Xena: Warrior Princess Season 4

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Picking up from Season 3( which was a personal favourite of mine), Season 4 of Xena is an excellent follow up that’s pretty eventful and continues to be an action-packed spectacle. Though not as consistent as the past season, you can’t fault Season 4 for what it delivers. Be aware, spoilers will follow in this overview of Season 4.

We pick up where with Gabrielle( Renée O’Connor) sacrificing herself and her diabolical daughter Hope. Presumed dead, Xena(Lucy Lawless) goes in search for her, hunting high and low along with across earthly and spiritual plains. Discovering that Gabrielle is in fact alive, Xena is also shown a potentially dark future for both woman that results in their crucifixion at the hands of the Roman. After finally destroying Hope’s child The Destroyer , things look like they might just get back to some form of normality for both women. Though as the audience, we just know things are never going to be calm for long. In the meantime, all assortment of evil visits Xena’s door and she and Gabrielle will face off against it. Integral is a level of spiritual examination as the two venture to India and begin to reflect as well as open up. At the back of their minds is that vision of the future and figuring out just when it is going to happen along with how they could possibly prevent it. Let’s just say, things get pretty eventful from here on out.

Xena: Season 4 carries on with some of the darkness of Season 3( which was the darkest thus far and all the better for it), but sprinkles in a tad more humour to this series as some of the heavy burdens of last season have been lifted on the characters but others may lay ahead. That’s a big plus of this show; it’s willingness to be both fun and goofy and then crank things up occasionally to make it emotional and shocking. It’s a tool that’s served Xena well. And here, the darkness and serious nature of the things is very much high on the agenda, with levity in outrageous episodes provided to keep fans enjoying it. Sometimes the dichotomy doesn’t work and consistency can be lacking, but the vast majority of this show is exceptionally entertaining that a few flaws along the way. A sense of mystery and suspense does find its way in there, especially with regards to the death prophecy that we are left to ponder. Season 4 isn’t quite at the same high level of Season 3 as the overall main arc in the last season was more focused, but it’s pretty close to it in terms of creativity and fun, especially in the home stretch.

Standout episodes begin with the two parts of ‘Adventures in the Sin Trade’. A distraught Xena searches for Gabrielle, fearing she has died and either gone to the Elysian Fields or Tartarus. Remembering that Gabrielle belonged to the Amazon’s, she enlists her many skills to journey to their Land of the Dead. Along the way, we are gifted with flashbacks to the people Xena encounters and her past misdeeds being brought out in the open. In the past, Xena and Borias were ruthless criminals and came across Alti, a powerful shameness with a cunning evil in her heart. It was her who showed Xena the ability to go into another plain, but she also plotted and poisoned her with malice. A frenetic camera lends itself to contributing a mystical quality to the show as Xena is faced with the past once more and events blend strikingly with dizzying angles, unusual symbolism and hypnotic ambience. Overall, both parts are visually out of this world and it’s wonderful to see more of the world in the show, especially when it comes to the different factions of Amazon’s. We get more backstory, which is always a plus as we get to glimpse the old Xena who was ruthless and also seeing her dressed in unusual Amazon attire. Plus the evil Alti( Who makes for a powerful adversary) provides a glimpse of the future to Xena, that lays the groundwork for darkness ahead. Overall, the two parts show just how dedicated Xena is to both her best friend and to purging herself from the evil of her past. Following is “A Family Affair’ where Xena discovers that Gabrielle is still alive and living in her childhood village. But all isn’t as it seems for Xena and a returning Joxer unearth that Gabrielle survived and is back in her homeland. But although overjoyed to see Gabrielle, something sinister is afoot. For the version of Gabrielle Xena sees is in fact the evil offspring Hope who is eerily identical in appearance to her good mother. Her son, The Destroyer is picking off unsuspecting people at the behest of its mother. Importantly, the real Gabrielle returns for good which is fantastic, though we aren’t sure it is her at first because of Hope impersonating her. I liked this aspect as we are kept on edge watching for little tip offs as to who is the real Gabrielle. Suspense is bolstered as are many scenes with The Destroyer lurking are used and crank up one eerie aura. And with it seems to wrap up the whole story of Gabrielle and her bond to Dahak and Hope. I think it was the right time to wrap that part of the story up and concentrate on future things. We have the pretty intense hour called ‘Locked Up and Tied Down’. The running theme of Xena’s past still haunting her is the main thread throughout the show and is a fine example of it. Xena finds herself imprisoned in a remote jail where cruelty rules as punishment for ‘murdering’ a virtuous woman. The episode has some horror movie style elements like the torture inflicted on Xena in a pit infested with rats in retaliation for similar treatment of another. It asks some very pertinent questions about whether vengeance is a hollow pursuit or justifiable. Once more Xena is forced to relive the pain she inflicted on others and Gabrielle has to contend with her friend’s dark side. It’s a recurring theme but one that is the very essence of the show and when explored this well, brings depth to the overall narrative again.

The season really hits its zenith with the spiritual episodes that coincide with Xena and Gabrielle visiting India. “Devi” starts it off as the two aid a seemingly powerless fake magician named Eli, who is actually more in power than he thinks. As a result of an exorcism, he inadvertently transfers an evil spirit from his partner into someone else. That someone happens to be Gabrielle. As Gabrielle ends up possessed by a malevolent spirit,  it’s quite a thrill seeing a vicious and Gabrielle than we’ve ever seen before. Granted she is possessed, but it’s fun nonetheless and the episode really runs with it as the bewitched Gabrielle flaunts herself, hoodwinks everyone and brawls with an angry Xena. It also boasts important questions on just how trusting people can be when it comes to believing in miracles and the often dubious nature that hides behind the front. Between the Lines’ contains time travel and the involving concept of Karma and reincarnation. After being sent to the future via a powerful young woman and placed in the bodies of their reincarnated selves, Xena and Gabrielle face off against the wicked Alti, who’s been reincarnated once more and is attempting to spread her evil throughout the world. It’s good to see Alti back as she’s a formidable opponent for Xena and Claire Stansfield plays her to the hilt. This episode is the filling in an excellent sandwich of episodes, which includes Gabrielle getting a new short haircut that makes her look more grown up and signifies her stepping up. The main point of interest comes in ‘The Way’ . Some took issue at the time with how the show used the Hindu religion and felt it was disrespectful, but I don’t think it was intentional. It takes things from the religion and adds fiction, but I’m no expert so can’t judge whether it’s blasphemous or not. Regardless of the controversy, is a compelling episode where Xena opens her mind in order to save Gabrielle and a returning Eli is aided by the God Krishna. Fighting against an evil demon named Indrajit, she transforms into Kali; multi-armed goddess of death and it’s a sight to behold. ‘The Way’ also probes the idea of non violence as promoted by Eli and how Gabrielle struggles to discover her right path. Ultimately, her and Xena’s ideals are different but their friendship is the ultimate bridge that joins them. For me it’s one of the most compelling episodes due to both the action and themes, plus the big developments of our central characters. Episodes like these three really hit philosophical heights while also being darn entertaining in the process with a neat helping of character developments and prompting questions.

Great comedy comes in the shape of “Takes One to Know One’ which resembles an Agatha Christie mystery just set in Ancient Greece and its rollicking entertainment. Capping off the end of the season(penultimately but it still feels like a finale) is the epic ‘The Ides of March’. Everything has been building to this as Caesar comes into view and an old enemy in the form of Callisto(Hudson Leick) taunts Xena after striking a bargain to get out of hell. The whole episode of power play is very cinematic in execution and as everything slots in, it really takes hold. Xena and Gabrielle are both crucified before Xena can kill Caesar , but he is savagely murdered by senate members tired of his actions. Although we’ve seen flashes of this fate, the crucifixion still has a huge impact emotionally. With Caesar also biting the dust  it balances out quite well, especially as the spirits of Xena and Gabrielle rise from their bodies giving us hope of a way they can come back. A very powerful episode indeed and make no mistake.

On the visual front, Xena excels with its gorgeous locations, individual uniqueness and music. New Zealand still provides yet more gorgeous terrain for our heroine and sidekick to traverse and is given added exoticism when the story moves to India, which is really still New Zealand but wonderfully crafted to be convincing as another country. Music has always been a key ingredient to Xena and it’s doesn’t slack here as adventure is the watchword for the day. Blending exoticism and emotion with an action packed pulse, it’s gorgeously intoxicating for all. I’m a sucker for interesting visuals, symbolism and music so I naturally will praise it as it really deserves it to.

Lucy Lawless is superb as the fighting Xena whose is a figure you wouldn’t want to tangle with. Lawless projects strength, lethal charisma and underlying emotional core as she goes on in her atoning journey. Lawless is simply the only actress who can do the character of Xena justice with her combo of tough steel and inner turmoil, harnessed into a sexy package that’s as fun as it is convincing. Renée O’Connor  again impressive as Gabrielle. Too often the character is written off as being a do-gooder and too much of a damsel and while some areas of her are, most of the time she is shown to grow in terms of personality( which some overlook). A lot of that is down to O’Connor , who plays Gabrielle as being fierce when she needs to be and compassionate in various ways . Gabrielle can be infuriating with her at intervals but it makes her human as she is the representation of trying to do the right thing. She’s definitely changed since the first time we saw her, her naivety has softened, her confident sex appeal increased and her backbone has formed gradually. Ted Raimi expands on Joxer, still retaining the core of the comedy but also getting the opportunity to flesh him out more and unearth more to him. Hudson Leick and Alexandra Tydings make the most of their guest appearances as respectively, the wicked Callisto and the immature, Valley Girl goddess Aphrodite.  The only niggle I had with the cast is that Kevin Smith barely featured this time around as Ares.

Episode rankings:

  1. Adventures in the Sin Trade – A
  2. Adventures in the Sin Trade – A
  3. A Family Affair -A+
  4. In Sickness and in Hell – C-
  5. A Good Day – B+
  6. A Tale of Two Muses – B
  7. Locked Up and Tied Down – A
  8. Crusader – C
  9. Past Imperfect – B+
  10. The Key to the Kingdom – D-
  11. Daughter of Pomira – D
  12. If the Shoe Fits – B
  13. Paradise Found – B+
  14. Devi – A
  15. Between the Lines – A
  16. The Way – A+
  17. The Play’s the Thing – B-
  18. The Convert – B+
  19. Takes One to Know One – A
  20. Endgame – B
  21. The Ides of March – A+
  22. Deja Vu All Over Again – C

Occasionally not as focused as before, the darkness, humour and characters that Xena is well known help to make it another fine season of fantasy.

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I’m Back

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Well properly back that is. So expect more content and conversations with me in the next few days. Once more, I apologise for my absence.

Pete’s Dragon

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My second entry into the Shelley Winters blogathon is with the Disney fantasy adventure Pete’s Dragon, in which she plays a wicked supporting role. I must say thanks to both Erica and Gill for inviting me to take part

Charming and both bittersweet and funny in parts, Pete’s Dragon is undervalued as a film in my eyes. I think it should be reassessed and while some of it won’t hold up, you’ll definitely get some joy from it.

It’s the turn of the century and in Maine, young orphan Pete(Sean Marshall) runs away from his adoptive guardians. They are the vile Gogan’s, a hillbilly clan headed by the nasty Lena(Shelley Winters). They’ve treated him unfairly and made him a slave, prompting his escape. Aiding him is Elliott; a large, green dragon who can turn invisible and often is only seen by Pete. They venture into the town of Passamaquoddy hoping to start a new life. With Elliott being a clumsy creature, a string of mishaps occur. Eventually, Pete finds shelter with the kind-hearted Nora(Helen Reddy), who lives in a lighthouse with her often well meaning but drunk father Lampie(Mickey Rooney). This bliss is changed by the arrival of showy quack Dr. Terminus( Jim Dale) and his sidekick Hoagy(Red Buttons). Always on the lookout for money, when he gets wind of a dragon, he schemes to capture it. Though while both Pete and Elliott are wanted by nefarious forces, it seems that Nora and Lampie are there for them to face the evil that covers them.

Don Chaffey keeps events ticking over with humour and heart. You’re guaranteed to have a smile when watching a lot of this movie as Pete and experience thrills, adventure and danger. While Pete’s Dragon isn’t held in as high a rank as other Disney films, I think it’s unfairly overlooked. Sure it’s far from faultless and there are various issues with it, such as the length of the film, but the infectious energy and spirited heart can’t be ignored or resisted. Plus, it’s surprising how dark some parts of Pete’s Dragon are, like the singing of ‘The Happiest Home in these Hills”, in which the Gogan’s detail the horrible fate that Pete will meet if they get their hands on him. Though the overall tone is hopeful and cheery, the darkness and occasional bittersweet pang underneath in areas is a welcome addition as it doesn’t allow the film to overdose on sugary sentiment. Speaking of music, Pete’s Dragon has some lovely songs, with ‘Candle on the Water’ sung by Helen Reddy a great highlight and the sweet Boo Bop Bop Bop Bop a real gem. I’ve always liked this movie and may be a tad biased when reviewing it, but it really holds a certain place of nostalgia for me. I adore the blending of animation and live action, with Elliott being a wonderfully funny and endearing vision. Yes it’s not as slick as today’s effects, but damn if it isn’t darn effective at bringing to vivid life. The theme of wanting to belong resonates deeply with the viewer as it’s explored in numerous ways, not of least the eponymous orphan who is on his way to luck, if nothing bad befalls him first.

Sean Marshall takes the role of Pete and gives us a protagonist to root for, due to his honest face and general decency. He could have become annoying, but thankfully, Sean Marshall is a good child actor who doesn’t grate on the nerves. Helen Reddy is winsome and feisty when called for, plus using her gorgeous singing voice wonderfully. Mickey Rooney, all bluster and expressive eyes, is great as the initially terrified Lampie, who eventually comes around and takes Pete under his wing. Jim Dale is a hoot as the nasty but often hilarious showman Dr. Terminus, while Red Buttons is effective as his not above goodness sidekick. And now we come to the woman of the hour and her name is Shelley Winters. Dirtied up, spouting nastiness and generally being one evil villain, Winters is obviously having a blast playing such a vile character. Villains are in good order with the Gogan’s, but it’s Winters who stands out the most as the queen of mean. The villains are over the top and yet that’s what makes them good. They are just so nasty and often cartoonish that we want their plans to fail.

While flawed and a bit over long , Pete’s Dragon is very underrated and deserves a bit more love from people for its magic, music and story.

What’s the Matter with Helen?

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I was invited to take part in a blogathon to pay tribute to the great Shelley Winters by Gill and Erica . My first entry will be of the Grand Guignol thriller What’s the Matter with Helen? I’m doing this review early as I’m very busy and away on holiday next week.

A campy, enjoyable and creepy thriller that is not afraid to be over the top, What’s the Matter with Helen? finds the pairing of Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters. It’s not a perfect movie and hardly vintage, bu t it has its moments and the performances, particularly from Winters, are where it’s at.

Its the 1930’s and two boys commit a horrible murder. The boys are the sons of good friends Helen Hill( Shelley Winters) and Adelle Bruckner(Debbie Reynolds). After the boys are convicted, the two mothers are hounded ferociously and someone even starts stalking them. Terrified and wanting to start over, Adelle and Helen move to Hollywood and change both their looks and last names. This is all an attempt to escape their collective past and hopefully start afresh by opening a dance school for promising young girls wanting to be the next Shirley Temple. Adelle is the stronger of the two though she’s clearly on the make for money and success why she’s at it, while Helen is fragile and prone to aspects of paranoia. Having assumed different identities, things seem on the up for Adelle and Helen as no one knows them and life looks brighter. Adelle finds herself attracted to Lincoln Palmer( Dennis Weaver), the wealthy father of one of her students. He sweeps her off her feet and Adelle is soon seeing herself in line to success and money. Things are harder on Helen who really struggles with letting go of the past and finds herself growing ever more disturbed by life, specifically the relationship with Lincoln that Adelle finds herself in. She believes that someone is still stalking her and Adelle and begins to emotionally evaporate. Trying to cling to her religion helps stifle some of it but soon things spin wildly out of control for everyone surrounding and including Helen.

Curtis Harrington is in the director’s chair and does a serviceable job combining thriller with old school melodrama. It’s not award winning direction, but it has a sense of place and feeling which stand it in good stead and once he hits the creepy areas, he shines.  What’s the Matter with Helen? is trying to emulate the enormous success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte and it has atmosphere going for it . While it never quite reaches the levels of the previous films mentioned( sometimes the narrative throws too much too quickly at us, not knowing when to stop and the pacing is left a bit wonky), What’s the Matter with Helen? still has its virtues. This starts with atmosphere which is a strong suit of this film and something that undoubtedly leaves you more than a little tense. It really hits the best moments near the 45 minute mark and from then on, everything begins to escalate and build towards a startling finish. The setting of the 30’s is rendered with a good amount of detail that shows it as a glamorous yet often sinister place, backed up by the darkness in the story that befalls both leading ladies. The settings reflect this with darkness pervading many of them but the sheen of starry gold of bright lights remains. We even get old newsreels to begin the film which is a nice touch that thrusts us into the story. Props to the visual department and set designs for bringing the 30’s to life as a backdrop to something much darker. The tone features the off the wall and melodrama of films like it in the past and that’s what makes it watchable. The fact it can be seriously creepy then campy is pretty nifty, even if not intentional. And things are really turned up to the max as the film progresses, with over the top antics and strange happenings taking full stage and unashamedly so. It won’t be to all tastes, but these kinds of movies usually are ones people either love or don’t. The score is wonderfully eerie at not being overly intrusive  but when called for, ringing through with a sense of terror and irony.

Its the acting that is one of the strong suits in the uneven but watchable narrative. Shelley Winters is the clear standout with a performance that builds little by little towards cracking. You can gather that Helen is unstable but it’s the portrayal from the professional that is Miss Winters that truly gives it its magic. Her dour, melancholy demeanour is adept at charting the mental disintegration of a haunted woman and with a raised voice here and a questionable antic there, Winters knows how to invoke both sympathy and chills. Debbie Reynolds is no slouch either as the dramatic, self-obsessed Adelle, who truly dreams of making it big. We are so used to seeing Reynolds as a sweet faced and innocent lady that it’s a kick to see her portray someone who isn’t exactly the nicest of people. Plus she gets to show off her considerable singing and dancing skills which can’t be denied. Dennis Weaver is appropriately smooth and suave as the businessman wooing Adelle, but not realising its beginning to drive a wedge between the two old friends. Micheál Mac Liammóir is wonderfully imposing as an elocution teacher who always seems to turn up at the wrong time and creep everyone out.

Agnes Moorehead, in a mainly one scene performance, is sensational as an evangelist who Helen follows to the letter of the law. I love her scene as she gives it all forgiveness and being generous, when she’s really just avaricious.

A finely acted that isn’t going to pass as high art but is an enjoyably creepy and gleefully dramatic slice of psycho biddy thriller with Debbie Reynolds and the wonderful Shelley Winters going all out.

Hustlers

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Based on the true story of strip club workers scamming their clientele in efforts to make ends meet and sock it to the man, Hustlers is a colourful and surprisingly involving drama that makes time for comment on the strength of women and a sprinkling of humour. Also watch out for the talented cast, in particular a never better Jennifer Lopez.

It’s 2007 in New York, Dorothy(Constance Wu) is a young woman trying to make ends meet and help care for her ailing Grandmother. She’s working at a strip club, but not at all succeeding at making substantial money. Then she glimpses Ramona Vega( Jennifer Lopez), who is the resident queen bee that entices all with her sexy moves and charms. The two get talking and Ramona takes the inexperienced Dorothy under her wing and teaches her a thing or two. Dorothy soon goes by the name Destiny in the club and with Ramona’s guidance, starts to succeed. There’s a certain level of sisterhood between them that grows. Then the 2008 financial crash hits and things go south. Destiny discovers she’s pregnant and with business at the club running low and her boyfriend leaving her, she’s pretty desperate. The stripping business is not what it was and after meeting with Ramona( who she hasn’t seen in a long time), a plan begins to form. They will, along with other strippers that they know, make themselves available to men who are typically brokers or CEO’s on Wall Street , drug them and max out their credit cards. Although extremely dangerous, both women dive headfirst into this scam. Joining them are newbie strippers Mercedes and Annabelle( Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart) who prove equally as adept at it. As the money rolls in things look good for the ladies, but soon greed begins to set in and events spin out of control for the merry band of women.

Lorene Scafaria is clearly a director who knows her craft and how to make a movie that entertains as well as invest you with its characters. Writing the script as well, she doesn’t condemn or condone what the women do and doesn’t exploit them endlessly in leering fashion either. Instead, Hustlers finds its footing presenting them as women pushed too far and hustling to survive in a cruel world that doesn’t reward the honest. Morality is a slippery slope after all and Hustlers presents that in fantastic fashion. In terms of highlights, watch out for Ramona’s sultry and commanding entrance which lets you know everything you need to about her without dialogue; it’s a standout sequence thats the definition of memorable. Scafaria references the work of the masterful Martin Scorsese in terms of bright visuals, montage and themes, with the good, flashy life of money and power slipping into chaos as things turn sour. places you right inside this world that the ladies are part of and pulls pulls you into their stories and reasons for taking part in a hustle. The world that they populate is best summed up by Ramona; who groups customers into ranks of how devious they are and how much money each is worth. Ramona is a pro at surveying people and a lot of the information we learn is through Destiny reiterating the words of this charismatic mentor. The framing device of Destiny/Dorothy revealing the details of the scams to a journalist played by Julia Stiles, who will write about it in the present, is cleverly employed and never too intrusive as to take us out of the film. A bit of repetition at the midway point can be pardoned for how the overall package is slick, thrilling and surprisingly evocative of the struggles women face and what happens when they take dangerous action. Mark my words, Lorene Scafaria is a director to watch out for in the future. While very much a drama, a liberal helping of humour abounds in Hustlers and is most welcome. Of particular note is the whip smart writing that allows for commentary on women taking control after being objectified and believably creating a camaraderie among the crew that feels very authentic. A killer soundtrack with some unexpected but fitting songs is a significant part of greatness in Hustlers and helps excel the narrative as it twists and turns.

Constance Wu heads the cast and is marvellous. Her curious face is our guide into Hustlers as she goes from downtrodden, vulnerable girl to successful woman, yet still retains a questioning backbone over her actions. She’s the audience surrogate but that is by no means a bad thing at all as Wu is simply stunning with both the humour and the drama. You truly feel for her too because of how convincing Wu is. What you’ve heard about Jennifer Lopez and her work in Hustlers is all true. Fierce, beguiling, bewitching and ruthless( but not without humility or compassion), Jennifer Lopez turns in career best work that reminds us what an actress she can be. Too often in the movies, she’s been in material that doesn’t show off her range( save for Selena and Out of Sight). Thankfully that’s been rewritten in Hustlers; she’s truly allowed to let her charisma and presence shine with alacrity, along with nuance and physicality. Trust me, Lopez is at the top of her game here and is worth every ounce of acclaim. She’s the main showstopper here and don’t forget it. Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart both contribute plenty of energy and humour as the new girls on the block; both are given time to shine and develop their characters with humour and life. We have Julia Stiles as the journalist listening to the outrageous and audacious story and she displays a great amount of vacillating from feeling enthralled to being shocked at what she hears. She’s another pair of outsider eyes and ears in Hustlers and an effective pair too. Cameos from Cardi B and Lizzo are fun whenever they are present. I very much enjoyed the small but memorable role of Mercedes Ruehl. I found she injected great warmth and wisdom into her mother of the den part and I was entertained by her appearance here.

Stylish, highly entertaining but also insightful and filled with an array of talented actresses and director, Hustlers is one excellent and very surprising movie.

What Is Your Favourite Keira Knightley Performance?

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It’s been a while since my last post of this nature and I wanted to resurrect it again. So I’m now asking which performance by the excellent Keira Knightley performance? With her maturity, splendidly high cheekbones and well spoken voice, Knightley has been on our screens for what feels like forever. And she’s still really young and clearly has decades worth of performances to give. Often seen as a period drama queen, I believe Keira Knightley can easily be wonderful in contemporary fare. I mean she’s sensational in period dramas but I believe it can cloud the rest of her catalogue. So which performance by this lovely actress is your favourite?

The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3

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Revolution is in the air and while still a dark show, Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale boasts a lot more hope than ever before. And this is for the best in a show that is certainly not the easiest watch, but rewarding in terms of acting and story. Be warned, spoilers may follow.

We pick up where Season 2 left off, with June(Elisabeth Moss) having given her newborn daughter to an escaping Emily( Alexis Bledel). She has decided to stay in Gilead to save her other daughter Hannah, who was cruelly taken from her years before. Plus, she’s still got an axe to grind with the horrifying regime that governs what was once America. She briefly returns to the house of slimy Commander Waterford( Joseph Fiennes)and his wife Serena Joy(Yvonne Strahovski), who was the one who handed the baby over to her in the hope that the baby will get a better life in Canada. Serena is starting to chafe at the system and in retaliation burns down her house, possibly setting the stage for her switch of allegiance. She’s in deep morning for her ‘child’ which could easily make her return to her normal cruel self though. June is sent to the home of Commander Lawrence(Bradley Whitford), who helped engineer Emily’s escape but whose true purpose and sense of trust are questionable. June however has her eyes set on rebellion and though some of her actions are questionable, she’s mainly playing the game in order to survive. She attempts to get Serena on side and persuade Fred to let her have a bit more power than women in Gilead have. But can either be trusted? Can Aunt Lydia( Ann Dowd) who begrudgingly seems to admire June’s opposition, be of any help? And can with an ongoing political struggle in sight can June ensure the safety of both her daughters? Plus, a visit from high powered and nasty Commander Winslow(Christopher Meloni) sets the scene for more shocks and horror as she exerts power and Fred craves it. June is somehow caught in the middle that leads to desperate circumstances. Meanwhile, Emily makes it to Canada with the baby and finds Luke( O. T. Fagbenle) and Moira( Samira Wiley), who offer support. Though things get difficult as Luke is having to raise another man’s child and still terrified about whether he’ll see his wife again. Emily is also struggling when she reunited with her wife and son as it’s been so long and they’ve been a part for what seems like eternity. This coincides with June becoming even more reckless and at times selfish, though she’s brought to her senses once more, thanks to Janine( Madeline Brewer) and the other Handmaid’s. This is where she really ramps up her campaign of striking back.

While continuing the story set up in the first two seasons, Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Take feels like something a bit different while still including the DNA that made the show connect with so many in this topical time. Some fans took issue with June’s last minute decision to stay in Gilead and not run to escape. While I can understand the gripes and though it was a surprise, on reflection it made a lot of sense. The thought of Hannah was what kept June going through her hellish ordeal of institutionalised rape and servitude that was punishable by death if not obeyed. I never believed June would just abandon her as she has been so key to the show and June’s voyage to rebellion. And the spirit of rebellion is shot through this season that still retains the starkness and darkness of what we’re used to, but embeds it with a feeling of underlying optimism that it has only hinted at in previous ventures. Don’t be fooled, this show still has its share of brutality, violence and horror and on those levels it delivers. I just couldn’t help but notice the building feeling of something good about to happen and action about to be taken. It’s a slow burner for certain but I like that about this season. It’s dialled back on some of the overriding gloom that perpetuated the first two seasons but not completely forgotten it. Everything is in the deliberate pace that convincingly lays the building bricks of revolution and how it’s going to occur from the inside. Some may find it slow going( there are some spots where a shot of quickness might have worked), but overall the burning feeling and realisation that revolution is nearing is impressively depicted.

The standout episodes are as follows. In ‘Unknown Caller’, the fallout begins when it’s discovered that Luke has Nichole and June is forced to identify her husband. We get June making an emotional phone call under duress to Luke, Serena seeing Nichole one last time and then falling prey to the manipulations of her husband and finally June’s glare to the camera when she realises she’s been stabbed in the back. It’s a rollercoaster of an episode that grips with how it unravels and the surprises of motivations and actions displayed. Following that is the topical ‘Household’ which deals with subjects of children’s rights, political agendas and the nature of possession. Secrets are also unearthed as June travels to Washington D.C.( which has been made over into a dictatorship) and discovers that lover Nick(Max Minghella) was not the man she thought he was and that he can’t help her in her hour of need . Plus, we are shown the horrifying extremes of Gilead as all the Handmaid’s are silenced by three piercings that keep their lips closed. It’s an often unexpected episode backed up by arresting cinematography, amazing set design that captures a world gone mad and excellent storytelling. Plus, in ‘Unfit’, we finally get some backstory on Aunt Lydia before the rise of Gilead. I’ve been waiting to discover the woman behind the brutality and it delivers. She was once a teacher who was dedicated to her young students and wanted the best. She befriended a young wayward woman whose son she taught and tried to help. After taking her advice and trying to seduce the principal, she was left mortified when he rejected her. I think her breaking point was the fact that in her mind she violated her religious beliefs and gave in to temptation. In retaliation and feeling embarrassed, Lydia phoned the social services on the young mother and the child was taken away.

A haunting hour is found in ‘Heroic’ which has June confined to a hospital as punishment for her treatment of a fellow Handmaid who now lies in a coma . The atmosphere is comparable with Kubrick in terms of how clinical and psychological everything looks and feels. It crucially brings June back to her usual self after she lost her way and became selfish and cruel. It’s an undoubtedly disturbing watch but one that starts the wheels of change again after she was at the point of near collapse. And the last few episodes are nothing short of exhilarating as plans are finally put into action and the tension rises. Though the first half of the season is the slow build, the last half is everything getting going and strike back beginning that will change everything. Pay particular attention to the finale ‘Mayday’ which is hands down one of the best episodes of the entire show. Though a show that is tough going, The Handmaid’s Take is gorgeously shot with dark hues but a more prominent brightness than before to reflect the burgeoning fire within June and the others who will help her. The trademark use of shallow focus especially when focusing on June and birds eye view shots of the Handmaid’s in ranks are stellar and cinematic in execution. Fine and often ironic song choices and a chillingly electronic score compliment the aura of eeriness and evinced hope.

Elisabeth Moss continues to excel as our main character. Those eyes and that face once more work miracles with the slightest of movements. She is a masterclass in emotion and revealing how June is both flawed(sometimes dangerously so and close to cracking) and driven by everything she’s experienced. It’s a layered performance that just keeps impressing upon every episode as we watch seething rage, hope, trepidation, questionable choices and bravery commingle . And it’s all down to the dedication with which Moss plays June that we are so enthralled by her presence. Yvonne Strahovski continues to vacillate between sympathetic victim and desperate yet icy madam. She straggles the two considerably and displays that Serena could both be an ally or an enemy to June and her mission. I liked seeing Strahovski expand on Serena and watching her both fight against and embrace Gilead. Complimenting her is the on form Joseph Fiennes who knows how to play a nasty piece of work. Commander Waterford is one of those characters who is completely up themselves so it’s nice to see him start squirming and becoming a little subservient to those higher than him. And watching Fiennes show the emotion of his power slipping away is more than a tad satisfying.

Anne Dowd is once more knocking it out the park as Aunt Lydia, who is explored with depth. The dichotomy of kindness and viciousness is sublimely acted and we never quite know which incarnation we will get. Kudos to Ann Dowd for her complex portrayal of someone following shocking orders and thinking they are doing the right thing in their own warped mind. In Canada, the series regulars are just as impressive, even if they are seen less than the Gilead counterparts. Standing out is Alexis Bledel as the now free Emily, whose adjusting t her new life with a mix of relief and trepidation. You feel immense sympathy for her as she’s now escaped but still has a certain cage in her mind from everything she’s been through. Bledel sells these varying feelings with sincerity and conviction. And although they aren’t as prominent as before, O. T. Fagbenle and Samira Wiley give personality and heart to survivors of the regime, building some form of normality for themselves. By far one of the most interesting characters is Commander Lawrence as he’s pretty inscrutable and Bradley Whitford is a masterful actor taking delight in exploring the contradictions of the part. One moment he’s helpful and rebellious, the next he’s shut off and cruel and that’s what is so fascinating as he could either be ally or enemy. Christopher Meloni brings considerable strength and sliminess as a high powered Commander. There’s something in the way he speaks and moves that immediately intimidating and nasty; Meloni is obviously enjoying being really able to explore a most vile character in detail. She’s been in the background and occasionally been popping into something substantial, but here Amanda Brugel is given more to do as the Martha Rita. Her quiet dignity and immense strength in playing the game that Gilead has started is admirable and I loved seeing her come into her own. Madeline Brewer is again impressive as the vulnerable Janine, who seems to be everyone’s punching bag of late but who still finds a way to muddle through the pain. The main person who isn’t given a lot to do is Max Minghella, who appears in the first half of the season and is then missing. We do learn something interesting about Nick as a character, but I’d like it if he’d been in it a bit more. This is a minor gripe though in a season that’s incredibly well acted.

A far more hopeful but still bruising and stark season that starts slow and builds to a powerful finish, Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale is extremely well acted and thought provoking viewing.