Volodymyr Zelensky

Volodymyr Zelensky (1978-) is the current president of Ukraine. In a past life, he was an actor and comedian. Now he leads his country against a Russian invasion.

Zelensky was born in the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine to a Jewish family. Family members perished in the Holocaust and his grandfather fought in the Red Army in WW2. At age 20, Zelensky won a comedy competition and began a career in stand-up. He transitioned to acting and, by the 2000s, was a household name, starring in the Russian rom-com ‘Love in the Big City’ (2005) winning Dancing with the Stars and voicing Paddington Bear.

In 2015, Zelensky produced and starred in the political satire series ‘Servant of the People’. His role was a high school teacher who posts a video criticising his country’s corruption and the ineptitude of its politicians. The video goes so viral it gets him elected president.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. In 2018, the television network ‘Kvartal 95’ formed its own political party named after the show with Zelensky as its head. Servant of the People won the next election with 70%. Zelensky styled himself much like his character – an everyman outside of the establishment challenging the oligarch class. Some say he is just playing another role.

Since 2014, Ukraine has fought separatists in its Russian speaking eastern territories. Russia is concerned about Ukraine’s increasing closeness with the West and fears it will join NATO, an American led alliance. Zelensky sought dialogue with Russia and unity between his country’s Ukrainian and Russian speaking populations while pushing for closer ties with the west. His tenure was middling in its effectiveness to combat poverty and corruption and, like any politician, he had critics aplenty.

On February the 24th 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Harnessing his charisma and stage appeal, Zelensky emerged an unlikely hero, as he urged his people to come together and fight a near-impossible foe. Tens of thousands of everyday Ukrainians have taken up arms, and make Molotov cocktails in the streets.

When the USA offered to airlift Zelensky to safety, he refused, saying he would stay and fight. While critics may claim his move as foolish and impractical, one should not underestimate its effect on morale. These days, many world leaders hide in bunkers, when threatened by protest or riot. The historical memory of the Holodomor, Nazi invasion and communism are still strong in Ukraine. Its citizens do not take independence for granted. In this regard, Zelensky is no different from the millions who would rather give their lives than flee.

Sources: BBC, CBS, Chatham House, New York Times, Politico

The Queen’s Gambit

'The Queen's Gambit' Trailer: Anya Taylor-Joy's Netflix ...

The Queen’s Gambit (2020) is a period drama miniseries about a female chess prodigy. Set in the 1960s, it follows Beth Harmon from her beginnings as a penniless orphan to international grandmaster. The Queen’s Gambit is based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 book by the same name. It released on Netflix in November 2020. Anna Taylor-Joy (The Witch) stars, Scott Frank (Logan, Godless) and Allan Scott (Castaway) write and direct.

The Queen’s Gambit is a chess opening where white sacrifices their queen’s pawn to gain control of the centre. Beth employs both the gambit and the ‘Sicilian Defense’ throughout the series.

When her mother dies, eight-year-old Beth Harmon of Lexington, Kentucky transfers to the Methuen Home for Christian Girls. There she picks up a habit for tranquillisers and learns to play chess under the rough but loveable janitor Mr Schaibel. As a teenager Beth plays in local tournaments and rapidly rises through the ranks, becoming state champion by the second episode. Despite her success, loneliness and substance abuse beset her. 

Beth is a fictional character. There has never been a female world champion and, to this day, 99 of the world’s top 100 players are male. The Queen’s Gambit presents a heroine who challenges the norm and excels in a male-dominated field. 

Her career resembles Bobby Fischer, an American child prodigy who unseated the Russian world champion Lassky in 1973, 18th-century master Charles Morphy and modern female champion Judit Polgar.

You don’t need to be a chess fan to enjoy this show. Its strength lies in its ability to build emotional suspense through games on a board and balance triumph with despair. Without seeing every move, we can tell the way a game’s course through body language. Chess theory is still a common topic, however, and will delight anyone with even the slightest interest in the game. In the US, chessboard sales went up 87% and books about chess 603%. Chess.com saw 2.5 million registrations the week after Queen’s Gambit’s release. I was one of them.

 The chess community praised the show’s portrayal of the game. Former world champion Gary Kasparov was a consultant.

The Queen’s Gambit makes chess sexy. Beth Harmon is alluring and sympathetic and her fashion-sense enticing Locations like Las Vegas, Mexico City, Paris and Moscow are gorgeously portrayed. Though Beth is central, a supporting cast of characters includes her orphan friend Jolene, and dorky yet good-hearted Harry Beltik and the cocky Benny Watts. Queen’s Gambit popularity spread rapidly through word of mouth; by December, it was Netflix’s most popular show. The New Yorker called it ‘the most satisfying show on television.’ It will likely scoop Emmys in February.

Sources: Bangkok Post, CNN

Succession

succession

“Not to be crude about it, but politics is what comes out the asshole. Wouldn’t you rather be up front, feeding the horse?”

Last year I said Marvelous Mrs Maisel is the best thing currently on television. Looking back, I humbly retract my words – had I been aware of Succession in 2019, I might not have said so.

Created by Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show) and directed by Adam McKay (Step Brothers, The Big Short), Succession is HBO’s new flagship drama. It follows the trials and tribulations of the aptly named Roy family, a fictional business dynasty who rule a sprawling empire of media and finance. This 1% drama is told through a darkly comedic lens with what TV tropes calls an ‘eat the rich’ mentality. Horrible people in horrible situations with an ‘imperial’ opening theme.

succession logan roy

Logan Roy is a self-made man and tyrannical mogul of Waystar-Royco, a bloated conglomerate running cable news, print media, theme parks and cruises. Though he is ageing and should consider which of his imperfect children is to inherit, he is happy to keep them guessing.

Logan rules through fear. His company hides a web of lies and deceit that rewards and incentivises the most backstabbing and conniving behaviour. He is a titan in the industry, seeing everything through the eyes of a businessman and only showing his children love when it suits him.

Though its characters are morally compromised and widely dislikeable, they are distinct and well-crafted (and unfortunate) enough to draw the viewer in.

Main characters:

  • Logan Roy – Head of Waystar Royco. Played brilliantly by Scottish actor Brian Cox.
  • Connor Roy – Logan’s business averse eldest son. He spends his time collecting Napoleonic memorabilia and dating an escort in his New Mexico ranch. Played by Alan Ruck.
  • Kendall Roy – groomed for succession, but compromised by a drug problem. Most invested in Waystar-Royco’s success. Played by Jeremy Strong.
  • Siobhan, ‘Shiv’ Roy – the most like her father of the three children. Works outside the family businesses as a political consultant for liberal candidates. Played by Sarah Snook.
  • Roman Roy – the youngest Roy child. Foulmouthed, sarcastic and incompetent. Played by Keiran Culkin.
  • Tom Wambsgams – Shiv’s long term boyfriend and head of the cruise division. Lampshaded as somewhat of a buffoon among the conniving Roys. Played by Matthew MacFayden.
  • Cousin Greg – the bumbling, overwhelmingly naïve newest member of Logan’s entourage. Played by Nicholas Braun.

The Roy family is a pastiche of real-life business dynasties like the Murdochs, Redstones and Trumps. Their leading cable network, ATN, is modelled on Fox News.

succession shiv and romanDialogue is the show’s forte. Subtext and snarky one-liners reign supreme. Succession indulges in the indirect, jargon-laden speech beloved by businessmen and politicians. Its characters eschew middle-class morality and spew words like they have no meaning. Hostage crises are ‘administration action functions’. Fetching lattes fall under a range of ‘target orientated tasks’. Words are ‘complicated airflow’.

Rookie cousin Greg desperately wants to be like his remorseless colleagues, and when facing a panel, he comes out with gold:

Senator Eavis: Gregory Hirsch, executive assistant to Tom Wambsgans, correct?

Greg: Yes. Yes, if it is to be said.

Eavis: I’m sorry?

Greg: Uh, if it is to be said, so it be, so it is.

Eavis: Are you all right?

Greg: Uh, yes. Uh, I merely wish to answer in the affirmative fashion.

Eavis: You can speak to us normally.

Greg: Oh, no — thank you, sir. Uh, uh, so I shall.

succession greg and tom 2

Greg’s relationship with mentor / adversary Tom (above) makes for the most laugh-out-loud moments of the show. Though they both are connected to the family, unlike the teams of suits and executives who trail Logan, they are not quite a part of the inner circle they desperately seek to join.

While a satirical drama first and foremost, Succession does not shy from Shakespearean turns. It is a glimpse into the web of business, politics and media that controls America and the crushing egoism of those involved. Season Three premieres next year.

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Game of Thrones’s Legacy      

'Game of Thrones' Recap: The Very Dramatic Season Finale ...Last Monday, television juggernaut ‘Game of Thrones’ concluded its nine year run with its eighth and final season.  Since 2011, Game of Thrones has proven a worldwide cultural phenomenon –  it is the most watched, (and pirated) television show of all time.

Game of Thrones has won the most Primetime Emmy Awards of any television drama:

  • Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (Peter Dinklage) – Season 1, 2011
  • Outstanding Drama Series – Season 5, 2015
  • Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series (Peter Dinklage) – Season 5, 2015
  • Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (David Benioff and DB Weiss for ‘Mother’s Mercy) – Season 5, 2015
  • Outstanding Drama Series – Season 6, 2016
  • Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (Miguel Sapochnik for ‘Battle of the Bastards’) – Season 6, 2016
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor In a Drama Series (Peter Dinklage ) – Season 7, 2018
  • Outstanding Drama Series – Season 7, 2018

It was nominated for a further 28.  Gauged by Emmy wins, Season 5, followed by 3,6 and 7.

Game of Thrones: Jon Snow's Parents Explained by HBO ...

IMDB, however, tells a different story. Here I calculated season ratings out of ten by determining the average score of each season’s episodes.

  • Season 1 (2011) – 9.1
  • Season 2 (2012) – 9.0
  • Season 3 (2013) – 9.1
  • Season 4 (2014) – 9.3
  • Season 5 (2015) – 8.9
  • Season 6 (2016) – 9.1
  • Season 7 (2017) – 9.2
  • Season 8 (2019) – 6.6

Season Four, by the way, was the one with the Purple Wedding, Oberyn Martell and the battle on the Wall.

Best Episodes

  • The Rains of Castamere (Season 3) – 9.9
  • Hardhome (Season 5) – 9.9
  • Battle of the Bastards (Season 6) – 9.9
  • The Winds of Winter (Season 6) – 9.9

Game of Thrones’s writing was stronger in the early seasons when it followed its source material. A higher budget and more-advanced CGI picked up some slack in Seasons 6-8, but the final season, which had six episodes instead of the usual seven, left viewers wanting. Too many plot threads were left hanging or deemed irrelevant. Toward the end Game of Thrones’s sprawling cast and labyrinthine plot, long its boon, became a hindrance as its writers struggled to tie loose ends with tact. An estimated 50% of fans were disappointed with the show’s ending.

George R. R. Martin on His Relationship with Game of ...

Game of Thrones is based off American author George R.R Martin’s epic fantasy series, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ (1996 -). David Benioff (who wrote the 2002 blockbuster ‘Troy’) and D.B Weiss met with Martin in 2006, and won the book’s rights after a five hour meeting where they accurately identified Jon Snow’s mother. They successfully pitched the show to HBO in 2007 with Martin as executive producer.

The original pilot was a failure however and after being granted a second chance, Benioff and Weiss recast and reshot 90% of the episode.  The first season aired in 2011, the same year George R.R Martin published ‘A Dance with Dragons’, the latest in A Song of Ice and Fire. Eight years, and the whole television series later, book fans still await the next installment.

13 New ‘Game Of Thrones,’ (PHOTOS), Night’s King, White ...

Martin wrote four episodes of Game of Thrones, one for each of the first four seasons.

  1. ‘The Pointy End’
  2. ‘Blackwater’
  3. ‘The Bear and the Maiden Fair’
  4. ‘The Lion and the Rose’

Game of Thrones launched careers. Unknowns before it aired, Kit Harrington, Emilia Clark, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Richard Madden and Rory McCann have since become household names. More than anything, Game Thrones has proven that in our era, television has surpassed film.  Quality acting, costumes, set design and dialogue with battle scenes and special effects worthy of Hollywood, a good series can do it all, only with a far greater cast and much more time.

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Why Did King’s Landing Burn?

Flipboard: These Memes About Daenerys Burning King’s Landing On 'Game Of Thrones' Show How The ...

Yes, I am weighing in on Game of Thrones. In a polarising final season, the penultimate episode has proven especially divisive. Critics have derided it. An online petition to remake Season 8 has 900,000 signatures and counting. Personally I liked it. Here’s why.

*Spoilers will follow*

Criticism for Season 8’s ‘The Bells’, the longest Game of Thrones episode to air, and the second-to-last of all time, is laid most heavily on Daenerys Targaryen burning King’s Landing, and the fate of Jaime Lannister. Conversely few can deny its cinematic weight.

Since last episode the Dragon Queen has flipped from slave-freeing heroine to mass murderer without rhyme or reason. Game of Thrones prides itself on its unpredictability. Viewers sit on the edge of their seat, not knowing whether their favorite character will live or die. Eddard Stark’s execution or the Red Wedding, however, were believable and consistent with character motivation. The burning of King’s Landing, meanwhile, seemed less because of an authentic and foreshadowed shift in Daenerys’s character but because the story demanded it.

This all-powerful plot, which defies character or sense, has plagued the show since Season 5. How did Danaerys reach Beyond the Wall in Season 7 all the way from Dragonstone in time to save Jon and friends from the White Walkers? Why did no one important die in the crypts in Season 8’s Battle for Winterfell? How did Jaime, the Hound, Brienne, Tormund, Greyworm and Ghost survive the army of the dead? How did Cersei and her minions identify Missandei? Not because it was credible, but because the plot demanded it.

Critiques of Daenerys’s murder spree follows similar reasoning. The Targaryen Queen spends half of ‘A Dance with Dragons’ mourning an unnamed child scorched by her dragon. Why could she destroy an entire city, just because a few of her friends had died? Why did Jaime, after all he had been through, still go back to Cersei and die in her arms?

Though I concede Season 8’s character arcs are rushed and haphazard, the burning of King’s Landing is not unexpected.

A million people live in King’s Landing, according to Tyrion Lannister. That would equate Danaerys’s slaughter with the Rwandan Genocide if she killed half. By sheer body count, it is leagues worse than anything Joffrey, Cersei, Ramsay Bolton or even the Night King ever did. Despite vowing to never be like him, Daenerys ends up fulfilling her father’s last wish: Burn them all.

It is a fallacy to think great leaders hold themselves to a high moral standard. Alexander the Great crucified 10,000 outside Tyre and burned Pasargadae to the ground. Julius Caesar perpetrated genocide in Gaul and Genghis Khan killed 5% of the world’s population. Burning King’s Landing resembles the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the firebombing of Dresden, two acts committed by the ‘good guys’ of WW2. It is not always madness or bloodlust which demand the death of innocents, sometimes and it is cold and calculated strategy.

Daenerys knows the people of Westeros will never love her. She therefore opts to instill the fear of God in anyone who would cross her by turning King’s Landing, its surrendered defenders, and innocent inhabitants to ash. It signals that anyone else who defies her will meet a similar fate. Now her advisors who cautioned forbearance have either betrayed her or are dead. In Daenerys’s mind only unquestioned obedience will guarantee peace and her right to rule. The ends justify the means.

Season 8 has alluded to this.  Though it was handled somewhat clumsily, I appreciated the paradigm shift. As our heroine burned the innocents to death and Jon’s soldiers murdered and raped, it became clear good and bad are relative concepts, a cornerstone of Game of Thrones’s moral lens. What’s more, pitting Jon and Daenaerys against each other makes for a higher stakes game than if Cersei Lannister remained ‘the big bad’. I pray the finale will satisfy.

Update 19/05/9: finale did not satisfy.
Update 27/05/19: petition has over 1,500,000 signatures.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel

‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Season 2 Is as Dazzling As You ...The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is a period comedy-drama about a woman comic in 1950s New York. It is created by Amy Sherman –Paladino (of the Gilmore Girls fame) and produced by Amazon. Now in its second season, and renewed for a third, the Marvelous Mrs Maisel is easily the best thing on TV.

Golden Globes:

  • Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy
  • Best Actress – Television Series Musical or Comedy

Emmy Awards:

  • Outstanding Comedy Series
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series (Rachel Brosnahan)
  • Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (Alex Bornstein)
  • Oustanding Directing for a Comedy Series
  • Oustanding Writing for a Comedy series
  • Oustanding Casting for a Comedy Series
  • Outstanding Music Supervision
  • Oustanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series

Miriam Maisel, or ‘Midge’ lives with Joel, her husband of four years, and two young children on Manhatten’s Upper West Side. Her life is one most contemporary would woman aspire to, that is until Joel runs off with his secretary. Her future ruined, Midge moves back to her parents’ apartment and finds a day job. From the depths of despair, she reinvents herself as a bawdy and successful stand-up comedian.  Drama and hilarity ensue.

Image result for marvelous mrs maisel

Mr and Mrs Weissman

Main characters:

  • Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel – a quirky and glamorous upper-middle-class Jewish housewife cum comedian. Played by Rachel Brosnahan.
  • Susie Myerson – Midge’s sarcastic and impatient manager, ever conscious of Midge’s higher social status. Played by Alex Borstein (the voice of Lois in Family Guy).
  • Joel Maisel – Miriam’s estranged husband. A hardworking man who made a terrible mistake. Played by Michael Zegan.
  • Abraham Weissman – Midge’s tweed coated father. Teaches Mathematics at Columbia University. Played by Tony Shalhoub (from Monk)
  • Rosa Weissman – Midge’s ever-critical mother. Played by Marin Hinkle.

Others include Midge’s gentile friend Imogine Clearly, the Weisman’s Ukrainian maid Zelda and real-life comedian Lenny Bruce. Midge’s two children barely feature – which is all for the better. Too many shows are spoiled by bad child actors playing characters nobody cares about.  Not this one.

Image result for marvelous mrs maisel susie and midge

Midge and Susie

A charming set design brings 1950s Manhattan to life, complete with yellow taxi cabs, elaborate fashion and fast-talking denizens.  Themes including gender roles, Judaism, class and adultery are touched on but not central to the story. That honour belongs to its characters.

Marvelous Mrs Maisel’s humour is clever and fast-paced. Midge’s routines are funny too, though they take only a small part of the show.  Unlike many shows about comedians, the lead is only an actress.  Fussy Abe and foul-mouthed Suzie, in particular, are downright hilarious. The humour flows naturally, full of clever jokes and cultural references and every character has their charms with none being overly eccentric or one dimensional.

It is difficult to find fault with the series. Everything, from the costumes, set design, music, acting and wit come together to work wonders. I eagerly await the third season.