December 5, 2020

“Away” with Hilary Swank on Netflix

You can add “Away,” the Netflix tv series about a manned mission to Mars, to the list of passably entertaining shows about space travel. Hilary Swank plays Emma Green, the NASA commander of a five-person international team on space ship Atlas headed for the red planet. A freak accident at the beginning of the journey makes the other four astronauts doubt Green’s ability to be an effective leader.

Josh Charles (“The Good Wife”), Green’s husband back on earth, is a failed astronaut due to a hereditary and life-threatening illness. He continues to advise NASA however, trouble-shooting engineering problems on the space craft containing his wife. Emma Green has also left her teenage daughter, Alexis, behind to deal with hormones and her husband’s health issues during this three-year voyage.

The program also delves into the back stories of other astronauts and staff. Lu Wang (Vivian Wu) is a Chinese astronaut and chemist who has a clandestine affair with a female Chinese NASA translator. Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir) is a veteran Russian cosmonaut and engineer who has sacrificed his family life for space travel. Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh) is a botanist from Ghana who was raised by Jewish-British adoptive parents. Second-in- command, Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki) is a medical officer estranged from his family in India. It is a bit of a soap opera plot with all the characters, but the episodes are engaging and Swank is fantastic.

The series was cancelled after one ten-episode season, but I would have liked to see how the story played out on Mars and whether they would make it back to earth. Some reviews took the series to task for putting too much emphasis on the personal lives of the people back on earth, but I liked this fresh take on how astronauts put their personal lives on hold while they are “Away.”

“Twelve Angry Men” in a restored TV Production

If you can convince your friends or family to watch an hour show together this holiday weekend, you might consider the restored version of “Twelve Angry Men” on YouTube.

The black and white television play by Reginald Rose was later developed into a stage play and movie, but this initial Westinghouse Studio One version broadcast has fantastic dialogue and acting.

Robert Cummings won the Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Single Performance that year, but the whole cast, including Franchot Tone and Edward Arnold, impress the viewer with their acting skills. I finally figured out that the jury foreman was a younger Norman Fell who later became the landlord on the tv show, “Three’s Company.”

The play is interspersed with 1954 commercials featuring Betty Furness and Westinghouse appliances and they are a hoot, especially the one featuring a turkey in a “new-fangled” Westinghouse refrigerator at the program’s 38-minute mark.

Several thoughts came to mind while watching this mid-20th century creation. Television shows were in black and white and broadcast live in those days so there is definitely a stage set feel to the show. Juries were predominantly male and white. Ironing, cooking and cleaning were the exclusive domain of women. People who have entrenched views of the world are always present. Some will resort to bullying and even violence to get their way.

After you have had your fill of turkey this weekend, perhaps you will also need some food for thought. “Twelve Angry Men” just may be that mental meal.

youtube.com.watch?v=HlaXebUi72A

Sophia Loren in “The Life Ahead” on Netflix

Netflix’s offering of the movie, “The Life Ahead,” is creating quite a buzz. Not only does it feature the iconic Italian actress, Sophia Loren at age 87, but the director is her son Edouardo Ponti.

Is it the greatest movie ever? No, but it has enough redeeming qualities to invest roughly 90 minutes of your time. Momo, a Senegalese-Italian orphan played by first-time film actor, Ibrahim Gueye, has a natural presence that makes up for his inexperience as a thespian. We have noble plot lines galore. Loren as Madame Rosa is a survivor of Auschwitz and a retired prostitute who has been a foster mother to the children of working girls. She provides daycare for Babu, the son of her transgender neighbor, Lola, along with a Jewish boy named Iosif who was abandoned by his mother.

The heart of the movie is the friendship that develops between Madame Rosa and Momo. The young orphan is pulled in the direction of drug-dealing for one man, and doing more honest work for a kindly Arab artisan who patiently introduces him to his birth family’s Muslim faith.

As a side note, the American film world tends to retire actors as they age, and the tendency is even more stark for actresses. Try to think of women who have had major roles in their 80s. Maggie Smith and Judy Dench (both 85) spring to mind, but the big screen tends to be geared towards more youthful appearances. Streaming productions, however, have opened up new avenues for senior actors. Witness the success of Jane Fonda (82) and Lily Tomlin (81) in “Grace and Frankie,” or Alan Arkin (86) in “The Kominsky Method” and the late Max Von Sydow who was 87 when he was in “Game of Thrones.”

TWO WOMEN, Sophia Loren, 1960

Back to a final word on “The Life Ahead.” It certainly gives you a slice of Italian culture. I would also suggest you watch Loren’s Academy Award-winning performance in Vittorio DeSica’s 1960 film, “Two Women,” not to note how she has aged in the intervening decades, but to see that she still has the vibrant screen presence that has made her an international screen treasure.

“Great British Menu” on Amazon Prime

I still have more cooking show recommendations to check out, but “The Great British Menu” series caught my eye on Amazon Prime. British chefs compete by region in Great Britain to win the opportunity to cook for a celebratory dinner at the end of the season.

Previous chef winners judge three chefs per region in their bid to represent Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and other areas of England. Two of the three contestants win the right to present four courses to three esteemed food experts (one of whom is Prue Leith, a current judge on “The Great British Baking Show”). The culinary victor goes on to compete against other regional winners.

Outside of the competitive twists, the viewer is exposed to British dishes and regional food items. We see the contestants meet the suppliers who provide the meat, fish, produce, dairy and beverages in their respective locales. Chefs are given points for sourcing locally.

I watched “The Great British Menu,” Season 5 from 2010 where Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, preside over a dinner honoring food purveyors from British National Trust properties.
“The Great British Menu” has 15 seasons with 45 episodes each, so one could have months of viewing ahead, if cooking competitions are your thing.

The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix

As a youngster, I learned the rudiments of chess, but never got good enough to truly understand the game.

“The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix has given me a much deeper understanding of the skills needed to become a Grandmaster, as well as introduced me to an unforgettable female character. Based on a 1980s book of the same name by Walter Tevis, episode one of the series reminds me of a Charles Dickens novel. We meet Beth Harmon whose mother has died in a car crash, leaving her to be raised in an orphanage. The children are given tranquilizers to keep them docile, thereby starting Beth’s life-long drug problem. She makes two friends there, an African-American girl named Jolene and Mr. Schaibel, the janitor, who introduces Beth to the “game of kings.” Being adopted as a teenager by a dysfunctional couple called the Wheatleys is a very mixed blessing.

Actress Anya Taylor-Joy gives a tour de force performance as the mercurial Harmon. Battling alcohol and drug addictions, as well as mostly male chess opponents, Harmon climbs the chess world ladder. Her few romantic relationships are vanquished chess players.

Her life indeed resembles a chess match: two steps forward as she wins another championship and three steps backward when she succumbs to little pills and vodka.

The soundtrack is especially engaging with classical piano music, pop rock songs of the era and jazz reinforcing the passage of time. The 1960s fashions and cars add visual interest.

The series builds to a climax at a chess tournament in Russia facing the grandmasters, including her nemesis, Borgov. If the series starts out as “Oliver Twist,” it ends up like the movie “Rocky.” The seven episodes took me to a place and time that I wanted to know more about, but didn’t know it!

“The Trial,” Italian Murder Mystery on Netflix

Originally airing on Italian television 2019, Netflix picked up “The Trial” for streaming spring 2020. The plot is improbable, but the Italian legal system makes for fascinating (albeit fictional) viewing.

The stand-outs are Vittoria Puccini playing prosecutor Elena Guerra against ruthless defense lawyer Ruggero Barone (actor Francesco Scianna). A young woman is found murdered outside a posh party and the likely suspect is the spurned wife of a businessman who had a relationship with the murder victim. Barone goes to great lengths to acquit his client, the beautiful, rich daughter of a local business mogul.

“The Trial” is on par with many of the BBC or PBS murder mysteries in terms of production quality. As an added benefit, you get to see Italian fashion and architecture, glimpses of the police and legal system and see if you understand any Italian.

Prego e grazie! Please and thank you!