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No one’s goose gets cooked during “ Mary Berry ’s Ultimate Christmas” and why is that? But geese are actually greasy, relatively meatless and too busy polluting public parks to make an appearance on TV. Besides, their absence is reassuring: The English may have given us our traditional Christmas celebration. And that’s what the merry Ms. Berry makes the main attraction of the elaborate meal she prepares—and more importantly plans for—in this hourlong tutorial on the art of the holiday. The music is a bit insistent about creating a mood, but Ms. Berry’s enthusiasm is real and never wavers.
‘Call Me Miss Cleo’ Review: How to Sell a Scam
  + stars: | 2022-12-14 | by ( John Anderson | ) www.wsj.com   time to read: +1 min
You don’t Venmo money to Nigerian princes. You don’t answer phone calls with an 876 Jamaica area code. You don’t give your Social Security number to anyone who claims your car warranty is running out. Miss Cleo was the public face of the company. But according to this HBO doc, not one of the culprits.
‘Harry & Meghan’ Review: A Royal Pity Party on Netflix
  + stars: | 2022-12-09 | by ( John Anderson | ) www.wsj.com   time to read: +1 min
In a trailer for “Harry & Meghan,” the Netflix-abetted public service announcement on behalf of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle asked whether it didn’t make sense “to hear our story from us” especially “when the stakes were this high.” To which many Americans would likely answer “No” and “Are they really?”A viewer really has to be on board the royal soap-opera bus not to be bored out of one’s mind by “Harry & Meghan,” not that anyone on it rides a bus: The story of Meghan Markle, of the erstwhile “Suits,” and Prince Harry , of the perennial drama “The Windsors,” is one that involves matters of wealth, romance, monarchy, English vs. American racism, English vs. American tabloid journalism, family betrayals and what victimization really means. Also, the blinkered view of the main characters as to who they happen to be. “Anyone else in my situation would have done the same thing,” says the duke, referring to the couple’s decision to remove themselves from The Firm and live their life as non-royals. One wants to answer “ no one has ever been in your situation,” though the distinct peculiarity of the couple’s position is only brought up when convenient, depending on what is being argued in this six-part, one-sided series. Director Liz Garbus is a respected documentarian, but documentarians are propagandists by instinct and in the not-so-royals she has eager collaborators.
The Best TV of 2022: Facts, Fictions and Felonies
  + stars: | 2022-12-07 | by ( John Anderson | ) www.wsj.com   time to read: 1 min
It was a good year for bad girls—women who broke the law in a medium that seemed en route to breaking itself. I don’t have to watch everything that’s on. But that’s because no one can. It is not a hot tip either that the powers behind the platforms, venues and streaming services have been in an embarrassing scramble to figure out what’s going on and how not to fix it. This has made the once common territory of TV more Balkanized then ever, and perhaps is part of the reason young people are increasingly distancing themselves from what their elders have long regarded—even fondly—as a vast wasteland.
The universe won’t collapse because of what happens on a cooking show, but “America’s Test Kitchen: The Next Generation” is symptomatic of larger disturbances in the force of food TV—including creative stasis, casual shoplifting of ideas and the fact that too many borrowed ideas can spoil a perfectly presentable broth. The taste-test segment involves familiar brands available at a local supermarket and end in some surprising results. (Hershey’s wins the cocoa-powder faceoff again!) Among its “flaws” is a menu that’s anachronistically meat-centric and on-air talent who are on air because of their food knowledge, not their media training. Bridget Lancaster and Julia Collin Davison are the no-nonsense hosts-chefs; the taste-test guy, Jack Bishop , is reassuringly uncomfortable at being on TV at all; equipment assessor Adam Ried is burly, affable and you believe what he tells you.
As a founding document of modern Italian literature, children’s literature and the Disney animation catalog, “Pinocchio” must have presented an irresistible challenge to an iconoclast like Guillermo del Toro , Oscar-winning Mexican director and mixologist of the tender and grotesque (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Shape of Water”). A wooden boy who longs to be real? Mr. Del Toro likely looked at timber the way Michelangelo gazed at marble. But for all its anti-traditionalist, antifascist and maybe even anti-Disney attitude, what “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” leaves on one’s palate is sweetness—bittersweetness, at times, though the stop-motion film is melancholic and sentimental without being cloying; goofy but intelligent; enchantingly musical and moralistic without preachments. It is also a paean to the love of fathers and sons: The puppeteer Geppetto is, after all, Pinocchio’s father, though it takes the old man a while to let that sink in.
Cracking ice-cold cases, digging up former associates and unearthing decades-old mistakes by his not-so-beloved MI5 is what really gets the veteran British agent’s blood up. The slow horses of “Slow Horses.”Any season 2 is approached with apprehension, especially when a show has been as successful as this series was in season 1. But it may be even better now, with its likable misfits’ various back stories revealed and the characters established—especially Jackson, played with a malignant flourish by Gary Oldman . His character may not be quite as flatulent as he was last time around, but is just as untidy and unhygienic. (Jackson does suggest an excessively dissipated version of Le Carré’s George Smiley , whom Mr. Oldman played in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”)
‘Irreverent’ Review: Mobster of the Cloth
  + stars: | 2022-11-30 | by ( John Anderson | ) www.wsj.com   time to read: 1 min
Given that he’s about to impersonate a pastor in a spiritually needy backwater, Chicago mobster Paulo ( Colin Donnell ), the felonious fulcrum of “Irreverent,” may seem unworthy of our sympathy. Perhaps worst of all, he’s seated next to a real minister who has just been dumped by his wife. And won’t stop talking about it. There are worse things than crocodiles. Good natured and good enough, “Irreverent” is a 10-part series that has to rely on the charms of its cast—which are abundant—because the circumstances are both comedic and clichéd.
‘Agatha Christie’s Hjerson” is one more indication that the venerated Christie was the gift to crime fiction that will never stop giving. The novelist never wrote a Hjerson book, but Ariadne Oliver did and Oliver—novelist, confidante of Hercule Poirot , apple-munching avatar of the author—was a Christie creation herself. It’s an audacious thing to conjure up a mystery series about a character created by a character created by a writer who has been gone for 46 years. But in terms of plots, twists and mortality rates, Christie and “Hjerson” couldn’t be closer, never mind their three or four degrees of separation. When Klara bravely takes a stand and says, “We’re better than this,” she’s told no, we’re not and she’s welcome to clean out her desk.
Heartwarming in the worst way, CNN’s “’Tis the Season: The Holidays on Screen” is based on the very reasonable proposition that movies and TV are to the holidays what nutmeg (and bourbon) are to the eggnog. But its two-hour tour of the yuletide movie catalog is a bit like a two-hour tour of one’s own living room. Is anyone not aware that “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie? “’Tis the Season” will be a terrific special, if your sleigh just pulled in from Vladivostok. Everything is addressed, from the classics to the new and forgettable, and everything addressed is wonderful.
‘Wednesday’ Review: Addams Family Adolescence
  + stars: | 2022-11-23 | by ( John Anderson | ) www.wsj.com   time to read: +1 min
TV’s original goth girl gets her own show on Wednesday called “Wednesday” and starring Jenna Ortega as Wednesday. As in Addams. The Addams Family has enjoyed so many manifestations that the natural question isn’t how far the new eight-episode series strays from all the other TV shows, movies or what cartoonist Charles Addams created in 1938. Ms. Ortega (“Jane the Virgin”) is a charismatic performer playing a character who is decidedly anti-charisma, so that’s an accomplishment; she has a face that triumphs over deadpan. But the people behind the show, among them director Tim Burton , may have to reassess how morbid and contrarian they want their girl to be.
“Wonderful things,” Carter responded, which seems a rather restrained reaction: What he’d found was the tomb of King Tutankhamun, one of a handful of the most significant and bountiful discoveries in the unearthing of the ancient world. In “Tutankhamun: Allies & Enemies,” a two-part exploration of its own, one prominent Egyptologist interviewed says that Carter’s find was all about “luck”—never mind the single-minded 15-year search he’d undertaken with Carnarvon’s money. But what becomes evident in this Egyptian production is that Egyptians are, perhaps rightfully, possessive of Tut, and that one of the wonderful things about the show is how few of the experts agree about much. Was Tut’s death the result of a fall, a plague, a pileup at a chariot race or plain old political murder? Everyone asked has an opinion, all of them supported by research, even DNA evidence.
Like a bouquet of gilded lilies, “A Joni Mitchell Songbook” offers a tribute to Ms. Mitchell as well as a bit of misdirection. The subject, now 79 years old, does not appear, which is hardly a shock, but neither is the show a songbook in the customary sense. He is on hand to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra and several guests putting their own vocal spin on the songs. It makes for one lush hour of Mitchell. Ms. Mitchell, once upon a time the ethereal blond poster-girl of folkies, was never easy to mimic, thanks largely to her open guitar tunings and singular soprano; and once she became a Charles Mingus acolyte she morphed into a sui generis jazzman.
‘Master of Light’ Review: From Prison to a Palette
  + stars: | 2022-11-16 | by ( John Anderson | ) www.wsj.com   time to read: 1 min
“If his talent doesn’t grab your attention, his story will,” says a newscaster heard in the background during “Master of Light”: George Anthony Morton , young, black and formerly incarcerated, paints in the style of the 17th-century Dutch Masters. As local news goes, it’s a producer’s dream. As documentary film fodder, it’s not bad either, though the story is far more complicated than the teaser for a TV news feature. Mr. Morton, now in his late 30s, was sentenced in his 20s to more than 11 years for possession of crack cocaine; he was born to a drug-addicted mother who had been born to a drug-addicted mother.
‘The Wonder’ Review: Investigating an Irish Miracle
  + stars: | 2022-11-16 | by ( John Anderson | ) www.wsj.com   time to read: +1 min
One of the many virtues of “The Wonder,” which includes a sublime performance by Florence Pugh , is the case it makes for itself as a film. Not every story can or should be a movie, despite Hollywood’s insistence otherwise. Some should remain books. Adapted from Emma Donoghue ’s novel and directed by Sebastián Lelio , “The Wonder” is set in the rural Ireland of 1862, a scant dozen years after the Great Hunger. She also comes under the scrutiny of a committee of townsmen, some of whom are ready to proclaim her a saint.
There are several fictions perpetrated by the vaguely comic “Tulsa King.” One suggests that there are areas of this country so innocent and untouched by evildoers that an aging mob capo could come in and transform the place, virtually overnight, into Vito Corleone’s Little Italy circa 1920. Another suggests that said gangster, Dwight Manfredi ( Sylvester Stallone ), could be mistaken by an extremely attractive local woman ( Andrea Savage ) for a “hard 55” rather than his actual 75 years of age. It’s something that the series has to deal with eventually and does quickly, if not mercifully.
Revisionist westerns have been around since “Stagecoach,” but the trajectory of the genre—traveling as it does through the work of Sergio Leone , Quentin Tarantino , Jordan Peele and even John Ford himself—has arced, ever so inevitably, toward madness and horror. Which is director Hugo Blick ’s intended destination in “The English.”“It cannot be that this whole country is only full of killers and thieves,” says Lady Cornelia Locke ( Emily Blunt ), reflecting on the America of 1890, to which she has traveled from England in order to avenge the death of her son. And she’s right: There are also psychopaths, sadists, rapists, racists, idiots, imbeciles, religious fanatics and carnival freaks. They pepper a landscape whose panoramic vistas Mr. Blick emphasizes with poetic intentions, interrupted only now and then by spasms of violence and rivers of blood.
Sherlock Holmes had unimpeachable inductive reasoning and a cocaine habit. Hercule Poirot had “enormous moustaches.” Avraham Avraham ? The creation of Israeli crime novelist Dror Mishani , Avraham (Jeff Wilbusch) begins his days in a shawl and tefillin praying on his roof near Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Bridge; when he says he grew up in Crown Heights, he means Orthodox Crown Heights. When he encounters a dead body on the street, as he does at the outset of episode 1 of “The Calling,” he murmurs holy words of Hebrew over the body. And when a teenager goes mysteriously missing, he sits on the boy’s bed, to better sense his subject’s whereabouts and, possibly, the unsettled spiritual-emotional atmosphere that may have inspired the disappearance.
If a viewer wants to kick off his algorithms and settle into that elusive “something different” on Netflix, a welcome destination would be “ Elesin Oba : The King’s Horseman,” the last movie by the Nigerian novelist, playwright and filmmaker Biyi Bandele , who died in August. His “Half of a Yellow Sun” with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandiwe Newton was a successful adaptation of the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel back in 2013, but “Horseman” is something else, a combination celebration of and elegy for cultural autonomy and something of a cheeky homage to African cinema. Based on the play “Death and the King’s Horseman” by Wole Soyinka (winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature), the story is based on actual events during World War II, when Nigeria was an occupied British colony. The eponymous horseman is a Yoruba chief who is about to commit ritual suicide; the people’s king has been dead a month and it is time for Elesin Oba (the lusty Odunlade Adekola ) to follow his ruler into the afterlife (lest the king be left to wander and bring ill on his people). The British, as directed by the colonial magistrate, Simon Pilkings ( Mark Elderkin ), think suicide is a profoundly bad idea and set out to save Elesin’s life, even if it means killing people in the process.
The ironies abound in “ Selena Gomez : My Mind & Me,” a documentary about the child star turned pop idol and writer-performer of the self-care anthem. “Who says you’re not worth it?” Were she asking herself, the answer would be “Selena Gomez.” She is startlingly candid about her physical and mental health and the rigors of celebrity itself. But for all the media scrutiny and TMZ-style reportage that plague her, had Ms. Gomez lived in another era—say, that of Marilyn Monroe —her crippling self-doubt, insecurities and depression might have been suffered in private, or been covered up, and tragedy might have ensued. Early on we get an avalanche of highly stylized, black-and-white concert footage, which is exhilarating stuff. But it also makes one realize that with an ample trove of chaotic images and sound—plus some expert editing—you could fashion a horror-thriller sequence about anybody and anything.
The good news: Despite the constant hammering of its head, the woodpecker suffers no brain damage. The bad news: Its brain is too small to sustain damage. But they are noble creatures, these woodpeckers, especially as portrayed in “Woodpeckers: The Hole Story,” a “Nature” presentation narrated by Paul Giamatti , who sounds like he’s wondering, “Who thought it was a good idea to have Paul Giamatti narrate this thing?” Which it was: Mr. Giamatti, often charming and always intelligent, expresses a genuine respect and admiration for the woodpecker, which comes in 239 species, enjoys a variety of lifestyles, knows quite a bit about carpentry and, due to rising temperatures, is expanding its territory northward at an impressive rate.
’Tis the season for election-conspiracy thrillers and campaign-finance mysteries, though the time might never be ripe enough for the likes of “The Independent,” an undercooked serving of political skulduggery that nevertheless provides a showcase for the magnetic Jodie Turner-Smith . “Your writing—it’s got punch,” says Nicholas Booker ( Brian Cox ), weathered dean of Washington political columnists. “It’s raw—but there’s something there.” He might have been reviewing “The Independent.” Instead, he’s appraising the work of Elisha “Eli” James (Ms. Turner-Smith), fledgling investigative journalist. Booker likes the cut of her jib, as he and his fellow ink-stained wretches might have said while standing around the AP teletype machine during the Nixon administration. (“The Independent” isn’t really a story about newspapers—which is fine, because its portrayal of the newspaper world is a caricature.)
Fully understanding the war—who does?—may not be necessary in appreciating the disturbing, moving and sometimes too-beautiful production. But that production certainly puts a Teutonic tweak on history, sometimes to outrageous effect. Can a concrete room filled with the corpses of innocent young German recruits—who have all just been gassed—suggest anything other than the death camps of World War II? These sequences sanctify the historical position that the onerous terms of the treaty are what led to Hitler and the Holocaust. Just for good measure, one of the concluding murders in the film is committed by a French farm boy, avenging a theft of duck eggs by two starving German soldiers.
Like Ernest Hemingway locating the birth of modern American literature in “ Huckleberry Finn ,” Miles Davis found the original incarnation of modern American music—jazz—in Louis Armstrong . “You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played,” said Davis. But like many of Armstrong’s practicing black acolytes, Davis was also embarrassed by the man’s persona. Too much smiling, too much “minstrelsy.” Dizzy Gillespie called him a “plantation character.” The image of Armstrong the musical revolutionary was long at war with the image of Armstrong the Uncle Tom. The trumpeter (and singer, lest anyone forget) died in 1971, and it’s hard to imagine a more defining of a generational divide than an awareness of Louis Armstrong, aka Satchmo, aka Pops.
‘The Good Nurse’ Review: Hippocratic Hypocrite
  + stars: | 2022-10-26 | by ( John Anderson | ) www.wsj.com   time to read: +1 min
As fascinating as they can be to watch, neither Eddie Redmayne nor Jessica Chastain ever has what we usually call chemistry with their co-stars. But isolated brilliance is precisely what helps “The Good Nurse” shine, and it could hardly be otherwise given the story. A true-crime drama at its core, this psycho thriller-cum-police procedural stars both actors as medical practitioners, one of whom is killing people. There’s never much pretense made about who the murderer is. These two are firmly in the friend zone, at least until patients start dropping dead.
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