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9/10
From the Oscar Wilde era to the age of Sir Elton John
14 July 2019
After a couple of original Netflix bummers ("Maniac" and "Russian Doll"), we were bemoaning the current state of streaming, and then we remembered this one, on Amazon. "Scandal" is a "based on a true story" series that sticks closer to the facts than most, at least at first, though the writers do take some liberties later on. They clearly see the Thorpe case as straddling a psychosexual faultline between the age of Oscar Wilde (closeted upper-class alphas cruising for working-class "trade," at the risk of a beating, blackmail or prison if detected) and the age of, say, Sir Elton John.

The two principals are perfectly cast. Never let it be said again that Hugh Grant always gives the same performance! In "Scandal," he's still in fine post-comeback form, the annoying mannerisms of his youth--head ducking, stammering, forelock tossing, sheepish grin--all forgotten. It may have been a stretch for him to play a dark and stormy guy like Jeremy Thorpe, an ambitious pol who took out a hit on an inconvenient ex-lover, but he turns in a fascinating, expressive performance. In a scene where a political rival has just attempted to do him in, we loved the way Grant switches from affable condescension (default setting) to venomous contempt in the blink of an eyelash.

Ben Wishaw's clearly the go-to guy for a character who's gay, fey or just very sensitive (Richard II, Paddington, Keats). He shows us Norman Scott, the target of Thorpe's shambolic murder plot, as, sequentially, a needy, hapless drifter, kept man in a Chelsea bedsit, Carnaby Street strutter, hapless drifter again (but catnip to a lusty Welsh widow and a motherly pub owner), and finally, if a bit contrafactually, a hero of gay liberation. (In the film, he gives a stirring speech on behalf of "men like me" from the witness box at Thorpe's trial, but IRL he was so shy and nervous that his voice was barely audible in the courtroom.)

In fact, Wishaw's performance may come off at times like an anachronistic portrayal of a sexy, gender-fluid 21st-century dude, and the real Norman Scott apparently objected to being made out to be "this poor, mincing little gay person," but Wishaw's character's odd mingling of the pitiful and seductive makes him the perfect foil for Thorpe's Old Etonian sociopath.

The script practically writes itself when it comes to the murder plot and the courtroom scenes (too bad Peter Sellers was born 50-odd years too soon to play the hitman manqué). The supporting cast is very strong, with great actors in even the smaller roles--fabulous Patricia Hodge gets the last word as Thorpe's mother. Don't miss the clip during the credits from Peter Cook's parody of the judge's outrageous charge to the jury ("a self-confessed player of the pink oboe"); the whole routine, largely improvised onstage for The Secret Policeman's Ball, is worth seeking out on youtube.
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Rectify (2013–2016)
9/10
"Not gallows humor, but lethal-injection humor--more humane, but less funny."
4 July 2019
We caught a few episodes when this amazing series was still on non-premium cable, but it's much easier to stay with it now on Netflix, stripped of roughly 15 minutes of ads/ep. (When somebody at the NY Times put it on a list of the 20 best TV shows of this century, we finally gave it another shot.) I'd classify it as Southern gothic suspense, though "suspense" may not seem like the word for a series that, like its protagonist, is as painstaking and thoughtful as this one. Daniel Holden is a Georgia man approaching forty who's just been released on appeal after nineteen years on death row. Those years have made him a bit of a Stoic philosopher; his speech is measured, ironic, sometimes cryptic--his jealous stepbrother, Teddy, calls him "Starman," which is not meant kindly, but seems pretty accurate.

It's impressive that "Rectify" somehow manages to keep up the momentum, and even maintain a pretty high level of suspense, despite its frequent detours into the everyday life of the extended Holden/Talbot clan. (The underlying wrong-man murder plot hangs fire for long stretches while we inspect the shaky underpinnings of the family tire business and Teddy's fragile marriage.)

The most affecting of these subplots involves the platonic attachment that forms between Daniel and Teddy's wife, Tawney, a sweet-natured Born Again Christian; her first conversational gambit--"What's your favorite season?"--takes an unexpected turn when she realizes he really hasn't been outdoors for almost twenty years. She hopes to convert him; his hopes are unspecified, but clearly different--"I'm a romantic," he explains.

Aden Young really nails the part of Daniel, who reminds me of a higher-functioning version of Herzog's Kaspar Hauser, and the supporting cast is excellent. The writers experiment with a couple of David Gordon Green-style "Rough South" touches in the first season--an encounter with a volatile goat rustler and a backwoods rave party--and we were sorry that things got more normal and plot-driven after that; likewise we weren't too happy with the arrival of an off-the-shelf Manic Pixie Dream Girl character as Daniel's prospective love interest in season 4, but otherwise it's all good.
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The Darling Buds of May (1991–1993)
7/10
Quoth the taxman: "He never could recapture that first fine careless rapture..."
14 April 2019
My mother was a big fan of the H.E. Bates stories this series was based on and we loved "Love for Lydia," so this one seemed like a sureshot when it turned up on the Acorn TV playlist. The title story introduces us to Pop Larkin, an affable scrap dealer who's a bit like a more prosperous, rural version of Alfred Doolittle in "My Fair Lady," and his rumbustious family. When the tax inspector calls, Pop, a lifelong non-filer, invites the young man in for a couple of drinks, and one thing leads to another....

These first two episodes are totally charming; Pam Ferris ("Rosemary and Thyme") is the perfect earthy, beer-drinking consort for Pop, and the young Catherine Zeta Jones, as the Larkins' nubile daughter, is enough to make the proverbial bulldog break his chain (or, in this case, persuade a tax inspector to forfeit his civil service pension).

The second story, "When the Green Woods Laugh," is a bit of a letdown. The premise that the gnomelike Pop Larkin might be catnip to the stylish middle-aged women of the district (including Celia Imrie, Pamela Adlon's mother on "Better Things") seems laughable, but not in a good way, and the plot creaks pretty badly: After Pop diddles the local magistrate out of £10,000 in a real estate scam, it's just a matter of time before he's brought up before the bench, on a charge of indecent assault (don't ask...!).

Next comes a shambolic courtroom scene that's mildly entertaining, which pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the series--your standard English cozy that never regains the heights achieved by "Darling Buds." After S2E2, the stories weren't even written by HEB himself, so the remaining eps are mainly recommended to Catherine Zeta Jones completists... Ten stars for the first two episodes, seven for the rest.
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After Life (2019– )
8/10
Ricky Gervais explores cringe comedy's final frontier
1 April 2019
The critics and the twitterati were pretty rough on this one (Ricky G "gets grief all wrong," scoffed The New Yorker; he's "like the Aaron Sorkin of being a jerk," twitted The New York Times). Way harsh, guys, but though we enjoyed the series quite a bit, I agree that RG's on much firmer ground when he's dragging a stiff-necked waitress who won't let his avatar, Tony, order from the children's menu than when he's trying to say something big about the human condition.

Tony's a recent widower who decides to leverage his feelings of loss and emptiness (his "super power," he calls it) by speaking truth to imperfection wherever he finds it and being as nasty as he wants to be to all and sundry; if the pushback gets to be too much, he can always kill himself... This dirtbag village atheist version of "It's a Wonderful Life" doesn't really fly, but the series gets better as it goes along, as RG eases up on the existential angst and gets back to his core business of making with the jokes.

Tony works for his brother-in-law writing up reader-supplied content for a small-town weekly ("Area boy plays two recorders through his nostrils" and the like), and the "Office"-style workplace comedy's still quite entertaining, even when Tony tries to defend his atheist unbeliefs to a very basic workmate (the scene that prompted The Times' snippy comment quoted above). The locations were filmed in two telegenic Home County towns, and the secondary cast is great: Kerry Godliman, as Tony's wife (seen only in video on his laptop), supplies some much-needed warmth; Penelope Wilton and Ashley Hansen are welcome as Tony's wise comforters, likewise Roisin Conaty as a cheerful sex worker.

"After Life" reminds me a little of a middle-period Woody Allen movie like "Stardust Memories" or "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" where Woody was trying to emulate the serious directors he admires like Fellini and Bergman and somehow forgot to be funny; luckily Ricky's basic instincts don't entirely desert him here, and "After Life" is still an enjoyable, bingeable series.
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Sex Education (2019– )
9/10
Can talk the talk, still hasn't had a chance to walk the walk
19 February 2019
Aussie playwright Laurie Nunn was asked to write a script about a high-school "sex counselor" (is that even a thing?). She wisely decided to make her protagonist a student--Otis, the shy, virginal offspring of a bonafide sex therapist. With the help of his friend Maeve, a gorgeous, cash-strapped outcast from the trailer park, he operates his "clinic" in a condemned toilet block (asbestos!). He supplies the empathy and the secondhand sex lore; she takes care of the business side.

The clientele is adorable--childhood BFFs can't make it work when they both come out as lesbians, randy author of erotic sci-fi tenses up at the crucial moment, popular girl freaks out when her boyfriend asks her, "What do *you* want?"--and Laurie Nunn's a natural-born storyteller (she's the daughter of theater legend Sir Trevor Nunn, btw). Otis's transformation from aspiring rando ("I just want be a guy in the corner that no one knows, you know?") to sought-after sex guru is almost plausible, and the high-school-fantasy atmosphere does credit to Nunn's acknowledged role model, John Hughes.

The two leads are perfectly cast--Asa Butterfield's been around for a while, but Emma Mackey, who's spent most of her life in France, is a revelation.... Gillian Anderson is fabulous, as always, as Otis's mother, who oscillates wildly between clinical detachment ("Intercourse can be wonderful. But it can also cause tremendous pain. And if you're not careful, sex can destroy lives.") and helicopter parenthood--she's the Sikorsky Super Stallion of the latter. Lovely, leafy locations along the Wye valley in Wales, great secondary cast, big ups for post-colonial diversity.
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A Place to Call Home (2013–2018)
9/10
My not-so-great pitch for a truly great show: "It's 'Giant,' only with sheep instead of cattle!"
12 January 2019
We found this Aussie series, about a wealthy "grazier" (sheep rancher) and his crisis-prone family back in the 50s, to be just about impossible to resist. It's hard to say too much without spoilers since practically everyone starts out with a secret sorrow, a clandestine romance, a wartime trauma they don't care to talk about, a stigmatized sex pref, an unacknowledged illegitimate child or somebody's else's child they're raising as their own, which can only be revealed in the fullness of time.... Suffice it to say that the first two seasons focus mainly on the efforts of the Bligh family matriarch to prevent any of her brood from marrying beneath them or forming some other unsuitable attachment, despite the abundance of tempting distractions (a hunky Italian farmboy, a gorgeous blond nurse with a murky past) and the deficiencies of the eligible candidates (snobbish, vindictive playboy, deceased wife's treacherous sister).

We're total suckers for the shameless cliffhangers and out-of-left-field plot twists. The first-rate cast plays it straight for the most part; there are a few stock Aussie characters--including a salt-of-the-earth farmer who declaims "bush ballads" about bandicoots and billabongs--but nothing too clichéd or kitschy. (The source novel reflects some odd midcentury attitudes about bi- and homosexuality that might deserve a trigger warning.)

Oldsters and TCM fans may be reminded of Douglas Sirk and vintage primetime soaps like "Peyton Place"; we get a brief glimpse of one of the younger Blighs reading "Giant" at one point, which seems exactly right, and the actress who plays the nurse with a murky past is a dead ringer for Dorothy Malone in "Written on the Wind."

The show survived a cancellation scare at the end of season 2--which seems to have spooked the writers' room, since they turned out a couple of dud episodes right after that--but since then it's all been good....

PS--I was wondering if these fictitious Blighs were meant to be related to the real-life Captain Bligh, of "Mutiny on the Bounty" fame, who was briefly governor of NSW; that would make them one of the first non-convict settler families in Australia and would explain why Mrs Bligh, initially at least, is so terribly snobbish.
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Line of Duty (2012– )
9/10
The smartest, most suspenseful, most involving series we've seen in donkey's years
6 January 2019
My wife, no fan of cop shows as such, was knocked out by this UK police procedural, as was I. Showrunner Jed Mercurio knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and for five seasons now his dauntless AC-12 (for anticorruption) unit has been hunting down a ring of "bent coppers" and their black-clad enforcers ("balaclava men") in an unidentified city in the English Midlands (sometimes played by Belfast, btw). Plots are intricate, just this side of bewildering at times, and cases take up at least an entire season.

Subplots that aren't resolved right away carry over to the next season. Each time one of the hydralike heads of the OCG ("organized crime gang") gets lopped off, the OCG sprouts a new one, and the bent coppers and their criminal minions keep coming back for more. Season six is alleged to already be in the works; we can only hope that the story arc of the series is long and that it bends towards justice....

Despite the show's overall complexity, the individual episodes have incredible momentum, and since the bent coppers are indistinguishable from the honest ones, a Cold War atmosphere of tension and suspicion prevails, punctuated by occasional, expertly staged car chases and shootouts. The show's cynicism about corrupt officials and local elites--one of the recurring subplots is a mashup of the Jimmy Savile and Kincora Boys' Home child-abuse scandals--really seems to resonate in post-Brexit Britain. You don't have to be a fan of Antifa or QAnon, IMHO, to find this outlook appealing.

The dialogue is sharp and the characters are complex, though thankfully not as "quirky" or "damaged" as some of their US counterparts. I couldn't put a name to any of the regular cast members when we first started watching, but they're all fine actors; faces familiar from PBS and HBO turn up as guest perps and prime suspects--Lennie James (The Walking Dead), Keeley Hawes (Bodyguard), Polly Walker (Rome), Thandie Newton (Westworld) and Anna Maxwell Martin (Bleak House).
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8/10
No room for Depressed Debbies in this enchanted realm....
1 January 2019
If you've ever wondered what a Mitford or Waugh novel would be like if it were set on an Eastern college campus at some time intermediate between theirs and ours--one guy has a cellphone, somebody mentions email, but the main characters all dress like Truman's still in office--then look no further. The weirdly involving plot concerns a clique of attractive but pixilated young women at "the last of the Select Seven to accept coeducation" and their message of hope for its bemused sophomore transfers, dim-bulb fratboys, suicide-prone ed students and unwashed, dorm-dwelling dirtbags.

Almost everyone talks in a mannered, uncolloquial way that sounds a little like Kenny Powers of "Vice Principals" trying to channel in Jane Austen. Most of the humor is time-release conceptual rather than laugh-out-loud funny (e.g., the kid whose parents pushed him to skip kindergarten, so he's now struggling to identify the colors), though there are a couple of sight gags that made me actually LOL. Maybe because I come from the same near-elderly age cohort as writer-director Stillman, the time warp thing really won me over. The only two characters who look and act like contemporary people, called Depressed Debbie and Mad Madge in the cast list, seemed totally out of place in this enchanted realm.

Greta Gerwig, on the other hand, is thoroughly in her element as ringleader Violet Wister (née Emily Tweeter); good work by Ryan Metcalf as her original doufus (sic!) beau, Analeigh Tipton as the bemused transfer student, Billy Magnussen as the guy with the color problem and gorgeous Megalyn Echikunwoke as the scourge of all "playboy or operator types." Enjoyed the adorkable dance numbers. Didn't mind the technical imperfections; the sound is a little wonky, so CC is recommnded. Longtime Stillman fans should be aware that the social commentary in this one is much less focused than in his earlier films (and though there's lots of arcane chitchat--what's all that stuff about "flit lit" and heretical buttsex about?--there's nothing as good as Tom's "Mansfield Park" harangue in "Metropolitan").
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Certain Women (2016)
9/10
Newcomer Lily Gladstone steals the show from her A-list castmates in this indie trilogy
29 December 2018
If you're okay with a movie that doesn't have a conventional "story arc" or a tidy resolution--and it seems like a lot of folks here are *not* okay with that--then I strongly recommend this one. For us, the combo of Kelly Reichardt's terse visual style and Maile Meloy's subtle, affecting stories of Montana life was irresistible.

The first two episodes flit by pretty quickly, like pages from an indie sketchbook, and don't have all that much impact, tbh: A small-town lawyer (Laura Dern) has to intercede when a difficult client (Jared Harris) tries to take the law into his own hands; a couple (Michelle Williams, a Reichardt standby, and James Le Gros) pay a call on a neighbor (Rene Auberjonois) who has a heap of sandstone on his property they covet for the house they're building.

In the third, and most substantial episode, a shy ranch girl (Lily Gladstone) wanders into an adult ed class "because I saw people goin' in" and imprints on the teacher (an unglamorous Kristen Stewart). A fragile, asymmetrical friendship develops: the teacher mainly wants somebody to complain to about her four-hour commute; the rancher, who has only a string of horses and a yappy corgi for company, is clearly hungry for human contact.

Lily Gladstone's amazingly expressive performance steals the show from her A-list castmates. Not much is said, and very little happens, but this final episode leaves you with a very strong feeling--almost more like a real-life experience than a movie--of the loneliness and isolation of this beautiful, empty country. Available on Netflix.
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Killing Eve (2018– )
8/10
"The thunder of empowered women..." -- publicity release for Killing Eve
7 December 2018
This splashy new series from the BBC has some of the same self-mocking 'tude as 60s classics like The 10th Victim and The Avengers, though I'm not sure it's destined for that kind of immortality. There's also a downsized version of SPECTRE or CHAOS ("The Twelve") for our heroine to do battle with and a starchy female counterpart of the Avengers' John Steed (Fiona Shaw!) as her boss at MI6.

The setup: The Twelve have been messing with global elites by picking them off them one by one, seemingly at random--a top-level Chinese spook, a prosperous Mafioso, a feminist philanthropist.... Liverpool-born Jodie Comer crushes it (quite literally, in one case) as Villanelle, the chic, multilingual psycho killer who's carrying out their evil plan. (To make it clear she's a for-real psychopath, she coos and clucks sweetly over her victims, in what seems like a sendup of your standard movie villain's compulsion to make a long snarky speech when he's finally got the hero(ine) in his clutches.)

Sandra Oh brings her usual goofy intensity to the role of V's opposite number, Eve Polastri, a restless desk officer who gets kicked upstairs to join the team that's hunting the assassin. She may be "a tiresome thinkbucket," as one of her colleagues calls her, but she can still work a slinky designer gown when she has to take a meeting with an amorous Chinese diplomat. The supporting cast is great, though we were sorry that a couple of the more interesting characters were sidelined or killed off midway through the season.

In fact, the show does better, IMHO, as a high-stakes workplace comedy than as the psychosexual fantasy it turns into later on, but maybe I'm just old-fashioned.... We got more involved in the spoofy John LeCarré vibe of the earlier episodes--safe houses and babysitters, "wet work" and moles in high places--but showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge, best known for the cringe comedy Fleabag, seems eager to get on with the main event.

It begins as a girlcrush (Eve practically swoons while describing V's doll-like features to a police sketch artist), then moves on to the courtship phase (V steals Eve's suitcase and fills it with an elegant new, shoplifted wardrobe), then quickly evolves into something more intense. (You only kill the one you love?)

The last few eps are cluttered with uninvolving subplots--Villanelle's messy backstory and the blowback from Fiona Shaw's character's Cold War-era sexcapades--but the kinky-thinkbucket-vs.-death-angel showdown in the season closer is well worth waiting for.

Looks like Killing Eve's been a huge hit, it's been renewed for a second season, and more than one critic seems to have become obsessed with it. Nevertheless, I'll still knock off a couple of stars for the way the show pretends to be about more than is really there and the way it loses momentum in the second half of the season.
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Sisters (2017– )
9/10
Turn on the CC and tune in a great new Strayan series...
20 November 2018
Warning: Spoilers
In fact, this is the best Aussie series we've seen since "Offspring," with which it shares some acting and writing credits. The setup may seem gimmicky, which it is, but it plays out very well: Famed fertility doc Julius Bechly, bedridden and rarely lucid, confesses publicly that, for many years, he'd been IVFing his patients from his own private stock. That means that his only daughter, Julia, suddenly has 100+ full-grown half-siblings, only two of whom she's met (see under "Tinder" below) and only two of whom are female.

Julia (beautifully played by Maria Angelico) is a soulful but scruffy oversharer, somewhat along the lines of Hannah Horvath or the "Broad City" girls. She's been living in her father's shadow, crushing on his dishy assistant and treating herself to the odd frolic on Tinder. Sister no. 2, Julia's childhood friend Edie, has grown up to be a kickass malpractice lawyer; her plan to sign up all the sibs and their families as class-action plaintiffs causes some family friction.

Sister no. 3, Roxy, is a bit of a wild card, a pill-popping actress with a shaky gig as a princess on a TV kiddy show. A fourth claimant to sisterhood shows up as well--an annoying young woman who's hinky about the DNA test all the sibs are asked to take, but who turns out to be essential to the big reveal in the season closer.

The family stuff, the relationship stuff and the workplace stuff are all sharp, funny and well observed. We don't see much of the Bechly Institute, but Edie's law office is a hotbed of intrigue: She's torn between her semi-estranged husband (he was Mick's sperm-donor brother on "Offspring") and her slinky (female) PA; Julia hooks up with a possibly toxic partner in the closer.

The principals and the supporting cast are all pretty great. Basset-faced Roy Billing gives a touching performance as Roxy's (non-biological) father; veteran Barry Otto (real-life father of Miranda, of LotR fame), as Dr. Julian Bechly, doesn't get many lines, but does get to do the funky bugaloo dance behind the opening credits. Not too bingeable with only seven eps, but highly recommended...
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The Sinner (2017– )
9/10
More spooky suspense from Jennifer Biel & co.
11 October 2018
Season 2 kicks off with a bizarre double murder, but this is another whydeydodat?, like season 1, not a whodunnit, so the 13-yr-old perp's in custody by the end of episode one. There's no shortage of compelling 3D characters and intricate plot twists after that, but, as before, it's the cast that really hoists it:

Bill Pullman returns as Det. Harry Ambrose, called back to his hometown in Upstate NY to consult on the case. Though he doesn't seem quite as damaged and Tourettish as in season 1 (no more S&M workouts, no more random comments on botany and plant care), he's still a cop with serious issues. One critic praised Pullman's "off-kilter performance," a big part of which is the twisted little grin that rarely leaves his face, and a series of teasing flashbacks gradually let us in on what Harry's deal is. His young sidekick (Natalie Paul) has a complex backstory too, but it all ties together with the main murder plot.

The two detectives' wily adversary is Vera (fabulous Carrie Coon of "The Leftovers"), the frontwoman for--not, she insists, the leader of--the shady New Age commune where the perp and his victims all lived. Coon and Pullman have amazing chemistry; I kept replaying the scene where Vera literally knocks him out with her witchy charisma when Harry tries to question her. For his part, Harry has a few Dostoevsky-for-Dummies-type convos (regret, guilt, redemption...) with the young offender that are also pretty great. (All the main characters have done something, on impulse or out of ignorance, that they've come to regret bitterly--pretty heavy stuff for basic cable.)

It takes a while to set the scene, then the pace really picks towards the end. I wouldn't have minded if they'd stretched the seven eps out to ten, in fact. Elisha Henig (b. 2004) is certainly convincing as the murderer; Carrie Coon's real-life husband, playwright Tracy Letts, is on hand as a citzen above suspicion.
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6/10
"How does a film so empty of emotional intelligence... sweep the board on prizes?" -- Tim Parks in The New Yorker
26 August 2018
When I put this one in our Netflix queue, I was expecting a gritty little yarn about a part of the country that's rarely seen onscreen (unless you happen to be watching "Sharp Objects" on HBO), something like "Winter's Bone," only down toward the flatlands and a little bit further north. What with the reviews and awards and all, I must've lost sight of the fact that the film was W&D'd by Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, also the creator of splashy Tarantinian fantasies like "In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths." My bad!

The overall shoddiness of the script, the stagy dialogue and the characters' loony behavior completely undercut the technical virtuosity on display, from the admittedly fine performances to the cinematography and soundtrack. TV and movies have taught us that small-town cops commit random acts of violence with impunity, especially in a vaguely Southern setting; in Ebbing, that privilege seems to be extended to civilians as well, which may be why the victims seem so understanding when, e.g., somebody tosses them out a window or firebombs a building they happen to be sitting in...

Two characters--not portrayed as otherwise admirable in any way--who have been victims of brutal, irrational assaults make large or small gestures of forgiveness; one of them bonds with his attacker and sets off on an open-ended quest that brings the film to its baffling conclusion. I'm guessing that what McDonagh had in mind was some sort of action-packed parable about violence, repentance and forgiveness, but "Crime and Punishment" it's not.

That being said, it looks like the critics have finally gotten it right--the last capsule review I saw (NYT) just read, "Exhausting." And I'm still trying to figure out how good ol' boy Sheriff Woody came by an Australian trophy wife (Samara Weaving of "SMILF") who makes naughty little jokes about Oscar Wilde...
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The Affair (2014– )
9/10
Anyone still on board with "The Affair" on Showtime?
18 August 2018
I assumed this series wasn't going to be renewed for a fifth season, since it already seems to have jumped the shark more times during the current one than Sea World has orcas, and yet it was, and we continue to watch it. To start with, in recent weeks each of the principal male characters (plus one of the females) has drifted into a gratuitous (contractually mandated?) hookup with a much younger woman--not to mention that, when Noah's charter-school class stages a walkout after he tries to teach "The Wasteland," he ends up making out with the principal before the day is out.

Long-dead or previously unheard-of parents suddenly loom large: Cole sets off on a vision quest with his daddy's surfboard (a fine pretext for a guest appearance by Amy Irving as a witchy West Coast artist). Allison, OTOH, has to endure two classic soap-opera traumas--one involving a previously unknown daddy--plus another one that's a little outside the box, all in the space of a single day.

However, the old lines of attraction and repulsion have blurred so much by now that Helen can have a deep discussion with Allison while the latter's sacked out on her couch (after Vikram feeds her a handful of happy pills), and Cole and Noah (plus the kid that incited the T.S. Eliot walkout...Long story!) band together to form a search party after Allison goes missing.

The penult episode--an extreme example of the dueling self-serving narratives that have been this show's stock in trade all along--is too bizarre to be summarized here, and the season finale doesn't air until this Sunday [08/18/18] at 9 pm... However that turns out, "The Affair" gets 9 out of 10 imdb stars as a consistently watchable, even bingeworthy, premium-cable telenovela; previous seasons are available on Amazon, the current one on Showtime on Demand.
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Succession (2018– )
9/10
"I tried to play with you, but you broke." -- Siobhán "Shiv" Roy
26 July 2018
A suspenseful, very involving new series about a dynastic power struggle in a family-run media empire. What kind of family?, you ask... The flinty old patriarch's a Scot, not an Aussie, his wife's Lebanese, not Chinese (oops! forgot about Jerry Hall for a moment...), the unruly 2G execs are Americans, not English; OTOH, there's an unfair, unbalanced news channel that slants to the right and a general air of Murdochian decline and desperation.

We weren't too familiar with showrunner Jesse Armstrong's earlier projects--the couple of eps of "The Thick of It" (the TV precursor to the film "In the Loop") we watched seemed clever, but in a cold-blooded, snarky way we couldn't really connect with; this one's very different. The characters are selfish and needy (in all sorts of ways) but fascinating as well; the series, with all of season one available on demand, is definitely bingeworthy. The season closer totally kills--it's like something Euripides might've come up with if he knew about ket and tootski...

The dialogue's smart and punchy (unlike the ridiculous smacktalk you'll hear from the 1%ers on "Billions"), the plotlines are outrageous but by no means implausible (without too much obvious "ripped from the headlines" stuff), and the performances are uniformly excellent. Dundee-born Brian Cox is certainly convincing as the Learlike head of the family, and Aussie actress Sarah Snook and Jeremy Strong stand out as the smartest, most likeable of the siblings (quoted above) and the drug-damaged heir apparent, respectively. Kieran Culkin is just his usual self and quite entertaining as such...
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9/10
"They f--- you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do." -- Philip Larkin "Ah, but sometimes they do mean to." -- Patrick Melrose
10 July 2018
A picky FB friend insists that the TV series, based on Edward St Aubyn's novels, misses "the nuances of upper-class English life." Maybe so... The scenes set in the US--a rich widow's country seat, an East Side funeral home, a drug bazaar down by the old fish market (was that ever even a thing?)--do seem to be taking place in some prestige-soap-opera Neverland, about halfway between Downton Abbey and Naked Lunch. Strangely, only the scenes set at the Melrose family's postcard-perfect villa in the south of France feel like they belong to our world.

As is often the case, 'Cumberpatch quickly comes to seem like the only possible casting choice. Patrick's a compulsively jokey young man ("lucidity is overrated") who's endured every possible form of child abuse and gone on to abuse every possible substance as an adult. Despite his history, and despite St Aubyn's deadly-serious themes of abuse, addiction, recovery and redemption, much of the series plays like an old-school comedy of manners; Patrick's near-fatal coke binge is embellished with cartoony optical FX, and Princess Margaret even turns up during a set-piece banquet scene, perhaps to illustrate St Aubyn's thesis that the fish rots from the head.

By the end of the series, the tale of Patrick's personal catastrophe--the offscreen horrors and the drug damage--and the sharp-eyed social satire seem perfectly in balance, and as with Faust at the end of his long ordeal, there's even a hope of redemption for Patrick... if he doesn't f--- that up too. The supporting cast is very good, almost too good in the case of Hugo Weaving and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Patrick's terrifying parents, as well as Pip Torrens (Tommy Lascelles in The Crown) as the most enduring of Patrick's father's hateful old cronies. Anna Madeley is especially refreshing as Patrick's wife (the words "long suffering" don't begin to state the case), one of the few appealing and seemingly undamaged characters.
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Barry (2018– )
9/10
"I'm telling you this because you're a super nice guy, Bahriy!"
28 May 2018
As several clever blurb writers have already pointed out, there are lots of bad actors here: a bungling Chechen crime family plus the latently talented newbies in Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler!)'s cutrate acting class, just to start with. The Chechens are mostly funnier than the actors; funniest of all is gangster/hipster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan); his faux-Russian accent is a phonetic tour de force.

Of course, the series is built around Bill Hader's sweet-natured basic-guy persona. The premise may seem a little gimmicky at first, but Hader outdoes himself as the bummed-out ex-Marine turned contract killer who finds his life's purpose in Cousineau's stripmall atelier. The part of Cousineau himself's a slam-dunk for Henry Winkler; he's a veteran bit player/acting coach who can totally talk the talk, though we only get to see him walk the walk for about ten seconds (auditioning for the part of Man at Back of Line).

Paula Newsome does well with the more challenging role of Det. Moss, a shrewd LA cop who (somehow) can't resist Cousineau's smarmy come-ons; Sarah Goldberg draws the short straw as Barry's blond love interest, but she still gets to represent with a resonant #MeToo subplot and a gender-blind Macbeth soliloquy. (Why do the women always have to do the heavy lifting?)

There have been a lot of cable shows about aspiring actors and comics lately, but what really stands out with this one is the skillful plotting and pacing. After the "Travis Bickle meets the cast of Waiting for Guffman" concept has had some time to settle in, the writers--including Hader and sitcom laureate Alec Berg--take the old line about tragedy being repeated as farce and spin it around. The farcical tone of the first few eps has turned pretty dark by mid-season, and video director Hiro Murai (eps 5 and 6) gets a lot of the credit there. An ingenious plot twist in the closer clears the stage for a second season, though Barry's still going to have lots of 'splainin' to do in S2:E1...
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Here and Now (2018– )
9/10
"Six Feet Under" meets "Portlandia"? Intriguing new puzzler from an old master
16 April 2018
"Six Feet Under" fans should be pleased by the family resemblance. Like its acclaimed forebear, "Here and Now" is a "dark" family drama with a slowly unfolding backstory and an overlay of spooky magic realism. There are no talking cadavers this time, at least so far; Dad (Tim Robbins) is still with us at the end of the first episode, though mighty bummed out about the Trumpocalypse. (I confess that Holly Hunter's hovering, hyperactivist Mom kind of makes me miss dear old Ruth Fisher.)

In keeping with the Portlandian setting, their three adopted children are each from a different wartorn country. The older two, a Liberian-born fashion designer and a Vietnamese life coach, are saddled with conventional first-world problems (marital discord, psychosomatic illness, racial microaggressions, a corporate buyout) that even the writers seem a little bored by at times. No problem--the actors are likeable and attractive, and the quick-cut, three-card-monte editing style always shifts the focus away before too long.

The youngest adoptee, Ramón, really brings the spooky fantasy--terrifying hallucinations and some sort of psychic connection with his (Iranian-born) therapist that still hasn't been explained, if it can be; they share each other's dreams and have portentous conversations about the all-receptive "porous mind." Woke teenage daughter Kristen (not adopted) and her "gender-fluid" Muslim BF have the best storylines so far; they've both taken to wearing the hijab in public and are currently being harassed by white-supremacist mean girls (is that even a thing?). The therapist--a tortured soul if there ever was one-- his wife (fabulous Necar Zadegan) and son (that's the gender-fluid BF) also have an intense old-country backstory that's just started to be unveiled (so to speak) as the first season closes.

The explosive finale answered a few of our questions, but unfortunately the most important question--Will there be a second season?--was answered in the negative a few weeks later.
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Love (2016–2018)
9/10
A Netflix Original comedy that's actually original (and comical)
5 April 2018
If you're okay with the premise that a gorgeous Twelve Stepper like Mickey could stick it out for thirty-odd episodes with a geeky pop-culture vulture like Gus, then it's pretty much all good, especially the third season. There've been plenty of recent shows about aspiring entertainers and entry-level culture workers (Mrs. Maisel, Mr. Roosevelt, Master of None...) but Love also has plenty to say about high-risk relationships, coping with self-destructive patterns and putting away childish things, most of it relatable for anyone who's had a normally chaotic young adulthood, some of it even kind of profound.

OTOH, some of Mickey's Amy Schumer-style antics in the first season as well as the couple's continuing tiffs and squabbles may seem a bit contrived at times, but for the most part the writing's sharp and original. The workplace-comedy stuff--he's an on-set tutor for a struggling TV series, she's a talk-radio producer--and the occasional glimpses of the underparts of the LA entertainment complex (the radio shrink's book-signing debacle, the Horror House bus tour, the Van Nuys amateur wrestling scene) seem especially well observed, and the supporting cast is excellent. Special mention to Claudia Doherty as Bertie, Mickey's bemused Aussie roommate, and Iris Apatow as Arya, Gus's spoiled child-star tutee.
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The Daughter (2015)
8/10
The Necromancer of the North goes south
9 March 2018
"The Daughter" is a flawed but involving film "inspired by" Ibsen's "The Wild Duck" and set in a dying Australian lumber town. Director/adapter Simon Stone's scaled back the great Norwegian's gothic plot mechanics quite a bit, but we're still left with an irreducible core of craziness that detonates in the final scenes. The first-rate cast does its best to keep it real until then, however, and during the leisurely exposition, Stone rearranges the setting and the characters' backstories in a convincing way--Ibsen's sinister loft where Old Ekdal blazes away at birds and rabbits becomes a tidy wildlife refuge tended by Sam Neil; Hedvig's an attractive pink-haired teenager, not a pathetic captive...

Henry (Jeffrey Rush), the rich millowner whose misdeeds set the plot in motion long ago, doesn't have much left to do at this point; the main characters are his estranged son, Christian (Paul Schneider), and Oliver (Ewen Leslie), Christian's boyhood friend and the son of Henry's onetime business partner (that's Sam Neil). Stone picks up the tempo when Christian unearths a "long-buried family secret" (as the imdb blurb says) and threatens to reveal it.

Perhaps because he's concerned that Christian's motives--seemingly a mixture of envy, resentment and a yearning for a higher truth--may not play too well for us moderns, Stone makes him a relapsing alcoholic as well (which I don't think his counterpart, Gregers, is in the play). The rest of the film becomes a blur of dramatic confessions and confrontations as the impact of Christian's betrayal of his friend ripples outwards. Stone's artistic project of restaging Ibsen's heavily symbolic drama in a realistic setting pretty much collapses at this point, but the rock-'em-sock-'em dénouement still held my attention to the end. The woodsy exteriors are appropriately somber, and two of the lesser-known Aussie actors, Ewen Leslie and Odessa Young (Hedvig), are especially impressive.
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Mr. Roosevelt (2017)
8/10
Mr. Roosevelt, we hardly knew ye! Likeable DIY comedy explores the dilemma of art vs. commerce, the perils of "unmonetized" Youtube celebrity and other current issues
26 February 2018
I liked the way this film pushes back against the prevailing indie wisdom that anyone with a smidge of artistic talent just needs to follow their dreams until they catch them... The script may seem flimsy at times (maybe one too many chance meetings, even for a small college town?), but the setup's quite ingenious: UT Austin grad Emily's leading the dreary life of an aspiring sketch comic in LA when the cat she left behind with her ex gets sick.

Back in Austin, things have changed: her ex, a struggling rock guitarist, is hoping to get his real-estate license; his new S.O.'s a stylish, code-writing "entrepreneur," and the remnants of Emily's old life have been consigned to a backyard shed. At dinner with the couple and their bougie friends, Emily has a serious meltdown. Suffice it to say that it takes her a while to resolve all her issues... Richard Linklater fans will enjoy the scenes set in historic weird Austin; Daniella Pineda stands out as a kickass rock drummer/waitress.
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Can't Cope, Won't Cope (2016–2018)
9/10
Unflinching Irish series explores how a friendship dissolves in alcohol
24 February 2018
From the Netflix blurb, I was expecting something like an Irish "Broad City," but "Can't Cope"'s not your standard "edgy" sitcom by any means. It's more like a powerful indie film served up in bite-sized morsels, and as I'm sure our heroines would agree, once you've got a couple under your belt, it's hard to stop bingeing (yeah?). At 27, Aisling ("Ashling")'s already a full-fledged "alco," albeit a high-functioning one--she's a good earner at an investment firm, at least at the outset. Danielle has a bit more impulse control, but she's still spinning her wheels at art school. They spend their off hours clubbing, drinking, hooking up (but only "with clean boys with jobs," explains Aisling to a skeptical pharmacist she's hoping will dispense a morning-after pill) and something they call "dogging"--sneaking around a secluded parking spot and pranking distracted lovers.

While Danielle takes a few tentative baby steps towards real maturity, Aisling seems headed for a vodka-fueled flameout. The final episodes explore what happens to an intense but unstable friendship if, in the words of the old Irish drinking song, "it should fall unto my lot/That I should rise while you should not." Seána Kerslake ("the Scarlett Johansson of Ireland"--similar foxy features, voluptuous figure and ferocious acting chops) gives an amazing performance as Aisling; the cliffhanger season closer should give you an appetite for the next one...

Update: Season two takes it down a few notches, so it's not so much of a cautionary tale, less intense but still very entertaining. Aisling's more a slave to her cellphone now--like everyone else--than the demon drink. Danielle's trying for a fresh start at an art school in Vancouver. Trigger warning for our neighbors to the north: The one Canadian character who gets much face time is a caricature of a humorless PC prig. What's up with that?
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8/10
Maisel Tov, Rucheleh! Hit-or-miss series stumbles toward a big finish.
17 February 2018
This one reminds me of "GLOW" on Netflix, insofar as (1) it's a period piece about a woman who tries her luck in a male pop-culture preserve, and (2) the pilot really pulls you in, but the regular season's kind of a dog's breakfast. We couldn't stick with "GLOW" for long, however, but "Mrs M," despite a few dud or semidud eps, still manages to build to a triumphant closer.

Rachel Brosnahan (a shiksa, by all accounts!), in the title role, can certainly talk the talk: Miriam "Midge" Maisel is just one of several motormouth characters, a trademark of showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino since the old "Gilmore Girls" days. Alex Borstein (a GG alumna as well as the immortal Nurse Forchette on "Getting On") steals every scene she's in as Midge's no-less-fast-talking, cross-dressing manager, and Luke Kirkby makes a convincing Lenny Bruce.

The old pros who play Midge's parents and inlaws tend to lay on the Yiddishkeit a little thick--though I was delighted to hear the Mel Brooksian phrase "poopoo undies" again--and the scenes set in Midge's father-in-law's garment factory could have come straight out of a mid-century musical like "I Can Get It for You Wholesale." A minor disappointment: Tony Shalhoub (another non-traditional casting choice), as Midge's fussy-professor father, doesn't quite seem comfortable with this Monkish role.

The storyline keeps up the momentum, for the most part, though at times Midge's self-destructive antics--admittedly, she does her standup act in a kind of fugue state and sometimes drunk--seem designed to create plot complications at the expense of plausibility, and a 50s Method actress playing the part might well have asked, "So what's my motivation here?" I don't like to name names (another popular 50s pastime) but it looks like the weaker episodes were scripted by AS-P's co-producers., including husband Jay Palladino.

Otherwise it's all good. The candy-colored 50s decor and sanitized Downtown streets make an enjoyable backdrop. (In terms of Green-witch Village realness, the scenes set at the Gaslight compare favorably with Don and a different Midge's visit to a folk club on "Mad Men.") The soundtrack of pre-R&R standards seemed a bit intrusive to this non-fan; one character even complains when somebody plays the Drifters ("Kids' music!") on the jukebox. What a putz!
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9/10
"Why must I feel like that? Why must I chase the cat? Nothin' but the dog in me!" - George Clinton, "Atomic Dog"
14 January 2018
"My Golden Days" came out in 2015 as a late-breaking prequel to Desplechin's mid-90s classic "My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument," which may be the best film since "Lucky Jim" about life on the lower rungs of the academic ladder. Once again, Mathieu Amalric plays Paul Dédalus, now returning to France after a decade or so doing ethnographic fieldwork in the former Soviet Union; a farewell tryst with his gorgeous Russian girlfriend (Dinara Drukarova) unleashes a cascade of memories:

In a brief prologue, 10-year-old Paul flees his mentally unstable mother and takes refuge with his great-aunt and her Russian lover. Next, he recounts a daring high-school exploit to an urbane French spook, who wonders why he (and his passport) have doppelgangers in Australia (long story!), and in the longest, most significant episode, he relives an intense love affair with a classmate of his younger sister's, Esther, a clever, soulful, sexy, needy, neurotic young woman (she grows up to be Emmanuelle Devos in "My Sex Life"; here she's played brilliantly by Lou Roy-Lecollinet).

Trigger warning: Paul and Esther communicate in improvised love lyrics (as befits two alumni of the Lycée Baudelaire); Esther's pouty histrionics may evoke bittersweet memories of post-adolescent romance, or may just seem too precious to be endured. Your call!

This final episode starts to drag a bit as Paul soldiers on as an unfunded grad student in Paris, sleeping in hostels, couch surfing and ménage-à-trois-ing it with a congenial older couple while Esther mopes her way through "a stupid college course" and cheats on him repeatedly. Luckily, Desplechin props up his sometimes rambling storyline with ingenious staging and cinematography: When Paul first approaches Esther, he's surrounded by a windblown swirl of fallen leaves, which is echoed in the final scene as he strides into what looks like a blizzard of torn-out pages from a book (they're both "feuilles" in French, I guess; does it mean that this chapter in his life is coming to an end?); hard to put into words but it's a lovely effect.

Finally I should mention the first-rate period soundtrack: The Specials, De La Soul, "Atomic Dog" and Run-D.M.C. It's a remarkable film, though, again, a certain tolerance for post-Truffaut coming-of-age shenanigans is required.
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Sunset Song (2015)
8/10
A powerful adaptation of a classic Scottish novel, marred by a few WTF?! moments
8 December 2017
Terence Davies is a brilliant director who specializes in period pieces, dimly lit interiors and fraught family dramas, and it's great that almost all of his films are available for streaming. Unlike "A Quiet Passion," an audacious reimagining of the life of Emily Dickinson, "Sunset Song" is a pretty straightforward adaptation of a classic novel, though not without some distinctive personal touches.

Davies took some heat in the UK for casting a flawless former model (an English one at that) as a rugged Scottish farm girl, but Agyness Deyn acquits herself very well in the role of Chris Guthrie. If he does have a fault though, it's that he seems to think of plot and character as necessary evils, to be dealt with as briskly as possible so he can linger over the atmospherics--the grittiness of daily life, tense family meals and boisterous communal feasts, the beauty of "the lond" (mostly shimmering fields of wheat shot in 65 mm).

If I remember the BBC series from the 70s correctly, Chris's father, John, who dominates the first half of the film, was a more complex personality, a conscience-stricken Calvinist who can't stay away from his wife even after a nearly fatal pregnancy, like an earthier version of a Dreyer or Bergman character. Davies presents him simply as a sex-crazed ogre, which makes Peter Mullan ("Top of the Lake") the obvious casting choice.

Later on, the film's dramatic climax is handled a bit awkwardly: Chris's husband, Euan, and his friends, all neighboring farmers, are shamed by the community into joining up when war breaks out with Germany in 1914--we get to hear the minister sermonizing that "the mon they call the kaiserrr is none other than the Antichrrrist!" We aren't at all prepared for Euan's transformation from a dutiful, loving husband to a randy, foul-tempered bully when he returns for his first leave--a less godfearing replica of the unlamented John Guthrie. A flashback that tells the rest of Euan's story, narrated by one of his comrades at the front, is even harder to reconcile with what's gone before.

Having said all that, I still recommend the film. It's by no means Davies's best, but Chris's story is well told, with exceptions noted, and cinematographer Michael McDonough ("Winter's Bone") does an amazing job of realizing Davies's vision of "the power and cruelty of both family and nature."
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