*TV SERIES RECAP: THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA

The basic premise of The Plot Against America is to reimagine what would’ve happened if Charles Lindbergh and not FDR had won the 1940 US presidential election. It is based on the 2004 novel of the same name by Philip Roth. The story is told through the eyes of the Levins family; A Jewish working-class family living in 1940s Newark, New Jersey.

The background of the story is that Charles Lindbergh (Ben Cole) is campaigning hard all over the country, where anxious crowds are waiting to hear him speak. Lindbergh flies a plane down to his campaign rally appearances while selling an isolationist agenda to the American public, and he is also opposed to joining the war effort against Nazi Germany; Lindbergh even has a campaign slogan consisting of repeating the same phrase over and over again at every single rally: “The choice is simple. It is not between Charles Lindbergh and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It is between Charles Lindbergh and war.”

This show draws you in slowly; it takes the first two episodes to get a tangible sense of the characters and where the story is going. The tension grows in every episode; the plot moves slowly, but it works well. The world these characters inhabit feels authentic. And the clear depiction of this working-class neighborhood made up of mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants in 1940s Newark, New Jersey, was well crafted.

You get to know this Jewish family well; you get a good sense of this family and their suburban life. There are slow warnings of potential danger to their community through news reports on the radio and newsreels. The depiction of the slow and steady rise of fascism and the terror that it causes within the Jewish community is remarkable. All those things are put together brilliantly.

We get a closer look at the story through the eyes of young Philip Levin (Azhy Robertson), as he comes to terms with the reality of things. The audience also begins to come to terms with the high stakes at play alongside young Philip. We have to lean in and pay attention to each scene closely.

It is impossible not to avoid the obvious comparison between this show’s premise and the rise of Donald Trump. The idea that a celebrity with no political experience becomes a politician and turns out to be a populist and a right-wing nut job — appealing mostly to the lowest common denominator of voters is eerily similar — once elected, this right-wing hack turns the whole country into a fascist regime and The United States’ decline is set into motion.

It is chilling to see how Lindbergh uses a populist agenda and turns to members of the Jewish community to do his bidding. We have Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), an influential leader in the Jewish community, who becomes a strong supporter of Lindbergh, normalizing many of Lindbergh’s rhetoric and, in a sense becoming the “token” Jew of the campaign.

I cannot help but see similar and modern parallels within many leaders and influential Hispanic community members who supported and continue to support Trump and his right-wing anti-immigrant agenda.

The performances are excellent. Morgan Spector (Herman Levin) and Zoe Kazan (Bess Levin) are fantastic. Both characters sense the danger of Lindbergh’s rhetoric but cope and approach the imminent threat to their community differently. Winona Ryder (Evelyn Finkel) is outstanding as this naive and over-trusting follower of Rabbi Bengelsdorf. The kid that plays Seldon (Jacob Laval) is a scene-stealer.

Kudos to David Simon for this remarkable and thought-provoking adaptation. I must confess that I have never seen The Wire; I’ll get around to it eventually. However, I’m a massive fan of The Deuce, which is one of the best things I’ve seen on TV in the last 20 years. Both of those shows were David Simon creations.

At its core, The Plot Against America is speculative and alternative history. Notwithstanding, it is also a clear warning of a dystopian horror that might await us in the not-so-distant future if we allow populist, isolationists, and xenophobic demagogues to rise into political positions of power.

Five out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿

THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA (2020). Streaming now on HBO

*TV SERIES RECAP: THE OUTSIDER

The legend of El Cucu finally gets a spot on mainstream TV — Based on a Stephen King novel and adapted for TV by best-selling crime novelist Richard Price — The Outsider is not a straightforward murder mystery like I initially imagined; it is a detective crime drama with a huge supernatural component.

The premise is not as simple as it seems: A kid has been murdered in a small town, and all of the forensic evidence points to the local little league coach Terry (Jason Bateman) as the killer. But coach Terry seems to be well-liked by all the town locals. However, plenty of evidence points to him being miles away from town at a conference when the murder happened.

Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) is a grief-stricken cop who has tragically lost his kid recently. Ralph is hell-bent on solving this crime and is convinced coach Terry is guilty.

The paradox of being in two places at the same time becomes, at first, the main obstacle our protagonist must solve. This is a dark but slow and steady show. It can be a bit frustrating if you are not into slow-moving plots. Nevertheless, there are some solid elements to The Outsider that merits watching it.

There are some weird but pretty cool camera shots and angles. We have different and exciting characters that feel real; they seem like regular people confronted all of a sudden with the supernatural, and we get to see how they attempt to rationalize things that they cannot explain rationally. The entire ensemble cast of supporting characters is excellent.

The character of Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo) is the best thing about this show; she adds a particular dynamic and energy to the plot. Stephen King fans will immediately recognize this character from the novel Mr. Mercedes (2014). This show introduces her as this quirky, weird private investigator who has this extraordinary ability to see things from a unique perspective.

El Cuco (The Coco) is a shape-shifting supernatural entity, primarily known in Hispanic cultures, but there are versions of this entity in just about every culture worldwide. It is also known as El Cucuy, El Cucui, and Coca. However, the lore of El Cuco was mildly presented and loosely explored in the show. Nonetheless, they explained that this entity feeds on the suffering, grief, and sorrow people feel after a tragedy and how it copies the identity of people it has come into contact with by scratching them.

If there is a second season, I would love to see them tackle more of the folklore of El Cuco and expand on this entity and its connection to similar cases all over the world.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

THE OUTSIDER (2020). Streaming on HBO

*MOVIE RECAP: ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

One of the strange benefits of this lockdown is that I finally have time to catch up with a bunch of movies that I missed in theaters and didn’t have time to watch once they became available to stream.

It’s really nice not having to do anything but work on my screenwriting and catch up on movies and TV shows.

Having said that, All The Money In The World has been on my “To Watch List” for over two years….. I can’t believe it took me this long to watch it.

I am a huge fan and admirer of Ridley Scott as a filmmaker — He has made some of the most fascinating and brilliant films of the last 45 years. And I always get excited whenever I see his name involved in a project.

About a month away from this movie’s release date, Ridley Scott announced that he would recast Kevin Spacey’s role and reshoot all of his scenes entirely with Christopher Plummer as his replacement. It was a bold but necessary move by Scott.

Christopher Plummer is formidable in all his scenes, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. You have to pay close attention to notice any signs of adjustments to the original Spacey scenes.

Plummer plays the infamous J. Paul Getty, founder of the Getty Oil Company. From around the 1950s through his eventual death in 1976, Getty was considered to be the wealthiest man in the world.

This film is set in 1973 and centered around the kidnapping of Getty’s teenage grandson in Italy and the initial $17 million ransom demanded by the kidnappers.

Getty refuses to pay the kidnappers, insisting that if he paid for the ransom, then his other 14 grandkids could also be kidnapped and held for ransom. The kid’s mother, Gail (Michelle Williams), who at the time of the kidnapping is already divorced from John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan). Gail is trying to raise the ransom money on her own — and the only thing J. Paul Getty can offer as help is to appoint his personal fixer Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), to negotiate with the kidnappers.

Based on the 1995 book by John PearsonPainfully Rich: the Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty. And even though the film is based on actual events, many liberties are being taken here, especially on a shootout scene between the mobsters involved in the kidnapping and the Italian police, which never took place.

There are a couple of scenes that further exemplify how blatantly cheap J. Paul Getty was, but one particular scene stands out, which showed how he had a payphone installed in his mansion for visitors to make phone calls, while his butler is ready to provide loose change in case someone needs coins to make a call.

All the Money in the World is an entertaining film, with outstanding performances by Plummer and Williams, whose combative relationship is at the very center of this story. I am curious whether there will be a director’s cut available at some point — I would love to watch it.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

All the Money in the World (2017).

*MOVIE RECAP: THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY

It took a global pandemic to start catching up with the movies and TV series on my long-ass “To Watch List,” I had this movie on my Netflix watch list since 2018, and I finally got around to watch it…. And what a pleasant watching experience it was.

The story is set during the German occupation of the island of Guernsey, and how a group of villagers created a book group to amuse and distract themselves during the Nazi occupation. Within the first few minutes of the movie, you will find out why the book group is called The Guernsey Literary Potato peel Pie Society (a mouthful indeed).

The main character is Juliet Ashton (Lilly James), a writer who, during world war II has become a successful writer and begins to exchange correspondence with Dawsey (Michiel Huisman), a pig farmer from Guernsey, who is a member of the Book Society. Lilly James has an exceptionally charismatic screen presence in everything I have seen her in, and she is excellent here as well.

Juliet finds herself creatively and emotionally unfulfilled, so she decides to write about the literary society, visit Guernsey, and attend a meeting of the Book Society. Her American boyfriend Mark (Glen Powell), whom I think is supposed to be an OSS officer, proposes to Juliet right before she leaves for Guernsey.

While in Guernsey, Juliet embarks on a journey of self-discovery. She begins to take an interest in the mysterious disappearance of one of the book society’s founding members. Romance, literature, and the power of letters are central to the narrative here—the importance and relevance of culture during a dark and nasty time in world history.

Essentially, this film is an ensemble piece made up of seasoned British actors; Penelope Wilton (Amelia), Tom Courtenay (Eben), Katherine Parkinson (Isola), Kit Connor (Eli), Jessica Brown Findlay(Elizabeth), and Matthew Goode (Sidney). All the characters are compelling, quirky, and engaging. I admire how it was shot, the tone, and the color palettes capturing the atmosphere of the period — Gorgeous scenery depicting small village life, full of beautiful customs and settings.

This movie is a beautifully rendered adaptation of the novel by the same name — written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Screenplay by: Kevin Hood, Don Roos, and Tom Bezucha. And Charmingly directed by Mike Newell.

The film feels a bit light within the context of the horrors of the Nazi occupation — I wanted to see more of what life was like for those who lived in Guernsey during the occupation. However, as is, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has been one of my most enjoyable viewing experiences during this lockdown.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society (2018). Streaming on Netflix

*TV SERIES RECAP: HIGH FIDELITY (Season 1)

First of all, I am a purist when it comes to original content, so it is essential to emphasize how much I dislike reboots or remakes…. I get the sense sometimes that Hollywood is hitting rock bottom when it comes to creating original content; however, this TV version of High Fidelity was a pleasant surprise. Based on the High Fidelity novel by Nick Hornby, which was released in 1995 and made into a well-received film in 2000 starring John Cusack.

Gender roles are reversed for the TV version: The main character Rob is now short for Robyn, played by Zoe Kravitz. Rob owns Championship Vinyl in Crown Heights Brooklyn, a small but well-curated record store with only two employees. The story revolves around Rob revisiting her top 5 heartbreaks while tracking down her former lovers and attempting to make sense of where things went wrong in those past relationships. Zoe Kravitz shines here; in terms of owning this character — in her scenes, she comes across as natural, organic, and very charismatic —Which is a significant difference from John Cusack’s Rob.

In the movie version, Rob is not as likable as the TV version of Rob. Kravitz plays a more empathetic, warm, and down-to-earth version of this character that feels more grounded in reality. She is a hell of a lot more open-minded and less judgmental than the movie Rob…. and although TV Rob has an eclectic and well-cultivated music taste — she doesn’t care about how well curated your music collection is. She is open to different types of musical tastes. Zoe Kravitz’s mom Lisa Bonet was also one of the stars of the movie version, which is a cool connection here.

The loud, opinionated, and annoying Championship Vinyl employee Jack Black played in the movie version is now Cherise, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Both versions share similar characteristics, but Cherise’s character development was a bit slow…there is an air of mystery about her, which I am sure will be further explored in the second season. The other record store employee Simon is played by David H. Holmes, who is more reserved and thoughtful about his opinions. The chemistry between the two Championship Vinyl employees and Rob is excellent.

Brooklyn hipster life is depicted beautifully here. The vibe and tone of Crown heights feel lively, with people walking around in the background, things happening all over. The whole place is teeming with life. The local Bodega and the local dive bar are both featured prominently, which are essential staples of New York City living. Rob’s state of mind is often displayed through music, showing us where she stands emotionally at that particular moment. The scene when she is walking home from the club after her birthday celebration while Frank Ocean’s Nikes play in the background fits perfectly with Rob’s emotional state. Also, showing her messy apartment as a projection of the disorder in her personal life complemented the narrative well — Rob eating cereal like a broke college student is another display of the emotional chaos in her life — she is supposed to be a business owner, and her surroundings do not really scream serious small business owner.

Considered just on its terms, High Fidelity is a well-made music-centric, progressive love story that is both moving and entertaining. As I binged on this show, I could not help getting a bit nostalgic and appreciate the small things this lockdown has taken from all of us who live, work, and play in New York City.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

High Fidelity (Season 1). Streaming on HULU

*TV Series Recap: HIS DARK MATERIALS (Season 1)

Yay for His Dark Materials. I had lots of fun binging through the entire first season. Although the first two episodes, at first, can be tough to watch, unless you are familiar with the sourcebook series. Mainly because there is a lot of exposition going on — lots of information and lots of moving parts are thrown at you pretty fast, so you have to stay focused — and believe me, this show is worth investing your time. By the third episode, I was all in.

It’s the story of Lyra, played by Dafne keen, who was excellent in Logan (2017), and she is excellent here also. Lyra was dropped off for safekeeping at Jordan College by her uncle (Lord Asriel, played by James McAvoy). The characters do not share our reality; they live in an alternate-parallel world much different than our own. This world’s technology seems outdated, like they are stuck in the Edwardian era before the First World War. There are some portals or gateways that connect this world to our current modern world, but there are only a few handful of people who know where those doorways are located. This parallel reality is ruled by an oppressive religious fascist-like regime called The Magisterium. The plot centers around Lyra’s backstory and the mysterious disappearance of children, including Lyra’s best friend, Roger.

In the first two episodes, we get a look into Lyra’s life at Jordan College, and we meet her best friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd). We are introduced to Daemons; creatures who serve as a companion to a child and takes the form of an animal — they can switch to any animal form it desires at will. When a child reaches their teenage years, the Daemon settles into a final animal form — and they remain with their human companion for their entire life.

We also meet the Gyptians; A group of nomadic people who share similar characteristics with Gypsies. They are portrayed as the poor and under-class people of this world. They have their unique way of life and are shown to be a hardworking, honorable, and dignified group of people. Gyptian children are also being taken away, and they take matters into their own hands to find their missing children.

From the third episode on, things get progressively darker as more truths about Lyra are revealed. Lyra’s storyline is full of perils, obstacles, and magical adventures. There are many moving parts in the storytelling here — from the magical, fairy tale type of world, these characters inhabit to the grim and dark aspects of the same world.

Dafne Keen-Lyra Belacqua

The casting was excellent. Roger was a scene-stealer, and Dafne keen is at a whole other level capturing the child-like essence and maturity of Lyra. Ma Costa, played by Anne-Marie Duff, delivered a touching and moving performance. Ruth Wilson is terrific as Mrs. Coulter — capturing her morally ambiguous character exceptionally. Lín Manuel Miranda, as Lee scorsby, had a bit of a Han Solo vibe, but from the stand-alone Solo movie. They need to develop this character and his relationship with Lyra a little better next season, but I did enjoy his performance here.

Game of Thrones fans should recognize James Cosmo, who played Jeor Mormont: Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch — playing Farder Coram, an essential and influential leader type figure with the Gyptians. James McAvoy is always great in anything he is in, and he is great here also. His portrayal of the Lord Asriel character is remarkable. At first, you are not really sure where he stands in the story, his indifference and coldness towards Lyra is off-putting, and McAvoy captures this character brilliantly.

His Dark Materials Season 1 is a well-written adaptation by Jack Thorne (who also wrote the stage play for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). The blending of action sequences and CGI worked well for me with the combination of compelling characters, and top-notch performances. I heard season 2 was shot simultaneously as season 1, so I assume season 2 will drop early next year. 

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

HIS DARK MATERIALS (Season 1-Streaming on HBO)

*TV Series Recap: The Dublin Murders (Season 1)

Man, what a treat it was to watch the first season of The Dublin Murders

Based on the Dublin Murders Squad book series by Tana French, specifically the first two books in the series: In the woods and The Likeness. Brilliantly adapted for T.V. by Sara Phelps, who is mostly known for adapting Agatha Christie’s A.B.C. detective series for the B.B.C., and the well-received T.V. adaptation of J. K Rowling’s Casual Vacancy.

The Dublin Murders (Streaming on STARZ)

The story revolves around the murder of a young girl in the woods, and the connection between this most recent murder and an old unsolved mystery regarding the disappearance of two kids in the same woods back to 1985. It is essentially a murder mystery within another mystery, and they are all interlinked. Bringing those two books to create a cohesive story is remarkable. The lead actors are super compelling. Excellent casting of Killian Scott (Detective Rob Reilly), and Sarah Greene (Detective Cassie Maddox); there is immediate chemistry between the two leads from the moment they show up on the screen.

Outstanding performance by Leah McNamara (Rosalind Devlin), she is an actor to keep an eye on future roles.

Most Game of Thrones fans should recognize the actor who played Varys (Conleth Hill), playing O’Kelly, a no-nonsense Captain of the Homicide squad, and he is fantastic on this show also.

The Dublin Murders is incredibly well executed in terms of quality; I admire the way it was shot, the tone and the color palettes capturing the atmosphere, the perverse and nastiness of the world the characters inhabit. Its dark, brutal, unnerving, eerie, but very human.

Audiences are hungry for engaging shows like The Dublin Murders, the type of elaborate shows that require your full attention. You cannot be distracted or be on your phone watching this show. You have to pay attention to everything going on. It is telling you in every scene to follow along, and you’ll know what is going on. It doesn’t dumb things down, its respectful to the audience. Can’t wait for season 2.

Five out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿

The Dublin Murders (Streaming on STARZ)

*Movie Recap: A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls (2016)

A Monster Call is the story of a young boy named Conor, played by Lewis MacDougal, who is coming to terms with his mother’s terminal illness. Conor is a very sad, lonely kid who gets bullied at school but has a wild imagination, which prompts one evening at exactly 12:07 for a monster to come calling. The monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) takes the form of a giant yew tree. The Monster tells Conor that he will return four times, and on each visit, he will tell Conor a story. However, on the fourth visit Conor must tell him a story of his own. Conor’s mom Lizzie (Felicity Jones), is undergoing some type of cancer treatment which is not yielding optimistic results. Sigourney Weaver plays Conor’s strict grandmother, who is trying to prep Conor for a potential life without his mother.

Based on a young adult novel of the same name by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay — Directed beautifully by J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, 2007-The Impossible, 2012), A Monster Calls its an emotional viewing experience that will remind audiences of Pan’s Labyrinth. It has a gothic tone and feel, plus the combination of standard CGI with the animated side stories worked well, which was a nice contrast to the live-action sequences. The climatic graveyard scene was spectacular.

In many ways, this film hit home for me, as someone who is still dealing with the grieving process of losing a parent.

Its all about letting go—about grief, pain, forgiveness, and imagination; those are the central themes of this movie. Films that deal with heavy emotional content have difficulty achieving the high marks A Monster Calls manages to achieve. This film will touch you.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

A Monster Calls (2016)

*Movie Recap: On Chesil Beach

Here is another film that left me perplexed…. in a good way.

On Chesil Beach is a love story but not a traditional love story. It follows a young couple freshly married on their wedding trip to a hotel by the beach. They both seem nervous and anxious around each other, which we assume is because they have never been intimate before. Their story is told through flashbacks to their earlier lives before they met.

Florence (Saoirse Ronan) comes from an affluential family. Edward (Billy Howle) comes from a working-class family. She is a musician, and he is an aspiring historian who wants to write a book about historical figures who have been ignored or not given enough attention and not enough praise for their contributions. They both seem full of ambition and hope for their future — a typical characteristic of idealistic young people. However, at the hotel, amid their wedding night, is when everything falls apart for this young couple.

On Chesil Beach is based on a novella of the same name by Ian McEwan, who also wrote the screenplay. The book was a big deal when it first came out, and it was shortlisted for the booker prize. I was working as a bookseller for Barnes & Noble when the book was released in 2007, and I remember how popular it was back then. The book was much shorter than the usual Ian McEwan novel, still, it was a well-received book and sold great.

On Chesil Beach (2017)

Directed by Dominic Cooke, who makes his feature film directorial debut, and manages to create a thought-provoking, moving adaptation. Most notably, in the tone of the movie, capturing the awkward situation in the hotel room. Their difficulty with intimacy, the silent moments. The visual language expressing repressed feelings and emotions held within them. The terrible looking food they have to eat, the suitcases on the bed. All those little details were great. The unpleasant hotel room sex scene was well done; it was executed thoughtfully and not comical.

The film moves from the 1960s to the 70s, and concludes in 2007, it is never easy to move through time periods with the same actors using makeup and prosthetics, but all the time shifts worked well for me. The film vaguely alludes that her father abused Florence. It leaves the audience wondering whether she was sexually assaulted or there was some form of abuse, but we never really get those answers.

Tragedy and regret are what essentially is at the heart of this film—the meaning of love, and how decisions made in an instant can last a lifetime. On Chesil Beach is an ambitious adaptation that follows the source material faithfully, except for its ending, which is a perfect example of why I love cinema.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

*Movie Recap: The Bookshop

One of the uniquely strange benefits of this lockdown is that I finally have the time to catch up with interesting and lovely films like this one.

The Bookshop based on a Penelope Fitzgerald novel of the same name. The film is about Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a young widower following her dream to own a bookshop. She buys an old house in a small village in England and proceeds to transform the old house into a bookshop. Isabel Coixet (Elegy, 2008), wrote and directed this lovely film. Although light on plot, it still works fine just the way it is. The performances are excellent, full of interesting characters typical of a small European town.

The Bookshop (2017)

The always excellent Bill Nighy Plays Mr. Brundish, a grumpy yet lovable hermit who spends his days of isolation and solitude reading anything Ms. Green recommends and sends his way. Florence introduces Mr. Brundish to new and noteworthy authors like Ray Bradbury and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Which as a former bookseller myself, I found those scenes to be very moving. Patricia Clarkson plays Violet Gamart, the local socialite set against the idea of a bookshop in the old house, and is determined to get rid of Florence at any cost. But the scene-stealer in this film is young Christine, played by Honor Kneafsey. Christine works at the bookstore as the one and only employee and quickly becomes an essential part of the bookstore operations.

There is much narration throughout this movie, which I enjoy. I’m a big fan of narration in films. But all in all, if you love literature, and stories set in English villages, then you will find The Bookshop to be quite enjoyable.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

The Bookshop (2017, Now Streaming)