Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame)

Giri Haji
Photo courtesy of Netflix

Hi there. How’s your pandemic going? I feel fortunate in that I can say mine is going fine, all things considered — thanks for asking (knock on wood). My best wishes for health and sanity to you, dear reader.

Over the past year or so, I’ve watched a lot of “Nordic noir” and plain-old European noir — Department Q, Fallet, Baptiste, Case, Bordertown, Deadwind, The Break, The Returned, The Valhalla Murders, Modus, La Mante, The Forest, The Frozen Dead, and Black Spot (and believe it or not, I know I’m forgetting something). What can I say? I’m a Europhile, and I love mysteries. However, nothing I’ve watched in recent years has been as unusual as Giri/Haji (Japanese for “Duty/Shame”), a British/Japanese crime thriller now on Netflix. This show is a doozy. Fresh Air critic John Powers wrote a terrific review, including this: “The show is in both English and subtitled Japanese that also cross-pollinates genres — mixing cop show, yakuza thriller, love story, anime, and hokey family melodrama, all spiked with bits of offbeat comedy. ‘Giri/Haji’ is unlike anything else on TV.”

The plot begins when Tokyo police detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) is dispatched to London to bring back his brother Yuto (Yosuke Kubozuka), a yakuza gang member who has murdered a rival yakuza boss’s nephew in London. From there, the plot thickeners include a Scottish policewoman, a Cockney crime boss and his flunkies, a half-Japanese male prostitute, Kenzo’s rebellious teenage daughter, Kenzo’s neglected wife and difficult parents, and a gangster’s gorgeous daughter — just for starters. The show’s style zips blissfully along its own eclectic path, incorporating anime, flashbacks and flash-forwards, ghostly visitations, and even a poignant rooftop ballet.

Plot twists abound, and sometimes the turn of events will flatten you, as when a supporting character who wasn’t a great guy, but wasn’t horrible either, is suddenly and violently sent to meet his maker. The storyline is unpredictable, to say the least. Buckle in and enjoy.

And if you need a palate-cleanser afterward, as I did, check out the BBC’s W1A, if you haven’t yet. We’ve been re-watching it. It’s a merry little comedy on Netflix about Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville), newly appointed Head of Values at the BBC. We Americans don’t get all the jokes, as some of them reference celebrities only known to U.K. television audiences, but it’s hilarious nevertheless.

Dark

Dark 2

Photo by Julia Terjung / Netflix

My stepson and I just finished watching season 2 of the Netflix thriller Dark, a German show I’ve mentioned before. If you don’t mind time-travel scenarios that will make your brain start to ooze out your ears, then this is your thing. Moody and atmospheric settings, ominous music, scary happenings, mind-bending plot twists, terrific acting — Dark has got it going on.

As with any time-travel story, you’ll need to suspend the ol’ disbelief but good. The tale begins with a boy’s disappearance from a village at the edge of a creepy forest (of course!), which leads to more strange doings and uncovers sinful secrets among the townsfolk. Sprinkled in among the eventual time jumps are musings from several characters about the nature of time, faith, and the human condition, so if you like your spooky thrillers with a dose of world-weary philosophical theories, you’re all set. To reveal more about the plot would do a disservice to this riveting tale of tangled family connections, furtive love affairs, nuclear dangers, and cosmic power struggles. Just go watch it.

Once you’ve watched seasons 1 and 2 (there will be a third and final season) and you need an expert to help you make sense of it all, I highly recommend the funny and insightful wrap-up by Maggie Fremont on VultureAlso helpful is TV Guide’s family tree showing how the town’s four central families are connected.

H.G. Tannhaus: Will you tell me…what the future’s like?

The Stranger: I’m hoping that by tomorrow, it’ll already be different from today.

Dark, Season 1: “Alpha and Omega”

Great News

Great News
Photo courtesy NBC

Some readers of this blog are not fans of mysteries, detective shows, crime shows (both true and fake), etc., so here’s a little gift for them: an urgent admonition to get on Netflix and watch Great News, if they haven’t already. I discovered this little gem on our flight to London in October 2017, and I honestly don’t know why I haven’t written about it yet. It’s a comedy from executive producer Tina Fey that had me laughing out loud on the plane. And couldn’t we all use a little comedy right about now?

Briga Heelan stars as Katie Wendelson, a segment producer for the news program The Breakdown at a cable channel in New York. Her professional life is upended when her mom, Carol (a hilarious Andrea Martin), is hired at the station as an intern. The entire cast is wonderful: John Michael Higgins (long a favorite of mine) as Chuck Pierce, a vain, egocentric, old-school news anchor; Nicole Richie (surprisingly good!) as a vain, egocentric, millennial news anchor; Adam Campbell as an uptight British executive producer (and Katie’s boss/love interest); and creator Tracey Wigfield as the program’s really strange weather forecaster. Tina Fey is terrific in a supporting role in Season 2 as a ruthlessly ambitious station boss.

Great News originally aired on NBC, which had the gall to cancel this delightful show after just two seasons. If you love comedies along the lines of 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, then this will be just your cup of tea. I loved being introduced to Andrea Martin, who I know I’ve seen in things over the years but hadn’t really seen enough of to appreciate. She is a national comedy treasure (even if she does live in Toronto). If you need a bit more of her after watching Great News, I recommend Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Episode 11: “Kimmy Googles the Internet!” 

In the movies, villains always have British accents — even the Nazis! How is that fair?

— Greg, Great News, Season 1: “Chuck Pierce Is Blind”

 

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Incredibly Wicked
Zac Efron as Ted Bundy and Lily Collins as Elizabeth Kendall. Photo courtesy IMDb.

If, like me, one of your guilty pleasures is true crime, there’s a double-header on Netflix for you right now: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile and Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Both are about Ted Bundy, the notorious serial killer who committed at least 30 homicides in seven states between 1974 and 1978. (In my own defense: I’m not someone who’s obsessed with serial killer stories, but I do find Bundy’s tale compelling because he was active in my hometown during my childhood, so there’s a local connection for me.)

Conversations with a Killer is a documentary featuring taped interviews with the murderer when he was on death row, and Extremely Wicked (the title is a verbatim quote from the judge at Bundy’s trial in Florida) is a fiction film based on the memoir of Bundy’s former girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall (her pen name). Both films are directed by Joe Berlinger.

Zac Efron plays Bundy in Extremely Wicked and also served as one of the film’s executive producers. Perhaps that explains why the movie, which is billed as focusing on Bundy’s story from Liz Kendall’s point of view, actually spends more time examining the enigmatic, charismatic Bundy. Lily Collins is solid as Kendall, but her somewhat bland character can’t compete with Efron’s charming sociopath, and Efron does a great job as the magnetic Bundy. Some reviews have criticized the film for glamorizing Bundy and taking a too-sympathetic view of him, and I have to agree. But if you’re going to watch it, be sure to stick around for the prison confession scene at the end, when Bundy finally admits to Kendall — after years of denials — that he’s guilty of the crimes for which he’s imprisoned. The handling of that moment is deeply chilling and very effective.

It’s been a few months since I watched Conversations, but I remember it was a riveting look into Bundy’s history and his depraved, calculating mind. (Utah natives will get a kick out of the inaccurate scenery used for various Utah locations in the documentary.) If you’re interested in Ted Bundy and are choosing between Extremely Wicked or Conversations, I recommend the latter.

Ted Bundy: You fell in love with a weirdo.

Liz Kendall: I did. I fell in love with a weirdo.

Ted Bundy: That makes you weird, just by association.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

And Now, a Short Rant About ‘House of Cards’

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Robin Wright as Claire Hale Underwood. 

(ALERT: Spoilers ahead for the final episode of Season 6 of House of Cards.)

I just finished watching the series finale of House of Cards last night. Others have written entertaining and insightful pieces about the disappointment this show eventually became (check out this article in The Atlantic), so I’ll just add my two cents: what a waste! This show began as a fascinating, if implausible, look at power-hungry types in Washington, D.C., boasting interesting dialogue, compelling performances, and really marvelous music that ranged from unobtrusively tone-setting to operatic to deeply disturbing. The show grew more unbelievable and much less fun to watch as it went on, but I had to see how the story ended.

The entire final season seemed rushed, with plot points glossed over and new characters introduced and then barely mentioned. Although Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) was dead, his memory dominated the action. Unfortunately, his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), was the new protagonist in name only, stepping into Frank’s shoes as a ruthless, amoral (and suddenly pregnant) manipulator. But there are so many unanswered questions! Including: why does Claire want so badly to be president? Is it just to wield power? She seems to have no pet issues or projects. How did a fifty-something woman get pregnant? She’s got to be pretty much menopausal at this point. Who is really the father of this hard-to-believe baby? It can’t be Frank — there’s honestly no evidence of him ever sleeping with Claire throughout the storyline, let alone near the end of Season 5. So the father is probably Tom the Novelist. Why on earth is Doug Stamper so loyal to Frank? OK, evidently Frank helped Doug get sober, but still.

One of the most frustrating aspects of Kevin Spacey’s departure from the series at the end of Season 5 is that, as we watched his nefarious dealings throughout the series, we assumed we would get to enjoy seeing his eventual comeuppance. Instead, Frank’s death — like Claire’s final triumph over Doug in the show’s final minutes — is sadly anticlimactic. And in the end, my biggest question is: what is the point of all this? All the enormous amounts of money, time, and talent spent creating this show — when it’s not even entertaining anymore, then what was it all for?

Democracy is so overrated.

— Frank Underwood, House of Cards

The Tunnel

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Last night I finished watching the final season of a British/French crime thriller called The TunnelI recommend it, but with some reservations.

There are three seasons of The Tunnel, all of which aired on PBS and are available on the PBS streaming app (possibly only if you are a member of your local PBS station and have their Passport feature), as well as other streaming vendors. The first season was a remake of a 2011 Danish-Swedish crime series called The Bridge. The second season, The Tunnel: Sabotage, and the third, The Tunnel: Vengeance, are original stories.

The primary reason to watch the series is for some superior acting from the two leads: English actor Stephen Dillane as Detective Chief Inspector Karl Roebuck, based in Folkestone, and Clémence Poésy as Captain (later Commander) Elise Wassermann, based in Calais. Dillane is the relaxed, wisecracking, seasoned detective to Poésy’s serious, single-minded, less-experienced crime fighter. Elise also exhibits traits that indicate she might have Asperger’s syndrome — she’s highly intelligent with a great eye for detail, but she’s hopeless at interpreting social cues and dealing with other people’s emotions.

The two are thrown together in the first season when someone places the upper half of a French politician and the lower half of a British prostitute in the Channel Tunnel at the halfway point between the UK and France. The tale is off and running from there, with our two protagonists and their teams collaborating willingly at times and clashing at others. The show is bilingual, which gives me a chance to try and use my high-school and college French, and I love seeing a glimpse of how people in those areas of England and France live. The British and the French detectives needle each other, each taking turns getting in their digs at the other country’s culture, and the third season, filmed after the Brexit vote, works in some gibes from both sides about the UK leaving the EU.

International issues and politics permeate the storylines, which involve elaborate, even baroque crimes devised by villains who have plenty of time and resources on their hands. The series is quite gritty, and there are downright heartbreaking events that occur in each season — that’s my reservation about recommending it. But if you enjoy seeing two well-matched actors play characters whose sparring relationship grows into a deep friendship, look no further. I was especially taken with Dillane, who was a new face to me, even though he has a long history on British stage and screen (and evidently plays a role on Game of Thrones, which I’ve never seen). He’s been called an “actor’s actor,” and that’s exactly right — he’s completely comfortable in his own skin, and reveals Karl’s inner workings with the subtlest expressions.

If you watch it, come back and let me know what you thought!

Elise Wassermann: I can’t eat anything sweet until I get my tooth fixed.

Karl Roebuck: What’s wrong with your tooth? Did you bite somebody?

— The Tunnel: Vengeance

La Mante

Carole Bouquet

Here’s the reason you might want to watch the French crime series La Mante, now streaming on Netflix: Carole Bouquet. Who, you may rightly ask? I had only vague memories of her as a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only in 1981. But she’s worked steadily in France over the years, and in La Mante (French for The Mantis, as in praying mantis), she plays an imprisoned serial killer who agrees to help her estranged son, a cop, catch a murderer who is copying her methods. Bouquet is riveting.

The Mantis was active 25 years prior in the series’ narrative, killing men who were guilty of despicable behavior. Her father and son have had nothing to do with her since she was captured and incarcerated. As he works with her to solve the copycat murders, her son uncovers secrets about his family’s past. Bouquet is, by turns, calm, devious, clever, calculating, ice-cold, and heartbreaking. In 1990, she won the French equivalent of the Oscar, a César Award, for best actress for her role in Too Beautiful for You, which I’ll now want to watch.

There are scenes that are not for the faint of heart (Stephen King lauded the series on Twitter, saying it “is surveying previously unexplored realms of gruesomeness”), so if you’re like me, have a pillow handy to hide behind from time to time. (Just like in the header photo for this blog! If you’ve wondered about that photo, the explanation is in my first blog post.)

Requiem

Requiem

I’m still on a British and European kick with my Netflix viewing, and one of my recent favorites is a British series called Requiem. It combines elements of both a ghost story and a thriller, and while it can be a bit over-the-top and implausible here and there, I found it quite compelling overall.

It stars Lydia Wilson as Matilda Grey, a professional cellist whose life is upended when her mother commits suicide right in front of her. Photos and newspaper clippings Matilda finds among her mother’s possessions spark questions about Matilda’s past and her true identity. The series is set in Wales — lovely and atmospheric — and has a haunting score that features an organ, of all things. Should sound cheesy, but it really works.

The series is not overly gory, and if you enjoy supernatural chills, it’s got plenty. It even incorporates some actual history in the form of references to an Englishman named John Dee, who was a mathematician, alchemist, astrologer, dabbler in the occult, and an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. My only real problem with the series was Lydia Wilson’s hair — she’s wearing either a bad blonde wig or a bad blonde haircut with bangs that are just too short. I hope for her sake that it was a wig.

Meredith: Waste of a question. Ask again.

Requiem

The Germans Are Coming, the Germans Are Coming! (And the French)

DARK

I don’t know what’s in the water over in Germany these days, but they’re cranking out some great television. I’ve recently enjoyed both Dark and Babylon Berlin on Netflix, and I’m looking forward to Deutschland 83 on Netflix discsAnother recent favorite, also on Netflix, is The Chalet, a French mystery/thriller.

Dark is a mind-bending tale of a German town where children keep disappearing. Yes, the series does employ that time-honored sci-fi trope, time travel, but the filmmakers use it to create a compelling story that builds suspense as you try to figure out the twisted relationships between four families in the town.

Babylon Berlin grabs you right away with a trippy opening-credits sequence and arresting music. It’s set in the Berlin of the wild and woolly Weimar Republic, between the world wars, and follows the misadventures of police inspector Gereon Rath and his resourceful sidekick, Charlotte Ritter. Based on novels that strive for historical accuracy, the series is the most expensive non-English-language TV drama series yet, costing nearly $40 million. It’s a riveting mystery/drama with wonderful performances.

You do need to suspend disbelief to enjoy The Chalet — think too hard about the plot and you’ll notice the implausible bits. (Actually, you need to do that to some extent with all three of these shows. Good thing my disbelief is easily suspended.) In The Chalet, a group of friends reunite at a chalet in a remote town in the French Alps for a summer wedding. Before long, it becomes clear that they’re being hunted, one by one, and we learn of the town’s dark secret.

Fritz: Mass executions are a legitimate tool of the revolution. Expropriation, too, by the way.

Otto: Says who? Hitler?

Fritz: Lenin.

Babylon Berlin

Film Fan

The first movie I remember really loving was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), which I must have been taken to when I was quite young, followed closely by What’s Up, Doc? (1972). (Paul Newman and Katharine Ross riding a bike around a farm to the strains of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” seemed to my four- or five-year-old self the perfect way to conduct a courtship.) A lifelong fascination with films (and, more recently, television, as the quality has improved dramatically in the past 10 to 15 years) ensued. For some reason, I was rarely drawn to movies aimed at children (although I do remember loving Escape to Witch Mountain) and never became a Disneyphile. Go figure.

In the course of getting my theatre degree, I took several film courses, and I’ve seen countless movies over the years; both of these things have equipped me to become a fairly opinionated — and definitely self-appointed — film and TV critic. Some of you reading this have expressed fondness for the movie and TV recommendations I’ve included in our family holiday letter each year, so you have only yourselves to blame for the existence of this blog — that’s what you get for encouraging me.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy.

See you at the movies,

Alyssa

P.S. Yes, that is me in the header photo, hiding behind a pillow as I watch a good and scary ghost story on PBS called Remember Me, starring Michael Palin of Monty Python fame. He is very good in it.

“Let’s you and me jump in that river.” — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

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