Bucket List Movies: The Thirteenth Warrior, Das Boot, Taxi Driver, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Okay, because I know someone will ask: I’m not dying.

Even so, I do have a huge list of movies that I’ve always wanted to see but never have for one reason or another, and I figured why wait until I only had a limited amount of time to live before trying to cram them all in at once? So I’m starting now.

These will all be, for the most part, older movies and they’ll be splayed across wide genres, because I love a little bit of everything. I’ll give them to you with mini-reviews, and if it’s an older flick, I’ll let you know how well it holds up to a modern audience.

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The Thirteenth Warrior (based on the Michael Crichton novel Eaters of the Dead)—This is a movie that is definitely worth your time, primarily for the Vikings and Antonio Banderas. From a historical aspect, it has its ups and downs.

If you want to see every type of armor all mashed into one movie, this is your flick. Beowulf actually takes place in the 6th century, but in The Thirteenth Warrior, you’ve got a good sample of everything from 10th to 15th century armor. Also, there is no way that Antonio Banderas threw on that chain mail shirt while running, but I will forgive the error and suspend belief because it is Antonio Banderas, and if anyone could toss a chain mail shirt over his head in hurry, Antonio could do it. Don’t @ me.

However, if you shut off your history-brain, it’s still a good movie. In spite of all my ribbing, and the film’s really weak premise, the film works primarily due to a strong cast with a ton of chemistry. It’s a cool re-imagining of the Beowulf tale, and if the antagonists had been stronger, the plot might have rocked my world. As it was, The Thirteenth Warrior, was entertaining and well worth my time.

Recommended

Das Boot—With the new series coming to Hulu, I wanted to finally sit down and watch the movie from beginning to end. I made it through the first half. The acting was top-notch, but they were Nazis (although they tried to portray them as military men not necessarily married to the Nazi ideology, they were still fighting for Nazis in a Nazi war, so Nazis), and because of that, I wasn’t really on the characters’ side. None of them were either likable enough or interesting enough to engage me, and I didn’t care if they lived or died, which led me to lose interest in the overall plot, so I did not finish.

DNF/YMWV*

Taxi Driver—was exceptionally innovative when it premiered. De Niro gives a stellar performance and CYBILL SHEPHERD! Unfortunately, you can’t turn on the news today without seeing another Travis Bickle splayed across the screen, so I had to switch it off.

DNF/YMWV*

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at their best and most sublime. If you’re into black comedy, this is your gig. The daughter of the university’s president, Martha, and her husband (the university’s history professor), George, invite a young couple to their house for a night of fun and games.

Only it’s mind games.

Everyone is hysterically drunk, secrets of ambition are revealed and while she has but a small role, Sandy Dennis was positively hysterical as Nick’s wife, Honey. Released in 1966, the film has held up exceptionally well, primarily due to Ernest Lehman’s faithful screen adaptation of Edward Albee’s play.

Highly recommended

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*DNF/YMMV — Did not finish/Your mileage may vary

Hagazussa [movie reivew]

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One of Shudder’s newest entries, Hagazussa, is written and directed by Lukas Feigelfeld. The poster claims it is “A SPOOKY, SPELLBINDING AUDIOVISUAL SYMPHONY” and “MIND-BLOWINGLY CREEPY.” Reading those blurbs now, I realize that neither mention the story, which is probably apropos, because while the quotes aren’t lying to you, the movie is spooky and creepy, any evidence of a story is almost nonexistent.

You will find spoilers in this review, so if you’re one of those NEVER SHOW ME SPOILERS people, turn back now. That’s all the warning you’ll get, so off we go …

Set in the fifteenth century, the film focuses on a mother and daughter that live in a remote cabin outside of the village. In the opening sequence, Martha takes Albrun sledding, but she never moves close to the other mothers, and Albrun, for her part, reaches the top of the hill to find all the other children are gone. So the idea that even among others, they are alone is very nicely handled.

After a long spooky walk through the woods, they arrive home from the sledding trip. That same evening, three villagers turn up outside their cabin. The men are wearing animal heads for some bizarre reason that is never quite explained. They bang on the door and circle the cabin threateningly while accusing Martha of being a witch. Then they go away and that’s that. Seriously. They’re never seen or referenced again.

Shortly thereafter, Albrun’s mother suffers from a strange disease. The doctor and a nun come to the cabin, examine the mother, and then they leave the child, Albrun, to take care of her. It seemed … odd to me that they would leave such a small child with a desperately ill mother, but hey, maybe it’s a cultural thing, so I let it slide. Later, Albrun awakens to find her mother gone. She leaves the cabin and follows her mother’s trail to find Martha has died in a bog with snakes crawling over her body.

Then the film flashes forward fifteen years to Albrun living alone in the same cabin with her infant daughter. No explanation is given for the infant’s presence. We never see or hear about the child’s father, but Albrun is a good and patient mother, except for those times when she leaves the infant alone for hours and hours, because who does that?

Anyway, a village woman named Swinda seemingly befriends Albrun, only to betray her and facilitate her rape by another villager. Let me pause here to state that nothing in this film is graphic, nor does that hurt the movie. Aleksandra Cwen, as the adult Albrun, reflects the horror of the act with her expressions.

However, this is where Hagazussa seemed to lose me. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of seeing rape being used a character device to bring out the evil in a woman. In Hagazussa, the act is given double duty to show us first Swinda’s wickedness and then as the reason for Albrun’s decline into madness, or witchcraft, or something.

Needless to say, now that she’s been raped, all of Albrun’s evil inclinations are released. She takes her revenge, not with nefarious witchcraft, but by placing a dead rat in the village water supply, which, as it turns out, is actually more effective. When the villagers, including the wicked Swinda, die, Albrun wanders into the woods, eats a mushroom, and falls into madness, or witchcraft, or something, we’re never exactly sure.

And that fairly sums up Hagazussa in its entirety. Stunning cinematography of the Alps and its dense forests—lots and lots of haunted views of the Alps. Long, long atmospheric shots ... loooonng atmospheric shots of adult Albrun standing, sitting, walking, leaving her infant daughter alone in a crib for hours and hours and hours at a time (seriously, who does that?), Albrun having a sensual moment beside her goat (don't ask), Albrun going mad in the woods … you get the picture.

The imagery is meant to evoke Gothic dread, including a scene with a priest in the church’s ossuary, and while all of these moments perform a slow-burn of creepiness, the tension never quite results in any type of cathartic release for the viewer. Each scene seems meticulously designed to move toward that magical moment when all the pieces fall into place, but the puzzle remains broken right until the end.

It would have been great if all that atmosphere had added up to a plot of some substance. As it is, it's more of a character study (and I don't mind those), but Hazazussa went on far longer than it needed to and quite often felt like a series of haunting shorts without ever reaching any form of cohesion.

Rating: YMMV (i.e. give it a view, your mileage may vary)

The Silence: a review from the deaf perspective

This isn’t going to be a long review, because I wasn’t able to get far into the movie. Two things I want to get out of the way up front are: first, I love Tim Lebbon’s books, and second, in terms of plot and cinematography, The Silence might very well be an excellent movie. I don’t know, because I wasn’t able to get past the “deaf” character’s actions. In other words, this review is about how poor representation ruined what might have otherwise been a good movie for me.

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Nor is this review an attack on Ms. Kiernan Shipka or her talents as an actor. Ms. Shipka seemed to do well with the material she was given; however, it appears she wasn’t given much. I understand that she learned ASL for the role, but as I’ve stated in other posts, there is much more to being deaf than knowing sign language.

As with all my other posts from the deaf perspective, I also want to point out that this review is written from my perspective as a deaf person, which can and will differ greatly from those of the Deaf community, or from people with a different type of hearing loss. In other words, your mileage may vary, which is fine.

Viewing the movie as someone who loves horror films, I can say that my gripe with The Silence began before Shipka’s character, Ally, ever hit the screen. I’ve spoken of this particular issue in novels, and it’s no less annoying in a movie: the need to leap too fast into the action without any attempt to cultivate tension. The opening scene could have been a claustrophobic buildup of horror. Instead, it was delivered like an awkward prologue that was over so quickly, it felt like an aside.

Then we meet Ally, who tells us how smart she is because she learned to lip-read so fast after her accident … and I flinched, because that is not how it works. Even so, I gave the film a few more minutes, because I wanted to see how the story would explain that particular skill.

Essentially, Ally’s backstory is this: she was in a car accident with her grandparents three years earlier. Due to the traumatic head injury inflicted during the accident, Ally was rendered completely deaf. In addition to recovering from whatever other brain trauma she might have endured during the accident, Ally is now perfectly healthy, except she is deaf. In three years, she has learned ASL and how to lip-read and moves through the hearing world without the annoying dizziness, vertigo, or tinnitus that burdens the rest of us.

At no point are we led to believe that Ally moves in anything other than a world of silence. She doesn’t wear either hearing aids or a cochlear implant. This tells me, as a deaf person, that her hearing is completely gone, and due to whatever injury she sustained, assistive listening devices do not help her.

Within the first five minutes with Ally, we see her taunted from behind by a group of her high school classmates, who are actually acting like they’re twelve. That was just weird.

Immediately after Ally is taunted by her classmates, she walks down the middle of a street…

—let me pause here to say that deaf people, who can’t hear cars coming NEVER walk down the middle of any street without constantly looking over their shoulders—

…her boyfriend approaches her from behind and puts his hands over her eyes.

And I almost shut the movie down then, because that is the most horrible thing you can do to a deaf person: sneak up on them from behind. Seriously, you scare the crap out of deaf people when you do that. It’s horrible. Don’t do it. Ever.

But this is Ally’s boyfriend, who will soon be getting his drivers’ license, and Ally informs him that her parents will probably never let her drive because she’s deaf …

Dear Ally’s parents and the producers of this movie,

Deaf people drive all the time and we’re probably safer drivers than hearing people, because we are paying attention with our eyes.

Thank you,
Me

Then Ally arrives home and my nitpicking reaches monumental levels. The usual systems designed to help deaf people pinpoint noise (for example: doorbells, phones, fire alarms, or loud noises) are large bulky boxes that indicate why a light is flashing. They could have been there in the background and I just missed them, but after going to all the other lengths to show Ally’s deafness, the director doesn’t bother to show us that her home is equipped for a deaf person.

Ally’s family uses pidgin sign language to communicate. As a family having to adjust to a late-deafened child, it’s possible they’re doing the best they can. They also make asides that Ally can’t hear, and although unkind, I found this plausible as well.

Still, it bothered me that Ally follows conversations with ease. Even with lip-reading and signing, most deaf people are moving on a delay and the faster the topics change, the more frustrating communication becomes for the individual. Also, to lip-read with Ally’s accuracy, one needs to have some residual hearing.

Later that evening, Dad comes into her room and at one point, they forget to sign, but Ally has no trouble following the sudden topic shift, and that was it for me. I’d watched about all of the movie I could watch, because I realized from that point forward I would be doing nothing but critiquing Ally.

Those critiques turned into my biggest issue with The Silence. Whereas A Quiet Place presented a moment of ableism in the lack of captioning during the spoken parts between hearing characters, The Silence is the ableist viewpoint on full display. At no point did I believe that Ally was actually deaf, and if you can’t make me believe in your characters, then I’ll never buy into your story, no matter how good the film.


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Frohock has intricately woven a unique reinterpretation of history. Eloquent prose accompanies a lyrical theme amid prewar tensions, enriching this imaginative historical fantasy. –starred review, Publishers Weekly

Where Oblivion Lives is available at Scuppernong Books | HarperCollins | IndieBound. You can find links to Amazon and B&N at the HarperCollins link. If you're an audiobook fan, we've got you covered: the audiobook is narrated by the talented Vikas Adam and is available from Audible.

A few people have asked if you have to read the novellas first in order to enjoy Where Oblivion Lives. The answer is no, BUT if you want to read them, you can find the Los Nefilim omnibus at HarperCollins, as well as links to the individual novellas right here.

Full Dark, No Stars Netflix's 1922: a review

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This is, quite unintentionally, turning into the Stephen King fan blog. What can I say? It's been a banner year for the release of several movies based on King's works, I'm learning to hear again, and so here we are.

While I enjoyed both It and The Dark Tower at the movies, 1922 came by way of a Netflix original. For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you'll know that Netflix originals have been kind of hit or miss for me until recently.

Needless to say, I held my breath when I saw they were taking the helm for one of my favorite King novellas, 1922. This is the kind of story that can easily be botched by overacting or a poorly paced film. Fortunately, Zak Hilditch delivers a pitch perfect film that is intense and the epitome of an excellently rendered horror tale.

Thomas Jane plays Wilfred James, a farmer hellbent on keeping his farmland intact, even if it means murdering his headstrong wife (Molly Parker as Arlette James), who wants to take her inheritance and live the city-life. What could have devolved into an angsty morality tale turns into a ghost-tale worthy of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart.

The film is true to the novella, and the acting simply makes the story sing. This should be on your must see list, regardless of the time of year.

A Quiet Place: a review from the deaf perspective

I loved this movie. I want to get that out of the way from the beginning. Yes, there were a few plot holes, but A Quiet Place was about the one thing I love: the characters. Rather than a shoot-em-up, run-around-and-get-slashed horror movie, John Krasinski gives us a very intense human drama. 

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The horror of A Quiet Place isn't the actual violence, but the constant threat of violence the family endures as they try to survive.

Each of the actors brought a superb level of talent to their roles. I loved Emily Blunt as the Evelyn Abbott. Her subtle facial expressions spoke volumes. Millicent Simmonds is a fine young actress, and I hope Hollywood finds many more roles for her. Likewise, Noah Jupe and Krasinski were excellent.

I was so caught up in the family's survival that the story's few plot holes didn't ruin my enjoyment of the film. Although to be honest, the rigged cochlear processor bothered me in that a cochlear processor doesn't emit sound the same way a hearing aid does. A hearing aid amplifies sound and can often give feedback. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged portion of the ear to directly stimulate the auditory nerve. So these two things are not the same.

However, since it was a tricked-up processor in A Quiet Place, I was willing to suspend belief and shush my ridiculous mind every time it bleeped: BUT HEY, THAT'S NOT HOW HOW A PROCESSOR WORKS. Meanwhile another part of my brain was going: THAT IS THE COOLEST LOOKING PROCESSOR AND COIL AND THAT I'VE EVER SEEN AND I WANT ONE.

Frankly, I gushed about the movie all the way home.

What made me squeal: My daughter and both squealed out loud when the camera zoomed in on Regan's cochlear implant. Cyborgs save the world!

What jarred me: When the subtitles suddenly dropped off the screen during the few spoken parts.

That was the one big downer of the film for me. Fortunately, between my own cochlear implant and my ability to lipread*, I was able to put together the gist of the conversations. Someone who is born deaf might not be able to do the same thing, which brings me to my biggest issue with A Quiet Place: the scenes with ASL** are captioned for the hearing audience, but the spoken scenes were not captioned for the deaf audience.

Given all of the other stellar points of the movie, this seems like something to nitpick, but it's not. A few hearing people have pointed out that they found it jarring when the captions suddenly stopped. For those of us who rely on those captions to understand the dialogue, it was like someone suddenly shut off the sound.

Their lips moved but we couldn't understand what they were saying.

So let's use it as a teaching moment of what ableism looks like in practice. Given the efforts made to promote this movie based the family's use of ASL to communicate with one another and having Simmonds as the lead, I can only see the lack of captioning during the speaking parts as an oversight--one that detracted from the overall theater experience for me.

Under no circumstances do I want to disparage the sincere effort that was made to bring Simmonds into the project so as to make Regan's experience as authentic as possible. At the same time, I don't feel it's inappropriate to point out ways that the movie could have been better, and of course, more inclusive. The most obvious way is by captioning the entire movie.

I hope captioning movies is something future filmmakers will consider. Since box office numbers are so valuable, I just want to point out that I, and many other deaf people, would go to more movies if captioning was available for the entire film. Just pretend that deaf people speak a different language (we do) and then caption appropriately. Otherwise, we'll be waiting for the DVD, which will come with subtitles.

[Note: this is not the place to inform me about assistive devices theaters use to provide captioning. Not all theaters have them and according to many deaf people, the captioning boxes don't always work correctly. So no. I'll wait for the DVD.]

Meanwhile, A Quiet Place is, in many ways, as important to the horror genre as Get Out. Please go see the movie. Even knowing what I know now, I highly recommend A Quiet Place to everyone.

At the same time, please don't stop advocating for captioning on all movies as well. 

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*I am a late-deafened adult. I began to lose my hearing around age twelve and over time, I became completely deaf. Because no one in my family used ASL, I had to develop other coping mechanisms in order to communicate. I now have a cochlear implant in my right ear, which gives me around 62% speech discrimination (at the date this article was written—as of 2019, I have 82% speech discrimination with my processor). Without my processor, I have 0% speech discrimination and rely on lipreading. I am in the process of learning ASL.

**Some folks have noted that the shots made some of the ASL difficult to understand, too. However, these scenes were also fully captioned.


WhereOblivionLives.jpg

Frohock has intricately woven a unique reinterpretation of history. Eloquent prose accompanies a lyrical theme amid prewar tensions, enriching this imaginative historical fantasy. –starred review, Publishers Weekly

Where Oblivion Lives is available at Scuppernong Books | HarperCollins | IndieBound. You can find links to Amazon and B&N at the HarperCollins link. If you're an audiobook fan, we've got you covered: the audiobook is narrated by the talented Vikas Adam and is available from Audible.

A few people have asked if you have to read the novellas first in order to enjoy Where Oblivion Lives. The answer is no, BUT if you want to read them, you can find the Los Nefilim omnibus at HarperCollins, as well as links to the individual novellas right here.

Pennywise the Great and Terrible is IT [movie review]

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My father was a storyteller. It was how he taught his classes. He loved history, and in order to pass that love along to his middle school students, he disguised the dust of the past in dramatic story form. I'll never forget being at a campground one night when he regaled us with a retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula. With the dark of night around us, a fire crackling nearby, his strong baritone carried the tale and transported us to a different world. The story was one that I knew well, but my father sparked new life into his rendition and captivated me.

Around that same time in the mid-seventies, I discovered the novel Carrie and became a lifelong fan of King's works. I read It when it was first published in 1986. After seeing the movie, I browsed through the first chapters and in doing so, I recalled how King's voice always drew me his worlds. He speaks to the reader very much like my father spoke to us when he retold Dracula that long ago night.

There is a conspiratorial tone to his works, as if he is drawing us close to share a terrible secret, and it is only when the last page is turned, do we realize that he merely holds a mirror to show us the monster wears our face. He gives us so much about the people in his fictional worlds that we feel like we know them, because in a lot of instances, we know someone just like them, or we are them. When he paints the picture of a small town--be it 'Salem's Lot or Derry--he peels back the illusion of genteel small town life to accurately portray the willful blindness that walks the streets and enables the monsters in the sewers to thrive.

I recognized King's small towns, because I lived in a version of Derry, where each individual's reality is layered by one's social status and the color of one's skin. Some people are forced to live within the abyss while others are afforded the luxury of looking away. King's skill is his ability to show us our prejudices without alienating us. He also makes the losers the heroes, which in many ways gives us hope that we can persevere over incredible odds. 

Capturing the essence of King's voice and tone is one of the reasons his literary works are so hard to translate into film. Well, that and the sheer magnitude of some of his works--It being one of them.

In the novel, when Georgie is going through the house to find the paraffin that will make his paper ship float, he is thinking about how his brother Bill is a good writer, not simply because he can write well, but because he can see. Likewise, translating a novel to film isn't so much about screenplays and theatrics, although those aspects are part of the process, but the true success lies in the director's ability to see what the author intended, which, finally, brings me to the movie.

Andrés Muschietti knows how to see. He manages to condense the story of the Loser's Club in such a way as to capture the true essence of the children and their complex relationships without diminishing either the story or the characters. The actors who portray the children in the Losers' Club were all excellent and perfectly cast. In what could have been an unintentionally comic episode, the scene in the library with Ben Hanscom [Jeremy Ray Taylor] and the headless child was absolutely horrifying. This was due to Taylor's performance and Muschietti's direction along with judicious use of CGI.

At no point does Muschietti let the film devolve into corny scares. He takes the time to build the mood before launching the more horrific scenes. Like King, Muschietti manages to use Derry's facade of normalcy to contrast the darker shadows lurking beneath Derry's surface.

Which, of course, brings us to the star of the show, Pennywise.

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Bill Skarsgård's performance is what turns this film from a remake into a retelling. In an absolute expert performance, Skarsgård uses his voice and eyes to fluctuate between childlike innocence and outright malevolence. During his conversation with Georgie, his voice is pitched sweet and high in the beginning and gradually deepens as his mask slips. In equal parts appealing and repulsive, he chuckles and speaks to Georgie with childish delight of circuses while drooling over the meal to come.

In a reverse transformation of Guillermo del Toro's faun in Pan's Labyrinth, where the faun becomes younger and more vibrant as the movie proceeds, Skarsgård's Pennywise becomes slightly more horrific with each subsequent scene. His forehead seems more bulbous, his makeup a little more cracked, and his voice deepens to give the audience one disquieting peek after another into the monster itself.

It is a retelling, but a damned good one and well worth your time. If you can't wait for the next installment, I highly recommend the book. Let Stephen King whisper his tale into your ear. You'll definitely find yourself somewhere within the pages; although, I can't guarantee you'll like what you see.

I went to see THE DARK TOWER so you wouldn't have to [a review]:

Last weekend, I saw Atomic Blonde (I know this is a review for The Dark Tower, hang with me for a minute).

Atomic Blonde was rated R as it should have been. If you're not in America, R means the movie is for mature audiences only. Atomic Blonde lived up to every one of my expectations, and when it comes out on DVD, I'm going to buy it so I can watch it again.

When I saw The Dark Tower was rated as PG-13, I lowered my expectations for the film, and here's why:

The Dark Tower novels were brutal, just as brutal, if not more so, than the story in Atomic Blonde. Susannah's story-line alone is horrific and that is all before she ever lands in Roland's world. The PG-13 rating said that the studio wanted a movie directed toward preteens and marketing and games and toys and that is precisely what the movie is. 

Being an urban fantasy does NOT make it a bad movie. I imagine a lot of the younger members of the audience enjoyed it immensely. As a matter of fact, from a story perspective, it was a very good movie. It simply bears only a passing resemblance to the novels.

Idris Elba as Roland was the best part. If you want to go and support this movie so that you see him in more leading roles, your money won't be wasted. He captured Roland's gravitas and his rare moments of amusement. While Elba gave the most nuanced performance in the film, his co-star Tom Taylor was also excellent as Jake Chambers. He and Elba had a lovely chemistry that really carried the film.

And while the film worked as a coming of age story, the movie failed for fans of the series, because The Dark Tower is really about Roland, not Jake. By changing the protagonist from Roland to Jake, the horror is replaced by wonder, and it's all sort of like the Wizard of Oz, but with gunslingers and creepy monsters and the Man in Black.

King gave Satan/Death a corporeal form in the Man in Black, and in doing so, he gave flesh to the evil that walks among us. The movie gives us the Man in Black as a Cruella de Vil caricature intent on slaughtering preteens instead of puppies. Somehow I never imagined the Man in Black to be quite that organized and operating from a command central. His was always a more subtle menace as the chaos that wanders among us. The movie robs him of that role, and in doing so, gives Matthew McConaughey's character very little to do other than walk around and be nasty to people.

If they ever do an R version of The Dark Tower and have McConaughey reprise the role, I'll be on the front row, popcorn in hand.

The plot proceeded smoothly from point to point, sometimes too smoothly. I never felt a great deal of tension, but the cast was great, and I was never bored. There was a lot of shooting; however, I found the violence in Wonder Woman to be far more intense than anything I experienced in The Dark Tower. There was also a nice little nod to Pennywise about midway through, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, coming soon to a theater near you. 

Overall, I enjoyed The Dark Tower movie as a light urban fantasy. However, if you're looking for something with guts, read the books.

Marco Polo: a [mildly] spoilerific review (#SFWAPro)

During my annual post-holiday crash and burn, I plugged into Netflix's new series Marco Polo. I know the series has received some criticism for stereotypical Asian characters (Lenika Cruz gives a balanced review on this subject at The Atlantic). However, overlooking the usual credibility issues in these kinds of "historical" dramas, Marco Polo fares well in terms of story and characterization, which is what draws me to a series more than anything else.

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