7 Blog

Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Forbrydelsen’ soothes a Scandinavian noir obsession

In our all-consuming quest to explore Nordic noir, my wife and I continue both to see what the streaming site MHZ Choice has to offer and to rifle through old DVD collections that we never got around to watching.

One recent DVD view? "The Killing," or in Danish "Forbrydelsen," which translates to "Crime."

Released in 2007, the 20-episode series set in Copenhagen, follows the character Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) as she prepares to leave her job as a police detective and retire to Sweden with her boyfriend and son. Yet she is recruited to stick around to help her replacement Jan Meyer (Søren Malling) work on the murder of a young woman.

Although I'm pretty sure the series, which was created and co-written by Søren Sveistrup, could have been done in half as many episodes, "Forbrydelsen" is a fascinating look not just at police procedure but also Danish politics and the detrimental effects that both crime and the ensuing investigation have on the victim's family.

To steam, the series is available on a range of sites.

By the way, "Forbrydelsen" was remade as "The Killing" in 2011 and set in Seattle. I'm not sure if we'll check it out, though, as we're more interested in the Scandinavian originals. Up next: the Norwegian series "Varg Veum." 

Online comedy classes begin tonight via Zoom

Though some people like to kid themselves, not everyone is naturally funny. But like anything else, comedy is a skill that can be learned.

And taught. That, at least, is the idea behind the Virtual Comedy Academy that is being offered by the Spokane Comedy Club, which will offer four online comedy classes beginning at 5:30 tonight. Each class is two and a half hours long and, following tonight, will be streamed on Zoom on July 6th, July 13th and July 20th.

Participants will be given the chance to perform to perform live on stage. The instructor is standup comic Cory Michaelis.

There's still time to register. The cost is $120. Click here to discover how to sign up.

Below: Cory Michaelis performing.

Decades later, ‘Do the Right Thing’ still relevant

Spike Lee is in the news today because his new film, "Da 5 Bloods," is available to stream on Netflix. But given what has been going on both in America and around the world since the death of George Floyd, I decided to look back at his 1989 film "Do the Right Thing" in a review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Spike Lee first drew widespread critical attention with his 1986 film “She’s Gotta Have It,” which focuses on a woman who annoys her male lovers because she treats them the way they themselves are used to treating other women – namely, as sexual objects.

As critic Gene Siskel wrote at the time, “Featuring an all-black cast, this little film is a revelation, primarily because it provides black faces with the most natural dialogue they've had in years.”

“ ‘She`s Gotta Have It,’ ” Siskel continued, “is neither a crime story nor a heavy message movie, and the conversations in it are therefore free of the shackles of most minority-oriented stories.”

You’ll have to forgive Siskel’s unfortunate use of the word “shackles,” considering that shackles are exactly what were used to bind generations of slaves. But especially in light of what’s happening in today’s America following the death of George Floyd, it’s harder to ignore the rest of what Siskel seems to be saying: That the “revelation” Lee provides us comes simply from the fact that “She’s Gotta Have It” doesn’t involve crime or heavy messaging.

Whatever the merits of Siskel’s point of view, and they are arguable, Lee certainly provided more than a bit of “heavy messaging” two feature films later with 1989’s “Do the Right Thing,” which on June 30th will mark the 31st anniversary of its U.S. opening.

Lee is back in the news because of his new film “Da 5 Bloods.” Set to premiere on Netflix today, “Da 5 Bloods” is a study of five black soldiers, all Vietnam veterans, who – according to the press materials – “return to Vietnam decades after the war to find their squad leader's remains – and a stash of buried gold.”

Intriguing as that sounds, and as likely as it is to being something I’ll review next week, it’s “Do the Right Thing” that feels most relevant today.

The film’s setting is the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Mookie (played by Lee himself) works as a deliveryman for the local pizzeria, owned by the Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello). Sal’s son Pino (John Turturro) doesn’t get along with Mookie or, to be honest, with any of the neighborhood’s mostly black residents.

And those residents constitute a full range of characters, which is one of the film’s main charms. Chief among them are Mookie himself, his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez), Da Mayor (played by the late, great Ossie Davis), Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) – who tortures everyone with the blare of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” coming from his boombox – and Mookie’s buddy Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito).

It’s Buggin’ Out who, after insisting that Sal put up some photos of black celebrities on his self-proclaimed Wall of Honor – which features the likes of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio – begins the movement that ultimately leads to violence: not just to the burning of buildings but to the death of a central character that is eerily prescient of events that have occurred in real life more recently.

Those events are what make “Do the Right Thing,” especially the violence that marks the film’s climactic sequences, even more easy to understand now than when it was released – though, to be frank, that comment could be seen by some as naïve, or worse. As Lee said more than once when asked whether Mookie’s single act of destruction in the film amounts to his doing “the right thing,” he offered a succinct response.

“Not one person of color has ever asked me that question,” he said.

If Lee’s response seems cryptic, critic Roger Ebert – from the beginning a Lee supporter – had his own interpretation. “Those who found this film an incitement to violence,” he wrote, “are saying much about themselves, and nothing useful about the movie.”

It was Ebert who may have best summed up not just the film overall but, specifically, Lee and the characters that he created.

“None of these people is perfect,” Ebert wrote. “But Lee makes it possible for us to understand their feelings; his empathy is crucial to the film, because if you can't try to understand how the other person feels, you're a captive inside the box of yourself.”

Leslie Kelly on food: celebrating black chefs

One thing that doesn't go away just because of a pandemic quarantine is the need to eat. And my former Spokesman-Review colleague Leslie Kelly has made a career out of writing about what it means to eat well.

In her latest piece for Forbes.com, she uses her professional interest to promote the work of a number of African-American chefs featured in the book "Toques In Black: A Celebration of Black Chefs."

"The eclectic collection of recipes showcases regional cuisines with roots in the African diaspora from fine dining to down-home food trucks," Kelly wrote. "Mouthwatering preparations wander all over the map. Think cornbread topped with delicate slices of duck ham, cashew creme over pink beet pasta, spring pea mint and white chocolate tart with lavender gelato."

If none of that appeals to you — and I'll admit here that I can't stand beets — don't worry. The book includes dishes dreamed up by some 100 different chefs, including Greg Collier, of Charlotte, N.C., and the "Singing Chef" Jackie Gordon.

Which brings up the second reason why purchasing a copy of the book would be a good thing: Many of the chefs featured are out of work because of the pandemic, so 40 percent of the proceeds go into a fund designed to help support them.

That's another thing that doesn't necessarily go away during a pandemic: the chance to help out those whose need extends beyond what to fix for dinner.

Below: Chef Greg Collier, featured in a YouTube video making Hobo Stew.

And this is what’s already on (or coming to) Netflix

So, in the post immediately below, I listed some of the films that will be leaving Netflix in June. So, I thought it only fair to mention some of the films that will be coming — including those have already come — to the streaming service this month.

As for those that have already arrived, you can add the likes of "Clueless," "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," "The Silence of the Lambs," "The Queen," "V for Vendetta," "Lady Bird" and "Zodiac."

As for the coming attractions:

"Da 5 Bloods": Spike Lee's new film about five Veteran vets who return to Vietnam to find the remains of their former squad leader — and some buried gold. Available Friday.

"Frost/Nixon": Based on the real-life interview of Richard Nixon by David Frost. Available Tuesday.

For a complete list, click here.

Check out Neflix offerings before they go away

If you have a Netflix account, you might like to know what's leaving over the rest of the month so that you can take one last opportunity to watch. Some of the highlighted films on the list:

"Cutie and the Boxer": This documentary profiles the marriage of "boxing painter" Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko. Leaving Saturday.

"The Stanford Prison Experiment": A dramatic representation of the infamous 1971 social-psychological experiment that went bad. Leaving Tuesday.

"Avengers: Infinity War": The gang takes on Thanos to save the Earth … yadda-yadda. Leaving June 24.

"The Andy Griffith Show: Seasons 1-8": Sheriff Andy Taylor, his son Opie and Aunt Bea, all in small-town North Carolina. Leaving June 29.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button": David Fincher's look at the life of a man who is born old and gets younger as he ages.

"Inception": Christopher Nolan's look at a gang that steals thoughts through "dream-sharing technology."

And those are just a few. For a complete list, click here.

‘Painter and the Thief’ captures a version of ‘truth’

After watching the documentary "The Painter and the Thief," I wrote this review for Spokane Public Radio:

In an essay published last year on Forbes.com, the writer Kalev Leetaru made an interesting – if somewhat obvious – argument. Cameras, he contended, don’t capture reality, rather they offer only a version of it.

“The truth is that we don’t witness events through photographs,” he wrote. “We witness one possible constructed reality of those events through the eyes of individuals telling stories and portraying their own narrative and interpretation of what they see.”

Leetaru’s proposition came to mind as I watched the documentary “The Painter and the Thief,” which is available through multiple streaming services (I watched it on Hulu). In only his second documentary feature, his first being “Magnus,” a 2016 film about a teen chess prodigy, Norwegian director Benjamin Ree explores the relationship between two people who are just what his film’s title makes clear: The Czech-born artist Barbora Kysilkova and Karl Bertil-Nordland, a Norwegian guy whose struggles with heroin addiction have led him to commit crimes, such as robbery.

Case in point, and the basis of Ree’s film: Bertil-Nordland served time in prison for stealing one of Kysilkova’s paintings.

It was that specific robbery that attracted director Ree, who for whatever reason had long been interested in making a film about art theft. He contacted Kysilkova, who had already decided not just to forgive Bertil-Nordland but actually to see if he would let her paint him. And so began Ree’s four-year-long process of filming what happened next.

Incorporating footage shot by a friend of Kysilkova’s, that of the artist approaching Bertil-Nordland in court, Ree picks up filming the two as they feel each other out – each of them, for personal reasons, having good reason not to trust easily.

And he continues, exploring their individual lives as well – detailing Kysilkova’s past relationship with an abusive partner and Bertil-Nordland’s tempestuous youth – pushing his ever-present camera at times so close to each of the film’s principals that we can almost count the pores on her cheeks and the stubble comprising the individual hairs on the buzz-cut sides of his head.

In the midst of all this character study, which includes Kysilkova’s current relationship with her calm but sometimes confused new partner Øystein and a brief encounter with Bertil-Nordland’s father, Ree explores the obvious mystery of what happened to the stolen paintings – only one of which Bertil-Nordland took, the other being looted by his robbery cohort.

This sequence in particular offers viewers a satisfying, narrative payoff as Kysilkova – having been told by Bertil-Nordland that he was too high to have any actual memory of the crime – searches for and locates the other thief and then follows his lead to an apartment complex where at least one of the paintings might be stashed.

Yet, too, this sequence, as well as an especially moving moment when Kysilkova unveils the portrait she has painted of her new friend – an action that causes him to choke up with emotion – is so dramatically perfect that it’s tempting to question just how honest a filmmaker Ree truly is. That reaction, though, might just be a reflection of my own attitude toward the ground rules of so-called reality television that is itself – as is generally known – anything but real.

Then again, what is reality? As the writer Leetaru points out, aren’t photographers – or more to the point here filmmakers – by selectively picking time and place, angle and framing device, choosing to tell the story they want? Portraying a reality in the way they prefer, not in a way that someone with a more objective sensibility might pursue? What is real and what is fake is exactly the kind of ongoing argument that is at least part of why the United States is, at this moment, embroiled in such furor.

In the case of “The Painter and the Thief,” though, my own resolution to that conundrum turns out to be simple: What, in the end, is the filmmaker’s intent? And Ree’s intent seems as obvious as it turns out to be positive.

By researching something that intrigued him, he stumbled onto a story far more interesting than a mere art heist: He discovered two damaged people, attached by a crime that affected both, finding in each other a way both to make amends and to face a better tomorrow.

Magic Lantern to offer racially conscious film deal

On Wednesday, I wrote about how — what with everything that's going on in the U.S. since the death of George Floyd — it might be time to revisit the documentary "I Am Not Your Negro," which features the voice and thoughts of the late writer and social critic James Baldwin.

Then I received a timely press release from the Magic Lantern. Not only is the theater offering discount streaming access to "I Am Not Your Negro," but beginning today it's adding two other racially conscious films to its lineup: "Whose Streets?" and "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am."

Even better, the movies are being offered at a discount. As the press release stated, "Instead of the standard 72 hour transactional VOD rental, we're offering them for EST (electronic sell-through) at $6.99. Once purchased, the files never expire. We’re also offering a bundle of all three titles for $15, exclusive to virtual cinema. This pricing is good through June 30."

The links are supposed to be available through the theater beginning sometime today. All proceeds will go to the Carl Maxey Center through June 30.

"These particular films are perennial tools for engaging and educating," the press release emphasized, "so owning them in perpetuity seems to be of growing interest."

Nostalgic for the drive-in? Head to Colville

Despite what is going on in Idaho, where bars and theaters have been allowed to reopen, it doesn't look as if Washington movie theaters are going to be doing business anytime soon — except in the state's five remaining drive-in theaters.

That includes Colville, where the Auto-Vue Drive-in is located, some four miles north of the city on U.S. Route 395.

Remember drive-in theaters? I spent my first several viewing years at drive-ins in Texas, California, Rhode Island and Hawaii, seeing everything from "The Guns of Fort Petticoat" to "Spartacus," "Butch Cassiday and the Sundance Kid" to "Blood Feast."

My first years in Spokane (I arrived here in February 1980) I saw movies at many of the drive-ins that still operated then, from the East Trent and East Sprague Drive-ins to the Y Drive-in and the North Cedar Drive-In (where I recall seeing Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in "Days of Thunder").

This weekend, Friday through Sunday, the Auto-Vue will screen the Harrison Ford vehicle "The Call of the Wild." Admission is $7 for adults, $3 for children 11 and under (Sunday's admission is $15 a car load). 

Expect a late night. The doors open at 8:30 and the show starts at dusk.

It’s a good time to rewatch ‘I Am Not Your Negro’

As protests continue to roil the country, social media sites are full of advice for people who want to know more about racism. For me, reading the work of historian Jill Lepore — author of "These Truths: a History of the United States — is a good start.

But when it comes to cinema, one good starting point is the 2016 documentary "I Am Not Your Negro."

Directed by Raoul Peck, and based on the writings of the noted American novelist, intellectual and social commentator James Baldwin, "I Am Not Your Negro" is — as described by film critic Owen Gleiberman — "a kaleidoscopic and transporting 90 minutes living inside James Baldwin’s mind, coming thrillingly close to his existential perception of the hidden meaning of race in America."

Director Peck, the Haitian-born filmmaker and Haiti's former Minister of Culture, focuses not so much on who Baldwin was — the writer died  in 1987 at the age of 63 — but what he said. Culled from a collection of television appearances (early Dick Cavett, for example), mixed in with archival video footage and clips from movies, Peck's film also features Samuel L. Jackson reading from Baldwin's writings.

One of the film's high points comes when Baldwin is shown in his 1965 televised debate with conservative columnist and TV host William F. Buckley, before an audience of students at Cambridge University. The debate topic was "Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?" and Baldwin makes a convincing argument — leaving Buckly, for one of the few times in his career, fumbling for an answer.

That, of course, is an arguable position. At any rate, Baldwin won the debate. The audience voted 540 to 160 in his favor.

Whatever. Decide for yourself. "I Am Not Your Negro" was a Best Documentary Feature nominee (it lost to "O.J.: Made in America") and is streaming through a number of services, including Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play and YouTube.

Kopple documentaries explore both sides of history

While trying to find something to write about this morning, I searched both my memory and my Internet connection, looking for inspiration. It's been awhile since I've seen America's streets burning, so I've been profoundly affected by that.

Then I stumbled across a website that carried the headline "20 Radical Films to Watch in the Age of Trump." And No. 2 on the list is one of the documentaries that I remember as being influential not just on the film business as a whole but on me as a movie fan.

The documentary? "Harlan County USA," directed by Barbara Kopple. A two-time Oscar-winner for Best Documentary Feature (she won again in 1991 for "American Dream"), Kopple is the definition of the classic documentarian: She took her camera to rural Kentucky to cover a miner's strike and filmed everything as if she were the proverbial fly on the wall.

Just a couple of years later, Errol Morris would help change the whole approach to documentaries, beginning with 1978's "Gates of Heaven" and, in particular, 1988's "The Thin Blue Line." But in 1976 — and throughout 1977 when "Harlan County USA" won widespread release — Kopple defined what a documentary director did.

As the story, written by Christina Newland, points out, Kopple and her crew — comprising mostly women — had spent years getting to know the miners and their families in Harlan County. The sense of trust they'd earned was present when, in 1974, Kopple and her crew were, Newland wrote, "bravely following them to the picket line in spite of threats from company 'scabs.' As a result, the scenes Kopple and her crew are privy to are riveting; she is knocked sideways in a hail of bullets, and witness to the solidarity as well as the squabbles of the tough-minded coalition of miner’s wives."

"Combining plaintive protest song with displays of the miners’ abject poverty," Newland continued, "Kopple underlines the need for Brookside mining company to improve its workers’ living conditions—or else."

What's ironic is that as inspiring as "Harlan County USA" eventually is, Kopple's "American Dream" is all about a workers' protest that failed. And if there is a lesson about workers' dignity in the her first film, there's a glaring subsequent lesson in her second.

As the late Roger Ebert wrote, "I think the lesson is that the American tradition of collective bargaining will break down if companies can simply ignore a legal strike, hire replacements, and continue as before. There was a time in American history when such behavior by management would have been seen as not only illegal but immoral. The new management philosophers who won ascendency in the 1980s dismiss such views as sentimentalism. They are concerned only with the bottom line, where they see profits, not people."

And the further lesson for us today, offered by these two films in tandem? That history is a pendulum, swinging to and fro, and the rights won today must be fought for tomorrow. That's the way it's always been, which is a thought that is half depressing, half inspiring, and fully fitting with what's going on in the world at this very moment.

"Harlan County USA" is streaming through the subscription services offer by the Criterion Channel and by HBO Max. "American Dream" apparently isn't available for streaming but DVDs can be purchased through Cabin Creek Films.

Sci-fi films: best measure of a world gone mad

The best science fiction has always attempted to explore the most important cultural issues of its time. With several major U.S. cities on fire, it's time to look back at some of the best sci-fi social commentaries. And maybe think again about what it all means.

Following are 10 of my favorites:

"Metropolis": Fritz Lang's 1927 silent masterpiece is set in a world split between those who run things (the owners) and those make things run (the workers). Sound familiar?

 "Fahrenheit 451": Most notably adapted by Francois Truffaut in 1966 (but remade in 2018 and starring Michael B. Jordan), Ray Bradbury's story revolves around the burning of books. Always something to consider — and fear.

"Soylent Green": Charlton Heston stars as a cop working in a dystopian world, and investigating the death of a rich guy. Best scene: Edward G. Robinson listening to Beethoven.

"A Boy and His Dog": Straight out of the '70s, this adaptation of Harlan Ellison's book stars Don Johnson in another look at a ruined world — one that doesn't fit very well in a "Me, too" world. Unless, of course, you value satire.

"Planet of the Apes": Reinvigorated by recent remakes, this story of humankind's self-destruction still boasts its most scintillating moment — the closing shot of Franklin J. Schaffer's 1968 original.

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers": Remade more than once, Don Siegel's 1956 original is still arguably the most frightening study of an alien invasion that is really just a mask for the psychology of mob violence.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still": Robert Wise's 1951 original offers up the classic struggle between militaristic fear and scientific deliberation (and despite being dated is far superior to the 2008 remake).

"The Matrix": No film has better explored the notion of reality better than this first in a series. Which pill would you choose: the red or the blue?

"Children of Men": Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 adaptation of the P.D. James novel is a masterful look at a future world in which humans have stopped reproducing. And, yes, the single ray of hope involves pure irony.

"Brazil": Say what you want about all the adaptations of George Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four," I prefer Terry Gilliam's 1985 feature that uses Gilliam's offbeat sense of humor to tell Orwell's same basic story of a guy (Jonathan Pryce) trying to survive in an autocratic world.

Happy dystopic viewing.

‘Crip Camp’: Netflix doc unveils a hidden history

Free from going to movie theaters, I continue to seek out as many streaming sources as I can find. One film that I discovered courtesy of Netflix, is a documentary that is as educational about U.S. history as it is uplifting. It's titled "Crip Camp."

Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Over time, language changes. And with those changes come new ways of thinking.

Or … maybe it occurs the other way around. Maybe new ways of thinking cause us to seek out different ways to say things.

Whichever comes first, the fact remains: Language changes and so do the ways in which we think. One example of that axiom? The fact that we see persons with disabilities differently than we once did. 

Or, rather, the fact that we see them at all. Because once upon a time, but not that long ago, people who for whatever reason didn’t fit into what was described as normal tended to get shut away. Whether what set them apart was present from birth, was caused by an accident or by some contracted disease, people who didn’t fit the so-called norm sometimes were institutionalized, other times shunted off to special-needs classrooms, but mostly were simply hidden from public view.

And they were referred to, often enough, as the disabled, or the handicapped. Not as persons with disabilities, but persons whose disabilities actually defined – and limited – who they were. It was even common enough to hear them referred to as cripples.

Which is largely why the title of the documentary “Crip Camp” sounds so jarring. But that, of course is the point. The film, which is streaming now on Netflix, uses the word “crip” – one of many such words that exist in virtually every language that are used to brand people as different or as something less – and reclaims it. By doing so, a pejorative is thus transformed into a badge, maybe of honor, certainly of power.

It is a transformation that didn’t happen overnight, though. Surely, the kids who in the early 1970s flocked to Camp Jened, a summer camp located in upstate New York, didn’t start out feeling empowered. With bodies bent and twisted, limbs shrunken or even missing, campers such as James Lebrecht and Judith Heumann could be excused for feeling like societal outsiders.

Yet Camp Jened, caught up as much of the country was in the counter-culture movement that led to such events as the Woodstock Music Festival, proved to be a haven for the campers with cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy and/or blindness. It was at Camp Jened that, for the first time, Lebrecht, Heumann and dozens of other campers with disabilities felt as if they truly fit in – where they were treated with respect and understanding and never with condescension.

And for many, it was where they began to realize that they had the same rights as anyone to access what most people take for granted: the ability to board a bus, to navigate a set of stairs, to sit in a regular classroom, to hold down a job, to have the opportunity to prove that they, too, were capable human beings.

“Crip Camp,” which was co-directed by former camper Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham (co-director of the 2006 documentary “The Rape of Europa”), is partly a study of camp life, with black-and-white footage capturing Lebrecht and others communing, playing sports and even engaging in first-time romances. But it evolves into a larger study of the disability-rights movement itself, which came about after much effort – including a 25-day San Francisco sit-in protest in 1977, organized and led by Lebrecht’s camp buddy Heumann – and which resulted, in 1990, with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

I don’t typically end a movie review with a quote, literary or otherwise. But in searching for the right sentiment to apply to Lebrecht and Newhham’s documentary, I stumbled upon these lines written by the poet T.S. Eliot:

“For last year's words belong to last year's language 
And next year's words await another voice.”

Tired of last year’s language, and unwilling to wait for anyone else to provide another voice, the kids of Camp Jened ended up creating next year’s words all on their own.

And principally among them should be the two that tell their story: “Crip Camp.”

Yes, you can start reading the new Rowling online

Unlike most of my friends, I never finished reading the Harry Potter series of books. I stopped, I think, halfway through the fourth in the series of seven ("Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire").

I have seen all of the movies — though, yes, I know they're not the same thing.

Still, I didn't give up on J.K. Rowling as a writer. I've read the first three of her Cormoran Strike novels. And I'll probably give her new children's book, "The Ickabog," a look when it comes out in print as expected in November.

Until then, I'll content myself by reading the chapters that Rowling has posted online. (If you prefer to listen to the very first chapter, check out the embed below.)

And maybe I'll go back and finish the Potter books. This time of quarantine seems like just the opportunity to do it. 

HBO’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’: Language-lesson-plus

Language has always fascinated me. It's why I decided to study literature in college. (The fact that I'm poor at science and math was also a factor, but that's a whole other story.)

I've spent years trying to learn Spanish, Italian and French — with only moderate success. I've never progressed much past the I-can-order-food level (well, basic food such as pizza and beer, at least).

And as an aid to my learning, I watch as many foreign-language programs as I can. One that my wife and I are watching at the moment is "My Brilliant Friend," HBO's adaptation of the novels by Italian writer Elena Ferrante.

Told over two seasons, with a third now in production, the critically acclaimed program follows two young girls who grow up in a suburb of Naples in the decades immediately following World War II. Born to parents who struggle both to make a living and to maintain some level of respectability, the girls find themselves treated more as commodities than actual emotional beings.

Our narrator, Lenù (played by various actresses), is friends with Lila (again, various actresses), a natural-born … well genius might be a bit of an exaggeration. But she's definitely, as the title suggest, brilliant. And irrepressibly independent in both thought and deed.

We've watched all but the final two episodes of the 8-episode first season. And just as soon as we finish, we'll start on season 2. I'm anxious to see how the two girls fare in their lives.

And I just love hearing the Italian, both the proper form and the Neapolitan dialect. It's almost like studying.

But a lot more fun.