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True Detective 3

It's really good. At least as good as the first one, and arguably better. It's somewhat similar in broad outline: the murder of a child, and two detectives who fail to solve the case at the time it occurs and pursue it over a period of many years. It's set in the South again, this time in Arkansas. The first crime also includes the disappearance, presumed abduction, and possible murder of the murder victim's sister. The action takes place in three distinct time periods: that of the crime, ten years later when the case is reopened and again not solved, and 2019. 

Once again it features seriously impressive acting in the detective roles, Mahershala Ali as Wayne Hays and Stephen Dorff as Roland West. (I think Ali's first name is pronounced as if the "e" werent there--"Mahrshala," accent on the second syllable.) It also involves some downright amazing makeup trickery to turn the detectives, young men in 1980, into old men forty years later. There's an extra bit on the DVD that describes how this was done. (And by the way, one of the extras on either the first or second DVD contains a major spoiler. It should have been on the last DVD.)

Once again the personalities of the two detectives, and the relationship between them, are at the center of the story. This time it's complicated by the fact that Hays is black and West is white. In Arkansas in 1980, the end of segregation was only fifteen years or so in the past. It was probably more or less by force of law that the state police in Arkansas, as in many places, was racially integrated. Hays's position is difficult. And it's one of the great strengths of this production that West's position is also difficult, though of course in a different way. Racial matters are handled with great subtlety and insight into the complexities of the situation, very different from the usual crude, clumsy, and stereotype-driven approach of the entertainment industry on that subject. Both Ali and Dorff are completely convincing in this respect. And a special nod goes to Ali for his work in the 2019 segments, because Hays at that point is beginning to slide into dementia. 

Suffice to say that it's brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, brilliantly directed, brilliantly produced. T-Bone Burnett's musical direction and writing are pretty close to perfect. I have a mild reservation about the ending, but as I can't discuss it without giving it away I'll have to leave it at that. I don't think anyone who thought highly of the first series will be disappointed in this one. 

Here's the trailer:

 


The Crown 3

It's good. Olivia Colman as Elizabeth is superb, just as you would expect if you know her work. There is another actor from Broadchurch present, playing a very different role; I'll let that be a surprise. Helena Bonham-Carter is really a little too glamorously beautiful as Margaret, but of course her acting is first-rate. 

This season takes the story into roughly the mid-1970s. It's a little frustrating, never knowing how much of the story is gossip and hearsay and how much is certainly true. I assume that all public appearances and speeches and so forth are accurate, and that private conversations are invented, but that leaves a big middle area that could be roughly accurate or wildly wrong--portraits of relationships and so forth. I suppose the filmmakers didn't go too far out on any limbs, though I figure they probably turned up the elements that lend themselves to a soap-opera-ish treatment.

Here's the trailer:

I really must find out the name of the music that's playing at the end of the last episode (not heard in the trailer). 

I sort of dread series 4, which will have to wade into the Charles-Diana misery.


Dark 2

Well. I don't really know what to make of this, and am not at all sure I should recommend it to others. But I think I will anyway. Because, whatever my reservations, I was thoroughly fascinated by it. One big warning, though: the story does not end, just as it did not end with series 1. There isn't even the sort of resolution with a few loose threads that satisfies the desire for an ending while pointing the way to a sequel. According to Wikipedia the third season is to be the last one, so I'm hoping that means the developers actually planned a coherent three-season plot which will have a reasonable ending.

The story only becomes more complex in series 2, and I have major doubts as to whether it makes sense. The pseudo-science makes even less sense than before: opening a barrel of nuclear waste might make those in the immediate vicinity pretty sick, but I really don't think there's any danger of it disrupting the very fabric of space-time. And the use of wormholes to serve as the equivalent of magic in sci-fi has gotten tiresome.

But the complex and confusing plot line is anchored by elemental human drama: parents, children, love, death, misunderstanding, mistakes, separation and reconciliation. Not really all that much of that last one, though, at this point. 

The contradictions inherent in the whole idea of time travel are handled more imaginatively here than in time-travel stories I've encountered. However, that seems to be a confession of ignorance on my part: suspecting that something called "the bootstrap paradox" was not invented by the writers of this series, I searched for it, and found that it goes back at least to a 1941 short story by Robert A. Heinlein. The basic idea is presented in the show as this: you take an object back in time and leave it there. So it exists in the present because it existed in the past. But since it was only in the past because you took it there, it was never created. At any rate, the movements in time are so many and so complex in Dark that the result is either a brilliant juggling act or a big mess. Either way, it's awfully well done--well-acted, well-written, well-produced.

Actually I'm concerned that something that happened in the last minute or so of this season may seal the "big mess" verdict. I'll find out when I watch series 3.


Dark (German TV series)

I'm not generally a fan of time-travel stories. They seem to follow the Terminator and Back to the Future patterns, in which someone travels into the past in order to make something happen or not happen in order to change something in the future, and that usually turns into a fairly straightforward adventure or comedy. But this one is richer and more fascinating than most, at least within my not-all-that-extensive experience. That usual pattern does become a factor but I think not until fairly near the end of the first 10-episode series. There is a whole lot more going on.

There are two seasons, and I've recently finished the first. It doesn't by any means end the story, and I'm a little concerned that the second will not do that, either, as a third (at least) is planned. But I'm definitely going to watch it.

Season one, at any rate, involves three points in a 66-year span: 1953, 1986, 2019. That's a 33-year interval, constituting a cycle in which the lunar and solar years are somehow in sync. I'm sorry, but I have not bothered to understand exactly how this works, and it probably doesn't matter. For purposes of the show's mythos, I think it's enough to know that this cycle has cosmic significance. 

The story begins in 2019 and involves, mainly, four families in a small German town. They are connected in complex ways in 2019, and as things develop we see that they have been connected for a long time. There is a constant interweaving of times and characters, of past and present. I'm not even going to attempt an overview. I haven't counted but among four families there must be several dozen people involved, and their interactions are complex even without the added confusion of people moving around in time. 

Moreover, what's going on--the time-travel stuff and various related matters--is conceptually complex (and of course includes some pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo which probably doesn't actually make sense). You may find it easier than I did, or more difficult, but for me it became exasperatingly hard to follow at times. But it was also interesting enough that I re-watched parts of it, just to try to understand what was happening.

It's also appropriately named: it's very dark. It's not really explicitly violent, but it involves the deaths of several children, and although their murders are not depicted, their bodies, with horrible injuries to their faces, are shown repeatedly. Also--this is pretty minor, but worth mentioning: the opening includes a brief but pretty explicit sex scene which has absolutely no artistic reason for being so. This is an annoying thing which I've noticed in several shows, which tells me that it's not an accident: start things off with a single attention-grabbing sex scene, and after that just tend to the story and don't do it again. Seems pretty cynical.

It is extremely well-done, and as I say I'm finding it fascinating. So this is a recommendation, but a qualified one, due to the dark subject matter and the complexity. (And yeah I know some people can't deal with subtitles.) This trailer will give you a pretty good feel for it, though it doesn't provide any very definite information. Many of the moments included here are not actually very important to the story. The trailer also allows you to hear part of the gorgeous and extremely appropriate song from the opening titles, which is the work of the German musician Apparat.

Apparently a lot of people are comparing it to Stranger Things, but I don't think that's especially accurate. I think that's probably just because a significant part of it occurs in 1986, providing plenty of opportunity for depicting '80s pop culture and fashion.


The Innocents

I finally watched this 1961 movie, reputed to be the best adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, and also a pretty dang good movie on its own terms. I agree with both opinions. It is really very good. To my mind it's an unusual sort of success: the filmmakers took a very good book (ok, novella, whatever), made a film based on it which simultaneously took a lot of liberties and remained faithful, and produced something that is as good a film as the book is a book. 

Well, almost. I don't know how hard I'd defend that last statement. I mean, maybe it's not quite up there with the acknowledged masterpieces of cinema. But then the same could be said of the book in its category. If it were all we had of Henry James, he would not be considered a major writer of fiction. Anyway, it's an exception to what seems the usual patterns: good book to bad or inadequate movie; bad or mediocre book to good movie; good book to good but not very faithful movie. And of course bad book to bad movie is a perennial. But none of that is as true as it once was; movie-making has improved in a lot of ways since 1970 or so. 

The Innocents is actually based directly not on the novel itself but on a play by the same name, adapted from the novella by William Archibald, who, along with Truman Capote, is credited as screenwriter. The play seems to be Archibald's only other claim to fame. It would be interesting to compare the movie to the play, to get an idea of how much Capote contributed. I had forgotten till this moment that I read Other Voices, Other Rooms many years ago, and the scraps of memory that have returned make me think it would be worth revisiting. 

You can find the trailer on YouTube, but it's sort of trashy, so I don't think I'll post it. I notice several comments to the same effect. 

So, for the moment, ends my fascination with The Turn of the Screw (see this and this). I'm tempted to read it again but other authors, other books have claims on me. I still count myself in the "apparitionist" camp as regards the reality of what the governess sees, but, as I mentioned in the second of those posts, I grant that the arguments for the opposing view. I'm inclined to stay with my original view: that the ambiguity arises from the fact that Henry James wrote a Henry James ghost story, arguably subtle to a fault. Apparently he never said anything to indicate that the apparitions were not real, but of course that doesn't prove anything. 

*

While I'm at it: I also watched the Breaking Bad sequel, El Camino. I saw a review somewhere that described it as "inessential," which I guess is true, but that's ok, it's a very good story, as well-done as you would expect, considering that it was made by the same people who did the series. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who likes the series.

Also: I recently watched the fourth series of the British mystery show Shetland. And maybe it's just me, but I thought it was a cut above its previous series as well as most similar dramas, close to Broadchurch territory. You need to have seen at least the preceding series, though, to fully get some of the things that are going on. 


The Turn of the Screw, Again

(Note: this is at least somewhat spoilerish. Also, it's a follow-up to this post from last month.)

I keep on being bothered by the question of whether the governess is mad and the ghosts objectively nonexistent, or the governess is quite sane and the ghosts both real and malevolent. The secondary questions--are the children malicious? did James intend any ambiguity?--don't matter much if the primary is undecided.

I grant that one can make a reasonable argument for what I will call the all-in-her-head view. Or, if you prefer, for the intentional-ambiguity. What puzzles me is the question of why anyone came up with the AIHH view in the first place. As I said when writing about it before, it never occurred to me when I read the story. If that simply marks me as being a little thick, well, that's all right; I grant that, too; subtlety has never been a strength of mine, neither the acting of it or the recognition of it.

In pursuit of the question, I read another James ghost story, which I happened to have at hand in a collection called The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (recommended!). The story is "The Friends of the Friends," and it's a good story. As a ghost story it suffers from the same problem (if you want to call it that) as "Turn of the Screw": it's not actually very scary, in part because James is not exactly a master of suspense, much less action, though it does deliver a chill. 

And I'm wondering why it should not be subject to the same doubt as the novella ("The Friends" is of standard short-story length). This story is also narrated by a woman whose testimony is the only account of the (purported) events, and who is to say that she is not unreliable? The ghostliness of the story rests mainly on two events. The narrator's account of the first of these is directly contradicted by another person, and involves something that could be ascribed to coincidence. The second is even more easily dismissible as coincidence, and in fact seems to be regarded as such by the narrator's friends. So I don't see why, if one is going to doubt the governess in "Turn of the Screw," one should not also doubt the narrator of "The Friends of the Friends." Well, perhaps people do, I don't know.

So then, a few days later, while looking for something else in the DVD collection at the local library, I ran across a 1999 BBC/Masterpiece Theater adaptation of "The Turn of the Screw" and checked it out. (I guess it was BBC--British, anyway.) I had a curious experience with it--no, not a ghostly one, just a curious one.

By the time I was five minutes or so into it I was thinking that I wasn't going to like it. I didn't like the way the governess was portrayed--breathless and palpitating from the first moment. I thought the score was intrusive, and the whole thing rather overdone; I'm a bit tired of that high-gloss BBC period drama style. So it went on, with me thinking I don't like this, I don't like that. And it looked for a bit as if they were going to veer off from the story into something (I didn't know what) that the director thought would be an improvement on James.

But then, rather abruptly it seemed, it was over, and suddenly I was saying in surprise "Well, damn, that was actually pretty good." What happened, in part, was that it totally dashed my expectation that it was going to be unfaithful to the story. It is in fact quite faithful. I might quarrel with the way various things were done, but they were in substance true to the story. 

And another curious thing happened: suddenly I understood why one would doubt the validity of the governess's story. I can't really account for that. I just sort of saw it, the way one sees an optical illusion one way and then, as if a switch has been flipped, in another quite different way. (Well, actually, there was one very important detail that is not in the story but is in the film, and which definitely tips the balance toward "She's crazy.")

I went looking for some discussion of the film, and found a very interesting blog post: Top 8 Film Adaptations of "The Turn of the Screw". (The link is worth clicking on just to see the painting that serves as background for the site.)

"Top 8" implies that there are more, which is surprising. And also somewhat to my surprise I found the 1999 one at Number 2 on the list, second only to The Innocents, a 1961 film which seems to be pretty highly regarded, and which is now near the top of my Netflix DVD list (the only place I could find it). 

I also learned from that site that those (of whom I still count myself one) who believe the governess was seeing real ghosts have a label: we are called "apparitionists." 


True Detective, Series 2

I finished watching it less than an hour ago, which I mention because my initial reactions are always subject to revision and often in fact are revised when the dust has settled, when the immediate impact has passed. But I'm going to register what is apparently a minority opinion: I think it's really good, maybe even, in its very different way, as good as Series 1, which is extraordinary.

Yes, the plot is madly complicated, and I got lost. There are too many characters, at least for me, so that as it went on I frequently stopped to ask my wife "Wait--now, who's he? Why are they talking about him?" And as often as not she didn't know either. I can criticize a great many specific aspects of it.

Nevertheless, the broad outline is pretty clear: some very flawed characters trying to get to the bottom of crimes committed by much worse characters--not just crimes, but a whole network of crimes and corruption. And I found it in the end quite moving. I think it can be ranked with the great noir novels and films: with Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, and others. The fact that it's set in California makes me wonder if the show's creator, Nick Pizzolatto, was consciously courting that comparison. In any case, I think this work belongs in that company.

If you liked Series 1 but are wondering whether you should bother with Series 2, well, my advice is: yes, do bother--see it. And I'd be interested in knowing what you think. 


The Funniest Monty Python Bit (?)

Perhaps a bit surprisingly for someone of my age and, um, general cultural inclinations, I've never been a serious Monty Python fan, the sort who can quote most of their stuff and finds even a mention of their celebrated skits funny. Truth is, I've never seen it all, not by a long shot. Sure, I think some of the classics, like the Dead Parrot, are very funny. (I just watched it again, and it still cracks me up.) But I always found them a very mixed bag, and have never seen Life of Brian, or all of the Flying Circus. Truth is, I think Fawlty Towers is more consistently funny. Very, very funny.

Well, I noticed recently that Flying Circus is on Netflix, so in the interests of furthering my education ("never too late!" people are always saying, which is self-evidently preposterous), I've been watching it now and then, ten or fifteen minutes at a time. As in the past, I find it a very mixed bag, veering from the hilarious to the more or less stupid. But a few nights ago there was a sketch which I think is as funny as anything else I've seen from them. I guess you probably have to have read some D.H. Lawrence to appreciate it--Sons and Lovers in particular, I think, though it's been a very long time since I read it. It's the confrontation of a tough, harsh, father and his son whom the father regards as effete, soft, and pretty much useless, as in Lawrence:  only their occupations are reversed. 

It's not on YouTube, but if you have Netflix you can see it in Series 1 Episode 2, starting around 17 minutes. I just watched it again and it was as funny as it was the first time. 


My Career in Information Technology...

...would have been far more interesting if malfunctioning computers would always shoot out noisy sparks, flames, and smoke. Like they do in that TV series I mentioned, Another Life

Even though my wife and I had officially abandoned it, I watched another episode and a half by myself because I really wanted to find out what those aliens were like and what they were up to. But I actually laughed out loud at a couple of not-at-all-meant-to-be funny things. So okay, I give up.

I mostly agree with this review at RogerEbert.com. Some funny comments, too: "Entitled Millenials In Space." And:

Is there something elitist living inside me that I found the crew members unworthy of anything other than maybe stints on The Real World? 

I think "The Real World" is a "reality" series. I've only seen a few episodes of any of those, but the comparison occurred to me, too. Bratty young people engaged in heavy and extremely self-centered emotional dramatics. As another commenter mentions, it's hard to believe these twits would ever have been entrusted with any sort of important duty, let alone manning a spacecraft on The Most Important Mission In Human History.

Why am I even bothering to write this? I guess because I was disposed to like the show, and can't quite believe that it's this bad. It's material for a future Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode.

I am certainly not a scientist, or an engineer, and obviously you have to overlook, if not accept, a certain amount of miraculous future technology in most sci-fi. But this show seemed to me to grossly abuse its privilege. Unlike Star Wars-style space opera, it isn't content just to invoke "warp drive" (or whatever) and have the spaceship travel light years. Too much of it is directly based on applications of scientific or technological pixie dust to create and resolve crises. As best I can recall, this is pretty close to an actual bit:

"We don't have enough oxygen to survive much longer! What are we going to do?!?"

"I don't know...", "Oh my God," etc.

[a few seconds of brow-furrowing]

"Wait--there's a rogue moon ahead. We can mine captive oxygen from its caves!"


Stranger Things 3

I found it fairly disappointing. I didn't attempt to analyze the reasons to the extent that this writer at National Review does, so I'm not sure whether I'd agree with him in every detail. But overall, yes. It's basically just a monster movie, without the character interest and deeper emotional reach of Series 1, and a less believable plot. A couple of unconvincing and out-of-place gestures toward pop culture's LGBT obsession didn't help. 

Reportedly there will be a Series 4. Given that most of those who loved Series 1 were disappointed in 2, and more so in 3 (or at least that was my impression), I don't have high expectations for any further stories. But it's not unheard for a show to reverse a downhill slide, so I won't give up entirely.