Review: The Chestnut Man

By John Ruberry

Late last month a Nordic noir six-episode series, The Chestnut Man, a Danish production began streaming on Netflix. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Søren Sveistrup. It’s an ideal autumn offering on many levels. The Chestnut Man is set in Denmark in October with fall colors at their peak. Halloween–the celebration of it has been spreading in Europe–plays a part in the story, and oh yeah, it’s a compelling crime drama centered on a serial killer who leaves stick chestnut figures, chestnut men, at the scene of each murder. Just as the carving of pumpkins is an old tradition in North America the building of chestnut men is similar a tradition in Scandinavia.

Naia Thulin (Danica Curcic) is a police detective and a single mother whose work keeps her away from her daughter, Le (Liva Forsberg), so the girl spends more time with her quasi-grandfather, Aksel (Anders Hove). By the way Hove was a regular on the ABC soap opera General Hospital.

Thulin is assigned a new partner, Mark Hess (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). Their first investigation is a chestnut man murder. Hess has a troubled past–he was recently fired from his job in the Hague. The chestnut man case is quickly tied to the disappearance of the daughter of a politician, Rosa Hartung (Iben Dorner), who is the minister of social affairs. Her position puts in charge of foster care and child custody cases.

Obviously I don’t want to give up much of the plot because it will introduce spoilers. Let’s just say viewers will be confronted with twists and turns in the story line. The scars of unhappy childhoods figure in to the plot as well.

I also recently watched two other new Netflix series that I believe any level-headed person should avoid. 

Brand New Cherry Flavor is set in Hollywood in the 1990s and centers on a young Brazilian director (Rosa Salazar) who sees her first movie project stolen by a scumbag Hollywood producer. (Aren’t they all scumbags?) Inexplicably the director consistently barfs up large-eared kittens. Except for the negative portrayal of Hollywood I detested this series. And with a couple of exceptions I hated the characters. Even the kittens disturbed me. And there is a disgusting sex scene I won’t even describe here.

You can judge a book–and a TV series–by its cover. The Netflix graphic promoting Midnight Mass is centered on a main character, a Catholic priest, who has a sinister look on his face. The plot driver of this series is that priest (Hamish Linklater), a mysterious young pastor who arrives at an island parish that serves a tiny fishing community. Let’s just say Midnight Mass has about the same amount of respect for the Catholic Church as The Da Vinci Code, only with tons of gore and blood thrown into the mess. Although to be honest I did enjoy Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code book. The movie? Not so much.

The island’s sheriff, a Muslim, Rahul Kohli, is quite good in Midnight Mass however.

In Midnight Mass the cinematography is beautiful–but The Chestnut Man has that and so much more–I believe you’ll enjoy that series.

The Chestnut Man is rated TV-MA as it contains graphic violence and crime scene photos, foul language, sex, and brief nudity. It is available streaming on Netflix in English, English with subtitles, Danish with subtitles, Spanish, as well as simplified and traditional Chinese. There are bits of dialogue in The Chestnut Man in English and German–with subtitles. I watched it in Danish.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Review: Katla

By John Ruberry

This summer Netflix debuted the Icelandic series Katla. The actual Katla is a subglacial volcano, which last erupted in 1918. 

Whereas for the series, which is centered on the village of Vík, Katla erupted one year earlier, forcing the evacuation of most of the town, save for some essential workers and their families.

Then a Swedish woman covered in ash, Gunhild (Aliette Opheim), not seen in Vík for twenty years, appears mysteriously, having not aged at all.

Others then emerge in the same manner.

To explain the setting and mood of the Katla, I need to make a diversion. Stick with me. Although this bit is quite fascinating.

According to Icelandic folklore much of the country, particularly rocks and boulders, are inhabited by the huldufólk, the hidden people. 

Iceland is unique. In the fifth episode of his long running podcast Lore, “Under Construction,” host Aaron Mahnke describes the island nation this way: “Now you have to understand something about Iceland, much of the region is a vast expanse of sparse grass and large volcanic rock formations,” adding, “the ground boils with geysers and springs and the sky seems to be eternally gray and cloudy.”

Nature is particularly harsh in Iceland. Earthquakes are common, it has a chilly subpolar oceanic climate, long winter nights, and of course there are those volcanoes, nearly thirty of them are active. 

The use of folklore is a common method to explain the world and with so much of Iceland being a seemingly blank canvas–the “vast expanse of sparse grass” that Mahnke described, as well as its unpredictable volcanoes, it is understandable that folklore’s roots are deep there.

Mahnke in his podcast mentions a couple of road projects in Iceland–one just six years ago–that were altered to assuage fears that the huldufólk would not be disturbed. Click here to find other projects that were changed for the sake of the huldufólk.

In a 1998 survey slightly more than half of Icelanders said they believe in the hidden people. In the minds of many Icelanders the huldufólk are quite real. They are certainly part of the psyche of this Nordic nation.

Huldufólk take on many incantations within Icelandic folklore, among these are as changelings.

Katla is an eight-episode series that is the work of Sigurjón Kjartansson and Baltasar Kormákur. The duo was also responsible for the series Trapped, Kormákur directed the movie Everest.

It appears Kormákur and Kjartansson’s primary audience for Katla is Icelanders and other Scandanavians. The former and probably the latter have a basic understanding of the huldufólk, whereas the primary audience of this blog does not. Hence my diversion because the huldufólk legends aren’t discussed at all in Katla except briefly midway in the series, but that part is featured in the Netflix trailer.

After the emergence of the young Gunhild, the “other” one–twenty years older of course–is discovered in Sweden. Next to come from the ash is Ása (Íris Tanja Flygenring), whose return puzzles her sister Gríma (Guðrún Eyfjörð), a rescue worker in an unhappy marriage with a dairy farmer, Kjartan (Baltasar Breki Samper). Ása and Gríma find themselves entangled in the complicated life of Gunhild and an old relationship of his.

In Katla we also find a deeply religious man, police chief Gísli (Þorsteinn Bachmann) and a scientist Darri (Björn Thors), whose lives are dramatically altered by the new arrivals. 

Katla is part science fiction and part psychological drama. It’s worth your time. 

The show’s directors make the most of the stark scenery–the cinematography is breathtaking. And the acting is compelling.

Katla is rated TV-MA for violence, scenes of suicide, brief nudity, and strong language. It is available in English, in Icelandic with subtitles, and in English with subtitles. I recommend watching the Icelandic with subtitles version, as there are passages in English and Swedish–and that method of viewing fills out the storyline a little better.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Review: Season Two of Ragnarok

By John Ruberry

Late last week Season Two of Ragnarok began streaming on Netflix. The Norwegian series presents a modern telling of the ultimate battle, Ragnarök, between the Norse gods and their enemies, the jötunn, evil deities who are usually called giants in English. It is set in the fictional small fjord town of Edda, which is being poisoned by the town’s largest employer, Jutul Industries. The company is run by Vidar Jutul (Gísli Örn Garðarsson), the head of the jötunn quasi-family. His wife, Ran (Synnøve Macody Lund), is the principal of Edda High School, which Magne Seier (David Stakson) and his brother, Laurits (Jonas Strand Gravli), attend. Also students there are two other Jutuls, Saxa (Theresa Frostad Eggesbø) and Fjor (Herman Tømmeraas).

In Season One, my DTG review is here, teenager Magne suspects he is the rebirth of Thor. Yes, he’s another “chosen one.” In the final episode of that season, while Laurits humiliates Ran in a public address, Magne confronts Vidar in a battle. 

The second season picks up where the first ends. Somewhat diminished this season is the teen love anxiety–while the Norse mythology is elevated. There are few scenes at the high school. So there is a bit less of a Twilight feel this time around.

Laurits is a prankster so if you know a little bit about the Norse gods, you should have suspected in the first season that he is a modern representation of Loki, the mischievous god. Reluctantly and by happenstance, as Jake and Elwood did in The Blues Brothers, Magne is “putting the back back together,” and that includes Wotan Wagner (Bjørn Sundquist), Edda’s Odin, and Harry (Benjamin Helstad) as the militaristic god Týr. Edda is multicultural, so it’s not surprising that an immigrant from Sri Lanka, Iman (Danu Sunth), achieves goddess status as Frigg, a clairvoyant.

The powers–and the alliances–of the gods and the jötunn as told in Norse mythology are complicated–as they are here. So are the romances, particularly the one with Fjor and a human, Gry (Emma Bones).

According to the myths Loki was a shape shifter–that is not shown here–and some of those tales of the trickster god involve gender fluidity. Laurits is unsure of his gender–but more certain of his sexuality. Oh, there is also a brief sensual scene with two women.

All through Season Two the government is investigating the environmental devestatation Jutul Industries brings to Edda–as well as the company’s financial improprieties. 

Magne and Laurits’ mother, Turid (Henriette Steenstrup), does her best in keeping the family together while struggling with poverty and of course, raising two teen sons who are conflicted gods. 

The final episode, the sixth–Season One is also consists just six entries–brings forth another climactic confrontation. The door is open for a third season of Ragnarok and I’ll be back if there is. Although to be honest I probably would have lost interest during Season One has their not been a mythological foundation for the series. As of this writing Ragnarok is a Top Ten series on Netflix.

The streaming service gives viewers the option of watching Ragnarok in dubbed English or in Norwegian with English subtitles. There are also some passages, dubbed of course, in Old Norse. 

Season Two of Ragnarok is rated TV-MA because of foul language (and gasp!) smoking. In reality the series is more like a PG-13 movie in regards to possibly objectionable content. 

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Review: Season 1 of Shadow and Bone

By John Ruberry

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s there was the hope, egged on by the music media, that soon “the next Beatles” would arrive. The Bee Gees, Badfinger, and the Knack were among those acts who failed to match the hype. And no band could match the Beatles’ level because even when they were together they were already legends. 

In that same time period there were even more “next Bob Dylans” heralded.

No one can supercede a legend.

Late last month the first season of Shadow and Bone began streaming on Netflix. 

And many are wondering if Shadow and Bone is the next Game of Thrones

Short answer? No. Longer answer? Not even close. And as HBO’s Game of Thrones has entered the world of legend, Shadow and Bone doesn’t have a chance. 

Call me sadistic, but I knew in the first episode of GoT, “Winter Is Coming,” that here was a series that broke the mold when Jamie Lannister pushed young Bran Stark from a high window ledge so to hide his sexual relationship with his sister, Cersei.

With Shadow and Bone you are exposed to an eight-episode muddled mess. 

The show is based on a trilogy of high fantasy books by Leigh Bardugo, and there are elements from two of her other works thrown in too. To understand what is going on you it seems you have to read all of these books first. And I’ve read none of them.

“Students,” I can see a teacher announcing, “your assigment is to read five books and then, only then, watch Shadow and Bone.” Uh, no.

The alternate world of Shadow and Bone is largely based on Russia of the late 19th century. The costume designers make the most of it and they deserve an Emmy nomination for their efforts. Soldiers wear fur ushankas and papakhas. Women don ornate dresses, the heads of civilian males are often topped with bowlers. While GoT and Lord of the Rings is rooted in the Middle Ages of western Europe, viewers here find themselves in the Russia of the Industrial Revolution. There are guns and a train. But no sword battles.

Ravka (Russia) is in the center of the continent and it’s separated by the Fold, a thick cloud wall inhabited by human-eating volcra, who are a cross between griffins and pterodactyls. Spoiler alert: there are no dragons. The Fold was created years earlier by an evil grisha, that is, a magic maker of Ravka. Maybe I’m a dope but it wasn’t until the third episode that I ascertained that the grisha were magicians. They are particularly adept at fire-starting. The grishas make up one of two armies of Ravka.

The central character of Shadow and Bone is Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a woman in her late teens and a grisha who is half-Shu Han. The Shu Han nation, which we don’t encounter here, is the show’s version of China and they are enemies of Ravka. To the north is Fjerda, a stand-in for Scandinavia. We see the Fjerdans when they fight the Ravkans.

An orphan–just like Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins–Alina encounters racism because of her foreign looks. She has a puppy love relationship with a fellow orphan, military tracker Malyen “Mal” Oretsev (Archie Renaux), they’ve known each other since childhood. Alina is a mapmaker for the First Army, the non-magical one–and man oh man, could viewers use a decent map here to get a grip on the geography of Shadow and Bone. Only one is briefly shown. More time is devoted to Alina burning maps.

We quickly learn that Alina, like Harry Potter, is a Chosen One. The revelation brings her to a grisha leader, General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), and the capital city of Ravka, where she meets the king, who looks a lot like Czar Alexander III. Alina is declared a Sun Summoner, that’s a really big deal you see, and then begins her training to fully utilize her powers.

Word spreads about Alina–all the way to the island nation of Kerch–which is Shadow and Bone’s version of the Netherlands, complete with its largest city, hedonistic Ketterdam, which parallels another city. Do I really need to spell out which one? We meet three underworld characters there, Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) who leave Ketterdam to kidnap Alina for a one-million kruge reward. The three criminals have an intriguing dynamic and they are more captivating characters than Alina and Mal. 

If you like elaborate clothes, eye-catching special effects, and being transporated to an alternative yet familiar civilization, then Shadow and Bone could be for you. But if you expect fully-developed characters and a coherent plot line, then stay away. 

If magic and the 19th-century interests you then instead I recommend streaming Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on Amazon. In this series, among other things, the Duke of Wellington is aided by a magician to fight the French during the Napoleonic Wars. 

As for the grisha–if they are so powerful how come they are captured with relative ease?

Shadow and Bone is rated TV-14 for violence, adult situations, and brief nudity.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

An appreciation of The Divine Comedy band

By John Ruberry

Listening to music is a serendipitous adventure. And it was on one of those journeys I uncovered another great band that you’ve probably never heard of, The Divine Comedy. Last year before the post was swallowed up by a memory hole at Da Tech Guy, I profiled another undeservedly unknown band, the Rainmakers. Only I first encountered the Rainmakers on a local radio station years ago.

I discovered The Divine Comedy when I downloaded the “Inspired by the Kinks” compilation on Apple iTunes. A great collection, yes, and easily the standout cut for me was “The National Express,” a satirical look at a ride on the eponymous company’s bus line.

Unknown? As this is an American blog with, I believe, a predominately American readership, that’s true. But The Divine Comedy has scored hits in Europe, particularly in Great Britain and Ireland, which is understandable as the band’s only constant member is Neil Hannon, who is from Northern Ireland.

As great as “The National Express” is, there’s just one small issue in my opinion. I’m a huge Kinks fan, but unless you count that British band’s last big hit, “Come Dancing,” it doesn’t sound like any other Kinks tune.

Listen for yourself!

The Divine Comedy’s first album, since cancelled by Hannon, was the R.E.M. inspired Fanfare for the Comic Muse, which was released in 1990. The only place it seems to be available is on YouTube. If you somehow find a copy of it at a rummage sale or used record store, grab it if it’s priced cheap, as it is probably a collector’s item.

The band then “regenerated” three years later into a chamber pop, or if you prefer Britpop band, for Liberation. Actually I prefer the moniker baroque pop. Regardless of the name, what kind of music am I talking about? Think along the lines of “Penny Lane” by the Beatles, “Senses Working Overtime” or “Easter Theatre” by XTC, or “Never My Love” by The Association, the glimmering song that was used with such beautiful yet chilling effect in the final episode of the most recent season of Outlander. Oh, throw in a bit of Cole Porter too. Back to Liberation: My favorite song from that collection is “The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count,” which is cleary inspired by the Beach Boys. Yes, I suffer from allergies too so I can commiserate.

Hannon, who writes nearly all of the band’s songs, is a clever lyricist who brings wit and even snarkiness to many of his songs. The Divine Comedy’s melodies are striking and the musicianship is superb.

Here’s a snippet from “Catherine the Great.”

With her military might
She could defeat anyone that she liked
And she looked so bloody good on a horse
They couldn’t wait
For her to invade
Catherine the Great.

Yes, there is a sly reference here to the historical gossip that the Empress of Russia died from a mishap during carnal relations with a stallion.

“The Frog Princess” incorporates strains of “La Marseillaise” into it.

One more Divine Comedy favorite of mine is “Gin Soaked Boy” from the 1999 compilation A Secret History…The Best of the Divine Comedy, which might be good place for you to see if The Divine Comedy is for you. Or you can begin as I did on Apple Music with their “Essentials” and “Next Steps” collections.

Of the band’s dozen studio albums Fin de Siècle, which contains “The National Express,” is my favorite. If you prefer to see what the Divine Comedy is up to now, its latest album is Office Politics. The track I enjoy the most on this collection is “Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company.” It’s about a proposed sitcom and its theme song, both devised by Hannon, in which minimalist classical composers, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, operate a furniture removal business in the 1960s in New York.

Silly? Of course. Brilliant? Definitely.

Oh yes, I said “regenerated” earlier. Regeneration is the title of the Divine Comedy’s 2001 album. Perhaps not coincidentally Hannon contributed a couple of solo tracks, “Song for Ten” and “Love Don’t Roam” to Doctor Who: Original Television Soundtrack from 2006.

In addition to Apple Music works by The Divine Comedy are also available on Amazon.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Review: The Liberator on Netflix

By John Ruberry

By John Ruberry

Lost among the fallout after the presidential election was the debut of a compelling four-episode on Netflix, The Liberator. It tells of exploits of the leadership of Felix Sparks (Bradley James), who eventually reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, of the 3rd Battalion of the 157th Infantry Regiment in the European theater of World War II. Yes, for the most part, this is a true story.

The series which began streaming on Veterans Day, is animated and it uses the new technique of Trioscope, which combines live action and computer and manually created images. The series is based on Alex Kershaw’s book The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau. It’s a huge improvement over rotoscoping, most famously, or notoriously used in the first feature film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, which was directed by Ralph Bakshi. The animation is grainy with a touch of sepia, the latter hue of course is common in films set in first half of the 20th century.

For the most part, The Liberator avoids hackneyed plotlines and characters of many World War II projects, other then sepia. There is no “Guy From Brooklyn” in it. But here is a soldier from Chicago, who of course is a Cubs fan. Fact: real and fictional characters from in television and movies are never White Sox fans, unless, as in Field Of Dreams, the South Siders are central to the plot. Oh well, to be fair it was the Cubs, not the White Sox, who played in the World Series in 1945.

When Lieutenant Sparks arrives at Fort Sill in Oklahoma shortly before America’s entry into World War II, he’s given command of “Company J,” which consists of soldiers locked up in the stockade. These ragtag men are a mix of Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and cowboys. 

It’s a tough command, “The Indians and the Mexicans don’t like each other very much,” a jail guard tells Sparks. “And they hate us more.”

But Sparks is looking for fighters, not divisiveness. He and molds them–even though the Native Americans and Mexicans can’t enter a bar off base in Oklahoma. In Italy a captured member of the Thunderbirds is confronted with this irony by a German officer. 

During its two years in Europe, in addition to the invasion of Sicily and the liberation of Dachau, but also the invasion of southern France, as well as the Battle of the Vosges near the German border, and finally fighting in Bavaria, the 157th Infantry Regiment encountered over 500 days of combat. Sure there are arguments and spats among the soldiers. People never always get along. But the soldiers form an effective fighting unit. 

The German troops are treated relatively sympathetically in The Liberator, but only up to a point as the Thunderbirds later of course liberate Dachau.

The supporting cast is superb, particulary the performance of Martin Sensmeier as Sergeant Samuel Coldfoot and Jose Miguel Vasquez as Corporal Able Gomez, two composite characters.

Originally The Liberator was intended as a live action miniseries for A&E Studios for the History Channel but filming such a project in so many disparate locales, the plains of Oklahoma, Italy, the Mediterranean coast, the Vosges, and Bavaria, proved financially impossible. Not so much with animation. Which is why The Liberator is probably on the cusp of what we’ll see soon on the big and small screens. And the use of animation in war dramas will spare us motion picture embarrasments such as the desert combat scenes in the 1965 box office flop The Battle Of The Bulge.

The Liberator is currently streaming on Netflix. It is rated TV-MA, although despite depictions of battlefield wounds and the frequent use of profanity–in English and Spanish no less–I’m unsure why. Oh, some people smoke cigarettes in it too. I’m mean c’mon. This is the 1940s!

Tune in and start watching. You’ll be glad for it. 

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Review of Season 4 of The Last Kingdom

By John Ruberry

Are you stuck at home during the COVID-19 lockdown? Here’s another Netflix binge-watching opportunity for you: The Last Kingdom.

Last Sunday Season 4 began was released by the streaming service.

On the old platform of Da Tech Guy I reviewed the first three seasons. Here’s a brief summary: Uhtred Ragnarsson of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon), the son of a Northumbrian nobleman, is raised by Danish Vikings, along with another Saxon, Brida (Emily Cox), after his father is killed in a battle. Both of them abandon Christianity and convert to the Norse religion. As adults they serve as bridges, Uhtred much more than Brida, between the Danes and the English. Uhtred, also called “Uhtred the Godless” and “the Daneslayer,” sets his goal to reclaim Bebbanburg, his ancestral castle.

In the first season the four Saxon kingdoms, Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Wessex have been conquered by a Danish force later called the Great Heathen Army. Only Alfred (David Dawson), the king of Wessex, puts up an effective resistance. Uhtred and Alfred form an uneasy alliance to defeat the Danes. Wessex of course is that Last Kingdom. Alfred is one of two English kings to be given the moniker “the Great.” The other was Cnut, an 11th century ruler.

The series is based The Saxon Stories books by Bernard Cornwell.

Minor spoilers in the next paragraph:

In the fourth season Bebbanburg, weakened after a siege by the Scots, finally seems within reach of Uhtred. He’s been united with his children, yet another Uhtred (Finn Elliot), a devout Christian, who was largely raised in a monastery, and his daughter, Stiorra (Ruby Hartley), who like the elder Uhtred is conflicted in her relations with Saxons and Danes. Edward (Timothy Innes), who succeeded his father, is the new king of Wessex and has a strong influence over Mercia, where his sister Aethelflaed (Millie Brady) is queen. 

The Viking era of the British Isles lasted over two-and-a-half centuries, ending in that auspicious year of 1066. The Last Kingdom is set roughly half-way into that conflict. If the Danes were to issue a knock-out punch, it needed to be by the Great Heathen Army over Alfred. That didn’t happen so that sets the table for a long series of alliances and betrayals. There is plenty of both in the show, in this season the prominent one is a scheme from the traitor Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley), a member of a fallen Mercian noble family. Meanwhile Alfred’s widow, Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth) weaves her plan to fight the Danes. 

The middle section of Season 4 is overly burdened with plots and counter-plots, made even more confusing because many of the historical characters in The Last Kingdom have similar names. For instance we have Aethelflaed who is married to Aethelred (Toby Regbo). Such similarities can work in books, but the scriptwriters for the series should have changed one of those names. There is more. Aelfwynn (Annamária Bitó) is their daughter. Her grandmother is the aforementioned Aelswith.  While Edward is in Mercia, Wessex is ruled by an ealdorman, Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller). His daughter, Aelflaed (Amelia Clarkson) is married to Edward.

But the season is redeemed by the battle scenes which are quite intense. And of course the later episodes are dominated by major one, a siege with Uhtred and Brita on opposite sides of the walls. The Saxons are led by Edward, the Danes by a new Viking leader, Sigtryggr (Eysteinn Sigurðarson).

A fifth season seems likely as The Last Kingdom has enjoyed a top-ten Netflix viewing all week. One issue that needs to be resolved is that the main characters have barely aged yet Uhtred’s children are in their mid-teens. It’s time for a touch of gray in his hair. And Brida’s too.

The Last Kingdom is rated TV-MA for violence, torture, and nudity.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Review: Season One of Ragnarok

By John Ruberry

“The whole world groaned beneath them. A storm, the likes of of which had never been seen, scorched the sky. Ragnarök was upon them, the twilight of the gods.” Nicholas Day, in the Netflix series Myths and Monsters.

Many religions have an end-time narrative, including the ancient Norse faith. If you are familiar with the movie Thor: Ragnorok, then you know that Ragnarök encompasses total destruction, only there are no space ships and no Incredible Hulk in those old tales.

A few weeks ago the Norwegian six-episode series Ragnarok began streaming on Netflix. On the surface it’s a teen angst drama. After many years away, teens Magne (David Stakston), Laurits (Jonas Strand Gravli), and their mother, Turid (Henriette Steenstrup), return to the small industrial town, Edda, that is adjacent to a fjord. By the way, “Edda” is the term scholars have given to the medieval collections of Norse mythology, the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda.

As the family arrives in Edda, an old man riding a motorized scooter blocks their car as it stalls. Magne gets out and asks him, “Do you need help?” The old man oddly replies, “Do you know what a strange town this is?” Magne gets the scooter running and then the old man’s wife, who operates the local grocery, smiles at him and then tells Magne, “You’re a good kid” as she touches his forehead. Magne’s hazel eyes then flash with lightning. Magne’s hero journey has started.

Edda is indeed a strange town. Surrounded by gorgeous mountains, the economic engine of the town Jutul Industries, owned by Jutuls, the fifth-richest family in Norway. Its factory sits right next to the fjord. If it is ever said what Jutul produces, other than toxins that end up in the drinking water, I missed it. Vidar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson) is the patriarch and he runs the factory, his wife, Ran (Synnøve Macody Lund), is the principal of the high school Laurits and Magne attend. Their children are Saxa (Theresa Frostad Eggesbø) and Fjor (Herman Tømmeraas). They are all beautiful. Seemingly perfect. Too perfect because the are really jötunn, giants in Norse mythology, the enemies of the gods. And Saxa and Fjor aren’t really children.

Magne learns after his encounter with the grocer that he can run very fast, he has superhuman strength, he can speak Old Norse, and tellingly, he can throw a sledgehammer–Thor’s weapon was a hammer–an enormous distance. And Magne no longer needs his eyeglasses.

Like the young Clark Kent in Man of Steel, Magne has trouble fitting in with other kids, His only friend is Isolde (Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin), another social misfit who is the school’s biggest green advocate. And there is plenty for Isolde to investigate in Edda.

Laurits, who is a bit of a prankster, has better luck working his way up the high school social ladder, which is of course dominated by the student Jutuls, and Ragnarok contains quite a bit of the distress that you find in most television shows centered on teenagers. Meanwhile Magne’s powers, which he barely comprehends, draw the attention of the entire Jutul family.

And Magne and Fjor fall for the same girl, Gry (Emma Bones).

Ragnarok was filmed in Norwegian, it is dubbed in English for Netflix, although the trailer posted here is in Norwegian with English subtitles.

The coronovirus pandemic will sadly find many people with lots of free time on their hands. Watching Ragnarok is a worthy way to fill that void. Although I’m still working, for now, and I viewed the series last week.

Netflix has already approved a second season.

Ragnarok is rated TV-MA. It contains brief nudity, violence, foul language, teen alcohol consumption, and sexual situations.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Review of the Netflix series Thieves of the Wood

By John Ruberry

Are you missing some Robin Hood in your life? If you are a Netflix subscriber and you can stomach graphic violence, including torture, as well as gratuitous nudity, then you may want to take a look at the ten-episode Belgian series Thieves of the Wood, which began streaming earlier this month.

And you must be patient. Thieves of the Wood moves slowly, and if you don’t know about Jan de Lichte or Flanders of the 18th century, as I didn’t until a few days ago, you might get lost.

After watching the first episode I was indeed lost. So I got on my iPad where I learned that Jan de Lichte was a real person, a highway man, who of course robbed from the rich. After all, stealing from the poor is never very profitable. At the beginning of that first episode, de Lichte (Matteo Simoni) is being dragged on a sandy trail by mounted Austrian troops, he’s accused of murder and desertion. Now is the time to bring some historical perspective. Most of contemporary Flanders, a Dutch speaking region, lies in Belgium. But in the 1740s this region was then part of Austria although it was occupied by France. Historians call this conflict the War of Austrian Succession.

De Lichte escapes. He returns to his hometown of Aalst, which is run by corrupt Flemish aristocrats, led by Mayor Coffijn (Dirk Roofthooft). Just as de Lichte arrives in Aalst, so does the new bailiff, that is the chief of police, Jean-Phillipe Baru (Tom Van Dyck). Both learn that punishment is harsh in Aalst. Baru is horrified when he learns that a man and a woman are about to be flogged for the crime of stealing two rabbits from Coffijn’s estate, then branded–while their children watch. Now paperless, they are exiled from the city to live in a nearby forest.

Those woods are not the Nottingham Forest of Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. The refuge is overrun by abject poverty, disease, prostitution, and opium smoking. De Lichte, aided by his half-brother Tincke (Stef Aerts), organize the downtrodden to fight back against the oppression, although it’s not until the fourth episode–I did say that Thieves of the Wood requires patience–that their plans bear fruit.

The loot is shared. Everyone wins in the forest. While Coffijn seethes

The scriptwriters are clearly hostile to the Catholic church. There is no Friar Tuck in this forest, in the town presides an imperious priest, Picke. He reminded me of the cruel Lutheran bishop in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. 

As the series played out to me I fully expected a Donald Trump reference or two, especially since America comes up in the dialogue a couple of times. Then it hit me. Two of the town council members, including Mayor Coffijn, wear orange, or I should of course say red, periwigs. Perhaps that’s only a coincidence. Perhaps not. 

Some of the good: The costumes of Thieves of the Wood, including those wigs, are first-rate and the cinematography is superb. 

And now some of the bad: There are no subtitles, the Dutch dialogue instead is dubbed by British actors. The American entertainment industry suffers from the false premise that we won’t watch subtitled offerings. But last night I saw the Korean film Parasite, which is subtitled. Not only is Parasite an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture (and Best International Feature Film), but it is also performing very well in the domestic box office. Deservedly so, I’d like to add. 

Thieves of the Wood is rated TV-MA for reasons I listed above. 

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Preserving freedom of reviews

There is a lot of debate on controlling free speech on the internet, specifically when that speech is hateful or controversial, and not surprisingly when it relates to a Presidential election. But free speech is also under assault when it comes to business, specifically bad business. The internet is increasingly where we research, conduct and review business, and when that business isn’t good, our bad reviews can carry significant weight. In the past, if a business wronged you, unless you were willing to file a lawsuit, the most you could do was tell your friends not to go there. The internet, and specifically reviews left on Google, Yelp, the BBB, and other websites, has changed that.

Because reviews have a lot of power, they can do a decent job changing behavior. This summer I hired a contractor to level out a low area of our property and cut up a bunch of trees. He came out, leveled the area, and finished about half of the tree work. Because he had another pressing job, and because I was not rushed on the trees, I said he could come back the next week to finish the job, and I paid him in full. Big mistake. I came back from a short underway five weeks later and the job still wasn’t done.

After trying to get him to respond via email and phone, I left a sharp, 1 star review on Yelp. I got a call the next day, we setup a time to finish the project, and I changed the review to 4 stars once the job was complete. Lesson learned: reviews are a good tool, and never pay in full for uncompleted work.

I just solved another dispute that took 2 months. I made a reservation for military travel, but a week before I had to change due to a change in our mission. I called the hotel to cancel, and was told they would give me a credit, as in, I could come back and visit them in the future. I asked for them to reimburse the government credit card instead, because I didn’t know when I would travel there. The gentleman on the phone said he would try.

Three weeks later, and no reimbursement. Calling them again, they said they would try. No change. I called the government credit card company, who called them asking for a refund. Still nothing. I paid the bill (government cards are linked to your personal credit, so you owe regardless) and filed a dispute with the card company. Still nothing.

Online it is then! First a 1-star review on Google. Then Yelp. Then filing a grievance with the BBB. After they ignored the BBB, the BBB rating plummeted from A+ to C-. Yay for me, but I was still out 100 dollars. Then, last night, an email appeared from the manager, apologizing for the issue and refunding my money. I’ll write him back tonight and update the reviews.

This is how reviews should be: opening a dialog to solve a customer grievance. It forces business to improve customer support, and if they ignore it, it warns others to avoid them at all cost. Amazon understands this, and the review system on Amazon is one of the huge drivers behind its now almost ubiquitous use in America. This free speech is under assault by businesses seeking to squelch reviews, in most cases with lawsuits. As there is an awful lot of trolls and others that leave negative reviews for no good reason, this is understandable.

I would offer a different take. Negative reviews are an opportunity for good customer service. They give business a chance to evaluate themselves against an exterior standard. Any reader of Peter Drucker knows that business must use external standards to evaluate their performance, and a negative review, even if unjustified in the business’s eyes, is that external standard. Rather than trying to squelch it via the justice system (something that will become increasingly harder with current legislation), businesses should relish the opportunity to turn an angry customer into a happy one.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.