Posts Tagged ‘review’

By John Ruberry

Late October arrived with what I thought would be a pleasant surprise, a new Netflix horror and suspense series, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Del Toro, known for the superb art direction in his films, is an Academy Award winner for directing The Shape of Water, that film contains a controversial scene which we’ll discuss shortly.

There are eight episodes, set either in the early 20th century or the latter part of the century. Oh, for balance, there’s one set around 1950. All but one of them are based on short stories, two of them by del Torro, and two by H.P. Lovecraft, a horror and fantasy writer, the bulk of his work was published in the 1920s and 1930s.

First the good. The acting is superb and not surprisingly, so is the art direction and cinematography. The bad–well, the stories aren’t very good, and in what is becoming common with Netflix, the episodes are too long, each one of Cabinet of Curiosities‘ segments could be trimmed by anywhere from ten to twenty minutes. The episodes run from 38 minutes to slightly more than an hour. And like many Netflix original series, funding doesn’t seem to be an issue. That was not the situation with the low-budget horror movies that I grew up with and enjoyed, such as Vincent Price’s American International Picture films. Netflix needs to focus on the basics of entertainment, not the frills.

Del Toro, just as Rod Serling did with The Twilight Zone, introduces each episode. The titular character of Alfred Hitchcock Presents performed the same duty, and there is a Game of Thrones-style cabinet animation device as the opening credits run. Del Toro doesn’t direct any of the episodes.

But Cabinet of Curiosities, rather than emulating The Twilight Zone, harkens back to Steven Spielberg’s mid-1980s NBC anthology series, Amazing Stories. It should have been called “Stories,” because that heavily hyped series was anything but “amazing.” The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents were rebooted around this time, both fell flat. As the saying goes, if Hollywood ever had an original idea, it would die of loneliness.

I’ll briefly sum up each Cabinet of Curiosities entry, in the order of their release. If you are running out of time with my post, or if you are running out of patience, I have this message. Just two of the eight episodes are worth viewing, “Pickman’s Model” and “The Murmuring.”

Lot 36: Nick Appleton (Tim Blake Nelson) is a bitter Vietnam veteran who is physically and emotionally damaged from that war. This entry is set just as the First Gulf War is breaking out. Appleton, who makes his living by buying abandoned storage units, is a racist who listens to conservative talk radio. The implied message of course is that everyone who listens to what liberals call “right-wing radio” is a bigot. But everyone I know who listens to conservative talkers do so because they are tired of government overreach and they don’t like high taxes, among other things. Appleton purchases a storage unit owned by a Nazi who recently died. Get it? American bigot, Nazi, white supremacy. I’m stupefied that the director of this bit didn’t dye Nelson’s hair bright orange here. “Lot 36” is based on a del Toro short story. I hated this segment.

Graveyard Rats: And this episode is based on what? Okay, the answer to that question is easy. Masson (David Hewlett) is a formerly well-to-do man who is now struggling along as a graverobber in a town known for the macabre, Salem, Massachusetts. There’s plenty of plot build-up here, as is the case with much of Cabinet of Curiosities, but little payoff.

The Autopsy: Minor spoiler alert: Just as with surgeries, autopsies are never solo projects. F. Murray Abraham, who never gives a bad performance, portrays a dying coroner, Dr. Carl Withers, who is investigating a mysterious accident at a Pennsylvania coal mine. Again, the set-up doesn’t match the ending of this episode. Watching the autopsies got me wondering. Why weren’t twenty minutes of this segment sliced off?

There is also an age-restricted YouTube video available here.

The Outside: Set in the late 1970s, as was “The Autopsy,” Stacey (Kate Micucci) is an unattractive and socially awkward bank teller surrounded by pretty but shallow female co-workers. Her hobby is taxidermy. Stacey’s life is altered as she becomes enamored with commercials touting a facial cream; the ads are subtle parodies of the faith healers who were often found on late night television at the time. Some of the facial cream comes to life. There is an erotic scene, an homage to Amphibian Man getting it on with a woman in The Shape of Water, in “The Outside.” I hated this episode too.

Pickman’s Model: Although this offering is extremely disturbing, “Pickman’s Model” worked for me. Will Thurber (Ben Barnes) is a wealthy art student at a Boston area college. All is well for him–until he sees the nightmarish paintings and sketches of Richard Pickman (Crispin Glover). A well-known lesson from the life of Vincent Van Gogh is that the boundaries between creativity and insanity are narrow. Oh, one little correction. Pickman tells Thurber that one of his ancestors was burned at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials. In fact, all of the executed accused witches in Salem were hanged, save one who refused to enter a plea. He was pressed to death.

Dreams in the Witch House: After his twin sister dies, a now-middle-aged Walter Gilman (Rupert Grint) is attempting to reconnect with her by way of spiritualists. There is a kissing scene with Gilman and a witch–she has been burnt to a crisp. Eww. There’s a lot of other weirdness here too. And while for the most part it is visually striking, “Dreams in the Witch House,” plot-wise, is vacant. As with “Pickman’s Model,” this segment is based on an H.P. Lovecraft story.

The Viewing: An eccentric wealthy man, Lionel Lassiter (Peter Weller), invites five seemingly unconnected celebrities to his mansion to view a mysterious object. To place them all on the same mental plane, they snort high-grade cocaine. And while there is a lot of action, it’s impossible to ascertain what it all adds up to. Nothing, is what I think. At nearly an hour in length, there is plenty of time for the scriptwriters to present their message. But they don’t. Perhaps the writers were on drugs when the produced the script. This piece was too boring for me to despise.

The Murmuring: Two married ornithologists, Nancy (Essie Davis) and Edgar Bradley (Andrew Lincoln), are devastated by a tragedy. They travel to a remote Canadian island to study the murmurations, that is, the cloud-like flocks of a wading bird species, the dunlin. But the crumbling old house they are staying in offers them plenty of distractions from their work. As a nature lover, I particularly enjoyed this entry–and I could easily see it fitting in as an episode of the original Twilight Zone. Not so with the other seven segments. “The Murmuring” is the other episode based on a del Toro short story.

Each entry is a stand-alone, you can watch one of them, two of them, or all of them. If you choose the last option–you’ve been warned.

Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is rated TV-MA for violence, disturbing themes, nudity, drug use, vivisection, and gore.

John Ruberry regularly blogs Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

A few months ago Van Morrison released his 43rd studio album, What’s It Gonna Take? It’s a stupendous work, and most of its songs focus on the COVID-19 lockdown. Van the Man gives well-deserved musical punch in the nose to lockdown zealots Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Klaus Schwab. 

This week, on August 31, Van Morrison turns 77. He’s still touring, in fact, he begins a short American tour the day after his birthday, which includes, hello Peter, two gigs in Massachusetts.

In 2020 was a rare year for Morrison as he didn’t release a studio album, but he did issue three anti-lockdown songs, “Born to Be Free,” “As I Walked Out” and “No More Lockdowns.” Eric Clapton, another foe of lockdowns, recorded a Morrison-penned anti-lockdown song, “Stand And Deliver.” Morrison has been the most prominent artist who has stood up to opposition to the 2020-2021 shutdown of musical venues.

Of course Morrison is rich, but most musicians aren’t. Many are just getting by.

My DTG review of “What’s It Gonna Take?” is here. And yes, sometimes I am wrong. I predicted the mainstream media, as it did with the collection’s predecessor, the double album Latest Record Project: Volume 1, would savage it. On the contrary, because the hostile reviews of that collection probably helped sales–it charted well, the media took a different approach this time. By mostly ignoring What’s It Gonna Take? But not entirely. Morrison has “descended into lunacy,” is what one reviewer, Arthur Lazarus, a psychiatry professor, said of the album in his review. I was under the impression that mental health professionals now avoid words like “lunacy.” Who is the “crazy” one here, Lazarus? On a positive note, National Review gave a favorable notice to What’s It Gonna Take?

To a small extent, Van Morrison, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has become a non-person. Oh, he appears in Google News searches, as the media dutifully covers his concert appearances. I follow Morrison on Twitter. And like myself, likely because he shares views that run counter to those of the Twitter leftists, in his case about COVID, he’s almost certainly been shadowbanned. I never see the Belfast Lion’s Tweets on my feed, although he has been quiet there lately. Remember, this is a person whose first hit, “Brown Eyed Girl,” is one of the most-played songs on radio–ever.

I’ve been a Van Morrison fan for decades, so I decided to listen to every studio album of his, remember, there are 43 of them–in succession–about a week after I posted my Da Tech Guy writeup on What’s It Gonna Take? It was a wondrous musical adventure that took me through many musical genres, mainly, especially in the second half of his career, Chicago blues, but also of course rock, as well as jazz, country, Celtic, swing, as well as Van the Man’s stream-of-consciousness works, best exemplified on his Astral Works landmark album.

Morrison is a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, harmonica, keyboards, and saxophone. But outside of the craftmanship of the songs he writes, he’s best know for his vocals. Morrison’s singing style is a combination of Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, James Brown, and here’s an obscure name for you, Louis Prima. Oh, on a side note, Prima was one of my mother’s favorites. And about that voice, it’s most distinctive quality is “the growl,” which I believe is inspired by bluesmen like Waters. 

Morrison has influenced many artists, including Bob Seger, Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Springsteen. Of the latter two, on their debut albums the feel of Van is quite apparent.

During my Morrison musical sojourn, during which I ironically contracted COVID-19–I am fully recovered–I decided to write a blog post where I list, well, in my opinion at least, his ten best albums. It’s time for me to be Casey Kasem–so let the countdown begin!

Oh, but first, links in the album’s titles bring you Morrison’s website, where you can purchase or download each collection, and also find the Wikipedia article on each of them. 

10: Hymns To The Silence (1991). Morrison’s first double album is a tad long, but it contains one of his best ballads, “Carrying A Torch.” You’ll find an even better rendition of that song on Morrison’s duet album, where Clare Teal accompanies him. Van the Man on this record takes a song that has been covered countless times, Ray Charles’ hit “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” but he gives it a fresh take by having traditional Irish musicians the Chieftains accompany him. There’s also an intriguing spoken word piece too, “On Hyndford Street.”

9: No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986). Morrison’s 1980s efforts were mostly jazz and Celtic-influenced songs, many of them expressing a love of nature, with some stream-of consciousness songs throw in. The best of these is No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. Its highlights include “In The Garden,” “Tir Na Nog,” and an homage to his 1970s pop hits, “Ivory Tower.” It was around this time I saw Morrison in concert–so far the only time I have done so. I was under the impression, based on his ’80s works, that the Belfast Lion had lost the roar of his growl. Wrong. He growled a lot that night and it returned to his later studio albums.

8: Three Chords & the Truth (2019). The title alone makes this effort at least an honorable mention. “Angry Van” of the 2020s didn’t emerge once the COVID lockdowns kicked in. In “Nobody In Charge” Morrison decries, “politicians that waffle endlessly.” A haunting love sing, “Dark Night Of The Soul,” is another highlight. And Van offers a gorgeous re-working of “Auld Lang Syne” on “Days Gone By.”

7: What’s It Gonna Take? (2022). I’ve discussed this work already in this blog post–but to flesh out my love for this album, it’s as fresh as breathing in, mask-free, mountain air in spring. While anti-COVID lockdown songs dominate the collection, including “Dangerous,” which Morrison’s response to comments about him made by Northern Ireland’s health minister, Robin Swann, as well as “Fighting Back Is The New Normal” and “Fodder For The Masses,” the collection ends with another great love ballad, “Pretending.”

6: Veedon Fleece (1974). Stream-of consciousness Van is at the forefront here. Like gourmet cuisine, you may not appreciated Veedon Fleece at first bite, but it’s a hearty musical meal. “Bulbs,” “Linden Arden Stole The Highlights,” and “Streets Of Arklow” are among the great tracks.

5: Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972). Released 50 summers ago, this album contains two of Morrison’s best-known songs, the title track and “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile).” Van the Man’s greatest “stream” work, “Listen To The Lion,” is an 11-minute long masterpiece.

4: Magic Time (2005). This is the best Van Morrison album you’ve never heard of. There is quite a bit of swing music influence on Magic Time. While Van the Man, as we discussed early, re-worked “Auld Lang Syne” in 2019, he gifts us a New Year’s Eve alternative here with “Celtic New Year.” There’s another preview of “Angry Van” on “Keep Mediocrity At Bay.” Magic Time opens with another great ballad, “Stranded.” And there is a luscious sequel to “Listen To the Lion” in “The Lion This Time.”

3: Into The Music (1979). The Belfast Cowboy–Morrison has a lot of nicknames–ended the 1970s with a bang. It opens with two now-familiar songs, “Bright Side Of The Road” and “Full Force Gale.” There is rock, blues, gospel, and more here. And if Morrison’s “growl” is what you enjoy about him the most, then Into The Music is your album.

2: Moondance (1970). Like many all-time-best albums, Moondance comes across as a greatest hits album. The title track, “Caravan,” “Crazy Love,” and “Into The Mystic” are just four of the great tracks here. And while “Brown Eyed Girl” from Morrison’s first album is one of the most played songs on radio, “Into The Mystic” is a popular song at funerals. And “Crazy Love” is played at many wedding receptions.

1: Astral Weeks (1968). Arguably his first album, as his debut collection, Blowin’ Your Mind, was released without his input, Morrison, with jazz musicians backing him up, recorded a collection that sounded like nothing else up to that point. Is Astral Weeks a rock album? Jazz? Folk? Blues? The answer is none of the above. It’s simply Van Morrison. “The Way Young Lovers Do” foreshadows his 1970s hits, but like Veedon Fleece, stream-of-consciousness dominates here. “Cyprus Avenue” and “Ballerina” are majestic songs. “Madame George” is an enigmatic work, which is one of its enduring qualities.

So, if you are now inclined to explore Van Morrison, you might be wondering “Where do I start?” As I’ve said before, I deplore the term “classic rock,” but if that is your “jones,” then start with Moondance. If your first love is vintage country, then take a look at Pay The Devil. Blues? Get an album that just missed my top ten, Too Long In Exile, where John Lee Hooker teams up Morrison to revisit his “Gloria” hit that he recorded with his band Them in 1964. Are you a punk rocker? Then dig into Morrison’s recordings with Them. If your a jazz aficionado, I recommend Versatile to you. How ’bout Celtic music? Morrison collaborated with The Chieftains on Irish Heartbeat.

Now that I’ve listened to all 43 of Van Morrison’s studio albums I have a plan for what’s next: the Belfast Cowboy’s live albums.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

Earlier this month the second season of the Luxembourgish crime drama Capitani began streaming on Netflix. 

In the first season, set in 2019, the titular character, gruff and laconic police detective Luc Capitani (Luc Schiltz) arrives in the fictional small northern Luxembourg of town of Manscheid to investigate the murder of an identical twin teen girl. Similar to British crime series Broadchurch, Luc Capitani is confronted by clannish locals who are harboring secrets. Capitani meets an old flame in Manscheid, Carla Pereira (Brigitte Urhausen)–her presence might have been the real reason for his visit to the village.

The following paragraphs contain a Season One spoiler. 

At the end of Episode 12, after solving the case of the murdered twin, Capitani is arrested for the murder of a drug lord that happened years earlier, a crime in which Pereira is entangled in. At the start of Season Two, after serving eighteen months in prison, he is released due to lack of evidence.

Capitani is now working as a private detective in Luxembourg City. A sex worker, Bianca Petrova (Lydia Indjova), calls him to look into the disappearance of another prostitute. Capitani quicky finds her body in a park. It turns out the sex worker hired Capitani at the request of the owner of what is called here a cabaret, but in reality it is a strip club and a brothel. That proprietor is Valentina Draga (Edita Malovcic). After the murder of another prostitute, the owner of a competing cabaret, Gibbes Koenig (André Jung), reaches out to Draga. Each of them has an ambitious son, respectively Dominik Draga (Adrien Papritz) and Arthur Koenig (Tommy Schlesser), who are seeking to expand their operations.

And business is poor. This is the first television series that I have viewed that has incorporated the COVID-19 pandemic into its plot. The lockdowns have been devastating to the cabarets and those two sons look to narcotics to make up the difference. Drugs in Luxembourg City are sold openly on the streets by Nigerian immigrants–much in the manner that I’ve witnessed on the West Side of Chicago–while under surveillance of two cops, Elsa Ley (Sophie Mousel), who was Capitani’s unofficial partner in Manscheid, and Toni Scholtes (Philippe Thelen). One of those drug dealers, Lucky Onu (Edson Anibal), is in Luxembourg not to peddle narcotics, but to find his sister, Grace (Jennifer Heylen), another sex worker.

Similar to Clint Eastwood’s character in A Fistful Of Dollars, a work that was based on the Akiro Kurosawa film Yojimbo, Capitani works both sides of the brothel competition. And he hasn’t completely broken ties with the Luxembourg Police. There’s a third angle being played, Capitani is regularly speaking with a senior police official, Pascale Cojocaru (Larisa Faber).

If you enjoy Nordic noir movies and television shows–as I do–you’ll like Capitani. There is no Netflix wokism here, the performances are captivating, and the cinematography succeeds by capturing views of beauty and squalor in Luxembourg City. And the plot keeps you guessing enough to make things interesting. Both seasons have twelve episodes, with each entry lasting around 30 minutes.

Both seasons of Capitani are currently streaming on Netflix. It is rated TV-MA for nudity, violence, drug use, obscene language, and sex. You can watch in the original Luxembourgish with subtitles, although there is much English dialogue here, or in dubbed English.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

Earlier this month Season Six of the BBC gangster drama, Peaky Blinders, began streaming on Netflix.

The show centers on a Birmingham Romani organized crime family, the Shelbys, and the leader of that gang, Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy). He’s a World War I veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, who manages to build a business empire, while getting elected to Parliament as a member of the Labour Party.

This will be the final season of Peaky Blinders, although a movie is said to be in the works.

The next two paragraphs contain some Season 5 and 6 spoilers.

During Season 5 a new major character, Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin), a Birmingham member of Parliament like Tommy Shelby, is introduced. He’s the founder of a British fascist party–and Mosley was a real person. Shelby’s relationship with Mosley is complicated, which fits the show as the plot lines are anything but simplistic. Shelby’s plot to assassinate Mosley–the real Oswald died of natural causes in 1980–is foiled by the Irish Republican Army. The IRA kills the would-be assassin and other member of the Peaky Blinders, the “muscle” end of the Shelby operation.

While Tommy is the leader of the gang, his aunt, Elizabeth Pollyanna “Polly” Shelby Gray (Helen McCrory), was the glue of the enterprise, formally known as Shelby Family Limited. But McCrory died at 52 of lung cancer in 2021, just as production of this season started. Other than Tommy Shelby, Aunt Polly was the most important character in Peaky Blinders. Her off-screen death was a tough blow for the show. To compensate, the role of Tommy’s sister, Ada Thorne (Sophie Rundle), is elevated, but Rundle is placed in an impossible position. Meanwhile, Polly’s son, Michael Gray (Finn Cole), holds Tommy responsible for Polly’s murder.

Also back in Season 5, another new character Gina (Anya Taylor-Joy), Michael’s wife, makes her debut. We learn in the new season that Gina is the niece of South Boston gangster Jack Nelson (James Frecheville). He’s a not-too-thinly disguised characterization of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. Like the patriarch of the Kennedy dynasty, Nelson has anti-Semitic and fascist leanings. Calm down my liberal friends, it’s true about Kennedy. With Prohibition over, Tommy and Nelson hope to offset the end of it by smuggling opium into Boston. 

Mosley has a new lover, Lady Diana Mitford (Amber Anderson). She declares herself to Ada, in cruder terms, as a bisexual but she also has her eyes on Tommy. The real Mitfort was the first cousin of Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine. Unless this plotline is being saved for the Peaky Blinders movie, I am stupefied why this angle wasn’t developed into the storyline. The future wartime leader, amazingly is portrayed by three actors over the six seasons, makes a cameo appearance in Season 6. 

Season 5 ends and Season 6 begins with Tommy wallowing in mud. And mud is fitting metaphor for this season, while good, falls short of the greatness of Peaky Blinders, although I didn’t care for the Russian diversion in Season 3. The final episode of this last season, nearly 90 minutes long, is the best, as Tommy’s older brother, Arthur (Paul Anderson), emerges somewhat from his alcohol and drug induced haze as the Shelbys face a two-front war. A third front of sorts is there too as Tommy’s marriage with Lizzie (Natasha O’Keeffe) faces challenges. 

In regard to Nelson, Season 6 would have been much more interesting if instead Joseph P. Kennedy was the Boston foil for Tommy.

Surprisingly, while the show continues with a dark and gothic soundtrack, the unofficial theme song, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand” is sadly missing. But arguably the worst song Bob Dylan ever recorded, “All The Tired Horses,” covered by Lisa O’Neill, is included.

All six seasons of Peaky Blinders are currently streaming on Netflix. It is rated TV-MA for nudity, drug use, foul language, and violence. 

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.