Sunday, 28 February 2021

Arts & Life


A seven-episode Netflix series centered on the story of a gifted young female challenging the mid-20th Century male-dominated world of competitive chess may not initially sound like great entertainment but it would be a grave mistake to harbor that misconception.

“The Queen’s Gambit,” the name for an opening chess move, is a story not only focused on the cerebral world of chess as a sport but also about obsession, addiction, and self-destructive behavior that threatens to undermine the brilliance of a child prodigy.

The opening setting is Paris 1967, with American chess whiz Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) roused from her hotel room from what may have been a drunken night of debauchery for a bout with one the best chess players in the world.

The outcome of that match will have to play out at a later time, because the scene shifts back to Kentucky in the Fifties, when nine-year-old Beth (Isa Johnston) survives an automobile crash that kills her troubled, genius mother.

Born into a family that had once been financially secure and with an absentee father nowhere to be found, Beth was living in a decrepit trailer with her mother Alice (Chloe Pirrie) and now she’s an orphan.

Ending up at the Methuen Home for young girls that observes strict rules, the introverted Beth makes few friends, but does find common cause with an older, more cynical girl Jolene (Moses Ingram) who becomes an ally and lifelong friend.

Given that whip-smart Beth completes her classroom assignments faster than the others, she is tasked with cleaning chalkboard erasers in the basement, where she encounters the janitor playing solitary games of chess.

Intrigued by the custodian’s studious affection for the game, Bath watches the reclusive Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) moving the chess pieces on the 64-square board and eventually convinces him to become a mentor.

With an inquisitive mind that she may have inherited from her mother who had a doctorate from Cornell University, Beth quickly demonstrates a grasp for the game that would be unusual in a person so young.

In a fairly short amount of time, Beth manages to best the experienced player. Impressed by the youngster’s skill, Mr. Shaibel arranges for his student to enter a chess tournament at the local high school, where she thumps the practiced opponents.

Meanwhile, the orphanage doles out so-called vitamins on a daily basis to the kids, but the green ones are actually a tranquilizer that is intended to keep the girls docile but results in a mind-altering impact on Beth.

On the advice of Jolene, Beth saves the green pills for nighttime gazing at the dormitory ceiling to visually imagine huge chess pieces moving about in moves that emulate noted stratagems of chess grandmasters.

As a teenager, Beth is adopted by the Wheatleys who reside in Lexington, Kentucky. The notion of an idyllic new life is soon shattered by the fact that the aloof father Allston (Patrick Kennedy) is a traveling salesman who makes excuses to stay on the road.

The mother Alma (Marielle Heller), realizing her marriage is slipping away, is a functioning alcoholic and a gifted piano player who could have carved her own path if not for stage fright.

However tenuous the connection between Alma and Beth, the two of them forge a symbiotic relationship imbued with vulnerability and addiction. Both pop pills and Beth develops an unhealthy attraction to alcohol as an emotional crutch.

After winning the Kentucky regional chess championship by beating local whiz Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), Beth is primed for more contests, which garners the interest of Alma upon realizing prize money is at hand in chess matches.

Beth and her mother embark on a whirlwind of travel, while the media start to bring attention to the young chess prodigy. A tournament win in Cincinnati opens the door to more opportunities.

At the US Open in Las Vegas, Beth meets her equal in US champion Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), but with the good fortune of him on the sidelines the ability to become the American winner is within reach.

A trip to Mexico City allows Beth to meet Russian grandmaster Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), the chess equivalent of the Great White Whale that Beth will eventually have to chase on her trajectory to greater fame.

Graced with terrific period settings that include glitzy Las Vegas, glamorous Paris and Cold War-era Soviet Union, “The Queen’s Gambit” is a visual treat of production values that one has to marvel at the precision of the details.

But more than gorgeous visuals, this limited series is a compelling character study of a chess player who remains an enigma to friends and competitors, seemingly reluctant to have serious emotional connections with anyone.

If anything, the performance of Anya Taylor-Joy as the chess master who battles her inner demons with varying degrees of success and failure is something to behold.

The leading character’s impressively skilled and glamourous outcast, often driven by anger or self-doubt, makes “The Queen’s Gambit” a worthy binge-watch.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

Ted Kooser. Photo credit: UNL Publications and Photography.

BJ Omanson was raised near the Spoon River in Illinois, site of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, and he has compiled a fine book of poems in Masters’ tradition called Stark County Poems, published by Monongahela Books.

Most of them are too long for this column, but here’s one that I like very much that fits our format.

Nowhere to Nowhere

When they sold off the farm she took the child
and caught a bus out of town—as for him,
with everyone gone and everything grim,
he opened a pint of bourbon, piled

pictures, letters and clothes in the yard,
doused them with kerosene, struck a match
and watched as they burnt to ashes, watched
and worked on his whiskey, working hard.

The next morning he caught an outbound freight
heading god-knows-where and he didn’t care—
he was down to nothing, a gypsy’s fare—
down to a rusty tin cup and a plate,

dice and a bible, a bedroll and fate,
down to a bone-jarring ride on a train
through country dying and desperate for rain,
running nowhere to nowhere and running late.

American Life in Poetry does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. It is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2017 by BJ Omanson, “Nowhere to Nowhere,” from Stark County Poems (Monongahela Books, 2020). Poem reprinted by permission of BJ Omanson and the publisher. Introduction copyright @2020 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

Ted Kooser. Photo credit: UNL Publications and Photography.

Often, for me, it’s a single image that really makes a poem, and in this poem by Jeff Worley, from his chapbook “Lucky Talk,” published by Broadstone Books, it’s “a man conducting an orchestra/ of bees.”

How often I’ve looked exactly like that, having blundered into a spider web!

Worley is the current poet laureate of Kentucky.

Walking Through A Spider Web

I believed only air
stretched between the dogwood

and the barberry: another
thoughtless human assumption

sidetracking the best story
this furrow spider knew to spin.

And, trying to get the sticky
filament off my face, I must look,

to the neighbors, like someone
being attacked by his own nervous

system, a man conducting an orchestra
of bees. Or maybe it’s only the dance

of human history I’m reenacting:
caught in his own careless wreckage,

a man trying to extricate himself,
afraid to open his eyes.

American Life in Poetry does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. It is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2018 by Jeff Worley "Walking Through a Spider Web," from Lucky Talk, (Broadstone Books, 2018). Poem reprinted by permission of Jeff Worley and the publisher. Introduction copyright @2020 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. – The public is invited to bring a drum to the Middletown Art Center Art Garden on the corner of Highway 29 and Highway 175 in Middletown for a community drumming circle taking place outdoors on Saturday, Nov. 7.

Musician and music teacher Victor Hall will facilitate the Life Rhythms Drum Circle from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

All ages are welcome. Donations will be accepted. Social distancing and mask-wearing will be observed.

Pre-registration with a donation is recommended, at Your donation supports arts and education programming at MAC.

Join them in community and in healing through rhythm. While awaiting the final election results and manage other stress-inducing events, they welcome everyone to come together to use the rhythms of cultural and personal expression for the release of tension and anxiety and to reinforce our connection to the universal rhythms of life.

Space in the outdoor Art Garden is limited but no one will be turned away for lack of space or lack of funds.

The MAC is located at 21456 State Highway 175 at the junction of Highway 29 in the heart of Middletown.

The MAC Gallery is open Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment at 707-809-8118.

The MAC continues to adjust and innovate during this time of COVID-19. Social distancing and masking are always observed.

Find out more about events, programs, opportunities, and ways to support the MAC’s efforts to weave the arts and culture into the fabric of life in Lake County at


Brutal, gruesome violence on cable television is nothing new. Stabbings, amputated extremities, mutilations, beatings, slit throats, mauling by wild animals, crushed skulls and eye-gouging have become staples with many series.

We may think television programs like “Game of Thrones” and “American Horror Story,” to name two of a zillion, are unique on the scale of bloodshed, but then along comes the British entry of “Gangs of London” on the AMC+ ad-free premium service.

From the very first frame, “Gangs of London” wastes no time establishing its ruthless criminal underworld milieu. Dangling from a high-rise building, a victim witnesses his assailant pouring gas on the rope that holds him high above the ground.

Ignoring the pleas of his quarry, the man sets the rope on fire as it gradually burns through, dropping his prey screaming in pain from the flames to his inevitable death on the concrete pavement.

In a flashback to a week earlier, two jittery young men await a text message that sends them off to a seedy apartment building in Little Albania. Apparently, a drug deal is about to go down as one enters the building while the other waits in the getaway car.

Arriving moments later in a luxury sedan is Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney), the leading crime boss of London. For reasons not readily apparent, he enters the same building while his driver Jack (Emmett Scanlan) waits outside.

The young man waiting in the building, Darren (Aled ap Steffan), is on a mission, but exactly what we’re not sure. Then in a flash, Finn Wallace, standing outside an empty apartment, is gunned down in a hail of bullets.

As the head of an organization that united the city’s most prominent gangs, Finn’s demise leaves a huge power vacuum. First of all, nobody knows who ordered the hit that ostensibly employed two punks to do the dirty work.

With rivals everywhere and billions of British pounds at stake, it’s up to the impulsive, hot-tempered Sean Wallace (Joe Cole), with the help of the Dumani family, to take his father’s place.

The patriarch of the Dumani family is Ed Dumani (Lucian Msamati), and he has been Finn’s right-hand man and consigliere ever since they seized control of London’s underworld two decades ago.

A skilled tactician, Ed Dumani is an influential figure within the Wallace organization who explicitly runs the criminal side of the business. With the approval of his mother Marian (Michelle Fairley), Sean is ready to take the reins of the family enterprise.

Following his father’s funeral, Sean makes it known to the leaders of the city’s other gangs that his primary objective is to first find out who ordered the hit on Finn, followed by cementing his place at the top of the Wallace empire.

Since all of London’s organized criminal activity appears to get the green light from the Wallace clan, there may be any number of suspects that wanted to bump off Finn, which is another reason Sean is fixated on exacting revenge.

Flexing his underworld muscles, Sean orders all criminal business in the city to be held in abeyance until his father’s killer is identified. To no one’s pleasure, Sean manages to close all the ports to incoming contraband.

Haunted by the ghost of his father, Sean must prove to his enemies as well as his mother that he should be in charge, even if he must destroy the business. One crime lord observes that “a boy like him would burn cities just to convince the world he’s a man.”

Meanwhile, Elliot Finch (Sope Dirisu) is a bottom-rung criminal hoping to work his way up the Wallace organization for reasons that could easily imperil his own life, but he proves his worth by taking on some Albanian thugs with the help of Alex Dumani (Paapa Essiedu).

The brawl with the Albanians at the pub across the street from where the Finn Wallace funeral takes place is such an epically vicious fight that Elliot bounces one thug’s head so hard on the bar counter as to impale his face with a beer mug.

The storyline of revenge and criminal activity may seem straightforward but there is much to follow in terms of characters from the Wallace and Dumani families, to say nothing of the criminals from different nationalities operating on British soil.

Aficionados of the gangster genre may be intrigued by the callous and violently bloody carnage of “Gangs of London,” which despite being a cable program feels like a distant cousin of feature-length films such as “Goodfellas” and “Scarface.”

Anyone hoping that the setting of London might feature all the picturesque areas of the city that look so inviting will be disappointed. The scenery shifts too often from gritty slum areas to drab high-rise buildings under construction.

While “Gangs of London” does not stint on violence, the intense drama benefits from effective character development that keeps you wondering about the various threads of dangerous actions that can easily go astray.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


Honestly, Liam Neeson is closing in on being a septuagenarian but he appears to have the strength, energy and vitality of a person at least two decades younger, judging by his ongoing choice of action leading man roles that took off during his middle-age.

In “Honest Thief” Neeson’s Tom Carter, a former Marine with experience in demolition and land mines, is a highly skilled safecracker who targets small-town banks that maintain vaults that are not exactly state-of-the-art.

Methodical in his approach, Tom seems to have patterned his heists on the modus operandi of the 1971 Lloyd’s Bank robbery in central London that was popularized in the 2008 thriller “The Bank Job” starring Jason Statham.

In similar fashion, Tom locates empty space next to the bank, drills through the walls to gain access to air-conditioning vents, and drops into the bank unnoticed to crack the vault, doing all this work over a long weekend.

Stealing $9 million from 12 banks in seven states in about eight years, Tom became a legend dubbed “The In-and-Out Bandit” by the media, a moniker that he abhors because it makes him sound like a random crook.

To counter the press narrative, Tom lets it be known that exercising precision in his work is a badge of honor. He probably thought it best not to be confused with the speed of a fast-food burger chain.

Pride in his craft is something that will be important to Tom when he decides to turn his life around by finding true love and settling down in a middle-class suburban lifestyle.

That day comes when he meets Annie (Kate Walsh) at the Boston self-storage facility where he stashes not just boxes of cash but the kind of household stuff usually abandoned and discovered in an episode of “Storage Wars.”

After some flirting at the storage facility, the story jumps to a year later when Tom and Annie have solidified their relationship to the point that Tom wants them to live together after he finds a new home.

In the meantime, Tom has not divulged his past to Annie, but he wants to come clean and start a new life. Thus, he reaches out to the FBI with an offer to turn over the purloined loot in return for a lighter prison sentence.

FBI Agents Baker (Robert Patrick) and Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan) take the call but believe Tom is just another kook offering up a false confession they’ve heard many times before. They turn the case over to younger Agents Hall (Anthony Ramos) and Nivens (Jai Courtney) to investigate.

Holed up in a Boston hotel room, Tom waits a few days for Hall and Nivens to show up and hands over the key to his storage unit. The savvy bank robber should have had a clue that things were about to go south.

Lacking any kind of moral compass, Nivens seduces his family man partner Hall to reluctantly go along with a ruse to keep the millions for themselves, and it gets worse when they able to frame Tom for a murder.

Of course, Tom has a few tricks up his sleeve that will keep him from being outwitted by a pair of unscrupulous agents that have not carefully thought through their nefarious scheme.

Being fingered for a crime he did not commit is not something the honest thief takes lightly from a pair of immoral lawmen who are too incompetent to cover their tracks. Just like in “Taken,” Tom ominously tells the nasty Agent Nivens “I’m coming for you.”

Meanwhile, Tom is faced with confessing his criminal past to Annie, hoping she’ll understand that not only his love for her but his willingness to sacrifice his freedom would result in absolution for not being honest with her from the start.

Unfortunately, Annie is placed in danger from the fact that Hall and Nivens are aware that her storage facility computer has footage of the two agents packing the boxes of cash in their government vehicle.

While the honest crook Tom ends up playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game with the corrupt federal agents, including the obligatory car chase sequences, Agent Meyers starts to get the idea that something is amiss.

The serious tone of this action thriller is leavened by the wisecracking Agent Meyers and the amusing running gag of being accompanied on duty with the cute little canine inherited in his recent divorce.

Subject to a manhunt and with Annie ending up in the hospital, Tom might ordinarily be cornered by the law before clearing his name of murder, but then you can guess how everything is likely to get resolved in his favor.

To be completely frank, “Honest Thief” is B-movie grade material that is disposable entertainment but it is what I have come to expect and candidly enjoy ever since the “Taken” trilogy offered an action venue for Liam Neeson to exploit.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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