February 20, 2020

The Outsider on HBO

The Outsider series currently streaming on HBO joins countless other Stephen King books that have been adapted for movies or television.

Episode one sets the scary tone for this murder mystery that also features some of King’s trademark supernatural creepiness. A seemingly normal man is accused of brutally killing a little boy. Further investigation uncovers similar cases across the country.

Stand-out performers are Ben Mendelsohn as grieving detective Ralph Anderson and Cynthia Erivo as oddball private investigator Holly Gibney. Mendelsohn is Australian and Erivo English but you’d never know it from their believable American accents.

Other notable actors are Justin Bateman (also a producer of the series), Mare Winningham and Julianne Nicholson.

Kudos go to show creator Richard Price for taking viewers on a macabre journey to discover who is killing children and their families. You might not want to watch The Outsider alone.

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/

The Embassy: Spanish tv series on MHZ

MHZ, the tv streaming site which now bills itself as the Euro TV Place, has just added its first Spanish tv series, The Embassy. Ripped from today’s headlines, we are introduced to the new Spanish ambassador sent to Bangkok, Thailand. He discovers a vicious nest of corruption in his new office.

The crooked staff push back by sending his wife doctored photos showing him with a female employee. They hire someone to plant drugs in his daughter’s purse causing her to be arrested and sent to prison. They also frame him for corruption and generally make his life miserable.

This is a dramatic soap opera, so we watch with glee as his attractive wife has a one night stand with a younger man who turns out to be her daughter’s boyfriend. The brother of the main bad guy also falls in love with the ambassador’s daughter.

Political intrigue, greed, emotional deception and murder all play a part in this very entertaining 11 part series. The final episode is a little too melodramatic for my taste, but the series is a fun ride nonetheless.

After reading more about our current foreign policy, The Embassy does not seem so outlandish!

Link to the tv show: https://watch.mhzchoice.com/the-embassy

Songwriter Tom Lehrer: Biting Wit and Deep Thoughts

Over the years, I would hear mention of the name Tom Lehrer as this legendary songwriter of irreverent and topical tunes such as Poisoning Pigeons In the Park, The Vatican Rag, or National Brotherhood Week. Nor can one forget Buddy Charles’ stupendous rendition of Masochism Tango or the droll Hannukah in Santa Monica, a non-Christian holiday standard.

Lehrer’s popularity in the 1950s and 1960s included LP sales and writing music for the television show, That Was the Week That Was. Lehrer shifted his focus to teaching academic mathematics and musical theater in the early 1970s at places like MIT, Harvard, Wellesley and the University of California at Santa Cruz.

He was definitely a man of many interests having worked at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, enlisting in the military and doing a work stint for the NSA.

His relatively small catalogue of songs is still relevant today. Lehrer is now 91 years old. Isn’t it high time we start a tidal wave of interest in his material? Shame on me because I don’t currently have any of his songs in my repertoire, but hope to rectify that soon.

My friend Lydia Stux gave me this link of Lehrer performing a special concert in Denmark. He has this nerdy charm, with his horn-rimmed glasses and his surprisingly good singing and playing.

Enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHPmRJIoc2k

Big Little Lies on HBO

For popular fiction, author Liane Moriarty is quite a fun read. Small wonder that HBO and David E. Kelley chose to turn her book, Big Little Lies into a series. With star power like Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgard and Shailene Woodley, how could the project fail? Having show runner David E. Kelley on board was also a surefire bet with L.A. Law, Ally McBeal and Boston Legal as some of the shows on his production resume.

Not only did this tv series surpass expectations, it was extended into a second season with none other than acting goddess, Meryl Streep. Other excellent cast members include the exotic Zoe Kravitz, square-shooter Adam Scott and Laura Dern as very entitled business mogul Renata Klein. My special favorite is child actor, Iain Armitage as the adorable and possibly dangerous Ziggy Chapman.

The California setting comes off as a very pretty place with an under current of fear, rage, frustration and boredom. Little wonder that the characters get into such dramatic situations. Big Little Lies explores spousal abuse, bad-parenting, adultery, substance abuse, bankruptcy, privilege and the bonds of friendship. Big Little Lies is essentially a soap opera with really great acting and gorgeous location cinematography.

This is yet another show that has kept me renewing my HBO subscription. Keep it up, Home Box Office.

The Last Czars on Netflix

The Last Czars, a six episode series which premiered on Netflix July 3, 2019, uses dramatic re-enactment scenes interspersed with very animated scholars weighing in on documentary-style questions.

We continue to be fascinated by royal families, as the popularity of the shows Victoria and The Crown would attest. One hundred years have elapsed since the murder of the last Imperial Russian royal family so this seems a propitious time to re-examine the downfall of this storied monarchy.

Robert Jack portrays Tsar Nicholas, the final royal ruler of Russia, as a man who was incapable of changing with the times, which were turbulent indeed with starvation, strikes, riots, a disastrous war with Japan and the run-up to World War I being some of the problems during his reign. On a personal level, he was madly in love with his wife, Empress Alexandra (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and father to four daughters who were ineligible to rule. Joy at the eventual birth of his son and heir, Alexei turned to sorrow when it was discovered that he suffered from an inherited family illness, hemophilia.

We see Alexandra, played by Susanna Herbert, fall under the spell of mystic and possible madman, Grigori Rasputin, mesmerizingly embodied by British actor, Ben Cartwright. Both Nicholas and Alexandra came to believe that only Rasputin could keep the young Tsarevitch in good health.

The series delves into how the family was executed and the possibility of survivors, most notably that of daughter, Anastasia.

If you are a fan of European history, the Imperial Russian family in particular, this docu-drama has good enough acting, cinematography, costume and production values. Some of the dialogue in The Last Czars may annoy you as stating the obvious however.

DNA testing has taken away some of the mystery surrounding the final chapter of the Emperor and his family, but historical interest remains high. I may just go google the current price of a Fabergé egg and take a virtual tour of the Hermitage Art Museum.