By Anne Brodie This week’s spirits raiser is HBO Crave‘s series Julia, charting Julia Child’s rise from Cambridge, Mass. cookbook author to local public television star to worldwide celebrity, and today, abiding adoration. British actor Sara Lancashire nails it as the “towering” high-spirited chef with that distinctive twittering voice, whose simplification of fine French cuisine for American cooks launched a food revolution. Child’s diplomat husband Paul’s (Davide Hyde-Pierce) work took her to Oslo then Paris where she took a cordon bleu course; on returning to the US, she co-authored long distance with Simone Beck (Isabella Rossellini) the landmark debut cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. From there Child muscled her way with that inimitable charm, into her own show The French Chef on Boston’s local public television station. What brings the series home is its dive into Child’s personal life, her drive to succeed, an endless supply of good spirits and humour, and her husband’s dedication to her and their sexually charged relationship. Child’s remarkable character and joie de vivre carry it, though with wit warmth and her whimsical bent on life. Julia is a high-calibre production, with cultivated dialogue and sensibility, period charm, and the welcome dominance of Child’s positivity. A mood improver and appetite stimulant!
Tweenagers, big girls, my boss Candace Sampson and fans get set. Netflix‘ second season of Bridgerton, that genre-busting look at London high society a while back had landed. This is my review in part of S1 which launched Christmas Day 2020 – “Regency Lite social comedy series from Shonda Rhimes and Chris Van Dusen, crammed with diverse characters, personalities, and society ladies elbowing one another for social position in London in the early 1800s. The Bridgerton family has standing and more than its fair share of eligible daughters ready for marriage, each one more beautiful than the next. They’re keen to have the girls marry upmarket and Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor the daughter of Coronation Street’s Sally Dynevor ) is their first offering.” Well, nothing has changed. The Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page) turns out to be a bit of a tease for Daphne, both sexually and marriage-wise. She expects a proposal egged on by her anxious mother. He won’t do it. He is against marriage. In fact, he’s vacating the UK. The handsome Prince of Prussia (Freddie Stroma) wafts into town, eyes a receptive Daphne and wait, the petulant Duke isn’t leaving after all. I love the series’ repositioning of history and society, its diversity and the art design /wardrobe is to die for. At its heart, it’s a very pretty comic book or graphic novel, as deep as one, with a lot of teasing. And there are BIG shockers coming – romantic, economic and social. Yikes! Based on Julia Quinn’s novels.
Director and co-writer Thyrone Tommy’s Learn to Swim follows a contemporary jazz saxophonist whose life and emotions are taking on hallucinatory qualities no thanks to a stalled romance and an agonising dental abscess. Thomas Antony Olajide is Dezi; he’s in a private hellscape weighing what it all means; he doesn’t quite fit into the lively comradeship of his bandmates, and his relationship with singer Selma (Emma Ferreira) his temperamental opposite adds little more than chaos to his current unmoored existence. Spanning time and space, it feels like jazz, we can’t know what is coming but we hear the high notes and low notes and a search for order and meaning. Set over two periods of time, Learn to Swim reminds us that life doesn’t make sense to mere mortals, with its myriad undercurrents and a relentless abscess. A mesmerizing debut feature with glorious music and cinematography. In theatres.
Pachinko, Apple TV+‘s stunning epic of a Korean family over four generations is so moving and so beautiful to look at, a unique look at relationships, immigration, politics and unending optimism that will go a long way to soothing hearts battered by current news headlines. It’s based on the New York Times bestseller by Min Jin Lee, it begins in 1910 in Japan-occupied Korea. Oppression and war losses have devastated the country. Sunja tells us her birth was a burden to her mother; she was later sold to a stranger. Cut to 1989 and an ambitious young businessman we learn is her grandson, hopes for a promotion to VP of a New York developer. He’s told if he can go to Japan where his grandmother now lives and convince an unwilling landowner to sell her property for a massive tourist complex, the promotion is his. While visiting his grandmother he sees a photo of her as a child, and we are sent back in time to Sunja’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The rich storytelling over eight episodes is marked by gorgeous cinematography, a gentle but still forceful narrative, soul-stirring, mystical moments, and a fabulous score covering traditional Korean and Japanese music and seventies American pop. The arresting opening dance sequence set in a bingo hall to The Grass Roots Let’s Live for Today will knock your socks off.
The art design is sumptuous and we see the traditional Japanese clothing that inspired Yohji Yamamoto’s work. It’s a deeply rewarding, even exquisite work, starring Youn Yuh-Jung, Lee Min-Ho, Minha Kim. Shot in South Korea, the US, and Canada.
HBO / Crave’s original documentary How to Survive a Pandemic is in some ways an exercise in trauma, as David France takes us through the advent of COVID-19, the race to learn to deal with it, to create vaccines, and distribute them equitably around the globe. So what did we accomplish? Dr. Anthony Fauci, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Albert Bourla, Jon Cohen, Peter Marks, and a host of scientists who dedicated themselves to the biggest coordinated health action in history, speak out. They offer never before heard insights into what went into the effort, the difficulties of persuading Donald Trump to take notice, and sensible action to curb the virus on a nerve-rattling month-by-month basis. Filmmaker David France looks at the work of Operation Warp Speed and compares it to the battle for an AIDS virus, versus disinformation and market conditions. Turns out, scientists had been studying the coronavirus for years so that was an advantage and contributed to the quick arrival of vaccines. Ghebreyesus talks about the historically slow rate of vaccinating third-world populations. France speaks with Florida anti-vaxxers and we are dumbfounded. Fauci expresses shock at becoming a target for death threats for providing the world with crucial scientific information – and the fact that he was the only person in the White House who would openly disagree with Trump. So many barriers to a cure, but scientists live in hope and remind us that everyone in the world needs to be vaccinated or risk permanent recurrence.
Music phenom Lizzo launches a reality show on Prime Video tonight. Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls is an eight-parter in which 13 aspiring Big Grrrls compete for 10 spots in Lizzo’s backup dance squad. She is looking for women like herself, strong, confident, stage friendly, energetic, big and have plenty of stamina. She will look closely at carriage, hands, feet, expression, and personality. They have 24 hours to learn a routine and execute it perfectly. The cut begins and soon survivors are sent to a massive Hollywood home to do the work. Lizzo’s mottos are pointed – “serve or get served”, “no toxicity”, “keep it real” and underline her brand of positivity. It’s another of those multiple competitors gather in the house but it’s not to see who will be cut, but who has made it and is in training, so there’s that. Although there are low-key confrontations, Lizzo likes to drop by and keep things civilised and I’m all for that. Guests include Tanisha Scott, O.G, Chawnta’ Marie Van, Shirlene Quigley, Grace Holden, Charm La’Donna, Rashida Khan, Bey Miller, and SZA
Deep Water, Prime Video‘s odd study of a wealthy married couple in a deadly game comes from Adrian Lyne a filmmaker well acquainted with stories of obsessive love’s failings (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, 9 1/2 Weeks, Unfaithful, etc. ) who returns to his signature florid territory. Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas are Vic and Melinda, a married couple in a loaded relationship. Things have gone way sour; she openly carries on affairs, inviting lovers to their home; he endures the humiliation and anger. Their friends seem to accept that he accepts what’s going on, her seductions are blatant and public. Their little girl appears to hate her mother. Melinda brings home her latest (Brendan Miller) and he thanks Vic for allowing him to “see” his wife. Vic takes him aside and asks if he’s heard of Martin McRae, a local guy who went missing? and tells him he killed him. The next lover, a jazz pianist (Jacob Elordi) smirks at Vic as he handles his wife at a pool party. He’s found drowned; Vic’s friends say were with him the whole time. And then man number three that we know about (Finn Wittrock). How much can Vic take? Is all of this happening because Melinda was desperate for Vic’s attention? Was it simply consensual gamesmanship? At the bottom of their cesspool relationship, is there love? Some questions are left unanswered and as for the film, as Gothic, soapy, and tacky the story and execution, we want to see who wins. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley).
Academy Award-winning Melissa Leo is a familiar face with 143 credits to her name. She’s often cast as a disadvantaged woman, always strong. It changes in the thriller Measure Of Revenge on TVOD. Leo plays Broadway star Lillian Cooper a heroine of the stage world, having nailed some of the most complicated, violent female characters in classical literature from Lady Macbeth to Hester Prynne and beyond. She lives with her adored son Curtis (Jake Weary), a rock star whose life is complicated by drug addiction. Curtis dies suddenly. It’s ruled an accidental overdose, but Cooper’s not so sure, she saw him in a fight with his manager and fellow musicians and launches her own investigation, starting with her son’s seemingly impenetrable drug dealer Taz (Bella Torne), and a journey that will unveil rough truths. Cooper leaves theatres mid-performance to track down clues, occasionally unable to change costumes, a strange sight even in the streets of New York. Increasingly frustrated she summons the spirits of the strong women she’s played to guide her including Shakespeare’s Portia who stands for female resistance in a male world. Leo’s up to it, even if the film isn’t up to her.
Topic a leading streamer for international fare offers up Season 2 of the intriguing Lapland police procedural Arctic Circle. Six episodes follow two murder investigations that have baffled Finnish police when a discovery reveals they are related. Twelve years earlier an athlete was murdered and the case is unsolved. Detective Nina Kautsalo (Iina Kuustonen) and her team find a prostitute alone in a wilderness cabin, dying of a deadly virus. Nina’s also dealing with a murder conviction against her detective father. She heads to Russia and is made aware of a secret cabal Ordo Paritet, an ancient society of elite men who take justice into their own hands during “hunting parties”. Down the rabbit hole she goes, feeling the weight of missing her developmentally delayed daughter back home in Finland and the grotesque realities of the job. And the virus has reappeared. Nina interviews a waitress who has crucial information but she’s murdered before she can spill. This incredibly twisty international crime thriller hits a lot of dramatic notes and wild plot twists. Directed by Juha Lankinen.
Robert Siodmak’s intense 1957 police thriller The Devil Strikes at Night gives us an unusual look inside the Third Reich, from the point of view of the German filmmaker who fled the Nazis for Hollywood and became a leading maker of noir films. Siodmak returned to Germany to make this film as payback to Nazis for ruining and eliminating so many lives. It’s based on the real-life case of German Aryan serial killer Bruno Ludke, set in the broken world created by Hitler’s extermination campaign against Jews, gypsies, and “foreigners” his aim of building elite Germans with “racial purity”. Allied bombs drop with regularity. Ordinary citizens, horrified by his measures, put up a front to stay alive; enforced shows of respect are little more than that, at least in this film. A barmaid is murdered and a Gestapo officer, her lover, is arrested but then four more women are murdered. Police are pushed to find a non-Aryan, as a secret anti-Nazi police officer makes his own private investigation. interesting twists and subtleties in politics, psychology and a special time and place, make this most unusual. Kino Lorber Blu-Ray March 29.
Now on to something a little lighter and sweeter! Food Network Canada’s sophomore series Project Bakeover travels the country to find bakeries that need help and give it, through redesigning the work and front space and menus. Pastry chef and master chocolatier Steve Hodge and HGTV designer Tiffany Pratt host. It’s emotional watching bakeries teetering on the edge being reinvigorated and thriving. So not only will they offer ideas on design, decor, and efficiency, there will be knockout baked goods and recipes. Bakery owners are encouraged to make changes; sometimes it’s tough for them, but the hosts are encouraging and thoughtful. They find it rewarding to step out of one’s comfort zone, with expert, friendly help and there is much to be gained. Hodge will suggest products that are easy eye-catching and tasty and Pratt will bring space into the present with verve.
Joining the recent wave of nostalgia for the people behind the best comedy series of the 50’s – and beyond – comes Amy Poehler’s documentary Lucy and Desi on Prime Video. We’ve seen them impersonated, very well, in Being the Ricardos, and audio-only on TCM’s podcast series The Plot Thickens and now they speak for themselves in this exhaustively researched labour of love. Seeing Lucy and Desi off guard, in screen tests, in the behind-the-scenes footage, with family, celeb and non-celeb friends, in business meetings and living their lives is a total joy. I’m struck by Ball’s natural beauty that was underplayed on I Love Lucy and Desi’s charisma and sex appeal that explains so much of what happened in their lives, making them somehow even more iconic. Ball was a hard-nosed business leader and face of Desilu Studios, and still a wonderful clown on the series, never fearful of looking funny and Desi was a technical innovator, inventing the three-camera sitcom. Their love bond appears to have endured despite divorce and remarriage for both. Daughter Lucie provides home audio tapes with all the treasures therein and home movies taken during their years as the most famous TV couple of all time. Lucy and Desi is not to be missed not only for the authentic take on the couple, or to distract from the current affairs, or that nostalgic warmth but to underline a remarkable love story.