El Cid

This is being billed as the Spanish Game of Thrones, but it’s more like the Spanish version of The Last Kingdom  (a good thing).  It’s the story of a born military leader in a martial age, who is smart enough to know how to outwit his enemies as well as outfight them.

Rodrigo Diaz was born into the minor nobility of 11th C Spain, during what is known as the “taifa” period. The Caliphate of Cordoba had fallen, and Spain was divided into a group of kingdoms, some run by Christians and others by Muslims, who fought against each other for dominance.  Political alliances didn’t always form along sectarian lines – Christian kings sometimes allied with Muslim ones against Christian rivals – although the two groups were already starting to move into the fundamentalist corners which would define Spanish politics for the next few hundred years.  El Cid himself fought as a mercenary soldier in Muslim armies – his historical name is derived from the Arabic “al-sayyid”, or the Leader – and eventually he led a multicultural alliance against the invading Moroccan Almohads.

I thought the series did a good job depicting life as it might have actually been experienced in 11th C Spain. People’s lives were hard and uncertain, and there was always the possibility of random violence.  Most of the blood and gore, however, were confined, as in real life, to the battlefield, and full-on battles weren’t that frequent. The depiction of the Spanish Muslims as relatively relaxed in their practice of Islam – many even drank alcohol – is historically accurate.  The scenes involving military training are pretty good, and the scale of the joust seems about right as well.  The battle scene, while well done, involves way too many mounted knights, but I guess the lure of filming knights on horseback is hard for filmmakers to resist.  

The performances are fine.  The actor playing El CId is surprisingly short, but he has the requisite intensity.  I particularly liked the women, many of whom portrary tough as nails characters who, despite their legal inequality, know perfectly well how to wield political power.

My principal complaint about this show is that it’s too short – only 5 episodes.  We see Diaz’s early years, his first great battle success, and what appears to be an important turning point in his life.  But the series seems to end in the middle of what looks like a 10-episode story arc.  I don’t know if filming of the series was interrupted by Covid or financial pressures.  But it’s a good beginning, and I hope it will continue.  

Recommended. On Amazon Prime.

Note:  I usually watch foreign shows with English subtitles, because I like the cadences of the original language.  I’ve read that the English dubbed version of this series is particularly bad, so I urge you to try the subtitles, even if you don’t usually like them.  This is not a particularly “talky” series – there’s a lot of action, and the plot is simple to understand.  

The Looming Tower

Somehow I missed this when it was released in the spring, probably because I am not a regular subscriber to Hulu.  It’s a journalistic account of the intelligence failures that contributed to the disaster of 9/11.  The FBI and CIA were restricted in sharing information, for legitimate historical reasons dating back to the abuses of J. Edgar Hoover.  But by the 1990s, the CIA was treating the FBI as a more serious threat than some of our foreign enemies.

This 10-part series features fine performances by Jeff Daniels as John O’Neill. the head of the FBI’s NY Counterterrorism Center,  Arab-French actor Tahar Rahim as Ali Soufan, O’Neill’s Arab-American partner, Bill Camp as a veteran FBI agent, and Michael Stuhlbarg as Richard Clarke.  Although real names are used for many of the FBI personnel, the principal CIA people are represented by pseudonyms, probably because their portrayals are so repellent. Ali Soufan has a producer credit, so the bias is obvious.  Nevertheless the creepy sex vibe between the head of the CIA office responsible for liaising (or not) with the FBI, and his deputy is based on reality – the two later married.  Michael Scheuer, on whom the character is loosely based, later left the CIA, got involved in the Obama birther conspiracy and these days is full on Q.  His wife later became one of the premier torture enthusiasts in the CIA, and her character was also the inspiration for the female CIA officer in Zero Dark Thirty.  Remember when we thought that Homeland’s Carrie Mathison was too crazy to be a credible CIA agent?

Except for a few flashforward sequences depicting the Congressional investigations into intelligence failures, the series pretty much ends with  9/11 and its immediate aftermath.  There’s a brief reference to the Bush Administration attempting to frame Saddam Hussein for the attack.  But otherwise the story of the Iraq War is left for another day.

The narrative sags at times, particularly in the middle episodes – how much do we really need to know about O’Neill’s messy personal life?  But the scenes depicting the investigations into the Kenya bombing and the attacks on the USS Cole are really good.  And the dramatic climax really hits you in the gut, even though you know it’s coming.

Recommended.  On Hulu.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

This adaptation of August Wilson’s play is takes place almost entirely in a Chicago recording studio on a steamy hot summer day in the 1920s.  Ma Rainey, a historical person, was a successful blues singer, although her audience was primarily black.  The (fictional) white music producers are seeking a “crossover” hit that will appeal to white people as well.

Viola Davis does a magnificent job as Ma Rainey, conveying the force of her personality and her music despite the grotesque  (and totally unnecessary) makeup designed to make her look like the historical woman, complete with bad teeth.

The real standout is Chadwick Boseman as Levee, a trumpet player in Ma’s backup band who, depending on who you talk to, is either a brilliant young musician or a poseur who plays too many notes.  Levee, whose force of nature personality is almost equal to Ma’s, is a lot more optimistic and hopeful than any black boy brought up in early 20th C Alabama has a right to be.  Boseman is spectacular in this role – anytime he is in the frame, even if he’s only in the corner, you can’t take your eyes off him.   He has the ability to project his whole soul through his face.  Boseman died of cancer shortly after he completed work on this film – a real loss.

Highly recommended.  On Netflix.

Bridgerton

What comic name best sums up this silly, but entertaining show?  Georgie’s Girls?  Lowdown Abbey?  Real Housewives of Grosvenor Square?

This purported period piece gets just about every period detail wrong – the clothes, the music, the dancing, the cigarettes – but I think that’s intentional.  It’s a costume drama in the old fashioned, culturally obtuse sense.  But oh what costumes they are!  The women’s outfits are exuberant, extravagant, and feature fluorescent colors not known to nature or early 19th C dressmakers.  The men’s costumes are somewhat less complicated, if only because they spend so much time taking their shirts off.

Underneath all the silliness, though, is some rapier-like social satire, the kind Jane Austen might have written if she had had the freedom of a modern author to tackle the unmentionable.  The triviality of the pursuits of the aristocracy, their social snobbery, their casual cruelty, is on display under all the magnificent scenery.  And the vulnerability of a young girl’s reputation to an unaccountable malicious gossipmonger seems also quite realistic.

The cast is quite good, adding heft and complexity to what were probably, in the source material, pretty sketchily written characters.

I enjoyed, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste.  On Netflix.

The Midnight Sky

A grizzled old scientist, already dying of cancer, declines to take the last flight out of an Arctic research station, which is being evacuated due to an unspecified planetary disaster.  His one remaining task – to contact a manned space ship, returning from a 2 year mission, to let them know what is going on.  Then a little girl shows up, who has apparently missed the last flight too.

This is not really a science fiction movie.  We never find out what the nature of the planetary disaster is, and some of the events that occur on the space ship couldn’t withstand much scientific scrutiny.  What it presents, instead, is a poetic meditation on making decisions in an unfathomable situation.  

There are strong performances here by Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler and George Clooney, who also directed.  The film is perhaps a shade too long at just over 2 hours, but it held my interest.  And I don’t even like poetry.

Recommended, but not for all tastes.  On Netflix.

Soul

Another wonderful movie from Pixar, which seems to have figured out how to tackle some unusual subjects in a way that’s both throughtful and entertaining.

Joe, a middle school music teacher, is about to get his big break with a gig at a music club, when he unexpectedly finds himself on the stairway to heaven.  Desperate to get back to earth, he finds himself in a life coaching seminar for new souls (the “Herebefore”?)  A plot is hatched.

This somewhat sketchy plot is held together by some fine voice performances, headlined by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey.  The scenic design is also awesome, encompassing a fluorescent pink pirate ship, Bob Dylan, angels by Picasso, an obese cat, and Pizza Rat.

Whatever those guys are smoking, I want some of it.

Highly recommended.  On Disney Plus.