Soundbreaking is an eight-part PBS series on the art and evolution of music recording which is currently available on Hulu. If you love or even just listen to music, you should watch this series.
The 20th century changed music. Before that, music was made by people playing musical instruments or singing and could only be experienced live, that is, in a place where the musicians and audience shared the same space. Music was ephemeral as performed because it existed only in the moment it was made. Of course, music was written down and preserved by musical notations, so that a piece by Mozart could be played by people who knew the language of musical notation as often as people wanted to hear it. Also, there was an oral tradition, mostly of folk or popular music, which was passed down the generations by those who made music from memory.
Recording music enabled its transmission to great numbers of people who could buy the recording that was preserved on a disc and play it on special machines. Then, radio became popular and another outlet was found so that millions of people could experience a performance as recorded on a disc, all at the same time.
With the invention of the microphone, performers didn’t have to sing through megaphones a la Rudy Valle or have leather lungs like Al Jolson and Ethel Merman. The great singers of the mid-20th century all used the microphone as an instrument and played it to great emotional effect, such as Frank Sinatra singing I’m A Fool To Want You. You could whisper a lament and every syllable could be clearly heard.
With recording and microphones, what was once an oral tradition of often travelling minstrels, morphed into the popular music of the 20th Century that was as diverse as the people who fell in love with it - jazz, blues, country, pop, folk, rock, hip hop, rap - all kinds of music for all people.
Soundbreaking in its first episode gives us a preview of the great musical geniuses who will be profiled in the upcoming episodes. The emphasis is on the music of the second half of the 20th century and how recorded music went from recording engineers trying desperately to mimic the sound of a live performance to artists such as George Martin and The Beatles making sounds that could never be made in a live performance, such as the ground-breaking Tomorrow Never Knows from Revolver. If you are like me, Tomorrow is the song I skipped (it was easy because it was the last song on the second side of the album). Soundbreaking will make you go back and listen again - it is this song which started an entire musical movement of invented sounds as music. From there it is but a small step to the Moog Synthesizer and records such as Manfred Mann’s Blinded by the Light.
Soundbreaking features stories about all kinds of music, from the revolutionary discovery of the electric guitar and multi-track recording by Les Paul to Elvis, The Beatles, Stones, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendricks, The Who, Annie Lennox, Adele - the list includes all the great innovators of the 20th and early 21st century music. One episode tells of Stevie Wonder’s journey to break free from the shackles of the Motown sound to the revolution in music that he created in the 70s with songs such as Livin’ for the City. Like all geniuses, Stevie Wonder perfected the music of his time, then changed it into something new and never heard before.
Music changed forever because of the new technologies that were changing the way musicians could make sounds. By allowing artists to make great records in their own homes, on computers, the new technology has broadened the pool of talent that can produce new music and just as the pool of talent was exponentially expanded by the recorded music industry in the early 20th century, so it has expanded again in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
In the process, the new music changed us, its audience. Now, music is everywhere - there is rarely a public space that is silent. We are use to experiencing life with our own soundtrack. Working out or falling asleep, music is there to motivate us or to tranquilize us. Soundbreaking tells the story of how that came to be - and hint at where it is headed.
Soundbreaking has a great PBS website that has lesson plans for teachers to use and a wealth of material about music and sound recording. It also has playlists that correspond to each episode so you can listen at your leisure to the greatest sounds of our time.
THE HANDMAID'S TALE - SEASON 3
The Handmaid's Tale (THT) enters season 3, slowly, literally. The number of slow motion scenes is almost equal to the number of shots showing a close up of Elizabeth Moss' face wearing a scowl or an expression that mimics what a person looks like after smelling something really, really stinky.
The slow motion scenes are there for a simple reason: what is being shown on the screen is not dramatic and lacks even a modicum of tension so, slow it down to make it look like it is important and dramatic. Everything looks more meaningful in slow motion. Often directors use slow motion in battle or fight scenes to make them appear more balletic. But, THT adds another sure-fire sign of dead-on-arrival scenes - the meaningful song that is supposed to add depth to the shallow slow motion episodes.
Why all this trickery in Season 3?
Remember, at the end of Season 2, we left Offred/June (Moss) tossing her newborn baby to a fellow Handmaid who is escaping to Canada. June won't escape because she wants to return and save her older daughter who has been given to a new family. Many people died so she could have this chance to escape and she, herself, for two seasons has been doing everything she could to get out of Gilead, the new truncated, theocratic, male-dominated USA. The cynical among you may suggest that Offred had to stay in Gilead for the best of reasons - the series is over if she doesn't.
So what is this third season about? Funny you ask because it is not about much. When she goes to the home where her daughter is being raised, she has a 'mom' moment with the surrogate mother of her daughter in which they talk about what a wonderful little girl she is. This scene is repeated when she has a similar moment with Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) about the baby she bore and helped escape.
Serena has a fiery moment of rebellion herself, but it leads nowhere.
THT has to move forward in the only way possible - active rebellion in Gilead by its female population. Margaret Atwood, the author of the book on which the series is based, knew better than to take the story that far since, if she did, the book would be more like one written by Fredrick Forsythe than her. But, that is this series' challenge - to transform itself from a drama about women caught in a country ruled by conservative evangelicals to an action story about the new civil war for freedom.
And that will offer the opportunity for a lot more slow motion scenes, let alone catchy, upbeat tunes telling all women to - what else? - Let It Go!
In 1986, the world held its breath as a nuclear plant in the USSR was on the brink of a meltdown. Desperately, the Soviet Union attempted to control both the accident at Chernobyl and the news of what happened there. While much blame was leveled at the USSR for failing to inform the world of the true extent of the disaster, a nuclear plant disaster in 1978 in the United States at Three Mile Island had shown that no nation, democracy or not, was willing to face the consequences of a nuclear plant meltdown. The reasons for their recalcitrance can be summed up neatly in a phrase coined by Herman Kahn, a cold warrior, who used it to describe thinking about nuclear war - thinking about the unthinkable.
The new HBO limited series, Chernobyl, takes us to the core of the disaster by looking at it through the eyes of Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) First Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. It is Legasov who has to explain the true extent of the disaster to the Soviet officials (and to us) and how it might be ameliorated. Harris is best known for his work on Mad Men (Lane Pryce) and The Crown (King George VI) and turns in an excellent performance as a man who is torn between what he knows and what he is allowed to tell.
The story begins with Legasov making a tape recording of his version of what went wrong at Chernobyl, then killing himself (this is true). From there, we go back to Chernobyl on the day it happened and watch the scientists and technicians set in motion the disaster.
Nuclear reactors work just like coal power plants work - a fuel (coal or uranium) is used to heat water to make steam which in turn drives a turbine that makes electricity. The big difference is that if something goes wrong at a coal power plant, there is local damage, but no more. Uranium has unique properties that make it far more dangerous than coal. Uranium produces radiation and radiation is deadly. You cannot see, smell or taste it, but you can die from it.
Before Chernobyl, it was thought that a nuclear reactor could not explode. The fact is that it cannot explode like a nuclear bomb, but it can explode like dynamite, and that is what happened at Chernobyl, spreading radioactive debris all around the plant and radioactive smoke for thousands of miles.
Chernobyl, created by Craig Mazin, tells its story by concentrating on those who were there. They can be placed into three categories: the government officials who try to conceal the extent of the disaster, scientists who are trying to prevent the disaster from spreading and victims.
The government contingent is headed by Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård ). He tries to control the message by telling his superiors that all will be well very soon, but the scope of the disaster changes him and he starts working with Legasov to prevent the meltdown which will radiate the entire water supply of the Ukraine (50 million people and now an independent country) by melting down into the groundwater.
Like much of nuclear science in the modern times, radiation is difficult to understand. It is something that can be seen only in its effects, but those effects are horrific. The victims' story is told through the eyes of Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), wife of a local firefighter, Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis). When the firemen arrived at Chernobyl on the date of the accident, they did not wear any special equipment and thought that they were putting out a large fire. Within an hour, all were suffering from extreme radiation exposure. Ignatenko ends up suffering a death that is difficult to explain (Legasov tries to explain it to Soviet authorities) and more difficult to witness.
Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson in another stellar performance) is a scientist who forces her way into the small group of scientists and apparatchiks who are dealing with the crisis. She prevents them from making a huge mistake which would have led to a complete meltdown, then is charged with writing a report about how the accident occured after interviewing those who were running the plant when it happened. Those men are dying, quickly, so her interviews serve the dual purpose of providing information on how the disaster happened and, also, allowing the audience to witness the effects of radiation poisoning. These scenes are difficult to watch. It is Khomyak who sees that the hospital treating the victims has allowed Ignatenko's pregnant wife to visit and actually lie next to him in bed. They had no idea of how dangerous and communicable radiation poisoning is.
In the end, Chernobyl is a great story about our modern times. We have discovered the wonders of nuclear fission to not only make bombs but, also, to make energy. There is little doubt that it will be nuclear energy which will power our attempts to reach out beyond our own solar system, but until we can better cope with the potential disasters, nuclear power is more a danger than a benefit.
In 1961, an unknown author, Joseph Heller, published a novel that was truly revolutionary - Catch-22. It was the story of a bombardier assigned to a US Army Aircorps outfit that was fighting the Germans in Italy. Contrary to other novels and books written about WWII, Catch-22 had no heroes, no great battle scenes, no triumphant endgame of victory at any cost. Instead, it had a lead character named Yossarian who spent every waking hour trying to figure out how to stay alive. It wasn't easy. The officers, his fellow soldiers and the Germans were all trying to kill him - in that order.
The phrase, Catch-22, did not exist before Heller's novel - it became a catchphrase for the insanity of life due to the popularity of his novel. The phrase originates when Doc Daneeka explains to Yossarian why he can't ground a fellow soldier, Orr, even though everyone knows Orr is crazy. You see, Doc explains, I have to ground any soldier who is crazy and Orr is crazy but before I can ground him, he has to ask to be grounded. So, Yossarian says, all Orr has to do to get grounded is ask? No, explains Doc Daneeka, if Orr asks me to ground him, then I can't ground him because only a sane person would ask to be grounded. So, Yossarian sums up, Orr is crazy and can get grounded but only if he asks - but, if he asks, then he's not crazy so he can't be grounded. And that is Catch-22.
In 1970, the book was adapted for the screen by Buck Henry and directed by Mike Nichols. Nichols had made two movies up to then, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate. To say the least, he was on a roll. It ended with Catch-22. While there are a lot of great things in the movie, it was impossible to put on the screen, in one movie, the dozens of incredible characters and outrageous stories that made up Catch-22. Alan Arkin gave a masterful performance as Yossarian, but the movie never caught on and was a critical and commercial failure.
So, when I heard that HULU was making Catch-22 into a series, I thought - yes, that's what Catch-22 needs, several hours of time to bring to life the incredible story of a man trying to stay alive in an insane world. I was wrong.
HULU's Catch-22, written by Luke Davis and David Michod, is not Heller's or even Buck Henry's Catch-22. Instead, it is as if Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy teamed up to re-make Catch-22. Yossarian is transformed from one of the great characters of American literature into a soldier who wants to stay alive - in other words, just like every other soldier. Yossarian is, I find this hard to write, not only patriotic, but a good soldier whose only crime is that he wants to go home. When he meets Heller's take on the ultimate victim of war, the rookie tail gunner, Snowden, he tries to comfort him like a big brother. Oh, where are the Snowden's of Heller's masterpiece?
How is this series different than the book? Well, first and foremost, there are not many laughs in this series. In HULU's Catch-22, Yossarian is a top-notch bombardier but in Heller's, he is demoted from lead bombardier because he refuses to wait until his plane is over the target before dropping his bombs since his only concern is to get back alive from every mission. Making Yossarian 'brave' is like some streaming studio re-making The Great Gatsby, but his time, Gatsby lives and marries Daisy. I could go on and on, but just let me say - I read Catch-22, many times, I know Catch-22 and HULU, this is not Catch-22.
Joseph Heller died in 1999. His estate has not done him a favor by greenlighting this version of his great novel. In fact, since TV is way more popular than any other medium, it is likely that many people will think that the HULU series is an accurate rendering of the novel. Sad. HULU's series resembles Heller's book in the same way that light beer resembles beer - and even that is not strong enough to convey what HULU has done. They have taken a chisel to Heller's David, a crayon to his Mona Lisa, dropped a bomb on his Notre Dame. They have defaced a great work of art.
The only good thing that can come from this hack job is if more people end up reading the book. If you haven't already, you are in for a real treat.
Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (The Wretched) is a wonder. At over 1500 pages, it examines a time, a place and various people as well as any novel could hope.
Published in 1862 (the US Civil War was a year old), Hugo wrote the novel in exile from France. In 1848, Napoleon III (a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) was elected to a four year term as President of the France. In 1851, he declared himself Emperor of France and created a dictatorship. Hugo was a vocal critic and exiled for his views.
Hugo had established his reputation over twenty years before with the the publication of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1831. Tha novel helped to revive the fortunes of Notre Dame cathedral by making it the central character in the novel (the French title of this book is Notre-Dame de Paris or Our Lady of Paris) As a result, Notre Dame underwent a significant renovation, including the refurbishment of the spire that fell in the recent fire.
All of this is to say that when Hugo published Les Miserables, he had a substantial following and the reception given to his new novel was unparalleled in the history of publishing up to that time.
The novel follows the fortunes of one man, Jean Valjean, imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. There are too many characters to name, but the major ones all revolve around the story of Jean Valjean. Javert is a police inspector who vows to bring Valjean to justice when Valjean steals again after his release from prison. For over 17 years, Javert pursues Valjean who has changed his name and become a respectable citizen, a mayor of his town and owner of a prosperous business. One day, he dismisses a female employee, Fantine, for lying and her life slowly slips into poverty and degradation as she desperately tries to keep her daughter, Cosette, from suffering the same fate. Valjean regrets what he did and seeks out Fantine and, later, her daughter whom he raises as his own.
Les Miserables has been made into numerous movies and TV series, beginning with a 1909 silent version. The story has so many characters and plot twists that no movie, no TV series, can do it justice. Most follow the main branch - Javert's quest to capture Valjean and Valjean's relationship with Fantine and her daughter, Cosette.
PBS' Masterpiece Theater brings us a new version in a six-part series. What makes this version exceptional is that it is written by Andrew Davies who wrote the original BBC version of House of Cards (take a look at my review comparing the American version with Davies'). Davies knows how to tell complicated stories and, more importantly, is aware of all the previous versions of Les Miserables and knows better than to follow the usual well-worn template. As a result, we see parts of Les Miserables never before explored on film (or in that popular stage musical version).
The cast is outstanding, but then actors have been drawn to these incredible characters for over a century. Dominic West (Jean Valjean) made his mark in The Wire and more recently in The Affair. David Oyelowo (Javert) had his break-out performance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Selma. Lily Collins (Fantine) was in Love, Rosie, and The Blind Side. Olivia Colman, direct from her Oscar winning turn in The Favorite plays the mother of all wicked step-mothers, Madame Thénardier, while Adeel Akhtar slimes along as her husband.
The casting is totally blind as it should be. Davies does an interesting thing with the language - all the characters speak English with no phoney French accents but the background talk, say in a crowd, are in French as are all the written materials - like wanted posters of Valjean. In this way, we get the flavor of the original language within an English version of the novel - very clever and I am unaware of it ever having been done before.
In the end, West and Oyelowo have the laboring oars and propel this version of Les Miserables to the top among only a handful of great versions of this timeless tale - you really cannot help but use cliches in dealing with a book of this scope and depth - and humanity.
All of us remember the various nature shows on TV - at one time or another, we have seen the lions chase the Thomson gazelles or the humpback whales, all 30 tons of them, burst out of the sea and take to the air for just an instant before crashing back down with an explosion of water and sea foam.
The BBC's Planet Earth was one of the best, but there are dozens of nature shows on TV every year, from PBS's Nature to Jack Hanna's Wild Countdown. The best of these shows not only introduce us to the world we live in but rarely see, they also give us a sense of the community of all living things that inhabit our blue marble - anyone who was around in the late 60s knows when the environmental movement began, it was the day that the Apollo 8 astronauts sent back this photo of the earth, looking back from the moon - earthrise.
Our Planet, the new Netflix 8-part series narrated by David Attenborough, is to the usual nature show like Stevie Wonder is to the usual harmonica player - they're both playing the harmonica but Stevie is on a totally different level.
What makes Our Planet stand out is the incredible photography that will show you things you have never seen before. Oh, I know, you have seen it all - well, as Al Jolson use to say, you ain't seen nothin' yet!
The series' eight episodes of about 50 minutes each tells the story of our planet's incredible diversity and, also, its inhabitants' total interdependence by looking at the world through its large communities - Jungles, Coastal Seas, Deserts, etc.
Conveniently, the first episode is a preview of all that is to come, so you can take a look and see if this is your cup of tea. What you will see is a world where each plant and animal has found a place, a niche, in which to make a living, that is, to survive, but not independently. No, the wild kingdom ( remember, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler) is like a giant puzzle with each piece fitting precisely into his tailored spot.
In the Coastal Seas, when predators such as dolphins attack huge schools of anchovy or herring, above the sea, the hunting birds are all waiting for the feast to begin (no one knows how the birds know when to show up) as smaller fish rise up to the top of the sea to avoid the dolphins only to be in range of the cormorants or petrels which dive into the sea, snatch one up and fly away.
Or the courtship rituals of various birds, the nurturing instincts of wild hunting dogs, the journeys of elephants for water in the desert - the list of fascinating subjects is endless and all tell the same story - how a particular animal or plant has, over the course of millenia, adapted itself to an environment that is quickly changing and may be gone in our own lifetimes.
But Our Planet does not preach, it shows and tells. What it has to show and tell is extraordinary. Our planet has a diversity of life that is astounding - did you know there are spinning dolphins? The best way to convey to you the wonder of Our Planet is to show you the trailer - Take a look and I am sure you will agree. Our Planet is worth your time.
FOSSE/VERDON - A PAIR OF ACES
Bob Fosse grew up wanting to become Fred Astaire.
Problem was - when he grew up Fred Astaire was still dancing and, more importantly, the public didn’t want another Fred Astaire. Musicals were a dying movie genre.
One thing Fosse did have in common with Fred is that they both lost their hair. Unlike Fred who went out and got a great hair piece made, Fosse started to wear hats. Not only did he wear them, he incorporated them into his dances and, when he started to choreograph, into his choreography. Hats went out of style but not in Fosse’s world.
Fosse did get to perform in a great movie musical, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Ann Miller, who played Bianca, tells the story that Fosse did his own choreography in the movie - and with the legendary Hermes Pan (Astaire’s personal choreographer) as the movie’s choreographer, it was incredible that they let Fosse do that, but the result is one of the first modern dance routines to be put on film.
Gwen Verdon was a broadway baby who danced and sang her way to four Tonys in six years. She was incredibly versatile, making hits of some musicals that have long since been put in mothballs (Redhead). Her lasting fame is as part of one of the great marriages of artists. While they never rivaled the publicity showered on the most famous husband and wife team of their time (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), they made more and better art together. Fosse pulled off one of the great trifectas in entertainment history winning a Tony, Oscar and Emmy in 1973 for directing Pippen, Cabaret and Liza With a Z.
FX’s new series, Fosse/Verdon wants you to know that the iconic musicals produced by Fosse were really a team effort. Written by Steven Levenson and Joel Fields, the series starts with a look at the team in the 1960s. Fosse has directed the movie, Sweet Charity, which he directed on Broadway starring Verdon. Of course, the studio wanted a big name so it hired Shirley MacLaine ( who started as a dancer). If you ever saw that movie, you know that while the movie has some Fosse touches, they get buried in the glitz of then-Hollywood’s idea of a musical. The public wasn’t buying it. The movie cost $20 million ($146m today) and made less than half that at the box office. Strangely, another great director, Francis Ford Coppola, would make his Hollywood directing debut that same year with Finian’s Rainbow which bombed at the box office. Four years later both would make comeback classic films, Fosse with Cabaret and Coppola with The Godfather. Fosse would beat Coppola for the Oscar for Best Director while The Godfather would win Best Film.
Sam Rockwell has transformed himself again, this time as a charming devil who just happens to have a vision of what the musical should look like for an audience that no longer wants to see Fred and (fill in the blank) dance off into movie musical bliss.
And Michele Williams does that voodoo that only she does so well, transforming herself into Gwen Verdon. Williams has taken on some of the most difficult roles and made them look easy - from Marilyn Monroe on film to Sally Bowles in theater.
While there is much to love about Fosse/Verdon, the series does suffer from some enduring cliches, like the Hollywood producers who never seem to understand that great art can be very profitable. It seems that Hollywood is always underestimating the geniuses whom it hires in the first place because of their genius. I have heard it so often, it must be true, right?
Fosse and Verdon had intertwining careers but as his career took off in the late 60s and 70s, Verdon was having trouble finding good roles as aging actresses always had in those days (are we any better today?).
The series, judging from the initial episode, looks like a winner. And in trying to tell the story of how great art is made, that is not an easy task. Few movies or TV series have pulled it off and the reason is simple - artistic genius is not easily explained, and, often, defies explanation (think of all those theories about who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays because it couldn’t be an uneducated rube like Shakespeare, could it?).
Unlike the streaming giant Netflix, FX is releasing one show a week for eight weeks so you’ll have to be patient - a thing that Fosse never was.
Fosse/Verdon airs Tuesdays on FX at 10 pm Eastern. Episodes will be on FX’s streaming platforms after air.
1. All That Jazz from the musical Chicago which Fosse directed, choreographed and wrote the book while Verdon starred in the original stage version as Roxie Hart.
2. Heart from the musical Damn Yankees which Fosse did the choreography for both play and movie while Verdon starred as Lola in both, too.
3. Cabaret from the movie Cabaret which Fosse directed (winning an Oscar for Best Director) and choreographed.
4. Big Spender from Sweet Charity which Fosse directed and choreographed while Verdon starred on Broadway. Fosse directed the movie which lost a ton of money, many thought because Shirley MacLaine couldn’t do the title role as well as Verdon.
5. From This Moment On from Kiss Me Kate which Fosse starred in as one of the dancing suitors of the Shrew’s younger sister. Take a look at this great dance sequence form the movie.
6. Whatever Lola Wants from Damn Yankees - take a look at Verdon in this classic.
7. It’s Alright with Me from Can-Can which verdon starred in and won her first Tony.
8. Just In Time from Bells Are Ringing which Fosse choreographed along with Jerome Robbins.
9. I Could Write a Book from Pal Joey. Fosse played the lead in the 1963 revival and won a Tony (unlike the movie, the original B’way musical saw Joey Evans as a dancer not a singer and so Fosse was a natural for it).
10. On Broadway from the autobiographical movie, All That Jazz written, directed and choreographed by Fosse. Take a look at this incredible opening sequence of the movie.
HANNA OR HOW TO HAVE ONE IDEA AND MAKE IT PAY TWICE
In 2011, Hanna, the movie, was released. Written by David Farr and Seth Lochhead, directed by Joe Wright, Hanna made money with a worldwide gross over $60 million and a budget of $30 million. Lots of people thought it was a great movie.
The plot was a little crazy - a 16 y.o. girl, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), is being reared by her father (Eric Bana) in the wilds of Finland. She is taught to hunt (with a bow and arrow), speak several languages and win a hand-to-hand or foot-to-face battle with anyone. Why he trains her is not clear but it seems he wants her to be an assassin and when she is ready, she will be unleashed. Meanwhile, a rogue CIA agent (Cate Blanchett) is after her - or is Hanna the hunter?
The movie became well known for its great visuals and its soundtrack by The Chemical Brothers. It came, it was appreciated and it passed.
But in today's world where nothing is allowed a fond farewell, Hanna is back, this time as a limited series on Amazon Prime. The plot is the same, the writer is the same, but the faces have changed. Hanna is now 12 years old and played by Esme Creed-Miles, her father by Joel Kinnaman and the rogue CIA agent by Mireille Enos. And what was a less than 2 hour flick is blown up into an 8 hour series.
For eight episodes, we wonder all over Europe with Hanna. As she kills her way through several fortresses that we are led to believe are impregnable, the death toll rises to mass murder numbers. Here is a TV series showing a young girl cooly machine-gunning down rows of soldiers or cops or whatever. She barely blinks. And the soldiers or cops or whatever never get any smarter - they get mowed down but they keep coming as if they were trained to die just as well as she was trained to kill.
I guess it is progress that now, in our #metoo era, young girls can be marauding murderers too. The point of all this mayhem is a bit vague. Hanna wants to find out who she is and whether her father is really her father and who was her now- deceased mother. It seems that Hanna was 'manufactured' by a company called Utrex and that it is manufacturing dozens like her. They get the babies from women who seek abortions but get talked - or coerced (not clear) - into giving up their baby. The babies are sent to a facility where they are brainwashed or programmed to be killers. Their goal seems to be, dare I say, world conquest!
If this seems similar to the Fox series, The Passage, join the line. Young girls who are changed into or become killers or monsters seems to be a theme that strikes a cord with modern content providers. May I suggest therapy?
I wonder why someone would want to remake a recent movie that did well at the box office but was not exactly a classic crying for a modern take on it? I think it may have to do with content providers who have no idea what will work and so remaking past 'hits' seems the safest bet. Hey, they got me to watch.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
This is a new FX half-hour comedy about vampires.
Wait, wait, you say, didn't I see a movie called What We Do in the Shadows? You are so cool - yes, you did. In 2015, the movie was an immediate cult classic, but the cult was very small because it was made in New Zealand by two New Zealanders, Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi and set in New Zealand's big city, Wellington.
The premise is simple - The Office meets The Office with vampires, except the location isn't an office but a house in Staten Island where three vampires have lived since they arrived with the pilgrims. When their master, who sent them to the New World centuries ago to conquer it for vampires, shows up for a visit, he wants to know if Staten Island is the center of the New World. When informed it is not, he wants to know why the vampires are there and is told, "Because this is where the boat dropped us off."
There is a documentary crew who is filming them all the time and there are all the elements of The Office we have come to know and love, like the characters talking directly to the camera.
There are three "traditional" vampires:
The Felix Unger-like leader of the group is “Nandor The Relentless” (Kayvan Novak), a great warrior and conqueror from the Ottoman Empire who acts as the leader. He complains to the other vampires about the half-drunk crowd that was left in the hall and when asked where the drunks got the booze, he says he doesn't mean drunks, but people who are left half-drunk - he insists that once they start drinking a human, the vampires have to finish him or her before moving on.
“Laszlo” (Matt Berry), the antithesis of Nandor who loves to party and is currently in a long-term relationship (and where vampires are concerned 'long term' is really long) with ..
“Nadja” (Natasia Demetriou): the temptress and seducer.
There is a fourth vampire, an "energy vampire", “Colin Robinson” (Mark Proksch). He walks by day and night, sucking the energy of all whom he meets. Just a few minutes with Colin and every dream of adventure and changing your life just withers away as Colin goes on and on and - you know. When he is done with a human, there is nothing left - not even one drop of life-enhancing blood. It has all been sucked out.
There are, also, 'familiars', that is, helpers who protect the vampires during the day and act as servants and procurers for them. “Guillermo” (Harvey Guillén), is Nandor’s familiar and he expects one day to be rewarded for his service by being made a vampire himself.
As you may have gathered, this is not a show for those seeking the meaning of life's struggle with the dark world. No, this is comedy that harkens back to the era of Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason, one liners and puns and silly jokes - like when their master, Baron Afanas, pays a visit after several hundred years; he has a decrepit body with no genitalia and Laszlo says he remembers that he had genitalia and Nadja corrects him, 'No, he never had genitalia, that's what made the sex so great.'
These are the kind of jokes you want to remember to tell your friends. That's what separates this kind of humor from the prevailing kind on TV as exemplified by Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the case of the later, you cannot really convey the humor without a lengthy explanation of the story or characters. Those shows are dependent on long-time watchers who will laugh when a secondary character knocks on Jerry's door, he opens it and says, 'Hello, Newman.' Big laugh, but you don't get it unless you have seen all of the previous shows of Seinfeld.
With What We Do in the Shadows (the title reminds some of us of Dark Shadows that cult-TV classic of a bygone time) , just tune in anytime. The humor is not dependent on a thorough knowledge of vampire culture or vampire shows and movies - and there are more than you can count. One night a few weeks ago, I started watching a show on Fox that I thought was about a dangerous virus destroying life on earth when all of a sudden, it turned into a vampire show - The Passage.
AN IRISH WEEKEND
What better time than now to look at a TV mini-series about The Irish Easter Rebellion and its aftermath appropriately called Rebellion currently on Netflix.
Ireland and England have a long and complicated history, mostly one of exploitation of Ireland by Great Britain. Much like the Brexit debate going on today in the United Kingdom, there were great debates in 19th and early 20th century England about what should be done with Ireland - should it be allowed Home Rule, that is, the right to make laws for itself, or should it remain part of the British Empire? The problem was that the Northern part of Ireland, centered in Belfast, was predominantly Protestant while the rest of Ireland was fiercely Catholic. Of course, the differences were not only religious, Protestants were usually originally British and more prosperous. That doesn't mean they were any less Irish - W.B. Yeats, Ireland's great poet, was Protestant.
Rebellion takes up the story on the eve of World War I in August, 1914. The War aggravated the problems since many Irish thought it would be the perfect time to rebel. Rumors were rife that the Irish rebels were making deals with Germany, England's greatest enemy in the war.
Everything came to a head in April 1916 at Easter. The Irish rebels planned to take over Dublin. While they were greatly outnumbered by the British soldiers, they planned on being reinforced by rebels from the west of Ireland who were scheduled to receive a large shipment of guns from Germany.
There is a rich store of people and events that make the Easter Rebellion a treasure trove of amazing characters and incredible drama, but, instead, Rebellion centers on a few fictional families in Dublin.
The Butlers are wealthy Irish. Their two children, a young man who is a wastrel and a daughter who is caught up in the rebellion, show two sides of the Irish attitude toward the rebellion; many Irish were unwilling to support the rebellion. At the other end of the spectrum, the Mahons are more typical of Dubliners at the time, poor and living in a tenement. The man of the house, Arthur, has been drafted and was fighting the war in France when he is given leave and arrives in Dublin just before Easter. His brother is one of the leaders of the rebellion and the Mahon family ends up as torn to shreds by the rebellion as Ireland, itself.
Then there is the British high-ranking administrator who has fallen in love with his Irish secretary. When his wife shows up just before Easter, the problems that ensue make the Irish question a very personal one for him.
The Rebellion did not go as planned. While the rebels were able to control parts of the city, they never had a chance against England and its formidable army that had tanks and other armoured vehicles. In the end, the IRA suffered 82 deaths, the British forces 143 while the civilian toll was much heavier with 260 killed and over 2200 wounded.
The second season of the show is called Resistance and was written by the same author as Rebellion, Colin Teevan. It centers around "Bloody Sunday" in 1920 when the IRA sought to kill many spies the British had in Dublin. The IRA assassinated about 20 Brits and in reprisal the Brits murdered about 19 IRA members. Again, the emphasis is on personal stories, highlighting the betrayals and family divisions caused by the Irish fight for freedom.
In Ireland, this series has caused an uproar with many taking umbrage at the inaccuracies they claim in the facts depicted in the series. Of course, if you are looking to brush up your Irish history, TV series are probably the last place you should look. On the other hand, the fictional characters of this series are not half as interesting as the real ones. Teevan gives a prominent place to women in the rebellion and it is true that women did play a significant role, but, also, he uses some very trite circumstances to bring them into the story when none were needed - they were there from the beginning.
Sadly, this series does not do justice to the Irish War for Independence. Neil Jordan, almost 25 years ago, tried to tell the story in his movie, Michael Collins. He failed, too. There is planned a third series that looks at the endgame of the Irish Rebellion when a dubious peace is made, separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the island and keeping it British. This led to decades of battles between the IRA and Britain. With the Good Friday agreement in 1998, peace came, finally, to Ireland. But, now, with Brexit, it is possible that it will start all over again as Ireland is part of the European Union, but if Great Britain leaves, then the hard border with North Ireland will be back. No one knows what that will mean for peace in Ireland.
NETFLIX - TEN FOR THE ROAD
Here are ten shows, all based in foreign lands that are worth a binge. And, you can watch two young actresses who are bound to make their mark before long - Anna Torv and Pihla Viitala.
Anna Torv (Fox's Fringe) stars in this Australian political drama, Secret City, as journalist Harriet Dunkley. All the usual suspects are here: truth-seeking journalist trying to reveal secrets that, like Medusa, will kill if looked at directly. A great supporting cast of Australian actors and actresses make this twelve episodes over two seasons well worth the time.
This political drama from Norway envisages Russia occupying Norway. The excellent cast and exciting plot touch on numerous world-wide concerns such as global warming and co-operation among nations. You will enjoy this two season, 18 episode trek north.
THE SAME SKY
It's 1974. There's an East Berlin controlled by the USSR and a West Berlin, allied to the USA. Lars Weber (Tom Schilling) is an East Berliner who is trained to be a "Romeo" sent into West Berlin to have a romantic liaison with an important West Berlin official. If you liked The Americans, this one season, six episode show is for you.
French serial killer drama. The twist is a variation on the Silence of the Lambs with the French police seeking the help of a serial killer who has been imprisoned for 20 years when a copycat killer starts imitating her - and yes, the jailed seial killer is a woman, albeit a French one.
SUBURRA/SUBURRA: BLOOD ON ROME
Italian mobster series. The mob wants to turn Rome's waterfront (Ostia) into an Italian Las Vegas. The plot involves the Italian government, the Vatican, immigration services and, of course, Sicilian mobsters. This is a fun action show that gives us a hint of what 21st century italian life in Rome looks like.
British TV thriller loosely based on the 1992 movie of the same name. Richard Madden heads a great cast (really, is it the water that makes British actors so great or maybe the fact that the government supports British theatre so that actors get a thorough education) as the Brit cop assigned to guard an important minister.
This Italian series takes us back to the days of the Italian Renaissance and looks at the most important family of its time, the Medicis who financed much of the great art of the period. Dustin Hoffman leads a cast that includes Richard Madden - so if you liked him in Bodyguard....
Russian production that dramatizes the Russian Revolution and the life of one of its founders - Trotsky, the creator of the Soviet Army. It's a lot better than it sounds.
DEADWIND & ARCTIC CIRCLE
These two Finnish crime dramas have a common element - the actress Pihla Viitala. In both, what looks like a simple crime becomes the seed of a fine crime drama. Arctic Circle has ten episodes while Deadwind has twelve.
MARCH 2019 ON TCM
The Star of the Month is Fredric March. I have been a fan of his since I first saw him in an early Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (he won one of his Oscars for this role) on the Late Late Show. Over the years, March could be depended on to find something human, something very personal in whatever character he was playing. One of my favorites is his portrayal of a returning GI in William Wyler's The Best Years of our Lives. March returns to his life as a banker but cannot shake the changes he went through as a Master Sergeant in the Pacific War. In every scene he is in, March tells us the story of this returning Ulysses who must now go back to the work of caring for a family and taking his place in society. Fighting for freedom was more dangerous in the Pacific, but fighting the good fight at home will be more difficult.
Here are movies I recommend you try this month on TCM:
3/1 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY You have to try and go back to when this movie was released in 1968 to get an understanding how much this movie changed the way we look at science fiction - and movies. This is one you have to see.
3/2 THE LAST PICTURE SHOW Peter Bogdanovich was supposed to be the next great director and this movie gives you the reason we all thought that in 1971. Great performances by Jeff Bridges, Cybil Shepard, Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman.
3/3 THE HEIRESS William Wyler was a magician and here he gets us to believe that Olivia De Havilland is an unattractive heiress dominated by her father, Ralph Richardson, in Richardson's best screen performance.
3/4 THE SET-UP Robert Ryan plays an all too honest fighter in this early Robert Wise classic.
3/5 MY FAIR LADY Audrey Hepburn gives a great performance (with Marni Nixon's singing voice) but was denied an Oscar nomination because Hollywood hated that Warner Bros. didn't cast the actress who made theatrical history when she starred in the role on B'way, Julie Andrews.
3/6 NORTHWEST PASSAGE I first saw this tale of Spencer Tracy exploring the American wilderness in the early 19th century in college in a film course and it has stayed with me.
3/7 ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN Two neophyte reporters bring down a President. It's a fairy tale that happened to be true.
3/8 THE CINCINNATI KID There are movies that are so good but never seem to make it into those lists of great movies - this is one. Watch and you'll see what I mean.
3/9 D.O.A. A guy shows up at the police station and says he wants to report a murder. Of who?, he is asked. Of me, he says.
3/10 LOOK BACK IN ANGER John Osborne wrote this play that was unlike any play written before - kind of Rebel Without a Cause meets The Glass Menagerie. Richard Burton shows why he was Richard Burton.
3/11 MADAME BOVARY Vincente Minnelli's movie of the classic novel with Jennifer Jones giving her best performance.
3/12 THE MALTESE FALCON Before Bogie and Huston, others tried to make a movie of this seminal P.I. novel but it never worked until Huston decided to film the book without changes.
3/13 HAWAII In 1966, this is how Hollywood made 'blockbusters' whether the public liked it or not. An all-star cast headed by the hottest actress on the planet (at the time), Julie Andrews, and based on a best-seller novel. It couldn't miss, right?
3/14 THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS There are few movies that can touch this one for a hard look at America, the media and celebrity. Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis give memorable performances - hey, don't miss this one!
3/15 WHAT'S UP DOC So after he made The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich decided to make a screwball comedy. Barbra Streisand wanted to stop making musicals so she teams up with Ryan O'Neill and they have a blast - you will too.
3/16 RYAN'S DAUGHTER David Lean had made several great movies in a row before he lost his mind and decided to cast Robert Mitchum as the cuckold in a story about the Irish troubles and love. It's better than you would think.
3/17 THE RISING OF THE MOON John Ford returns to Ireland to do this story about Irish people living under British rule starring Tyrone Power who is much better than he is given credit for.
3/18 ROYAL WEDDING TCM has a day long tribute to the late Stanley Donen and this is part of it - Fred Astaire and Jane Powell play a brother/sister hit act, much like Fred and his sister were on B'way in the 1920's and just like his sister, Jane wants to quit the act to marry a British nobleman. Great Lerner-Lowe score.
3/19 A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER Being an E.G. Robinson fan, I caught this one night on the Late Late Show - and lo and behold, it's a comedy! A very funny one to boot.
3/20 SOME CAME RUNNING Sinatra, Dino and an incredible performance by Shirley MacLaine make this Vincente Minnelli directed movie shine.
3/21 NETWORK Saw this when it opened and I left the theater speechless - now this is a movie!
3/22 NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH Early Carol Reed spy thriller that is a warm-up to his classic, The Third Man.
3/23 PRISONER OF ZENDA This is the one with Stewart Granger in the lead but James Mason steals the movie playing a dastardly rogue.
3/24 ODD MAN OUT Carol Reed again, and James Mason too and Ireland during the troubles, one more time..
3/25 GREAT EXPECTATIONS David Lean made his reputation making these great post-WWII movies about dear old England.
3/26 THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT From a Paddy Chayefsky play about an older man Fredrick March falling for a younger woman Kim Novak.
3/27 KING RAT WWII Japanese prisoner camp story that made a star of George Segal.
3/28 AUNTIE MAME Rosalind Russell plays the lead in a warm up to her Mama Rose performance in Gypsy.
3/29 DIAL M FOR MURDER Hitchcock's movie about an ex-tennis pro (Ray Milland) who wants to murder his wealthy wife (Grace Kelly) - and he is such a great director that you buy that premise.
3/30 LARCENY, INC Another EG Robinson comedy, this one finds him buying a luggage store so he can break into the bank next door. Problems arise when the store becomes a hit.
3/31 THE LAST HURRAH Spencer Tracy as an old time Irish Mayor fighting to get re-elected in the era of TV and money.
FEBRUARY ON TCM
This month starts the 31 Days of Oscar on TCM so each day has a different theme and will feature movies that have won an Oscar. So, February 1 starts with Literary Adaptations into movies and also features Janet Gaynor's Oscar win for multiple movies - Sunrise and Street Angel.
Here are my pics for a short month of great movies to enjoy on TV's best movie channel:
2/1 THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER Based on the Carson McCuller novel, this gem stars Alan Arkin as a deaf-mute who tries to find his way in an indifferent world. Do yourself a favor and watch this movie.
2/2 STRANGERS ON A TRAIN Hitchcock at his best. Two men meet by chance on a train and one has an ingenuous scheme to solve each's problems - crisscross: you kill the person I want to get rid of and I'll do the same for you.
2/3 FUNNY GIRL Barbra Streisand's debut as Fanny Brice, directed by William Wyler (his only musical) with a great score and cast.
2/4 THE CHILDREN'S HOUR Another Wyler gem, based on Lillian Hellman's play (Wyler also directed her Little Foxes in 1941). Not as well known as it should be, this features remarkable performances by Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine - yes, she can act with the best of them.
2/5 I VITELLONI Early Fellini flick about bored young men in a boring little town - hey, somehow Fellini makes you care and laugh - yes, laugh.
2/6 THE LONGEST DAY Legendary producer Darryl Zanuck made this episodic movie about the invasion of France by the Allies. Great cast - watch for a chilling performance by Richard Burton.
2/7 CAGED Eleanor Parker stars as innocent who gets sent to prison and comes out a hardened gangster's moll.
2/8 THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! One of the funniest films ever made with an incredible performance by Alan Arkin as a Russian sailor trying to find a boat to tow his submarine off a shoal in New England.
2/9 IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT From the opening credits with Ray Charles singing the title song while the camera pans over workers in a cotton field, you know this movie is different. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger are the unlikeliest buddys in this classic take on that genre.
2/10 A PASSAGE TO INDIA David Lean's last and one of his greatest movies. I had read the E.M. Forster novel and when I heard that it was to be made into a movie, I thought it couldn't be done - the novel is too subtle, to complex. I was wrong.
2/11 MY FAVORITE YEAR Story of the high jinks in early TV will leave you rolling on the floor.
2/12 TO BE OR NOT TO BE This is the original and you will discover what is meant by the Lubitsch touch. Just perfect.
2/13 THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI David Lean visits a Japanese slave labor camp for prisoners in WWII. Sessue Hayakawa is incredible as the conflicted Colonel in charge of the camp.
2/14 FATHER OF THE BRIDE Vincente Minnelli's gem about the joys and sorrows of being the guy stuck with the tab. Tracey, Taylor and a great su[[orting cast.
2/15 THE BAD SEED If you think that you were a bad kid, take a look and see what a really bad kid looks like.
2/16 THE GREAT RACE For unknown reasons, this delightful farce has never found an audience, but let's change that. Blake Edwards directs a great cast: Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk (yes, another movie in which Falk steals every scene he is in)
2/17 NETWORK They made a play out of this iconic Paddy Chayefsky but nothing can match the movie for sheer chutzpah. Among all the great performances, William Holden's can get lost, but he is the key to the movie.
2/18 HIGH NOON The 'politicians' have let out of jail the notorious killer, Frank Miller who has sworn vengeance on those who put him in jail. Sheriff Gary Cooper is just about to leave town on his wedding day (with Grace Kelly) when he is forced to stay and fight - alone. This movie touches on so many American myths that it could be called, High Icon.
2/19 CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS This is the kind of gem the studios use to produce. Not a great movie, but a very good one with entertainment to keep you stuck to your seat - and oh yea, Spencer Tracy as a Portuguese fisherman.
2/20 THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY A variation on the 'disaster' flicks, this time a plane full of people who are some of the best character actors in Hollywood. John Wayne toughs it out while whistling a great Dimitri Tiomkin score.
2/21 LA STRADA Fellini brings to life a traveling circus act with Tony Quinn and the strong mans and Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina, as his much abused assistant. This is the movie that made everyone sit up and watch Fellini.
2/23 BORN FREE Africa in the 60s where a married couple run a farm and adopt a baby cub lion. When the lion grows up, there's a problem. This a delightful movie that you can share with your children.
2/24 A HARD DAY'S NIGHT The Beatles make their first movie under the direction of Richard Lester. The lads play themselves and along the way are all these great songs. The title song, penned by John, who got the idea when the lads were leaving Abbey Road after a long recording session and, as Ringo was walking out the door, he said, "It's been a hard day - (then seeing it was nighttime) night."
2/25 IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT This is the first movie to win all big-4 Oscars, Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best director (Frank Capra) and Best Picture. As opposed to many head-scratching choices made by the Academy over the years, these Oscars were well deserved.
2/26 ANASTASIA When the Czar and his family were killed by the Bolsheviks, the youngest daughter survived and went into hiding (look, it's a movie so forget the facts). Ingrid Bergman makes her grand comeback, winning her second Oscar. Yul Brynner and Akim Tamiroff do their usual outstanding job.
2/27 JOHNNY EAGER Robert Taylor was tired of playing the pretty boy and he gets to play the heel in this crime thriller beside Lana Turner and Van Heflin (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his let it all hand out performance).
2/28 THE GREAT WHITE HOPE This is the movie that made James Earl Jones a star, playing the first Black heavyweight fighter, Jack Johnson (they change his name to Jefferson, I assume to claim it's all made up). Jane Alexander plays Jones' white mistress in the early 20th century when interracial marriage was forbidden by law.
ON TCM JANUARY 2019
This month, Kathryn Grayson is the star of the month. From the first time I saw her, in Kiss Me Kate on TV, I was hooked. A beautiful lady with the pipes of a nightingale, Grayson was a much better actress than she was given credit for. So leave yourself some time on Tuesdays this month to check out this great actress with a great voice.
1/1 TWENTIETH CENTURY This is a madcap comedy starring John Barrymore in his best movie performance and Carole Lombard in the role that made her a star.
1/2 VIVA ZAPATA! Elia Kazan directs Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn in a John Steinbeck script about the rise and fall of Mexico's greatest revolutionary.
1/3 SPARTACUS This is the best epic ever filmed. Stanley Kubrick was brought in to direct when producer/star Kirk Douglas fired Anthony Mann. Every performance in this all-star cast is one of, if not the best, of their careers. The Dalton Trumbo script is the best he wrote and the score by Alfred North is a classic.
1/4 CYRANO DE BERGERAC Jose Ferrer in a virtuoso performance as the greatest swordsman in France. This translation of the original French script is also the best.
1/5 BLUE GARDENIA Fritz Lang directs Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Ann Sothern, Raymond Burr, Jeff Donnell, George Reeves and Nat King Cole (he's the cafe singer who croons the title song) in this classic film noir.
1/6 THE LETTER Bette Davis emerges from a dark shadow to shoot a man, several times, as the movie begins. Was she defending herself after being attacked by him? Or was he being murdered in cold blood?
1/7 THE CLOCK Vincente Minnelli directs his then-wife Judy Garland in her best non-singing role as a young woman who falls in love with soldier Robert Walker.
1/8 THE NAKED SPUR In the 1950s, Jimmy Stewart made a serious of adult westerns and this is the best of them.
1/9 MAN ON A TIGHTROPE One of Fredric March's best performances as the head of a small circus trying to get his people threw the Iron Curtain.
1/10 THE CONSPIRATORS Hedy Lamarr heads an all-star cast of character actors in this take-off on Casablanca.
1/11 FIVE CAME BACK Did you like the TV series, Lost? Then this is for you.
1/12 A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS Fred Zinnemann directs Oscar-winner Paul Schofield in the best movie about henry VIII and his times.
1/13 A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN Over 25 years old and still as fresh as the day it was released - but remember, there's no crying in baseball! And Madonna is very good too.
1/14 THE PUBLIC ENEMY James Cagney becomes Jame Cagney in this early crime flick.
1/15 ANCHORS AWAY Kelly, Sinatra, Grayson - they sing, they dance, they make moview history.
1/16 MONKEY BUSINESS There is no reason to watch this movie except for the fact that it is very funny with Cary Grant playing the nerdy scientist who discovers Marilyn Monroe.
1/17 THE HAPPY THIEVES A good caper flick with Rex Harrison and Rita Hayworth.
1/18 KING RAT Prisoner of war camp movie that made s star of George Segal.
1/19 THE BIG CHILL Almost every major actor of a generation gets his/her start in the movie about growing up, finally.
1/20 MURDER MY SWEET Dick Powell grows up and becomes a film noir star.
1/21 A SOLDIER'S STORY African-American soldiers have their lives turned upside down in the tale of murder.
1/22 THE TOAST OF NEW ORLEANS Grayson and Lanza sing.
1/23 BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE Not a great movie but just fun to watch Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon.
1/24 KISMET Minnelli directs this light-weight but fun film.
1/25 THE FOUNTAINHEAD Gary Cooper as an Ayn Rand hero swimming against the tide and picking up a besotted Patricia Neal.
1/26 HIGH SOCIETY Musical remake of The Philadelphia Story with songs by Cole Porter sung by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, Celeste Holm and Satchmo!
1/27 THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY A non-singing Julie Andrews falls in love with a cowardly James Garner.
1/28 BULLIT Tough crime drama with Steve McQueen in the best car chase ever filmed - until The French Connection.
1/29 KISS ME KATE Cole Porter takes on Shakespeare and comes up a winner.
1/30 WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE See why Bette Davis is Bette Davis - an unswerving commitment to a character no matter where it takes her.
1/31 THE PLAYER Robert Altman looks at Hollywood - it ain't pretty but it's a lot of fun.
DECEMBER 2018 ON TCM
"Tis the season to be jolly!
But on TCM, in December, you can watch everything from the the sorrow of a war-displaced mother and daughter in Italy (Two Women) to the tuneful Irving Berlin classic, Holiday Inn.
Here are my takes on a month of classic flicks that will bring all the laughter and tears that movies have to give to you on your own TV:
12/1 Crack-Up - for those of you who thought that Pat O'Brien was just decoration for all those Irish-themed movies, here he is in an real Hitchcockian thriller with an excellent supporting cast.
12/2 The Shop Around the Corner - Jimmy Stewart is as good as he gets in this touching Xmas story about the owners and workers in a gift shop. Do yourself a favor, watch this movie. I guarantee it will become one of your favorites.
12/3 King Solomon's Mines - Before there was Indiana Jones, there was Allan Quatermain.
12/4 Norma Rae - with her bio recently released, Sally Fields is in the news - and she shines in this rare Hollywood movie about a female worker trying to make a better life for herself and her family.
12/5 Two Women - Sophia Loren won an Oscar for a displaced mother during WWII trying to keep her daughter safe.
12/6 A Midsummers Night's Dream - watch the stars of old Hollywood make Shakespeare come alive in this magical movie.
12/7 The Graduate - this is the movie that made a star of Dustin Hoffman. I will say one word about it - plastics.
12/8 Meet John Doe - a fired feature writer (Barbara Stanwyck) concocts a story about a homeless man (Gary Cooper) who is going to kill himself on Christmas, and gets her job back.
12/9 O. Henry's Full House - there was a time when Hollywood put out several movies that were 4 or 5 short films in one. This is one of the best, narrated by John Steinbeck. Chock full of stars from Marilyn Monroe to Charles Laughton.
12/10 Paths of Glory - this early Kubrick WWI tale stars Kirk Douglas, Adolph Menjou and incredible performance by the underrated George Macready.
12/11 Stagecoach - John Ford's masterpiece about the West. John Wayne and Monument Valley became staple stars of Westerns after this movie.
12/12 Jailhouse Rock - ok, so it's not Singing In The Rain. It is one of The King's best.
12/13 Page Miss Glory - a screwball comedy that delivers.
12/14 To Sir, With Love - somebody decided to cast Sidney Poitier as a teacher in a lower class London school where he teaches the kids how to grow up - and it works. Lulu's debut.
12/15 The Naked and the Dead - making great novels into movies is not easy, and this one shows why. Still, there is just enough of the fire of the book to keep us watching.
12/16 Children of Paradise - French film about love, life and the theatre.
12/17 Rififi - this is the daddy of all caper flicks, and it's French to boot.
12/18 The Absent Minded Professor - Fred MacMurray does his Disney thing.
12/19 Oliver Twist - David Lean adapted Dickens' classic story of a boy who gets taken in by a gang of child thieves.
12/20 Anna and the King of Siam - the non-musical version of the King and I starring Rex Harrison as the King of Siam. Hey, this was Hollywood in the 1950s where the Jewish-born Ira Grossel (known to us as Jeff Chandler) could get nominated for an Oscar for playing Cochise.
12/21 The Way We Were - Barbra's best acting role. Robert Redford had to be talked into playing the iconic Hubbell by director Sydney Pollock.
12/22 Ben Hur - saw this for the first time in a great, classic movie palace in Philadelphia, The Boyd. Sadly, along with about a dozen other movie palaces in the City Developers Love, The Boyd was demolished. But we still have Ben Hur with a much underrated performance by Stephen Boyd.
12/23 Holiday Inn - Irving Berlin's score introduced the world to Happy Holidays, Easter Parade and White Christmas. The later two songs were so popular, they were the titles of two other movies about the holidays.
12/24 In The Good Old Summertime - this is the musical version of The Shop Around the Corner with Judy Garland.
12/25 Lover Come Back - Doris Day is not everyone's dish, but she will make a believer out of you in this sophisticated comedy with her favorite co-star Rock Hudson.
12/26 Deliverance - if you have a holiday hangover, this is the movie that will snap you out of it.
12/27 Pitfall - did you like Fatal Attraction? Then you will like this film noir look at infidelity.
12/28 A Hard Day's Night - rock groups don't make critically acclaimed movies, except for the Beatles.
12/29 A Tale of Two Cities - this is a great movie from a great novel. Ronald Coleman gives one of the best performances by an actor in a movie. Watching this classic will be a far, far better thing you can do than anything else.
12/30 Love Me or Leave Me - this is Doris Day's best performance as the apple of minor gangster James Cagney's lustful eye. There is a scene at the very end of the movie where she is singing the title tune and he has to decide if he is going to let go of his passion for her - it all happens on his face.
12/31 That's Entertainment - bring in the New Year with some of Hollywood's greatest musical moments.
NOVEMBER ON TCM
As the calendar wends its way toward the Holidays, TCM presents a November full of classics, both known and yet to be discovered.
The Star of the Month is Glenda Farrell, one of Warner Brother's wise-cracking dames whose best known role is just that in Frank Capra's Lady for a Day which was remade by Capra three decades later as A Pocketful of Miracles (too bad TCM doesn't run them together). I once heard Capra told the story that Frank Sinatra was supposed to star in Miracles, but bowed out at the last minute, so he was forced to hire Glenn Ford (a star at the time) and as a result of hiring Ford, he had to agree to Hope Lang (Ford's girlfriend) playing Queenie Martin, the role played by Farrell in Lady (where her character was called Missouri Martin).
Here are our daily picks for November on TCM:
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY - If you haven't seen it, see it. Stanley Kubrick's spot-on vision of the future. Almost 50 years later and this movie looks as fresh as the day it was released.
HOME BEFORE DARK - Jean Simmons is one of the finest actresses of her time and this movie shows all her talents, with a rare appearance by Dan O'Herlihy and a surprising solid performance by Rhonda Fleming.
RED RIVER - Howard Hawkes' bovine masterpiece with iconic performances by John Wayne, Montgomery Clift and Walter Brennan. A young John Ireland steals every scene he is in.
THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES - Frank Gilroy's Pulitzer Prize-winning play comes to the screen a little worse for the transition, but worth it to see Patricia Neal at her peak.
LITTLE CAESAR - You've heard about it and its famous last line - Is this the end of Ricco? - now see why all the fuss was made - it's a great picture.
CASABLANCA - I put this on the list because there are some out there who have never actually sat down and watched this classic - one surly, myopic critic called it the best bad movie ever made.
TARAS BULBA - There was a time when this is what passed for a blockbuster movie in the waning days of studio Hollywood (1962). A Star-spangled (Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis) bomb. But a few good moments.
SALOME - Every once in a blue moon, you should force yourself to watch a silent movie. This one is about as crazy a movie as you will ever see.
WATERLOO BRIDGE - Some movies give tearjerkers a bad name and some show that even a tear-jerker in the right hands (Mervyn LeRoy) with the right cast (Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor) can be a fine movie.
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI - For those who have never seen this, you are in for a treat. And please don't think this is 'just an adventure or war movie.' It is a classic, in part, because the most sympathetic character in the movie is the enemy - Japanese Colonel Saito played by Sessue Hayakawa.
BREAKING AWAY - This movie is about as far away from Kwai as a movie can get - it's about a mid-western kid's yearning to be a great cyclist.
JOHNNY EAGER - Robert Taylor as a gangster who falls for the DA's daughter - better than it sounds.
MARTY - In the Hollywood of the 1950s, this movie stuck out like a brown suit in a wedding party. Take a look at how a low-budget look at low middle-class living won the Oscar amidst a swirl of Tecnicolor extravaganzas.
WUTHERING HEIGHTS - With Laurence Olivier wooing and losing then winning and losing Merle Oberon in the wilds of Bronte-land, filmed by Gregg Toland for William Wyler, Luca Brasi would shed a tear.
JOURNEY TO ITALY - Rossellini directs Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in a tale of a marriage on the Italian rocks.
THE BLUE ANGEL - This is the movie that made Marlene Dietrich a star. She plays a vixen who ensnares a much older teacher played by Emil Jannings. Before Muni, Tracey, Brando, there was Jannings.
GANDHI - Ben Kingsley is one of the world's greatest actors and this is the movie that put him on the map.
AMERICA, AMERICA - Elia Kazan makes a movie about how an immigrant finds a way to get to America.
THREE ON A MATCH - In the early 1930s, Hollywood was free to make the kind of movie that told a realistic story in a daring and inventive way - before the self-imposed Code destroyed any chance of doing that for 40 years. This is an example of the Hollywood that could have been.
BROADWAY DANNY ROSE - a small-time agent can't let go of his stable of losers, until one day, one of his misfits suddenly fits. Mia Farrow's best performance.
THE GREAT MCGINTY - Preston Sturges is not a household name, but he is the Mark Twain of movies. His tale of a homeless man who fights his way to the Governor's office is priceless and the funniest movie ever made about politics in the USA. Akim Tamiroff should have won an Oscar.
MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE - If you ever doubted that Cary Grant is one of the greatest actors ever, watch this comedy about building a house.
GUNGA DIN - A close friend of mine saw this when it was released and he was just a child. That friend always talked about it in reverential tones. You will too.
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY - Michael Crichton's greatest movie from his own novel. This movie is one helluva ride.
SOME LIKE IT HOT - Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag. Marilyn Monroe at her best (all those directors and actors who claim that she was a pain in the neck, well, they should be so lucky as to find another pain in the neck like her to be in their movie). Billy Wilder making a movie only he could have concocted.
LADY FOR A DAY - A take on Pygmalion, directed by Frank Capra, written by Robert Riskin from a Damon Runyon short story, this is one of the best pre-code movies.
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW - My brother, Robert, claims that the 1970s was the best decade for movies. That's a period. This movie proves his point. Peter Bogdanovich poured all he knew about making movies into this look at a Texas small town about to be buried in its past. Yet, because of all the great movies of the 70s, this one sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.
THE OUTLAW - When Howard Hughes produced this 24-carat piece of schlock, he used all of his many skills, especially in PR, to make it a hit. Jane Russell was never bigger. Take a look at a piece of history.
12 ANGRY MEN - Used in law schools to teach how NOT to try a case - it's a pretty poor lawyer who leaves it up to an enterprising juror to save his client from the electric chair. But, Henry Fonda does that amidst the finest supporting cast ever put on film.
JIMMY THE GENT - Another pre-code movie that has a wealth of pizazz - including one of the few movies with Jimmy Cagney and Bette Davis. Now that's super-pizazz.
OCTOBER 2018 ON TCM
The star of the month is Rita Hayworth. She was a triple threat - a great beauty who could act, sing and dance. I think that she was Fred Astaire's finest partner after his years with Ginger Rogers.
Take a look at Fred and her doing the Shorty George - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z08FrM6J4hE -
or their impeccable dancing to I'm Old Fashioned - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jwmjx8gpzrA.
Here are my daily picks for your watching pleasure this month on TCM:
10/1 - Tunes of Glory - An acting tour de force with Alec Guinness, John Mills and Dennis Price.
10/2 - You Were Never Lovelier - Astaire, Hayworth, Kern - you can't beat that trifecta.
10/3 - The Phantom of the Opera (silent) - Lon Chaney in one of his iconic roles.
10/4 - Dinner at Eight - This was one of the first ALL-STAR CAST movies with many of MGM's great stars in one package. Jean Harlow steals the movie.
10/5 - Night Train - early Carol Reed (The Third Man) thriller with Rex Harrison and Margaret Lockwood.
10/6 - OBJECTIVE, BURMA - Raoul Walsh directs Errol Flynn in an early realistic war pic.
10/7 - A STAR IS BORN - Judy Garland and James Mason in the best dramatic musical written for the screen. The Arlen-Gershwin score, Moss Hart script and George Cukor direction make this a movie that cannot be missed.
10/8 - HIS GIRL FRIDAY - Howard Hawkes took the story of a reporter who is always at war with his editor and made them a divorced couple, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
10/9 - THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI - Orson Welles tells a tale of murder and deceit.
10/10 - THE JOURNEY - Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in a Cold War film with a lot of warmth.
10/11 - TALL STORY - Jane Fonda's debut - she's a college girl with a plan - to hook star basketball player Anthony Perkins. Ray Walston, Anne Jackson and a gang of other great actors make this a gem. Hey, I even like the song.
10/12 - THE CANDIDATE - Robert Redford stars as the clueless candidate in a spot on look at politics in the USA.
10/13 - THE NIGHT DIGGER - Roald Dahl wrote this strange wonderful movie with Patricia Neal.
10/14 - CITY LIGHTS - I know, you don't like silent movies - get over it and watch one of the greatest movies ever made - by Chaplin.
10/15 - THE LADY REFUSES - OK, not a classic but not bad for 1931.
10/16 - PAL JOEY - Sinatra at his best with a great Rodgers & Hart score, Nelson Riddle arrangements and Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth to make it all shine.
10/17 - THE MORE THE MERRIER - Three people share a room and fall in love - just watch it and see.
10/18 - STAGECOACH - 1939 was the year when Hollywood hit all the right notes and this western by John Ford made John Wayne a star and created the western movie template. Even if you don't like westerns, you will like this one. I guarantee it.
10/19 - TIME WITHOUT PITY - Michael Redgrave in one of his usual outstanding performances - and the rest of the cast isn't too shabby either.
10/20 - SLITHER -James Caan and Sally Kellerman top this excellent cast in a caper movie.
10/21 - GYPSY - The grandmommy of all stage door mother movies. Year by year, this movie gets better as audiences get to see other Mama Roses and realize that what Rosalind Russell and company pull off is not as easy as they make it look.
10/22 - SUSPICION - Cary Grant's ne'er do well playboy marries Joan Fontaine's prim General's daughter in this Hitchcock gem about what makes opposites attract - money and murder or love and redemption?
10/23 - SEPARATE TABLES - Wendy Hiller, Burt Lancaster, David Niven (Oscar winner for his role as a troubled ex-colonel) and Rita Hayworth inhabit a dreary small hotel living lives of quiet desperation.
10/24 - THE DAWN PATROL - Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, David Niven, Donald Crisp AND Barry Fitzgerald fight the good fight in this WWII drama.
10/25 - HIGH ANXIETY - Mel Brooks takes over a psychiatric clinic headed by Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman in this hilarious tribute to Hitchcock.
10/26 - KATHARINE HEPBURN: ALL ABOUT ME - If you like or dislike the lady, you will enjoy this rare glimpse at a life lived large.
10/27 - DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE - Victor Fleming directs Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner in this version of the classic tale. Bergman is incredible and does that rarest of rare things - steams the move from Tracy.
10/28 - THE YELLOW ROLLS ROYCE - The plot follows the ups and downs of a - yes, you guessed right. In the mid-1960s, this is what the studios thought would be a hit.
10/29 - WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE - OK, you must have heard of this one - but don't let that fool you - Bette Davis is incredible.
10/30 - KING KONG - The original - and it is as strange and alluring as any movie ever made.
10/31 - THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH - Roger Corman at his sleazy best with Vincent Price.
A RUSSIAN BINGE-WORTHY TV SERIES ON AMAZON PRIME
For those who grew up with television, the present Golden Age is a miracle! Not only the variety and depth of American television, but series and shows from all over the world - Australia, Sweden, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy and now - Russia!
Sophia is an eight part series about Sofia Paleologa, niece of Constantine IX, last Byzantine emperor, wife of Ivan III of Russia.
Don't worry - it doesn't matter. All you need to know is that an early Russian czar (late 1400s) decides to marry a young woman who is living in Rome under the Pope's protection and who is an heir to the throne of Byzantium (present day Turkey).
It's a great story about love and friendship and betrayal and greed and religion. The acting is excellent, the story compelling. I would mention all of the actors and creative personnel but you wouldn't know them.
What is important is that, like other series from other countries, this series tells us about the Russian character and history. Religion is as important to these characters as it is to present day evangelicals. The Czar is an absolute ruler whose word is law. He can have a traitor beheaded or, as happens in one episode when the traitor decides to make an anti-Czar speech as he is about to be beheaded, simply raise his hand and hold up four fingers - meaning that the sentence has been changed from beheading to dismemberment, four fingers corresponding to the four limbs that are to be cut off before beheading. This is one tough country.
I believe that a country's popular culture, its TV, movies and songs, tell us a great deal about the people of a country. And so does its idea of its past. Here, in the USA, we worship the men (very few women) who have created the American character - self-made, a personal code, a belief in fair play and a dream of equality (it's the dream that we worship so there is no need to ensure its fulfillment). The great movies about our history, from the John Ford westerns to the many Civil War epics, rarely told how things really were. As one of Ford's characters says, "When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend." And so we have.
And I am certain, so have the creators of Sophia.
But no matter - Sophia is one hell of a great story, well told and well acted. Give it a try - it's binge-worthy
1 SEASON, 8 EPISODES
NOW AVAILABLE ON AMAZON PRIME.
Most of the foreign, crime TV series that appear on Netflix or Hulu are from the dark, snow-clad shores of our Nordic brethren. At the top of the list are Wallander and Lisbeth Salander.
At the heart of a lot of these dramas is the hero/detective as a misfit. This idea of a hero/misfit dates back at least as far as Sherlock Holmes, a pipe-smoking, cocaine-addicted, sartorially-challenged private detective who never seems to have any emotions other than those he saves for the hunt - Watson! The game is afoot!
Now, a world away from the aurora borealis, comes a crime drama from Australia, The Code.
Ned Banks (Dave Spielman) is a web journalist working for an online newspaper that can barely keep afloat. He has a complicated personal life, with an ongoing affair with a political operative, Sophie Walsh (Chelsie Preston Crayford), and a brother, Jesse ( Ashley Zukerman) who is the hero/outsider of the series. Jesse suffers from - it's not clear - he's just cuckoo, a screw is missing, mad as a hatter, unhinged, out to lunch, lights on but no one's home and whatever else you would call a guy in his late 20's early 30's who has never been with a woman, has no idea how to talk to someone, but - BUT, is one of the great hackers in the world. He's so good, he was arrested for hacking and promised not to do it any longer; however, without hs hacking ability, there is no The Code. So much for promises from crazy hackers.
The online things are shown on the screen a la the recent british production of Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch. It makes for a fast pace and with the Aussie dialect, I advise keeping the closed captions on for this one.
The plot is, at first, a mystery. A young girl and her boyfriend (he is driving) get hit by a big truck. She ends up dead while he escapes, but suffers severe lung injuries. What happened? The boyfriend's cell phone recorded it all, but the video is not clear. Ned gets ahold of it and asks his brother to help him clean up the video, but, suddenly, the nerdy Jesse is busy for a reason that seems unlikely - he has a girlfriend, Hani (Adele Perovic). She can hack, too. It's a romance built on the thrill of uncovering a coded message and getting into virtual places you are not welcome.
Meanwhile, the powers that be in the Australian capital (go ahead, take a guess before you look it up) have a problem with a cabinet minister who is shown in photos have a fight with the husband of a woman with whom he has been having an affair. Is this just a diversion to keep the journalists looking at sex when it should be probing the details of a strange car accident in the middle of nowhere?
When the Australian equivalent of the darkest CIA/FBI operatives kidnap Jesse and torture him, the cat is out of the bag - something bad happened in the Outback when those two lovers' car was hit by a truck. But what? Ned starts poking around and he finds Alex Wisham (Lucy Lawless), the local teacher in the Outback who is putting out signals to Ned, but what does it mean?
Six episodes of about an hour each is not too big a commitment in today's binge-watching world to find the answer, but BEWARE, there is a second season that should become available soon in the American market.
Network: Netflix/HULU (season 1)
Creator: Shelley Birse
Exec. Producers: Carole Sklan, Greer Simpkin
THREE IN ONE
There is a long history of movies or TV series originating in one country and then being transferred to another country with a new cast and similar plot. Most recently, the most famous movie transferred may be THE GIRL WITH THE ... movies based on the best-selling books by Stieg Larsson and the most famous transferred TV series is House of Cards. In both cases the originals are better.
One of the best of these transfers are the TV series based on the original Swedish/Danish TV series, The Bridge (SE). The series was re-done in English/French and titled The Tunnel and American/Spanish as The Bridge.
The premise is the same for all three versions: a body is found in the middle of a bridge or tunnel on the border between two countries and police from both countries must investigate. In each series, it is a male officer from one country and a female officer from another. In each series, the male officer has serious domestic problems, complicated by his serial infidelity while the female officer has personality problems making it difficult for her to relate to other people.
With that core, each of the series evolves in ways that are appropriate to the countries in which they are set.
The Bridge (SE) written by Hans Rosenfeldt and Camilla Ahlgren consists of four series all broadcast on HULU and starring Sofia Helin as Saga Norén, lead homicide detective in Malmö and Kim Bodnia as Martin Rohde, lead homicide detective in Copenhagen (series 1–2) and Thure Lindhardt as Henrik Sabroe, lead homicide detective in Copenhagen (series 3-4). The first series is about a deranged murderer who uses his crimes to highlight serious social problems in Scandinavia. The murderer develops a relationship with a reporter and the symbiotic dynamic between reporter and subject is explored.
The Tunnel is a joint production between British and French TV written by Ben Richards who worked with Hans Rosenfeldt, the co-creator of the original series; it was originally broadcast on PBS. The series stars Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy as British and French police detectives Karl Roebuck and Elise Wassermann. The plot is similar to The Bridge (SE) with a serial killer who exposes five 'truths' about the ills of society. As in the original, the crimes culminate in a confrontation between killer and cop based on a personal wrong done to the killer by the cop.
The Bridge is the American version of the show, developed by Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid, that was broadcast on the FX network. The series stars Diane Kruger (US) and Demián Bichir (Mexican) in main police roles. Around a series of murders of young women in Mexico, the show explores the usual issues in shows about the US-Mexican border: drug trafficking and illegal immigration. While receiving strong critical acclaim, this series only lasted two seasons. Currenlty, it is available on HULU, also - so be careful in how you search for it: use the (SE) suffix for the Scandinavian version.
All three are worth watching but I'd have to rate the Scandinavian and Anglo-French versions better than the US-Mexican since the problems explored and the characters are more interesting.
Start with the original, then the Anglo-French version and, if you still want more, try the US-Mexican series. Each has excellent casts and you are sure to get caught up in the characters, their lives and the issues explored - what more can you ask from a TV show
Barbra Streisand's voice is "one of the natural wonders of the age, an instrument of infinite diversity and timbral resource.”
That's the opinion of Glenn Gould, one of the great classical pianist of the 20th century - and also the opinion of millions of her fans.
But how did this worldwide love affair with a voice all start?
In the early 1960's, she began to appear on TV variety shows like Gary Moore and Ed Sullivan. That's when my sister, Felice, started to notice her and got me to watch shows that Streisand would be on. It is difficult to convey the impact that her voice and her style of singing had on her audience at that time. Certainly, Streisand's style of singing was influenced by the emergence of rock 'n roll - she sang every song like it was her last, pouring out her emotions vocally, to act out the song.
Every performance was a mini-play about lost love, happy times, found love, etc. And most importantly, songs about a young woman who wants 'much more than keeping house.' Streisand mined the Great American Songbook better than any singer of her generation not named Frank Sinatra. And she too had her own special arranger who could fit any song to her unique style - Peter Matz. His arrangements of both new and old songs put the Streisand voice upfront and gave her plenty of room to perform her vocal acrobatics.
There is one song that epitomized the emotionally charged Streisand style and how it differed from other pop music singers - Cry Me A River. This is a song that Julie London had a big hit with in 1955 - here is her version. Many female singers recorded it, and, as usual, Ella Fitzgerald's was the best, musically.
Then, Streisand sang it. She starts her version of the song in the manner we were used to hearing it, as a song by a sad, disappointed lover. Then, she kicks into emotional hyperdrive and by the end and suddenly we are looking at one angry lady who really means that she wants her returning lover to cry her a river before she will give him the time of day. She's not just hurt, she's mad - she wants to see this guy suffer like he made her suffer. She wants revenge!
Soon, the networks were banging at her door to do a 'special.' Over the next five years, Streisand did several, starting with My Name is Barbra in 1965. She hired a great TV producer, Joe Layton, to conceive a special type of show that would star only her, very unusual at the time as most 'specials' had many guests stars. Instead, Streisand, alone, held the stage in a variety of situations, singing songs that most people had never heard before. This first effort won all the awards, including a Peabody Award.
Next, Color Me Barbra, found her at the Philadelphia Art Museum, blending into period paintings while singing an appropriate song. One takes her back to the terror in Paris in the 1790s. Streisand is an aristocrat singing The Minute Waltz while waiting to be guillotined (singing a funny song is a lost art - Streisand did it better than anyone had). The second half of the show has her in a live menagerie, singing to various animals. The songs are all exceptional, but listen to her take of a simple song, Why Did I Chose You, and how she can simmer her emotions just as well as she can explode them.
Both of these specials ended with a mini-concert so it was appropriate for her next special to be a concert - and oh, what a concert. One hundred and Twenty Thousand people showed up in New York's Central Park for a free concert - A Happening in Central Park. The resulting TV special and album made musical history - it was the first time a non-rock star had attracted so many young fans to a concert.
I had the pleasure of seeing her in Philadelphia in 1966. I couldn't afford the hefty prices for a ticket ($3.50 to $12.50!) so my sister took me (really, there were complaints about the high prices). I remember much of that night, but the clearest memory is at the end of the concert when she sang Silent Night. That song is not on the official list of songs performed that night, but she sang it, on a clear warm August night - and she did in Central Park, too. It was magical.
Now, the good news - all of these early TV specials are now on Netflix. Take a look at them and discover why a whole generation of fans fell in love with the voice and the woman who is 'one of the natural wonders of the age.'
FAUDA, THE CHAOS OF LIFE IN ISRAEL - PALESTINE
Fauda is an Israeli written and produced show streaming on Netflix. Like the show itself, the word, fauda, has a double meaning. In Arabic, it means chaos, but it is also used by Israeli Special-Ops members to indicate that an operation has gone bad, for example, if an undercover agent is outed, 'fauda' is the agent's one word signal to his team that something has gone wrong.
Fauda is the story of the Israeli-Palestinian on-going war told from the point of view of a group of Israeli Special Ops forces. When writers Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz pitched the show in Israel, no one wanted it. Israelis were not going to watch a show about the conflict that they were living every day - or so the TV execs thought.
They were wrong. Fauda is Israel's biggest hit TV show of the decade. It is a hit for the same reason that most TV series are hits - great characters and great stories. The main character is Doron (Lior Raz), a member of the Special Ops team whose mission is to capture Palestinian terrorists. He is married with two children and had resigned from the team at the insistence of his wife, but he re-joins the team for one last mission. He stays with the team because there is no such thing as 'one last mission', an end-story in this war where an eye for an eye perpetuates the violence regardless of the best intentions.
The series has been criticized by Palestinians for being pro-Israeli, but there is more than enough blame to go around. In the series opener, the Special Ops team is chasing a terrorist who has killed hundreds of Israelis in random bombings. The Special Ops team go into the West Bank and pose as caterers at the wedding of the terrorist's brother. The team assumes the terrorist will show up for the wedding and he does, but not before things go wrong when the team's cover is blown. The team has to shoot its way out and the groom is killed. This random killing of innocent Palestinians happens all the time in the series. Dozens of Palestinians are killed as 'collateral damage' and there is not one investigation, not one protest, not even an apology.
There are about a dozen characters, Israeli and Palestinian, who are central to the story and each of them pays a price for living in the conflict. What distinguishes the series are these well-drawn, complex characters who want to get on with their lives, but who are stuck in a world of double-dealing, lying, violence and revenge. A few on both sides of the conflict straddle the cultural divide, but they are soon killed or forced to chose.
Fauda is not a polemic about the ravages of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. It is an expertly told story about the people who are trapped in this conflict, on both sides. As the violence spreads like the Black Death over their communities, these characters meet, fall in love, marry, divorce, have kids, argue - they go about doing all of the things we all do in our lives, except their lives are tinged with the sorrow of knowing someone, often a family member, who was killed 'by the other side' in the conflict.
Watching this series from America, you are put into the middle of a war zone where there seems to be no right, just all wrong, just all expediency and revenge. Both Israeli and Palestinian politics play a major part in the series and this layer of politics just adds to the moral ambiguity of both sides' actions. One thing looms over every life, every decision, every attempt to live a normal life - the battle for the land that both sides claim as its own. No matter how non-political some Israelis and Palestinians try to be, the conflict will find them and suck them into the maelstrom, into fauda
FAUDA on Netflix, streaming all episodes
Created by Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff
Starring Lior Raz, Hisham Sulliman, Shadi Ma'ari, Laëtitia Eïdo, Tzachi Halevy, Yuval Segal, Neta Gerti, Tomer Kapon, Itzik Cohen, Rona-Li Shimon
Country of origin: Israel Original languages: Hebrew and Arabic
No. of seasons2, No. of episodes24
THE HANDMAID'S TALE
HULU's The Handmaid's Tale is in its second season and is actually getting better.
The first season paralleled the book by Margaret Atwood. It's the near future in the USA (now called Gilead) and a group of men have taken over the government. When the novel came out in 1985, there was a right-wing resurgence in the US under President Reagan, but, happily for the creators of The Handmaid's Tale, the political climate in the book resonates even more in the Trump era. Gilead is in the grip of a misogynist government that is fundamentalist Christian with an antediluvian justice system and pro-environmental policies, kind of like being a pro-business, anti-law enforcement, fundamentalist pornography-star bedding, gun-toting US government - impossible, right?
Season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale explores a new dynamic: how to survive in a society that looks upon you, at best, as a means to an end, that is, a baby machine and, at its worse, sees you as expendable. There are scenes of 'unwomen' cleaning up fields of nuclear waste that came from a recent war or the mishaps in a nuclear plant. These 'unwomen,' are the dregs of the new world order - feminists, nuns, professional women, lesbians - all those women who refuse to subjugate themselves to the power of the men.
Bruce Miller created the show. His previous hit was being involved in the TV series ER in the early 2000s. There have been a variety of directors, but the style of the series has been consistent: it has the look of a Dickens' novel, that is, it harkens back to a late 19th/early 20th century look of tudor- style houses and functional, concrete public spaces.
Much of the show's success can be attributed to Elisabeth Moss, playing the lead character, June Osborne whose name is changed to Offred (Of Fred, her master/commander). Moss can project grudging obedience better than any actor on the planet. Her role as Peggy Olson in Mad Men gave her training in the art of being suppressed. With every episode, Moss gives us something new to marvel at; she never accepts her station in Gilead and in every look and gesture we see her fierce refusal to give up the struggle to be a woman, a human being.
Moss carries this series on her broad, capable shoulders, but the rest of the cast provides ample support. Joseph Fiennes as Commander Fred Waterford is the embodiment of the supercilious man of God who routinely rapes Moss' Handmaid in a ritual that the powers that be call the 'ceremony.' Yvonne Strahovski is Waterford's infertile wife who was a conservative icon (much like those blonde attractive TV personalities much favored on Fox News) in the old world, but must now play the dutiful wife who has to hold down the handmaid Offred while her husband 'impregnates' her (so they hope). Ann Dowd is truly scary as Aunt Lydia, a woman in charge of the handmaids' education and subsequent performance as a handmaid. Her solicitous torture of unruly or disobedient handmaids is a case study of how to make over human beings into donkeys, offering the carrot and, if repulsed, the stick. And there is no better example of this method's success than the character of Janine/Ofwarren played by Madeline Brewer. When she refuses to conform, her right eye is removed; when this doesn't force her to behave, she is sent to clean-up nuclear waste as an unwoman.
You may be reluctant to watch a series that seems so far removed from our world, but then I suggest you think about what has happened since we elected a President with the self-control of a spoiled child. The most incredible things are said and done by him and his minions and there is barely a raised eyebrow in Congress or among those who run this country. Greed, sycophancy, nepotism, self-dealing, mendacity, prostitution (yes, that's what it is when you pay or are paid for sex even if the payment is nominally for an agreement of confidentiality), racism - the list is as long as it is incredible - and now this may become the new normal. And if that happens, can Gilead or something like it, be far behind?
WESTWORLD OR HOW I STOPPED WORRYING AND LEARNED HOW TO LOVE ANDROIDS
In 1973, Michael Crichton wrote and directed Westworld, a movie about an amusement park in the future where the androids who were built to give people a real Western movie experience, suddenly rebelled. A few years later, a TV series called Beyond Westworld was made based on this premise.
The movie was a mild hit, but the TV show was cancelled after just five episodes.
In 2016, HBO made a new TV series based on this premise. Westworld is an amusement park where wealthy guests pay to live out their wildest fantasies. Set in the old West of Hollywood movies, the good guys wear whites hats and the bad, blackl. The 'hosts' are all androids who look and act as humans - except, they can never harm or kill any guest. The hosts are given elaborate back stories, often requiring them to find someone or some place. Meanwhile, the guests are as good or as bad as they want to be. With no restraints on their behavior, guests can kill, rape, impede or help the hosts. As one human character says, you find out who you really are.
The first season of Westworld was the set-up. Various guests come to the park for various reasons and we see the hosts being programmed and recharged by the management that runs the park. The drama is injected into the show by the fact that the original creators and investors have different views on how this unique business should grow.
In its second season, Westworld aims for a higher dramatic arc:what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to love, to care for, to imagine, to be free?
The androids have rebelled. Delores is an android who gave to the guests in the first season the feelings they yearned for - gentleness, innocence, kindness, beauty. In the second season, she has turned on the guests and the management - she has become free and, like so many free humans, has chosen to revenge those who had so callously manipulated her. Now, she is a killing machine, willing to do whatever it takes to break free into the 'real' world.
All of the emotions we think of as truly human are questioned. Delores' lover, an android character, is reminded by a human manager that he was built to love someone else; he responds that what he felt for this other woman was 'just words in my head.' And what is love? Is it more than just words in your head? Feelings? What are they if not a way to react to the world or to a person with something that has been programmed inside of us?
Westworld has elaborate plots, complicated characters, incredible sets and costumes - but in the end it is a TV show about soul. What is it and who has it? As its characters search the depths of the human experience, there are battles, shootouts, excursions into other 'worlds' (such as Empire world that takes place in British Raj India) and flashbacks to the origins of these virtual worlds. Lots of blood, nudity (the androids aren't real, so it's just like seeing a naked doll, right?) philosophising about the nature of being human and some real drama. You may like it if you liked Lost or Star Trek or existential philosophy. Or John Ford movies.
TEN TV SHOWS TO BINGE WATCH ON NETFLIX AND IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS WITH
With the rise of Netflix, the way in which we watch TV shows has changed. No longer must we await the weekly release of a new episode of a show we are watching. Now, we can watch as many episodes of the show as our free time can hold. Bleary-eyed, the next morning, we tell our friends, family or co-workers that, yes, we had stayed up late, but such and such a show was worth it. Our viewing now 'spans the globe' as they use to say on Wide World of Sports. And so here is our list of ten Netflix TV shows that should carry a warning label: BEWARE, THESE SHOWS CAN BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR SLEEP AND CAN BECOME ADDICTIVE.
1. RITA - 4 SEASONS OF 8 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 40 MIN LONG SUBTITLES
A Swedish school teacher has both personal and professional problems, but she is the teacher you wished you had. No guns, no chases - just a good TV show about life, you know, the stuff that happens while you're busy making plans.
2. HOUSE OF CARDS - 3 SEASONS OF 4 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 50 MIN LONG BRITISH
A leader of the conservative party decides to become the prime minister by any means necessary. This is the show that the Netflix HOC is based on - but is so much better than its offspring.
3. MONEY HEIST - 2 SEASONS OF 9 AND 10 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 45 MIN LONG SUBTITLES
A group of criminals in Spain is gathered by a "professor' to pull off the heist of a lifetime - from the Spanish Mint. Of course, things go wrong and, so, we have drama!
4. THE FALL - 3 SEASONS OF 6 EPISODES EACH 60 MIN LONG BRITISH
Gillian Anderson and James Dorman give us 100 shades of creepy in this crime drama about - what else, a serial killer. But this is one of the best of that genre.
5. BABYLON BERLIN - 1 SEASON OF 16 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 50 MIN LONG SUBTITLES
Germany, 1929. A new cop in town is breaking up the old gang, but we know what it all leads to - and it ain't good. This is one hellava show and even the music is addictive.
6. MINDHUNTER - 1 SEASON OF 10 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 50 MINUTES
The FBI, 1977, and a new kind of killer is out there. The FBI has to adapt and figure out how to catch killers who are smarter than your average nuclear physicist..
7. SUBURRA, BLOOD ON ROME - 1 SEASON OF 8 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 45 MINUTES SUBTITLES
The Mob is fighting to control the port of Rome and the casino planned for the area.
8. MARSEILLE - 2 SEASONS OF 8 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 40 MINUTES SUBTITLES
The story of modern urban problems set in southern France starring Gerard Depardieu
9. EPISODES - 5 SEASONS OF 7 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 30 MINUTES
A British couple bring their hit British TV show to Hollywood and changes are made - to the show and to the them.
10. AND NOW THIS IS YOUR CHANCE TO TELL US ABOUT THE NETFLIX SHOW WORTHY OF BINGE WATCHING. GIVE US OUR TENTH SHOW.
THIS MONTH ON TCM - SEPTEMBER 2018
A New Feature on itsjustamovie.com
As a movie fan who began to watch old movies on 'UHF' channels when they first appeared on TV, I thought that I would pass along some of the movies I look forward to watching this month on TCM, the new, improved classic movie channel with no commercials - back in the day, UHF was a popular venue for commercials like : 'ALL THE MUSIC YOU LOVE' on 36 albums with your first album FREE then only $12.99 a month plus shipping and handling!
So, here are my picks for what to watch in September on TCM (not necessarily the best movie playing that day, but a great one).
9/10 - D.O.A. - one of the first great noir movies. The versatile Edmund O'Brien plays an accountant who goes on a fatal vacation. If you haven't seen this one, you are in for a treat.
9/11 - Until Dark Wait - Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman who is taught how to cope for herself by Alan Arkin in one of his most memorable roles.
9/12 - A Night at the Opera - The Marx Brothers are in the hands of the MGM artists and turn in their most polished performance. Don't miss the 'sanity clause' bit between Groucho and Chico.
9/13 - Rio Bravo - John Wayne is a local sheriff who has to arrest the most powerful man in the territory's no good brother on murder charges. Dean Martin and the always scene-stealing Walter Brennan are along for the ride.
9/14 - King of Hearts - lunatics escape the asylum during WW I - or have they?
9/15 - The Best Man - Henry Fonda wants to be nominated for President at his party's convention but is being opposed by a loud mouth demagogue. Gore Vidal's script is as biting as it is real and an old timer, Lee Tracy, gives his finest performance.
9/16 - Monkey Business - Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe in a farce about an elixir that makes you a kid again.
9/17 - The Loved One - maybe stranger movies have been made, but few that are funnier. Robert Morse makes his way through Hollywood, one corpse at a time.
9/18 - Out of the Past - a seminal film noir classic with everybody's favorite bad boy - Robert Mitchum and everybody's favorite bad girl, Jane Greer.
9/19 - Oceans 11 - the original. This one has a plot and actually works because the set-up that a bunch of former GIs from the same unit in WWII were never very good at anything on their own, but as a team - robbing the casinos in Vegas is child's play compared to beating the Nazis.
9/20 - The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone - Tennessee Williams script starring Vivien Leigh in one of her final performances and Warren Beatty in one of his first,
9/21 - Dr. Dolittle - Rex Harrison is a doctor who talks to the animals. The music and Samantha Eggar make this movie worth watching.
9/22 - The Professionals - Richard Brooks decided to make a movie for the fun of it and he took along Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Willie Strode, Jack Palance and Ralph Bellamy. Along the way, Brooks picked up 2 Oscar nominations for script and directing and his cinematographer, Conrad Hall, picked up one too.
9/23 - Far From the Madding Crowd - directed by John Schlesinger, adapted from the Thomas Hardy novel by Frederic Raphael and starring Peter Finch, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and - the reason to watch this slightly overcooked period drama - Julie Christie.
9/24 - The Last Waltz - the Band's final concert as filmed by Martin Scorsese.
9/25 - Pat and Mike - Tracy and Hepburn play a sports agent and the athlete he signs up. They don't make movies like this anymore - just a solid, very good, funny movie.
9/26 - The Silencers - the opening credits featuring a stiptease by Cyd Charisse is the best thing in this movie, but spending 90 minutes or so with Dean Martin is not the worse way to wile away the night.
9/27 - The Little Foxes - Bette Davis plays a southern Gordon Gekko with a husband who has a heart of mush and two brothers who think they should run the show. OK, here it is short and simple - one of the best movies ever made. There.
9/28 - Suspicion - Penniless playboy Cary Grant marries prim heiress Joan Fontaine - for her money? It's Hitchcock so you know you're going to enjoy the ride.
9/29 - The Big Sleep - this original Philip Marlowe adapted from Raymond Chandler's novel by - get this - William Faulkner. Howard Hawks directs.
9/30 - That Hamilton Woman - Vivian Leigh and her then husband Laurence Olivier in the story of a British Naval hero and his mistress during the Napoleonic Wars - it's better than it sounds.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
The Bletchley Circle was one of the best dramas on TV when it premiered in 2014. Its premise was simple — in the years after WWII, a group of women who worked together during the war come together to solve crimes. But these are not just any women.
They worked for the British Secret Service (at its super secret Bletchley Circle HQ) to break the German codes during the war, saving untold lives. Thrust back into civilian life, the women are forced to take those menial jobs that were "suitable for women” after the war. There are a smattering of female sleuths on various TV shows, but rarely has it given a group of intelligent women a series of their own. Until The Bletchley Circle.
The Bletchley Circle begins when Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin), a typical early 1950s housewife with two children, sees a pattern in a series of gruesome murders of women. She solicits the help of her former distaff code-breakers, and they discover that a serial killer is on the loose and has been killing women for many years. The police refuse to believe in the serial killer scenario and instead treat each murder as a separate event. The killer has been very smart in setting up a patsy for every murder.
The series is brilliantly written by Guy Burt, an English novelist and veteran TV writer. The characters he has created are unforgettable, not only because of their unique talents, but also for their refusal to give up what they do best — solve mysteries.
Susan's husband is dismissive of her intellectual pursuits — he is always surprised at how readily she does the Times’s crossword puzzle, regarding it as a freak talent. Lucy (Sophie Rundle)'s physically abusive husband doesn't know why his wife can remember the minutest detail of every newspaper story she reads, not realizing she has a photographic memory. Millie (Rachael Stirling), a brilliant linguist, leads a bohemian life, stuck in low paying “women’s jobs” such as waiting tables. Jean (Julie Graham), the oldest, keeps everyone in line; she has no private life at all and spends most of her time at the library she runs.
In their personal lives, none of them can tell their family and friends what they did during the war because, in England, the Official Secrets Act prevents any disclosure of clandestine activities — and this law is not subject to judicial review, so if you break it, you do not pass go, you go straight to jail. Separately, they have woven their lives into the drab quilt that was post-WWII England. Together, they blossom into one of the best vigilante groups of all time.
Each of the stories begins with a small commitment on their part to figure out the puzzle of some crime — it is just an intellectual exercise like breaking a code. Soon, they are forced to get directly involved in order to prevent an injustice or solve a crime, bringing them closer to the danger that they only read about during their code-breaking days.
Ultimately, the series is not about the crimes being solved but rather the true identities of these extraordinary women. Each of them is forced to live a lie, pretending to be the helpless, hapless stereotypes that the male-dominated society of the time forced them to play.The secrets they are forced to keep, including the most damaging one — who they truly are — eventually poison their personal lives. Only the strongest survive that self-betrayal.
In the end, Bletchley Circle does what all great crime dramas do, revealing more about the crime detectors and their world than the criminals and how they are caught.
And then it was cancelled.
Incredibly, its producers, ITV, a commercial public service television network in the United Kingdom, decided not to continue the series even though the third season had already been written. No reason was given for the cancellation.
Is it a coincidence that, in an entertainment industry more and more dominated by movies and TV shows geared to teenage males, a show about a group of adult, intelligent, resourceful women, who show up their male counterparts by combining their unique talents, gets canceled?
No, it wasn't. Until now.
IT IS COMING BACK!
The world has changed because courageous actresses outed a producer pig who used a casting hotel room to prove to himself how powerful he was - hey, he was a pervert not a blind pervert. He knew none of those actresses were coming to his room because of his good looks.
And so ITV sees a chance to jump into the #wetoo movement,but who cares about reasons - Bletchley Circle is back. Sort of.
Two of the original characters,Millie and Jean, travel to San Francisco and join forces with American female code breakers to solve crimes. The migrating women are the characters without a family. We can only hope that the new series will not discard the context of the original, a world in which men dominated every aspect of society. For example,take look at the New York Philharmonic in the mid-1950s. No females (except on harp, the female instrument).
BRITBOX is the commercial arm of BBC so it will only be available for a fee.
ORIGINAL SERIES AVAILABLE NOW ON NETFLIX
CAST:Julie Graham , Rachael Stirling, Anna Maxwell Martin and Sophie Rundle
CREATED BY: GUY BART
Netflix’s House of Cards (Season One)
Netflix has produced a real original series with real stars – Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright portraying a US Congress Majority Whip, Francis Underwood, and his non-profit CEO wife, Claire.
Original may not be the best choice of words – House of Cards is based on a BBC show of the same name staring Ian Richardson as Felix Urquhart (known as FU), a British MP Majority Whip who lies, cheats and murders his way to the top, supplanting a weak Prime Minister, a man FU describes as having ‘no bottom.’
The Netflix version shares many plot points with its British ancestor:
-Underwood gets screwed out of a top cabinet post by an ungrateful newly elected President.
-He plots his revenge with his beautiful and just as cunning wife.
- He and his wife are childless, devoting all of their time and talents to their ambitions.
- He uses a novice daughter-surrogate reporter (with whom he has an incestuous relationship) to get out his duplicitous messages.
- He has a no-questions-asked staffer-fixer named Stamper – as in, he stamps whatever his boss wants done.
- He speaks his innermost thoughts directly to the audience (in the BBC version, this is much more effective as FU re-cycles many of the great lines from Macbeth, the template for both versions of the story).
- He uses a weak-willed underling (who has a loving, lovely assistant) to do his dastardly deeds and
- He has a wife who does not breakdown when the going gets tough but rather screws her courage to the sticking place.
This is the show that started 'binge-watching.'
It’s worth it. The acting is top-notch, the shows production values are evident, the directing is good and the writing, while lacking sense and punch at times, is better than most TV shows – or movies.
House of Cards is just good enough to make you wish it were better.
The problem is that this deck is stacked. It suffers from the age-old problem that all American TV shows about politics suffer – lack of cujones.
In the Brit series, the main character is a wealthy Scot who is firmly in the right-wing of the right-of-center Tory party. He wants to become PM in part to feed his ambition, but also to complete the work that Thatcher began. He believes that England was made by and for the merchant-adventurer. His rise to the top is helped by a crass media mogul who expects in return that FU will let loose the dogs of unbridled free market economics. FU’s style of governing is rooted in his belief that the UK needs firm leadership and as his country’s ‘daddy’ he will put a bit of stick about to get things done – the right way.
In the Netflix House of Cards, Spacey gives his usual restrained pitch perfect performance, this time with the same southern drawl he used in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. While his character is more than willing to put a bit of stick about to get what he wants, he stands for nothing. The Netflix House of Cards can never figure out what they want Underwood to fight for other than his ambition. Maybe that was a choice – what do these guys we elect stand for when you get right down to it, other than their own ambitions?
In the opening episodes, Underwood proves his worth to the President by ushering through Congress an education bill – really? That’s as controversial as you can get? OK, so it’s an education bill opposed by the teachers’ unions because it has some teacher evaluation standards. In order to pass it, Spacey goes toe to toe with a teacher’s union lobbyist who is undone by his hot Italian temper. I was waiting for the alcoholic Irish ward leader and the womanizing French ambassador to make an appearance.
While the Netflix House of Cards touches many pressure points in the American political system, it rarely does so with enough muscle behind it to make us feel the pain of our deteriorating body politic.
In one episode, a former staffer turned lawyer-lobbyist (now that’s an all-too-true cliché) who represents a huge energy conglomerate offers a seven figure ‘donation’ to the non-profit run by Claire Underwood. Her husband cautions her to refuse it, worried about the undue influence the donor will seek in repayment. Mr. Underwood pontificates that money is not the same as power: “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.”
But most American pols take the money even if real power eludes them. Just glance at the bios of those in Congress. Most start out firmly rooted in the middle class – living paycheck to paycheck. Then they get elected and go through a wonderful Tunnel of Money. Somehow, they emerge golden, having sloughed off their tin cocoon. Not all. Some leave office with nothing more than when they entered it, except for the generous pension and benefits.
In another episode, Underwood is pressuring two ‘liberal’ congressmen to vote for a Clean Water Bill that is more about creating jobs than saving the environment. The congressmen think the bill too weak to accomplish any real good and want to defeat it, hoping to pass a better bill in the future. The message is that liberal congressmen are unwilling to compromise their principles even if it means tanking an important Democratic initiative. One word kept popping into my head – Obamacare.
In some episodes, the errant details are all too obvious. An up and coming Congressman, Pete Russo, goes home to South Philadelphia to mend fences after he has done nothing to save the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard (actually, it closed in 1995 and every local called it ‘the Navy Yard’). Underwood, for his own reasons, needed the Yard to close and so he threatened to expose Russo’s penchant for cocaine and prostitutes (they always seem to go together in fiction) to get him to lie down for the Navy Yard’s closure. As Russo walks up to a row house, we hear a lonely train whistle in the background – you know, lower middle class neighborhood so it must be close to the train tracks. OK, maybe it’s Two Street. A few minutes later, another house in South Philly and another train whistle, then another row house and another train whistle. Born and raised in South Philly, I can tell you that there are no train whistles echoing down the narrow side streets at 10th and Snyder. Car horns, yes. Gunshots, sometimes. Train whistles, no.
The most interesting character in the series is Claire Underwood, played to perfection by Robin Wright. She has an affair with a Byron-esq Manhattan photographer, and contemplates a life lived purely for the fun of it. But she is firmly rooted in the world of power and corruption. In one telling scene, she visits a member of the security team who guarded the Underwoods for many years. He is on his death bed and confesses to her a long-held deep hatred of her husband for having what he could never have - her. Claire tells him that many men wanted her and that she accepted her husband’s marriage proposal because he was the only one who offered her what she wanted - not happiness, but success and power. You have to take what you want. Then she places her hand under the sheet that covers his dying body. It’s a gesture at once both merciful and pitiless.
House of Cards comes to an abrupt conclusion at Episode 13, but Netflix ordered 26 Episodes so the story of Francis and Claire Underwood is far from finished. Let’s hope that the next episodes add some heft to a colorful but somewhat tepid view of American politics from the inside.