September 25, 2017

Thicker Than Water on MHZ

If you are looking for a fantastic family drama with amazing acting, look no further than Thicker Than Water, a Swedish/Finnish tv production currently streaming on MHZ. Yes, it has sub-titles.

Three siblings are invited to meet at the family-owned inn in the Aland islands which are part of Finland but full of Swedish-speaking inhabitants. Lasse Waldemar (Bjorn Bengtsson) is the bad boy brother who is a failed restaurant owner in Stockholm. Jonna Waldemar (Aliette Opheim) is the beautiful sister who has made her life in regional theater. Oskar Waldemar (Joel Spira) is the resentful brother who stayed behind to run the family business and take care of “mom.”

The mother meets with each adult child and gives them a one sentence message to remember. She then takes a boat out on the water and shoots herself. After all, this is set in Scandinavia. Her female lawyer lays down requirements the children need to meet to inherit their mother’s estate. They need to stay on the island and run the small hotel, together, for one summer.

Family secrets, former loves, personal dramas and sibling rivalry all come to a boiling point during this summer season at the old family compound.

The ten-episode season does have an element of “murder mystery” about it, but the main emphasis explores the bonds between parents and child, brothers and sisters, spouses and neighbors. Thicker Than Water makes for exciting television in any language.

The Good Place on Netflix

When I first heard the premise of NBC’s The Good Place television series, I vowed to give the show wide berth. Still, Kristen Bell had charmed me in the cult hit, Veronica Mars, and who doesn’t like Ted Danson, who just gets better with age?
The Good Place showed up on the Netflix trending list, so I gave the first episode a gander. Call me crazy but this comedy is the perfect antidote to all of the crime shows littering the tv scene. Thankfully, there is no laugh track, the dialogue is snappy and the art direction is eye-poppingly inventive. Not to mention the plot twists that hit you right and left in the 13 fast-paced 21-minute streaming episodes.
Besides Bell and Danson, the cast includes the nerdily attractive William Jackson Harper as Chidi, a former university ethics professor, Tahani, a wealthy philanthropist played by gorgeous Jameela Jamil, know-it-all robot, Janet played by D’Arcy Garden and Manny Jacinto who appears to be a silent Buddhist monk named Jianyu. The show explores cultural differences and the thin line between good and evil within the confines of this goofy after-life.


Who would have thought these serious topics could be funny, but show creator Mike Schur has created a world that is…..well, out of this world. Season Two premieres with an hour-long episode September 20, 2017 on NBC. Hey, I’m there.

Trapped on Amazon Prime

People keep telling me that they can’t watch shows with sub-titles, but then they would be missing yet another gripping television program called Trapped, from Iceland no less. The cinematography alone conjures up the most vivid depiction of a winter storm that I have ever seen.
Currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Trapped is ten episodes of taut suspenseful drama . Chock full of flawed but endearing characters, the series is a tapestry of past and current criminal behavior in this isolated yet starkly beautiful Icelandic town. Local police officials are confronted with a headless and limbless corpse that has also been stabbed through the heart. Crime honchos from the capitol city of Reykjavik are unable to fly or drive to this remote location due to an epic winter storm. The blizzard conditions also keep all of the inhabitants “trapped” in this ocean-side burg.

Focus stays on the local law enforcement officials, Andri, Hinrika and Asgeir who valiantly try to determine the guilty parties and keep more mayhem at bay. Let us just say that the carved-up cadaver is just the tip of this nefarious iceberg.

Multiple plot lines concerning human trafficking, the financial collapse of 2008, a suspicious fire seven years ago that killed a teenage girl and simmering grudges all converge by episode ten. Trapped is quintessential Scandi-noir.

You may not want to watch this series in the dead of winter since the engagingly chilly scenes just may be overkill.

Ozark on Netflix

Netflix continues to attract viewers with its engaging original programming. Ozark, starring Justin Bateman and Laura Linney, is reminiscent of Breaking Bad where a seemingly straight-arrow guy descends to the criminal world of drugs, money laundering and murder. The story starts out in a gorgeously-filmed Chicago where Marty Byrde is a financial advisor.
Enter a very scary drug cartel boss played by Esai Morales and the story ratchets up to life and death situations. In order to save himself and his family, Marty comes up with the idea to move his financial operations to Lake of the Ozarks where he wrongly assumes that money-laundering will be an easy walk in the woods.

The family encounters gun-toting rednecks, rival drug dealers and money- launderers, a young woman who is a master thief and others who have ended up in this rustic locale to escape their checkered pasts. Throw in a wife who has cheated on him, a gay and twisted FBI agent who like Javert is on Marty’s trail and an alluring female owner of a failing resort who may spark Marty’s attention. Marty’s two children, a nerdy son and an attractive teenage girl add to the hot mess.

Stand-out performances include that of Julia Garner who plays the young  thief, plus veteran actor Harris Yulin who sells the Byrdes his home with the condition that he get to live in it, with them, until he dies.
Particularly impressive is Bateman who directs four of Ozark‘s ten episodes and plays mightily against type as this loving but criminal father, husband and businessman.
The beautiful Lake of the Ozarks is now on my travel list with the hope that drug-dealing, money-laundering, theft and murder are fictional constructs.

French television shows available on streaming services

Anyone who wants to begin learning a language or freshen their knowledge of current dialogue in a foreign language may consider checking out television programs in that language.

My emphasis in this blog post is on French programs that have legible sub-titles on internet streaming platforms.

Even if you aren’t trying to learn a language, you will delight in Gallic crime shows, dramas and comedies.

MHZ has a large collection of French tv shows, but Netflix also has some very interesting selections. You can add the MHZ service to your Amazon Prime account, or add the app to your Apple TV line-up. Please consult the link below to see how else you can access MHZ. Hulu is adding a few more French programs so check them out as well.

I will continue to search for more French television series on streaming services. If you run across anything good in French, please send me your French tv recommendations and where you found them.

Bonne chance!

French television shows available on streaming services:

Braquo – MHZ – A brutal but well-made police procedural.

The Break (La Treve) – Netflix – An unsettling Belgian psychological crime series.

Bureau of Sexist Affairs – MHZ – Comedy shorts on various topics.

Cain – MHZ – A charming cop show starring Bruno Debrandt.

Call My Agent (Dix Pour Cent) – Netflix – A comedy about stars and their agents in France.

The Churchmen (Ainsi Soient-Ils) – MHZ – A thoughtful drama about young men studying to become Catholic priests.

Detectives – MHZ – A light, entertaining detective series.

Dolmen – MHZ – A ridiculously romantic series if you are in the mood for such fare.

Frank Riva – MHZ – The iconic Alain Delon plays an ex-detective who returns to the fray.

A French Village (Un Village Francais) – MHZ & Hulu – Historical fiction about World War II in a small town in France.

Kaboul Kitchen – MHZ – Comedy set in Afghanistan. Not my cup of kefir, but some like it.

Maigret – MHZ – Simenon novels are depicted on the small screen. Very popular, but not one of my favorite series.

Maison Close – Hulu –  Quite raunchy story about a bordello in France. Only if you are not easily offended.

Marseille – Netflix – Fair to middling political intrigue in Marseille. Tune in to see the marvelous Gerard Depardieu and Benoit Magimell who goes toe to toe with him.

Paris – MHZ – Off-beat series about Parisians whose paths cross in surprising ways.

Pigalle, la Nuit – Hulu – A dramatic series set in Paris’ Pigalle area depicting tawdry doings.

The Returned (Les Revenants) – Netflix – The dead return. Season 1 was mesmerizing; Season 2 bored me to … tears.

Spiral (Engrenages) – MHZ & Hulu – Voted best 2015 tv show in the world and rightly so. Crime, legal and political skullduggery.

The Witnesses (Les Temoins) – Netflix – Decent detective series starring Thierry Lhermitte.

https://www.primevideo.com/splash/getTheApp/ref=dv_web_nav_wa

https://www.hulu.com/a-french-village

http://www.mhznetworks.org/

https://www.netflix.com

And for short clips for the beginning French student:

Oh La La, Hollywood Speaks French (two French sisters in the U. S.) – youtube

“Paris,” French TV series on MHZ

Those wanting to improve their ear for current spoken French might enjoy Paris, a 2015 French tv series currently available on MHZ network. The first few minutes are confusing, but try to finish episode one of the six episode series. A seemingly random cast of characters will quirkily cross paths in the next 24 hours.

A woman who is a union rep for transportation workers will deal with her troubled husband, her transgender son/daughter, her soldier son and have a private meeting with the Prime Minister of France. The PM will deal with a runaway son, his distraught wife, his staff, his frenemy, the current Attorney General and political intrigue of all sorts. The Attorney General will inadvertently deal with his pregnant housekeeper, his journalist wife and the transgender son mentioned above. The pregnant housekeeper’s ex-con Muslim husband will get a job working at the funeral home owned by the brother-in-law of the female union rep.
You get the picture.  We are shown a kaleidoscope of people in Paris from working class, to wealthy and powerful along with very shady characters involved in strip joints, gambling, burglary and smuggling young women across the French border. All will become part of the woven tapestry that is Paris.

Every person depicted is somewhat an anti-hero with both good and bad qualities on display, but you will marvel at how the plot knits all of their lives together. In the process, you do get a sense of a day in the life of Paris, albeit a day that is transfused with love, crime, politics and high drama.

For a monthly fee, MHZ is available on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.  Here are some other articles I have written about MHZ, the streaming service that caters to lovers of European dramatic television programs.

http://www.elizabethdoylemusic.com/2014/03/mhz-is-now-streaming/

http://www.elizabethdoylemusic.com/2015/10/mhz-choice-launches-on-oct-20/

The Handmaid’s Tale: Chilling series on Hulu

I must admit that I have never read any Margaret Atwood but The Handmaid’s Tale which debuted as a novel in 1985 has been on my “to do” list for years. Now comes a tv series adaptation of the iconic book presented as a Hulu original.

Elizabeth Moss (Peggy on Mad Men) is extraordinary as June/Offred, a baby-making handmaid in a religiously fanatic society of a frightening fictional future.  We see flashbacks of her previous unfettered life as a wife and mother along with scenes of her current servitude in the household of The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his barren but beautiful wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Her only reason for existence is to bear children for this upper crust couple.

Fellow handmaids include her revolutionary friend Emily played by Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) and Moira, her friend from her married days, portrayed by Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black) who seemingly escapes from this dystopian world, biblically called Gilead, but whose whereabouts remain unknown.

Having watched five of the ten episodes, I can say this is a finely-made mini-series with vivid costumes, artful cinematography, intelligent dialogue and masterful acting. New episodes premiere on the Hulu streaming platform on Wednesdays. You could say I have the series “book-marked.”

13 Reasons Why on Netflix

My hairdresser first mentioned this series on Netflix and I always check out what he recommends. Based on the popular 2007 novel, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher and adapted by Brian Yorkey for the 13 episode Netflix series, I initially didn’t connect with the first few minutes of episode one. There were some stilted line readings by side characters and the high school setting seemed like an after-school special.

Then I fell in love with young male actor Dylan Minette (originally from Evansville, Indiana) who plays Clay Jensen, a square kid who knew Hannah Baker, a recent high school suicide. I was immediately sucked into the story through his eyes and ears as he listens to 13 tapes made by Hannah before she committed suicide. Each cassette is dedicated to someone who made her life miserable. I was hooked.

Katherine Langford, an Australian actress who auditioned for the part of Hannah over Skype, heartbreakingly depicts a beautiful, talented and troubled teen. Kate Walsh, Steven Weber and Brian d’Arcy James are a few of the actors who fill adult roles in the series, but it is the young thespians who steal the show; Christian Navarro playing the cryptic Tony Padilla; Alisha Boe as the promiscuous and rebellious Jessica Davis; Brandon Flynn and Justin Prentice playing jock-bullies Justin Foley and Bryce Walker, respectively.

This is not a show for the weak-kneed. Vivid re-enactments of rape and suicide had me yelling, “No, no, no…” Despite this warning, this limited series allows you into the current world of youth, social media and bullying. I have seen articles pro and con about allowing kids to watch these episodes. Certainly the issues of rape and suicide would have to be carefully discussed. I give this emotionally-charged series a guarded recommendation for those brave enough to go to dark and troubling places.

Lady Gaga’s jazz, musical theater and piano chops

Lady Gaga turns 31 this week.
Is there anything Lady Gaga can’t do?  She has burned up the pop charts with her contemporary songs, worn meat as a costume, recorded standards with Tony Bennett, credibly sung a Sound of Music medley at the Oscars, and played an intriguing role on FX TV’s America Horror Story.

For my purposes, I wanted to know more about her jazz and musical theater inclinations.

Gaga’s dad, Joe Germanotta said she won a jazz vocal competition in her mid-teens and cut her vocal teeth in that genre.  A few short years later, she was enrolled at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts before dropping out to follow her own musical muses.  If you can believe it, she was dropped by Def Jam Recordings. She then worked as a songwriter for Sony/ATV Music Publishing before finding her groove as a performer and visual artist, with hair, makeup and clothing being her personal canvas.

She also plays the piano. And we mean pianos and keyboards of all types. Some look like space ships, one is filled with plastic bubbles, with still others covered in butterflies or veritable gardens. I particularly admire the keyboards that look like a motorcycle or a giant shoe, not to mention the piano that looks like a 20- foot spindly-legged creature or the one that is literally on fire!

Enter Tony Bennett. With their duet recording, Cheek To Cheek, Bennett and Lady Gaga both broke some impressive records. The project won a a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album and debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200. Bennett became the oldest person to reach number one on the charts, and Lady Gaga became the first female artist to achieve three number one hit albums in the 2010 decade. While on a music road trip, I carefully listened to every track and had to admit, this gal has vocal chops, knows how to put across a lyric and she swings.

Gaga makes the occasional appearance, both announced and not, to sing jazz and pop standards. Type Lady Gaga into a search engine with the song titles Someone To Watch Over Me, Orange-Colored Sky, Imagine and You’ve Got a Friend, and enjoy these and other clips on youtube.

Now word comes out that she is slated to be the lead in Bradley Cooper’s movie remake of A Star Is Born, the iconic story previously featuring Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. I wouldn’t be surprised if, down the road, she was announced as the lead in Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera House. You go, Gaga!

The Great British Baking Show on Netflix

Did you notice that many American home and food shows disappeared from Netflix at the end of 2016? Scripps Networks Interactive which owns HGTV, the Food Network, the Travel channel and DIY decided they could make more money elsewhere. Search the word “house” on Netflix and not much concerning design comes up.

Food and home reality show bingers, fear not. Netflix has countered by adding a few shows produced by British TV producers such as, Escape To the Country, Grand Designs, Hidden Homes and my surprising favorite, The Great British Baking Show.

It’s no secret that I am neither a baker or a cook, but there is something very compelling about this food reality show. Much like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, thirteen amateur bakers compete weekly to avoid being the one sent home that episode. The one left standing at the end of the season is the winner and dubbed Star Baker.

Each show, the contestants are asked to bake everything from breadsticks, petits fours and baklava, to displays using multiple baking skills that must be artistic and highly edible. Two judges critique the culinary results: Mary, a very proper English matron who has impeccable manners and wicked baking skills along with Paul, a grey-haired, blue-eyed demon who can spot any baking flaws and points them out with acerbic precision. The proceedings are narrated by two goofy British ladies who throw in puns, foreign phrases, quips and an ever-varying pronunciation of the word “bake.”

Small wonder that I must have a snack handy while watching this show. Like my big dog drooling at our steak dinner table, the sight of all of these beautiful baked wonders gets the salivary glands pumping. Carrots and celery just will not do!

Three seasons of this show are currently available on Netflix. Paraphrasing Oliver Twist, “More, please.”