TV: Summer’s Last Hurrah – Game of Thrones, Halt and Catch Fire, You’re the Worst and Top of the Lake China

 

It has been a completely crazy last month or so and I know I am way behind on my blog so while I have a few days before the onslaught of fall TV, I just wanted to make some comments about the shows that I have been watching during the twilight of summer.

Season’s Finales:

Game of Thrones:

The penultimate season of Game of Thrones gave us a scant 7 episodes but several were packed with amazing special effects and some great battles.  I think the show has struggled since it went beyond the books.  The world that George R.R. Martin created is so complex and intricate with deep history and substantive characters/dialogue that it gave the HBO creators a writer’s feast from which to create the show.  Once that was gone and the showrunners had to create the storylines with little guidance, I have found the character development lacking and the focus on huge battles and dragons.  Not that I mind battles and dragons (this season the latter were spectacular) but there is so much more that could have been done.

In my opinion, Season 7 was very rushed.  People moved between far locations with lightning speed.  Key actions happened without the careful construction of the plot leading up to them.  I’m not sure why Weiss and Benioff decided to do only 7 shows this season and 6 in the final season but even with some extended episodes, there was so much missing in terms of background explanations as to why characters acted the way they did.  A prime example of this was in the finale when Sansa and Aria executed Littefinger for no obvious reason.  Apparently in a discarded scene, Bran informed them of the nefarious things Littlefinger did but the finale didn’t explain it at all.  I just feel the showrunners are tired of writing from  George R.R. Martin notes and just want it all to be over.  It doesn’t give me great hope for next season other than I’m sure there will be some great dragon/battle scenes but the long, wonderful dialog sequences will be something we will need to go back to the first few seasons for.

I love Game of Thrones but I wish we had the books finished so that the showrunners could give us the story we deserve.  I hope the novels will someday be completed (although I may not live long enough to see it given Martin’s history) to get the full measure of this amazing world.

Season’s Premiers:

Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)

Halt and Catch Fire commenced its fourth and final season last month and so far, it is great.  This is a terrific under-the-radar show about the beginnings of Silicon Valley and the computer and internet revolution.  It addresses some of the issues women in technology have faced as well as the exciting world of start-up tech companies.  This season is focused on the development of internet search engines and is fascinating.  The acting is great, the characters terrific and the history pretty accurate from what I can tell.

If you haven’t seen Halt and Catch Fire, the first three seasons are on Netflix.  The second and third are fantastic.  The first season is somewhat inconsistent (as many first seasons are) as the show tries to find its footing.  One critic who I highly respect suggested that if you want to see the show and have limited time, watch the pilot and the last four episodes of Season 1 along with all of Seasons 2&3.  Enjoy!

You’re the Worst (FXX)

In last season’s finale, Jimmy asked Gretchen to marry him, she said “yes” and then he panicked and drove off into the sunset.  This season begins with Jimmy living in a trailer park with no access to the internet or phone and Gretchen trying to move on.  They don’t see each other until the end of the third episode which just aired.  I’m not sure where we are going from there but I’m in for the ride.  I love this show about four of the most dysfunctional and damaged (along with mentally ill) people you will ever come across.  Chris Geere and Aya Cash as Jimmy and Gretchen are so good in their roles and Desmin Borges (Edgar) and Kether Donohue (Lindsay) are equally up to the task as their sidekicks.

The show went to a dark place with Gretchen’s bi-polar disorder and I’m hoping it lightens up a bit this year,  as it is supposed to be a comedy.  The first three episodes seem to be headed back toward its comedic roots and I like that Edgar and Kether are getting more screen time.  The four leads are the soul of the show and Jimmy and Gretchen is just too intense without some comedic relief by other characters.  I’m so glad this show is back!

Top of the Lake China Girl (Sundance)

I watched the first Top of the Lake miniseries in 2013 and thought it to be one of the finest shows of the year so I was excited that Jane Campion has brought it back.  Unfortunately, four years later, I remember very little about the first series and when I launched into this new season, it became clear very quickly that I needed to recall what happened to make Elisabeth Moss’s character (Robin Griffin) so damaged.  I know she was raped but some of the other psychological issues need reading up on.  One thing that is clear from the two episodes I have seen is that the misogyny is non-stop and after the last two years of listening to it spewing from the Republican candidate now President, it is pretty hard to take for my entertainment.

This season adds Nicole Kidman who has had such a banner year in both film and TV and who I think is one of our finest actresses out there.  However, her introduction in Episode 1 resulted in a performance I found to be stiff and unbelievable – it was slightly improved in the second Episode.  Gwendoline Christie  is another new character although I think she is better in Game of Thrones.   I am going to stick with this as I think that any show created by Jane Campion and starring Nicole Kidman and Elizabeth Moss deserves my attention but I do have concerns that this may turn out to be more like Season 2 of True Detective than Season 2 of the Americans.

 

 

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Movies: The Zookeeper’s Wife and Queen of the Desert

 

The Zookeeper’s Wife

The Zookeeper’s Wife is an adaptation of the book by the same name (which, by the way, was excellent).  It stars Jessica Chastain as a Polish woman who with her husband manages a Zoo in Warsaw as Hitler rises to power. The movie doesn’t have the subtlety or complexity of the book but it is fine and Chastain is quite good.  The story is true and worth knowing about as this couple saved as many as 300 Warsaw Jews through their commitment and bravery while constantly risking their lives.

This is a difficult story to bring to screen and the film over simplifies the story.  The “good guys” are heroically perfect and the “bad guys” completely evil with no “grey” to be found.  The atrocities against the Zoo animals are graphically displayed yet the even more horrific atrocities against those in the Warsaw ghetto are glossed over.  Are we to walk away thinking more about the animals?  I think not but that is not clear in the film.   Chastain as Antonina is at times more like Cinderella with the little birds floating around her ( at least while there are still animals in the zoo) than what I suspect was a very hard working couple in real life.  I never got that impression reading the book as this was a difficult profession to be in even before the war.

In the end, the Zookeeper’s wife is a perfectly acceptable film about World War II that lacks the urgency, complexity and magnitude of the impact of the player’s actions.  The story has been told before and better by other filmmakers but I think most viewers will still like it.  It certainly is one of the better big box movies playing now.  I just wish there had been more depth to the story telling.

Queen of the Desert (Limited Release and Streaming)

Queen of the Desert, with a 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, went pretty much straight to Streaming.  It is the story of Gertrude Bell, based on a biography of the same name and Directed by Werner Herzog.  Nicole Kidman stars as the lead character who was a British Woman in the early twentieth century who journeyed to the Middle East and became one of the most influential persons of her time.  She was often referred to as the “female Lawrence of Arabia” (played in the film by Robert Pattinson).

There are some positives to the film.  Nicole Kidman plays Gertrude Bell with the authority and gravitas that the character requires.  Arabs were actually cast to play Arabs.  Robert Pattison, James Franco as her first love and Damien Lewis (as her second) are all fine.  The cinematography while not in the same league as Lawrence in Arabia is still compelling and realistic.  Above all, the story of Gertrude Bell and her role in carving up the modern day Middle East is an important one that everyone should be aware of.

There are more negatives. The beginning of the film drags.  The back and forth with James Franco seems endless and I just wanted to skip it and get to the time in Bell’s life where she was being impactful.  Also, the noises that camels make is certainly not understated and becomes distracting. But perhaps the most significant issue with the film is that we leave not having a better understanding of what drove Gertrude Bell to be the pioneer that she was nor the role she played in the 1921 Cairo Conference.  While instrumental in the Conference which divided up the Middle East, her recommendations were largely overridden by the political scheming of Churchill and the French which was not mentioned.  Instead, the end of the film sees Gertrude riding off into the desert on a camel as if she was Lawrence.

Everyone should know more about Gertrude Bell but I’d read her biographies rather than see this movie.

 

 

TV: The Americans, Billions, The Catch, Feud, Big Little Lies, 13 Reasons Why and Colony

 

I am so behind on TV for several reasons and April TV which is an entire season in and of itself is beginning which means even more premiers so I’m just going to jump in and hit some of the highlights for shows that I’m watching which have recently started or ended.

Season Premiers:

The Americans (FX)

My favorite TV show is back for its fifth (and next to last) season and seems even more relevant given the current “Russia” headlines.  At the end of last season, Philip (Mathew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) were on the verge of being discovered and seriously contemplated taking their family back to Russia.  Their daughter Paige is aware of her parent’s profession and struggles to come to grips with it as she pursues a relationship with the next-door son of an FBI counter intelligence officer.

The season opens with the immediate crisis passing and a new mission involving a recently settled Russian family.  The father is very anti-Russia and the son Pasha is having difficulty adapting to American life.  There are connections to the real Russian wheat shortage of the time.  Also in transit, presumably on his way to America is Philip’s son Misha.  The premier has the longest grave digging episode in the history of television but we do get past that albeit without a surprise death.  Thankfully, Margo Martindale (Claudia) and Frank Langella (Gabriel)are back in their handler roles.  As the season progresses, things get more complicated as Philip struggles with the morality of his work; Paige has no idea how to deal with having a boyfriend whose FBI father could destroy their lives and Claudia and Gabriel are losing some confidence in their star spy family.

Note:  If you haven’t seen the Peabody award winning “The Americans”, you can see the first 4 seasons on Amazon Prime.  There isn’t anything better on Television and each season gets better and better.  This is a great show.

Billions (Showtime)

I missed Billions last year because my Sunday nights were filled with TV shows that I was watching so I caught up on Season 1 and am have watched about half of Season 2.  I like Billions.  The interplay between the lead character Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis) and his arch enemy Chuck Rhodes (Paul Giamatti) is fantastic and there has rarely been a more despicable character than Rhodes.  Even though Bobby, a billionaire hedge fund magnate has obtained his money through shrewd insider trader schemes and taken advantage of 9/11 victim’s families, you still want him to win against the Feds (headed by Rhodes) who are on his trail.

Season 2 again pits the two main characters with a laser- like focus on eliminating each other.  Bobby is consumed by a desire to destroy Chuck and this single-minded focus seems certain to wreak havoc on both his personal and business life.  Chuck, who was hit hard both personally and professionally at the end of last season is still out to get Bobby but seemingly in more devious and creative ways.  There are a couple of new faces at Axe Capital which so far are very intriguing.  One is the performance coach (replacing Chuck’s wife) and the other is a transgender whiz kid whom Axe is immediately ready to take advantage of.  Billions may be the first Showtime drama that hasn’t crashed and burned its second season.  I’m in for the ride. 

The Catch

The Catch, Shonda’s Thursday night replacement for HTGAWM, premiered its second season a few weeks ago.  I gave up on HTGAWM a long time ago.  Viola Davis couldn’t make up for all the obnoxious 20 something year olds that were on the show along with their ridiculous storylines.  The Catch isn’t going to win any awards but it has much better leads (Peter Krause, Mireille Enos, Sonya Walger) and supporting characters (Gina Torres for one).  I love to watch all of them at work – even with the crazy over the top plots.

In my opinion, the thing that worked best last year with this show was the Pink Panther-like escapades that Ben (Krause) was engaged in during his various heists.  Season 2 quickly gets him out of jail and sets him up to do undercover work for the FBI doing the same type of work.  This is a fun show and after all those seasons of the Killing where Enos never smiled or changed her clothes, it is great to see her do both.  There is a freshness to this Shonda show that makes for a good, light-hearted crime series that hopefully will continue to grow and get better.  

New Series:

Feud (FX)

Feud is the story of Joan Crawford (played by Susan Sarandon) and Bette Davis’s (played by Jessica Lange) relationship.  This should have been a great series given the actresses involved but I have found it boring and hard to stay awake for.  It is worth it, however to stick with it (or just skip directly to episode 5) to watch the epic Oscar dual that that pits a vengeful Crawford against Davis who is nominated for Best Actress.  If you love movies and the Oscars, episode 5 gives great insight into the political side of the Oscars. of the past. Sarah Paulson is fantastic in a brief appearance as Geraldine Page.  Feud can be skipped but you may want to check out the last couple of episodes. 

Big Little Lies (HBO)

Big Little Lies is based on the book by Liane Moriarty which is a total beach read.  I didn’t care for the novel so wasn’t going to watch the miniseries produced by Reese Witherspoon (and others) as a vehicle for great women parts.  It stars Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley along with Alexander Skarsgard.

Even knowing how the mystery ends, I found this mini-series so well done that I couldn’t miss it each Sunday.  The acting is phenomenal, the writing (David E Kelly) great and I enjoyed the show so much more than the book.  If you have HBO and somehow missed this series, go watch it.  It is great.

Thirteen Reasons Why (Netflix)

 13 Reasons Why dropped on Netflix last week.  At first I was hesitant to watch a show about a teenager who commits suicide but it hooked me from the get go.  Hannah (Katherine Langford) commits suicide and leaves 13 cassette tapes about the people in her life who impacted her decision to kill herself.  Langford is riveting as the lead in her first major role as is Clay (Dylan Minnette) her (questionably?) best friend.

I am less than half way through but I understand from those who have watched the entire 13 episodes that it drags in the middle. Also, you will be very frustrated by Clay’s slowness in listening to the tapes.  It is irritating.  Apparently the 13 people who had tapes about them, don’t necessarily deserve an entire episode devoted to their character.  It would have been much better to do some doubling up and have maybe 9 or 10 episodes.  I also understand that the last few episodes are great so it is well worth sticking with.  I’ll let you know when I finish it up if that is the case. 

Season/Series Finales:

Colony

Colony ended its second season with what we are led to believe is LA being blown to bits by the aliens as the Bowman family and Snyder escape the city.  Madeline and Broussard’s fates are unknown.  We also get a glimpse at an Alien in a closing segment that ties to the season’s opener.  Colony was renewed for season 3 a few days before the finale and it has been announced that the show is being moved from LA to Vancouver.  Colony isn’t the best show out there but it fills my Sy Fy needs and I will always hold on to a Carlton Cuse/Josh Holloway show.

 

 

 

 

 

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Movies: Lion and Elle

There are a lot of movies with Oscar buzz currently playing in theaters and the holiday period is a great time to catch up on them.  Here are my thoughts on two of these award contenders.

Lion 

You will like this movie.  The acting is great; the cinematography breathtaking; the true-story unbelievably compelling and the haunting musical score compliments every scene.  The movie is essentially comprised of two distinct parts.  The first is the story of a five-year-old Indian boy Saroo played brilliantly by Mumbai native Sunny Pawar.  It is his engaging personality, adorable facial expressions and remarkable acting skills that suck you into the film from the get go.  I’m not sure that without Sunny playing this part, that the audience would be as engaged going into the slower second part of the film which depicts Saroo as an adult.

Saroo is just five when he is separated from his older brother one night and falls asleep on a train that takes him more than 1000 miles from his Indian village.  He becomes a street child in Calcutta, living under intolerable conditions and unable to speak the language or remember the name of his village. Every scene of this young boy being carried away from all that he knows is gut wrenching. Eventually, he is put into an orphanage and ultimately adopted by an Australian couple played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham (Faramir in LOTR). Kidman gives a particularly compelling performance as this story obviously resonated with her real life adoption experience.

The second half of the film focuses on the adult Saroo played very well by Dev Patel.  This part of the movie moves at a much slower pace as Saroo tries to come to terms with his origins. Saroo remembers an amazing amount of detail about his Indian home and when introduced to Google Earth, begins a virtually impossible search for his origins in hopes of finding his mother and brother.  The film doesn’t rely on sentimentality and saves the true emotional moments for the end where you can’t help but be moved by an amazing outcome.

I liked a lot about his film but particularly the relationship Saroo has with his adopted mother and the fact that he doesn’t abandon her for his birth mother in India.  I also appreciate that the Director doesn’t make this a tear jerker from the onset – he could have – and waits for the final moments of the film for us to wipe a few happy tears away.  This movie will particularly tug at the heartstrings of anyone who has ever been a parent and I’m glad that the Director didn’t focus on Saroo’s birth mother’s reaction to losing her five-year-old child which would be a different and devastating story.  As 2016 closes out, it is nice to have an uplifting story and Lion is a movie all should enjoy.

Elle

Elle is one of those movies that you won’t be able to stop discussing long after the credits roll.  It is a psychological thriller that twists and turns and blows up your assumptions as to what is happening throughout the movie.  As a woman, I was particularly conflicted by the rape scenes and the motivations of the victim as the film progressed but it made more sense to me with a surprise ending.  This is not a happy movie so beware.

Michele is a co-owner of a small gaming company when she is sexually assaulted by an intruder in her home as her cat watches.  For some reason, she does not report the crime to the police.  We next see Michele interacting with her young,  predominantly male employees and telling them that a game depicting the rape and brutalization of a woman needs to be more “orgasmic”.  The degree to which Michele enjoys brutal sex becomes grey as are the dysfunctional relationships with all the men in her life as Michele goes about her daily activities seemingly undistracted by what has happened to her. Ultimately it proves to be a “cat and mouse” game of the highest order.

The movie continues with more sex and brutality as we watch Michele interact with her ex-husband, current lover (and best friend’s husband), son and even her rapist.  She is in a car accident and injured but neither calls the police or goes to a hospital which explains a lot about her and her feelings toward authority.  I’m never happy when rape is used as a plot device and this movie will make you squirm and feel uncomfortable.  It is not a film to enjoy but it is a movie to watch Isabelle Huppert as Michele command the screen from beginning to end as Michele.  She is magnificent as the standoffish woman who the camera never leaves for entire 2 hours and 20 minutes length of the film.  I have never seen Huppert act but wow, she was utterly amazing in this movie.

The end of the film was a surprise to me (maybe not to others) and explains a lot about her motivations but the entirety of this film experience will leave you exhausted.  Elle is a tough movie to watch but seeing Huppert’s performance made it worthwhile for me.  Elle didn’t make the last Oscar cut for best foreign film but hopefully Huppert will be nominated.   Both have been nominated for awards this season by other organizations.