March 31, 2020

Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO

Call it comedy heresy but I never really got into the television series, Seinfeld when it was on network tv from 1989 to 1998. When I read that co-creator Larry David had a new sitcom, I avoided even checking out one episode, assuming that the humor would be similarly lost on me.

A friend recently suggested I give a chance to Curb Your Enthusiasm, now in its tenth season on HBO. Quelle surprise! Episode 1, Season 1 had me roaring with laughter. Subsequent episodes in Season 1 provided me with at least one belly laugh per show. I must admit that I have been lured into the comedic realm of Larry David.

Playing a version of himself, David displays rapier wit, blurts ill-advised comments and holds firm on quirky habits and rules that get him into layer upon layer of trouble. He’s a misanthrope, but a lovable, funny one.

The series is reminiscent of the Jackie Gleason Show in that David has an “Alice,” a patient, smart, eye-rolling wife, Cheryl David, played by comedic actress Cheryl Hines.

Hines’ early work with the Groundlings, an LA improvisational group, has served her well. Surprisingly, much of the brilliant dialogue on Curb Your Enthusiasm is improvised. As a side note, Hines was introduced to her current husband, Robert Kennedy Jr. by co-star David.

Running characters like Hines, Richard Lewis as himself, or Jeff Garlin playing David’s agent, Jeff Greene give an ensemble feel to the show. Guest stars Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Alexander and Julia Louis Dreyfus making cameo appearances add to the fun.

You just may want to catch Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO if you, like me, were initially immune to its charms. One season down. Nine to go. I wonder how many much-needed laughs that will be?

The Two Popes – a Netflix original movie

When major film stars agree to appear in films produced by Netflix, you know the movie industry is indeed changing. Witness the redoubtable Sir Anthony Hopkins playing Pope Benedict in The Two Popes. Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis is no slouch either having worked in films, tv and on stage, most notably to me as The Engineer in the original Miss Saigon on Broadway.

Based on true life, The Two Popes allows the viewer to see the relationship between these two pontiffs. Pope Benedict is the German who loves music but has difficulty connecting with people. Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina asks papal permission to resign from his post. Based on a play by Anthony McCarten, the future Pope Francis admits to dancing the tango and confesses a dark secret to his church boss.

Film director Fernando Meireiles has fashioned a film with intelligent dialogue and tour de force acting moments for both Hopkins and Pryce. You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy watching these two acting titans verbally joust as they get to know one another.

We all know that Pope Francis followed Benedict to the papacy, but the journey is still entertaining in The Two Popes. Hopkins, Pryce and Meireiles all garnered Oscar nominations for their work.

And if you are not all “poped out,” HBO also features The Young Pope with Jude Law and The New Pope with Chicago acting legend John Malkovich.

What’s next? A papal fashion craze? I want a pair of those red leather shoes.

Rocketman, a film inspired by the life of Sir Elton John

Released last year, Rocketman, the bio pic based on Elton John’s early life, has been currently available on selected streaming sites. In short, Taron Egerton is a wonder as Sir Elton. He justifiably won a Golden Globe as best actor for his performance, but was inexplicably left off the list of this year’s Oscar nominations.

Film credits go to director Dexter Fletcher and screenplay writer Lee Hall for choosing a dramatic arc in John’s life that has great emotional resonance. We see his difficult childhood, his precocity at the Royal Academy of Music in London and his search for a musical path. Enter lyricist, Bernie Taupin, played by actor Jamie Bell, who teams up with Elton to add words to his prolific compositions.

We see his meteoric rise as he conquers British and American music markets and becomes fabulously wealthy. Like a rocket, what goes up, must come down. Along the way, he tries to commit suicide and becomes addicted to alcohol, cocaine, cannabis, shopping and sex. The movie effectivelyly uses his participation in a rehab group as a device to tell the story.

Throughout the film, we hear those iconic hits and are bemused by his journey through ever more outrageous clothing and accessories. Those platform shoes! Those eyeglasses!

Elton John’s journey in this movie feels a little bit like that of Rocky Balboa’s in the Rocky franchise, but that is not a bad thing. We are rooting for him to turn his life around. Stay for the final credits where you get to read about “the rest of the story.”

If you love Elton John’s music, Rocketman is a must, but the film is inspiring enough for those who are less familiar with his work. Fashionistas will have a visual feast, producing both horror and delight.

The Vertical Line on MHZ – Italian tv series

MHZ Choice, the tv streaming service, continues to introduce me to European television programs that I can’t find other places. The Vertical Line, an 8 episode dramedy from Italy is the freshest series I have seen in quite a while.

The cancer ward of an Italian public hospital seems like an unlikely place for a television show meant as entertainment, but each brief episode packs a punch of deep emotional truths and yes, comedy.

The main character, Luigi, played by the expressive-eyed Valerio Mastrandrea, is a devoted fortyish husband and father of a young child with a baby on the way. He tragically finds out he has a cancerous tumor that must be surgically removed.

He becomes part of an oncology ward where he encounters quirky patients, blasé doctors, aggressive nurses and med-techs and a morose hospital chaplain.

The show is semi-autobiographical in that the creator, Mattia Torre passed away on July 2019 at the age of 47 after experiences with the Italian medical establishment. As his tv swan song, Torre depicts joy and humor in The Vertical Line, as well as sadness in this excellent limited-run series.

If you want something completely different from American medical shows, check out The Vertical Line currently streaming on MHZ Choice. As a reminder, you can add MHZ Choice to your Amazon Prime Video package or sign up for the stand-alone app. It is worth every penny of the monthly $7.99 or $89.99 for the year.

https://watch.mhzchoice.com/

Movie Musical Binge

I watch very few movies these days, so I was in Seventh Heaven on the United flight home to Chicago as I binged on three film musicals.

The Greatest Showman absolutely delighted me with lovely music, great acting especially from Hugh Jackman and the over-all art direction of the film. Watching the movie on a small screen was disappointing however, so seeing it again at a movie theater is on my agenda. Music Box Theater are you listening?

I have a special connection to all four A Star Is Born movies which deal with the topic of a couple on opposite fame trajectories. My mother loved black and white movies so the engaging 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March was introduced to me at a very early age.

A Star Is Born (1954) with Judy Garland and James Mason I saw as foreign exchange student at a film revival house in Paris. The vibrant visuals of Technicolor mesmerized me, and English has never sounded so good to me.

Both Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson were idols of mine so the 1976 version was for me, unmissable. The movie soundtrack got heavy rotation on my home stereo as well. Evergreen, the song hit from the movie, was an ear worm at piano bars everywhere.

I did not have high expectations for the 2018 adaptation with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, but I must admit that the film at least goes toe to toe with the 1976 film. Cooper’s singing is surprisingly good but his acting and directing are excellent. What can I say about Lady Gaga? She sings, acts and dances like the super star she is. Her French singing on La Vie En Rose was pretty magnifique, too.

My eyes started to hurt, but on I went to Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic starring Rami Malek as Queen lead singer, Freddie Mercury. Malek had caught my notice as the intriguing lead in the TV series Mr. Robot, but his embodiment of Mercury went beyond all expectations. Malek has moves! True, his singing voice was electronically mixed with that of Mercury and Canadian singer, Marc Martel throughout the movie, but he goes full throttle with the accent, the teeth prothesis and the sheer physical excitement of a Mercury performance. Be sure to watch the end credits so you can catch Mercury himself in full stage glory.

Like a binge monkey, I started Mary Poppins Returns only to be cut off by the pilot’s voice ten minutes into the movie, noting our imminent arrival to Chicago. Had there been time, I would have finished the Poppins film, gone on to the new Disney Dumbo remake and finished with Rocketman.

When is my next transatlantic flight so I can have another personal music film festival? Note to self: remember to pack eye drops.

Deadwood on HBO, the series and the new movie

My father was a U. S. Attorney for 8 years and had to spend summers in Deadwood, South Dakota for federal court sessions. Our family benefited by spending weeks exploring the whole Black Hills area, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, Hot Springs, Hill City with its coal train locomotive and horseback riding being some of the attractions.

The real draw for me on these trips was the town of Deadwood with its storied past as a gold rush town, a gambling mecca and the place where Wild Bill Hickok was murdered by the infamous Jack McCall.

Show creator of Deadwood, David Milch set the HBO series in the time period when the lawless town was literally being mined for profit and being dragged into the orbit of government and civilization.

The excellent cast of Deadwood reads like an impressive who’s who of future tv shows. Timothy Oliphant subsequently added Justified and Santa Clarita Diet to his resume. Anna Gunn as his school-teacher wife went on to play the beleaguered spouse in Breaking Bad. Ian McShane as the town underworld boss has been seen in American Gods, Ray Donovan and Game of Thrones. Mollie Parker went on to House of Cards and Goliath. Paula Malcomson played Katniss’ mother in the Hunger Games movies. Kim Dickens and Garret Dillahunt both have been in Fear the Walking Dead. William Sanderson as Mayor and hotel owner E. B. Farnum plays a quirky sheriff in True Blood. Titus Welliver has done stints in The Good Wife, Sons of Anarchy and Bosch. Seasoned actor Powers Booth has been recently seen in Nashville and Agents of S. H. I. E. L. D. Calamity Jane played by Robin Weigert recently popped up as a therapist on Big Little Lies. And I have not even touched upon the guest stars.

I make special note of Keith Carradine who is a wonder to behold as Wild Bill Hickok and Gerald McRaney as powerful bad guy, George Hurst.

The language is as raw as I remember. Four letter words and graphic scenes of sex and violence abound. This is unique dialogue that gives a nod to the time period and allows the characters to use the rough and raw words of whore houses, gambling dens and booze joints.

As you may have noticed, streaming services are revisiting series that still hold interest for viewers. In the case of Deadwood: The Movie (May 2019), David Milch picks up the story ten years after the end of the original series.

While I loved communing with these characters again and loose ends are indeed tied, the film was not of the same artistic quality of the series. By all means, watch this ground-breaking remarkable series as a newcomer or as a repeat customer. The Movie may be optional.

Just remember, aces and eights are the dead man’s poker hand. At least in Deadwood.