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Film and TV Recommendations

This is where you can find my recommendations for films and TV series.
Carnival Row     Gosford Park     Kingdom     Warrior    

Carnival Row
Title: Carnival Row
Language: English
Year: 2019
Idea: Travis Beacham
Cast: Orlando Bloom,
Cara Delevingne, Karla Crome,
Jared Harris, Indira Varma
Length: 8 episodes
Music: Nathan Barr

Carnival Row is an Amazon Original series with a first season consisting of eight episodes. It’s set in a fantasy version of Britain called The Republic of the Burgue, whose last attempt at colonialism didn’t quite work out. As a consequence, the lands of the fae and other fairytale creatures are now held by their rivals, while refugees make their way into a city that doesn’t want them.

Its protagonists are – in order of appearance – Vignette Stonemoss (played by Cara Delevingne), a fae that newly arrives in The Burgue, struggling to find a way to live in a strange new world, and Rycroft Philostrate (played by Orlando Bloom and called Philo by everyone who didn’t raise him), her old lover and now an inspector at the constabulary. And while the series is most definitely mostly their story (Philo’s more so than Vignette’s, at least in the first season), it also has a fascinating cast of minor characters, from Vignette’s best friend and former lover to the chancellor’s wife, his rival’s daughter and a faun and a rich girl who fall in love against all odds.

One of the weaknesses of the show, I should add, is that it starts slow. The first episode has a more contained plot than the others and follows a mystery of the week structure that isn’t upheld, but it does serve as a good introduction for the world and tone of the series, even if the characters take a little more time. We don’t find out about Philo’s and Vignette’s past until the third episode, which is almost entirely a flashback, and the main mystery doesn’t get properly started until episode four.

But after that, the mystery is one of the highlights of the show. It’s well paced, in my opinion, in that it gives you enough information to figure things out before the characters do, but never so much that you know everything from the get go. It’s entangled in both Philo’s backstory and the world in equal measure and serves to set up the grand finale and possible further storylines well.

All in all, Carnival Row is an enjoyable series with interesting and promising world building, a gorgeously run-down steampunk aesthetic, an engaging plot (after a slow start) and characters you just want more of!

Gosford Park
Gosford Park Title: Gosford Park
Language: English
Year: 2001
Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Kelly Macdonald,
Hellen Mirren, Clive Owen,
Maggie Smith, Ryan Phillippe
Length: 137 minutes
Music: Patrick Doyle

It is impossible for a summary to do Robert Altman’s Gosford Park justice. On the surface, the film is about a murder during a shooting weekend on an English country house in the early thirties. The suspects are, among others, the butler, the aunt and the brother-in-law of the deceased. But the story, which at first glance seems hardly more than an homage to Agatha Christie, is so much more. The audience has to wait about half the film for the murder to happen and in the meantime delves deeper into the stories of the guests and staff of Gosford Park.

The only help for the audience is the character of Mary (Kelly Macdonald), the new ladies’ maid of the stingy and eccentric Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith). It is her first time visiting an estate this big and because of her clumsiness the other servants have to explain things to her that are a mystery to the audience as well. However, the viewer is left on his or her own for most of the film, and that adds to the appeal of the film, just like the casting. Maggie Smith was born for her role as Lady Trentham, and it seems the writer had Hellen Mirren in mind when he wrote the character of Mrs Wilson, the stiff housekeeper.

But those are not the only famous names on the cast. Other actors include Clive Owen as a valet, Tom Hollander as one of the guests, Ryan Phillippe as an actor and Stephen Fry as an inept inspector.

It is the excellent work of the actors, who portray their characters as persons rather than stereotypes, which makes it easy for the audience to emphasize with their problems and to laugh with them. Everyone at Gosford Park is so human that it is impossible not to like them.

Another highlight of the film is the soundtrack, which helps creating the atmosphere of 1932 just as much as the dialogue and the costumes. Many of the songs were written by Ivor Novello, an actor and composer of the time, who is played by Jeremy Northam in the film.

I can only recommend Gosford Park as the great portrayal of an era and its society. Fortunately, Altman and the writer Fellowes manage to avoid portraying the setting as exotic, which is the case far too often in historical films.

Gosford Park Title: Kingdom
Language: Korean (with subtitles)
Year: 2019
Created by: Kim Eun-hee
Cast: Ju Ji-hoon, Bae Doo-na,
Ryu Seung-ryong, Kim Sung-kyu
Jeon Seok-ho, Kim Hye-jun
Length: 12 episodes & 1 special
Network: Netflix

Kingdom is, in my opinion, the perfect Korean drama for people who don’t watch Korean drama, since it’s relatively light on a lot of the tropes and conventions you usually find in these series. It is also a great deal shorter – even at two seasons with six episodes each – than most other series. On top of it, it boasts an interesting combination of plot elements you don’t come across often: it’s a historical zombie series.

Set during Korea’s Joseon period (1392-1910), it follows Yi Chang. Yi Chang is the king’s only son (albeit by a concubine) and the crown prince by default. But that is about to change, since the king’s young wife – the daughter of a powerful noble – is pregnant. Before she can give birth, however, the king gets infected with smallpox. Desperate to keep him alive and to keep the power in his hands, the chief state councillor (the queen’s father) contacts a doctor who knows of a method to revive the dead, although the method has a downside: it turns the revived into zombies. During all of this, the doctor’s assistant gets bitten by the king and dies, and the doctor returns to his home in the south to bury him. But after years of war and neglect, the people are so hungry that one of them butchers the dead body and serves it to the patients at the doctor’s hospital, turning them into zombies as well. Now Yi Chang has to stop the plague from taking over the entire kingdom, with the help of Seo-bi, the doctor’s lone surviving assistant, as well as Young-shin (the man who butchered the body), Cho Beom-pal (an incompetent magistrate and relative of the queen), and his bodyguard Mu-yeong. But to do so, he also has to face the queen’s and her father’s intrigues.

All in all, this series does some really interesting things with zombies. By now, they’re familiar monsters that are somewhat boring and the messages they were used to convey have been defanged or outright removed. In this case, they’re trying something new. In many Asian countries, the king is responsible for the state of the country and has to reign properly to keep the kingdom from falling into disarray. Yi Chang’s father has failed in this, and he is the root of not only the zombie plague, but also all the conditions that allow it to spread. It was the king who failed to curtail the famine the people suffer from. It was the king who allowed the chief state councillor to become so powerful. It was he who decided to marry an ambitious woman, thus endangering the line of succession. Even if we never really get to meet him, all his failures come together and set the stage for the series. The tight writing and motifs are a perfect blend of historical series and zombie story, of court intrigue and action.

And topping all of this off is that the series is incredibly well produced, gorgeous to a fault and well cast and acted. Ju Ji-hoon has been a household name in Korea for a while now and this is one of his best drama performances, from what I’ve seen. Bae Doo-na has starred in several Western productions such as Sense 8, and Ryu Seung-ryong was an excellent choice for the chief state councillor, both in his truly evil and more humanising moments. And an honourable mention deserves to go to Kim Hye-jun, who plays the young queen, truly capturing her poise, commanding presence and madness.

It is truly one of the best Korean series of the last couple of years, as well as one of the most accessible ones. Do give it a try, even if – like me – you’re not really a fan of zombies.

Warrior Title: Warrior
Language: English, Cantonese
Year: 2019
Showrunner: Jonathan Tropper
Cast: Andrew Koji,
Olivia Cheng, Jason Tobin,
Dianne Doan, Kieran Bew
Length: 20 episodes
Music: H. Scott Salinas, Reza Safinia

Warrior is a series based on a concept by Bruce Lee, and that alone already tells you most of what you need to know about the series. It follows Ah Sahm, a martial arts prodigy with a knack for getting into trouble, as he arrive in a San Francisco that is dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War and an influx of cheap labour from China. He’s looking for his sister, who arrived years before him, but before he can find her, he gets conscripted into one of the many tongs running Chinatown.

Now, if you expect the search for his sister to last for very long, you’ll be mistaken. Ah Sahm finds her in the first episode, and she has her own ideas on what to do with her life (and what Ah Sahm should do with his). No, the series mostly deals with the trouble between the tongs, which escalates into a full blown war, and with the racism faced by the Chinese immigrants. As such, we also meet white characters like Penny (the mayor’s wife), and two white cops who are a part of the newly formed Chinatown squad.

Story-wise, Warrior follows some familiar beats that anyone who has watched some martial arts movies will be familiar with. Ah Sahm, despite his talent, runs into some people who are better than he is, which ultimately sets him up to become a better fighter. He also does his best to help his friends and gets into trouble because of it. Sometimes, the series is a little episodic, which can lead to some odd blends here and there. A highlight is definitely the road trip episode where Ah Sahm and his friend Young Jun travel through the wild west and have to deal with robbers in a saloon.

The mix of wild west and a Chinese aesthetic makes for an enjoyable setting, and the series does its best to address the societal issues that Chinese immigrants faced, while also being full of gorgeously choreographed fights. A definite must-watch for all fans of martial arts!