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A Rowling romcom by another name?
I remember hearing awhile back that J.K. Rowling had published a couple of post-Potter detective yarns (which didn't attract much notice until the secret of their authorship was revealed), but didn't think any more about it till this fabulous series turned up on HBO, after two short seasons on Cinemax. JKR clearly hadn't lost her knack for inventing peculiar character names; "Cormoran Strike" could easily have been a martial-arts instructor at Hogwarts. Bearlike Tom Burke (he's Orson Welles in "Mank") and Holliday Grainger, a porcelain-skinned beauty who's played Dickens's Estella and Cinderella herself, certainly make a striking couple as they go sleuthing around the streets of London.

Strike and Robin's partnership, though ostensibly professional so far (S3.e3), follows the standard romcom arc: she starts out as an office temp, but she's obviously a keeper. He fires her after she makes a gutsy move that puts her life in danger, but they break up just to make up at the start of season three. Robin's stolid, disapproving husband seems like the kind of worthy also-ran the romcom heroine always manages to cut loose just before the credits roll. The two leads have great chemistry from the git-go, OTOH, and their intense, sometimes prickly relationship is the main attraction here.

Like most of our detectives nowadays, they share a history of trauma; he's an ex-MP who's lost a leg to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. She still has panic attacks and dropped out of "uni" for reasons that aren't revealed right away. The mystery plots are secondary; each series takes us to a different London subculture--the worlds of fashion, publishing, Parliament--that abounds in the sort of OTT characters that are Rowling's meat and potatoes. The supporting cast is well up to the task; Shanker (Ben Crompton, a Night Watch stalwart on GoT), an army buddy turned East End gangster who's great at kicking down doors, is an especially helpful and entertaining sidekick.

My only small complaint is that the plotting seems pretty slapdash at times; crucial intel is obtained by excusing oneself, for example, "to use the loo," then homing in on a compromising letter or photo that's been left lying around.* The direction and cinematography, OTOH, are flawless; scenes fit together seamlessly (sometimes maybe too much so; see preceding sentence), and the action never flags.

Finally, mad props to the location scouts and set dressers; almost every scene shows us some eye-catching architectural detail or striking item of décor. I read in a review, btw, that Cormoran's funky HQ, full of odd murals and wall drawings, is in a building on Denmark Street where a couple of the Sex Pistols once resided back in the day.

*Update--There's another egregious example in S3.e4; she just can't seem to break the habit. Looks like the stolid, disapproving husband's on his way out, btw. Green light, mate!

Leave No Trace

Brilliant Film + Some Great Pacific Northwest Vistas--Ideal for Urban Self-Isolators!
Debra Granik's latest isn't as plot-centered or as conventionally dramatic as her breakout hit, "Winter's Bone," but it still has real emotional impact, and the absence of flashbacks and expository dialogue really concentrates the mind. We have no idea, at first, why this tense, tight-lipped man and his teenage daughter are living in the wild (a vast old-growth forest preserve outside Portland, OR, as it turns out) and why they seem terrified of strangers, including an inmate work crew. A short scene set in a VA hospital gives us our first clue; then we see the father, Will, flogging his psych meds in a homeless encampment for grocery money.

This film's unusual because virtually all the conflict plays out inside Will's head, and he's not much for sharing. A social worker and a sympathetic farmer find them a place to live and a job for Will bundling Christmas trees. Daughter Tom's willing to "adapt," she says, even attend a 4H club meeting with the farm kid down the road, but Will's not happy living in someone else's house and wants to move their bivouac deeper into the woods.

In a way, Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini's script is as secretive and self-protective as their protagonist. All we know about Tom's mother is that she "isn't here" to watch her daughter grow up; when Tom searches through her father's sealed pouch of "important documents," we catch a glimpse of a newspaper headline--"A Unit Stalked by Suicide, Trying to Save Itself." "Was your dad in the service?," an ex-army medic asks Tom after they meet on the trail. She nods; so much for "back story"--no grainy quick-cut montage of firefights with the Taliban or Iraqi insurgents.

The pace of the film's second half is just about perfect. After an intense trek into the deep woods, Will and Tom come to rest in an encampment of laid-back RV dwellers. Tom's fascination with a hive of well behaved bees signals her longing for stability and a sense of community (or so it seemed to me) but Will's still eager to get back on the trail....

The two leads are totally convincing. Ben Foster's spooky intensity seems just right for Will. Thomasin McKenzie's especially good at conveying Tom's fascination, after years of living like a hunted animal (or an Army Ranger), with the perks of the sedentary life, not so much the creature comforts as the comfort of the creatures--the bees and the 4H kids' big floofy rabbits. The rest of the cast doesn't get much screen time, but it's nice to see Dale Dickey, the scary matriarch who roughs up Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone," in a benign, non-threatening role, and fans of 70s "freak folk" stalwart Michael Hurley should be glad to hear from him again.

One more thing: After producing such a tight, suspenseful screenplay, Granik and Rosellini have surely earned the right to some occult seahorse imagery-apart from "seahorse" being a codeword for PTSD (the Latin word for seahorse is "hippocampus," which is the region of the brain that gets burnt out by stress; see "Trivia" above), the little guys are renowned for their intense pair bonding (according to a book Tom's reading when she's spotted by a park ranger) as well as, I'm guessing, for the males' uncommon devotion to their offspring...

East of Everything

"You didn't love her, mate. Women don't like that!"
An unexpected treat for "Rake" fans (unexpected by me at least). In this 12-ep Aussie series from back in the day (2008-09), Richard Roxburgh plays Art Watkins, a restless travel writer whose quest for serenity in Bhutan is interrupted by his mother's death and an inconvenient bequest--a half-interest in a derelict backpackers' hostel in the hometown he fled twenty years ago. A quirky codicil in Mum's will ("She's really making her absence felt!") keeps him in town indefinitely to "sort out some family stuff," including coming to terms with everyone he's hurt or disappointed in his previous life, e.g. his rivalrous brother, resentful wife and son, and mixed-signals-sending ex-fiancée.

The setting (beachy, semitropical) and the secondary characters (surfers, scroungers, bikini babes and real-estate sharks) reminded me a bit of a Carl Hiaasen novel, though the trio of silent, unsmiling Native matriarchs called "the Aunties," who appear to be the town's secret rulers, provide a fair dinkum Aussie touch. S1 has a sketchy "story arc" (real estate sharks try to have their way with the land-rich, cash-poor locals); S2 just bounces along, quite entertainingly for the most part, though our minds tended to wander when RR was offscreen for too long. Art doesn't have his first drunken meltdown until well into S2, by which time his transformation into Cleaver Greene is well underway. Now all he needs, we thought, is a change of venue (maybe somewhere more populous and farther south?), a law license and a fresh team of writers....

His Dark Materials

Witches and dæmons and bears--oh, my!
Pullman fans should be fine with this adaptation of his monumental fantasy epic, and newbies, hopefully, won't get confused and wander off. The specifics of his contrarian cosmography are explained pretty painlessly, without too much expository dialogue, and the CGI embodiments of the daemons and bears and other particulars of PP's steampunk world are easily as convincing as they need to be, at least as far as this credulous adult's concerned.

I still miss Nicole Kidman's drop-dead gorgeousness and Jim Carter's natty dreadlocks from the film of The Golden Compass, and some might argue that Daniel Craig seems more like a heaven-storming rebel than James McAvoy, but Lord Asriel's also a geeky cosmologist, so that's all right then. It may be noteworthy that the film cast Sam Elliott, who played the cowboy narrator in Lebowski, as the balloonist Lee Scoresby, which is fine but a bit on the nose. It's also fine that this time he's played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, because who among us can say what a "New Dane from Texas" with a jackrabbit sidekick would look and talk like?

To their credit, the showrunners of the series aren't as hinky as the producers of the film seem to have been about portraying the baddies, the Magisterium, as agents of a malignant outgrowth of orthodox Christianity (that took shape, you may recall, on the election of Pope John Calvin--so good and evil, but mostly evil, accd'g to Pullman, on both sides).

A fair amount of material from Book Two is folded into the first season, which should set us up for Will and Lyra's fateful meeting at the beginning of season two. While rereading Book One, I came across a couple of ingenious plot points that had fallen by the wayside--e.g., one of the scams that Lyra works on the bear-king to keep him from lighting up her beloved Iorek Byrnison--but that kind of shrinkage seems inevitable with a project of this scope. I'm left wondering how some of the more abstruse stretches of Book Two or Three could be brought to the small screen when PP's metaphysical objectives drift away from the straight-ahead fantasy-quest plotline of The Golden Compass, but so far it's all good.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

One of my mother's old library books comes back to haunt us
Ma was a serious Shirley Jackson fan, and I remember trying to read this one when I was a kid, but I was still into Dr. Doolittle and the Hardy Boys at the time, and this gothic tale about two reclusive sisters living in a fortresslike mansion with their dotty uncle was a bit above my pay grade. One thing that stayed with me was this taunting nursery rhyme, which is all we get as a backstory for a while: "Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me."

Stacie Passon's film adaptation of Jackson's novel is brilliant, visually and dramatically. I don't know whether the decision to film on the east coast of Ireland was esthetic or economic, but the acid greens and phosphorescent yellows of the rain-soaked woods furnish the perfect backdrop for Merricat's obsessive rituals, burying coins and magic charms while chanting protective spells. Taissa Farmiga, now in her mid-twenties, gives a fine spooky performance as the elflike teenage Merricat, and bodacious Alexandra Daddario gets to stretch a bit more than she did in "Baywatch," I'm guessing, as elder sister Connie, who floats dreamily through a fantasy of gracious country living, baking pies in the kitchen and pottering in the garden. Connie can only venture a few steps from their door--for reasons we can only guess at initially--so Merricat makes a weekly trip to town, enduring the taunts and threats of the locals (at least one of whom seems to have a valid grievance).

Jackson's novel is, essentially, a tale told by a psychopath. It's also a tale of WASPy repression, since the decisive events in the sisters' lives are something they never speak of--Merricat ties up the loose ends for us in voiceover as she writes in her journal. Fans of the genre won't be surprised when a disrupter turns up, a smarmy cousin who tempts Connie with fantasies of an Italian honeymoon. The psychic bond between the sisters is threatened, and for the second time in their lives, one of them (no spoilers here!) is required to step up and take care of business.

"Castle" seems close to a perfect film, though limited by the conventions of the gothic genre. The sisters' emotional responses are overdetermined by the usual murky "family secrets," and the climax reveals how, as in Jackson's canonical story "The Lottery," they've been made scapegoats for the suppressed violent impulses of an entire community. It's interesting to compare this one (favorably) with a showoffy formal exercise like "Stoker," which also owes a lot to Jackson's novel, but where color coding the sets and costumes seems to have been more of a priority than developing the relationships among the characters.

The Kominsky Method

To Live and Die in Beverly Hills? Two old pros hoist a Netflix buddy comedy
Elevator pitch: "Okay, it's 'Barry,' except there's no Barry, no Fuches, no Chechens, just the coach, the class and the kids. For the coach, maybe somebody older than Winkler, a silver fox type like Michael Douglas... relatable but still comes off a little sketchy. There's a sidekick, maybe his agent, kind of an alte kaker (irascible senior citizen) type, I'm thinking maybe Alan Arkin...."

So far, so good. We were leery of this one at first, still scarred by that smug, lazy-ass Netflix series with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin a few years back. This time though the scripts--credited to two sitcom vets (one a genuine boomer, Chuck Lorre) and a former head writer of "The Daily Show"--are sharp and funny; Arkin's kvetchy harangues on later-life themes (aging, illness, death, bereavement...) are quite enjoyable, especially if you're already in the demo.

The two headliners seem a little ill at ease with each other at first, which struck me as odd, but they slide into a steady groove pretty quickly. Nancy Travis, as Kominsky's on-and-off GF, is the real star of the show; she bats back those one-liners like a regulah Barbara Stanwyck. You also get lots of of cameos by stars of yesteryear--from Ann Margret to Eddie Money--plus Paul Reiser in a bald cap, and the acting students are the usual diverse bunch of cuties, though not as strongly characterized as the kids on "Barry," I have to admit. All in all, it's an entertaining series, very bingeable.

Alias Grace

"The Upstairs Maid's Tale"? A powerful adaptation of a lesser-known Atwood novel
When she was 17, Canadian actress Sarah Polley--flush with Disney $$, I'm guessing, from a long-running TV series--tried to option the film rights to Margaret Atwood's "Alias Grace." Atwood thought Polley was too young to pull it off, but twenty or so years later, pull it off she did, and brilliantly too, IMHO.

Grace is a complex and fascinating character. She reminds me a little of Daniel Holden on "Rectify"--they're both convicted killers who, though a lot may depend on it, can't remember much about the crime that's earned them a life sentence. Twenty years with no one's company but their own have left them both with a sly, ironic sense of humor and a stance of stoical detachment that doesn't seem entirely human.

Sarah Gadon does an amazing job as Grace. Atwood and Polley, who share writing credit, have given her a lyrical turn of phrase that's neither archaic nor anachronistic; in the climactic scene, when she drops her gentle Irish lilt for a flat Tuh-ronnah accent, it comes as a terrible jolt (also for reasons I'm not at liberty to disclose). Rebecca Liddiard makes a strong impression as Mary, Grace's first real friend in Canada, the sort of young woman who might be described as "free and easy in her ways" in an old murder ballad. She doesn't get much screen time, but her character comes back to haunt us in the intense series closer.

Gadon has a great on-screen rapport with Edward Holcroft, who plays Dr. Jordan, the alienist ("I treat diseases of the mind, not the body") who's been summoned from the U.S. to evaluate Grace as a candidate for a pardon. Their calm, affable conversations in the warden's overstuffed parlor frame a series of flashbacks to Grace's pre-prison history, a motherless immigrant's life marred by cruelty, injustice, bereavement and disappointment.

It was news to me that Atwood belongs to the "Southern Ontario Gothic" school of fiction (along with Robertson Davies and Nobel Lit prizewinner Alice Munro), but she displays some serious gothic tendencies when it comes time for Grace to cop to the double murder that she--at the very least--must have witnessed. The reformers committee that sponsors Dr. Jordan is getting fidgety. They assemble in the warden's parlor with a smartly dressed "neurohypnotist" in tow, whom we recognize as Jeremiah, a handsome peddler we've seen in earlier eps who's given himself a promotion. The doctor agrees to let his résumé-padding "colleague" put Grace into a trance.

I'm still not entirely sure of what to make of this final episode. The sedate, Dickensian pace of the story so far gets a bit frantic, then all hell breaks loose. Next we're confronted with a spooky plot twist reminiscent of "Beloved," if not the signature scenes of the "The Exorcist." Atwood clearly sees a porous border between Celtic superstition--Grace's belief that her dying friend's soul may have entered her own body--and 19th century pseudoscience.

One of the ladies on the committee is a spiritualist; the chairman is a clergyman played by cult director David Cronenberg (with fluttery side-whiskers, a nice touch!), which certainly must mean something... We've already been tipped off that things are not as they should be when the doctor starts to have fantasies and erotic dreams about Grace--which makes it easier for his randy landlady to straddle him, succubus style. (I would've thought this was a misogynist "trope," as they say, but Atwood's always full of surprises.)

Atwood and Polley throw a few more sharp-edged themes into the mix--sexual exploitation (masters, doctors and others "taking liberties" with servant girls) and social inequality. There are several mentions of "the rebellion," an uprising of poor farmers in Upper Canada (Ontario) that was crushed in a couple of days; Grace's friend Mary was left a homeless orphan by the brutal repression that followed, and several of the lecherous, unsavory characters that Grace meets up with later fought with the government troop, or so she imagines.

This all may sound grim and depressing, which it is--a bit--but it's also intense and involving, and despite the late-breaking detour into magic realism, it seems truthful to the reality of many of our ancestors' lives. Catch it while it's still available on Netflix!


Promising UK cringe comedy jumps the kipper in the second season
Elevator pitch: Depressed Edward Gorey character, his needy, neglected wife (Olivia Colman!) and their two failed-to-launch adult children live in a remote woodsy area, amidst no-less-peculiar neighbors. You'll recall that Will Sharpe's Sherlock certainly seemed to be bipolar, with touches of OCD and Tourette's. Here we have all that and more, including maybe schizophrenia and being congenitally "so rude that you're doomed to die a virgin," as one of the younger Flowerses says to her brother. The one attractive, normal-seeming character, who's being pursued by both of them, is really just the best at keeping her issues hidden; she gets written out of the show pretty quickly.

The start-and-stop plot is propelled along by several stunted artistic projects--the latest of Mr Flowers's Snickety children's books ("The Grubbs," disdained by his humorless publishers), Mrs Flowers's tell-all memoir ("Living with the Devil," no offense meant, I'm sure) and daughter Amy's chamber cantata about the Flowers family curse (it's complicated...). Sharpe himself steals the show as Shun, Mr. F's live-in illustrator and body man; he does some great freestylin' à la Robin Williams in the first season, but his shtick gets old far too soon. (He's half-Japanese, btw, so only the English half's taking work away from an equally qualified Asian actor.)

The Flowers ménage takes some getting used to at first, but we found the rest of the season quite entertaining, occasionally poignant (most notably, Shun's monologue about the events that brought him to England from Japan). Season two gets off to a decent start, but we started having doubts pretty quickly; for one thing, Sharpe the comedy writer doesn't give himself and his colleagues much to work with.

I've read that "Flowers" was influenced by Japanese TV comedy, in which, from what little I've seen, improv and mimicry of out-of-control behavior are more highly prized than they are over here (by us at any rate). By S2e3 we were feeling like one of those much-missed Netflix reviewers who so often wanted the last half-hour of their lives back...

A Very English Scandal

From the Oscar Wilde era to the age of Sir Elton John
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.


"Not gallows humor, but lethal-injection humor--more humane, but less funny."
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.

The Darling Buds of May

Quoth the taxman: "He never could recapture that first fine careless rapture..."
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.

After Life

Ricky Gervais explores cringe comedy's final frontier
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.

Sex Education

Can talk the talk, hasn't had a chance to walk the walk...
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.

A Place to Call Home

My not-so-great pitch for a truly great show: "It's 'Giant,' only with sheep instead of cattle!"
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.

Line of Duty

The smartest, most suspenseful, most involving series we've seen in donkey's years
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).

Damsels in Distress

No room for Depressed Debbies in this enchanted realm....
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 primary 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 recommended. 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").

Certain Women

Newcomer Lily Gladstone steals the show from her A-list castmates in this indie trilogy
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.

Killing Eve

"The thunder of empowered women..." -- publicity release for Killing Eve
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.


Turn on the CC and tune in a great new Strayan series...
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...

The Sinner

More spooky suspense from Jennifer Biel & co.
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.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

"How does a film so empty of emotional intelligence... sweep the board on prizes?" -- Tim Parks in The New Yorker
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...

The Affair

Anyone still on board with "The Affair" on Showtime?
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.


"I tried to play with you, but you broke."
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 of 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...

Patrick Melrose

"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
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.


"I'm telling you this because you're a super nice guy, Bahriy!"
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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