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Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 3

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We return to the present with this beautiful Elton John Christmas spot on the lifelong impact of just the right gift. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching it once without immediately wanting to see it again.

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Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 2

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“O Holy Night” remains the Mount Olympus of Christmas hymns, with its climactic high notes a superior challenge for all vocalists daring to ride its ranges.

Here’s the version by Mariah Carey, chose not only for its very notable rendition but for its church setting, all-in congregation and full-throated choir. Furthermore, Maria never looked more luminous. All in all, just magnificent.

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Uncle Barky's Countdown to Christmas -- Episode 1

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Back by popular demand -- perhaps -- here we go again with the annual “Uncle Barky’s Countdown to Christmas” collection of videos designed to evoke and entertain.

Episode 1 reprises a Dallas Mavericks holiday commercial starring current team members Dirk Nowitzki and J.J. Barea (but just a glimpse) plus an array of former faves, including Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler.

Their assignment was to sing “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” which hardly any of them know. Dirk is particularly amusing in reindeer antlers.

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All hail Season Two of Amazon Prime's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel


Emmy winners Alex Borstein & Rachel Brosnahan remain front & center in Season Two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Amazon photo

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Eagerly awaited. Most anticipated. Still the best.

All of the above hyperbole actually holds true with Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which took a big Emmy shower in mid-September and at last is nearly back for a longer Season Two. Ten new episodes are ready to roll on Wednesday, Dec. 5th, with a Season Three already on order. As holiday season gifts go, nothing could be much finer. OK, a brand new car maybe.

Amazon made the first five episodes available for review, with the usual list of taboo “spoilers” attached. Not to spoil anything, but you might as well pencil in stars Rachel Brosnahan and Alex Borstein for return visits to the Emmy podium next year. They’re still that good in a comedy/drama series that remains peppy, snappy, musically magnificent and bursting with living colors.

Visually speaking, Mrs. Maisel oftentimes steals one’s breath away with its vibrant palettes, whether the settings are New York City, Paris or the Catskills. Yes, Paris. C’est la vie -- without much further elaboration in the interests of keeping viewers guessing on why most of the principals end up there in early episodes.

Mrs. Maisel’s architect, eccentrically irrepressible Amy Sherman-Palladino, had been best known for Gilmore Girls and to a much lesser degree, Bunheads. But this is her masterwork, and she’s already been rewarded for it by being the first woman to win comedy writing and directing Emmys for the same show at the same ceremony. Clearly she’s having a grand time with this late 1950s tale of a Jewish housewife turned struggling standup comic after her husband got horizontal with another woman.

Brosnahan, as Miriam “Midge” Maisel, remains superb in the role, whether running a switchboard, sparring with her parents or sparkling onstage with a rapid-fire ribald act that Sherman-Palladino says is patterned after Joan Rivers’ early efforts to break down gender barriers. Borstein, who broke into the biz as a rep player on Fox’s late night Madtv series, is her indispensable foil as profane Susie Myerson. They met in Season One at The Gaslight Cafe, where Susie tended bar while hoping to someday become a talent manager. Miriam is her would-be meal ticket, but first they’ll have to actually get some gainful gigs. Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) is still around to help grease some skids.

Last season ended with Miriam and her estranged husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), in the throes of possibly getting back together again. But then he witnessed her “act,” which gets laughs at the expense of their previously failed marriage. The guy looked more downtrodden than a New York Jets fan.

Miriam’s well-to-do parents, Abe and Rose Weissman (Tony Shalhoub, Marin Hinkle), remain unaware that their daughter is dabbling in a profession of such ill repute. Joel’s mom and pop, Shirley and Moishe Maisel (Caroline Aaron, Kevin Pollak) likewise are very much in the picture as Season 2 gets underway. This is particularly a career resuscitating role for Pollak, whose verbal bouts with his son are a highlight of the new season’s Episode 2.

In present times, some might see Mrs. Maisel as a little too white and privileged. There are no minority characters of note, which is glaringly evident in Episode 4, when those that can afford it head to The Catskills for an annual two-month summer retreat at the Steiner Mountain Resort. Abe and Rose Weissman are among those who very much can foot the bill, with Miriam happily joining them while poor Susie is left in Manhattan without a client. She shows up anyway, in the guise of a plunger-toting “plumber” hoping to fake her way to free room and board while angling to get Miriam some standup spots at nearby resorts.

The scenes at the Catskills are glorious, painstaking recreations, reflecting times when the Jewish experience (among those of some means) is its own form of distinct diversity. This includes some cringe-worthy moments of self-entitlement, whether it’s Moishe and Shirley arriving very loudly and self-importantly, or Miriam retorting, “Bring that, too” when she’s informed “there’s a baby in the back seat.” Almost beside the point: Miriam has two young children, but oftentimes you’d never know it.

Episode 4 also introduces Zachary Levi (former star of NBC’s Chuck) as a keep-to-himself bachelor and doctor named Benjamin. We’ll see how that goes.

Mrs. Maisel remains loaded with special moments and deft asides. A montage of Miriam’s evolving standup act makes for a terrific start to Episode 3. Later on, Abe’s affection for the Steiner resort’s signature tomato juice is close to being endearing. He remains anal (as Shalhoub was while starring in Monk), but is a case study in relaxation compared to Moishe, who bellows, “In my business (he owns a garment factory), a man sweats and stinks ’til he dies!”

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in contrast still works like a charm.


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Showtime's Escape At Dannemora: A prison break quite unlike any other from a guy who'd been comedic all the way


Benicio Del Toro and Patricia Arquette play co-conspirators in Escape At Dannemora, based on a 2015 New York State prison break. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, Nov. 18th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Patricia Arquette, Paul Dano, Eric Lange, Bonnie Hunt, David Morse
Directed by: Ben Stiller
Produced by: Ben Stiller, Brett Johnson, Michael Tolkin, Michael De Luca, Bryan Zuriff, Nicholas Weinstock, Bill Carraro

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There’s nothing at all comedic, or even serio-comic about Showtime’s Escape At Dannemora, which makes it all the more surprising to see Ben Stiller’s named attached as the director and principal executive producer of all seven episodes.

His previous directorial effort, 2016’s Zoolander 2, in which Stiller also co-starred, makes this quite a segue for the erstwhile madcap son of comedians Jerry Stiller and the late Anne Meara. But here we are, and Ben Stiller for the most part has pulled this off.

Showtime made the entire limited series available for review, and it could benefit from a quickened pace and shorter length. Dannemora at times can seem like a life sentence for viewers, although its grit, realism and performances (particularly by Patricia Arquette and Eric Lange) are major selling points throughout. Almost all of the filming was done on location in a concerted effort to “tell a true story in as real a way as possible,” according to network publicity materials.

Based on a real-life 2015 escape from the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate Dannemora, NY, the events within take up far more space than what happens beyond the walls. It’s not until the end of Episode 5 that convicted murderers Richard “Hacksaw” Matt (Benicio Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) pull off the first getaway in the prison’s 170-year history. Episode 6 then executes quite a twist before the expanded 1 hour, 39 minute finale details what became of Matt and Sweat. (Come to think of it, that kind of sounds like a comedy team.)

Del Toro and Dano are both solidly believable, but the bravura performances in Dannemora come from Arquette and Lange as prison employees who get to taste freedom daily, even if it mostly tastes pretty sour.

Arquette, who won an Emmy for her starring role in NBC’s Medium and an Oscar for her acting in 2014’s Boyhood, is barely recognizable as plain, lumpy Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell. She fully inhabits the role of a prison tailor shop supervisor who succumbs to the sexual seductions and promises of both Sweat and Matt. In return, Tilly smuggles in some of the means for their eventual escape with help from enabling guard Gene Palmer (David Morse), who’s become close with Matt and cherishes the sketches and portraits drawn for him to take home.

Tilly’s husband, Lyle (Lange), is a well-meaning slug who yearns to make his wife happy and appreciative while she increasingly spurns him. Together they’re both pathetic and (very) oddly endearing, making ends barely meet in their hovel of a home. A big night out is dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant followed by Blizzards at Dairy Queen. Both Arquette and Lange craft these roles beautifully. And at the end of Episode 6, the lingering closeup of her satisfied (for now) countenance is one of the best such shots in TV history.

Meanwhile, the planned escape proceeds at a sub-snail’s pace, with Sweat doing all of the dirty, arduous digging and tunnel-crawling in claustrophobic spaces that eventually will lead somewhere. Matt strives to keep him motivated. “For once in our lives, we’re winning,” he exudes.

Episode 5 begins with a meticulously crafted practice run set to a bongo beat. It’s a tour de force from a filmmaking standpoint, taking roughly nine minutes to complete from start to finish. Whether some viewers might grow antsy is another matter. Be assured, though, that you’ll be seeing something quite unique.

Prison dramas have made strong and enduring impressions over the years, including HBO’s Oz and the feature films Cool Hand Luke, The Shawshank Redemption, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Longest Yard and Dead Man Walking.

Escape At Dannemora doesn’t rise to the top of this formidable list, but may someday belong in the discussion. Stiller, for his part, has freed himself from the shackles of comedy and proven that he may well be able to do just about anything.


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