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.

 

 

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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.