River – New Original TV Series on Netflix

While Mr. Donald Trump arrived in Sarasota yesterday, I gave him a pass. Actually doing things like getting the car washed and having a haircut seemed infinitely more important to me. Plus I had the three remaining episodes of the Netflix-BBC TV drama called River to watch.

River is the name of the series which runs for six one hour episodes and you can view it on Netflix now. DI John Rivers is also the name of the senior detective working for the London Metropolitan Police. There’s not a single mention or even a hint of Scotland Yard in this one.  In fact this London is the new London, all steel and glass skyscrapers. Even the famous London Underground trains have been updated – you won’t hear ‘Mind the Gap’ even once.

River’s forte is homicide, and early on we watch as his Detective partner Jackie ‘Stevie’ Stevenson is gunned down in the streets.

Now Rivers may be a brilliant detective, but he has a certain quirk to him. Watch this brief (41 seconds) trailer and you’ll learn what it is:

River is played by Stellan Skarsgård who you will recall played the mad killer, Martin Vanger, in David Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo released just before Christmas back in 2011. Here, we have Skarsgård as yet another brilliant detective only, to an outsider, he seems to be talking to himself, or arguing with an invisible person.

River is visited on a regular basis by either victims of some cases he worked, his former partner Stevie, and even a historical serial killer from the late 19th century called Thomas Neal Cream.  Cream functions as both a Greek Chorus, and someone who is always pushing and prodding Detective River.

As Cream tell us – You can tell the measure of a country by how it treats its insane people rather than the sane ones. He tells River that he will always be with River, helping him in perpetuity to get a feel for hell.

While Detective Stevenson, (played marvelously by Nicola Walker above) was shot dead in the street less than three weeks ago, she appears with regularity in this mini-series. She’s there to goad and push River. She’ll pop up in the most unexpected and often inopportune times. River has no control over it.

Behind his back, he’s called the office loon – and why not. He’ll be seen gesticulating, waving his arms, or punching a wall, and even heard arguing vociferously only to the rest of us, there’s no one else in the picture besides River.

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Happy Thanksgiving 2015 – Every Picture Tells A Story

Thanksgiving gets a lot of people out of the house. According to the travel organization AAA and Homeland Security, nearly 47 million of our countrymen will take to planes, trains, and automobiles for a journey of 50 miles or more for this long Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

vlcsnap-00018Count me out. I’m staying at home. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles has become a Thanksgiving must see film, and it was on tonight on the SyFY channel. I watched it as I usually do, and it is still funny. This film came out in 1987, nearly 30 years ago, and now, it is as ubiquitous on Thanksgiving as turkey, stuffing, and cranberries.

The news has been exceedingly depressing lately, and what with many of TV’s best shows having concluded their fall seasons, pickings on TV will come down to sporting events, or reruns.

But there are antidotes for many of the depressing events in the news, or the growing noise coming from our Presidential candidates. With each day, the Mouth That Roared (Mr. Trump) grows increasingly more shrill. Mr. Trump has decided to play the hate card again and again, which in one sense plays to people’s fears, and in another sense, his words have marginalized many in this country thereby pushing them in another direction. Mr. Sanders continues to wallop us again and again. Ben Carson seems to back pedal just as fast as anyone in recent memory. Mrs. Clinton has the experience and the know how, but is she trustworthy? It really is too much.

But there is one thing that I do on Thanksgiving to get away from all of the above. I trot out some art that appeals to me, and call it my Happy Thanksgiving gift to my readers.

Back in 1971, British rock and roll musician Rod Stewart and Ron Wood wrote a song called Every Picture Tells A Story. While this song has nothing to do with art lyrically, and has been called rude, racist, and sexist it does begin with a reference to self-discovery. And what could be a better message on this Thanksgiving holiday than to state that while the answers to the world’s ills will not be solved by self discovery, many of the issues that live within us surely could use some looking at.

Every Picture Tells a Story is the title of this post. I’ve been writing about art every Thanksgiving since 2009, and am proud to do so once again.

By The Fjord

By The Fjord

We will start with Norwegian artist Hans Dahl. Now  Mr. Dahl died in 1937 – almost 80 years ago.

Andreas Admiring the View

Andreas Admiring the View

There was a period in his life (in the 1890’s) when his work came in for considerable criticism. Painting and the world of art was turning away from Romanticism and heading for Modernist themes.

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Masaan

A young couple decide to defy custom and tradition. They decide to check into a hotel and take their relationship to the next level. We know only that they work at the same company. The check-in goes smoothly.

So they retire to the room upstairs. But they’ve picked the wrong hotel. The desk clerk is in cahoots with the local police constabulary. He notifies the police and within a half hour, the police raid the hotel room. They burst in and charge the couple with ‘indecent behavior’.

Apparently an old law, and only selectively enforced. But maybe the ‘crime’ isn’t just about an unmarried couple occupying a hotel room. Briefly we saw the girl Devi, change her attire from a kameez and salwaar combo to a sari. Possibly the man and the woman come from different communities meaning different faiths. As I said, an old law.

The man is so nervous and upset that he asks the police if he may go to the bathroom. When he hasn’t come out promptly, the police go in looking for him. He’s on the floor, having slashed his wrists. So while the man is taken away in an ambulance, the police take the woman to the police station and now charge her with not only indecent behavior, but also abetting a suicide.

Her father is called to come down to the police station. It is a very uncomfortable situation between father and daughter, and it will get worse on the next day. The boy has died and now the police who videoed the interview in the hotel room with the girl is now threatening to upload the video to YouTube, if an exorbitant amount of cash is not paid to the police.

The policeman demands payment in three installments. The amount is considerable. The father has no choice. It is a matter of public dishonor or paying up.

The time is the present. The place is Varanasi (Benares) in Uttar Pradesh, India. The film is called Masaan. and what I have described above is the opening of the film, but only one of the interwoven stories.

The second story is about another couple. He is a college student studying engineering. She is an arts student with a major in poetry. She is an upper caste woman. He is of a low-caste, in fact, he’s a member of the caste whose work is to operate the burning ghats where the dead are burned on the banks of the Ganges.

Masaan means ‘cremation’, and as he (Deepak) describes it – it is has been his father’s whole life, managing a small number of burning ghats, and his father’s father before him.

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Spotlight

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When you’re a poor kid, from a poor family, and a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal. How do you say no to God?

It was a shocking story that cried out to be heard. Only for years, no one who  wanted to write it would choose to take on the establishment, which in this case was the Archdiocese of Boston. And no one wanted to talk about it – not the victims, not the attorneys, and certainly not the Church.

But the story would not and could not remain in the shadows for ever. The Boston Globe would win a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 in investigative reporting for their work on uncovering (and bringing to light) decades of sexual abuse of children by Boston priests, and the systemic and institutional maneuverings by the Archdiocese which resulted in the Church shielding at least 70 priests.

This film, Spotlight, tells the story of the Spotlight group, a team of three reporters, and their editor at the Boston Globe  and how they brought this story public. It was much farther reaching then they thought when they began. As Walter “Robby”  Robinson, the Spotlight team editor, played by Michael Keaton, would say –

We’ve got two stories here, the story about a bunch of degenerate priests, and the story about a bunch of lawyers turning child abuse into a cottage industry.

Everything was stacked against them.

The readership of the Globe was 53% Catholic, and between the Irish and the Italians, who made up nearly a quarter of Boston’s population, they were in reality, an audience not ready for the story. In fact all of the Spotlight team were either lapsed Catholics, or had left the Church, hoping to return someday.

Reporter Mike Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo, had developed a source – a former priest who for the last 30 years had worked in clinical psychiatry studying what made these priests not only break their vows of celibacy, but also go down the even darker road of sexual abusing children.

By his figures, based on 30 years of research, this Sipes told Rezendes that he figured that roughly six percent of all priests fit into that category, those who act out sexually.. Now Boston had approximately 1500 priests – so six percent of that figure would be 90.

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Agent-X

TNT rolled out a new series this past Sunday night. They call it Agent-X, and they’ve slotted it directly against The Good Wife and Homeland in the 9:00 PM slot. Not a good sign for media buyers.

I mean if I had advertising dollars to spend, and I had to considered ratings as the primary justification, then why would I be spending money against the likes of not one but two award-winning and long-running TV series? Right, there’s an answer somewhere, but it is a bit murky to explain.

Agent-X headlines Sharon Stone as the Vice President of the United States, Jeff Hephner from Kelsey Grammer’s Boss, and NBC’s Chicago Fire as John Case – a poor man’s James Bond sans 00 status and much more of a working-man undercover agent, than Bond’s sophisticated Brit.

Stone has just been sworn in as the country’s VP and she’s been given the key to what is called the Vice-Presidential Mansion. Chief Justice Caleb Thomas who swore her in was played James Earl Jones. As VP, we soon learn that Stone has some specialized duties as spelled out in an heretofore unknown section of the US Constitution.

She has special powers to invoke, in short, she may take any and all steps necessary to protect the Constitution (and the country) against any enemies (both foreign and domestic) that would seek to do harm. She has off the books powers and no one, including the President himself may ever be told anything (to ensure plausible deniability, of course).

Running these black ops from the operational end is Gerald McRaney (who was recently brilliant as Raymond Tusk in Season Two of House of Cards) as Malcolm Millar, ostensibly the Chief Steward (Butler) to the VP but in actuality, he’s the Assistant to the Vice President, as well as being the Man Behind the Curtain, or the ‘M’ of Agent X.

John Shea plays President Eckhardt, and Jamey Sheridan plays Stanton – the FBI Director.

TNT gave us both the Pilot (S1 Ep 1) and The Enemy of My Enemy (S2 Ep 2) on opening night. So Stone’s Maccabee is quickly in play with the cloak and dagger stuff. And you thought the Vice President was a mere figure-head.

The meat and potatoes of the Pilot is that FBI Director Stanton’s daughter, a college student at Georgetown, has been kidnapped. The kidnappers are willing to release this daughter only if a certain spy – Olga Petrovka is released – a standard exchange. Only Petrovka is a nasty customer. She’s played by Olga Fonda. Petrovka can easily be labeled as a terrorist herself, and John Case had his hands full in capturing her.

In Episode 2, Enemy of My Enemy, an old foe of John Case, one Malik Ahmad steals a truckload of intermediary-range missiles from a convoy somewhere in Chechnya. This Malik is connected to a Russian mobster called Volkov, who will fronting the sale of these missiles to the highest bidder. So because Olga is a paramour of Volkov, Case and Olga have to team up to take down the missile sale and destroy the missiles.

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The Martian

Want to get away from it all?

Your dream destination is…

The Habitat – sleeps six, isolated, panoramic vistas, needs some work. Away from everything. Lengthy wait to book and arrange transportation. Comes with a vehicle called The Rover at destination. Limited services available, and no on-site support staff at all. Key words – Bring your own!

Doesn’t sound too promising does it? Astronaut/botanist Mark Watney was part of a team of six (The Ares Mission) that visited this place. A sudden and unexpected storm whipped up, and Mark was hit by some flying debris. Not only did his fellow adventurers lose sight of him, but he lost his communications power. Not quite like a cell phone needing a charge – more like he was knocked off the grid.

As the storm heightened, his mates had no choice. They had to saddle up and get out of ‘Dodge’ ultra quick. In about the same amount of time it took Han Solo to say – Take us to hyper-space Chewie, in a flash of powerful thrusters, they were gone.

So begins, Ridley Scott’s The Martian. The guy left behind, was thought to be dead. Only he wasn’t.

What he was – was stranded on the Planet Mars. Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon in a bravura performance. Speaking of bravura, let’s also toss a similar bouquet at Sir Ridley. This is easily his best effort in years.

Like most of you, I don’t get that many opportunities to explore our solar system. The furthest away from terra firma that I get is the cruising altitude of what ever commercial jet-liner I’ve chosen to book passage with. For me, I can go half way around the world in a day and then call it a day while retiring to a sweet hotel with room service, hot and cold running water, and maid service. Plus a concierge downstairs to help me if necessary.

For Mark Watney, his help is only 140,000,000 miles away.

So there’s your set up. Tom Hanks was the Castaway on a small island in the Pacific Ocean. There might be a passing steamship, fishing trawler, or even a super-tanker on the horizon, but they’d have no idea about him, and wouldn’t be looking for him anyway. Or there could be a flight high above that might spot his smoke signals or make shift driftwood signage that read HELP! from 39,000 feet above him. But Watney could not expect to be discovered in a similar fashion. To say he was off the beaten path would be a misstatement of epic proportions.

He was in a sense up shit’s creek without a paddle. But a paddle wouldn’t have helped him anyway. As there was no water. He’d have to make water. But instead of a paddle he had solar panels. Which could be used to generate power. So he’d be able to cook via his microwave. Only he had just a limited supply of the remaining food. After all, this always was a bring your own.

But he was a botanist which in theory meant they he’d have a better idea than most about growing some stuff. And he have to get on that right away. He did the inventory of food stuffs (which were not quite k-rations – but more like prepared food stuffs in packages. And there were just so many remaining packages. Applying math in the form of rationing out his supply he could stretch it so far but likely not far enough.

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The Intern

If you are looking for a few comps for The Intern, begin by making a u-turn at Horrible Bosses. Drive right on by Nine to Five. When you get to The Devil Wears Prada, turn it inside out and find a parallel road, and you’d be in heading in the right direction. Lastly, forget Manhattan, and move the whole film to Brooklyn.

In the Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway played the  newbie (Andy Sachs) hired to be the personal assistant to the dictatorial doyenne of fashion Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep). Here, Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, the head of an internet start-up (About the Fit, a firm that sells clothing) that has exceeded beyond all hopes and expectations. Started by Ostin in her kitchen, within 18 months, the firm has now has 220 employees.

As part of an outreach program, About the Fit has agreed to participate in a program that hires seniors as interns. Enter Mr. Robert De Niro as Ben Whittaker, a very fit 70-year-old widower. Ben has been a successful corporate mid-level executive in the phone book industry, has lived and worked in Brooklyn his whole life, and at the moment he’s not in need of a job – rather he’d like to do something fulfilling. As he tells us – he’s tried everything from pottery to painting, from yoga to planting, and he’s even taken courses in cooking as well as to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese.

Now if he can just get past the first hurdle. About the Fit doesn’t want a cover letter and a resume. They want a cover video. Ben will have to call his grandson in San Diego to get an idea of what it means to upload a video. At first glance, you just know he will get the job.

Meanwhile, let’s cut back to Hathaway’s Jules Ostin. She’s not the boss from hell. Rather she’s a can-do, roll-up-your-sleeves and pitch in kind of boss. We watch in awe as she’s even down in the trenches of customer service manning the phones with aplomb, smarts, and most importantly – empathy.

She’s gorgeous, rides a bike in the office to get from department to department, is often late, has a husband, an adorable 3-year-old daughter, a beautiful brownstone home in Park Slope, and is heading up a company that has shown off-the-charts success.

While Ostin does her thing, Ben Whittaker is some how assigned to be her personal assistant. Though Ben says all the right things, has a winning attitude, and fits in almost immediately with the twenty and thirty somethings that populate the office, there’s an adjustment period between he and Ostin.

But, as you can not only see it coming, it all works out. He’s soon more than just the senior intern/personal assistant. He’s the mentor to Ostin’s mentee, he drives her to where she needs to be, he offers sage advice, he’s a majordomo, an aide-de-camp, and almost Ostin’s right hand.

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Spectre

1964 Goldfinger – Bond is tied down on a table and facing being cleaved into two halves by a powerful laser beam under the control of Auric Goldfinger. In short, Bond is about to become a bit of crispy toast.

James Bond: Do you expect me to talk?
Auric Goldfinger: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!

2015 Spectre

Oberhauser: Why did you come?
James Bond: I came here to kill you.
Oberhauser: And I thought you came here to die.
James Bond: Well, it’s all a matter of perspective.

That the story folks. In 24 Bond films spanning the years from 1962 when Ursula Andress stepped out of the sea onto a Jamaican beach in the first Bond film called Dr. No, until the present – Spectre opened today – all the Bond films stick to a tried and true formula. Give them action, an ultra-cool hero, unique villains, plenty of beautiful women, fast cars, guns, a few rather clever quotes, and an occasionally memorable song plus a few gadgets, and you may expect to sell lot of tickets.

While the formula has been box-office tested and proven over the years, it is true that some Bond films have not been classics. Clearly some are better than others. Some even are rated no better than mediocre. We may get new actors as Bond, new villains, new M’s, Q’s, Moneypenny’s, as well as new directors. But if they stick to the formula, the audience can feel that they will be entertained.

In the case of Spectre, aside from the feeling you will have, that all of this film seems so very familiar, you can find plenty to praise. I loved the music, the locations of Mexico City, Rome, Tangiers, the Austrian Alps, and London all had either enough of the exotic to interest viewers, or they had the requisite roads for a thrilling car chase.

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Lea Seydoux fills the bill as latest memorable Bond Girl. Ralph Fiennes as M was also excellent. Then there’s Daniel Craig. If I’m asked to rate my favorite Bonds, it is a toss-up between Connery and Craig for the top spot. Craig has the muscles, the intensity, and the sophistication to carry off Bond the way you like Bond.

But Spectre is not going to go down as a top flight Bond film. Half of the blame lies with the script which was both scattershot and not quite free of plot holes. The other half of the blame must be laid to rest on Christoph Walz as the latest villain.

He’s not particularly scary. His game plan or maybe I should call it ‘his scheme’ lacks impact. In fact most of it depends on the sub-villain rather than Walz’s Oberhauser. Oberhauser came off as a creep who was most interested in torturing Bond instead of anything else.

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