IR Television Review: CATHERINE THE GREAT [HBO]

The last Russian woman of power changed the way the game was played. But in an era of patriarchy she pushed against the status quo while still maintaining a healthy appetite which in many circles. This is what has survived all the rumors oddly enough. In a day and age when Crimea has come under the aspect of the news again in terms of Russian perception as an important port city what Catherine The Great’s dexterity and at times forthrightness reflects in her early Ideas of giving up serfdom are quite forward thinking. While Alexander’s tendency plays into  the thrust of his grandmother’s ultimate plan, it is her life and the way she lived it that is dynamic but also fallible. The details of her former husband that met his fate for her to assume the throne is still mysterious but how she governs is not. This is the effective perspective of “Catherine The Great” which both administers her strengths but also her faults.

Helen Mirren, as she has done with many characters over the years, understands the aspect of women in power but also the tricks of ambiguity and antiquity and the problems it creates. As an aging actress this has provided her most telling performance perhaps since “The Queen”. She has had fun playing others but the aspect of loss and gain here but also a more mature relationship speaks to the essence of trust versus jealousy. This is something that completed encompasses her relationship with Potemkin whom she first becomes enamored with many years earlier as the mini-series seems to span a good 15-20 years.

Jason Clarke gives an interesting portrayal of Potemkin. The problem is that as the younger version where his young features currently still show, the character never fully vanishes. It is only as he grows more grizzled halfway through the miniseries that his characterization truly becomes rich. The mustache and gravelly deliver become more natural. There is a hurt but also a love in his devotion to Catherine despite his want to be on the battlefield versus being at the palace with Catherine. In a short span when he brings Crimea to her feet and she witnesses it as her domain, it becomes a very intimate story wide in its scope but personal in its impact.

There are other supporting characters that key into the proceedings. Richard Roxburgh plays one of her early lovers who basically pushes against her rule. He disappears in a haze which is never fully specific. Catherine’s Minister Of War Olaf who helped put her in power is an interesting dichotomy as his loyalty shifts and the story moves forward. The pathetic part of the story is Catherine’s son Paul who simply reminds Catherine of the err of his father’s ways, not necessarily that he would be a bad leader but Catherine senses something off in him, that gut instinct that tells her something her advisers can’t. The epilogue proves that.

Politics aside “Catherine The Great” is also an interesting diatribe in showing the essence of sexuality and the reality of power without pretense. One of the aspects that does reflect is the absence of Russian accents or even Russian actors. Granted this is a miniseries made by Sky and BBC in congruence with HBO but unless one was told it was Russia and Catherine The Great, it could quite frankly be any monarchy save for the performances of Mirren and Clarke.

“Catherine The Great” has the lushness and texture of most HBO series with a leading lady destined to receive said due praises for her work. But at its heart, it is a love story, power ratcheting though that it may be, that is engaging but also exceptional to the status quo that human nature does not change.

B

By Tim Wassberg

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IR Television Review: MODERN LOVE [Amazon]

The essence of the romantic drama/comedy per se has been lost in recent years because of the disappearance of the mid-range picture. As a result, many of the wonderful character work actors can do without special effects sometimes can be lost. Often with most television as well, the writers are trying to get to the next narrative beat which is not wrong but sometimes sacrifices characters on the part of the story. That is why “Modern Love” throughout its entire 8 episode first season is so refreshing. It is unique and heartfelt stories but each, in their own way, uniquely theirs.

From the first episode about a girl alone in the city that shows her time through personal hardship with the help of simple love, , though platonic of her doorman, the episodes are poignant, perhaps schmaltzy but not overly so. It maintains the balance that “Maisel” does without the need to push her forward. These people’s lives are their own, tragic and beautiful though they may be.

Because the actors don’t have to be in all the episodes, it allows some great film actors who might not indulge in TV or simply like the idea of small ditty to shine. Actors like Sofia Boutella, and Caitlin McGee really shine as the series really gets the idea of missed opportunities but also the messiness of human behavior right without resulting overly on violence or sex as part of the storyline.

For example, Boutella’s segment in an interesting ramification on the notion of who she is and coming to terms with it in a simple way but it undeniably works in terms of the guy she unavoidably spends the night with. Dev Patel’s segment which also stars Catherine Keener as well as bits with Caitin McGee and Andy Garcia is one of the most poignant and some of the best understated acting all of them have done in years. Many of the other stories follow suit but the fact that many of them are based on a series of stories in the New York Times and by extension are all NY stories make it even more textured.

There are a million stories like that in the city, with undeniably many more to be told. Not all are conventional but all seem to hit interesting notes of reflection and dexterity without being too indicative of a message. Anne Hathaway’s segment seems tailor made for her and a little more fantastical than the others but its story and the way it is told lets her get closer the drama she could do but perhaps the breath is not there. Interstellar got her close but there was no comedy in there. She is able to show the highs and the lows in this character which is beautiful in so many ways.

The essence of marriage is explored in the segment starring John Slattery and Tina Fey. What makes this one sing is because they each have such a dynamic connection to NY, he with Mad Men, her with 30 Rock and SNL, that the essence of marriage falling away in a way in the heart of NY city and the isolation that you get from her, again shows what a show like this can allow certain people to do.

Later segments have a tome about daddy issues but also surrogate motherhood which require a little more narrative control so the ideas are more complex yet still shine in the end. If the first couple eps hook you then you are good to go. The progression of life is a big theme in the series especially how it comes to an end the first season. Love Actually is in many ways a good parallel because it is all brought together not because it needs to but it is that these people all exist in the same reality but only separated by blocks and social and work circles.

The opening credits says it all. Any good opening if done well can hook but this promotes nostalgia but also a sense of reality in the best way possible with a great location and inherent soulful acting to boot.

A-

By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: STAR TREK – SHORT TREKS (“The Trouble With Edward”) [CBS All Access]

The texture of “Short Treks” in the Star Trek Universe allows for those short vignettes that allow us to see perceptions into more of the lives of perhaps those that have continued on in the night. The first of this new season: “Q&A” examined Spock’s first day as an ensign on Captain Pike’s Enterprise. With the second entry: “The Trouble With Edward” we are treated to the genesis of what caused the Tribbles to become what they did. In its treatment of this lore, it is half human error and half problem solving gone wrong. Pike’s head science officer (played in a nice homage by Alita’s Rosa Salazar) is given the captain’s spot on her own science ship which has to deal with a famine/starvation situation on a planet on the edge of Klingon space.

Everything seems to go wrong mostly because of the crewman who creates the Tribble trouble in the first place because of his stubbornness, ego and slight lack of talent. Archer voice H. Jon Benjamin is a perfect foil in this way since he doesn’t mind playing the depreciation because it works as a form of satire. Salazar is good but she can be much more fluid an actress in a different situation than this small journey allows but it is great to see her being given the opportunity overall. Ultimately, “The Trouble With Edward” is a nice little tome within the pantheon and definitely brings to bear the reproducing situation of these animals, especially when it is a funneled as a food source. As usual, the human condition creates the problem against its best wishes. Plus it is good to see flaws since not every crewman is perfect. The added bonus after the credits also shows the humor that sometimes is not allowed to shine through in such a specific way on an episodic show per se.

B

By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: MURDER IN THE BAYOU (Episodes 1 & 2) [Showtime]

The notion of documentaries continues to evolve. In making true life a cinematic experience without losing the weight of what is being examined by real people talking to real people, the complication of human behavior becomes more and more defined, especially when the full truth is not know. In the first two chapters of the limited docu series “Murder In The Bayou”, the deaths so far of 7 women are revealed in various structures. They are all connected, had connections to the wrong side of town, many had drug problems. Their murders, which have been the basis of a New York Times article, have been poured over but no set arrests have been made. What the docu-series does is not lay blame but through interviews with all the accused and the victims paints the idea of a town with a secret to keep but oddly enough why it is doing so.

The story inevitably leads to a local criminal/strip club owner Frankie who provided drugs to some of the girls in exchange for tricks. His interview footage is interesting because more is obviously happening below the surface but he is not reacting. In many interviews with known criminals, there is either remorse or egotism. Here there is neither. The approach of moving with each of the victims’ families is wrenching but also deeply raw. There is pain, anger but also reflection and selfishness in a certain way.

The reflection on the local law enforcement also provides an interesting perception. In many parishes in Louisiana, the law enforcement on the area is the end all/be all as the documentary states. The essence of what happens in small towns in Cajun country is an interesting sociological experiment. Everyone knows everyone and yet everyone seems to be point fingers either way. Like a Deep South version of Twin Peaks, many of victims confessed to family members (as related to interviewers) that they had an idea what was coming. When the media starts looking closer, the response becomes more stilted because of the microscope but the blend of class consciousness but also such a mystery in a small town makes the beginning chords of this docu-series both intense, deeply sad but also intriguing.

B+

By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: TITANS Ep 201 “Trigon” [WBTV-S2]

The intention of “Titans” as with many superhero mash-ups is the structure of family and trust. The themes of betrayal seem to weigh heavily from Season 1. But again the structure of the Titans themselves is based on the aspect of evolution in terms of how the characters see themselves and what they might become. Dick Grayson as the first Robin and the paradox of Nightwing understands this but he has trouble coming to terms with it. Raven, as she will be called, is based in the function that her destiny is pre-set by her father Trigon. Like Hellboy, the structure is the ideal of choice against a greater crushing possibility. The intended perspective of the Season 2 premiere, without giving too much away, is that motivation and misplaced guilt becomes a bigger proponent than the eventual endgame. The Avengers as a reference definitely works on this principle because those heroes, like these, are defined by the choices they make. The interesting diametric here is how to portray this while keeping the themes and mining the subconscious. Raven does this in a particular way with thoughts not unlike how Beast Boy can change his form. It is a matter of instinctually knowing how to connect with people without controlling their mind. Granted in a similar way to “Grimm” many of the characters here tend to make the same mistakes, either because of ego or the nagging embers of naivete. “Trigon” as a first episode in this second season understands the shortcomings of its key parts but also how it can grow. The idea becomes one of choice but also of transcendence and loyalty. “Titans” can grow as a series if its characters continue to understand and intercede that they are more powerful together while still addressing the darkness that makes them different.

B

By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: YOUNG JUSTICE – OUTSIDERS (Episodes 24-26) [Warner Brothers Television-S3]

The aspect of finding a way to be delivered from evil, or at least find the basis of connecting with the true nature of power, can move back and forth in a hero’s journey. The final 3 episodes of “Young Justice: Outsiders” takes this undeniably into account. Without spoiling too much of what the progression has in store, Episode 24: “Into The Breach” enters in an idea of the Meta War but is more a metaphor for Cyborg as a character becoming understanding of his duality. But the villain herself in this episode has the same paradoxical nature to her own design. Granted it is about these characters understanding that what makes them different allows them to exist outside the hero complex that affects those like Batman & Wonder Women.

In Episode 25: “Overwhelmed”, the idea is more of grief and loss than one of failure but also one of hope. The journey of Artemis to provide a texture of closure for those she has lost takes on a purgatory connotation that affects to a point with a sense of therapy. The sense of heartbreak is quite well explored with the metaphors of sunrise and sunset. This journey also seems to balance in a rumination of the progression to adulthood. Artemis may not be complete but it is who she is becoming. In this way in the same episode, the same can be said to be true of Forager who enthusiasm and belief in good also strikes at the problem of his naivete in a darker world.

In the final episode of the season, Episode 26: “Nevermore”, the idea of loyalty and respect versus birthright plays heavily in the storyline. The battles of conscience and of control are very powerful motivators. Forgiveness is also a big texture in the endgame of the season but also of consequence. The idea of power and how it is wielded as well as the choices made are asked of most of every character, between what one can do and the paths chosen. The ending cota speaks to balance but also contentment while new power takes hold, its path of righteousness neither or either altruistic or misguided as is the spin of every wheel.

The final three episodes of the 3rd season of “Young Justice: Outsiders” hit different ideals of superhero culture without feeling the need to have every sentence and action connected. While the details are there to be seen, the journey of the young heroes continues.

B

By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: THE DARK CRYSTAL – AGE OF RESISTANCE [Netflix-S1]

The challenge of creating an updated world of one such as “The Dark Crystal” is a specific challenge. The balance reflects in two aspects: can the puppetry be held up in such a way that it doesn’t take away from the original but also does it take into play the world building and mythology that Jim Henson created so many years ago. Granted nothing can be quite like what was done in 1982 considering the restrictions. But what Louis Letterier and the Jim Henson Workshop have done with “The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance” is quite effective in living up to the original while also taking it much darker which was always underlying beneath the surface in the initial film. Leterrier seemed an odd choice initially after Genndy Tartakovsky, known for “Samurai Jack” and the initial “Clone Wars” shorts left the project seemingly over creative differences. What might be said is that there might have been a structure that Henson had initially left which painted the backstory. It is hard to say.

Nevertheless, the story told over 10 episodes takes into fact many eventual outcomes seen in the movie. But it also reflects an immigration story in reverse that is very prevalent to our times while also being universal and older. Watching this iteration, especially in the plight of The Gelfings, the parallel to Native Americans both in the look and mysticism of the characters becomes much more defined especially with Deet, an exceptionally connected Gelfing from underground. Another clan from what is called The Crystal Desert plays into this myth as well. The key aspect in this series that it shows Thra as bigger than what was imagined (or likely planned). The eventual genocide of the Gelfing as indicated in the movie is a great underlying theme even as battles are fought. Rian, as played by Taron Egerton of “Kingman” and “Rocketman” fame, anchors the cast as the would be hero.

However the grand balance relates in the Skeksis, both in the voices and the abject cruelty that begins to seep in. The most intrinsic simply because he is the most dynamic in terms of chess moves is The Chamberlain, as voiced by Simon Pegg. He is almost the Judas in a way who belies his own loyalty for a texture of power. Pegg gets enough of the voice without overplaying say, the whimpering. The General as always is his adversary for power as voiced by Benedict Wong. The overarching Emperor is voiced by Jason Isaacs and Mark Hamill plays The Scientist. The driving force of essence at a certain point becomes all encompassing. This could be a balance to the progressive nature of the current opiod crisis or simply reflect back the essence of the opium trade in the 1800s. Point being that the story works on many different levels.

Augra is the unifying and yet destructuring force. It is she who is blame but also she who is ultimately a deliverer. It is almost as if she is the ID within everyone. The larger reasoning of who the Skeksis are and why the Mystics function as they do is hinted at but left for later deduction. The politics though especially within the clans of the Gelfling are really what propel the story but it is the ideas influenced through Augra that anchor it. While the aspects of transcendence and new age thinking still play into the actions of the characters, the introduction of The Archer and more specifically The Hunter as well as two other characters co-existing with each other at the end of the world create a different dynamic and add even more to the proceedings.

Ultimately though the elements of the betrayal of trust by the Lords Of Crystal and their ultimate greed is what defines the path. Technically, the show does what is needed to do. Practical effects and puppetry are used heavily with only slight digital enhancements while landscape and certain creature elements that just would not have been possible before without CGI add that degree of scope without forgetting the true nature of Thra. “The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance” is an apt, entertaining and visionary extension of Jim Henson’s universe. Seeing the possibility of it coming back in this way, which would not have happened in the current TV and filmmaking climate without Netflix, shows the importance of certain Ips being given a chance to reach a new generation while still reflecting the old.

A-

By Tim Wassberg