Downton Abbey, 3 Episode 4

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If Thomas (a.k.a. Mr. Burton) cries during an episode of Downton Abbey, you know there’s tragedy. I happened upon news of Sybil’s death last fall when I did a search for some other Downton matter and a British site popped up.

Still as Bresson asserts in good drama knowing the outcome won’t diminish the engagement with a story. I know how Casablanca ends and yet I get caught up in the story time after time.

So I was actually all the more rapt as Sybil lost her life in childbirth. Any viewer could tell the city-fied, modern Sir Whatshisname, was wrong and that Lord Grantham should listen to Dr. Clarkson. It was odd, but believable, that this tradition-bound lord didn’t. I kept thinking, “Listen to the women. Listen to Cora on this, Robert!”

The tone of the emotion was just right. Characters were devastated, but there was some reserve. This is not a telenova. And that’s why we viewers feel all the more emotion. When I see say a Malaysian soap opera everyone’s screaming, crying and flailing about in hysteria. I feel nothing because that “works” been done by the actors. When you witness tragedy and there’s been restraint because the situations so sad that words and actions won’t suffice, that’s when the audience feels the most.

One of the most beautiful scenes in this season so far was when we saw Branson at the window holding his daughter. No words and it just lasted a minute, but we knew (or projected) everything his grieving husband must feel. He’s got to be strong and committed to his daughter in spite of his own grief.

We’re in store for a lot of drama. Branson’s role in the family is even more tenuous. He’s still connected by a female the Grantham’s love, but she’s a baby and can’t act as a mediator. Where will they live? What work will Branson, who can’t return to Ireland, take on that won’t humiliate the Grantham’s?

Bravo to Isobel for hiring Ethel. I can see why Mrs. Bird left, but it’s a shame she didn’t try to stay and work through her prejudices. I think Isobel’s great sacrifice isn’t going to be her reputation, but rather her palate. It’ll take Ethel a while to learn to cook.

Congratulations to Edith for the newspaper column. I hope she surprises everyone with her insights and writing. Edith, yes your father and granny disapprove, but don’t flee the breakfast table each time he does. Women need their rights, but they also need to learn to stand their ground.

Daisy, listen to Mrs. Patmore. You’re becoming too much of a grouch.

Robert, it’s true you didn’t cause Sybil’s death, but to get back into Cora’s good graces, you ought to blame yourself as much as possible.(The trailers suggest you won’t.) If you descend into depression than Cora would probably consider rescuing you her mission. If you aren’t huber-contrite and grief-stricken you’ll be sleeping solo ad infinitum.

Here Comes the Groom

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Directed by Frank Capra, Here Comes the Groom stars Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman in an entertaining romantic comedy. Bing plays a reporter who’s working in France after WWII since he’s gotten waylaid at an orphanage helping them to get orphans adopted. He’s left a long time fiancée in the US and she’s tired of waiting and waiting for him.

With his fiancée giving him an ultimatum and his editor calling him back to the US, Pete (Crosby) navigates the red tape and returns with two French orphans planning to marry Emmadel. Unfortunately, the fiancée Emmadel is engaged, to a multi-millionaire no less. Pete must act fast to change her mind and find a mother for these kids.

Lots of singing, dancing and comedy ensues. It’s not sophisticated and I wasn’t rolling on the floor, but there was enough originality and wit to keep me entertained.

The Taste

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There’s a new reality food competition show in town, ABC’s The Taste. It features Anthony Bordain, Nigella Lawson, Brian Malarkey, and Ludo Lefebvre. So we have two Americans, a Brit and a French chef, only one woman though. I figured Anthony would eat Nigella alive, but they seem to respect each other. Time will tell if as the competition gets more intense,  the judges will duke it out more. With Reality TV forced drama comes with the territory and we all expect it.

I watched the first episode, which was two hours and I wish had been 90 minutes or an hour. After awhile you got the drill and it became a drill. The premise is that each chef will choose four contestants for his or her team. That process was the theme of episode 1. Contestants have an hour to make a dish and put just “a taste” i.e. one large mouthful on a ceramic spoon. In a blind tasting the judges decided whom to keep and whom to reject. When two judges chose a person, they then offered reasons why their team would be best and the contestant chose a chef.

They tested dozens of tastes and more were awful than were good. By the midpoint it became clear that simplicity and good technique would win judges over. People who packed too many flavors into a spoon were rejected. Lots of backstories were mixed into the competition. That must be an ABC thing, because the Food Network doesn’t do that much. One contestant was an older Jewish woman who wore headbands and glitzy knitwear. She wanted to win the $100,000 so she could take care of her husband. Several people had hard luck stories and some quit their jobs to be on the show. Not the wisest move in this economy, though the publicity may earn them a better job. I found the woman from Mississippi who cooks in her small trailer, where the fire alarm goes off in the kitchen daily to be quite entertaining and I hope she’s around for awhile. The David and Goliath aspect of amateurs beating professionals is a good touch.

I’m an Anthony Bourdain fan and that’s what drew me to the program. Yeah, he can be mean, but he also shoots straight and the truth that stings is better than a pretty lie that deludes. It’s clear that The Taste isn’t as cool or interesting as his Travel Channel programs but it’s not going to ruin his career.

It’s not as good as Chopped, not yet at least. But it’s also not a bad way to spend an hour when you just want to chill out and you don’t want violence or sheer stupidity.

Kudos to Downton

Applause is due

Applause is due

Whether it’s at the elegant dining table or in the servants’ hall, we see characters disagreeing with wit and intelligence and a touch of restraint that at least indicates that they know they should respect each other. I think this is an overlooked virtue of Downton Abbey and the British of the era. I like to think this virtue is alive and well in England, but I haven’t visited in years, so I’m not sure.

How I wish contemporaries in America and perhaps other places could show more respect and civility. There are zingers but no one is so openly aggressive or mean, while reality TV on other channels seems to compete for new lows. Some sitcoms

O, mores; o, tempora.

I’m going to check this out this weekend.

SciFiFootball

The second series of BBC Three’s teen comedy Pramface has just begun airing in the UK, prompting me to go back and watch the first series. I missed it at the time, partially because of it’s frankly awful name. It was also partially because it looked like a BBC attempt to ‘deal with issues’ or to identify a market and write specifically towards that, rather than telling a story.

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Dear Elementary Writers,

The Insominac's Choice Award

The Insominac’s Choice Award

Goodness gracious, where to start?

I saw Elementary when it debuted and admittedly expected it to be bad, but was surprised that your new Sherlock Holmes show was actually boring.

I figured you just needed time to better understand the genre and how to write a good script. I realize it’s hard to compete with the excellence of Sherlock and sympathize with you. Talk about pressure. Yet you are handsomely paid, so my sympathy’s short lived.

Last Thursday I tuned in again believing you had enough time to improve the show. I saw an episode called “M” and expected rightly that Moriarty would be involved.

Boy, was I disappointed.

Like the first 1.3 episodes I saw in the fall, the story opened with a murder. The scene had a weird tone as my guess is that the vibe on screen is nothing like what a real murder would be like and it wasn’t like the usual (and better) murders shown on TV.  The beginning was rather boring and odd.

Next Sherlock appears and doesn’t deduce what happened and why there’s a pool of blood on the floor of the crime scene, he remembers a previous crime with the same pattern. Yep, Sherlock Holmes just remembered to figure out the case. Do you realize we don’t watch Sherlock to see how average thinkers solve crimes we watch to be bowled over by his astute thinking. Can someone on staff make note of that?

All the while Watson prepares to tie up her assignment. She’s feeling rather sad to be going as she confides to her shrink, who’s remarkably wooden. Only this lifeless Watson would continue to see such a cold shrink. Writers, your homework is to watch some good psychologists like Paul or Gina on In Treatment or the guy from Numb3rs now on Newsroom. Even Bob Newhart might inspire you. Psychologists can have personalities and be objective.

Joan Watson’s shrink suggests she go into police work if she enjoys it so much, but Joan rejects that sensible suggestion for no reason. She really doesn’t appear to be in love with Sherlock because she displays no emotion vaguely akin to love.

There was some mention of Irene Adler in exposition, but Irene evidently died (missed opportunity early on in a season). Granted, I missed that episode or the episode when it was revealed but present this with some drama so I CARE.

Then you had “M” plant a letter in Sherlock’s apartment. Ho hum. There’s a little tension here, but it’s minimal. We didn’t see it done. We don’t see “M” at all just his henchman. Joan gets annoyed when she learns that Holmes has cameras in his own house. Yes, he could have told her, but they weren’t in her room and she is a hired gun. Get over it. There are no real tests of trust the way we see throughout Sherlock. Minor sniping and irritation doesn’t count.

Perhaps you should steer clear (or steal) the elements that work so well in the hands of Moffat and Gatiss.

Eventually, the murderer acts again, but Sherlock intervenes. He somehow transports this hulking man to an abandoned warehouse that his father owns. How did he manage? Did he rent a car? Does he even drive? Oh, yeah, he smashed that suspect’s car in the first episode, if that counts as driving. How would Sherlock, who’s no muscle man, manage to hang such a muscular, brawny chap up by himself? Actually, the episode was too boring for me to really want to know.

In fact, I often considered changing channels and probably should have. You have not earned my attention.

Well, Joan and the Inspector do find Sherlock just after he’s learned from his victim that this guy is simply a hit man, that Moriarty, like the one on Sherlock does his work by proxy.

During the episode we saw Joan ask Sherlock’s father to extend her time with him. I knew you’d have to somehow keep them connected since that was one of the weaknesses of your premise. She’s only supposed to work with him for a couple months. The father said no via a text and she then lied to Sherlock about that. She’s decided to stay on for free. Since there’s no chemistry between the two this just made me yawn. Strange since lies usually beef up a story.

Apparently, you’ve got reverse Midus‘ touch. You can take good characters and a popular genre, i.e. gold and make it into dust. Do you realize how lucky you are that enough American viewers require so little in terms of entertainment. You are blessed by the equally anemic writing on other Thursday night shows.

Sincerely,

SK

 

Sunday’s Downton Abbey

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Ahh, the house was abuzz as everyone quickly prepared for Edith’s wedding to the older Sir Anthony. What are my thoughts? Well, there will be spoilers below, so don’t say you weren’t warned. Here’s my 2 cents on an episode that kept me rivetted:

  • I’m wondering if Mrs. Hughes really is well or if she just hated all the fuss and told Mrs. Patmore she was.
  • Why didn’t Mrs. Levinson stay for Edith’s wedding? Was there some previous engagement? Isn’t she aware of Edith’s feelings of inferiority to Mary and therefore sensitive to the fairness of staying on? If she doesn’t like Downton, she could have gone to London or the Lake District to take in the sights and then returned to see Edith wed.
  • I did think Shirley MacLaine was poorly used last week. She sparred nicely with Violet, but that could have been better and she was one dimensional as the Yank who believes in change. She had few scenes with her daughter, which was weird. I wanted to know how Cora could be so different from her mother Martha. They seemed like acquaintances, not relatives, let alone mother and daughter. Very odd.
  • I’d glad the money issue will work out. I wasn’t ready to give up Downton and I’m like Mary in that I see the Countess of Grantham as living in Downton Abbey.
  • I hope someone divests Daisy of her fascination with fast women. It’s not her character and so she’s on thin ice. Trouble looms, my dear, when you stray from your true self.
  • There was a fair amount with the prison and Bates. It’s not looking good, but at least he was tipped off about the knife his cellmate planted.
  • What will O’Brien do to Thomas? He best be careful as she’s shrewd.
  • Edith will need to find something to do, something noble. Stop all this spinster talk. Mary was older when she married.
  • Sir Anthony, how could you?  it’s one thing for a hobbledehoy to jilt a bride at the altar with all her family and friends watching, with thousands spent for delicacies and libation, and quite another for a grown man. You’re no school boy and we all expect more character from a gentleman!
  • Violet’s Best Line: “Vulgarity’s no substitute for wit.”
  • Kudos to the Golden Globe voters for choosing Maggie Smith.

The Way


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Emilio Estevez directs his father Martin Sheen in The Way, a touching movie about a father whose son dies suddenly as he just began a pilgrimage along El Camino a.k.a. the Way of St James (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in Spain. Sheen plays Tom, a grieving suburban father, who is called to Spain to pick up his son’s remains.

Rather than return immediately to the US, Tom feels called to complete his son’s trek and sets out along El Camino planning to distribute his son’s ashes along the way. As the story unfolds, grouchy, taciturn Tom ponders his relationship with is son and meets three other hikers who join him, much to his own displeasure.

The photography is breathtaking and made me want to head out on this 500 mile journey. It seems like a rather jolly endeavor for most. According to the film, you walk along gentle slopes with beautiful vistas; you sleep in hostels, some of which were rather stark and grimy, but you feast on terrific food and wine. Not a bad life, huh?

The central story involved Tom reconciling with his dead son and therein lies the weakness of the film. By the end of the film, I had no better understanding of Daniel, the son, than I did at the start. Tom’s no chatterbox and deflects most questions about his son. When he speaks of his son, it’s in generalities. Daniel becomes a kind of Every Son, because all we know was he rebelled by ending his doctorate studies and taking to the road against his father’s will. Since Daniel was nearly 40 and wasn’t asking his father for anything, this isn’t so bad. Had Tom opened up more with his companions, perhaps the story would have been stronger.

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Still El Camino seems to be the star of the film and The Way is a pleasant enough way to experience it.

Crossing the Line

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The story of an American who defected to North Korea in the 1960s, Crossing the Line is yet another good documentary that I’ve discovered this winter. James Joseph Dresnok tells the story of his life with added interviews with a friend from his youth and men in the army who worked with him. An orphan with little success in school, Dresnok joined the army when he turned 17. He married before he left for Germany. Upon his return from Germany, he discovered his wife was unfaithful and wanted a divorce.

The disappointment stung and compelled him to re-enlist. Then he was sent to South Korea to patrol the DMZ in the 1960s. After forging a pass for a night out, Dresnok ran across the DMZ into North Korea to avoid disciplinary action. This impetuous move was in character with a man who ran away from foster homes and bad situations time after time.

The North Koreans capitalized on this defection and three others that soon followed by using Dresnok and other American soldiers in propoganda. They appeared on the covers of magazines and eventually starred in films playing American villians.

We hear so little about North Korea and these defections were hushed by the U.S. army that was embarrassed that American soldiers would find life in the backward hermit kingdom an option at all. I wouldn’t trade places with Dresnok, but I do see that he and his family have had a unique life.  He’s been well taken care of even after attempting to defect to Russia when life in North Korea got burdensome.  He and his fellow Americans all married and it seemed the government arranged for that. Dresnok first married a woman who refused to tell him her nationality for decades. (It’s believed she was kidnapped from Romania.) After his first wife’s death, he married a woman whose mother was North Korean and whose father was an African diplomat.

Dresnok’s learned Korean and has adapted to life in Pyongyang quite well. It’s a strange life, but has worked out for him. Without much education and with a penchant for flouting American rules, he would have struggled in the US. In North Korea he has a decent apartment, a seemingly nice family life, and the regard of North Koreans around him.