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.

Review: The Two Popes

By John Ruberry

“I’m not familiar with this part of the garden,” Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) tells Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) as they enter an area overrun by brush and deadwood in The Two Popes. Benedict then asks the Argentinian, “Which way?”

That garden, at the Vatican’s Palace of Castel Gandolfo outside of Rome, could rightly be called Benedict’s garden, as he was the Pope. Yet Benedict asks the man who ends up as his successor, Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis in 2013, for direction. Oops, I mean directions.

Clearly the scriptwriters and the director of The Two Popes favor the liberal leadership under Francis–the garden scene neatly ties up that sentiment in a bow.

Later, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio decries inequality, repeated images of ugly walls are shown.

The Two Popes is largely fictionalized story centered on the theological divide between the 265th and the 266th pontiffs. After a limited theatrical release, including a showing at the Chicago International Film Festival, which was sold out, preventing Mrs. Marathon Pundit from seeing it, the film debuted Friday on Netflix. The Two Popes is worth seeing, whether you are a Catholic or not, or a believer or not. The Welshmen in the lead roles, Hopkins and Pryce, provide superb performances. Of course Hopkins’ career has been justifiably rewarded, including gaining four Academy Award nominations, and winning the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Amazingly, despite stellar work in such movies as Something Wicked This Way Comes, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Pryce has never been honored with an Academy Award nomination. He deserves it for his performance as Francis, but my guess is that the Academy will overlook Pryce again.

The interplay–and the arguing–is what keeps The Two Popes going.

As for the fiction, there is plenty of it here. There were no long meetings between Benedict and Bergoglio; the catalyst for their movie summit was an offer of resignation from the cardinal, which is harshly rejected as a challenge to Benedict’s authority. The future Pope Francis turned 75 in 2011, it is customary for archbishops to retire at that age. It can be assumed that the pair never discussed the Beatles or their Abbey Road album. And it’s quite likely that Benedict’s favorite television show is not Kommisar Rex, an Austrian detective program where a German shepherd solves crimes. This sidetrack is probably a sly reference to Cardinal Ratzinger’s long term as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican under John Paul II, where he picked up the nickname “God’s Rottweiler.”

There are numerous flashback scenes involving Francis, including his early romance, his call to the priesthood, his muddled legacy from Argentina’s “Dirty War,” his rise, then fall, and his rise again within the Argentine Catholic Church. 

In the garden walk scene, Bergoglio condemns Benedict’s handling of the pedophile crisis within the priesthood, which included confession of the guilty–he calls it “magic words.” Benedict’s retort is harsh and telling, “Magic words, is that how you describe the sacrament?”

The Two Popes gives viewers plenty to think about. 

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Review of Who, the new album by the Who

By John Ruberry

Forty years ago Sunday I saw my first rock concert–and a great way to start out–it was my 18th birthday and it was the Who at the International Amphitheater in Chicago.

Sunday morning I was headed to another midwestern city on another birthday of course, this time headed for Milwaukee to run in the Santa Hustle 5K. And from my iPod I pressed “Play” to listen to the latest, and probably last, album by the Who, entitled, simply, Who.

The Who always had an attitude–and they still do. Lead singer Roger Daltrey, 75, now a baritone, barks out Pete Townshend’s lyrics on the opening track, “All This Music Must Fade.”

I don’t care. I know you’re gonna hate this song. And that’s it. We never really got along. It’s not new, not diverse. It won’t light up your parade. It’s just simple verse.

Townshend, 74, who wrote all but one of the songs for Who, the exception is “Break The News” by his brother Simon, looks back at the past, as is expected by any old man. Townshend once wrote on his iconic 1965 classic, “My Generation” this boast, “I hope I die before I get old.”

Chronologically only drummer Keith Moon,died young at 32, but years of drug and alcohol abuse aged him quickly–he was a physical wreck when he died in his sleep of a drug overdose. Drugs killed bassist John Entwistle at 58, also in his sleep, on the eve of a Who tour.

The Who have taken us from “The Music Must Change” on Who Are You, the last album with Moon, to “All This Music Must Fade.” Moon, who died a month after that album’s release, was unable to play drums on “The Music Must Change” because it was in the 6/8 time measure. He was once considered the worlds greatest rock drummer

The surviving Who members, aided on some tracks by unofficial bandmates Zak Starkey on drums and Pino Palladino on bass, don’t embarrass themselves. But they don’t exceed expectations. So if you’re looking for a septuagenarian anthem to match with “I Can See For Miles,” or “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” you will be disappointed. With few exceptions, the aforementioned “Break The News” is one, Who is formulaic, it’s got just enough synthesizers to recall Who Are You and the other Townshend/Daltrey Who album, Endless Wire, and the Townshend backup vocals seem scientifically placed. And that’s a problem as Townshend and Daltrey never appeared in the studio together for Who.

Other elements of the past on Who include the album artwork, designed by Peter Blake, who also created the Face Dances album cover, and the song “Detours.” Who scholars know that the earliest incarnation of the band was named the Detours.

“Ball and Chain” was the first song released from Who. It’s about the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Townshend opposes it, and that’s all you can extract from the pedestrian lyrics, that is, to reference “All This Music Must Fade,” only “just simple verse.”

As one ages death often becomes a common thought, and Townshend explores mortality in several songs here. If you are looking for intriguing albums about death, I recommend instead Magic and Loss by Lou Reed and the later albums of the American series by Johnny Cash. If you are prefer something less morbid from an older person looking back, the two Americana albums by Ray Davies, the Kinks mastermind, will provide a much better experience than Who for you.

Let me obscure. The most moving song about getting old and having regrets is “Ghosts” by Randy Newman, from his largely forgotten Born Again collection.

Back to the Who.

But does any of this discussion even matter to Daltrey and Townshend? I downloaded the deluxe version from Apple Music, which contains “Got Nothing To Prove.” An unexpected throwback to the mid-1960s, when the Who was a great singles band, it would have been one of the best tracks on the album, had it not been ruined by James Bond-theme styled orchestration.

Yes, the Who has nothing to prove anymore.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Fifty years ago: The Kinks release Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

By John Ruberry

Fifty Octobers ago a brilliant musical work was released that Rolling Stone called, “By all odds the best British album of 1969,” adding, “It shows that Pete Townshend still has worlds to conquer, and that the Beatles have a lot of catching up to do.”

The Who issued Tommy that spring and the Beatles’ last recorded album, Abbey Road, was released in September.

What was that “best British album?” Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by the Kinks, written and produced by Ray Davies.

To celebrate, the Kinks, who broke up in 1996, but the surviving original members appear to have re-formed, last week released a twelve disc vinyl collector’s edition filled with remixes, demos, mono versions, new songs, and a never-released Dave Davies solo album.

There’s shorter version also available too. On Friday I downloaded the 1 hour 22 minute edition on Apple Music, with mono versions (why?), some alternative cuts, and one new song, “The Future,” credited to Arthur and the Emigrants (with Ray Davies).

Arthur is a great as I remembered. But the album was released at a troubled time for the Kinks. Fed up with the band’s lack of success, bassist Peter Quaife left. In 1965 the Kinks were banned by performing in the United States by the American Federation of Musicians. The ban, which to this date was never explained, was lifted in 1969, but much had changed by the end of the 1960s. The Who, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles had expanded their fan base–it was always large for the Beatles–and they also expanded the breadth of their music.

Meanwhile, the Kinks were in a way marooned in England. Like children forbidden by their parents from playing outside after a blizzard and the usual resultant bitter cold temperatures, Ray Davies and the Kinks were locked inside and forced to rely on what they could find at home musically to entertain themselves. Much of their mid-1960s output owed much to British Musical Hall, the tunes of their parents. Music Hall in Britain is what Vaudeville was to America, only it spawned a distinct musical style that centered on spirited singing and catchy melodies that begged for sing-alongs. Famous, or used-to-be famous Music Hall songs include “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay,” “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag,” and “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am.” That last one was a 1960s hit for Herman’s Hermits. That band scored another hit with “Dandy,” a Kinks song.

The Kinks first American hit was “You Really Got Me” in 1964, that tune and similar early Kinks aural assaults inspired two genres, punk rock and heavy metal. In 1967, the Music Hall-inspired “Mr. Pleasant” was the last Kinks single to break the Billboard Hot 100 until “Victoria,” the opening track of Arthur.

The Kinks clearly were back as hard rockers with “Victoria,” but there are still are Music Hall influences on Arthur. This is a concept album meant to be the soundtrack to a television play that never aired. Even in success they failed. When introducing a song on their last album, the (mostly) live To The Bone, Ray laments, “It kind of summarizes everything we’re about, the Kinks. Because everyone is expecting us to do wonderful things and we mess it all up, usually.”

The Arthur narrative centers on an elderly English suburbanite who symbolizes the disappointment that in 1969, Britain was not a classless society, as was hoped for after World War II ended.

From the album’s liner notes (courtesy of the Kinda Kinks site):

Arthur? Oh, of course–England and knights and round tables, Excalibur, Camelot, “So all day long the noise of battle roll’d among the mountains by the winter sea.” Sorry, no. This is Arthur Morgan, who lives in a London suburb in a house called Shangri-La, with a garden and a car and a wife called Rose and a son called Derek who’s married to Liz, and they have these two very nice kids, Terry and Marilyn. Derek and Liz and Terry and Marilyn are emigrating to Australia. Arthur did have another son, called Eddie. He was named for Arthur’s brother, who was killed in the battle of the Somme. Arthur’s Eddie was killed, too–in Korea. His son, Ronnie, is a student and he thinks the world’s got to change one hell of a lot before it’s going to be good enough for him. Derek thinks it’s changed a bloody sight too much–he can’t stand England any more, all these bloody bureaucrats everywhere, bloody hell, he’s getting out. Ronnie and Derek don’t exactly get on.

Families split along political lines? You mean like now? Brexit versus EU? Donald Trump versus Elizabeth Warren?

Derek and family’s move to Australia mirrors the Davies’ sister Rosie and her husband, Arthur, relocation to Down Under a few years earlier, which inspired the 1966 Kinks’ song, “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home.” That tune, as with many Kinks songs, is also a story. While watching Ken Burns’ Country Music series on PBS, one of the commentators mentioned that many of the greatest country songs involve stories, sometimes dramas. Which deep down is why I love the work of the Kinks. Their music is compelling. The tales they tell even more so.

One story from Arthur, a Music Hall romp, is “She Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina.”

She’s bought a hat like Princess Marina’s
To wear at all her social affairs
She wears it when she’s cleaning the windows
She wears it when she’s scrubbing the stairs
But you will never see her at Ascot
She can’t afford the time or the fare
But she’s bought a hat like Princess Marina’s
So she don’t care.

He’s bought a hat like Anthony Eden’s
Because it makes him feel like a Lord
But he can’t afford a Rolls or a Bentley
He has to buy a secondhand Ford
He tries to feed his wife and his family
And buy them clothes and shoes they can wear
But he’s bought a hat like Anthony Eden’s
So he don’t care.

The saddest song I know of, from anyone, is another story from Arthur, “Some Mother’s Son.”

Two soldiers fighting in a trench
One soldier glances up to see the sun
And dreams of games he played when he was young
And then his friend calls out his name
It stops his dream and as he turns his head
A second later he is dead.

Some mother’s son lies in a field
Back home they put his picture in a frame
But all dead soldiers look the same
While all the parents stand and wait
To meet their children coming home from school
Some mother’s son is lying dead.

The music on Arthur rises to the occasion too. Unlike many late 1960s efforts, the horns compliment, not dominate, the songs. And the Kinks, led by lead guitarist Dave Davies, are at the top of their instrumental game here.

Arthur was not a hit but it enjoyed modest sales, unlike its pastoral predecessor The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, which wasn’t able to crack Billboard’s Hot 200 Albums chart. The stage was set for the Kinks’ return to well-deserved prominence one year later with Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. That album of course contained “Lola,” their biggest American hit since 1965’s “Tired of Waiting for You.”

The Kinks were back.

But then it was time to “mess it all up” again. There wasn’t a Part Two of the Lola album. The next year the Kinks released a country rock collection, Muswell Hillbillies which began another decline in popularity. Only this time their time in the wilderness would last much longer.

Oh, one more item. After 50 years, the play Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire will finally be performed. That will happen later this year on BBC Radio.

God Save The Kinks!

John Ruberry blogs at Marathon Pundit.