Saturday, February 20, 2016

What's new on Netflix:Marshland (La Isla Minima)

Due to the fact that Mother Nature has not yet released her grip on winter, I've been staying in and catching up with films and TV shows that I've not had the chance to watch. Marshland or La Isla Minima, as it was called in it's native Spain is a 2014 movie dealing with two detectives from Madrid traveling to a small town in Andalusia to investigate the disappearance of two sisters. The setting is the first years of the fledgling democracy after Franco's death and the secrecy and fear still present in the society. Implied is the fact that these detectives are being punished by taking the case. The younger wrote a scathing letter about a general to a newspaper. The elder has secrets as well but they are part of the story.

The most compelling aspect of this piece is the cinematography in which the camera manages to frame the scenery and action as if it's on an artists canvas. Impressive since the locations are mostly ugly small towns and marshlands.  Special mention also goes to the actors, especially the two leads who manage to take sparse, undefined characters and make them seem human and not heroes or villains.  Indeed this story is more of a character piece, with it's slow pace rather than the American fast pace cop dramas. Finally it is a male dominated film and there are no lead females, but  the women of the villages are the ones who help the story along by serendipitously giving information that leads to the real culprit.

The only real weakness of the movie is that the actual story has been done numerous times, indeed if one is a fan of crime drama, the actual culprit becomes clear partway through. Most reviews link it to the True Detective genre and while the atmosphere is the same, the crimes and pace are very different. I'd urge anyone who likes foreign films with subtitles or anyone who enjoys crime drama to check out this Spanish thriller.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Why the best SciFi show of 2016 is from Spain.

A year ago on my blog I reviewed a new Spanish TV series called El Ministerio del Tiempo  or The Ministery of Time. The premise is that during Queen Isabella of Spain’s rule she found out about a series of doors that transports people throughout Spanish history. Naturally, she dedicated a ministry to it and only a select few persons including the Spanish PM know of it.  In the first season we met three new recruits, Amelia a brainy university student from the 1880s, Alonso, a soldier from the 1500s and Julian, a medic who’s wife was killed by a car in 2012. The series followed their adventures in trying to steer history in the right direction if the doors have been breached by others. At the end of the series, Amelia met her granddaughter and found out that she and Julian may or may not have had a daughter together. Julian tried to go back to save his wife and ended up facilitating her death instead.

The second series opens with Julian returning to the Ministry after months of therapy and instead of returning to his group, he is relegated to being in charge of the infirmary. Amelia and Alonso are assigned to go back in the time of El Cid to see why there are two sets of bones supposedly of El Cid.

The reasons why I love this show are below:

-The mixture of drama and humor. While there is a history lesson in every show, the second series shows enough humor to let you know this is not to be taken seriously. The plot is tightly written and understandable.

-The characters feel three dimensional. Rather than being stereotypes, most of the characters feel real-like you can meet them on the street. That is in no small part to the quality of actors from the veteran Nacho Fresnado who plays Alonso to Aura Garrido, who seems more sure of her character Amelia and has emerged as a wonderful female role model able to be smart but not play into the quippy, flirtatious River Song ideal of SciFi women. I enjoyed her character immensely and am interested in how she evolves.

-It’s a great way to learn modern Castillian. The RTVE website for the show includes Spanish subtitles so you can follow along easier. 

With the void left from a Doctor Who-less 2016, Javier Olvidares and the other writers of  MdT have written a top notch time travel show. I can only hope that an English speaking network buys the show and translates it into English so others around the globe can enjoy it as much as I.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Foreign TV-What to Watch :El Ministerio del Tiempo

 I am a time-travel junkie. From my youth, spending Sunday nights with my sister watching Voyagers, the all-too-short NBC series to today and a certain space alien with a blue box and many companions, I've never met a story in the time travel genre or TT that I've disliked. Mostly, because it fits in with my other love-history. But throughout the last century, most of the TT stories have been from the English speaking world, especially on TV.   However, a new series on Spanish television is changing that notion.   El Ministerio del Tiempo or The Ministry of Time is about a part of the Spanish government who's duty it is to protect portals or doorways to other time-periods in history. This section was set up by Queen Isabella of Spain after she found out about them from a Jew wanting to save himself during the Reconquista.  The Ministry spends most of it's time trying to find people who go to other time periods and change history.

The idea is that people in our time can't travel to the future but people who lived before can travel to 2015.  Actually the time portals are the weakest part of the series, one needs to just accept it and move on.The show follows a new team of three recruits. Amelia Folch-the leader and one of the first women in Spain to go to University, Alonso de Enterrios, a 16th century soldier saved from the gallows and thought dead by his pregnant wife. The third is Julian Martinez, a modern day EMT haunted by the death of his wife 3 years ago. Other characters included their bosses and the head of the ministry-all who have secrets of their own. Every week the team travels on another missing to an era in Spanish history where they usually end up meeting some of the famous characters in Spanish history, i.e.. Lope de Vega, Salvador Dali, etc.

Now this premise is hardly new. NBC's Voyagers tackled the "setting history on it's course" back in the 1980s and a case could be made for this show having elements of Torchwood or Doctor Who. However, what makes it work in my opinion is the Iberian element of it. From the humor to the grumbling about the canteen food and the lack of Christmas bonuses, it's pure Spain and more cynical than it's BBC counterparts. Secondly, it doesn't underestimate the viewers intelligence with mindless dialogue and/or over-the-top dramatics. Finally, the last element is the cast and crew-from the writers/directors, to the wonderful actors. Special mention goes to Nacho Fresnada as Alonso-who gives warmth and a layered performance. Even the guest stars are of high quality.

Now there are some elements of the show that don't work for me. The way the doors work-that one can travel up to 2015 but no one can travel beyond into the future-doesn't make a whole lot of sense. This is where just chalking it up to the TARDIS controls and wibbly-wobbly time travel come in handy. Also, as this is a Spanish show, there are some plotlines that threaten to go into the "soap opera" territory. I'm hopeful that Javier Olvidares and Co. can keep from falling into that trap.

The show is online at with Spanish subtitles. Hopefully either Netflix or another online provider will buy the show and provide English subtitles as it's a show that Doctor Who fans and other English speakers would appreciate.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Recipe-Mince Pies

I'm hardly Julia Child in the kitchen, so home cooking and baking is usually a holiday-time event. So in the spirit of the holidays, I've decided to share my signature dessert-Mince pies with shortbread crust. I got the recipe from the website in 2002. I cheat by using prepared mincemeat- Tiptree is my favorite.

Mince Pie Pastry

1 1/2 cups self-rising flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar 
2 sticks of butter
1 egg
2 tablespoons milk
Ice water

Mix the flours and the sugar together in a large bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Beat the egg with the milk and stir into the flour mixture. Bring the dough together using your fingertips. Try to handle the dough as little as possible although the dough is less fragile than ordinary pie pastry. Use a few drops of ice water, if necessary, to bring the dough together.

Have two 12 cup muffin or cupcake pans ready. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Divide mince pie pastry in half. Set half aside and roll out the other half on a floured surface until about 1/4 inch thick. Cut out 24 circles with a 3 inch circular cookie cutter. They will be the bottoms of the pies. Gently press them into the cupcake pans( they won’t come all the way up the sides). Fill these with about 1 tablespoon of mincemeat.

From the remaining dough, cut 24 circular tops about 2 inches in diameter. Gently press the edges of the tops down on the sides of the bottoms. Prick the center of each top with a fork so that the steam can escape during baking. 

Bake until pale golden about 15 minutes. Remove from tins as soon as possible and cool on a rack.

Makes 24 individual pies.

Monday, November 11, 2013

At the Movies-12 Years A Slave

Much has been made about 12 Years A Slave directed by Steve McQueen(no not that McQueen...Either critics say its flawless or that America doesn't need another movie about the horrors of slavery.  I fall a bit in the middle, while it is far from flawless and I have seen better movies, it certainly is a movie worth seeing and I shall be surprised is the Oscars don't bestow at least some statues on the cast/crew.

The multiplex where I saw it put it in a small theatre on the top floor, but I would say that it was more than 80% filled on the holiday weekday I saw it and a mixture of white and African Americans. The movie is based on a narrative written by a free black man named Solomon Northup from New York State in the 1830/40 who was tricked into accepting a job with a circus in Washington, DC. The men accompanying him on this journey got him drunk on the first night and he found himself chained up in the morning and ready to be sold. It then chronicles parts of his life during the twelve years his being bought and sold by various masters and the kindness and cruelty from the other blacks and whites. Much has been made about the violent whipping scenes in the movie but truthfully they are no more violent then most R-rated movies nowadays.

The positives vastly outnumber the negatives. The acting is great as Ejiofor shows us a man who knows he is free but learns that being silent is often safer than speaking out. Benedict Cumberbatch who must be in just about every movie nowadays has a small role, does a decent Southern accent and plays the kindest of Northup's or (Platt as he is now called) masters. But even the kind master lets him be strung up for a day as punishment and when Solomon's life is in danger from the ex-overseer whom he beat up, sells him to pay his debts as a way of getting him to safety. Michael Fassbender is the other standout as the cruel and psuedo-religious Mr. Epps. While some people thought his role over the top, I thought he did a great job in showing a very complex evil man. The tension in his household about his infidelity and favoritism towards a young female slaves leaves him and his wife to take out their frustrations with each other on the slaves. Particularly cruel is the beggar's dance him and his wive make the tired slaves do for entertainment. When Patsy(the favored slave) dances too freely in one scene, Mrs Epps throws a wine decanter at her head. In other dance scene, she offers food to all the slaves while telling her husband they should all be whipped due to their insolence.

The other positive is the scenery and music. Both beautiful and haunting with the nature scenes belying the hell the slaves endure.

The biggest flaw I found was the odd passages of time and the flashbacks interspersed with the present day. For me, it was sometimes hard to tell how much time had passed since there were no years give and most of the cast looked no older at the end than the beginning. 

But those are hardly major problems. Overall, 12 Years a Slave is a solid movie that while not breaking new ground, shows the complexity of both the blacks and whites in the slave years. While not all whites are bad-not all the slaves are good. The black overseers whip the slaves in the fields, the black house slaves keep the field hands off the front porches of the plantations and in one scene, a female slave that has married her master boast about how she now has slaves working for her and it was worth it to let her master have his way with her.

At the end we that though Solomon sued both the man who sold him and the men who conned him into going with them, because of blacks not being able to call whites as witnesses, he never won his case against them. Interestingly the man who sold him lived a mere mile from my house and was a prominent slave trader her in Alexandria. It makes one think what they would have done about slavery in that time period. I'd like to think I would have opposed it but if I had grown up with it, would I still feel the same? Points to ponder.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What I'm watching now-The Fall

If like me, you've wondered what Gillian Anderson has been doing after Bleak House, now American audiences can find out as she stars in the BBC series(well 5 episodes) The Fall. Using the background tension in Belfast, Anderson portrays a Metropolitan inspector who travels to Belfast to oversee a review about the handling of a woman's murder. It soon becomes clear that there is a serial killer on the loose and she gets to lead the investigation. What is rather unusual is that equal time is paid to the killer and his everyday life with his family. Jamie Dornan, as the killer, may be unknown, but always maintains the fine line between creepy and fairly normal, never overacting.

Anderson as Stella Gibson is a rather usual female TV character: cold but confident in her sexuality and  enjoyments of one-night stands. What I thought the most interesting was that both the killer and Stella used exercise to clear their minds and were often portrayed exercising at the same time. My only real complaint is that some of the dialogue comes across as clunky and hackneyed. But it's a minor complaint and at only 5 episodes, there isn't much time for frivolous scenes.

There are scenes of violence and sex so if you are adverse to this, I wouldn't watch. But if you liked Frobrydelsen or Wallander, give this a chance. It's available to stream on Netflix.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A walk around L'enfant Plaza and urban renewal

Today I decided to play tourist and take a walking tour  with Washington Walks around L'enfant Plaza and environs. For those unfamiliar with Washington, D.C., the area is roughly south of The Mall and is probably most well-known as a Metro station where four lines(Blue, Orange, Yellow and Green) converge. Mostly though it is a concrete jungle comprised of federal office buildings that is empty most weekends due to the lack of any residential area-the closest being the SW Waterfront which is behind a major expressway.  We met our guide Carolyn, who is the owner of Washington Walks, outside the Metro station and for the next two hours walked around the area while Carolyn told us of the urban renewal idea put forth by the Federal Government called the Southwest Ecodistrict.

This would knock down some of the uglier concrete office buildings while trying to make the area more attractive and "green" both environmentally and esthetically.

While the greenery and more pedestrian-friendly plaza are welcomed, with the money mainly coming from the federal government, I fear that the plans won't be realized anytime soon. In addition, L'enfant Plaza was the model of urban renewal when it was modernized in the 1960s. Whose to say that in another 30 years, architects will look with favor on the proposed plans.

In addition to the plans above, there are also plans to put an Eisenhower Memorial across from the Air and Space Museum on the other side of Maryland Ave, where today there is currently a community garden, believe it or not. Again like all monument proposals, there are proponents and dissenters-one group being Eisenhower's own family. Finally, one of my favorite sites was the often-missed train station for Amtrak and Virginia Rail. Below is the steps leading up to the platform, where trainspotters gather during the week to look out for trains.

We ended up in the underground shopping mall underneath the L'enfant Plaza Hotel is in the process of being refurbished and remodeled by a private firm. With windows to the outside terrace, clean white lines and cool LCD pillars(see photo below), it is hoped that more people will come to see the underground mall as a place to stay, eat and shop during the week and not just use the metro next door.

All in all, it was an enlightening tour for both the tourists and the residents like me who took the walks. Washingtonwalks has neighborhood walks every Saturday during the summer and I highly recommend taking one to see parts of our nations capital that most residents don't see.