September 24, 2020

“Knives Out” Movie on Amazon Prime Video

Because the pandemic has brought film-going to a standstill, many recent movies have been expeditiously transferred to streaming services and unreleased films have gone straight to video.

I missed seeing “Knives Out” in a real live movie theater, but thankfully, Amazon has been featuring the Rian Johnson-directed film for free to Prime members.

“Knives Out” initially seems like a boilerplate Agatha Christie-type murder mystery, with the deceased being famous and wealthy crime writer Harlan Thrombey played by the superlative 90-year-old actor, Christopher Plummer.

The real stars are Daniel Craig as southern detective Benoit Blanc and Ana de Arias as Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s immigrant nurse and friend. Flashbacks slowly divulge what really happened as staff, police and family members are introduced to viewers.

The literary scion’s family members are deliciously played by Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Colette, Jaeden Martell and Katherine Langford.

I was especially tickled by the throne of knives in the author’s home that gives a pointed nod to the throne of swords featured in the “Game of Thrones” book and tv series. Plot twists, clever dialogue and subversive themes make this a bracing evening of entertainment. Word has it that Daniel Craig may reprise his southern accent in a “Knives Out” film sequel. Count me in.

The Bureau French tv series on Sundance Now

If you are up for a French tv show that has some similarity with Showtime’s Homeland, The Bureau or Le Bureau des Légendes on Sundance Now may be your cup of cafe au lait.

Guillaume Debailly (Mathieu Kassovitz) is an undercover agent with France’s DGSE (General Directorate of External Security), the French equivalent of our CIA. He has been posing as a French teacher in Damascus, Syria and falls in love with an Arab woman who is college professor. Their relationship and its complications is the main through line of Season 1. We are also introduced to Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau), a newbie spy who is embedded as a seismologist in Iran to shed light on that country’s nuclear program.

Ancillary characters are other French agents along with their bosses and handlers, CIA operatives, Kurds, terrorists, politicians and business people from different countries, kidnappers, imams and family members of the main players. There are brutal scenes with French captives so this is not a show for the faint of heart.

What you will get with The Bureau is whip smart plotting, memorable characters and a greater sense of the stakes in the Middle East. This is not light entertainment, but you will be immersed in a world that is, hopefully, unlike your own.

All four seasons of Le Bureau are available on Sundance Now.

Downton Abbey – the Movie

I was sad to see the tv series Downtown Abbey broadcast its last episode of season six in 2015. Small wonder that a movie revisiting these beloved characters was welcomed in the fall of 2019.

The original series was set over several years in the early 20th century, including World War I. The film continues with the characters in 1927 when the King and Queen of England pay a brief visit to the Downton Abbey residence.

Lord Grantham and his wife are much the same. Widower Tom Branson and Lady Mary now jointly manage the Downton Abbey property. Sybil is living life as an aristocratic mother and wife at a nearby estate. Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham embroils herself in a fight over a relative’s inheritance.

In the servant quarters, romance and marriage continue to be a driving force. Daisy is reviewing her marriage prospects. Mr. Carson, now married to Mrs. Hughes and in retirement, is commandeered to manage the Royal couple’s visit. Butler Thomas Barrow, meets a new friend and possible love interest. Tom Branson, an Irish hybrid of both upper and lower classes, saves the king from an assailant and falls for a maid traveling with the royal retinue.

Although not as engrossing as the original tv series, Downton Abbey (the movie) makes for a charming evening of entertainment. May Julian Fellowes continue to write about these memorable characters as they traverse the ever-changing 20th century.

The 2019 film is now available on Amazon Prime Video.

McMafia on Sundance Now

I am still on a crime drama tv-watching spree and McMafia on Sundance Now has fed that yen with international style. A co-production with the BBC, AMC and Cuba Pictures, the tv series is based on the 2008 non-fiction book by reporter Misha Glenny, McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld.

James Norton plays Alex Godman, son of a Russian mafia don who is trying to go straight in England. Alex and his British fiancee get drawn into the international skullduggery. Vadim Kalyagin (actor Merab Ninidze) shows up as the arch nemesis crime boss still in Russia who threatens the entire Godman family.

Almost all of the major male characters have attachments to family members or friends who become their points of weakness. A grey-bearded David Strathairn as shady Israeli businessman Semiyon Kleiman and Antonio Mendez (actor Caio Biat) as a handsome liaison for a vicious Mexican drug cartel are some of the bad guys who make use of these relationships. Wives, daughters, mothers and girlfriends are, for the most part, collateral damage in this serious-as-death global game.

The show intro shows a red map line extending from Mumbai, to Prague, to London to Moscow with exotic stop-overs that include Tel Aviv, Cairo and the Cayman Islands. The cinematography can be stunning and the cultural glimpses intriguing.

McMafia, co-created by Hossein Amini and James Watkins, is a smart international crime show that is all the more frightening when you consider its inspiration was a non-fiction book. Season 2 has been ordered. Release date pending.

Years and Years on HBO vs. Leverage on Sundance Now

In my quest to find both escapist and thought-provoking things to watch, let me recommend two wildly different shows.

Years and Years, a joint television production between the BBC and HBO premiered in the U.S. June 2019. To be honest, I found it by accident perusing my HBO offerings just recently. The estimable Emma Thompson is Vivienne Rook, a businesswoman turned politician with outrageous and dangerous ideas that are gaining a foothold with the British public.

Warning: this series has some painful correlations with current news. Immigrants are herded into prisons where a communicable disease is running rampant. A financial debacle causes people to lose their jobs, money and homes.

Focus is on the Lyons family with siblings who include an anarchistic sister who suddenly comes home after time abroad, a gay brother who as a city manager falls in love with an incarcerated immigrant, the sassy youngest sister who is in a wheel chair due to spina bifida and a brother who is a seemingly strait-laced banker. Their children include a daughter who wants to download herself onto the cloud and a half-Chinese son who dresses like a girl.

Muriel Deacon, played by Anne Reid of Last Tango in Hallifax, is the matriarch who periodically invites the whole clan to her large home for family occasions.

The series received good reviews and award nominations, but it does challenge the viewer in quick time jumps, futuristic predictions and plot twists that are a little too close to the bone for today.

If, however, you want to see fine acting and experience a production that is certainly like no other, you may want to tune into the six-episode limited series currently streaming on HBO. Emma Thompson is a marvel as she turns herself into a female version of you-know-who and Boris Johnson.

On the opposite side of the entertainment spectrum is Leverage, an action crime drama series which aired on TNT from 2009 to 2012. Timothy Hutton is Nathan Ford, a straight-arrow insurance exec turned into a corporate Robin Hood after an insurance company denied paying for his son’s medical treatment.

Every episode features Ford and his team outwitting crooked politicians, greedy corporations, dirty cops and bad guys and gals of every persuasion.

Team members include Sophie Deveraux (Gina Bellman), a grifter who has accents and personas galore, Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge), a hacker extraordinaire, Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane), a martial arts specialist and Parker (Beth Riesgraf), cat burglar, pickpocket and safe cracker. Hutton also tries on different characters and accents as he and his team set up their invented scenario for the mark.

There is an over-arching story line as Ford battles alcoholism, runs into his ex-wife, does a romantic bob and weave with grifter Sophie and continually encounters arch-nemesis Sterling played by the devilish Mark Sheppard.

I find comfort in every episode as the Leverage team helps an underdog best the fat cats. Throw in a little humor and visual action and you have the perfect dessert after more serious streaming fare.

Tim Hutton is the 21st century Jim Rockford. If you know the reference, you are definitely analog.

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?