We read in the headlines that extreme religious sects all over the world are still gathering together in spite of advice to sequester in place. Their infection rate is huge, needless to say, and despite that, their leaders—imams, rabbis, ministers—are telling them not to listen to scientific warnings. Perfect timing for a new Netflix four-parter, “Unorthodox,” which focuses on one of these sects, founded by concentration camp survivors from Hungary and centered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. One of many ultra-orthodox Hasidic sects that are based on a series of archaic rituals, they are completely stifling to anyone with an independent spirit. Adapted from a non-fiction memoir, “Unorthodox” is the story of one of these individuals, a young woman (not yet 20, Israeli actress Shira Haas is riveting) who runs away to find the life she needs, not the one she was born into. That’s all I’ll say about the story, but, please, do trust me: It’s a brilliant show. I binged on all four episodes in one sitting. Writing, acting, camera work, directing, production values are all stellar. The script is amazingly fair, filled with compassion for several highly divergent points of view. A nice little irony is that “Unorthodox” was made in Germany by Germans. Highly, highly recommended.
Let me start by saying the Icelandic mystery, “The Valhalla Murders” (also on Netflix) could have been better, but it’s definitely worth watching. The basics are all there: A police procedural that takes place in Reykjavik, Iceland, so there’s lots of ice and snow. A grisly murder, perhaps a serial killer. A tough female detective with a messy personal life. A tightly-buttoned male detective imported from Oslo. Potential police or government corruption. It’s the sort of thing the Brits do so well, with the Americans following close behind. The drawbacks? Its eight episodes should have been seven, maybe even six, as there are some dead (no pun intended) spots, a couple of plot elements left hanging, times when the tension needs to be ratcheted up, a crispness in the plotting that’s lacking. But overall, it’s pretty good viewing—I stayed till the end and am glad I did. I recommend subtitles instead of dubbing, because the Scandinavian language is fascinating and, heck, those of us with hearing problems don’t mind subtitles at all, right?
Today’s reviews have traveled from Germany to Iceland and now to Japan and London. The show is called “Giri/Haji,” (Netflix) which translates as “Duty/Shame.” It’s an ambitious, sometimes corny, often soaring and often messy eight-parter that takes place in Tokyo and London. It’s another police procedural, but not really because its main story is the love and loyalty between two Japanese brothers, the older one a detective and the younger a Yakuza gangster. The show deals with many larger issues, such as the way one small decision or act can change the destiny of so many. It’s about an aging marriage, when revenge ever stops, a guilty conscience and a teenage girl on the cusp of finding her real sexual orientation.
The colors are vivid but the message itself is not black and white; here, all is gray. Production-wise, there are some animated sections, split screens, a formalized dance in the last episode that shouldn’t work but, oh, it does, and beautifully. A hodge-podge, yes, but I salute the aspiring undertaking by writer/creator Joe Barton; the amazing acting of Takehiro Hira as the world-weary, attractive, middle-aged detective who is haunted by what is right and what is wrong; and the always excellent Kelly McDonald as a London detective currently being ostracized at work for doing the right thing… or was it? Will Sharpe steals every scene he is in as a London-based, verbally brilliant, flamboyant, self-hating, half-Japanese “rent boy.” In fact, all of the cast deserves mention, but space does not permit it. Really good stuff here, despite some bits that simply don’t work. Give it a shot; I’m so very glad I did.