Sunday, December 31, 2017

Favorite Movies and Shows of 2017, Part One

I had planned to do a review of each show or movie I watched in the last year but there have been so many that they are piling up. So I will just give a brief summation of those I felt to be most compelling, in no particular order.

The Americans (Seasons 1-5, 2013 to present)

I watched the first five seasons of The Americans on Amazon Prime, and while I cannot universally recommend it because of the sexual situations and graphic violence, I think it is a significant series. Aside from the superb acting and dynamic script, The Americans is a raw depiction of the ruthlessness of the agents of Soviet Communism,  who surpassed in callous virulence the most case-hardened CIA assassins. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play deep cover KGB operatives in Reagan's USA of the 1980's, living and working in Northern Virginia and Washington, DC. Pretending to be an American married couple called "Philip and Elizabeth Jennings", they run a travel agency on Dupont Circle as a front for their real work of spying on behalf of the Soviets. They have children and an outwardly normal "American" life although they are both Russians, and dedicated Marxists. At least, Elizabeth is a dedicated Marxist; Philip is drawn to the American way of life and basically just wants to disappear into it. Throughout the series are seen places that are familiar to me from my youth and childhood. If you ever wondered why DC was called the "murder capital of the world" in the '80's, we now know that it was because Philip and Elizabeth were at large, killing anyone who threatened to expose them. Seriously, it is known that there were KGB agents posing as American couples and living for decades in the USA. What makes The Americans so captivating is the fact that Philip and Elizabeth, in spite of their rigorous Communist training, come to have feelings for each other, for their children, and even for the people they are sent to manipulate for the purposes of the Soviet Empire, which makes their work more and more unpalatable. They know that their relatively comfortable and pleasant life in America, the country they are trying to overthrow, is bound to come to an end, either by their capture or their return to Russia, which make the drama a spy thriller extraordinaire. The gist of the series in summed up in a devastating scene in which Elizabeth feels compelled to murder an elderly lady who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Do you think doing this to me will make the world a better place?” the old woman asks Elizabeth before dying.
“I'm sorry, but it will,” replies Elizabeth.
“That's what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things,” the woman says. Her words sum it all up.

Medici: Masters of Florence (Season 1, 2016)

As a lover of the Renaissance and all things Florentine I found the first season of the Netflix production Medici: Masters of Florence to be a mesmerizing experience. The saga of the middle class Italian banking family, who within a century rivaled the royal houses of Europe, could not be better acted, written or staged. The drama centers on Cosimo de Medici (Richard Madden), son of a peasant Giovanni (Dustin Hoffman), and his turbulent marriage to the noblewoman Contessina de Bardi (Annabel Scholey). Together they guide the ambitious clan through the labyrinthine intrigues and pitfalls of Italian politics, even as their private relationship repeatedly founders and rekindles. Unfortunately because of the graphic content I cannot universally recommend the program. It is a shame because there are some magnificent depictions of both the struggles and devotions of believing Catholics, as well as the qualities which make for an enduring marriage, such as forgiveness and loyalty.

The Keepers (2017)

The Keepers is a 7-part Netflix documentary not intended for the faint of heart or the weak of faith. Through personal interviews and testimonies it patches together a story of horrific abuse that allegedly occurred at a Catholic girls' high school in Baltimore, MD in the late 1960's. The abuse, which may have resulted in the murder of a beloved teaching sister, was followed by a cover-up on the part of both civil and ecclesiastical authorities. The allegations of what transpired are so egregious that I would not in a million years believe any of it except that growing up in that same diocese I happen to know that some of it, at least, is true. Because the alleged crimes occurred while the changes in the Church were being implemented, even as society as a whole drifted into chaos, only compounds the sense of confusion surrounding the case. And yet there is a note of hope given by the band of former students who work together to find truth and justice, although as yet they have probably uncovered only the tip of the iceberg.

The Last Kingdom (Seasons 1 and 2, 2015-2017)

Based upon Bernard Cornwell's The Saxon Stories novels, The Last Kingdom is about the ninth century reign of Alfred the Great (David Dawson) and his fight to free England from Danish marauders. Centered upon the historical character Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon) an ancestor of Cornwell, the BBC production is as lavish with authentic costumes and sets as it is with never-ending action, adventure and romance. However, some graphic scenes make it a drama NOT to watch with the family. This is unfortunate because the show has many teachable moments about courage, faith, and fidelity. Uhtred is a Saxon and Christian who is kidnapped by the Danes as a boy and later joins with King Alfred in Wessex, which is the last kingdom unconquered by the Danes. Although Uhtred is called the "godless" due to his total lack of piety he often displays insight into spiritual matters that Alfred appreciates. As for Alfred himself, his growth as a king, a warrior, a husband and a father, is gradually wrought by the many challenges he must face. Both Dreymon and Dawson are accomplished Shakespearean actors; overall the quality of most of the performances is outstanding.

Z: The Beginning of Everything (Season 1, 2017)

 I found the Amazon biopic about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to be highly entertaining and am disappointed to learn that Amazon decided to cancel Season 2. Perhaps after a decade of economic hardship most Americans find the spectacle of "bright young things" smashing up their surroundings and their psyches in an orgy of drunkenness and narcissism to be unpalatable. I must say that I have endured enough economic hardship in my life to cringe at the sight of waste and thoughtlessness. Most especially painful to watch is the self-destruction between two lovers who were soulmates in almost every way. What I enjoyed was the recreation of Montgomery, Alabama in the late teens and early twenties where Zelda Sayre (Christina Ricci), the spoiled youngest daughter of a prominent genteel family, met aspiring writer Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (David Hoflin). Zelda rebels against the manners and structure of the life her parents had created for her, although to an outsider it looks like heaven, especially her linen, silk and cotton frocks and the sheer white embroidered hangings in her room. With such beautiful surroundings, no wonder she was inspired to write, and passages from her letters to Scott later found their way into his highly successful novels. Whether it was Scott's drinking that drove her mad, or Zelda's mental illness that made him drink, we will never know. But in the beginning, it was sheer beauty. Share

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