The Arrival: a Review

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I went to the theatre with my husband yesterday. We both had the day off work; the kids were in school and this film had a matinée showing. My husband and I were itching to see it after hearing/reading a lot of positive reviews. And I simply love the lead, Amy Adams (not enough to watch her in the most recent Superman movie, but still) and greatly admire the director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario).

Wow! I loved this film and so did my husband. In fact, as we left the theatre, he said that this was one of the best films he saw this year.

This film is not for everyone; it is thoughtful, deliberately paced (some would say glacially so) science fiction (not hard science like The Martian) with twisting emotional core. This is not an action movie. The CGI is minimalistic.

 

 

Aliens have arrived in 12 space pods, hovering above land in 12 different parts around the world. Nobody knows why. Amy Adams is a linguist professor who is recruited by the US military, along with Jeremy Renner, a theoretical physicist, to lead the attempts at communicating with these other worldly beings. During this procedural-like plot, we learn about Amy’s character’s life and how this assignment becomes so intricately woven into the person she is. To say more would reveal plot twists and be too “spoilery”. It is a very emotional journey. I had tears welling up and could hear a few sniffles around me as the credits rolled past.

This movie touches upon love (romantic and paternal), global politics, time-travel and militarism. There is no gratuitous sex or violence. Denis Villeneuve seems to enjoy immersing the viewer in the main character’s experience. This film reminded me of Sicario in that way. I was confused for the first 2/3 of the 2 hour run time, because everyone on-screen was too. My patience was rewarded. I am not a science fiction fan, in general, but I do like contemplative stories that give me hope for the future. This movie does that and is so much more enjoyable than the recent onslaught of dystopian fantasy films that have been hitting the multiplex.

If you like thoughtful films, don’t mind a slower pace and a bit of confusion, then check this one out. But get ready for your heart-strings to get tugged.

The Wire: an Overdue Review

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The Wire is an HBO TV show that can be found on most top 10 TV show lists published in the last 10 years. Until recently it was a serious gap in my pop culture knowledge. Now I know why it is always there on those lists, taunting me, daring me to take the plunge. I finally did; I watched all 5 seasons on DVD over a few weeks.

 

 

And it took some patience with the first 4 episodes, but I am glad I stuck with it. It is an excellent show, but clearly not for everyone. The authentic street language, for one, had me watching with subtitles. That might be a deal breaker for some. How to sell this to a viewer? I am not sure, but it has a big fan in President Obama, if that is enough of a recommendation.

 

 

The Wire is a brutal, cynical, vérité depiction of life in inner city Baltimore. The show throws the viewer into this world head first. Over the course of 5 short seasons (10 to 13, 1 hour episodes) one encounters the shenanigans of gangsters, cops, dock workers, teachers, reporters, lawyers and politicians. This show reveals the horrors associated with growing up in poverty, youth trapped in tangled webs of rigged systems (justice, education, social). My heart breaks as I watch children surrounded by drug-addiction, who are destined to repeat this life cycle because it is the only one they know. This show is deft at exposing the flawed systems, which are set up to fail, by any number of problems. Be they conflicts of interest in the wake of short election cycles or simply a lack of resources. And yet this show is beautifully written, with heart and humour. It strength also lies in a diverse array of characters, on both sides of the law, many whom one can’t help care about. Even the criminals, no spoilers here, but Omar Little (iconically portrayed by Michael Kenneth Williams) remains a fan favourite.

 

 

Does it make my top 10? I don’t know. That is a list that is always in flux, besides, I usually stop ranking after my top 2 (Currently Breaking Bad #1 and Spartacus #2). It can be a bit preachy at times and the season to season introduction of new characters and settings makes some storylines less compelling than others, leading me to be a bit impatient at times. I guess I prefer more personal stories with smaller casts a bit more than epic tales of power struggles and social commentary (also the reason why I stopped watching Game of Thrones). So where does it fit in my hierarchy of great things to watch? These are the things that I consider when arriving at an answer. Would I watch The Wire again? Probably, but not very soon. Did I watch it with my undivided attention at all times? Alas, no. Will I bug my husband to watch it too? Nope, still trying to get him to watch Breaking Bad with me. But I am glad I watched The Wire. It showcased the early work of actors who have gone on to bigger things, most notably Idris Elba and Michael B. Jordan. I appreciate it as a unique TV experience and think that creator David Simon had a remarkable vision and was a wonderful voice for the city of Baltimore.

A Couple of TV Comedies by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

It has been a while since I have blogged. Summer was a busy time, but I am back with lots to write about. I watched a number of enjoyable TV shows. Here is the first lot that I wanted to share. Both are comedies written by a talented woman whose work is new to me. If you have a dark but quirky sense of humour, like short British series and are not offended by swearing or nudity, you might want to check these shows out. Warning, the trailers are NSFW.

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Crashing

This UK comedy is available on Netflix in Canada. 6 episodes, each less than ½ hour. It is just perfect for binge-watching in one evening after a long work week has left one good for nothing else (Not that THAT ever happens). OMG, what a way to lift my mood, this show had me laughing out loud like a fool. It is written by and stars Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whom I now just absolutely adore! I had seen her previously as a supporting character in Broadchurch’s disappointing 2nd season and she made no impression at the time. She is a remarkable comedy writer and a tremendous actor. Crashing is an ensemble comedy set in a decommissioned hospital. The inhabitants are property guardians, which is a real thing that I had never heard of before. In an attempt to prevent squatters, the property guardians are lured, with low rent, to live in and maintain the abandoned hospital. This brings together a colourful group of characters and hilarity ensues. This show is about being a young adult, figuring out your life’s direction and who you want to share it with. To say more would spoil the fun. I enjoyed it so much I watched it again with my husband (over 2 evenings this time) and was thrilled to hear his belly laughs. This show is a rapid-fire of one-line zingers and exquisite physical comedy. The supporting cast is a delightful mix of actors. Some of them are familiar to me. What a treat it was to see them again (Jonathan Bailey Olly from Broadchurch and Damien Molony, Vampire Hal from Being Human -UK).

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Fleabag

Unfortunately this comedy is not readily available in Canada, yet. It is available in the USA on Amazon’s streaming service. I managed to catch it in my travels and was blown away. This is the 2nd TV series launched in 2016 that is written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Based on her award winning play, this TV show is a character study that is much darker than Crashing. It is funny, charming and an exquisite showcase for this woman’s remarkable talent. Her facial expressions alone flash a series of emotions so quickly, I am almost afraid to blink. Her writing is as brilliant as her physical screen presence. Fleabag is the nickname of the main character, who is a millennial struggling to find her way in the world after a (mini-spoiler alert) tragedy. This show deals with dysfunctional families, sisters, feminism, human frailty, friendship, loss and love. The main character breaks the forth wall throughout the show, a risky move that really works. Another risk is the interjection of poignant flashbacks. Phoebe Waller-Bridge weaves a haunting portrayal of a young woman’s life. That it is also a comedy is a genuine marvel. Her supporting cast is a delight. Olivia Colman, playing Fleabag’s father’s wife, is a treat to see in a role diverging from her serious ones (Broadchurch, The Night Manager). I hope it comes to Canadian Netflix soon. Because at 6 episodes, each less than ½ hour, it is a perfect show to binge-watch. Another enjoyable evening was spent unwinding with Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Thanks go to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast for introducing me to this show (which also led me to find Crashing) and a wonderful young talent.

Revisiting Donnie Darko (2001)

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I remember watching Donnie Darko (2001) on home video, shortly after it was available for rent and being enthralled, creeped out and confused. At the time it didn’t make complete sense, but strangely, it didn’t matter as much as I would have expected it to. I just thought it was a creepy, poignant metaphor for madness. When the Director’s cut was released on DVD in 2004, I bought it, tucked it away and waited for the right time. Over a decade has passed since then. Why was last night the right time? Maybe because Jake Gyllenhaal was on my radar after my daughters and I saw his guest appearance on a recent episode of Inside Amy Schumer . We were looking for a creepy movie to watch together so I figured it was time to watch Donnie Darko again.

 

Wow, this film holds up very well. It is set in 1988 and follows a troubled high school student into what appears to be a descent into madness. Or is it? We witnessed time travel and alternate universes on a backdrop of suburban life. To say more would risk spoiling the experience. I was hoping for more clarity with the director’s version this time around. By the end, I was still left wondering, “WTF?” If you like those kinds of, what I like to call, “WTF Movies” (Inception, Memento, Shutter Island, to name a few) and don’t mind googling an explanation or 2 afterward, then this is film is for you.

The film was written and directed by Richard Kelly and had an awesome cast. Young Jake Gyllenhaal in the titular role was superb as his character flipped between simply awkward to seriously disturbed. He was supported by Drew Barrymore (she also executive produced), Patrick Swayze, Mary McDonnell, Maggie Gyllenhaal (in a meta role as his sister), Noah Wylie and Jenna Malone. There are even a few brief, before they were famous, appearances by Seth Rogen and Ashley Tisdale.

The 80’s New Wave soundtrack (INXS, Echo and the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears, The Church, Joy Division) was well chosen. The family dynamic portrayed in the film is a sweet realistic contrast to the disturbing events that abound. There is minimal gore. The special effects are few and not distracting. If you like a film that keeps you guessing, Donnie Darko is definitely worth a watch. If you can understand it by the end, then you will have impressed me. I find solace in the knowledge that I was not alone; the late great Roger Ebert shared my confusion. My daughters and I had fun googling for explanations and talking about watching it again in the near future with a better understanding. Maybe I will check out the director’s commentary; that is something I haven’t done with a film in a while.

Below are some links we found helpful, but I caution you to use them only if required, as they contain spoilers.

 

http://www.themoviegoer.com/donnie_darko.htm

http://www.donniedarko.org.uk/explanation/#blog

WHY DONNIE DARKO’S LITERAL PLOT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE (AND WHY IT DOESN’T MATTER)

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

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I went to the theatre last night with my youngest daughter to see Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. I am almost embarrassed to say we saw the first instalment in the theatre together 2 years ago, when she was perhaps one of the youngest in the audience. The communal laughter at that time was intoxicating and we were hoping to recapture that experience. Boy did we ever last night.

We wanted to laugh and this movie had plenty to laugh about. There were funny lines, physical pratfalls galore and real warmth to the story. Like most comedy sequels, the plot is rather silly and contrived at times, but if the character beats work, the flaws are easily forgiven.

 

Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are in a 30 day escrow period and anxious to seal the deal on their house sale so they can move to accommodate their expanding family. Unfortunately, a group of college girls decides to move into the abandoned frat house next door. The girls are interested in partying their way, which is against the rules of the traditional “greek” community. Soon it is a full on war between the old people and the youth of today.

I found I could relate to many issues raised by both camps. I liked the way the diverse group of girls, lead by Shelby, Beth and Nora (Chloe Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein respectively) were depicted. They were simply striving to be themselves and indifferent to pleasing the men around them. I laughed at Mac and Kelly’s struggle to be “good parents.” I even found myself somewhat sympathetic to Zac Efron’s dim-bulb portrayal of Teddy, who returns to the house of his fondest memories, trying to find a place in the world.

This was a good solid comedy with laugh out loud moments and a shocking absence of meanness, despite the retaliatory conflict. It came to a satisfying resolution and was reasonably paced. If you liked the first movie, Neighbors, then you won’t be disappointed by this. I was especially delighted by the fact that my middle school daughter said to me that she thought those drinking parties didn’t seem very fun. She would rather just hang with her friends. That led to a discussion about the substance use (alcohol and marijuana) that was depicted in the film. I am glad that we can talk about these things.

Grantchester: a Review

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I just finished binge watching a charming TV period drama called Grantchester. The second series debut was being promoted on PBS as part of their Masterpiece Mysteries series and my familiarity with the 2 excellent lead actors had me take notice. So I downloaded the first series (6 episodes) from iTunes and enjoyed it over the Easter long weekend in anticipation of the debut of season 2.

This is a murder mystery/buddy cop drama set in 1953, based on books written by James Runcie. James Norton plays Sidney Chambers, a vicar in Grantchester, who befriends Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green). Each episode has them solve a murder case with a few threads of subplot (usually involving their personal lives) that carry through to the end of each season. This role is a radical departure from Norton’s portrayal of sociopathic thug Tommy Lee Royce on Happy Valley (another excellent British cop drama, available on Netflix that I highly recommend). Sidney Chambers is struggling to be a good man and leader of his community. Because he remains haunted by his pre-ordination WWII experiences, one gets a sense that his chosen profession serves to heal his soul in addition to his parishioners’.

 

 

Anyone who knows me well may be surprised that I would recommend a show that features an Anglican priest. This show is not preachy and it is super fun. It is exquisitely filmed in the English country side. It weaves elements of social change into the background of well crafted murders of the week. There is romance in addition to good mysteries with reasonable twists. Of course one must suspend one’s disbelief at the number of violent deaths that occur in such a small place. And I try not to think too hard at how a vicar has so much time for police business, not to mention that the police actually encourage it. Nevertheless, everything else about this show rings true. It is not afraid of tackling topics such as racism, abortion, death penalty, homosexuality (illegal in the UK until the late 60’s) and class structure. There is a sweet earnestness to this program with a gentle injection of humour. The characters are very well developed and distinct. The supporting cast is amazing, especially housekeeper Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones) and closeted curate Leonard Finch (Al Weaver). If you are a fan of classic whodunits, English countryside, period drama, thematic depth and well drawn characters, this show just might do it for you.

 

Romantic TV Comedies

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Is it just a coincidence that I am writing about this topic on the eve of  Valentine’s Day? Probably not, I can’t stand greeting card holidays. So maybe that is why I enjoyed binge watching 3 TV comedies about damaged people navigating the waters of love and life. All 3 of these shows have been buzzed about on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcast so I thought I would check them out. So glad I did that I thought I would share.

Catastrophe first aired on British TV and I was delighted to find all the episodes (2 short seasons, total of 12 episodes) available for binge-watching on shomi here in Canada (Amazon Prime in the US, but season 2  won’t stream until April 2016). This show takes place in London and revolves around a couple in their early 40’s. She is an Irish school teacher; he is American ad executive. After a brief fling, while he is in town on business, she discovers that she is pregnant. With no external pressure, he decides to relocate and give it a go for the long term. So we get to see this couple, who barely know each other in a sober state, [she is listed in his contacts as Sharon – London(sex)] figure out their relationship as they go through the various stages of pregnancy. The show is created and written by the lead actors Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney and it is whip smart. The acting is superb, the banter is witty, the jokes are funny, starting with the title and building from there. Both lead characters have issues, mostly involving potty mouths, alcohol and obnoxious family members (Carrie Fisher is fabulous as Rob’s mom), resulting in many bumps along the way consequently making them very relatable. This is my kind of romantic comedy but I should warn you, this is strictly for adults and the video below is NSFW.

 

 

YOU'RE THE WORST -- KEY ARTYou’re the Worst is another adult-oriented comedy, airing on FX Canada (FXX in the USA), about a couple in a relationship. I hesitate to call it romantic, but it has a sweet side that occasionally melts through the cold cynicism. Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) are 2 caustic people who recognize and appreciate each other’s toxicity. This bond leads them to a pretty dysfunctional but at times funny relationship. Their few friends are screwed up in different ways and this adds to the humour. This show has aired 2 seasons, with a total of 23 episodes and does a good job as a character study. We learn why these 2 are the way they are and it is quite moving. It is also a TV show that is not afraid to portray mental illness, specifically depression, realistically. We see how depression affects those who suffer with it and its effect on those around them. I think it is a brave choice for a comedy. I should place another warning about the embedded video below, definitely NSFW.

 

 

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Speaking of brave choices, don’t let the title of the last show dissuade you. Crazy Exgirlfriend is aware of how demeaning the title is and addresses it in the opening theme.

This show is a satire on romance and modern living that occasionally breaks out remarkably catchy song and dance numbers. If you like comedic musical theatre, this is definitely worth a look. The show is created and written by the star of the show Rachel Bloom. She plays Rebecca Bunch, a “successful” but unhappy lawyer, who suddenly quits her job in NYC and moves to California to live closer to the object of her affection. Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) is a nice guy who dumped her 10 years ago after a summer fling. Rachel clearly has her issues, but no more so than the cast of colourful characters who surround her. They also match her talent for song, dance and humorous quips. There are so many great songs (usually 3 per 45 min episode) in this show it is hard to believe it is only 11 episodes into the 1st season (18 episodes to air in total) on the CW (Global in Canada is streaming all episodes on its mobile app).

Also NSFW are the following videos which showcase some of my favourite songs so far.

Sexy Getting Ready Song

 

Sex With a Stranger

 

Feeling Kinda Naughty

 

I Give Good Parent

 

Last Man on Earth: TV for mothers and daughters

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I was looking for a comedy to enjoy with the kids and stumbled upon the first season of this 1/2 hour Fox TV show. It is available with a new steaming service, shomi, that is bundled with my cable package. So with neither commercials nor a laugh track and some warm buzz from a few of my reliable entertainment sources, I thought I would give it a try. So glad I did. This show is currently on hiatus in the middle of its 2nd season. After binge-watching to get caught up, our wait for its return on March 6th, 2016 is excruciating. So my daughters and I are rewatching it with my husband.  The second time round is even better with his boisterous laugh joining ours.

This is a dark comedy set in the near future (2022) after the world’s population has been wiped out by a virus. The logistics of this tragedy is not dwelled upon. There are no bodies piled up. Rather, the world is a lonely place for Phil Miller (portrayed by Will Forte, also creator of this show) as he laments his solitude. Because he has spray painted billboards with “ALIVE in TUSCON” a few remaining survivors join him and hilarity ensues.

This show has an ensemble of distinct and quirky characters. Each member is a unique combination of sweetness and wacky. The cast includes January Jones in a surprisingly effective turn as Melissa in a traditional “straight man” role. Kristen Schaal is absolutely brilliant as eccentric misinformed grammar-nerd Carol. Will Forte plays Phil Miller as jerk looking for redemption. His character, although funny, can be almost be cringingly painful to watch. I think this show is a brilliant mix of funny dialogue and physical gags. The joke density is such that I caught things that I missed while watching it the 2nd time. There is no multi-tasking while we watch this; it brings our family together for some great shared belly laughs.

I am the first to admit that humour is so very subjective. But if you think you share a similar sense of humour as me and have enjoyed other comedies that I have reviewed,  you may want to check the first episode out at the link below.

Lone Star (1996) revisiting a modern classic

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Lone Star is a film that I remembered really enjoying almost 20 years ago when it was released on home video. I think I watched it then because Roger Ebert raved about it. Gosh I still miss that man’s writing. I didn’t always share his opinion, but I admired his writing tremendously, coveted his job and appreciated that when I read his review, whether positive or negative, I could usually guess if a film was for me or not. But I digress. Back to Lone Star, when I saw that it was playing on premium cable, I set it up to record and enjoyed revisiting it again.

Lone Star is a modern day western mystery set in a Texas border town. We follow sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) piece together clues to a decades old mystery.  In doing so, skeletons tumble out of many closets. He is convinced that his late father, Buddy Deeds, former sheriff and town saviour has something to do with the skeletal remains discovered in a shallow grave on an abandoned shooting range.

In addition to a very compelling mystery, there is a masterful depiction of small town life and its unwritten rules of the social order. There is also subtle commentary about the complexity of Texas history and how it is perceived by an ethnically diverse population. This is also a story about grown men and their fathers, political corruption and love. It is masterfully presented by writer/director John Sayles with many surprises that I daren’t hint at.

The cast is stellar. In addition to a wonderful and subtle performance by Chris Cooper, there is a young Matthew McConaughey as Buddy Deeds in flashback sequences as well as Kris Kristofferson, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, Frances McDormand and a young Chandra Wilson.

This is a great film that still holds up 20 years after it was released. If you like mysteries and social commentary this may be worth hunting down.

Black Sails: a Review of the 1st 2 Seasons

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Ever since Spartacus wrapped its epic tale in the spring of 2013, I have been looking for a show to fill the void. What void you ask? Was it the over-the-top adult-oriented premium-cable sex and violence that I missed? No, even I would admit that Spartacus had too much of both at times. I was looking for a serialized historical drama populated by beautiful people, which had a compelling story I hope would keep me guessing. I had tried Vikings but I could not relate to any of the characters. So when I heard that Starz was promoting a new pirate themed TV show called Black Sails and it starred Toby Stephens (my favourite Mr. Rochester from any Jane Eyre Adaptation) I was intrigued. Unfortunately, my cable package didn’t carry it and I waited for the DVD releases. I have just binge-watched the first 2 seasons (8+10 episodes) and I am hooked. Season 3 returns in the US and Canada on January 23, 2016.

 

Black Sails is set primarily in and around Nassau, New Providence Island in the Bahamas in the late 1700’s. The city is overrun by pirates and corrupt business people trying to remain a step ahead of British rule. Black Sails combines fictional pirates (John Silver, Billy Bones and Captain Flint from R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island) with historical figures (Anne Bonny, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane) to create a labyrinthine tale of plotting and plundering. It is somewhat a prequel to the happenings in Treasure Island. It touches many themes such as commerce, sovereignty, power, idealism, pragmatism, stoicism, politics, leadership, hierarchy, corruption, manipulation, loyalty, sexuality (including LGBT portrayals) and gender roles. Season 1 is primarily concerned with local infighting which serves as a backdrop for the main quest, the hunt for a Spanish ship transporting gold.

This show has a terrific ensemble, including Toby Stephens as Captain Flint, Luke Arnold as a young 2-legged John Silver and Hannah New as Eleanor Guthrie, supplier (and chief fence) of the colony. I especially enjoy the chemistry between co-conspirators Toby Schmitz as Rackham, Clara Paget as Anne Bonny and Jessica Parker Kennedy as local madame, Max. The characters are complex and distinctly developed over the course of 18 episodes. We learn more about the backstory of some of the characters, specifically Captain Flint and his companion Mrs Barlow, in Season 2, via flash back and well-crafted expository dialogue.

 

The South African coast is a sumptuous double for the West Indies. And I guess this is as good a time as any to confess that I do not enjoy sailing; my husband and 2 daughters have gone on 2 sailing vacations without me in the Caribbean. Also I know absolutely nothing about the mechanics of it. Despite this confession, I found the scenes onboard the ships to be spectacular, especially during battles and storms. There are some awesomely gruesome fights done in a realistic style, rather than Spartacus’ over-the-top blood-fests. I had to turn the sound down and avert my eyes on a few occasions.

I am a sucker for underdogs and this show is busting with them. I guess I enjoy Black Sails for the same reasons I love film noir. Although most of the characters exist on the fringes and do horrible things; these egregious acts are often a means to ensure survival in an unjust world. I love when a great scheme is underway, hits a snag and forces clever characters to improvise. Black Sails reminds me of both Spartacus and Deadwood; it is almost as grubby yet sadly, not nearly as poetic. There is a sprinkling of wry dark humour, often delivered by either John Silver or Jack Rackham. Thankfully there is nothing as goofy as Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow (a little of that went a long way; I could not watch beyond the 2nd instalment of that franchise).

I am not sure I can wait another year for season 3 to be released on DVD.

 

If you like pirates, buff beautiful actors, twisty plots full of double and triple crosses, good fights and beautiful scenery, this might be one to check out. The first episode can be seen embedded below.

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