Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.
By this author
“Taut” is not an adjective one usually associates with Charles Dickens. The great English writer composed novels that brim with expansive observations and leisurely turns of phrase. His vibrant, oddball characters tend to stretch and embellish his narratives, rather than merely serve them; sometimes the characters seem to have generated themselves by sheer force of personality. Dickens might be the antidote to our Twitter-infected age.
Just cant get enough of cutthroat politics? Find yourself on YouTube, replaying the meaner jabs from the Republican primary debates? You might want to add the 1990s BBC miniseries House of Cards to your Netflix queue. Based on a novel by a onetime Chief of Staff to Britains Conservative Party, House of Cardstracks the legal and illegal intrigues of Francis Urquhart, a Machiavellian party operative who wrangles his way up the rungs of power in post-Thatcher Great Britain.
The slam of a prison door is one of the first sounds you hear in Luck, the hyper-pedigreed new drama series that premieres on HBO on Sunday, January 29. Objectively considered, it should not be a mournful noise: that door is slamming behind Chester “Ace” Bernstein, an amiably shady entrepreneur—played by Dustin Hoffman—who is leaving federal prison after a three-year incarceration. But real freedom turns out to be in short supply for Ace and Luck’s myriad other protagonists.
Echoes of a long-ago geometry class may waft through the minds of viewers who catch Journey of the Universe, the science-themed film airing on PBS stations starting December 3 [see my review here]. The film was shot on the island of Samos, birthplace of the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who famously came up with the theorem, pertaining to right-angled triangles.
Painted stars splay across the ceiling of an old Greek church. A flower blooms in slow motion. Tree roots twine serenely round the rocks of an ancient ruin. The images in the nonfiction film Journey of the Universe are luminously beautiful—and so well meshed that their flow feels almost effortless. But a great deal of effort has gone into this hour-long work, which aims to knit modern scientific knowledge and religious and humanistic perspectives into a seamless, eye-opening chronicle of cosmic and earthly evolution.
It might seem odd to apply the term “understated” to a documentary that features gritty combat footage: gunfire- and explosion-wracked images from conflicts that include the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and America’s intervention in Somalia in the 1990s.
On August 18, Commonweal media columnist Celia Wren spoke to filmmaker Ken Burns by phone about Prohibition, the new documentary he created with Lynn Novick. (Read Wren's review here.) The following is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for grammar and conciseness. Burns
At my local CVS Pharmacy in Virginia, I can buy dental floss, nail polish, aspirin, and mailing envelopes. I can also purchase booze: Yellow Tail Merlot, an orange-labeled substance claiming to be sangria, and three flavors of Bud Light, just for starters. A few blocks away, a neighborhood store hawks Dubonnet, Belgian ales, hard cider, and nine kinds of Russian wine.
The scenery is the star in the pilot episode of Zen, the new Masterpiece Mystery! series, launching Sunday, July 17. Based on the crime novels by Michael Dibdin, and produced by the folks who created Wallander, the serieswhich runs on Sundays through July 31 (check local listings)features dark-and-handsome actor Rufus Sewell in the title role of Italian detective Aurelio Zen. But at least in Vendetta, the first episode in the seriesSewells Zen doesnt seem to have much personality: We keep hearing others talk about how honest he is (Its all a game, Zen.