SPOILER-FREE Review: Killing Eve – Season 1 (BBC America)

Based on the novellas by Luke Jennings [published in 2017] and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag), Killing Eve centers on two women; Eve (Sandra Oh) is a bored, whip-smart, pay-grade MI-5 security officer whose desk-bound job doesn’t fulfill her fantasies of being a spy; Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is a mercurial, talented killer who clings to the luxuries her violent job affords her. -Summary from BBC America

Remember Det. Bobby Goren’s pursuit of the literate/world-traveling serial killer- Nicole Wallace- on several eps/seasons of Law and Order: Criminal Intent? Bobby and Nicole shared a strong connection (chemistry), though they were on different sides of the law. Now you’ve got a hint of this (unique) thriller, which is mostly a character-based drama centered on a  married/middle-aged MI-5 security officer, Eve Polastri (Canadian actress of Korean heritage- Sandra Oh- best known for Sideways and Gray’s Anatomy) and multi-lingual/sociopath killer, Villanelle (Jodie Comer, a Brit from Liverpool). Oh’s character is a Brit, though raised in the US (so has an American accent).  

Though this is a drama, there is (dark) humor laced throughout each of the 8 eps, thanks to Waller-Bridge, a multi-talented Brit in her early 30s. Yes, women are at the forefront (and behind-the-scenes) of Killing Eve! I was esp. pleased to see veteran actress Fiona Shaw as Carolyn Martens, Eve’s superior officer. The man who acts as a sort of handler/manager for Villanelle is called Konstantin (Kim Bodnia, a Danish actor). Both he and Shaw have strong onscreen presences, toughness, and some (unexpected) moments of lightness/fun. Eve’s easygoing husband (a teacher) is Niko (Owen McDonnell, an Irish actor who works mainly in theater); he and Oh have the type of natural chemistry you’d see in a long-married couple. Their marriage is put under strain as Eve goes into fieldwork, dangers escalate, keeps secrets, and becomes obsessed w/ Villanelle.  

As some critics have noted, the breakout star of Killing Eve is Jodie Comer. She’s young, tall, blue-eyed, (conventionally) pretty, yet NOT skinny (athletic figure). What sets her apart are her big/bright blue eyes and luminous face (which she twists into many expressions). I see a LOT of potential in this actress. Vilanelle, like MANY real women, likes real food (ice cream, fresh bruschetta, champagne, etc.) And she has a keen eye for fashion, too. How good is this show? Well, it was picked up for a second season (even before the pilot aired), then Oh was nominated for a Best Actress Emmy (the first for an Asian-American woman). Check it out ASAP (I saw it last week at the BBC America web site)!

 

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Love & Friendship (2016) starring Kate Beckinsale & Chloe Sevigny

My friend and I recently saw this at the Jane Austen film festival held annually on the grounds of Dumberton House (Washington, DC). You can watch it w/ Amazon Prime. This is the first movie based on Austen’s epistolary (letter format) novel Lady Susan (1871), which uses a name from another of her novels- Love and Friendship. It’s well-made (though w/ low budget of $3M), funny (w/ both subtle and obvious humor), and a fresh take on the beloved author’s work.

It’s with ticklish glee, then, that you watch Love & Friendship live up to every possible expectation you could set for it, opening out the adulterous games of Austen’s surprisingly risqué text and elaborating on them with impish, often breathlessly funny verve. It’s flat-out hilarious… Gliding through its compact 92 minutes with alert photography and not a single scene wasted…

Excerpt from The Telegraph 

The daughter of an earl w/ little money, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale- check her out in Emma), visits her brother- and sister-in-law, Charles (Justin Edwards) and Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), w/ little advance notice at Churchill, their country estate. Catherine is quite anxious/unhappy; years ago Lady Susan (the widow of her older/deceased brother-in-law) tried to prevent her marriage to Charles. Also, Lady Susan (though considered old-  mid-30s) has the reputation of being one of the biggest flirts in England (more likely, just their social circle). She owes debts to many merchants in London. Among Lady Susan’s conquests in London is the married Lord Mainwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin).

Catherine’s genuine/handsome younger brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) arrives a week later, and despite Catherine’s  warnings, soon falls under Lady Susan’s spell. She messes w/ his affections for her own amusement, as well as upsetting Catherine. Her closest friend, an American woman, Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny),  recommends she marry the eligible Reginald ASAP. Lady Susan considers him to be greatly inferior to Mainwaring. 

Too old to be governable, and too young to die. -Lady Susan comments re: Alicia’s older/respectable husband, Mr. Johnson

Frederica, Lady Susan’s 16-year-old daughter, tries to run away from school when she learns of her mother’s plan to marry her off to a wealthy/stupid young man, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). She stays at Churchill where her aunt and uncle come to like her (her character is totally unlike her mother’s). Sir James shows up uninvited, much to Frederica’s distress; she still doesn’t want to marry him (though she doesn’t hate him as a person). Lady Susan isn’t having it, telling Frederica that she doesn’t know how much worse their lives could be. After all, they need a permanent home and security, so she should obey her mother. 

…Tom Bennett, whose scene-stealing efforts should make him every bit as much of a star, grins and grins and understands nothing as the biggest stooge of the lot…

Excerpt from The Telegraph 

Frederica even goes to the local church alone, asking the kind young parson re: the commandment to “honor thy mother and father.” One day, Frederica is crying in the parlor, and Reginald asks her to tell him what’s wrong. She begs Reginald for support, feeling she has nowhere to turn, as her mother has forbidden her from telling her aunt and uncle. Reginald is shocked to learn that Lady Susan would want her daughter to marry such a dolt as Sir James! 

Facts are horrid things! -Lady Susan declares to Alicia

Lady Susan returns to London; Reginald follows her, still in love. One day, he goes to see Mrs. Johnson and deliver a letter from Lady Susan. He finds the inconsolable young Lady Mainwaring (Sophie Radermacher) meeting w/ her former guardian, Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry, in a rare serious role). After reading the letter, Reginald finally learns Lady Susan’s true character (she came to London to be alone w/ Mainwaring)!

Lady Susan ends up marrying Sir James herself, and allows Frederica to live at Churchill. As Catherine always wanted, Reginald and Frederica grow closer, fall in love, and marry. At their wedding reception, we see a very pregnant Lady Susan, Sir James (still clueless), and Lord Mainwaring (her lover) all looking quite satisfied. Of course, Sir James is NOT the father! 

Lady Susan has few parallels in 19th-century literature, according to scholars. She is a selfish, clever, VERY attractive to men, and unashamed of her relationship w/ a married man. She has an active role in the her life story; she is NOT just beautiful, BUT intelligent and witty. Her suitors (incl. Reginald and Sir James) are much younger than herself. The ending includes a reward for morality; Frederica is praised for her “virtue” in a poem written by Reginald. While Alicia has to sail back to Connecticut (a punishment) w/ Mr. Johnson, Lady Susan is settled into a comfortable life w/ a husband she can control.

SATC: 20 Years Later

Who hasn’t wondered if they’re a Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, or Samantha!? The iconic HBO show (which was later shown on TBS- where I saw MOST of it) has MANY fans (incl. Beyonce- listen to lyrics in Me and My Boyfriend) and haters. Though it deals w/ modern-day dating (casual/serious), careers (high-powdered/stressful), and (eventually) LTRs and marriage, it’s anchored in something MORE solid than any of these topics- female friendship. No matter what, these four women had each other’s backs (unlike the younger/less mature ones we later saw on Girls). Michael Patrick King admitted that he intentionally limited the family members, since the four gal pals and how they relate to each other was the main focus.

From a distance, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) had a glam life- working as a freelance writer, living in a (rent-controlled) Manhattan apt, w/ a closet filled w/ designer shoes (as well as quirky clothes). The fictional stand-in for author Candace Bushnell, Carrie (32 y.o. in the first season), was focused on her writing and finding love. She was petite, curly-haired, a bit clumsy, BUT also funny/charming. UES art curator Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) always had the dream of a traditional family. In a revealing character moment (early in S1), she incredulously asks: “How do you forget a guy you’ve slept with!?” Charlotte was V conventionally pretty/WASP and more conservative when it came to clothing, demeanor, and men. Miranda Hobbs (Cynthia Nixon- now running for governor of NY) was the litigator looking to make partner at her law firm. She was V independent, funny (in a sarcastic way), and NOT focused much on romance (some viewers call her jaded). In one ep, a senior partner assumed she was gay, so set her up w/ another woman (who turned out to be a pal). Samantha (Kim Cattral) was the publicist who boldly stated that she’d try anything once. Though the oldest of this group, she was (arguably) the MOST beautiful, confident, and adventurous (incl. w/ men). Creator Darren Star solely wanted Cattral (an icon from ’80s B-movies) for this role, though she was V reluctant. Some haters feel that Samantha “acted like a man” (whatever that means) and wasn’t “realistic.” Hmmm… that doesn’t mean real “Samanthas” don’t exist.

Though the men take a back seat on SATC, many fine (and fine looking- just being real) actors (from world of movies, TV, & theater) have been involved w/ the women. Carrie’s Achilles heel was Mr. Big (Law & Order alum Chris Noth), the emotionally distant, successful businessman she couldn’t forget… and finally married (in a movie). Frustration was the most common feeling when Carrie broke up w/ furniture-builder Aiden (John Corbett), who MANY thought was her “perfect guy.” Unlike Big, Aiden was expressive, warm, and V willing to share his life. And who can forget Jack Berger (Ron Livingston from Office Space)!? Berger (as she called him) was Carrie’s intellectual equal- a humor writer she met at their publisher’s office. They share witty banter, common thoughts, and honesty. Berger’s advice to Miranda when she questions the lack of a phone call after a first date, “He’s just not that into you,” became a part of pop culture. Berger’s and Carrie’s relationship is strained by career problems; a book deal of his falls through just as she gets a book deal to publish her columns. He breaks up with her on a Post-It (yikes).

It wasn’t a smooth road for the other gals either. Charlotte’s “knight in shining armor” Dr. Trey MacDougal (Kyle MacLachlan of Twin Peaks fame) turned out to be NOT what she expected. They met when Trey’s cab nearly missed hitting Charlotte on the street. She did what MANY women (raised w/ conservative values) have done- married in short time b/c the man was handsome, of similar heritage, w/ a successful career. After her divorce from (still a “mama’s boy”) Trey, Charlotte (unexpectedly) grew close to her attorney, Harry Goldenblatt (Evan Handler). Harry was the antithesis of what Charlotte looked for in a man: bald, pudgy, messy, sweaty, w/ blunt manners and TOO much body hair. But Charlotte fell in love w/ him, and decided to convert to Judaism, b/c it meant that she’d get to be the wife of such a good man. Miranda (perhaps an aspirational figure to young women) turned out to have a great life; she became partner, had a baby boy, bought a brownstone in Brooklyn (before it was cool) and (eventually) married Queens-raised bartender- Steve (David Eigenberg). It came as NO shock to viewers when Samantha ended up single, though she did have two LTRs w/ wealthy industrialist, Richard (James Remar), and much younger actor/waiter Smith (Jason Lewis). She also managed Smith’s acting career for a time.

Looking back, fans and critics alike MAY cringe at the lack of diversity (esp. in a show set in NYC and filmed partly at Silvercup Studios in Astoria, Queens). In S1, Samantha had an elegant/older girlfriend, Maria (played by iconic Brazilian actress Sonia Braga). Later, she dated a young hip hop mogul, Marcus, whose older sister strongly disapproved of interracial relationships. Miranda briefly dated her sports doc neighbor (played by Blair Underwood, an alum of L.A. Law). The two (recurring) gay men on the show, Carrie’s literary agent/friend Stanford (Willie Garson) and Charlotte’s event planner/friend Anthony (Mario Cantone) were drawn w/ a broad brush. At one point, the ladies set them up on a date, though they didn’t have much in common (yeah, that happens to other minorities, too).

Fleabag (2016)

I watched this Brit show (on Amazon Prime) last weekend; there are 6 eps (about 30 mins long). It’s NOT for everyone (TV-MA), BUT does have some interesting/unique components. We’ve ALL seen angry/unlikable/complicated men as protagonists (incl. in comedies) over the past 10 yrs or so. However, there aren’t many female characters like Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a 20ish working woman living in London and dealing w/ grief (incl. that of her BFF/business partner). “Fleabag” is the real-life nickname of Waller-Bridge. She also created a play on which this show is based. Fleabag breaks the fourth wall (as seen prominently on House of Cards); this brings the viewer in closer to the story.
Fleabag struggles to keep her small cafe open, breaks up w/ her sensitive/songwriter BF- Harry (Hugh Skinner), then hooks up w/ different men (one of her coping mechanisms, she admits). Waller-Bridge can be BOTH beautiful and awkward at the same time; she has a flawless face and is tall and slim. Yet she also has a somewhat long/big nose (which gives her an unique look). One of her men is played by an unusually handsome actor (Ben Aldridge). Sidenote: The way others reacted to their pairing reminded me of when Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) dated character played by a soap actor on SATC.
Fleabag has an awkward relationship w/ her father (Scottish actor Bill Paterson) and hates her godmother turned step-mom (Waller-Bridge’s close friend-actress Olivia Colman). Talk about step-mom from Hell- Colman portrays a self-absorbed artist and villain V well here (a departure from her usual roles)! The MOST interesting/complicated relationship is between Fleabag and her seemingly “perfect” older sister, Claire (Sian Clifford). Unlike Fleabag’s aimless approach to life, Claire (Sian Clifford) has to control everything (incl. her own “surprise” b-day party). There is deep love between these women, though they have such different personalities. Both women wonder if they sre “bad feminists”- something V rare for a TV show! Claire is married to an American art dealer, Martin (comedian Brett Gelman), who comes off as creepy and pathetic. I think Martin provides some of the more (obvious) humor.

Book Review: “American Dervish” by Ayad Akthar

Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.

Mina is Hayat’s mother’s oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah’s doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat’s skeptical father can’t deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family’s Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina’s side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.

When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act — with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

-Synopsis of the novel (Amazon)

As some of you know, I’m a V slow reader, BUT I managed to finish 75% of this novel (according to my Kindle)! I’ve been following this author for a few yrs now; in 2017, journo Bill Moyers said of Akthar: “We finally have a voice for our times.” One of my friends read American Dervish a few years ago; she didn’t recall ALL the details, BUT said that she’d never read something like this before. She passed it onto a friend, then that friend gave it to another. A newcomer to the book club said she also liked the book- subject matter and writing style. The moderator who read it 2 yrs ago said that this book goes into the issues faced by ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis), NOT only those particular to Muslims. 

WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for the novel. 

NOTE: The following topics/questions (which my book club discussed) can be found here: https://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm/book_number/2649/american-dervish

Do you think that one has to reject one identity in order to embrace another? What choice does Hayat make? What will the result be?

I think that children and adolescents (such as Hayat Shah, the protagnist/narrator) can often feel this way; my book club agreed w/ this comment. For Hayat, he identified as a Muslim, at least as a preteen boy. His goal was to be a hafiz (someone who knows the Quran by heart), though his father was dead set against this plan. Akthar said in several interviews that he was V interested in Islam as a child; he convinced his (secular) parents to take him to the local mosque and allow him to study the Quran. 

Hayat’s mother and father have a difficult relationship. In fact, all of the relationships between men and women in the book are complex, often troubled. What might the author be saying about such relationships within this culture?

Back in Pakistan, Mina’s first marriage turned sour b/c of her abusive mother-in-law. Her husband didn’t do anything to stop this, so Mina made the drastic decision to go to the US (w/ her son Imran). She couldn’t go back to her parents; they had urged her to stay w/ her husband’s family (she was rejected in her time of need).  

The newcomer to our group said that there were messed up power dynamics between Hayat’s parents; his mother (Muneer) didn’t have a job, so his father (Naveed) has all the money (thus the decision-making power). The ONLY relationship that was positive was between Hayat’s mom’s best friend, Mina, and his father’s friend/colleague, Nathan. They have an old-fashioned courtship, under the watchful eye of Muneer for about a year. This is a kind of fix-up, though based on mutual respect and admiration. Mina and Nathan talk re: books and ideas, share meals, and grow to love each other. When Hayat asks why they can’t be alone, his mother explains that Mina is a Pakistani woman, so “dating” is out of the question.

Hayat’s mother has grown angry and bitter b/c her husband drinks (secretly, he thinks) and cheats on her w/ white women. The women are possibly nurses at the hospital where Dr. Shah conducts research. Hayat’s mother, Muneer, refers to the other women as “mistresses” and “prostitutes.” Her view of white women is thus very negative, though she has a positive view of the Jewish people (incl. Nathan). In one scene, Muneer says that she’s raising Hayat “like a little Jew” (so that he’ll grow up to love and respect women).

Do you think it’s valid and/or authentic for male authors to write about feminist issues? What was your feeling about the portrayal of women in American Dervish?

Yes, someone can be “a male feminist,” my friend said quickly. Akthar said that he was inspired by the women in his life, incl. his own mother (a medical doc), his aunts, and various Pakistani immigrant women from the community of Milwaukee, WI (where he grew up). 

What are the different visions of Islam portrayed in the book?

Naveed (a man of science) has a contempt (perhaps even hatred) of Islam; this is echoed in Disgraced, where Amir even hides his origins. Naveed makes fun of Nathan when the younger man shows an interest in the religion. After Mina and Nathan’s break-up, he declares to his son that he “never wants to see you w/ that book [the Quran] ever again.” On the flip side, Mina wants to know more re: Islam; she studies and also teaches Hayat for a time. She is BOTH religious and spiritual, explaining to Hayat that it’s the “intention” of an action that counts. 

What did you think of the relationship between Islam and Judaism in the novel?

This is a tough one (IMO), b/c in this novel, these religions are put at odds w/ each other. Mina rejects Nathan (a cultural Jew) b/c he doesn’t want to convert to Islam. After all, he had a shocking/scary experience the one time he attended the masjid. Naveed warned him, BUT Nathan’s curiosity and love for Mina compelled him to give this religion a chance. Muneer, who had such high hopes for the pair, is disappointed when they don’t marry. She saw Nathan as a decent man and great choice for Mina, even though he was white and Jewish. I feel that Muneer wanted her friend to have a better life than herself.