The Crown— review and commentary

Which is which?

Netflix has some amazing original content, and one of its best efforts thus far has been The Crown, a somewhat fictional series based on the reign of Elizabeth II. Written and produced by Peter Morgan, this series begins while Elizabeth is still a youngster, but when her father takes over for his brother (who abdicated the throne so he could be with his “commoner/divorcé” lover) Elizabeth becomes the heir to the throne. From that time period, her father grooms her to serve the people and the royal family, a/k/a The Crown. Seasons 1 and 2 feature Claire Foy as Elizabeth, and former “Dr. Who” Matt Smith is Prince Philip. Perhaps the best performance in this award winning season goes to John Lithgow as an aging Winston Churchill, who guides and yet admires the young monarch as she works to live up to the responsibility thrust upon her when her father dies at a fairly young age.

The Crown does a fantastic job of intertwining history and some suppostion, thus educating a new generation about some of the most important (or at least entertaining) events in United Kingdom in the past few decades. Each season spans several years, so the cast changes in order to better show the aging of the characters. For instance, while Claire Foy is Elizabeth in the first two seasons, the queen is portrayed by Olivia Coleman in seasons three and four. The latter dropped onto Netflix November 15, and Coleman does a really good job as the middle aged sovereign, as does Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. Another season four cast addition is Emma Corrin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to young Princess Diana. The series has been mostly been praised, but season four is a bit more controversial. Since this season portrays the “fairy tale romance” between Prince Charles and Diana, then quickly lays out the conflicted marital mess that ensued, because apparently Charles didn’t love Diana at all, but maintained his relationship with his former lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles, during most of the marriage, some viewers (and those close to the real people) have been a bit riled.

Of course, Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated then divorced, but younger fans apparently didn’t realize the “why” in the divorce until The Crown brought this back in a big way on the small screen. Recently, the social media accounts of Prince Charles and (now wife) Camilla have been inundated with snarky posts. Furthermore, officials in the U.K. have asked producers of The Crown to assure the public that the show is fictional.

History only works after the fact. Peter Morgan (series creator and chief writer) benefits from the many publications about the British royals, and is able to pick and choose what he presents to the audience in The Crown. Mostly the characterizations and storylines seem spot on, but those close to the royal family point to discrepancies, and no doubt some “fiction” does come in. Regardless of these points, The Crown has extraordinarily high production values. The cast is first rate, the scripts mostly entertaining; and the sets, costumes, and locations all contribute to the feeling of being an eyewitness to history. If you haven’t seen it yet, this series is one of the very best shows on Netflix.

Home Before Dark—television for October or any time you want a mystery

After buying a new iPad, I got a freebie subscription to AppleTV and we’ve watched a couple of good things. However, my husband and I were both surprised by the appeal of “Home Before Dark,” which has a description that sounds a lot like Harriet the Spy blended with a modern gothic mystery. The first episode shows promise, but by the third, we were in “gotta see more” mode. Series television shows often have difficulty maintaining suspense, but this one does a darned good job of it.

Basically, the story follows an investigative reporter in New York, who has lost his job, and moves his family back to his hometown (and home) because his dad has had to move to a facility due to illness. As the family is in some financial distress, they have come to this small town because the house is free. The wife is a former public defender, and the couple has three daughters. The middle daughter has always wanted to be just like her dad, and she likes to carry a notebook and ask a lot of pointed questions. Before long, this daughter has found a cold case that dates back to her dad’s childhood, solved at the time by convicting a scapegoat whom the child comes to believe as innocent, and she emulates her dad by asking lots and lots of questions.

While I don’t want to spoil the story for potential viewers, suffice it to say that dad and mom get drawn into the investigation, while the older and younger daughters suffer the consequences of the backlash which comes from the townspeople, who don’t welcome the revival of interest in the case, which gets hotter with each episode.

Home Before Dark isn’t a show for kids, although older ones might enjoy the story, despite the nine year old point of view character. The script, the acting, and the setting are all top drawer, so ignore the “kiddy show” description, and enjoy a very good mystery leading up to Halloween!

The Night Manager (television series)—a brief review and commentary

managerOften, the best stories begin as, well, stories. Before The Wizard of Oz was a groundbreaking film, it was a book by L. Frank Baum. Before 2001 A Space Odyssey was an influential science fiction film, it was a book by Arthur C. Clarke. Television series have also been book based, including such diverse stories as Little House on the Prairie, based on a series of books by Laura Ingles Wilder, and Game of Thrones, which was based on a series of books by George R. R. Martin. There are literally dozens of others, but I’m going to discuss one that you might have missed: The Night Manager, based on a book by John Le Carré. A friend recommended this six part series, and we usually enjoy the same sorts of stories.

The Night Manager is currently on a streaming service offered by a large online reseller, the one that starts with an A. Originally, however, the series was made for British television and shown in the states on AMC. As I don’t subscribe to cable, I missed it there, but my hubby and I saw this winner of three Golden Globe awards recently. The plot, although updated a bit from the 1993 novel, is intricate enough to puzzle, but not nearly as confusing as modern teleplays tend to be. The direction is subtle but sure. The acting is simply outstanding, with a star cast including Hugh Laurie (who starred eight seasons in House M. D.) and Olivia Coleman (who dons The Crown in seasons 3 and 4 over on Netflix.) The main character is brought to life by Tom Hiddleston, who has several Marvel movies as well as a video game in his resumé. This series was rather expensive to make, by BBC standards anyway, and was filmed in Egypt, Morocco, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

Here’s a bit of plot summary: A former soldier for the British army, Jonathan Pine, is portrayed as the night manager of a Cairo hotel as the story begins. He gets involved with a mysterious guest who is the girlfriend of a local gangster. Through her relationship with the gangster she has acquired information linking illegal international arms sales with Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), an English billionaire. Just after leaking information regarding the illegal arms, she is found murdered.

(Minor spoilers ahead)

Fearing for his own life, Pine flees, and is next seen, a few years later, doing the same job at a remote hotel in Switzerland. When super villain Roper visits the Swiss hotel, Pine longs to have some revenge, and soon he is enlisted by British Intelligence to spy on Roper. Before long, he has a new identity and an opportunity to infiltrate the small network of arms dealing. Getting information out, while staying alive and undercover is quite a challenge.

One reviewer called it a “classy thriller.” That nails it, but do check out this amazing bingeable series.

The editors are children

Screen Shot 2020-06-16 at 3.01.40 PM

The other day, I wondered aloud why writing is so bad these days. My young adult son scoffed and informed me that he went to school with some of the staff at the news outlet that posted the story above. He didn’t view these fellow students as the best or brightest, obviously.

My sister, a media professional, informed me that these days, editors (and program directors) are more interested in how many hits an item gets on YouTube or Twitter than how well written or researched an item might be.

Considering the power our nation gives the media, it is scary how low the bar is set for those who write, edit, and direct what the rest of us consume.

Oh, and look out for the back Nissan.


Here’s another one:

Screen Shot 2020-06-16 at 6.31.04 PM

That’s from a site with a big budget, but again, there’s not much editing going on.

For All Mankind—on Apple TV

MankindWith the purchase of a new device from Apple comes a free subscription to their relatively new paid streaming platform. As hubby and I are often seeking a new television series to binge watch, we just finished For All Mankind on the Apple platform, and overall, we liked it quite a lot. However, I read several reviews, with criticisms being at least as numerous as the accolades, and often both are well deserved. The series was developed in part by Ronald D. Moore, who has a stellar (pun intended) reputation for writing and producing excellent science fiction, from Star Trek the Next Generation to Outlander, and with the simply superb reboot of Battlestar Galactica in between.

The scenario is quite promising: In an alternate history, the Soviet Union beats the United States to be the first nation to put a man on the moon, and the growing rivalry between nations causes the space program of the United States to flourish, rather than founder. Neither our citizens nor our politicians like being second best, so the need to catch up and surpass drives the plot. As an alternate history, many of the characters are based upon real people, but quite a few characters are inventions. Even those who are based upon real people have different adventures (or mis-adventures) due to the fictional nature of the series. The acting is good, as is the writing. The effects are very good, also. The sets, props, and costumes are really amazing—it’s truly a back to the 60s look. So far, so good.

But, as many negative reviewers have noted, the series is typical of our “social justice” modern agenda. Immigration, same sex relationships, race relations, and feminism are more than just sub-plots in this re-imagining of the space race. Each of these social justice themes has a story arc devoted to it, and these themes are every bit as strong as the “what if America had continued to send people to the moon?” theme that is the advertised plot line.

Alas, any subtle use of themes is no more. This alternate history is very good, but the social justice warriors are using a sledge hammer to right perceived wrongs. For All Mankind is just like many modern day productions in that regard. What could have been A+ for Apple’s streaming service is instead closer to a B-.

If you have Apple TV, check it out. If you don’t, I wouldn’t buy it for this series alone.

Jersey Boys on Netflix

Jersey BoysLike many of you, we use services such as Netflix rather than having a traditional cable subscription. At times, we miss the old TV Guide magazine, which would guide the viewing experience. Instead, with Netflix, there is some algorithm that knows my husband likes shoot ’em up flix, so I am not always happy with the suggestions. However, a couple of days ago, I noticed “Jersey Boys”as an option in our feed. I’m embarrassed to say that hubby actually, “What’s that?” I simply said, “Click on it and you’ll see.”

Anyway, fortunately for me, hubby likes music, especially vintage pop, so he was eager to take a look at the movie version of this musical, which had a great run on Broadway, and is still touring around the country. Jersey Boys tells the story the Four Seasons, featuring the fabulous Frankie Valli. Surprisingly, the film version is directed by Clint Eastwood. The cast is really great, with Christopher Walken in a small but pivotal role, and it also has the original Valli from Broadway, John Lloyd Young as well as Erich Bergen, who has a supporting role in another show we’ve watched on Netflix, Madame Secretary.

There is much to like about this film, which is actually a 2014 release, but I was most impressed with the sound track. And, as is possible when watching a film in the comfort of home, I paused it and did some research, finding that the cast sang, rather than having it dubbed by either the original band or by hired musicians. Many of the hits from the Four Seasons are present, including “Sherry”, “December 63 (Oh What a Night)”, “Walk Like a Man”, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Valli’s solo, “My Eyes Adored You” is also in the film, as are other familiar tunes.

Although not entirely happy, for this film follows the rise and the ultimate fall of The Four Seasons, we enjoyed this film quite a lot. If you are a Netflix subscriber, the movie version of Jersey Boys is a great way to spend an evening. Toe tapping is optional, but recommended!

Humor

The history of writing funny stuff stretches back into the earliest times. Humor comes in certain time honored forms: slapstick, exaggeration (a/k/a hyperbole), sarcasm, irony, and puns. Most any humorous work relies on one or more of these techniques. Until recent times, that is. Now, vulgarity seems to have overtaken all of these.

Hubby and I have been watching an HBO show called Veep and, while there are a couple of decent running gags, I have not been laughing much. After subjecting ourselves to four episodes, neither of us is sure if we want to continue. I’m not so easily offended, but this show doesn’t strike me as funny, and it is clearly supposed to be a comedy. The actors seem to be working very hard at maintaining a frantic pace, which may indeed be how things are in the White House, but there is no slapstick, little irony, few plays on words, and less sarcasm than one might expect in a political drama.

Oh, I do like the bit with the staffer who has an imaginary dog. That’s funny and a bit ironic. Also amusing is the main character (Selina Meyer) hoping that the president will actually need her (thus far he hasn’t.) The character (Tony?) who doesn’t even bother whispering a brief description of everyone the VP meets and does not actually know is a bit of exaggeration and his remarks sometimes make me smile. And, the pace seems so fast that perhaps the intent is hyperbole, but it is more intense than humorous.

So, what’s left? Lots and lots of cussing, and at least fifty percent of it is a verb/expletive that might be labeled as “for unusual carnal knowledge.” Not funny. It just isn’t. I guess the writers are lazy or haven’t ever seen anything funny.

It’s sad really. A re-run of I Love Lucy can still make me laugh, but Veep doesn’t.

The Lioness of Morocco— review

The Lioness of Morocco is quite a saga. I mean that in a positive way, but some readers may not be ready for a yarn that covers this many years. I, on the other hand, relished it, like a home cooked meal after a long stint of eating fast food.

This story reminds me of the “mini-series” that were once a staple of television networks: a multi-part yarn that covers much of the adult life of an interesting main character, often with a lengthy list of co-stars. Such sagas usually combined romance, suspense, and mystery, and The Lioness of Morocco does that fairly well. The protagonist, Sibylla Spencer, is a good (if not fabulous) character, sufficiently well developed that readers should want to follow along with her travels and travails. Although the story begins in England, before long her adventuresome nature, combined with her father’s shipping business, leads her and her new husband to Mogador, Morocco, where she grows into an even more bold woman, sometimes called “The Lioness” in part due to her mane of golden hair.

< a few spoilers follow>

As an Englishwoman, Sibylla could either cling to all things British, from her clothing and her companions, to her language. Or, she could learn more about the Moorish population, learn their language, and (perhaps) do a bit of business with them. She follows the second course of action, which does cause her more straight-laced neighbors to be a bit put out with her. However, she is well-mannered and well-bred and manages to keep both sides of her world reasonably happy with her most of the time.

The novel is set in a tumultuous time, so there are plenty of plot twists, but the reader is never rushed, as this story happens over a number of years. Much of the Moroccan culture is revealed via detailed descriptions, which I genuinely enjoyed. Several crises occur, from the time her husband is accused of trafficking slaves to being the family being involved in trade wars and political wars. However, Sibylla and her children seem to rise to the occasion, whatever comes their way.

I did find this to be a very satisfying novel, rich in history and culture, if not a compelling read. For anyone who hasn’t enjoyed a saga recently, I suggest this novel. It is available as a paperback and in eBook form.

Stranger in a Strange Land— another item from my “Keeper” shelf

Stranger CoverAs a youngster, I loved science fiction. From being a little kid watching Fireball XL5 on television to reading the novels of Robert Heinlein while in school, to seeing the original Star Wars: A New Hope at the cinema while in college (gosh, I’m old, right?) I really loved sci-fi. Actually, I still do, but this is a blast from the past post, so here goes.

Heinlein, now considered one of the “grand masters” of classic science fiction, wrote young adult novels and short stories for a number of years. However, his groundbreaking and movie inspiring Starship Troopers is considered a turning point into adult fiction because this novel begins his exploration of themes that appeal to a more mature audience, including libertarian politics. Perhaps modern readers wouldn’t realize it, but the powered body armor in Starship Troopers was one of those prescient inventions that makes reading and watching science fiction so important to the development of technology.

Stranger in a Strange Land was published a couple of years after Troopers, and while less “realistic” the novel takes some giant leaps into thematic explorations. The novel deals with the life of one Valentine Michael Smith, the first human born on Mars, and because he was orphaned he was reared by the natives of that planet, and later brought back to earth as a young adult human who knows absolutely nothing about his home planet or its inhabitants, hence the title. This situation is a fabulous set up for what science fiction does best: explore what makes humanity work (or not.) I used to read this novel annually, and I have never tired of it, because there are so many themes. Indeed, while doing a master’s degree in English, I wrote a pretty decent term paper on the topic of how Heinlein uses the world savior theme in the novel, and didn’t get thrown out of my fairly conservative program.

The characters in Stranger are often larger than life, but Jubal Harshaw, lawyer, doctor, and homespun philosopher (as well as the voice of the author) is my favorite. His employees and associates included Anne, a “fair witness” which is sort of a human version of a body cam, as she only reports what is seen. As in many Heinlein works, there are any number of gems, but even people who haven’t read Stranger may use the invented word “grok” which is a Martian term for being one with someone or something, in such a way that it is fully understood or appreciated.

Modern science fiction has split into many sub-genres, but Stranger in a Strange Land pre-dates that, and in a good way. Grand Master Robert Heinlein was not restricted to hard science or the softer “social” aspects of the genre, although he uses both hard and softer themes to challenge societal norms. Indeed, this novel broke new ground when first published, and it is just as thoughtful and thought provoking today. Certainly, it deserves a read, but it is so complex that it almost needs a Cliff Notes commentary but not quite yet. Despite its age, it is still in print, so go get a copy!

Travelers— the Netflix series

TravelersWe gave DirecTV the old “heave ho” five years ago, when we moved. At the time, we were carrying two large house payments, so utilizing our internet and Netflix services and forgoing the bill for a television service was a temporary measure to save a few bucks each month. Here we are, five years later, with the previous house sold, but during our financial mini-crisis, we learned how little we actually used the TV service, so we never signed on again. When I went back to grad school, I got Amazon Student (a great deal, by the way) so we still have Amazon Prime, and we look at Amazon videos from time to time, but YouTube and Netflix are the primary means of powering the big screen in our living room.

There is a problem with Netflix, however, and that is the way it “recommends” movies and shows. Our suggestions seem to be crap most of the time. So, every once in a while, I look up an article which purports to list “the best ???” on Netflix right now. And, thus we found a Netflix series called “Travelers.”

The premise of this science fiction series is a really good idea: In the distant, dark, future, people figure out how to send the consciousness of an agent (a traveler) back into the body of a person who is about to die. Since the time and manner of death are often documented, these folks from the future have to select a proper host and zip into the body just in time to thwart the death, and are then able to take over the host’s body and join with other “travelers” to perform various missions that are supposed to make the future a better place to be. Each traveler must deal with the situation his or her host is in, as well as managing to complete assigned missions, and hopefully not be seen as an imposter. This premise yields some suspenseful plots as well as quite a lot of dramatic irony, as the viewer knows that the person inside the host is not the person who was about to die.

We’ve not finished season one (the only season available as of this writing) but if the rest of the episodes are as good as the ones we have seen, we are certainly going to enjoy following along with these futuristic Travelers. If you are a Netflix subscriber and like suspense and/or science fiction, do check out this original series.

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