Bordertown: a wild Finnish crime series

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

I just finished my latest Netflix binge, three seasons — 31 episodes in all — of Bordertown, a Finnish crime series set in the real life town of Lappeenranta, a 90-minute drive across the Russian border to St. Petersburg.

Horror writer Stephen King has proclaimed his love for it, and for the lead actor, Ville Virtanen.

I’ve really enjoyed it, for reasons I’ll explain here, but one of them, highly unlikely, is that this summer I interviewed a senior corporate executive via Zoom from her family cottage on an island in Lake Saimaa, the exact setting of this show! The opening credits for each episode are drone images of the lake, whether yachts in a harbor, a huge freighter passing beneath a bridge or logs.

It’s the largest lake in the country — 1,700 square miles.

I’ve been intrigued by the two Finnish women I’ve gotten to know a bit through this new work, my editor and the executive. I’m very interested to visit Finland now, and have been for years since discovering the beautiful black and white photography of the country’s top photographer, Pentti Sammallahti, and buying one of his images at an art show in Manhattan.

It’s a small country, bordered on the east by Russia and the north by Norway and to the west by Sweden, with only 5.3 million people, one of the least densely populated in Europe.

The show follows Kari Sorjonen, a weather-beaten detective who moves to Lappeenranta from the big city of Helsinki with his wife Paulina, who grew up there, and their only child, a teen daughter, Janina.

Unlike most crime shows, their family dynamics are as essential to the story-lines as his work: Paulina has survived brain cancer but she and Janina have a tough time with a man who shows very little emotion and leaves almost every family meal to rush to another crime scene. You really see the effects of his workaholism.

Sorjonen is eccentric as hell — and makes use of a “memory palace” to recall crucial details and make patterns of them to solve crimes. He does this in his bare feet in the basement of their home.

The crimes are varied, and some shockingly brutal, which can get wearying when you watch several shows in a row. But the music is haunting, and the landscapes and homes really beautiful and the characters complex and interesting.

It tends to run in pairs, with two episodes to complete each story arc, but its threads and clues begin at the first episode and go to the final one.

The first two seasons are shot only in summer or fall — with the final third season shot in winter, the crunching of footsteps in deep snow a part of every episode. As someone who loves and misses a snow-covered landscape, I enjoyed that.

And, if you love simple, elegant Scandinavian design as much as I do, you’ll also enjoy the stunning interiors! Lots of interesting hanging lamps, neutral furnishing colors, interesting wall colors and some very nice exteriors, whether a hotel or an office or even a hospital’s interior doors.

One really striking design element — even in all 31 episodes — no bright primary colors like red, blue, green or yellow, or bold patterns, whether in interiors or clothing. The cops all wear black, brown, navy or gray, always in plainclothes and mostly in jeans. The characters all wear shades of gray, brown, cream, pale pink — all of which are flattering to pale Finnish complexions and either dark hair or pale blond. You might see a flash of burgundy in someone’s tie, but that’s it.

And it’s so strikingly unemotional, in American terms — in 31 episodes, I think each parent says “I love you” maybe once to each other and to their daughter, even after she’s been traumatized by a crime. I wonder how much the Finnish tradition of sisu informs this: grit, determination, the pride in just toughing it out.

I noticed a striking absence by the end — not one person of color, ever. No Blacks, Hispanics, Asians; 87% of this very sparsely populated nation are Finns.

Have you seen it?

What did you think?

Manhattan, again — finally!

By Caitlin Kelly

Manhattan is a big place, 13.4 miles in length.

Hard to admit this, but even after decades living near the city and spending so much time there for work and pleasure, there are still places I have never before been.

Washington Heights, a largely Dominican neighborhood (east of Broadway) and now gentrified west of Broadway, dubbed Hudson Heights in 1992 and mostly white, is one.

With a population of 201, 590 it’s large enough to have three zip codes.

I hadn’t been to the city (as suburbanites call NYC) since February and I really miss it.

I met two long-time friends there for dinner, one who lives a block away east of Broadway and one who made the 45 minute subway ride from her home in Queens, one of the city’s five boroughs. Both are fellow freelancers and one was hired to do COVID contact tracing — but, lucky for some but not him, there have been too few cases for him to trace.

Both had also spent time — even together — in Tokyo and Shanghai so I heard a lot of stories about both, and had never been there either.

Our dinner was fantastic and it was absolute heaven to be surrounded, once more, by people and music and laughter. Some wore masks as did all the wait-staff.

Everyone was outdoors and spaced widely enough I did not fear making this choice to be social.

I live in a nice suburban town and enjoy it, but it is really really boring! There’s nowhere to go and nothing to do since the only sure way to protect your health is to stay out of all indoor spaces, even grocery stores.

So to have a few hours surrounded by bustle and chatter and people looking happy, not terrified, was a true joy.

I even found a parking garage (key!) across the street and remembered one of Manhattan’s space-saving quirks — car elevators.

Total cost, between parking, garage tip and a fantastic meal shared with old friends I hadn’t seen in six months, was about $100.

Not cheap, but worth every penny.

14 new books!

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve never been someone who likes online shopping which the pandemic has forced most of us into.

New York State now has one of the U.S.’s lowest rates of infection, so some retail stores are now open again as long as everyone is masked and usually limited to three people in a store at once.

On a recent short break upstate, thanks to two very good bookstores in Woodstock, NY, I splurged on fourteen new books, the largest such purchase I’ve made in many years:

 

IMG_6868

From left to right, top row…

A collection of essays by an Irish writer whose work I don’t know at all.

A novel by the British author Alan Hollinghurst, whose Line of Beauty is one of my favorite books.

How to Write a Book Proposal — since I have done nothing at all on two  book ideas I keep talking about and never working on.

A collection of essays by Rebecca Solnit who seems to get rave reviews from everyone and who I have never read.

Have heard great things about Lanier’s book — and as someone who spends a lot of time on Twitter, very curious to read this.

More fiction.

All my Facebook friends — many of them fellow writers — raved about this when I posted the photo of Beryl Markham’s book.

bottom row, left to right:

Another much-praised novel.

Don’t know this Norwegian’s work at all!

Time to explore New York state much more locally since almost no other country will let us in right now.

Lab Girl is a science memoir — as I’ve recently been interviewing scientists for a variety of stories, this seemed timely.

Have no idea about this book at all!

Big Magic is a book about creativity and I can always use a boost of inspiration.

That last book was staring out at me on a display and simply looked lovely.

 

Recently read:

All The Light You Cannot See, a novel by Anthony Doerr (liked it)

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles (loved it)

Daily Rituals, How Artists Work

Keep it Moving!, Twyla Tharp

 

Any great new books you’re reading?

“First Cow” — great new film!

By Caitlin Kelly

If you don’t yet know the films of Kelly Reichardt, you’re in for a treat.

Her latest, First Cow, is set in the muddy woods of 1820s Oregon, where a weary cook working for a whiny band of trappers meets an on-the-lam Chinese man who murdered a Russian after they killed one of his friends.

It’s not the elegant Jane Austen 1820s of England, with lush green lawns and sprawling estates — but the messy, struggling, brawling world of men trying to establish some sort of life in still-new-to-them America. There are native characters and even un-subtitled dialogue in a native tongue. You feel absolutely in the era.

The contrast between most residents’ mud-floored shacks and the beautifully painted house of the area’s wealthiest man are something — he holds a tea party, yammering on about the latest fashions in Paris and London — while everyone else slips and slides in filthy, ragged clothes.

It’s full of quirky and unexpected moments, like when the wealthy man’s wife, in ruffled burgundy silk, speaks in native tongue and admires the ornate wampum necklace of a visiting chief’s wife.

The film centers on the friendship of the two men, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz and King-Lu, who both really need a break. They have no family or education or money but King-Lu, who has already traveled the world, is filled with ambition. So when the area’s first dairy cow arrives, by boat, their scheme is hatched — they’ll milk her at night and hope no one sees them.

The cow belongs to the wealthy man, the Chief Factor, so their secrecy is paramount.

Then they start making good money selling delicious fried bread made using the stolen milk — and the Chief Factor loves it….

The ending links back to the beginning in a powerful and unforgettable image.

I loved this film!

Reichardt is known for making quiet and powerful movies about marginalized people.

She also (!) writes, edits and directs, extremely rare to have all three skills.

Here’s the film’s trailer.

And here’s a 52 minute video of Reichardt discussing it.

18 holes!

 

IMG_1968

June 2018, The Curtis Cup, a competition held every two years between the best women of Great Britain and Ireland against the U.S.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’d told me a few decades ago I’d be a golfer, I would have laughed. I’d tried it a few times, thanks to golfing boyfriends. But it all looked hard and boring, as so many people feel it is.

But,  as someone who’s been sporty my whole life, I figured I’d try it and if I hated it, stop.  I needed to learn a challenging new skill and my husband adores golf and works as a photo editor and archivist for the United States Golf Association.

To practice and learn, you can start at a driving range where you buy a bucket of balls and hit and hit and hit and hit, trying to get stronger and more accurate with the entire set of clubs, from the driver — for thwacking the first ball off the tee, with a huge head and long, whippy shaft — to the putter, used to gently guide the ball into the hole.

The range is a great place to watch better golfers as well, to see what they do so right.

I rarely see women there, but am not intimidated.

Playing a course — with rough, thick grass (let alone thick with rain!) — is much different from the range, where you hit off a small, dry mat. This was a tough course, too, with a lot of hills and sloping putting greens where you need to figure out how to putt gently while calculating the curve needed for the ball to plop perfectly into the hole.

No pressure!

This week we played 18 holes — the maximum — at a gorgeous county course, built in 1926, called Mohansic, a few miles up the road from where we live in suburban New York. The clubhouse is built of stone, complete with chimneys, and at the ninth hole and another, there are small stone buildings with toilets and food and drink. It’s all really civilized.

Our tee time (the time you start play, always pre-determined by the course’s starter) was 8:10 a.m., which meant getting up at 6:30, which is really early for me. It was misty and cool, the perfect temperature as the course’s only trees are along the sides of the fairway, so there’s almost no shade.

We got matched up with a lone player, a man we’d never met, who was an excellent golfer and a very nice guy, extremely patient with me. I’ve been playing for about five years, but rarely play a game, and had never played a full 18 holes, (about four hours), only nine.

You have to hustle!

That course is very popular and we could see others hot on our heels. So there’s no time to rest or take a break. There’s a five-minute rule that if you don’t locate your ball and get moving, move! It’s considered really rude to hold up the people behind you.

And since the best golfers both hit great distances and accurately, it’s newer ones like me who get more tired because I don’t hit as far and occasionally not where I want. (I only hit into sand traps, a part of every course, three times.)

By the second hole, it was drizzling non-stop and by the 15th, raining more heavily. We were all soaked to the skin! I don’t like heat and sunshine when working that hard physically so I was delighted to be cool the whole time.

I saw only three other women the entire day, all staff at the course. There are two ladies’ leagues there, requiring three try-out rounds to even be considered. We’ll see!

The next morning….ooohhhhhhh, so so so sore! I think maybe one muscle, somewhere, didn’t hurt.

Can’t wait for the next round!

A return to earlier pleasures

Young Caitlin-01

Age six or seven, in our former Toronto back yard, with one of our two Siamese cats, Mitzpah and Horowitz

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m very lucky to live with a skilled photo editor and archivist for the United States Golf Association — whose ability to rescue faded, torn, wrinkled images is amazing.

I’d lost hope for this photo, which is in color and was so so faded! But he brought it back.

Me, back.

This photo means a lot to me, because it’s the only image I have of the last home I shared with both parents, on Castlefrank Road in Rosedale, a lovely neighborhood of Toronto. It would prove to be the last time I lived in a house until I was 15, as my now single mother and I lived in different apartments in Toronto and Montreal.

Bored by isolation during this pandemic, I’ve recently returned to two activities I haven’t done in decades and used to really enjoy —- swimming and playing the guitar.

In my teens, I was a skilled swimmer and used to compete, do synchronized swimming and worked part-time through high school as a lifeguard. But I’ve never enjoyed swimming at the Y — the pool is enormous and even one length daunting.

Luckily, our apartment building pool is open this summer, even if only for two months, and I’m trying to do multiple lengths every afternoon. To my surprise and joy, I’m finding it really relaxing, and a great time to stretch out muscles cramped from too much sitting.

I used to play guitar and write songs and haven’t even touched it in 20 years. But it’s time! I’m excited and nervous to start building up the calluses needed to play without pain. I love singing and really miss it.

 

Have you taken up new skills or activities in the pandemic?

 

Or re-discovered older ones you’d let go?

 

Oh la la! New must-see: “Call My Agent!”

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s the best!

You can find three seasons of this terrific French series on Netflix, its original name “Ten Per Cent” — the amount each agent recoups from their clients at the Paris-based ASK talent agency.

 

Formidable!

 

I haven’t laughed so much in a long time.

 

The agency, owned by a man named Samuel who dies unexpectedly while away on holiday, thereby tossing the agency into chaos, infighting and intrigue:

 

Who’s Camille and why does she keep stealing glances at Mathias?

Will Mathias be able to buy out the owners’ widow’s shares?

Will his team agree?

Will shark/agent Andréa ever find true love — and does she even want it?

Will Sofia, the ambitious receptionist, finally launch her acting career?

 

The characters are fantastic — Gabriel, Andréa, Arlette and Mathias as agents, Noémie, Camille and Hervé as their loyal assistants, Sofia the receptionist. And Jean Gabin, a feisty little white terrier who manages to steal many scenes, always with Arlette.

Recurring characters include Mathias’ wife, his former mistress and a parade of gay women whose hearts Andréa keeps so carelessly and selfishly breaking.

And — so cool! — major French actors and actresses who simply play themselves, with a new one in every episode, Nathalie Baye, Isabelle Huppert, Guy Marchand, Jean duJardin and many more.

The drama and laughs are never-ending as the agents try to out-scheme one another, as Mathias is wooed by a competing agency, as Camille, new to Paris at 23, finds her professional footing — and so many screw-ups!

My father made films for a living and I love movies, so I really enjoy this funny/serious inside look at all the many many things that can go wrong trying to find the right actor or script or director, wrangling a set, how to manage a sex scene between two actors who loathe one another…

It’s also a poignant look at actors’ fragile egos and their very real need for steady, career-building projects, even when they actually don’t already know how to ride a horse or speak French Canadian French or swim or dance hip-hop (all of these are real plot-lines!)

You realize how many skills some have to learn, fast, to win a coveted role or work with a great director.

And see the personal heartbreak of an extra whose only two lines of the whole film get cut.

It really shows the work and hustle and negotiation that makes entertainment even possible.

Plus — Paris!

 

“Fame” — 40 years later

 

IMG_0875

Lincoln Center, New York City

 

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’ve never seen this movie, you’ve missed a classic!

New York City practically vibrates with ambition — and schools thousands of super-talented teens at places like Juilliard, the School of American Ballet, and The High School for the Performing Arts.

In May 1980, a film about the latter (not shot in the actual school) was released, and its ebullient soundtrack still makes me smile — the title song won the Oscar for Best Song and the soundtrack won the Oscar as well.

It follows a handful of teens from their first year — as Americans call it, freshman year — through to graduation. One, Doris, has a frighteningly pushy stage mother. Another lives alone in an empty apartment, paid for by his absent mother. A third has a father who drives a classic yellow cab (long gone!) who bursts with pride at his son’s talent.

Friendships form. Teachers push them hard, one cautioning them how very difficult it will be to make a living at their art.

What struck me most, watching it again last week, was not the aching, yearning YES! I felt about it all in my early 20s…I had graduated university in 1979 and was just starting my journalism career — but the film’s  darkness and sadness as well.

The characters’ adolescence is filled with the angst and self-doubt we all experience, but often prefer to forget.

From Wikipedia:

In 1976, talent manager David De Silva attended a stage production of A Chorus Line and noticed that one of the musical numbers, “Nothing“, had made a reference to the New York High School of Performing Arts.[3] The musical inspired him to create a story detailing how ambition and rejection influence the lives of adolescent students.[5] In 1977, De Silva travelled to Florida, where he met playwright Christopher Gore. He paid Gore $5,000 to draft a script titled Hot Lunch, and provided story ideas involving the plot and characters.[5] De Silva took the project to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), which acquired the script for $400,000.[1]

Director Alan Parker received the script after the release of his previous film Midnight Express (1978).[1][3] He met with De Silva in Manhattan, New York, where the two agreed that Parker would draft his own script,[3] with Gore receiving sole screenwriting credit.[5] Parker also enlisted his colleague Alan Marshall as a producer.[3] Gore travelled to London, England, where he and Parker began work on a second draft,[1] which was significantly darker than what De Silva had intended. De Silva explained, “I was really motivated and interested in the joy of what the school represented for these kids, and [Parker] was really much more interested in where the pain was in going to the school, and so we had our little conflicts based on that area.”[5]

 

What’s most striking to me, now, is how sheepish and scared the characters are about their racial and sexual identities — one finally pronounces himself, with barely disguised disgust, as “homosexual.” Another mocks his Puerto Rican roots. And AIDS was just on the horizon, and would soon decimate so much talent just like these youngsters.

Love the dance scenes.

Love Anne Meara as the tough-love teacher.

Love the honesty about the brutal competitiveness and insecurity that’s a part of life for every artist, no matter how talented or ambitious.

This song, I Sing the Body Electric, is just gorgeous…

 

 

 

 

 

“Trapped” — perfect pandemic TV!

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Thanks to a Nordic pal here in the U.S., we recently discovered Trapped — and loved! — this Icelandic cop show.

It’s the most expensive series ever filmed there, two seasons of 10 episodes each, from 2015.

I might be the only person left in the world who has yet to visit Iceland, but I can now really see why people go. What a spectacular and dramatic landscape it is!

It only has 364,000 people, and 60,000 in the capital, and is the most sparsely-populated nation in Europe.

The characters in Trapped are all very human, often confused, working either in Reykjavik or an isolated small town on a fjord — where the evil runs mighty deep and sometimes for generations.

There’s Andri, the police chief in Season One, who’s a tall, hefty guy with a thick brown beard and hair that always needs brushing, His assistants, Hinrika and Asgeir, are small town residents, and a real contrast — Hinrika is tough, smart and cynical while Asgeir is always vaguely goofing off and playing chess on his computer.

Their police station is small, and, like everything here, absolutely dwarfed by snow-capped mountains.

The sense of being trapped in this show has many layers: by small town life, by family dramas and secrets, by unsolved murders and disappearances, by ambition. Mostly by weather! So much snow, rain, ice! Roads get shut down and planes and helicopters grounded.

The opening credits are visually very strong and the music very good, initially composed by the late and very talented Johann Johannsson.

By Season Two, Andri has moved back to big-city Reykjavik, and Hinrika is now police chief. But her marriage to Bardur, 20 years her senior, is ending and Andri’s oldest daughter has become a rebellious 15-year-old in a lot of black eyeshadow, living with an aunt.

The pace is slow, but there’s plenty of plot development and it takes a while to finally reveal who’s the true baddie.

Along the way, we get to see Icelandic sheep farmers and ponies and an enormous ferry that is key to the first season plot. There’s a female minister whose formal collar is a white ruffle that looks positively medieval.

Several people die in gruesome ways — consumed by flames, and one with a bolt gun used to kill sheep.

But it’s really compelling and the murder of one character left us on the the verge of tears.

Here’s the Wikipedia entry about Baltasar Koromákur, its creator.

 

Have you seen it?

 

 

Visit the UK, through 18 great TV shows!

Here’s a great list of British TV shows from The Guardian:

I’ve seen some of those they recommend, my thoughts on these:

 

Derry Girls

Heaven! I’ve watched this one several times and can’t decide which of the girls I love best — dreamy Orla, brash Erin, permanently-outraged Clare or hellraiser Michelle. And their goofy aunt Sarah and their cousin James, initially very much derided for being…OMG… English. Their accents are so thick and they speak so fast you’ll be hard pressed to follow along, a great excuse for watching it over and over! If you can resist Sister Michael, I despair. Also, great new vocabulary — vomit (boak) or a sexy guy (ride).

 

Poldark

Sigh. Swoon. Sigh.

I’m crushed the pandemic will postpone my Poldark-inspired trip I’d so hoped to make this fall to Cornwall, a place I’ve never visited yet whose landscapes and town names have become so familiar, thanks to this gorgeous show.

It’s the unlikely love story of Ross Poldark, injured fighting against would-be Americans in the Revolutionary War, returning to his ancestral home after four years, eager to marry his sweetheart, Elizabeth — newly engaged to his cousin. Instead, he ends up marrying his kitchenmaid, Demelza, flame-haired, outspoken, and a scandal to all his well-born neighbors.

Ross fights endlessly to make local copper mines profitable, with multiple story lines through it all, like the initially doomed love story between Morwenna and Drake. If you, as I do, enjoy spectacular scenery and 18th c interiors, clothing and other details, you’ll love it.

 

Broadchurch

Hard to go wrong with the tremendous Olivia Colman (who went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress for her role as Queen Anne in The Favourite) in the lead! Her partner is the  lean, foul-mouthed David Tennant, a pair of police in Dorset trying to solve the murder of a young child.

 

Shetland

Spectacular scenery — made me want to get there asap! Another police show, but in a setting very few of us will likely ever see firsthand.

 

A few more The Guardian didn’t include:

 

Endeavour

A cop show set in and around Oxford in the 1960s and 70s, with a young police detective named Endeavour Morse and his older fedora-clad partner, Fred Thursday — who, in earlier episodes, drive the most gorgeous vintage Jaguar you’ve ever seen.

 

Happy Valley

A cop show, much darker in tone, with the tremendous Sarah Lancashire in the lead, in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. The lead bad guy, who is really scary, is played by the dishy James Norton.

 

Call The Midwife

 

This is a must-see, (even if you’ve never had kids) or don’t especially want to watch every episode’s inclusion of a (very quick!) birth. Set in Poplar, a poor section of East End London, this long-running series starts in the 1950s and as it progresses through the years, includes medical plotlines like polio, thalidomide and the Pill. Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth.

 

Grantchester

The pairing of a handsome young vicar and a crusty local cop, Jordy, makes this show charming and quirky. James Norton is the vicar — quite disorienting if you also watch Happy Valley!

 

Last Tango in Halifax

Welcome to the world of Sally Wainwright, who created many of the shows I’m recommending here, including Gentleman Jack. LTIH is one of the very few shows that features a married couple in their 70s and their two adult daughters are — as the British would say — chalk and cheese, wildly different. Gillian is the feckless farmer always in some sort of trouble (Nicola Walker) while Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) is a prim, blonde, expensively-dressed headmistress of a private school. Many family dramas, but none unbelievable.

 

Bodyguard

I love Keeley Hawes, probably best-known as playing Louisa Durrell in The Durrells in Corfu. Here she’s a steely, cold senior government official — with a troubled soldier appointed to become her bodyguard.

 

Gentleman Jack

An 1832 setting, a wealthy and very determined landowner — female, lesbian — and you have an unlikely story, based on period diaries. Suranne Jones is fantastic in the lead role.

 

Unforgotten

I love watching Nicola Walker in anything and this detective show — with her as the lead — is excellent.

 

Two things strike me about these British shows — they often include a number of older (60s, 70s or older) regular characters, almost invisible in American television.

And the number of times you’ll see the same (very talented) actors playing wildly different characters can be quite disorienting!

Do you have any favorite British TV shows?