Loving (HBO)

Virginia, 1958 — a young man wants to marry his girlfriend, pregnant with their first child, but a state law banning interracial marriage makes that impossible.  So they travel to DC to get married (legally) then return to their home way out in the country, hoping to fly under the radar.  Nope.  Armed police burst into their bedroom, arrest them, and throw them in jail.  Lacking money for a real attorney, they accept the judge’s outrageous bargain – they can avoid a lengthy prison sentence if they move to DC.

Some years later, the wife, unhappy with DC, writes a letter to to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who refers her to the ACLU.  The ACLU lawyers, somewhat disingenuously, say they can help (when they can promise no such thing).  Virginia rules against them, but fortunately SCOTUS takes their case, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The film features fine, understated performances by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga (why the filmmakers cast Australian and Ethiopian-born actors to play these American characters is a question, I guess, for another day).  The screenplay’s “just the facts” style avoids grandstanding and lets the awful facts (including the fact that the local police won’t let the husband bail his pregnant wife out of jail) speak for themselves, which is dramatic enough.  I wish they had spent more time on the courtroom arguments, but I would, wouldn’t I?

Highly recommended.

Some other thoughts:  SCOTUS could have decided this case on narrow grounds, as a full faith and credit case, and ordered Virginia to recognize a marriage legally contracted in DC.  Wisely, however, they decided to take on the entire issue of laws banning interracial marriage.  Perhaps their decision was made easier by the blatantly racist, pseudo-religious language of the state court’s opinion, which based its judgment, essentially, on the assertion that God created separate races and put them in separate continents for a reason.

The laws against interracial marriage in the US have a more complex history than I had realized.  Although they were common, they were never universal.  Some states (NY, Connecticut, Minnesota) never had such laws, and others (Pennsylvania, Massachusetts) got rid of them early on.  The California Supreme Court invalidated California’s law in 1948 on 14th Amendment grounds, and a bunch of other states (mostly in the West) repealed their laws in the years following that decision.  At the time of the SCOTUS decision in Loving v. Virginia, though, there were still 16 states which banned interracial marriage, all in the South.

The Wikipedia article has some helpful charts at the end:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-miscegenation_laws_in_the_United_States

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Travelers

Scientists in the future, seeking to avoid some unspecified calamity a few years from now, send travelers back through time to try and prevent it.  The travelers jump into the bodies of folks who are about to die, in order to carry out a variety of missions designed to change the past.  Although scenario is somewhat similar to Twelve Monkeys, here we never see the future dystopia — virtually all the action takes place in the present day.  And here there are hundreds of travelers, scattered in small teams around the globe.  The travelers, despite their advanced technology, encounter unexpected difficulties — one guy discovers, for example, that his “host” was a drug addict, with a physical addiction that he has to deal with.  And it quickly becomes obvious that the future government in charge of designing time-changing missions may be making other mistakes as well, and risk actually making the future worse.  A large part of the plot deals with how the travelers struggle with how far “off-book” they can, or should go.  Very well done.

Series 1 currently available on Netflix. Series 2 will be available later this year.

Twelve Monkeys (Amazon / Syfy)

A few years from now, an epidemic kills some huge fraction of Earth’s human population, leading to the virtual collapse of human civilization.  A small group of scientists develop time travel, and sends individual travellers back to our era to try to stop the epidemic.  Changing the past is hard.  And if you do manage it, other stuff happens that you might not expect, and that you might not like

The show is based on the same book as the 1990s movie, and follows the same basic story line, with a few tweaks.  In the movie, the Army of the 12 Monkeys was basically a McGuffin; here, it’s an important part of the plot. And the character played by Brad Pitt in the movie is played by a woman here.  But where the movie ended with the death of the original traveler (Bruce Willis), here, the traveler survives to try again.  And again.  It’s more interesting than you might imagine, although some of the episodes are better than others.   Like many sci/fi programs without big budgets for special effects, the show spends more time on plot and character development, to good effect.  The writers also have a refreshingly light touch in dealing with this bleak scenario — I’m pretty sure they set a series of episodes in the 1940s just because the costumes would be cool.

Series 1 and 2 available for purchase on Amazon.  Series 3 premieres at the end of April on SyFy.

The Expanse (Amazon/Syfy)

This series uses a classic near-future sci/fi scenario, where Earth has colonized other worlds in the solar system.  The Mars colony has become independent, but Earth still operates (and oppresses) mining colonies in the asteroid belt.  As the story begins, a Belter ship answers a distress call from another ship outside the normal shipping lanes.  Things do not go well.

The series is part space detective story, part political thriller, and part speculative fiction about a Bladerunneresque society in the Belt.  One of the things I like about this program is that all this future technology, while advanced, doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to. The Belter ship is held together, more or less, with the 22nd Century equivalent of duct tape — there’s even a rat onboard.  The special effects, particularly the spaceships, are surprisingly good, considering that it’s TV.  But the money spent on special effects was not at the expense of plot or character development.  There’s even a bit of humor — the detective who always wears a hat (even on a world with no outdoors), and a Mormon elder trying to bankroll a ship capable of interstellar travel — still looking for Planet Kolob, I guess.  Best of all, the show follows a conventional narrative structure — beginning, middle, and end.  There are some flashbacks, but you always know what time period you’re looking at.  Highly recommended.

Series 1 available on Amazon (free for Prime subscribers).  Series 2 currently running on SyFy, and available for purchase on Amazon.

Versailles

This French and Canadian co-production about the early years of Louis XIV at Versailles was shot, somewhat surprisingly, entirely in English with Anglophone actors.

Louis, in his mid-20s, is King without question but not yet politically secure.  He conceives the idea of moving the court from Paris to what had been a royal hunting lodge at Versailles, less for the scenery than for the ability to force all the nobles to live at court, away from what might be independent power centers on their home estates.  In this, he was ultimately successful.  Louis literally invented the modern French state, centralized with a strong chief executive — an approach to organizing government that survived the Revolution and still influences the operation of the  French government today.

Is there sex on this show?  Mais oui — we are talking about Louis XIV.  But it’s much more restrained than the Tudors or the Borgias, which bordered on soft-core porn.  And while there are a few kinky interactions, there are no rapes (looking at you, Outlander).  Louis is presented as a stand-up guy who retained some affection for his mistresses even after he tired of them, and provided for their children, which I believe is historically accurate.  And his wife has surprisingly good relationships with his mistresses, which I think is historically accurate too.

As for the rest, the show engages in the “true rumor” school of historical drama.  If a historical personage dies suddenly amid rumors of poisoning, the show treats it as a poisoning.  The female doctor whose medical knowledge was about 200 years ahead of her time was a bit much — perhaps there’s a time-travel subplot they haven’t told us about?  On the other hand, the use of an “advanced” doctor is a pretty common device in period shows — it spares modern audiences the true horrors of period-appropriate medicine.

The interactions between Louis, his brother Phillippe, and Phillippe’s wife Henrietta of England are some of the most interesting in the show.  There is no evidence that Louis slept with Henrietta, but since Phillipe was quite openly gay, who knows?

Phillipe, by the way, was regarded by his contemporaries as a flamboyant dresser.  In an era where “straight” men wore lace collars and cuffs, high-heel shoes and shoulder-length curls, he must have been really something.  The costumers wisely dialed that back a bit.

The cast of lesser-known actors is pretty good.  The plot meanders a bit, but it’s not too hard to keep track of what’s going on.

Best of all, this show looks fantastic. Many of the exteriors are actually shot at Versaiiles; some of the interiors are shot at other French chateaus, including Vaux-le-Vicomte, which had the same architect.

On the whole, pretty entertaining — if you don’t think too hard.

The Crown / Victoria

These two series were produced independently of each other by completely different companies.  I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that they wound up airing in the US at roughly the same time.  But having seen them roughly back-to-back, it’s inevitable that they will be compared.

Each series concerns the early reign of a young, under-prepared girl as Queen of England.  Each shows us the young Queen developing a working relationship with various Prime Ministers, handling the unpopularity of her foreign-born husband, and dealing with the fact that, despite the trappings of privilege, her life is no longer totally her own.  Each features an alumnus of Dr. Who is a leading role (Matt Smith as Prince Phillip; Jenna Coleman as Victoria).  Each features English actor Alex Jennings as the Queen’s busybody uncle (King Leopold / Edward VIII).  Each has a subplot involving the obscure Royal Marriages Act, which seems to have no other purpose than interfering with royal romances.   Each is shot in beautiful period-appropriate locations, with beautiful period-appropriate costumes. And each features a rather surprising rat in the Buckingham Palace kitchen (I think it’s the same rodent, but I wouldn’t swear to it).

Victoria is a little soapier, with some subplots involving “downstairs” characters.  They don’t really add much to the plot, although one relationship is very sweet (it involves the pastry chef).  In The Crown, the senior members of the royal staff, themselves children of the aristocracy, are treated like servants, and the actual servants are treated as though they don’t exist (which I suspect is closer to the truth).

Victoria also has a more romanticized vision of the monarchy.  The Crown is neutral on the subject, but anti-monarchists will find plenty of ammunition.

The Crown probably has a stronger cast (Clair Foy as Elizabeth, John Lithgow as Churchill), but Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne is pretty good too.  The Crown also has better writing, and grittier characters, but perhaps takes itself just a bit too seriously.  Victoria, while lighter fare, is more fun to watch.

Humans (AMC)

The first season of this British TV program about androids designed for robot-like service, a few of whom accidentally develop consciousness, aired in Britain two years ago.  The second season has just started airing in the US on AMC.  In between, HBO aired a big-budget series called Westworld which covered much of the same ground.  This show is better. As is often the case, working with a lower budget forced Human’s  developers to focus on character and plot instead of relying on special effects to build an audience.  As a result, you have a wonderful collection of complex characters and interactions.  Humans have a range of responses to the conscious androids (they’re not all perverts), and the androids have a variety of responses to various humans too.  Best of all, the story follows a single timeline and all the action is presented as factual — a traditional method of storytelling which has become all too rare in an era of multiple timelines and unreliable narratives.

Check it out.

The Hollow Crown, Part II (BBC)

This British TV series (3 2-hour episodes) provides the rare opportunity to see Richard III together with its prequel, the rarely-produced story of Henry VI.  The production values are very high.  The cast is uniformly excellent, offering top-flight actors even in the smaller roles. The directors used period homes, castles and cathedrals for greater authenticity, and the outdoor scenes are actually filmed outdoors. The language is delivered, for the most part, in a naturalistic, accessible style, without the “declaiming” that mars many British productions.  I have some quibbles with certain of the artistic choices, as noted below.  But in general these productions are very fine.

The three parts of Henry VI have been condensed into the first 2 episodes.  For the most part, that’s a good thing, since these plays aren’t Shakespeare’s best.  They cut out most of the stuff about Joan of Arc (just as well, since she’s written as an unsympathetic character that would be jarring to most modern audiences).  And by eliminating the subplot about Jack Cade’s rebellion, they cut the play’s most famous (and most famously misunderstood) line, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”  But I suppose that couldn’t be helped.

The first part of Henry VI is by far the stronger of the two.  Henry VI acceded to the throne upon his father’s death, when he was still an infant.  His uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was named as regent.  Twenty-odd years later, after Henry achieves his majority, other courtiers manage to get Henry to first depose Humphrey, then execute him.  The story of a boy king turning against his uncle as an adult goes a long way towards explaining, though not condoning, Richard’s murder of his nephews some decades later.

The part of uncle Humphrey is played by Hugh Bonneville, best known to American audiences as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey.  I had no idea he was such a good actor.

The second part of Henry VI is still tedious, even with all the cuts.  And although the deaths are in the play, the copious amounts of blood are a modern invention.  I’m not sure  it adds anything.

As to Richard III, what can I say?  It’s one of Shakespeare’s great plays, and this version is credible enough.

Here’s where some of the artistic choices started to bother me.  Richard III starts 10 years after the end of the last part of Henry VI. In an early scene,Richard courts Anne, the widow of Henry’s son Edward, Prince of Wales, who was killed at the end of Henry VI.  Many standalone productions of Richard III alter the timeline to show Richard wooing Anne at Edward’s funeral — which is, in fact, closer to the truth. (Richard married Anne a year after Edward’s death, and they had a son, who died young.)    Here, they stick to the play’s text, which implies a 10 year gap between Edward’s death and Richard’s marriage.  Why keep the gap, even though they are presenting the plays together as a continuous whole?  They even have a new actress to play Richard’s mother, which doesn’t sit right, even if it is Judy Dench — especially since all the other parts from the earlier plays are played by the same actors.

The biggest problem with this production, though, is Richard himself.  There are two ways to play Richard III.  The “traditional” route is to play Richard as grotesque monster, a man whose soul is as twisted as his body.  The other route, which I prefer, is to portray Richard as man who might have been great, but whose mental chip on his shoulder eventually deforms his soul more than his physical one — more Michael Corleone than Scarface.  Unfortunately, Benedict Cumberbatch chooses the traditional route.   He is a fine actor, who delivers his lines very well and chews scenery with the best of them.   But his Richard is never a sympathetic character.  You can’t wait for him to hurry up and die already, which means the play doesn’t have the emotional resonance a true tragedy might have had.

Nobel

This is one of a group of Norwegian TV series now available in subtitled form on Netflix.  Unlike Occupied, a political thriller set in a dystopian near future (which I also liked), this series is set firmly in the present.  The protagonist is a member of a Norwegian special forces team deployed to Afghanistan.  Home on leave, he finds himself in the middle of a political firestorm, pitting Norway’s image of itself as a liberal, peace-loving democracy against the realities of a war zone.  (The title refers to the Nobel Peace Prize, which unlike the other awards is administered in Norway; the politics of the award form a minor subplot in the storyline).  The acting and writing quality of this show is pretty high. I particularly liked the scene in which the protagonist tells his 10-year old son what his job really is, and how that squares with his Norwegian liberal values — it had an emotional honesty that is rare in any movie or TV production, no matter what the country. The Norwegian scenery is pretty cool, too.

Rebellion (Netflix)

This Irish mini-series depicts the failed Easter Rebellion of 1916, when a group of Irish nationalists seized government buildings in Dublin and declared a free republic.  The rebellion went pear-shaped almost immediately, and was put down by the British army in short order.  The rebels did not, initially, garner a lot of public support.  But the ferocious response of the British government, including summary executions without trial of the principal rebels, led to a dramatic change in public opinion.  Before WWI, it was generally assumed that Ireland would remain in the UK under some form of home rule.  After this event, it was independence or nothing, at least in the Catholic-majority areas of the island.

Although the series depicts the principal actors and events of the rebellion, it focuses on a number of smaller actors in various roles, both men and women, who have to decide what side they are on — sometimes in opposition to their own families.  The British don’t generally come off that well (understandable, since this is an Irish show).  But Eamon de Valera, later president of Ireland, doesn’t come off that well either.  The series takes a surprisingly sympathetic view of Irish Protestants living in the South, who realize very quickly there will be no place for them in post-independence Ireland.   Most poignantly of all, the series depicts the plight of the Irish soldier, asked to open fire on his own countrymen to put down the rebellion.

The writing is of varying quality (a subplot involving a relationship between and Irish woman and a married British administrator doesn’t really work that well).   But most of the storylines and characters are very interesting, and illustrate a historical event that generally hasn’t been well served by film-makers in either the US or the UK.

Most of the actors are Irish and not well known here, although fans of Game of Thrones, which uses a lot of Irish actors, will see some familiar faces.