiraled into even more of a heavy drama in season 3.  The showrunners did well in physically separating the Meyers from Alex this season and it helped with the story telling.  New characters, like Judy Greer as Alex’s boss were brought in and additional plotlines established making for a more engaging season.  After all, one can only take so much of three deeply flawed characters being with each other 24×7.  Each character was strengthened and individualized as they set out on their own journey towards happiness – which of course is not ever in the cards for them.  While these were all positive changes, they created a scenario that resulted in multiple plotlines being very depressing and by the middle of the season I was ready to quit.  I did hang in there and it picked up toward the end with the finale setting the stage for Alex and Val to go back to living together in Season 4 although Laura is parked at her horrific grandmother’s house.

Casual is one of many “Dramedies” (You’re the Worst, Catastrophe etc.) that have focused on dark, topics with less and less comedic undertones.  They are tough to watch despite being excellent.  In the future, I think I may have to decrease the number of these that I follow and Casual might be the one that I ditch.   It’s nothing against Casual, it is just that I can only take so much of dysfunctional people in their 30s/40s with drug abuse, alcoholism, bi-polar disorders and other problems creating chaos in their lives.  I could use just a little more “comedy” in my dramedies.

Documentaries:

Diana Our Mother (HBO)

This documentary put together by William and Harry will appeal to anyone with an interest in Diana or the Royal family.  It is an intimate look into the woman who meant so much to so many people and it shows the deep scars her death left upon her children.  There isn’t much more in this special than has previously been made available but we do see her through her children’s eyes and are shown new family pictures. The boys discuss her sense of humor, their last call with her and the void she has left in their lives. It is worth watching for anyone interested in the Royals and as we mark the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s tragic death.

Movies: Dunkirk and the Lost City of Z

 

Dunkirk

Dunkirk is impressive.  It is a visual masterpiece.  Yet, I have mixed feelings about the film which isn’t surprising given it is a Christopher Nolan movie.  On one hand, its full-out action, brilliant cinematography and moving score make for one of the best movies of the year.  On the other, the lack of character development and overlapping timelines add unnecessary confusion.  Dunkirk is the story of the rescue of over 300,000 mostly British soldiers from a small beach in France where they were cornered by the Germans.  This significant portion of the British army could not be rescued by destroyers due to the location.  The British also did not want to send the bulk of their Air Force to assist with the rescue because they didn’t want to lose their planes with the war just beginning.

The film follows three stories – by land, air and sea.  The first one (by land) is a young soldier who finds himself on the beach with hundreds of thousands of other soldiers trying to get off; the second (by air) is a British RAF pilot trying to hold off the German air force almost single-handedly and the third (by sea) is a pleasure boat captain (Mark Rylance) sailing to Dunkirk to rescue the troops.  Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar, the Dark Knight etc.) does not tell these stories on a single timeline.  It took me a few minutes to figure it out – the biggest clue was that there was daylight during the sea plot and night for the land plot although you are led to believe they are happening at the same time.  In reality, the “land” soldier’s story lasted over a week, the air story probably less than 60 minutes and sea story a day or so.  This is not differentiated in the 1 hr. 45-minute film which leads you to believe the story occurs simultaneously.  It isn’t until the end that everything comes together.  I didn’t appreciate it in Inception and I didn’t love it in this film.

Another thing that bothered me was that there was no character development.  All the young soldiers look alike and so it was somewhat difficult to follow their stories.  Harry Styles was the only one I recognized so he became my “constant” for the land story.  By the way, he did a nice job.  I never recognized Tom Hardy because he was covered up with a face mask the entire time he was flying the plane that thwarted much of the German air attack.  He was great, though, as his eyes told it all.

It was nice to see a WWII movie with no blood and gore and never a Nazi in sight.  That isn’t to say we weren’t immersed in the desperate struggles of drowning in a fiery oil slick or a submerged boat under fire or the tens of thousands of soldiers who were sitting ducks on a beach while air fire reigned down upon them.  These horrors were visually epic.  While we were gazing down at planes zig zagging into the ocean depths and docks and hospital ships being blown up, there was a constant clock-ticking score from Hans Zimmer which in my opinion enhanced the film immeasurably.   I found the score to be amazing and never over played.  It was, for me, an effective background tool that didn’t interfere with the action nor deliver over the top crescendos when it could easily have (e.g. when the rescue fleet appeared).  However, there is a lot of love/hate out there amongst the critics for the score.  They either love it or hate it with a passion – no middle ground on this one.

Dunkirk is an important story as it is quite possible that had the rescue not occurred and if the Germans with total command of the area decided to keep moving through the barricades to destroy the British troop,  WWII would have been over then and there.  This film should be seen.  For those individuals who do not know the story, read up on it a bit on Wiki first because the movie plunges you into the action immediately with no explanation or context.  In addition, there is a lack of dialogue so the viewer is immersed in this historical action film with no narrative.  If you want an additional perspective on the battle, be sure to watch this year’s “Their Finest” which should be streaming by now.  It is a film about the British War Office’s propaganda machine at work trying to make the besieged population focus on the upbeat story of the Dunkirk rescue. In the meantime, I suspect I am going to need to see this movie again, preferably in IMAX (everyone who can see it in IMAX 70mm should), to try and follow all the threads.  This is nothing new for me when it comes to Christopher Nolan films.

Streaming:

The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z was one of the best reviewed films of 2016 and because I never got a chance to catch it in the theaters, I took advantage of it now being available to watch on demand.  I’m sorry I did.  It was one of the most boring movies ever.  My husband was also watching although his moaning, groaning and swearing about the movie seemed to take precedence over viewing.  I don’t even know where to start but one place is that I broke my rule of not watching a movie where the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is more than 20% less than the critics score.  In this case, there was a 25% difference which is huge and means that it probably wouldn’t be a film most people enjoy.  Alarm bells should have gone off!

Basically, the movie was so boring it was torture to watch. Charlie Hunnam places Perry Fawcett, a British major who is sent to the Amazon to chart the area.  While there, he discovers some pottery and decides there is a sophisticated lost civilization in the area.  His suffering wife played by Sienna Miller must spend years on her own with their children back in England while Fawcett keeps going back to find this civilization.  He isn’t a great person and essentially the viewer is asked to bond with someone who is probably crazy and treats his family badly.  It should have also been telling that Robert Pattinson (an actor I really like and respect) as  Fawcett’s aide-de-camp, was unrecognizable to me for at least the first 45 minutes and that is a face I know very well! Another annoying thing was that for some inexplicable reason, the Director had them all mumbling their lines.  The viewer could have been forgiven for turning on the closed captioning to understand what was being said but why should they have to?  What was the Director thinking when he thought that was a good idea?

The critics find much to love in this film including the cinematography, acting, character depth and messaging around the exploration and conquering of indigenous people.  For the average viewer, wait until it is free to check it out.  It’s not worth the $5.99 rental fee.

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.