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.

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.

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 tSpanish Muslims as relatveiy 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 portray 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.

Mangrove (part 1 of Small Axe)

Last night, we watched Mangrove, the first of a series of small films about the Afro Caribbean experience in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. The films are directed and co-written by Oscar winning director Steve McQueen, and listed as a group under the name Small Axe.

The Mangrove was a restaurant / social club opened in London by a black Trinidadian in the late 1960s. It was designed a place where Caribbean immigrants could gather and eat the food of their home countries, but it quickly became a place for political gatherings, including members of the British Black Panthers (I didn’t even know they were a thing). The place was regularly raided by racist British police.

Eventually activists organized a protest demonstration, in August 1970, which was intended to be peaceful but soon devolved into scuffles between demonstrators and police. The police arrested a bunch of demonstrators, and the trial of the Mangrove 9, as they became known, led to the first official recognition that there might be widespread racism in the British police force.

In a welcome surprise, the movie tells the story straight, without “dramatizations” to make the characters more or less sympathetic. The character of Officer Pulley, the instigator of the racially motivated raids, comes off as a bit of a caricature, but the others involved are shown in all their complexity. Apparently McQueen’s father was a friend of one of the defendants so he wanted to get it right.

Two of the defendants (including one woman) acted as their own attorneys and delivered some pretty powerful speeches.

The movie, at a little over two hours, is deliberately paced, but not slow. The director lingers over a few scenes longer than we’re used to, in these days of Hollywood quick cuts. But that’s all to the good – with a bit of extra time, the importance of those scenes sinks in.

Well worth your time.

On Amazon Prime. It may be listed under the name Small Axe, which is the name of the entire group of films.

The Crown (season 4)

Although this series began as at least a notional celebration of the monarchy, with each passing year it has become subtly more anti-monarchical, simply by presenting the royal family more or less as they are.

This season covers the 1980s, the era of Diana and Margaret Thatcher, so there’s plenty of dramatic material.  The conversations between members of the royal family are of course fictional, although it seems to me that they represent reasonable guesses about what the characters really thought.  I doubt that the Queen was as much of a ninny as she is portrayed here, although she is clearly out of touch with the lives of ordinary people.  But Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother really were nasty pieces of work.  Interestingly, the most likeable royal is Prince Phillip, which may be more of a tribute to the actor Tobias Menzies than anything else.

The marriage of Charles and Diana is presented as doomed from the start, which it probably was.  The arranged marriage between a privileged man, who was nonetheless prevented from marrying the woman he truly loved, and a young woman little more than a child who thought she was living in some sort of fairy tale was truly tragic.  The lunch meeting of Diana and Camilla before the wedding really did occur – and who thought THAT was a good idea? – although I suspect the conversation that actually occurred was even more surreal than the one depicted here.

I didn’t much care for Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher.  She got the clenched-jaw speech pattern right – Thatcher actually took elocution lessons to learn to speak that way, in a futile attempt to be more acceptable to the British upper crust. But the net effect of this hyperrealism is to reduce the portrayal to a kind of caricature.  It’s the same mistake Meryl Streep made in The Iron Lady, IMO:  Someday we’ll get an honest cinematic appraisal of Thatcher by someone who actually likes her – it hasn’t happened yet.

Despite these reservations, though, I think on the whole this series is worth watching.

On Netflix. 

A Suitable Boy

This 6 part adaptation of Vikram Seth’s monumental 1993 novel seems to have fallen under the radar, which is a shame, because it’s quite good.

The story, set in India in the early 1950s, begins with a wedding, after which the mother of the bride starts looking for a husband for her younger daughter Lata – the “suitable boy” of the title.  Of course, Lata has her own ideas.  

The story quickly opens up and covers a number of issues – retail politics in what was then a new democracy, the changing status of women, life in rural villages, creeping nostalgia for the recently departed British, land reform, the development of new industries, and the still thorny issue of Hindu/Muslim relations.  Even cricket has a moment.

Although the story of Lata and her search for a husband is the “primary” narrative, the story of her brother in law Maan takes over somewhere in the middle episodes, which is good because his story is more unusual and more interesting.  Maan, a younger son described as “a disappointment to his father” has unsuitable relationships of his own.  As a result of his bad choices, he is exposed to parts of Indian life which are as foreign to him as they are to us.  He learns a lot, as do we.  

Although this is a BBC production, the cast is almost exclusively Indian actors, and the director is an Indian American, Mira Nair.   Perhaps for this reason It feels more authentic than many recent British productions set in India.  There are extended sessions of Indian vocal and instrumental music, which I found enchanting. 

The first episode is a bit slow, since it takes a while to introduce all the characters and their relationships.  I wish Netflix had included a family tree on its website.  By the middle of the second episode, though, the introductions are done.  And the characters won’t let you go.  

On Netflix.  

Counterpart

Counterpart is an interesting program, but halfway through, I’m not yet sure if it’s a good one.

JK Simmons, who’s had a lifetime toiling in semi-obscurity in supporting roles, really shines as the lead here, playing a man who has to deal with the “counterpart” version of himself in a parallel universe to avoid catastrophe.  They both married the same woman – one marriage was happy, the other not – and the two characters differ in other ways that are more difficult to discern.

The supporting cast is really strong here – In particular, Liv Lisa Fries (the female lead In Babylon Berlin) makes the most of her small part.  But many of the characters seem underwritten, and the science fiction plot too often veers from the merely impossible to the ludicrously implausible.

The series does have some interesting things to say about what differentiates  us as human beings.  What makes two characters with identical genetic profiles seem so different – life experiences, world events, or just chance encounters with other people?  Why does one counterpart like poetry, while the other can’t be bothered? And despite all these differences, are the two counterparts in some fundamental way nevertheless the same?   It’s thought provoking, and you might find it worth watching, despite its flaws.

Originally produced for Starz, it’s now streaming for free On Amazon Prime.

Midnight Diner (Tokyo Stories)

A one-man diner open only from midnight to 7 am, offering solace to folks with late night jobs or who, for some reason or other, don’t want to go home.  There is only one dish on the menu, but the chef will make anything, including some surprising dishes that usually turn out to have some connection to a customer’s life.

This is apparently a long running series in Japan, and it has a very different feel than Japanese programs made for an international audience.  It features characters in jobs not usually showcased in international productions – porn actors, exotic dancers, boxers – depicted with grace and humanity.  Some of the stories end well, some don’t, but they all have an emotional honesty that is rarer than it should be on commercial TV.

Episodes are only half an hour, but some of them are so emotionally intense i found it hard to watch more than two at a time.  In Japanese with English subtitles.

On Netflix.