Monday, December 31, 2018

Matan Yair's SCAFFOLDING: from Israel, a beautiful, believable, nuanced look at a troubled boy on the cusp of manhood

Yet another fine Israeli film reaches U.S. distribution, as SCAFFOLDING -- an unusual character study of a troubled-but-hugely-worth-caring-about Israeli high school student -- written and directed by Matan Yair, hits VOD and DVD via Breaking Glass films.

As a filmmaker, Mr. Yair, shown below, often begins his scenes in the middle of something and/or ends them abruptly, also in the midst of things. This works pretty well, too, as it forces us to observe and contend with a life -- that of the main character, Asher, beautifully played by newcomer Asher Lax -- that seems as fractured as does the ongoing narrative.

Slowly we ascertain that Asher is the only son of a problemed single father -- given to telling jokes, each of which seems more misogynistic than the last -- who owns a construction company specializing in scaffolding and expects his son to take over dad's business rather than pursuing the arts/academic career that apparently beckons him.

Young Mr. Lax, shown above and below, proves a natural -- an enormously attractive and charismatic performer who never needs to push, yet thanks to his talent and beauty, holds the audience securely in his alternately warm and angry grip.

In contrast to his single-minded and physically declining father, Asher's favorite teacher, Rami (played by Ami Smolartchik, shown at left, above and below) seems as physically and intellectually different as could be. We get snippets of how Rami teaches and how effective he is at reaching the difficult Asher. At one point Rami suggests to his student, "Try to be less prickly" -- a quiet and lovely manner in which to make the young man consider his words and actions.

When something totally unforeseen (but not at all difficult to accept) occurs, Asher must find ways to deal with this, as well as with his father and future. (Dad is played by Yaacov Cohen with just the right combo of incivility and caring that he never quite loses us. Nor his son.) On the feminine side are a good friend of Asher (not exactly a girlfriend, however; the young man's sexuality seems at this point maybe indeterminate), various educators, and the wife of the teacher, Rami.

Coming to terms with all this is not at all easy for Asher, but as orchestrated by Yair and Lax, the ongoing movie continues to hold us -- and afterward to haunt us -- via its marvelous combination of observation, compassion, detail and suggestion. The finale takes us just so far, making its quiet point in a moving and compelling fashion that doubles as a kind of memorial to that exceptional teacher.

Running a just-about-perfect length of 94 minutes, Scaffolding, from Breaking Glass Pictures, comes available on DVD and VOD tomorrow, Tuesday, January 1 (for purchase or rental) via iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play Vudu, FandangoNOW, iNDEMAND, Direct TV and elsewhere, too. For folk who appreciate foreign films, particularly well-done character studies, I can't think of a better way to begin the New Year.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Kim Byung-Woo's TAKE POINT: action, betrayal and international naughtiness via South Korea

Don't get involved if you want to stay alive -- the moral of this new film would seem to be -- with either mercenaries nor the governments of the USA, China, North Korea or South Korea. That's what happens to the two heroes of TAKE POINT, written and directed by Kim Byung-Woo, an ever-so-lightly-political action/adventure thriller in which betrayal is epidemic.

It doesn't matter whose side you imagine you may be on, you're still as good as dead.

Our heroes here (one of them takes a rather long time revealing himself) are a South Korean mercenary, now-residing in America with his pregnant wife, nicknamed Ahab (played by Ha Jung-woo, above and on poster, top), and a North Korean doctor (played by Lee Sun-kyun, below) whose job is to tend to the well-being of North Korea's premier, known here as "King."

The two men refer to each other as "Northie" and "Southie"(or so the English subtitles would have it) and eventually, if slowly, begin to bond and grow to respect their opponent for very good reasons. Mr. Lee played the lead role in that crackerjack South Korean crime thriller A Hard Day, and he is every bit as good (with much less to do) in this new film. Mr. Ha -- a staple of more first-rate South Korean films than you can shake a stick at -- is hugely impressive all over again. (That's Jennifer Ehle, below, right, who plays Ahab's American operative.)

The movie itself is manufactured to within an inch of its life, and yet it moves fast enough and is so filled with exciting twists and turns that it should more than keep fans of action, assassination, politics, explosions, and mistrust more than satisfied. The plot has to do with the mercenaries' need to kidnap and keep alive the North Korean head-of-state, and much of the action is seen via visual monitors located all over the place (including different countries) that show only one side of the action. Consequently, it is rare for more than than even a few cast members to share the screen in any particular scene.

So much is always happening simultaneously -- our Southie has to save the life of the North Korean President via everything from CPR to a blood transfusion at the same time as he is directing his team of mercenaries how to get out of ever more dangerous situations -- that the viewer barely has a chance to draw a breath. This makes the movie move like gangbusters. On the down side, however, is the heavily accented English spoken by both our heroes, which is difficult enough to understand that you may wish for the English subtitles to translate, not just the Korean dialog, but the English portion, too.

Yes, the movie is in many ways beyond ridiculous, with the events we see requiring super-human strength, skill and smarts from (and luck for) our two heroes. But if you can so easily accept the sanitized silliness of the latest Mission Impossible nonsense (which, clearly, most of the world did), then Take Point should prove a cakewalk of unusually piquant delight for most action fans. And if the film's finale offers up a nice nod toward a possible united Korea, it's too bad the filmmaker could not have allowed the emphasis to remain on the two men at the closing moment, rather than only on our heroic "Southie."

The film opened this past Friday in California in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas, and will expand eastward across the country in the days to come. To find the theaters nearest you, click here and then click on Find a Theater and then just keep clicking on View More until you've exhausted either the list or yourself.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Susanne Bier's sci-fi thriller, BIRD BOX, proves one of this lauded Danish director's best yet

Despite Susanne Bier's BFLF Oscar for In a Better World, along with some other awards throughout her career, I have been at best lukewarm to her work, finding her films, which generally deal with important human relationships above all else, too full of coincidence, manipulation and sentimentality to deserve our credence. Then last year I saw the British/US-produced cable series The Night Manager and found it surprisingly well done, melding those vital human relationships into a theme of international arms trading/spying.

Now comes the new Netflix-released movie BIRD BOX, a kind of sci-fi survival thriller that is a fine enough example of genre filmmaking that it occurs to TrustMovies that either Ms Bier's real strength may lie in the genre area, where coincidence, manipulation and sentimentality are more accepted, even perhaps expected, or -- since Bier (shown at right) is much more of a director than a writer and depends more often on the work of others in the writing capacity -- that both The Night Manager and Bird Box succeed as much on the strength of their screenplays as on the direction. (Bird Box was written by Eric Heisserer, based on the novel by Josh Malerman, while The Night Manager is credited to David Farr, based on the novel by John le Carré.)

Either way, Bird Box proves a riveting, surprising and emotionally gripping experience, as it moves back and forth in time, showing us what has happened to lead up to what is taking place right now. The movie posits that something, perhaps an alien force, is causing humanity worldwide to commit mass suicide. While watching, you may be put in mind of a much lesser film, M. Night Shayamalan's The Happening, and also of another sci-fi-thriller that opened earlier this year, A Quiet Place.

In the latter film, the aliens seemed to have next-to-nothing eyesight but wildly acute hearing capabilities, so the protagonists have to make no noise. In Bird Box, the suicides appear to be caused by actually viewing the alien force, and so the few survivors have learned, when out and about, they'd better cover their eyes. How Bier and her screenwriter bring this all to life works remarkably well, and how the tale is carried through to conclusion provides plenty of suspense, surprise and loss -- that last regarding characters we've come to understand and care for about as much and as well as any film in this genre I can readily recall.

In the leading role of a woman hurt by life and so recoiling from it, Sandra Bullock (above, left) gets a role she is perfect for and runs with it like the pro she usually is. The two children she is caring for are played -- by Vivien Lyra Blair and Julian Edwards -- very well, too -- while the well-chosen supporting cast includes first-rate actors like John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong, Sarah Paulson (above, right), Tom Hollander and Danielle Macdonald (below).

Worth special note is the performance from Trevante Rhodes (below, left and recently seen as the third iteration of the hero of Moonlight), playing the fellow who proves most capable of bringing Bullock's character out of her shell. Rhodes' work here proves that Moonlight (along with the several other films in which the actor has appeared) was no fluke.

Aside from being a good story well told, Bird Box almost works as well on a deeper, more profound level as an exploration of humanity in all its foibles and strengths. I say almost because, for me, it did not quite have the heft or depth necessary, though it occasionally came close. For you, it might be quite another story. In either case, the movie --  from Netflix and streaming now -- is definitely worth seeing.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

On Netflix: HAPPY AS LAZZARO, Alice Rohrwacher's fable of Capitalism Italian-style, then and now

The holy fool/wise fool has a long and storied history in novels, theater and film, and the current addition of a fellow named Lazzaro -- in the new film, HAPPY AS LAZZARO, written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher -- burnishes the image a bit more brightly. A good friend of mine dislikes holy fool movies intensely and so did not care for this one (though he admitted there were good things about it). TrustMovies found the film very much worth seeing on a number of levels, beginning with the performance of the title character by a first-time actor named Adriano Tardiolo, shown below.

Signore Tardiolo has a marvelous face and body, both of which are used by Ms Rohrwacher in precisely the right way that allows us to see this character more fully than do those around him. Lazzaro is guileless and beautiful; he's a helper. Though he is sometimes referred to as a saint, that is certainly not his intention. (Saints don't try; they simply do and are.) And if you suspect that Lazzaro's character is too good to be true, the filmmaker (shown below) has that objection covered, too.

Midway through the movie an event occurs that shows quite clearly that our Lazzaro -- as lovely and amazing as he and Tardiolo both are -- is a construct: someone who must hold together the movie and its two tales, one of "then" (the 1970s, more or less: were cell phones available, even to the wealthy?) and "now," a present day in which the hoi polloi are becoming ever more redundant.

I can't remember if I even heard the word Capitalism spoken in the movie, but the film is such an indictment of that much-loved/hated system, as it has worked in both past and present, that Happy as Lazzaro takes it place as a major political statement, as well as a fine film.

And while the movie indicts the behavior of the ruling class, whether it is individual, would-be royalty of yesteryear or today's banks and corporations, neither does it allow the masses to get off the hook. They are, as ever, docile, if sometimes scheming, sheep.

Within her framework of fable, Ms Rohrwacher brings to wonderful life all the many supporting characters who circle Lazzaro. One of the delights of the film is how these characters grow and age from the first section to the second. Despite the intervening decades, Lazzaro, of course, changes not a whit.

Every performance here is on the mark, whether from the non-professionals that make up much of the cast) to luminaries the likes of Sergi López, Nicoletta Braschi (above), and one of Italy's finest actors, Alba Rohrwacher (the filmmaker's sister), shown below with Tardiolo.

Streaming now via Netflix, after a very limited theatrical roll-out, the movie is a must-see for fans of Italian cinema, particularly those who fondly recall that country's ground-breaking, post-WWII neo-realism movement. 

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Coen Brothers' best? Netflix's THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS soars, even as it knocks you for a long, dark, funny loop

The brothers Ethan and Joel Coen (shown below, with Ethan on the left) may be better known for their directing efforts, but in actuality the pair possesses more credits in writing than it does in directing. And while TrustMovies has long thought the brothers to be among our finest current film writers, it took their latest movie, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, available now via Netflix streaming, to make me realize just how goddamned good they really are.

The level of dialog here -- the intelligence, wit and in particular the "period" authenticity -- from all the characters in each of the six tales told seems so incredibly perfect (often utterly juicy) that one can only listen in rapt attention and marvel throughout.

The tales themselves are terrific -- one as different from the next as you could want -- yet possessing the consistent Coen theme of a dark universe, full of irony and humor, in which almost no one comes to a good end. (And really now, no one ever does, right? There are good and vastly varied middles maybe, but the end is always the same.) Yet most (well, some) of the folk we meet here are fine people deserving of as much good as they can muster.

The movie begins with its most light-hearted and even silly story, starring that wonderful actor Tim Blake Nelson (above) as a singing gunfighter who is just a tad too besotted with his own aura and reputation. The episode is as hilarious and goofy as anything the Coens have given us.

We then move to the tale of a doofus would-be bank-robber (played by a wonderful James Franco, above) in, again, a tale as dark and funny as you'll find. Mr. Franco gets the movie's most hilarious line, "This your first time?", and trust me, context is all here.

The third episode is one of the darkest I've yet seen, in which actual original dialog goes all but missing and we are treated to perhaps the oddest recitations of great writing -- from Shakespeare to Shelley and back -- you'll have ever seen/heard. Liam Neeson, Harry Melling (above) and a gifted chicken weave a story as bleak as any recorded, and the Coens tell it in a manner that proves almost as beautiful as it is deadly.

Tom Waits stars as a lone gold panner/prospector in the fourth segment, which takes place in the movie's most lushly beautiful scenery and comes closest to a happy conclusion as we're likely to get -- even if the getting there is pretty dry and dark.

The penultimate tale is the longest, richest and most moving, as Zoe Kazan and Jefferson Mays play brother and sister who head west as part of a wagon train led by a couple of very interesting men (Bill Heck and Grainger Hines). Luck, more often of the bad sort, plagues the people here. Each tale leads off and ends with an illustration, as from an old western-themed tome. The one used in this particular segment, along with its accompanying snippet of words, seems somewhat ordinary when we first hear it at the episode's beginning. As heard and seen again at the conclusion, it packs an extraordinary punch.

The final segment involves a stagecoach ride with a quintet of thrown-together passengers -- Jonjo O'Neill, (above, left), Brendan Gleason (above, right), Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek and Chelcie Ross -- who communicate smugly, angrily and humorously as they head for a rather unusual destination. The dialog here grows as philosophical as it is funny and smart.

So right and so original in so many ways, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may seem to you as it does to me, one of, perhaps the Coens' best work to date. It's mordant as hell and a lot funnier, too. In an earlier post this week, I referred to Billy Wilder and The Apartment as an example of compassionate cynicism. The Coens bring that odd juxtaposition to equally amazing life with this splendid film.

From Netflix, after one of that behemoth's typically highly limited theatrical runs and now streaming at your pleasure, the movie is certainly one of 2018's very best.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Arrow's Blu-ray debut of Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT proves a multi-faceted delight

TrustMovies had not seen THE APARTMENT -- the multi-Oscar-winning and now classic Billy Wilder movie -- since 1960, the year of its initial release. He was 19 at the time and far too untutored in life to begin to appreciate the film's unusual mix of compassion and cynicism that marks it, even today (hell, especially today), as something rather special. To say that this movie "holds up" is putting it far too mildly. In our current times of me2 and the off-the-charts political correctness that makes an intelligent person want to stop the world and get off, the film is like a slap in the face that wakes you and sets you back on course.

That said, its cynicism -- about male prerogative and the role of women in the workplace back in mid 20th Century America -- still startles.

Mr. Wilder (shown at left), who directed and co-wrote the film with his long-time collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, pulls no punches in his depiction of the ways in which the male corporate executive treats the female as chattel/accessory -- and worse, how totally accepted all this is by both sexes.

It's the latter, however, that will probably raise viewers' pulses and redden their faces. Come on now, was it ever really like this? Yes, dears, it was.
And kind of still is. For the most wealthy and powerful.

That Wilder was able to make to make both a comedy and a love story from material that ought to creep us out was just part of his skill set. His and Diamond's attention to detail and just the right amount of repetition (to remind us but not club us senseless) plus their ability to set up situations, surprises, jokes and emotions in a manner in which they eventually coalesce and pay huge dividends down the road is, I think, unequalled in American movie history.

The film stars two of the most talented and popular actors of the day -- Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine (above, right and left, respectively) along with an impressive third wheel, Fred MacMurray (below left), playing against his usual happy-family-man type (though some moviegoers will recall his work in Wilder's Double Indemnity).

The tale tells of a corporate schlub (Lemmon) who is good enough at his accounting work but is "getting ahead" by allowing his married corporate bosses to use his apartment as a sex pad for their assignations with their mistresses. Maclaine plays one of the elevator operators in the corporate building who seems to have managed to keep herself aloof from these predatory males.

Much of the comedy arises from the bone-deep hypocrisy and denial of the males, as well as from the enormously adept stars, who make almost everything we see and hear both comic and sad. Even the film's "happy ending," while delicious enough, comes slightly curdled if you allow yourself to consider the character of its protagonists.

He is all too willing to bow to power for a little recognition, while she's ready to use suicide as a way out of a failed romance. Sure, maybe they've changed a bit along the way, and we do get the clinch and the kiss at the finale. But tomorrow? Better not think about that. Yet Wilder has built all of this right in.

The filmmaker is both compassionate enough to see these folk as fallible humans and cynical enough to know how little real long-term change is likely to happen.

Filmed in widescreen black-and-white, the movie's a pleasure to view and hear in this new 4K restoration from the original camera negative, with original uncompressed PCM mono audio. As usual with Arrow Video, the Special Features are many and wonderful. Especially good is The Key to The Apartment, a new appreciation of the movie by film historian Philip Kemp.

From Arrow Academy (released here in the USA by MVD Entertainment Group) and running exactly two hours, the new Blu-ray disc is available now -- for purchase and (I would hope somewhere) for rental.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Winter Solstice with Lee Liberman — a vikings mashup: THE LAST KINGDOM and VIKINGS

A raft of streaming films on all things Nordic have storied us with Vikings — near 300 years of Scandinavian pirate raiding notorious for brazen killing/thieving and ships engineered to slice through the sea. Then the Vikings quietly assimilated into countries where they had landed.

THE LAST KINGDOM and VIKINGS are two versions of the same era — one told from the Saxon view in England and the other by the Scandinavian perpetrators. Vikings entered written history in 793 when a raid along the coast of Northumbria menaced the monastery, Lindisfarne, in which servants of God were murdered or captured as slaves and the abbey emptied of its treasures. The Norman conquest of England in 1066 ended the period of their notoriety.

Vikings is in Season 5 on the History Channel and also on Amazon Prime Video; its events are based on Viking-age Norse poetry and sagas, in particular legends of Ragnar Lothbrok (above) and his sons who raided Francia (France) and Anglo-Saxon England during the 800’s. Ragnar is not documented outside of myth (Vikings traditions being more oral than written), although his sons are. But the sagas offer fertile ground for imaginists like Michael Hirst (below, writer of The Tudors and Elizabeth, the Golden Age) who has authored every episode of the series (season six is filming) calling it “… a rich and wonderful culture…I just fell in love with their paganism and how democratic they were compared to other societies.”

Better documented than Ragnar in history is Rollo, (Ragnar’s older brother in Vikings but unrelated in fact) who first besieged Paris in 885-6, later defended it against Vikings, married a French princess (Rollo and Gisla below), converted to Catholicism, and fathered a line of kings including William the Conqueror.

His descendants became the Normans of (French) Normandy who conquered England in 1066, Rollo becoming an ancestor of today’s royal family.

Hirst mixes and matches Ragnar and Rollo timelines to immerse us in Viking culture, its violent history and religious ritual (human sacrifice on the menu) wrapped in imagined rivalries, battles, and affairs.

In Seasons four and five its world-wide trading and assimilation have begun with Rollo (Clive Standen) settling in Francia and Ragnor’s oldest son, Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig), venturing as far away as North Africa (below). Bjorn later gained repute as a Swedish king.

Australian actor, Travis Fimmel (second photo from top, above), runs away with Ragnar Lothbrok, a man of few words, glowing eyes and annoying grimaces, though the tics slacken as the seasons progress and Fimmel/Ragnar grows into the roles of leader/king.

In Season one Ragnar is a farmer with two children and warrior wife, Lagertha, played by Canadian Katheryn Winnick, an actress with life-long martial arts training and blond tresses twisted into complex braids. Lagertha is a modern woman’s fantasy — she and her fellow shield maidens fight and lead. She gets put down but she has rights, she rebounds, she takes revenge, she kills. By the third season, their son Bjorn Ironside is grown, they each have different partners, Ragnar gaining many sons with his wife Aslaug, and Rollo, portrayed in Ragnar’s shadow, comes into his own, later to surpass all in reputation. (Below, Ragnar with two wives, Aslaug, l, and Lagertha.)

Vikings organized themselves democratically, and their ‘middle class’ fought for their leaders, mostly about land and resources, routinely procuring human slaves. The harsh landscape and climate led Ragnar to obsess about golden lands rumored west across the sea where living was easier, earth more fertile; he commissioned eccentric boat builder, Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård of the famed acting family, below) to build a craft to brave the unknown. Floki split wood along seams making his boats uniquely strong and flexible; a shallow bottom made access easy to shores.

Hirst puts Ragnar, Rollo, and Floki at the Lindisfarne assault of 793. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle says: In this year fierce foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightening, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those that same year [on June 8] the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.

There, Ragnar captures young monk Athelstan (George Blagden, star of Versailles) and takes him home, where they begin to grapple with each other’s gods and beliefs — Hirst using their bromance to foreshadow the eventual blending of Vikings with Christian culture.

Initially the Christian god was a harmless addition to the Northmen’s pagan stable, but Scandinavian culture itself turned Christian by the eleventh and twelfth centuries. (Heaven offered salvation to both women and men, whereas Valhalla only welcomed male warriors. Too bad women lost ground in Christianity.) Years later, harboring rage at King Ecbert of Wessex (a terrific Linus Roache) for his destruction of a Viking farming community that he had invited, a burned out, aging Ragnar plans his own death to take revenge on Ecbert. Returning to Wessex with his crippled son Ivar (charismatic Dane, Alex Høgh Andersen), Ragnar invites capture and Ivar is sent home to rally his brothers to revenge his death. Ragnar tells King Ecbert: ‘A man is the master of his own fate, not the gods. It was my idea to come here to die — me’ (see bottom photo for Ragnar’s grisly end, reported in the Sagas).

In one of their final conversations, Ecbert and Ragnar verbally spar with respectful hostility. Ragnar says: what if our gods, yours and mine, do not exist? Egbert replies: nothing would have purpose or meaning. Ragnar counters: Everything would have meaning. (It is tantalizing of Hirst to inject atheism and free will into this superstitious era.) In Hirst’s narrative, Athelstan falls in love with Egbert’s daughter-in-law; she gives birth to an ethereal child, Alfred, who will become Alfred the Great, teeing up a move over to Netflix for The Last Kingdom (TLK).

Based on a beloved book series by Bernard Cornwell, TLK is set later than Vikings and includes Ragnar’s reported grown warrior sons, especially Ubbe, plus the mature Alfred, a particularly pious and scholarly leader, jibing with Hirst’s version of Alfred’s paternity by monk Athelstan.

Cornwell (cameo’d as a Viking, above, in episode 7 of TLK’s new season, above), invented warrior Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), who is a provocative upstart in screenwriter Steven Butchard’s hands.The war between God and Gods, Christianity and paganism, plays out within Uhtred, who is born to a Northumbrian Saxon nobleman but captured and raised by Danes. Uhtred is always at odds, pulled between his Saxon birthright and pagan upbringing. He and captive Brida (Emily Cox), adapt easily into their Dane household until the adults are murdered, uprooting them and beginning their trials to avenge the murders along with their Danish brother.

But Uhtred’s Saxon pull drives him to recover his ancestral estate, Bebbanburg, lost to his usurping uncle when the Danes defeated and killed his father, Uhtred, and took the boy captive. Uhtred sees Alfred (a quietly marvelous David Dawson, below, left), as the means to eventually recover his land, coinciding with Alfred’s ambition to rid England of the Danes and needing Uhtred’s warrior genius to do it. Uhtred’s service is grudging but effective and loyal. Alfred’s ambition is to unite all the kingdoms into one; he becomes “the Great” because he made the template of an England, building civil governing institutions (dying before his dream was realized). Alfred and Uhtred’s is the essential emotional conflict that ends with Alfred’s death and Uhtred’s commitment to help Edward, Alfred’s son, grow into kingship. (Netflix now funds the series, produced by the Downton team; more seasons are likely. See a 2015 BBC posting about the show by clicking here.)

Both TLK and Vikings offer smash bang adventure, the former being more emotions driven, the latter excelling in the sweep of the Viking saga itself. Hirst short-changes by not giving us more of Lagertha and Ragnar, their bond outlives their marriage but we are kept on the fringe of their love and regrets. Not one spousal relationship is worked through emotionally — intimacy does not seem to be Hirst’s thing. But you’ll like Vikings for its far-flung adventure and the charisma of Ragnar the curious; Floki, the eccentric gods-freak; and Ragertha, commanding Queen. Add devious King Ecbert of Wessex; crippled Ivar, the magnetic, psychopathic son of Ragnar who slithers and rolls like an alligator; Athelstan the sensitive; and warrior monk Heahmund, presaging Templar knights (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, reprising his ‘Tudors’ association with writer Hirst). But most of the lesser players are screen not heart-fillers. (Rollo’s bride, played by Morgane Polanski -- yes, daughter of, and she resembles Roman -- is immature and mechanical as Princess Gisla.)

Stephen Butchard makes you invest personally (just as he did in his BBC/PBS film A Child in Time, revealing the qualities of strength that emerge in those who have endured loss). Butchard’s aim is to create empathy; he says if people can’t identify with the characters, a story becomes just a series of events. Uhtred loves many women beginning with Brida; below they grieve a miscarriage. He is a bit of a brat, defiant, dismissive of Alfred’s government protocols, scholarship, and religiosity (he should be on his horse not his knees) and feels unappreciated for his warrior deeds. Alfred, sickly and pale, brilliant and ruthless, manipulates him into service but stews at his pagan ways and questions his loyalty. Uhtred kills a thief and Alfred is furious the case was not brought before the witan (court) — the public should see the laws at work. They go through too many cycles of anger and grudging forgiveness after Uhtred pulls off one miraculous win after another. You feel the depth of their bond of quiet rage. Alfred’s wisdom is palpable; you watch the King force young Edward to shoulder the burden of decision-making and the prince become kingly before your eyes. Alfred’s final meeting with Uhtred before dying is magnetic and all heartbreak.

My own preference for TLK hangs on writer Butchard’s skill at making his characters’ struggles your own and in truly enjoying their company including many idiosyncratic support characters, while Vikings satisfies with its sweep of story-telling and its poignant reveal of cosmic themes that stun when they appear intermittently.

Either or both will serve as appetite quickeners for next year’s finale of Game of Thrones.

This post is written by 
our monthly correspondent, 
Lee Liberman.