We can’t go out to dinner. We can’t go to the movies. We can’t go to the casinos.
So what are we to do?
Become couch potatoes, naturally!
This column, which will appear weekly while the coronavirus crisis keeps us socially distancing from each other, will give you my picks of television and streaming series to check out along with some movies, as well.
This will be fun for me. Once upon a time, before I was known best as a food and music critic, I reviewed movies. In fact, it was my movie reviews that made people notice that I could write pretty well … and the rest is history.
So I hope you enjoy my picks, and if you have anything you want to recommend, please comment or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your mini-review that we will possibly publish in the future!
Also, you can listen to my radio show 4 p.m. Wednesdays where me and Kevin Cronin from The Iron Room discuss movies and television on WOND Newstalk 1400-AM, WONDRadio.com and 92.5-FM.
Better Call Saul (AMC, 9 p.m. Mondays, Season 5, 10 episodes) - One of the best shows on television – and possibly ever – returned a few weeks ago as Jimmy McGill, played brilliantly by longtime comedian and comedy writer Bob Odenkirk, transforms from good-hearted attorney to sleazy, ambulance-chasing lawyer Saul Goodman (“It’s all good, man!). The prequel to “Breaking Bad” has a different pace to its parent series, but is equally enthralling.
The series is five episodes into its fifth and penultimate season, and since the story arc needs to wrap up sooner than later, the hour-long drama is also transforming - like its protagonist – to a more manic pace than its previous four seasons, which took its time to tell character-driven tales and connect its audience to the slew of fascinating personalities, including McGill’s mentally disturbed brother (Michael McKean), his by-the-book beautiful girlfriend (Rhea Seehorn) and a client list as colorful as you would imagine a “Breaking Bad” character’s to be.
It will also be interesting to see how the paths of McGill and fellow “Breaking Bad” characters Mike Ehrmantraut, played by the scene-stealing Jonathan Banks and drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) intertwine as the series comes to a close.
If you haven’t seen the other four seasons, no problem: They are all available to binge watch on Netflix.
Some say “Better Call Saul” is better than “Breaking Bad.” I disagree, only because “Better Call Saul” wouldn’t be half as enjoyable if you didn’t know what happens to these characters later in their lives. That said, “Better Call Saul” Creator Vince Gilligan has done the unthinkable: He made a spinoff series of arguably the best show of all time every bit as good as the original. And no one expected that.
The New Pope (HBO, nine episodes) – Whether you are a Catholic or not, religious or not, this HBO series, produced in conjunction with Italy’s Sky Atlantic, is perhaps the most underrated series on television today.
Audacious, visually breathtaking, finely acted and spiritually perplexing, “The New Pope” takes risks most other networks wouldn’t even think of, starting with its name.
If you are confused because you heard of a show called “The Young Pope” and now you are hearing about “The New Pope,” you should be. HBO took a risk re-naming the series to show its evolution. But “The New Pope” is simply the second season of “The Young Pope,” and yes, you absolutely have to watch “The Young Pope” to have any clue about what’s going on in “The New Pope.”
The young Pope is Jude Law, who showed his take-no-prisoners approach to change the Catholic Church – but not too much – as the first American Pope who not only challenged his cabinet of Cardinals, Catholics but God himself. Law is absolutely jaw-dropping in a career-defining role as Pope Pius XIII, who collapsed in a coma at the end of the first season.
“The New Pope” is more mystical, more captivating, more spiritual and even more entertaining than “The Young Pope” thanks to the continuation of Law’s presence, which is far less than the first season, and the addition of John Malkovich as Pope John Paul III. A complex man with many demons and a lonely past, he is the complete opposite type of Pope than Pius, but his moral compass and desire to be a good man - despite his complex feelings and theology - clash with nearly everyone he comes in contact with, particularly the corrupt government and puppet masters behind the scenes of one of the richest organizations in the world.
Series creator, writer and director Paolo Sorrentino treats every episode as if it was a mini movie with some of the best cinematography ever captured on television, witty writing that sometimes seems to come from the mind of a poet more than a TV creator and a cast of characters that will have you begging for spinoffs, including Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the secretary of state to the church who can be as equally evil and menacing as he can be kind and protective; Sofia DuBois (Cecile de France), the marketing advisor for the Holy See whose beauty and intelligence stands out in a world dominated by men; and Cardinal Bernardo Gutierrez (Javier Camara), the advisor to both Popes because of his deep belief in God despite his own character flaws.
One of the most unconventional and certainly risky series out there – it makes “The Last Temptation of Christ” look like a Sunday school lesson – “The New Pope” is as good as televisions gets. Sorrentino says he has a crazy idea for a third season to wrap up a trilogy but it’s so insane he doesn’t even know if HBO will go for it. Let’s hope they do.
Titans (DC Universe, two seasons, 24 episodes) – Comic book-based television series in the 21st century, to put it bluntly, suck. Full of melodrama, bad costumes, worse dialogue and even worse acting, the only TV series that had any hope – Fox’s “Gotham” – crashed and burned into ridiculousness after its first season.
DC Universe, a streaming service that is way too costly at $7.99 per month, is changing that, and it all started with Titans, a gritty although sometimes overbearing series based on the DC comic Teen Titans.
It’s far from perfect. Some of the acting makes you cringe, some of the side storylines are throwaways and it’s a tad difficult to get engrossed in any of the characters because of the broad approach here, but it’s downright entertaining while not being afraid to push the limits.
It’s actually liberating to see comic book heroes act like real humans. Yes, they curse. Yes, they have sex. Yes, they have flaws. Yes, they are sometimes scared. And yes, they sometimes question their own existence, as being a costumed crime fighter is a bit ridiculous.
As usual, this Titans team is led by Dick Grayson (Brendan Thwaites), starting as an outcast Robin and eventually morphing into Nightwing, who leads a cast of confused teens who don’t know how to deal with their abilities and have no one to hang out with, including the alien Kory Anders, aka Starfire, (Anna Diop), the powerful Rachel Roth, aka Raven (Teagan Croft), Gar Logan, aka Beast Boy (Ryan Potter), Donna Troy, aka Wonder Girl (Conor Leslie) Hawk & Dawn (Alan Ritchson and Minka Kelly) and others who come in and out including Superboy and Krypto, a nice touch.
Like any good comic book adaptation, it’s all about the villains, and they deliver big time, particularly Seamus Dever as Trigon the demon and Esai Morales as Deathstroke, the half cyborg assassin who is one of the coolest villains of all time thanks to his mercenary, no-holds-barred persona backed by unlimited violent brutality that “Titans” does not hold back on.
If you’re not a comic book fan, you probably wouldn’t subscribe to DC Universe anyway, and “Titans” could be easily skipped. But if you are a comic book nerd, “Titans” is must-see stuff that falls short of another DC series, “Doom Patrol,” but certainly exceeds expectations thanks to its great action sequences, stellar costume and production design and dialogue that doesn’t make you roll your eyes like other TV adaptations do.
Warrior (Rated PG-13, 2011, 140 minutes, free with Amazon Prime) - Sometimes, for whatever reason, some movies just escape you. “Warrior,” despite some of it being filmed right here in Atlantic City, is one of those for me, and I am glad I found it.
Streaming for free if you have Amazon Prime, “Warrior” tells the story of two estranged brothers played by Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton who find their way battling life and each other in a mixed martial arts winner-takes-all tournament in Atlantic City.
In between the two is Nick Nolte, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, as a recovering alcoholic and abusive husband and father who is trying to win back his sons’ love while helping one of them train in the octagon.
Even though Writer/Director Gavin O’Connor’s script relies heavily on sports movie clichés to get the job done, three fabulous acting performances make you forget about some of the melodrama and lets you enjoy the moments, particularly the tremendous fight sequences that make you appreciate how brutal the sport of MMA really is.
Atlantic City looks particularly awesome in the flick with aerial shots of Resorts Casino Hotel and the former Trump Taj Mahal, as well as inside and outside sequences depicting Boardwalk Hall as the A-level arena that it is. There are also boardwalk and beach scenes, and our own TV40 newscaster Michelle Dawn Mooney has a scene where she talks about Hardy’s character on TV while Nolte watches from his room at Resorts.
Sure, it’s worth watching for the Atlantic City scenes alone, but Nolte, Hardy and Edgerton deliver gutsy, sometimes heart-wrenching performances that will make you glad you fought through the clichés.
Not Worth Your Time
Bombshell (Rated R, 2019, 118 minutes, available for paid streaming on any device): While Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie are incredible as Megan Kelly, Gretchen Carlson and a composite character based on a slew of other harassed women at Fox News, this Jay Roach-directed bio drama never finds its way into your soul. Instead, it relies on superb makeup and hair, including an unrecognizable John Lithgow as Roger Ailes, that garnered an Academy Award to tell the paint-by-number story of the Fox head’s sexual harassment downfall. The acting is great, which is why Robbie and Theron earned Oscar noms, but the story was much better told in Showtime’s “The Loudest Voice,” in which you can relate to the women who were abused by this monster on a much deeper level. And Russell Crowe is just mesmerizing as Ailes.
Motherless Brooklyn (Rated R, 2019, 144 minutes, available for paid streaming on any device) – I love Alec Baldwin, so when the actor went around saying “Motherless Brooklyn” should have been nominated for Best Picture, Director and other awards, I listened. After all, it had the super talented Edward Norton not only as the star, but as the writer/director with a cast that also included Bobby Cannavale, Michael Kenneth Williams, Willem Dafoe and Baldwin. How bad could it be? Pretty bad. Overlong and so low budget it looks like a play being filmed for a movie, “Motherless Brooklyn” is a good concept gone bad. Norton plays a detective with Tourette Syndrome who is trying to solve his boss’ murder. The story takes too long to develop and even longer to unravel as the jazz-soaked soundtrack meanders into sheer boredom and an ending that you probably guessed halfway through the movie. If you can’t sleep, this is a good remedy.