Tuesday, June 30, 2015

She -- and the sea -- loom large in Pantelis Voulgaris' family melodrama, LITTLE ENGLAND

Waves crash and family members hash out their anger and stress in the gorgeous new Greek film that opens in several art theaters around the country in the coming weeks. LITTLE ENGLAND is the name of the movie, and its director, Pantelis Voulgaris (shown below), though he has been working in this field for fifty years, was unknown to me until now. I'm most happy to have made his acquaintance, however, because this new film of his is worth seeing for a number of reasons.

First off, there's some truly glorious scenery in the background (cinematography by Simos Sarketzis), while the foreground is often filled with a groups of actors, also unknown to me till now, who fill the screen with enough charisma and smart performances to keep us interested throughout most of the movie's somewhat overlong running time (132 minutes).

The place is Greece; the time 1930; the characters are mostly mothers -- present and future -- while the plot encompasses a sorry tale of horrific control by one mother of the lives of her two daughters well into adulthood, as she forces them to marry for money rather than love and thus begins a chain of events that grows more awful as the movie progresses.

This special kind of mom-induced betrayal produces and an even more special vengeance that, while it is certainly and darkly melodramatic, proves also damned riveting and quietly horrifying.

We move from the 1930s through the end of World War II, and watch as the women of the family and village respond to the deprivations caused by their men making a living from the eternal sea -- which provides abundance and death in pretty much equal measure.

This is a women's movie in both the usual sense of the term and because it allows us to see and identify with these women more fully than does the usual brand of melodrama. We may hate this mother-to-end-all-mothers, but we can't pretend not to understand her or her motivations.

And when the climax comes, about three-quarters of the way along, it's both shocking and symbolic, paving the way for the measured and equally dark denouement.

We don't get many Greek movies released here in the USA. Of late, they've mostly consisted of the deliberately vague but quite interesting work of Yorgos Lanthimos (Alps and Dogtooth). So having the opportunity to savor this old fashioned and dark melodrama, with its fine writing, direction and performances should prove bracing and fun for foreign film aficionados.

Little England (the title has to do with a ship as well as a state of mind), from Corinth Films, opens this Sunday, July 5, here in Miami at the Tower Theater, Other upcoming dates, cities and theaters can be found by clicking here and scrolling down.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

TRUSTMOVIES takes a hiatus as he relocates -- but he's hoping to return very soon....

Regular readers will have already noticed that this blog is not being posted in the daily-and-sometimes-more fashion of former times. That's because TrustMovies and his spouse are relocating from the New York area down to Boca Raton, Florida. It's not that we want to leave New York -- no, no, no -- but as with so many of us formerly middle-class folk, we can no longer afford to live here. And real estate, as well as other things, costs less down in FLA, so we can live a bit longer via this relocation.

Our move is scheduled this week. After 22 years in the same apartment, we've gather a ton of "stuff" that must be reckoned with.  All this takes time and energy, as will moving into our new quarters. So I must simply go cold turkey from blogging for awhile. I'll hope to be back -- as least now and again -- within anywhere from one week to maybe one month.

See you then, and sooner rather than later, I hope....

Sunday, June 21, 2015

DVDebut: In STOP THE POUNDING HEART, Roberto Minervini quietly explores the collision of adolescence, family and faith

Despite its evocative and beautiful title, hearts don't exactly pound in the strange and quiet blending of documentary and narrative called STOP THE POUNDING HEART. Written, directed and co-produced by Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini, who also did the art direction and acted as camera operator (the cinema-tography was by Diego Romero), the movie is set in Texas and stars local performers who use their actual names and, from what I can gather, do and say the things that might occur in their everyday lives.

And yet: This is not really a documentary because Signore Minervini, shown at left, has written his screen-play in such as way that a "plot" slowly develops, even if, in the end, it is little more that a few incidents wrapped together so that what is going on is mostly shown through the mind and spirit of our prota-gonist, a teenager, Sara (on poster above and below), who is one of twelve siblings in a heavy-duty Christian family that earns its living via goat farming. Sara, shy to the point of barely speaking, comes in contact with a similar-age fellow named Colby.

Colby is played by Colby Trichell (below), while Sara (above) is brought to life by Sara Carlson: All the characters appear to be playing themselves. Colby wants to be a bull rider, and clearly has eyes for Sara. To this end he interests Sara's younger brothers in his "art," which gives them a chance to practice it now and then, while offering Colby the opportunity to see more of this girl.

That's pretty much it, plot-wise, and yet the movie rarely seems slow-moving. As with both narrative and documentary films, details count for much, and we get plenty of them here: about work -- from milking those goats to making cheese and building a secure fence -- and play (wrestling for the older boys, all sorts of mischief for the younger, and for the girls mostly sharing thoughts about love and life and marriage).

Dialog is kept to a minimum, which seems fine since we have a little trouble hearing some of it, in any case. The marvelous ambient sound (which pretty much stands in for any musical score) come through much more strongly that does the dialog. In any case, connections here are made less through speaking than via one character's presence in another character's space.

Visually, the movie is a treat, with cinematography, composition and color all beautifully rendered. There is almost zero exposition. We learn by seeing the family in action, or through what outsider characters learn about this family. For the Carlsons, their Christian faith trumps just about everything else. In another kind of movie, this fact might annoy me, but as shown by Minervini, this absolute faith makes for some troubling times for our heroine.

Parents might very well want to see the film for its "take" on dating, commitment, trust and love. The talk that Sara's mother (beautifully and patiently played by her own mom, LeeAnn Carlson) gives her daughter on these subjects is a very good one, despite its being (like so much else in this family's life) tied too heavily to religion. You can see, as the film meanders along, how Sara struggles to both justify and figure out a woman's place in this patriarchal, religious world. Later, there is one of the more amazing childbirth scenes I've witnessed, seemingly as quick and relatively easy as any on film.

One nighttime scene features a burning cross on a deserted field. No explanation is given, but one immediately is put in mind of the Ku Klux Klan. (The family does appear to have one dark-skinned in-law, but there are certainly not many black faces on view.)  But Minervini never judges; he simply shows and leaves everything else to us. Depending on your viewpoint, you can experience the film as a statement of how religion soothes and keeps us safe, or how it sucks us in by proclaiming "love," while reminding us of our far too prescribed "duty."

While there is little drama -- at least, in the manner that most of us know it (action-lovers might want to stay away) -- there is plenty personal crisis and questioning going on. And the final scene is splendid: simple, beautiful and rich -- without resolution, yet promising that resolution, in some manner, will indeed come.

Stop the Pounding Heart -- a USA/Italy/Belgium co-production released to DVD via Big World Pictures and running 101 minutes -- hits the street this coming Tuesday in a fine DVD transfer. In fact, it very nearly looks as good as a Blu-ray disc. You can also view the movie via iTunes.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Watch out! Bernie Olaf/The Strasson Group's ghosts-&-evil-spirits 'documentary,' WARX2

Perhaps you've heard of the many, many military suicides stemming from our recent, aged and likely-forever-more wars in the middle east? And, if you follow the news, you'll have also heard of how mid-east terrorist groups --  Al-Qaeda to ISIS -- are recruiting western-world youngsters to perform various terrorist acts. Guess what? These are not results of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD) in the first instance, or in the second, of old-fashioned brainwashing on the uneasy and pliable minds of our young. No. It's all because of ghosts and evil spirits.

That's right. And the movie under examination here, WARX2 via a fellow named Bernie Olaf and The Strasson Group -- yes, do click on that link and then try to learn more about the "group." Clearly, they don't want you to be able to do this -- is hellbent on convincing us that all these military suicides (and young suicide bombers) are simply suffering from the effects of ghosts and evil spirits (often lumped together here under the moniker of "jinn"). I don't know about some of these brainwashed kids currently in the hands of ISIS, but certainly those men and women who have fought for our country and now exhibit PTSD deserve better than this nitwit movie for help and explanation.

Warx2 gives us plenty of statistic -- if nothing remotely resembling evidence -- but those statistics have more to do with how many continents and countries exist on earth -- hardly earth-shaking evidence of anything beyond simple geography. So where does any proof of Olaf's thesis come in? How is this brainwashing going on? To answer this, we get an explanation of the brain and the heart and other body parts. So? As for the ghosts, we begin with a single silly anecdote told by a guy who works in a club bar and claims to have seen them. I kid you not.

This is followed eventually by remarks from witch doctors and other men and women who make claims, offering nothing remotely like evidence. Can PTSD really be coupled to spiritual warfare? "Absolutely," declares our Brit-accented narrator, "if you are not rooted in Christ." Uh-oh.

Yes, indeed: What we have here turns out to be one big, fat (two-hour-and-three-minute), pompous, lamebrained commercial for god. At one point we get a complete run-down of all of Moses' commandments, later a partial rendition of The Lord's Prayer, and then, at movie's end, around ten very long minutes of non-stop prayer, in which the same prayer -- "I am asking you, almighty god, please punish all the satan and evil spirits who enter my..." (this same prayer is repeated over and over, first using arms, then legs, then chest, mind, heart, toes, you name it). Following this, we get a new prayer, repeated ad nauseum, using mostly similar body parts, and one brand new one, of which the upcoming is my favorite.  I quote verbatim: "I am asking you, almighty god, please flush and blow all the satan and evil forces from my inside nose."

I think by now, you'll  be able to decide if this is the documentary for you. There is finally something almost childlike, if not utterly childish, about the whole endeavor. Along the way, we're told how "god works just like a bank." If so, the big guy clearly knows little about the machinations of our current banking system.

And yet we're told that god is more dependable that any government and more reliable that anything else on earth. To which my agnostic self rolls his eyes and says, "Tell that to all those, down the centuries, who've died thanks to religion."

Along the way, we're also told that evil spirits can even change the outcome of important soccer games. (And here we've been imagining that this had to do instead with FIFA and all that graft and corruption.) Everything and everyone -- from the military psychiatrist who went on a killing spree to the underwear and shoe bombers hoping to being down airplanes -- were actually under the spell of evil spirits.

The movie's "ace-in-the-hole," however, would appear to be that it provides ways to prevent one's body and soul being taken over by these "jinn." How? Prayer before bedtime (of course), along with avoiding jokes (yes!), avoiding being sad, avoiding Facebook (I'd have to agree with that one on general principle), and -- my favorite -- using bacon and its grease to protect against evil spirits. Gheesh: What's a poor Jew to do?

The movie is actually a not-very-well-concealed call to arms against you know who. As if to counter this, the narrator tells us: "Don't stereotype people, but assume all people, especially Africans and Arabs, use spirits and jinn"  Hello, asshole: don't you realize you are stereotyping even as you speak these stupid words?

Presidents Obama (for whom I personally have little liking or respect) and George W. Bush (whom I would like to see imprisoned for his and his underlings' criminal acts that took us via lies and deception into illegal war) are shown to supposedly understand -- via some cherry-picking of their statements and actions -- all this "jinn" stuff.

Aside from all of the above, how does WarX2 stack up as a piece of filmmaking? Very badly. It's repetitive, telling us the same information over and over, as well as showing us many of the same ordinary visuals again and again. And, since no evidence is offered of anything that would be used in a genuine documentary, let alone stand up in a court of law, all we get is a sermon-in-disguise that does not belong in a movie theater nor even in most churches -- at least those that I'm familiar with.

WarX2 is, however, getting some theatrical play -- in Texas -- at two Alamo Drafthouse theaters: in Houston and Katy, beginning Friday, June 26. More theaters will be added soon, it is claimed.  For a different "take" on this movie, and one with which that I thoroughly disagree, you can check out the blog of one of my compatriots, Avi Offer, the NYC Film Guru. You can read his thoughts on the film by clicking here.

Note: There are no photographs above, 
save one of the poster image, because I could 
find nothing available. And I don't have time, nor does 
the movie merit it, to crib images from its preview trailer.
Again, as with its About the Strasson Group empty page, 
the film's web site pretends to have a gallery of images, 
but when you click on it, you get nothing.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Amazon streaming: MOZART IN THE JUNGLE -- a loose, lovable and very smart little series

For several years now Netflix has been hailed as the new "content provider" that -- in addition to offering its usual DVD and Blu-ray discs for rental, as well as tons of movies and TV series to stream -- is creating its own first-rate series such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and the recent and brilliant Daredevil. Lately, however, Amazon,  the behemoth we all love to hate, is making its own inroads into original content, with the award-winning Transparent and a bunch of other new, how-did-these-get-here-so-fast? series, among which MOZART IN THE JUNGLE is most definitely worth your time. (A recent issue of New York magazine profiled Amazon's sudden explosion into original series with an excellent article you might want to read -- if you haven't already.)

Having found Transparent a wonderfully rich example of original, unusual dramedy, TrustMovies moved on recently to this newer series and was very quickly hooked. Mozart in the Jungle seems to me an almost perfect example of what Amazon Studios (the "content" arm of the behemoth) seems intent on providing: original content that, while nowhere near close to blockbuster/ mainstream level, will give a certain smaller segment of sophisticated television viewers exactly the kind of thing for which they're always searching.

Mozart... offers up a smart plot situated in a venue that neither TV, movies nor practically any source from which we get our "drama" has cared to go -- that of the big-city symphony orchestra: that "jungle" of the title. The brain-child of a most creative threesome: Roman Coppola, (above, left), Jason Schwartzman (above, right) and Alex Timbers (shown at right) (based on the book by Blair Tindall, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music), the series should be a shoo-in for anyone who's ever been involved in the classical music scene.

Yours truly worked at New York City's Philharmonic Hall -- now Avery Fisher Hall -- for several years back in the 1960s. But even if you have never been involved with symphonies and the like, the series is well-executed enough to pull you in. Watching it made me realize, among many other things, that despite how much has changed in the intervening decades, much remains the same.

Prime amongst those things that never seem to change is the necessity of fundraising -- above almost everything else. Wait: forget "almost." Fundraising is all. The person responsible for this on Mozart... is Gloria Windsor, played by Broadway veteran Bernadette Peters (above, left), who -- as do literally all the actors on the show -- turns her character into a multifaceted surprise and delight.

Mozart's creators understand quite well how conducting, performing in and running a symphony orchestra is full of compromise, no matter how dedicated to "art" are the people involved. These would include especially the symphony's new conductor, Rodrigo, a role just about perfect for the charismatic Mexican actor Gabriel García Bernal, who here gives maybe his best performance yet, as the bizarre-but-fully-dedicated enfant terrible who wants to take this orchestra to a new plateau.

Rodrigo's relationship to the conductor he is replacing (a marvelous turn by Malcolm McDowell, above) is a complicated one, and as the series progresses, this becomes more focused, specific, funny and moving.

The orchestra itself is composed of a raft of smart and talented actors -- from Mark Blum and Deborah Monk to Saffron Burrows (at right) as the crack violist and Lola Kirke (below) as a young oboist hoping to break into the ranks of the anointed. How the latter achieves this -- and then doesn't -- provides some of the surprise and believa-bility, coupled to the kind of charm and entertainment that makes for the series' great success. As befits a show brought to life by the likes of Mr. Schwartzman, Mozart... is above all loose and lively, never underscor-ing its points nor pushing too hard.

Mozart in the Jungle treats its characters -- virtually all of them -- as living, breathing, complicated human beings, whose needs and desires often conflict with those of their nearest and dearest -- not to mention with what they themselves sometimes want.

The series also addresses class and economics, and while it comes down firmly on the side of the underdogs and "art" over the wealthy and corporate, it never handles this in the usual obvious and stupidly facile fashon. Mozart's creators understand the complications of living in the real world and what this means to the idea of creation and compromise.

Victory, as is only sometimes (and not often enough) the case, goes to those who can best roll with the punches -- a scenario beautifully demonstrated by the final episode in this first season.

The show is also unafraid to introduce an oddball new character for a one-time appearance -- Wallace Shawn (above) is one example -- or offer up a memorable supporting turn from another who appears only now and again, such as the beautiful and charismatic Nora Arnezeder (below: remember Paris 36?).

Shows like Mozart... don't set the world afire. That's not their job. Rather they appeal to to those of us who want something different but of high quality in both its artistic ambitions and entertainment quotient. This series delivers on both levels. It's streamable now, only via Amazon, where Prime members can watch it free.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: OUTLANDER ends w/NC-17 stunner To Ransom A Man's Soul

After reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander novels and seeing showrunner Ronald D Moore's 16 episodes of book 1 on Starz, I find both artists waging guerrilla social warfare between the covers of a classic bodice-ripper. Real emotional, historical, and medical content sabotages the saccharin romance formula we wouldn't be caught dead reading/watching -- "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!" (heroine Claire's favorite swear). While likely finding few converts among Edith Wharton or Hilary Mantel fans, OUTLANDER has elevated the content value for romance consumers above that of say, Downton Abbey, while keeping faith with all the tropes of the genre.

There's Jamie, daring noble hero; Claire, lovely stubborn heroine, a WWII nurse who has fallen through time from 1945 back to 1743; sadistic villain, Captain Jack Randall; and throbbing plot doings that include the beautiful mysterious Geillis and McKenzie clan politics.

A cinematic ending tops off book 1-- a wide-angle portrait of wind-swept lovers embracing on a gorgeous 18th century sloop as they leave their troubles in Scotland and cross the channel to new adventures in France -- a picture perfect image befitting the paperback book covers on the turn-stand at your local drugstore.

But it so happens that Gabaldon's 3 science degrees and her faithful interest in the details of history, medicine, and human behavior add surprising substance to the pocket romance formula. Filmmaker Moore mostly succeeds in following her intention. At least this pair is forcing the romance consumer to think as well as feel; at best the last episodes of Book I may help redefine how rape is portrayed for the violence it is, not the male fantasy it has always been. Here's how Outlander ups the game.

First is 20th century medically-trained Claire's confrontation with a woman's place in the 1700's -- not to her liking. Having disobeyed her new husband Jamie, she falls into the hands of the British, forcing Jamie and his MacKenzie relations to mount a dangerous rescue. According to custom, justice must be be meted out to Claire for having put all the men's lives at risk. Jamie beats her with a strap, to which she responds with 20th century outrage. We are taught to work fast to distance ourselves from a violent partner. Here we are gently persuaded to 18th century realities. Jamie is a gentleman and a leader, not violent except in combat. Gabaldon forces us to confront the perils of a time in which punishment is demanded when one person endangers the welfare of many. Ultimately we and Claire grudgingly come to differentiate between "abuse" and "justice." The threats to their relationship seem to result from Jamie and Claire's roots in different millennia, but all partners negotiate differences as deeply felt as theirs. The battles with each other (above) stand in for the struggles in every relationship in which mutual respect is hard won.

Even more trauma unfolds with Jamie's later capture by the British (a price remains on his head for a false accusation) and falling into the hands of villainous captain, Black Jack Randall, a sadistic, morbidly dark homosexual. Pictured below, Claire has gotten into the prison and Jamie persuaded Randall to release her in return for his submission to sex.

An episode and more is devoted to Jamie's plight in prison and later rape and torture by the mad captain. It unfolds in flashback after the MacKenzies have driven a herd of cattle into the prison, snatching up Jamie during the ruckus and delivering him to a monastery. Randall's abuse reflects Gabaldon's intuitive or actual knowledge of behavioral psychology. Randall is not just about rape and torture -- he seeks to possess Jamie body and soul by making Claire repellent to him. Hence Randall impersonates Claire while both physically torturing and making love to him -- in effect he 'conditions' Jamie to be repelled by his wife as if she were his instrument of torture. Fine direction by Anna Foerster shows but mostly infers Randall's manipulating Jamie into submission, leading to his fevered, delusional state after the rescue, rejecting Claire and begging for death. In the film, Moore mysteriously puts in clan member Murtagh's head the idea that was properly Claire's to restore Jamie's sanity --joining him in his darkness. We see Claire's intuitive version of a modern cognitive behavioral therapy called 'exposure therapy' that is used now to treat soldiers and other victims of PTSD.

In a modern therapeutic setting, a patient is repeatedly walked through violent memories which gradually lose their hold in a 'de-conditioning' process that extinguishes their power. Claire's method is cruder and more drastic. Using opium and Randall's lavender scent she impersonates him, rousing Jamie from his delusional state to fight off his torturer which he could not do in prison. In the book they tear apart his monastery cell until both are spent, but Jamie wakes in the morning with his fever broken, in effect having defeated his torturer. In Moore's version the brawl is too brief and Claire talks it through with Jamie, a less medically- feasible means of recovery -- "talk" does not pierce a delusional state, as anyone knows who has tried to reason with an addict. Gabaldon's version played out logically in the beautiful abbey chapters concluding her first book.

There, in a French monastery headed by a Fraser uncle of Jamie's, unfolds a plausible respite and recovery for the characters and the reader. Moore's abbreviation of the rape aftermath and recovery is my first major quarrel with the filmed version of Gabaldon's work. It short-changes Jamie's recovery and also our own from perhaps the most dramatic story-telling ever on television. At least one episode (The Watch) could have been dropped to allow it.

Still, a catharsis is pronounced and we accept it, for as the Frasers sail away to France, the gorgeous, sweeping sea departure morphs in our minds from a scene on a romance book cover to overwhelming relief that our couple's relationship has survived.

Much more happened in the second 8 episodes of the first book including a witch trial, a visit to Lollybroch, Jamie's ancestral home (above), and our introduction to two lovely characters -- sister Jenny and brother-in-law Ian (Laura Donnelly and Steven Cree, below) -- who will reappear in future. Also Claire reveals to Jamie the story of her time-travel through the stones; he takes her there and tells her to go back: "There is nothing for you here except violence and danger...." (see photo at bottom).

Despite the rest of the sturm and drang that befalls our hero and heroine, there's not anything on tv that can top the authentic portrayal of maturing love in Outlander and also the treatment of rape as the violence and betrayal that it is. It could not be told as well with a female victim without seeming politically incorrect in the extreme. Also, with Jamie as the victim, male viewers (40% Outlander fans are men) are very able to empathize with such cruelty, which conflicts with the male rape fantasy of women. The recent rape of Sansa in Game of Thrones instantly felt outdated and unworthy. Can a film industry largely run by men improve its thinking on this subject? Maybe Outlander will be a turning point.

The Gabaldon/Moore Outlander seasons have achieved some unusual emotional coups. Tobias Menzies and Sam Heughan were particularly brave and vulnerable in their painful scenes as sadist and victim. All the artists involved deserve kudos for taking the bodice-ripper genre into believable realms of human emotion.

Outlander is available now on demand at Starz. My earlier review of the first 8 episodes is here. Moore reports that filming is in progress on Gabaldon's second book, Dragonfly in Amber which moves Jacobite politics to a new setting -- the French court of Louis XV.

(The above post is written by our
monthly correspondent Lee Liberman.)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Streaming follow-up: fans of Spain's gorgeous GRAN HOTEL finally get a third-season finale!

If comments on this blog are any indication, that delectable and beautiful soap opera via Span-ish television, GRAND HOTEL, has got to be one of the more popular foreign TV offerings currently avail-able on Netflix streaming. Fans have been begging the famous "content distributor" to give them that final season for nearly a year now. At last, here it is -- in 24 episodes of 44 minutes each.

When Season Two ended with the shock and jolt that left many of us with our mouths hanging open, some of us imagined that this indeed was indeed the end of the series -- in which the characters, many of whom were very bad people, got what they deserved. Still, we wondered, what about all the others? Now we know.

The series, based on an idea by a man and woman whom I would guess are the Spanish equivalent of what we over here in the USA call showrunners -- Ramón Campos (above, right) and Gema R. Neira (above, left), both of whom produced and collaborated on the writing of most, maybe all, of the episodes -- takes place in and around the titular grand hotel (filmed at the famous Palacio de la Magdalena) in the lush and verdant seaside locations of Santander in Cantabria, Spain.

Both outdoors and indoors, the series is a visual knockout, what with the gorgeous exterior shots and the highly detailed interiors -- oh, the flatware and china, the exquisite decor and costumes -- Gran Hotel proves a non-stop feast for the eyes. Comparisons have and will continue to be made to Downton Abbey, and they are certainly apt. But for my money this Spanish series beats out the British one, bigtime. Even if, I must admit, the third season does have its longueurs now and again. In order to reach its finale via those 24 episodes, a certain amount of padding is present.

Still, if you become as heavily involved with all these many, many characters as did I (and clearly many other viewers), it may be difficult not to become absolutely wrapped up in the often silly but always enjoyable plotting. This final season offers up the Alarcon's spoiled-rotten ladies' man son (Eloy Azorín, above, left) suddenly smitten with a nurse named Laura who has come to care for the wounded after season two's sudden "mishap." As played by Marta Hazas (above, right), this character proves a wealth of surprise, fun and, well, you'll find out....

Of course we have more of the Inspector Ayala (Pep Anton Muñoz, above, left) and his not-so-swift assistant (Antonio Reyes, above, right), both of whom manage to become even more fun as the series progresses, along with our ever-kept-apart lovebirds, Alicia and Julio (Amaia Salamanca and Yon González (on poster, top, and in the photo just below it), who remain as engaging as ever, though Ms Salamanca seems to have grown older and less lustrous, given all her poor character has had to put up with over 66 episodes.

Gran Hotel has become one of my favorite shows, due, I think, to the Spanish-ness of it all. I found it even more of a soap-opera than Downton Abbey, yet I liked it much better. These are some of the most memorable characters you'll spend this much time with -- so specific and interesting, despite the fact that they -- some of them, at least, like Doña Teresa, played by the very fine Adriana Ozores, shown center, above, in one of her more provocative moments -- get away with murder and somehow we still care about them. (This is one of the series' more troubling and interesting accomplishments.)

Then there's the whole "randy priest" thing involving our lying, murdering and adulterous Sofia (Luz Valdenebro, at ), along with the surprise of Javier finally learning to commit to his nutty wife (and the fact that he can only get an erection with her, of all things!).

And then, especially, there is Belén (played with enormous steel and force by Marta Larralde, shown center, above) -- who for some reason, despite her truly nasty deeds and utterly heartless demeanor, I'll remember best and with real fondness from the episodes in which she gives birth to and then loses her offspring -- a time in which she was most human, caring, vulnerable and sad.

Is there a villain in TV history you can hate more thoroughly yet find so damned sexy and alluring as that key character, Diego, played with such relish and smarts by Pedro Alonso (above, left)?  I doubt it.

This season, there are several new and very enjoyable characters, led by Alicia's dear friend Maite (played with delicious verve and flair by Megan Montaner, above) and the hotel's new and unusual maître d' (essayed by that fine and duly famous Spanish actor Lluís Homar, below).

With all its silliness and faults -- maybe even because of them -- I believe this to be an extraordinary series, like nothing else I can recall seeing. Its take on power, money and the coming of the Spanish middle class, and its joining, toward the end, of the wealthy to the poor (via "Duke" Alfredo and Doña Angela and her crew) I found most moving and progressive. Podemos would surely approve.

Gran Hotel, can be seen now via Netflix streaming or on DVD and Blu-ray. Do check it out. (That's the lovelorn, lovable and ever-naive Andrès, above, a waiter-turned-heir who is played by the uber-lovable actor, Llorenç González.)