“The English Game”–From Provincial to International

The English Game, Netflix Original

The English Game, created by Julian Fellowes (of “Downton Abbey”),  is a Netflix Original period drama based upon a true story.  Set in 1880’s England, The English Game is a notable example of class divisions exhibited in the early evolution of football aka soccer.  Rising from a provincial game that was socially stratified for the “Old Etonians” of noble birth, we see the evolution of football to a world-class game, perhaps the most popular in the world.

Soccer’s first governing body was an “old-boy network” consistent with  a clubby insular game for the privileged.  They knew the playbook but to their chagrin soccer began to trickle down to the lower classes.

Edward Holcroft

By the time The English Game opens,  two Scotts from a mill town are drafted  as the first paid players in soccer.  Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie) and his friend, Jimmy Love (James Harkness) become the stars of the mill town soccer team, and prepare for playing in the semi-finals against the aristocrats.  They create a new strategy of playing that upends the traditional style followed by the elite.

However, players being compensated for their skills were against the Football Association’s rules and so, the plot thickens. Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), an Old Etonian of impeccable aristocratic status, is a founding member of the Football Association and heir to the white-shoe family bank that owns the mill sponsoring the paid players.  His team is the arch-rival to the mill town team and unaccustomed to their  innovative play strategy.

While The English Game is ostensibly about sportsmanship and soccer in particular, the overriding theme is class division and the leveling of the playing field for all who qualify, not just those who create exclusionary rules to avoid competition.  And the subplots of competition between father and son, women’s vulnerable status and exploitation in a world of privileged men,  in a highly rigid society are compelling to watch. 

You don’t need to be a sports fan to enjoy The English Game!

“Hillary”–Unmasked

Hillary,  an intimate and candid four-part series about  former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton– one of the most admired and vilified women in the world–features never-before-seen footage of her life from birth in a close-knit family in Chicago, Illinois.  The mission of this documentary is not only to interview Hillary Clinton (for a total of thirty-five hours) and several dozen colleagues and personal friends but also to try to analyze why people found Clinton so compelling—and so polarizing. Yet Hillary is so much more than a biopic. It is a distillation of the history of contemporary feminism in the United States, sexism, the failure of journalism, and the history of partisan politics.

For  the first time in perhaps four decades, we see Clinton engage in a wide-ranging conversation about herself as a private citizen with breathtaking courage and unflinching reflection on those mistakes. This is maybe the first time she hasn’t had to self-censor.

Even with her exclusive access to Hillary Clinton, filmmaker Nanette Burstein  did not intend to go over familiar territory about perhaps the most scrutinized public figure in the last half-century. “Can a woman ever—really, actually ever,– become president of the United States?”  To this day, there is no easy answer.  And only one woman has come extremely, some would say, perilously close.

Childhood friends,  her daughter Chelsea, former President Barack Obama as well as staff members, campaign managers, journalists, and senators, both Republican and Democrat, are interviewed. The former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich so hated the idea of being interviewed that he is on record as responding: “I would rather stick a needle in my eye than talk to you about Hillary Clinton in a documentary.”

Hillary frames the Hillary Clinton  of the past half-century as a woman who learned that to be taken seriously, she’d have to wear a mask. She never fully removes it, of course, but in these interviews it occasionally slips, and clues about a  brilliant intellectual that no one else seems to get are revealed. “I’m a private person,” Hillary confesses, “and I’ve made mistakes because of that.” As a woman especially, she may be just too cerebral for some people to put up with.  Hillary Clinton is a national lightning rod for women’s status and image–the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Hillary Clinton was criticized for coming off as too cold,–even emotionless– but she had been forced to learn how to be affectless as the rare female law student at Yale University. Clinton’s gender hindered her in unpredictable ways as Burstein’s documentary unfolds.   She was scrutinized, investigated, loved  and hated. 

At one interview, Hillary seems almost perplexed at the double standard, even after all the years on the campaign trail:  “I’ve been on platforms with lots of male candidates, and they have shouted, they have beaten the podium, they have gone crazy with their hands and arms, and nobody said a thing.” “A woman candidate? Her voice rises, and somehow that’s over a line.”   But what line has been drawn?

The filmmaker does a commendable job illustrating what Clinton was subjected to throughout her career:  from footage of protesters with “Iron My Shirt” signs at her rallies, to male supporters earnestly advising her to smile more and wear something besides pantsuits.  For younger viewers this past may seem almost unbelievable, in its  blatant sexism.  To the babyboomer generation, the behavior is dishearteningly familiar.

When Trump stalked behind Clinton in an effort to physically intimidate her,  Clinton wanted to call him out, but didn’t. “He was preening like an alpha male.” She knew how the press would react.

Her communications director elaborates on why confronting Trump would have been ill-advised. “I think the post-2016 election world is a different universe — I think a woman could do that and be lauded for standing up to a man who was trying to intimidate her, but not then.” The same resistance to pushing back occurs throughout the film, in  spite of anger: in the email with James Comey, in the PizzaGate trolling and in the Whitewater investigation.  

She demonstrates how aware she is of the public’s perception of her and the role her gender has played in her polarizing image.  And her most painful moments– when she had to face her husband’s sexual predation of Monica Lewinsky– are some of the most heartbreaking to watch.  Hillary is personally hurt, admits that she could hardly breathe when Bill admitted he was lying, and demanded that he explain to their daughter about the affair.  A fragile, chastened Bill Clinton is seen as a vulnerable humbled man for the unspeakable betrayal of her trust.

Clinton is also positive about how the women’s movement has brought change, but still there is no guarantee that the hard-fought changes and laws will not be rescinded or pushed back. Her tone is optimistic and hopeful, nonetheless.

Hillary is instructive and emblematic of a period in history that is not that long ago.  Even for those who despise her, the series offers a unique glimpse behind the scenes of some of the most consequential moments in recent political history.

She cracked the glass ceiling.  We now wait for it to be shattered. .

Note:  Available on Hulu.

“Baptiste”–After The Missing

In this spinoff of the BBC popular series “The Missing”, detective  Baptiste is now retired and recovering from brain surgery. The six-part crime procedural, Baptiste, is  an intense crime thriller.

Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo) is called in by Amsterdam’s Chief of Police and former lover to investigate the disappearance of Natalie, a young sex worker. He  meets her uncle Edward (Tom Hollander of “The Night Manager”) and soon Baptiste and Edward become involved in taking down a Romanian crime organization.   The Romanians are in the business of sex trafficking in the red light district of the city.  While still the same old curmudgeon as in “The Missing”,  Detective Baptiste now has conflicting emotions in his relationship with his own daughter, and with his former lover.  Nonetheless, he is quickly sucked into a case that exposes the seedy underworld of Amsterdam beneath the picturesque streets and canals. His family suffers while he becomes obsessed with the case.

Filled with a number of red herrings to throw the viewer off track, Baptiste may fool the viewer as to what really happened to Natalie, and who really is implicated in sex trafficking.  This is a great whodunit worthy of six hours of viewing time.

Note:  Available on Masterpiece Theater and pbs.org.  Baptiste premiered in April of this year.  A second season is planned for next year.

“Contagion”–Infects Us All

Contagion

With the tagline: “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone”, this B-rated movie “Contagion” (2011), directed by Stephen Soderbergh, is eerily prescient nine years later.

A pandemic–“a novel virus”– is about to create havoc, beginning with the opening scene where Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is at the Hong Kong airport, waiting to catch a plane back to Chicago.  Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) will soon discover that his wife is patient zero–the  original carrier of the deadly virus which begins to get out of control in a matter of days.  The CDC’s principal investigators,   Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet)  and Dr. Cheever   (Laurence Fishburne),  attempt to identify the virus and develop a vaccine while analyzing the exponential rate of growth.  Everyone worldwide is advised to stay calm, maintain social distancing (yes, they use that term) and wear masks to avoid touching their own faces.  It is unsettling to hear terms now commonplace such as fomites (the surfaces to which viruses cling) and R0 (“r-naught”)–the number of people a single carrier infects.   

Contagion movie

Several days pass before anyone realizes the extent or gravity of this new virus. In Contagion we see hospital workers with insufficient protective equipment,– some without N95 masks,– succumb as first responders. Do you hear the Twilight Zone theme song yet?  The Centers for Disease Control, led by Dr. Cheever’s investigative team, is villified and accused of conspiracies.  An unethical journalist profits from a homeopathic “cure” which creates mobs at local drugstores.  Looting and panic ensue.

As the contagion spreads to millions of people worldwide, societal order begins to break down as people panic in the uncertainty that a vaccine will be developed. 

The second time around, viewing Contagion is a chilling déjà vu. No longer a film of science fiction, depicting a dystopia in the distant future, Contagion is a cautionary tale right now… for all of us.

“Little Fires Everywhere”–Incendiary at Its Best

Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio during the late 1990s, Little Fires Everywhere is based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel by the same name. Reese Witherspoon (Elena)and Kerry Washington (Mia)  steal the show as mothers from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds.  This is a suburban saga with a painfully close lens focused on the income gap, class, and racial divide we know only so well.  In the opening scene  a house in Shaker Heights is engulfed in an inferno.  Is it the target of arson?  We will find out.  The year is 1997.

Shaker Heights’s community ethos prides itself on its civic duty, open and liberal lifestyle, and a desirability that does not include anything unseemly, dangerous or grass exceeding six inches in length.  The unpleasant and the disastrous reside elsewhere.  The community’s bubble is impenetrable…until it isn’t.

Elena Richardson is a smart, highly educated suburban mother and Shaker Heights reporter who is also a perfectionist.  Problem is that one of her four teenage children does not meet her expectations, no matter how low the bar she begrudgingly sets for Isabelle (Izzy), her youngest.  The mother and daughter are toxic:  opposing forces of nature. Elena is a narcissist, so the kids are self-reflecting objects … little trophy children, all about what others think.  Izzy doesnt play Elena’s game  and, in return, Elena seems incapable of any love or empathy for her.

Mia is a very talented artist but she can be overly protective and possessive about her teenage daughter Pearl.  And Elena believes she is in control of her kids and her life, but she really knows very little about  her children.  Neither Elena nor Mia are allowed into their daughters’ worlds and conversely, their daughters do not know them. 

Each mother believes herself to be a good and decent parent because both have structured their lives to shield their daughters from failure.   Yet their sense of self is not challenged.  Both Elena and Mia want a family with strong connections and bonds, but the connecting and dividing are sometimes in the same moment.

Little Fires Everywhere explores motherhood in all its pain, joy and self-denial, cutting to the bone.  Marriage, sexual identity, race and ethnicity are intertwined with the psychology of class and white privilege.

While Shaker Heights self-congratulatory residents believe they say all the correct things about race, their feelings of  superiority are subconsciously ingrained– in the way only wealthy white folks can be. The thing about whiteness is, of course, if you’re not white, you know whiteness and the rules of whiteness better than white people do, because you have to co-exist.   

There is no stammering and flailing in Little Fires Everywhere. Perhaps more than any other scene,  we see, in the final moments,   the human effort to want to get something right even after everything has gone wrong.  The dialog, acting and pacing are extraordinary. Witherspoon and Washington are at their best.

Note:  Available on Hulu streaming.  And for a fascinating interview with the author, Celeste Ng, on the book-to-screen adaptation, see the LA Times article.

“Blow the Man Down”–Maine Down Under

Premiering at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, Blow the Man Down   is  a film debut by writer-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy. It opens in Easter Cove, a small parochial fishing village along the coast of Maine, in a somewhat clichéd but contemporary riff on “Murder She Wrote”.

 We see a history of covering up secrets by the small town’s residents.  And we listen to a chorus of fishermen sing “blow the man down” –referring to the shoving of a man to the bottom of a boat, either accidentally or on purpose.  And that is where the seemingly simple story begins.

The town’s fish market owner is dead, leaving behind a debt-ridden shop, a house in foreclosure, hospital bills, and two twenty-something daughters with very different expectations: Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor). Priscilla stayed in Easter Cove while the more rebellious Mary Beth went away to college. She reluctantly  returned home when their mom got sick. Both Mary Beth and Priscilla have now had their  dreams derailed.

The deceased mother’s three AARP-age friends gather to remember cherished details of their relationship with her: Suze (June Squibb), Doreen (Marceline Hugot) and Gail (Annette O’Toole). Not present is Enid (Margo Martindale), which seems curious but, as we learn later, not unexpected.

Is Blow the Man Down going to be a cozy mystery with a comfy feeling about a sweet little threesome of elderly women who like to have tea and gossip? Just a simple story with everything on a straight line until the end?  Easter Cove almost immediately turns claustrophobic. Another reminder we are in “Murder She Wrote” territory.  Three murders take place within a week.

Blow the Man Down  is about sisterhood and the lengths to which sisters will go for each other, even when their better instincts say they shouldn’t.  Easter Cove is filled with women, young and old, who have their own dark secrets in a circle of superficially friendly grit and darker compromises.

In an early scene a man chases a screaming young woman through the snow as Enid coldly watches through the window.  We wonder who she is watching and why Enid is not responding to the young woman’s obvious fight for her life.

Saylor and Lowe are amusing in their depictions of desperation and cluelessness, occasionally reminiscent of Woody Allen and the Coen brothers.  And although the two major characters are the young millennial sisters, it is the babyboomer females who hold the screen.  Margo Martindale (of “The Americans” and “Justified” among others) is a quiet scream as  Enid, the protagonist-snake who is the source for the community’s original sin. And June Squibb (who, in “Nebraska”, memorably straddles over a former boyfriend’s grave and mocks his spirit with “See what you could have had”) is  delightful as the town’s action-oriented matron who turns out to be more than the white-haired old biddy the viewer is expecting. Locals always take care of their own.

The acting is solid, the plot perhaps lacking backstory in character development, but the cinematography capturing the foggy and salty experience of fish guts and turbulent waters evokes Maine’s rugged yet insular coastal villages.  Close-ups of a fish-gutting knife and a Sisters’ brand pancake box alongside ocean waves, –lots of ocean waves–underscores the tone…and humor.

Eminently watchable during these sequestered, streamable times.

Note:  Available on Amazon Prime (original series).

Last Days of Vietnam– The Best and Worst of Us

Last Days of Vietnam (2015), a PBS documentary in the American Experience television series, is produced and directed by Rory Kennedy, and was a 2015 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature.

Forty-five years ago–on April 29, 1975-the US war ceased in South Vietnam. As North Vietnamese army tanks and troops moved into Saigon, the US ambassador fiercely resisted an evacuation.   But a large number of   U.S. diplomats and military operatives argued for an orderly withdrawal.  With no congressional support, the White House ordered American citizens to be evacuated. The order placed the lives of thousands of South Vietnamese at risk.  US military and government officials on the ground in Saigon faced an impossible decision:  which loyal Vietnamese would leave and who would stay behind to face brutality, imprisonment, or death? Whether to obey White House orders to evacuate U.S. citizens only–or to risk treason and save the lives of  some South Vietnamese citizens (some of whom were family members through marriage)–becomes the major theme of Last Days of Vietnam.

President Ford considered withdrawal, but was refused the budget to support the winding down of the war by Congress, some of whom, along with the Ambasador to Vietnam,  stubbornly resisted the reality of the US losing a war.  With the city under fire, American officers on the ground found themselves faceing a “double-doom”: whether to follow official policy and evacuate only U.S. citizens and their dependents, or to defy the order and save the men, women and children they had come to value and love in their years in Vietnam. At the risk of their careers and possible court-martial, a handful of soldiers took matters into their own hands. Engaging in unsanctioned and often makeshift operations, they waged a desperate but heroic effort to save as many South Vietnamese lives as possible,

Astonishing footage of the evacuation from Saigon with contemporary recollections from both Vietnamese and Americans who were there, Last Days in Vietnam films horrific scenes  to supplement the iconic image of desperate Vietnamese women, children, and elderly hanging off the roof of the US embassy fighting for their lives  to escape Saigon.  For those of us who remember the iconic and unforgettable photo of civilians hanging off the last departing helicopter, we see even more tragic moments inside that helicopter on the desperate faces of  Vietnamese families and the dejected US soldiers. That an orderly evacuation could have avoided the turmoil adds to this shameful display. There is no appropriate emotional response.

This should be a mandatory requirement for understanding this dark and iniquitous period of US history.

Note: ” The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns is  an essential companion piece to Last Days of Vietnam. [See my February 12, 2018 review]. For a fictional masterpiece that tells of one Vietnamese soldier’s escape from Saigon and subsequent life as an immigrant in the U.S.,  read the wrenching Pulitzer Prize winner, The Sympathizer, by  Viet Thanh Nguyen.

“Ozark” (Season 3): Narcos in Missouri

Ozark has set itself apart as one of Netflix’s most popular original series, and this season, in my humble opinion, is the best. (See my reviews of Season 1 -September 2017) and Season 2-October 2018)

In this third  season, Ozark has book-ended the journey that began with Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) inventing a plan to launder the Navarro cartel’s drug money in the Ozarks  and evolves into the journey of Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) inventing a plan to create legitimate businesses.

The Byrdes have finally broken bad.  In Season One Wendy Byrde is primarily the good Midwestern wife following her husband’s plans, albeit criminal in intent, in order to preserve their marriage and keep their children safe.  Now in Season 3 (hinted at in the finale of Season 2) Wendy takes charge.  Her previous marginality–the repeated subtle agonies of a woman knowing she could do better–is no more.

So, what happens when the entire family goes from white-collar  respectability to all-in involvement in a life of criminal activity?  The teenage son and daughter do not push back as they get caught up in their parents’ duplicity.  Season 3 is  devastating: a  witnessing of a nuclear-family-gone-rogue. 

Moreover, the Byrde family is not the only one that is cursed no matter what direction they face.  The Langmores–particularly Ruth–has fought all her life for agency, for a life that she is in control of.  And the  Snells, the local Ozark family who has grown poppies and weed for generations, wants their former power back.

The major theme is still hopelessness–even as the main characters struggle with their reality, a denial of how extremely wounded they are.  Each Byrde family  member gives up a piece of themselves until  there is not much remaining to give up.  Each dysfunctional family–Byrde, Langmore, and Snell–is viewed under a psychological microscope:  revealing tortured souls, in ordeals writhing in a house of pain, truth rattling but not being listened to.  Ruth Langmore has few options.  And Darlene Snell is viciously cunning.  We wait for karma  to catch up with her.

Season 3 of Ozark belongs to Laura Linney, who plays the most challenging role:  how to evolve from a mother who is besieged by her husband’s wrongheaded decision to a mastermind of money-laundering for  a Mexican drug dealer.  Jason Bateman is every bit her match, with scenes reminiscent of Ingmar Berman’s classic “Scenes from a Marriage”.  Both chilling and close to home for many viewers!

“Valhalla Murders”—The House of the Dead

Kudos to Netflix for another great Nordic noir production. In this eight-episode series, Netflix’s first Icelandic co-production, we have a crime thriller about a gruesome serial killer whose murders go back over thirty-five years.  Valhalla Murders is actually based upon a series of murders that took place in Reykjavik.  There is some uneven pacing, but it is over shadowed by the unexpected twists and turns of this Nordic murder mystery.

In the opening scene the main character, Detective Kata, is severely wounded and on the verge of death.  Immediately Valhalla Murders flashes back to twelve days earlier: to the first of a series of brutal murders at a harbor in Reykjavik. Kata should be in charge, but her boss Magnus purposefully overlooks her. Resentment festers.  Magnus calls upon a Norwegian police officer, Arnar, to come back from Oslo to his native Iceland to assist with the investigation.  Kata begrudgingly works with Arnar on Iceland’s first-ever  serial murder case.  The Norwegian police officer’s painful past growing up in Iceland parallels  Kata’s painful relationships with her son, ex-husband, and Magnus.

However, the shocking events of the murders bring the two deeply flawed characters closer together as the  investigation unearths sordid secrets and horrors from decades ago. The deeper they delve into the murders, the more Kata and Arnar respect each other’s investigative skills and relentless commitment to finding the murderer.

The past connection with a state-run boys’ school, Valhalla, importantly leads to controversy and coverup.  As the name Valhalla implies, it is the hall for the heroic dead,  the residence of the Nordic god of war and death, Odin.   But was Valhalla’s home for boys, now closed, ever a safe haven for young boys? 

As the mystery deepens, we see how Kata and Arnar resist the twists and turns thrown at them by those obstructing justice. On fearlessly delving into the  horrifying past, which links the murders to each other,  the two detectives reveal the truth. They both persevere despite the cost of unearthing  unspeakable evil, the monster in the dark. 

Note: Netflix released Valhalla Murders on March 13, 2020 with all eight episodes streaming together.

The Stranger–or Estranged

Another series to binge during this C-virus pandemic is Netflix’s The Stranger. 

Produced by Harlan Coben and based on his novel of the same name, this newly released British series opens with a teenage drug fest complete with bonfire and more than a few hints of mayhem.   Part mystery, but most of all, family drama especially between fathers and their children, The Stranger quickly turns seemingly content lives into ones festering with secrets.

Adam Price (Richard Armitage), one of several main and deeply flawed characters, is approached by a beautiful stranger  (Hannah John-Kamen) and told  a shocking secret about his wife, Corinne.  Over the course of eight episodes, the stranger reveals more unimaginable secrets to a number of unsuspecting family members.  Each episode rewards the viewer with a more complicated plot, with additional characters and their secrets exposed. The stranger threatens to make public deeply personal and shameful events and insinuates  extortion.   Detective Johanna Griffin (Siobhan Finneran), soon to retire and contemplating divorce, has become both emotionally and professionally obsessed with solving the series of criminal acts that unfold each episode .

The blackmail initiated by the Stranger sets off a chain of unfortunate and suspenseful events.  By the end of the series we know why the stranger blackmails.  And we have assented to following unsympathetic characters to the end of the main story, with most of the subplots resolved, but not all.  For some viewers this will result in several  twisty plot threads unwinding not completely to their satisfaction.  While I applaud the complexity of characters which adds to the suspense, some are more a distraction than a contribution to the main plot, dragging down the fast pace and momentum.

I’m hopeful that a Season Two will resolve some  unanswered questions and loose threads.  The imaginative twists that happen primarily to Adam Price, the Stranger, and the detective Johanna Griffin who stalwartly attempts to resolve the murders,  are definitely worth watching during this “settle in place” mandate around most of the country!

“Earthquake Bird”—An Unpredictable Flight

Based on the titular novel by Susanna Jones,  Earthquake Bird was released in November 2019.  A psychological thriller with film noir features reminding this viewer of Alfred Hitchcock,   Earthquake Bird is all about guilt and the insidious nature and burden of carrying it.  More slow-paced with a scene or two reminiscent of Memento, this film captures the day-to-day life of guilt and jealousy, pulling back the curtain on what damage and unpredictability can do.

In 1989 an American woman is discovered dismembered in Tokyo.  Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander), a Swedish expat who is a translator and interpreter for  corporations and government, is taken into custody for questioning.  Lucy admits she knew the victim, Lily Bridges (Riley  Keough), but offers little else in terms of facts or other background information. Though she isn’t talking, she’s remembering.  Flashbacks — and flashbacks within flashbacks — tell the story of how she met and fell in love with Teiji Matsuda (Naoki Kobayashi), a strange and handsome street photographer.  Later,  at a nightclub, Lucy  meets the free-spirited Lily, a young woman who has just arrived in Tokyo to find work and an apartment.  Reluctantly pressured into helping Lily settle into Tokyo’s hectic urban life,  Lucy slowly forms a symbiotic relationship with Lily that complicates Lucy’s relationship with Teiji, the photographer.

Unable to  forget painful , deeply traumatic memories that have damaged her, Lucy is losing her grasp of reality.  The pivoting of character arcs leads to the resolution of the murder with surprising twists and psychological redemption offered by  a minor character.

The Japanese setting also adds a cultural dimension to Earthquake Bird, giving more complexity and suspense to the story.   This is an oddball film with a constant undercurrent of subtle tension. Earthquake Bird – in both Japanese and English—is  intriguing in  its ability to plumb the depths of childhood pain, guilt, and family betrayal.  The drizzle-gray cinematic shots of Tokyo and the notable, reflective performances of all cast members, particularly Alicia Vikander’s as a young Japanese-speaking woman, are unforgettable.   (Vikander also speaks Japanese in a fluent, albeit foreigner’s, accent.)  Earthquake Bird may be a challenge to understood and rejected by those who cannot adjust to the pacing and somewhat abrupt ending of this film.  For the rest of us Earthquake Bird is definitely worth watching!

Note: Available on Netflix

“Mr. Sunshine” (2018): Jane Austen meets Downton Abbey

Viewers are treated, in this 24-episode series, Mr. Sunshine,  to a glimpse of  Korean history that few outside of Korea will be familiar with .   Screenwriting legend, Kim Eun Sook, has created an  intricate historical romance set in 1871, when a US military ship docked in Korea, wishes to expand into Asia for the exploitation of natural resources and land.  We first are introduced to Mr. Sunshine , Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun), as a nine-year old Korean boy born into a family of slaves.   In a dramatic turn of events, the little boy runs away with an American missionary  to New York City.  Thirty years later, as a U.S. military officer, Choi is sent to Joseon (Korea) and  unexpectedly falls in love with a beautiful  aristocrat’s daughter, Go Ae-sin (Kim Tae-ri), a member of the class which enabled the slavery of his parents.

Jumping ahead thirty-four years to 1904, Japan breaks off relations with Russia, President Teddy Roosevelt says publicly that he would “maintain the strictest neutrality” between Russia and Japan but privately he writes: “The sympathies of the United States are entirely on Japan’s side.”

Go Ae-sin

In this complex political backdrop, Roosevelt cuts off relations with Korea, setting up a US “legation” and approving the annexation of Korea to Japan. This is the stage for Mr. Sunshine

U.S. army captain, Eugene Choi , is seen at the White House meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt.  His main mission as deputy consul is to maneuver among the four colonial powers –the US, Russia, China  and Japan–looking to exploit the newly independent Korea.  Slavery is slowly being abolished, a small middle-class is emerging, and Western customs are finding their way into a proud nation.

Mr. Sunshine has a complicated roster of characters,– both villains and protagonists—who, at times, fuse into bromance and arch-rivals for the love of the exquisite Ae-sin .   This series has a delightful comic tone between the three major male characters simulating peacocks in posturing before Ae-sin.  Yet there is a slapstick vibe to other comic scenes which are ill-fitted, at least for a foreign audience.  Maintaining a Jane Austen-type romantic tension over twenty-four hour-long episodes requires a meticulous attention to plot and dialogue, something the screenwriter does in  surprisingly inventive plot-points.  

Few of these actors will ever become household names in our Hollywood film industry, but their talents are as good as  any iconic Hollywood performer.  Lee Byung-hun as Eugene Choi delivers a riveting performance full of subtle conflict (for example, between the land of his birth and the country he calls home)  and emotions that are revealed on his face.  It’s difficult for this viewer to take her eyes off him. The quiet nature of his character makes those rare intense outbursts of rage and grief even more effective.

Mr. Sunshine will appeal to selected audiences  for its visually stunning and melodramatic episodes as well as its unique portrayal of a lesser-known historical period for most American viewers.  Others may  relegate Mr. Sunshine to the level of soap opera in costume but to do so would be to miss out on a romance with historical underpinnings.

Note:  Available to stream on Netflix.