“Being the Ricardos”–Making America Great Again

Academy-Award nominated Being the Ricardos  (2021) opens in the  the year 1939 with a handsome 22-year old Cuban singer named Desi Arnaz (played by Javier Bardem), touring the country with his orchestra.  After Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi fall in love and marry, Desi continues to have modest success on tour while Lucille struggles with bit parts in low-budget films. 

After ten years trying to breakthrough to stardom, Lucille turns to radio, and with “My Favorite Husband”,  finds a popular medium for her comic timing.  CBS asks her to continue the show on television, renaming the program “I Love Lucy”. Premiering in 1951, at Lucille’s insistence, Desi assumes the role of her TV husband.  At the peak of its popularity, over 60 million viewers are enamored with the weekly comedy.  “I Love Lucy” also coincides with McCarthyism and Lucille Ball admits she supports Communism, while Desi does not.

After the first broadcast of the  “I Love Lucy” , the series has become an icon of popular culture for over half a century. In those early years of television, the rules for comedy were still being established. And Lucille Ball oversaw and wrote many of the most famous scenes–on the factory assembly line, the dining room bickering, the wine-crushing vats.  But beyond “I Love Lucy’s” considerable influence on future comedians and television in general is an inarguable truth: “I Love Lucy” is timeless in its humor and subtly subversive for the 1950s.

There are two main reasons for watching Being the Ricardos:  1) Nicole Kidman channels Lucille Ball in appearance and voice.  Her performance is no less than astounding. Kidman continues to demonstrate a remarkable ability to make us share her character’s feelings.  2) The 1950s are shown in unsettling  details, some mirroring the puritanical values of The Handmaid’s Tale.  In one scene Lucille Ball, who has become pregnant, is determined to win the fight with corporate executives to show that pregnancy is not to be censored as obscene.  The management, not accustomed to their position being challenged–much less by a woman–are forced to relent.

Being the Ricardos is not a memorable film, but this pandemic is replete with marginal movies and television series.  The pace is slow with superficial interviews with co-workers, fellow actors, and friends of the Ricardos.  The result is disruptive and drags the main story:  the marriage and professional life of  Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.  Yet Being the Ricardos is  revealing as it encapsulates the  historical details of which many viewers are unaware.  The 1950s were by no means glory days–and this movie indicates some of the period’s underbelly.  For that reason alone, Being the Ricardos is worth watching.

Availability: Amazon Prime

“The Dressmaker”–Quirky Down-Under Drama

Based upon Rosalie Ham’s novel by the same name, The Dressmaker  (2015) gives us an opening scene in which  10-year-old Tilly Dunnage is being bullied by classmate Stewart Pettyman, the mayor’s son,  and a group of boys in Dungatar, a town in the  Australian outback. With little investigation she is sent away by police Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving) for the boy’s murder.

Twenty-five years later (1951) Tilly (Kate Winslet) returns to Dungatar after a highly successful career as a couturier working in Paris.  Presumably returning to care for her mentally unstable mother Molly (Judy Davis), Tilly is mistreated by her mother and all the townspeople who have animus towards her for the alleged murder of Stewart Pettyman.  Her mother does not remember the past nor her daughter’s ordeal as a child, but clarity of mind soon prevails and Molly begins to realize her recall bias and the faulty, convenient memories of the townspeople of Dungatar.  Only a few townspeople, including Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) and Gertrude (the surprising Sarah Snook who plays “Shiv” in the HBO series Succession), are willing to accept Tilly as she is, not her rumored past. Tilly is immediately too generous in spirit and too sophisticated, not to mention too glamorous, for Dungatar. But, she’s also unwilling to forgive and forget.

The characters are a wonderful, unexpected and thoroughly captivating array of narrative weirdness which will hold viewers’ attention.   The goofball, comedic scenes–a crossdresser, for example– may or may not be a comfortable fit for some viewers.  And humor is mixed with the cusp of a thriller, Dexter-style, in a surprising plot twist.  In some ways The Dressmaker reminded this reviewer of the classic “The Visit” (1964) or the more recent “Dogville” (2003).

The actors embrace the mayhem, with the remarkable, always noteworthy and energetic Kate Winslet and Judy Davis in the lead roles.  As the events of The Dressmaker unspool, it is frequently unpredictable:  where will the narrative take us next?  And then it goes further than one would think:  into the absurd…in a good way.  The unexpected journey is one worth taking.  The ensemble of misfits is highly original and quirky, making The Dressmaker an enjoyable and cheeky indie film. 

Availability:  Netflix DVD and Amazon Prime

“The Lost Daughter”–Missing Mom

In her directing and writing debut  Maggie Gyllenhaal gives us  The Lost Daughter,  a courageous look at the “maternal instinct”… which isn’t. Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman), a college professor, is vacationing in a quaint Greek resort. Traveling alone with her books, she is enjoying a lazy day on the beach when she observes Nina (Dakota Johnson), a distracted young mother,who is not watching her little girl. When her daughter goes missing, Leda manages to find her. In a series of  flashbacks, a younger Leda (played by Jessie Buckley) has a troubled relationship with her two daughters.  The two women–Leda and Nina–seem to have parallel lives.

The Lost Daughter is a multi-layered, nuanced look at how overwhelming  and relentless parenting can often feel. Unbearable feelings of guilt are hard to suppress. It’s rare to see such a raw look at the emotions behind what is often referred to as the joy of motherhood.  [I am reminded of the phenomenal 2021 novel, The Push, by Ashley Audrain.]

Colman and Buckley give supeb perfomances as Leda.  But not all is well here.  The Lost Daughter is amorphous with little backstory to explain why and how Leda became such a damaged mother. This resulted in not caring or becoming sympathetic to their unfortunate relationship with their daughters and the dilemmas and difficult choices they felt they had to make.

How much of a woman’s identity is given up for the sake of mothering a child?.  The Lost Daughter is a  compelling portrait of troubled  motherhood. Nina and Leda have  no obvious support for things unsaid. Although The Lost Daughter lacks sufficient backstory to understand why motherhood can be so difficult for Leda, it is a fascinating venture into unmarked territory.

Availability: Netflix streaming

My Top 30 Movies and TV Series for 2021

While we all continue to  shelter-in-place during this lockdown, many of us craved new content to watch, some less well-known and under-the-radar.  Well, this year I watched more movies and television than ever before, so I have thirty to recommend, instead of the usual 15-20.

Here are the reviews I wrote this past year with the criteria that they were available online since movie theaters were either shut down or offered very limited screenings. Of the 52 reviews I reviewed this year, here are my favorites.  Yet another difficult year to make my “listicle”.  As in past years, both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling and intriguing characters.

The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre and date of review.  

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1)Toni Morrison:  The Pieces I Am–Dissembling the American Dream (February 22 review)

Toni Morrison (1931-2019), the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, was a complex artist who did not hold back from confronting the worst of human history. This documentary is a historical panorama of a slice of history dating from the 1930’s. Morrison emerges as a powerful, iconic, and formidable moral and intellectual force. The film gives us a retrospective of her groundbreaking novels which challenged the literary status quo,   rewarding the reader with imagining black lives on their own terms, devoid of the “white male gaze”.

2)  Promising Young WomanBreaking Over and Over Again (March 15 review)

Don’t let the title mislead you.   In the opening scene we see a very inebriated Cassie barhopping and wandering the city streets at night. The viewer doesn’t know why this bright and attractive woman is engaged in such risky, dangerous behavior.  This is an extraordinary directorial debut that explores sexual aggression, objectification of women, and the denial of women’s voices.

3) I Care a LotCaregiver or Caretaker?  (April 5)

This is a stomach-churning ride with a lot of venom and dismay that people assigned to be guardians for the most vulnerable may get away with highly irregular, if not criminal behavior.   Resources are stretched allowing the court-appointed caregivers to  conceal bad acts  because they are  trusted.  They come in and steal under false pretenses and strip the victim of all credibility.   And Rosamund Pike’s and Peter Dinklage’s twitchy, angry staggering performances menace one another in a vicious death spiral. Until the very end of I Care a Lot the viewer is treated to unexpected twists and turns, in one traumatic scene after another.

4) Ammonite–Two Women Shedding Their Shells (May 3)

This highly original biopic of a little-known woman scientist highlights the obscurity in which women of renown nevertheless hid in plain sight.   Set in the coastal village of Lyme Regis, in 1840s England, this film chronicles the intense relationship between the acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter and paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and a young affluent woman, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan).  Their friendship transforms both of their lives.

5) Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker-First Female Millionaire in the US  (May 24)

A little-known and highly unlikely story of the black hair care pioneer during turn-of-the-century America, Self-Made recounts Madam C J Walkre, a brilliant entrepreneur, who created thousands of jobs during the worst of the Jim Crow era  and became a neighbor of John Rockefeller in upstate New York.  No bank loans, no white retail store support, and competition and sexism among the Black male business community presented almost insurmountable obstacles to Madam CJ Walker’s dreams and ambitions.  Walker’s story is one of extraordinary grit, cunning and marketing ingenuity, and absolute determination against post-slavery racial and gender oppression.

6) Navillera-Soar Like a Butterfly (July 25)

 Navillera in Korean means “like a butterfly.”  Sim Deok-chul, a retired mailman,  is celebrating his 70th birthday with his wife, three sons and their wives.  He has always dreamed of performing “Swan Lake” on stage and now, at his advanced age,  is determined to follow his passion after seeing how  his friends regret not pursuing the dreams of their youth.  Accidentally, he observes a  gifted male dancer Lee Chae-rok, practicing for his upcoming ballet competition.  This quirky and endearing sleeper mini-series from Korea is a definite winner. 

7) CodaA Song from the Heart  (September 7)

How does a hearing child raised by deaf parents acquire speaking skills, and navigate school with students who do not understand what her life is like straddling two cultures:  Deaf and hearing?  That is the main theme of Coda, yet laced with humor and the usual teenage angst towards parents. . . and then some. 

8) Squid Game–Hunger Games Meets Snowpiercer: Gangnam Style  (October 13)

An over-the-top critique of what happens when the powerless are at the mercy of the powerful. The series’ brutality and bloodfest give off a computer-game vibe, where the body count is grotesque but meaningless.  This is what Squid Game drives home. I was begrudgingly captivated by Squid Game. It hooks in the voyeur’s curiosity:  watching a car-accident, a boxing match, contact sports, “survival” tv, or gladiator-style competition.

9) Supernova–Nebulous? (November 1 review)

“A person dies when he loses his memories.” Sam, a concert pianist, and Tusker, a novelist, travel across England’s Lake District,  in their van  to visit friends, family and places from their past. Tusker was diagnosed with dementia two years ago, and Sam and Tusker have been partners for over thirty years. Driving along in their van, Sam and Tusker first engage in the familiar banter of any long-married couple who have spent the majority of their lives together.  Tusker’s early onset dementia, frightening to both of them but left unsaid, soon has to be acknowledged. Both main characters’  worlds begin to unravel in terrifying ways and the viewer soon realizes that whatever has just happened, the worst is yet to happen.

10) Chestnut Man–A Nut Case (December 6 review)

This series,  a Nordic Noir crime thriller,  has violent and gruesome serial murders, a workaholic  female detective, an initially ineffectual male partner, and a dark and ominous landscape. This is  a story concerned with mangled corpses, haunting blood pools, and a weaponization of a childhood arts and crafts project.  In 1987 a local sheriff walks into a barn in response to a call that some of the farmer’s cows have escaped.  He finds three people brutally murdered, and a fourth seriously injured. Chestnut figures, toothpicks sticking out for hands and feet, are nearby.   

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

11) The ReagansTruth at Last (January 18 review)

How the carefully curated story becomes the reality is the emphatic warning of The Reagans.  Beginning in  the 1950s, when Reagan first testified in front of Senator McCarthy to support investigating and expelling film industry professionals as communists, we see the former Screen Actor Guild  president rewrite the facts of his own life.    Scanning the political landscape with her bird-of-prey eyes and instincts, Nancy was a force to be ignored at a politician’s own peril.  Nancy’s stagecraft is in play when announcing her husband’s presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi –the notorious site of a Ku Klux Klan massacre.  The viewer sees Reagan’s dog whistle raise the attention of those who will be his first believers.

12) The Father A Patriarch’s Decline (April 12)

A devastating, disquieting journey into the horrors of dementia, both for the afflicted and for those who are close to the afflicted.    The viewer is invited into a breathtaking and  wrenching look at advancing dementia through both the individual frightened by what is happening and to the no-less-terrified family and caregivers. Watching a loved one die is always harrowing, but dementia makes it especially so, as the patient not only slips away mentally, but lashes out in angry and hurtful ways as they do so.  The Father  breaks new ground on this difficult subject.   

13) The Mauritanian–Guatanamo Diary (April 19)

We see the endurance of a young Mauritanian, Mohamedou being held in Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.  The legal drama The Mauritanian demonstrates the lawyer’s duty to represent a client, regardless of  doubt in his innocence, and whether winning at all costs is what a justice system should condone.  after going to trial, there is a surprising turn of events.  Definitely worth watching for a better understanding of the existence and ostensible justification for Guantanamo Bay.  A painful reminder that Gitmo still prevails, twenty years after 9/11, with detainees who have never been charged.        

14) Red Dot–Laser Focused (May 17)

Trying to put more excitement into their marriage, Nadja and David, a young doctor and engineer, decide to go on a camping trip in a remote forest in Sweden, fantasizing that it will be romantic, gazing at the Northern Lights with their adorable dog.  The impending “excitement” is not exactly what they bargained for, however.  Stalked by an unseen enemy, they become the targets of a hellish nightmare.  Red Dot is an intense psychological thriller.

15)Tell Me Your Secrets–Tell Me Your Lies  (June 27)

All three main characters have pasts which haunt them and each other.  As their damaged psyches unravel their secrets to each other, more questions arise:  Is Karen/Emma being truthful when she claims she doesn’t know about the murders? Is there a natural tendency to gaslight and condemn women whose lovers are criminals, guilty by association? Can a brutal serial killer actually be capable of redemption?  And when does a mother’s obsessive quest for a missing child become pathological?

16) The Underground Raiload–Tracking US History (july 5)

The Underground Railroad, in the mid-1800s,  was actually a network of safe houses and routes from the southern US up into Canada– with other routes to Mexico (which had abolished slavery decades earlier).  The book and film re-imagine these escape routes and safe havens as an actual train running underground to assist runaway slaves in their escape from their plantation owners.

17) Mare of Easttown–Living with the Unacceptable  (July 12)

In this merciless seesaw of harrowing grief, we witness the main character, policewoman Mare Sheehan– and all those impacted by her son’s death–lose him a thousand times in a thousand ways. As a mother, a source of her agony is the realization that she cannot protect her children.  The multiple characters demand focus and attention to detail in order to understand the mystery and the jaw-dropping final scene. 

18) Cruella–DeVil’s Delight?  (July 28)

Set in London in the 1970s, Cruella focuses on the backstory of the woman who becomes Cruella DeVil, the villain in the beloved children’s story, 101 Dalmatians.  This Disney film is the origin story of Cruella DeVil.   Beautifully costumed, creatively re-interpreting characters from the much-loved two previous 101 Dalmatians films, we are treated to a prequel like none this reviewer ever expected.

19)  Unforgotten (Season 4) And Unfogettable (August 3)

DCI Cassie Stuart is a brilliant sleuth.  She is a master at understanding the connection between good intentions on one hand and bad actions on the other.  Despite that clear-headed detective’s acumen, will the darkest corners of Cassie’s psyche overwhelm her?  She is frequently at the mercy of her emotional tides, regretting her impulsive responses.

20) Silent Witness or Dead on Arrival (August 11)

The title character is a corpse lying on a slab prepared for a post-mortem analysis–a “silent witness”  providing evidence of a crime, suicide, or death by natural causes.   Stories untold, things unsaid. The crimes range  from human trafficking to  biological weapons, drug cartels, organized crime, corporate skullduggery, mental illness, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the occasional insurance scam or  accident. The most insignificant anatomical anomaly or physical trace of soil or insect can indicate whether a death is a suicide or a homicide, an accident or not.   

21) Sandra Day O’Connor–The First (September 20)

Although Sandra O’Connor graduated at the top of her Stanford Law School class (one of only four female students),  no law firms interviewed her. While her fellow classmate and future husband, John O’Connor, thrived in a successful law firm, Sandra was resigned to set up her own law office to offer her legal services to anyone who entered on a walk-in basis:  mostly bankruptcy and small claims clients.  Her riveting–often unexpected– family and career trajectory are explored in this timely biographical portrait. 

22) Goliath Season 4 Finale–Addiction (October 5 review)

 We see again the still down-and-out “lemon lawyer” Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton) take on a giant corporation.  This time it is an opioid mega-corporation, Zax Pharmaceuticals, and its billionaire CEO).   In a fierce and lurid courtroom battle in San Francisco  (eerily conjuring the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma in recent headlines), will McBride prevail?

23) The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (November 7)

In 2014 Theranos is  a startup in blood-testing technology.   Filmed at Theranos’s spectacular Silicon Valley headquarters in Palo Alto, The Inventor follows founder, Elizabeth Holmes,  hailed as the youngest self-made female billionaire.  With a multi-billion-dollar valuation, and a recent $400 million investment from many Trump supporters (the Waltons, Betsy DeVos, Murdoch) as well as other luminaries with gravitas–George Shultz and Henry Kissinger (both former Secretaries of State), General James Mattis, and a stable of others, Theranos is revealed to have been a massive con game, with its pending collapse looming just around the corner.

24) American Rust–Corrosion and Decay (November 23)

Police chief Del Harris (Jeff Daniels), struggles with his past.  He is  an  Army combat veteran with  PTSD, investigating the  murder of a fellow police officer. Billy Poe, son of the woman he loves, is suspected of the murder.  In the opening scene, we see the waste and decay in Buell, Pennsylvania–a “flyover” town outside Pittsburgh. The residents and community are on the margins of life.  Two teenagers, Billy Poe and his best friend, Isaac English, are seen running from the murder scene,  the abandoned steel mill.  Isaac flees and Billy is left to maneuver the police and prison system.

25) Impeachment: American Crime Story  (November 29)

From the point of view of Monica Lewinsky, a naive twenty-two year old intern, we witness her self-destructive infatuation with a charismatic  president. There are more than several awful and illegal actions taken against Monica: interrogation in a hotel room by the FBI without legal counsel present; threats by Bill Clinton’s staff; media “slut-shaming” for her testimony–all make Impeachment a compelling narrative presenting facts and corrupt behavior not well-known.

26) Dopesick–Lies Upon Lies (December 13)

Dopesick” refers to the excruciating withdrawal from OxyContin  and this mini-series  depicts  withdrawals in  visceral detail where most other shows only touch the periphery.   Multibillion-dollar Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family are the true drug cartel behind America’s opioid crisis.  The Sacklers’  avoid culpability and accountability for years by paying relatively low million-dollar fines while retaining billions as they continued to increase distribution of the drug.  The drug lords here, like Walter White in “Breaking Bad”, are quite aware of the horrific consequences of their business.  Dopesick exposes the systemic manipulation of people for profit. 

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

27) Your Honor–Judge Me Not (March 22 review)

Unconditional love–are there limits?  A highly respected recently widowed New Orleans judge, Michael Desiato  is known for his fair and impartial sentencing of young criminals. But the judge  gets personal to protect his teenage son, Adam, from the consequences of his reckless actions. Time after time the judge tries to use some moral principle to justify bad acts, and it all goes horribly wrong.

28) The One–A Perfect Match DNA-Style(August 22)

Can true love be analyzed and dissected by science?   Entrepreneur Rebecca Webb uses her own husband as proof that genetic matchmaking works.  Her own match is  purportedly the perfect soulmate identified through algorithms and DNA analysis.  Her message:  “You’re not going to end up alone.”As CEO of the start-up MatchDNA, Rebecca becomes unimaginably wealthy manipulating the human desire to find one’s perfect match.   Through scientific datamining, MatchDNA promises to  shortcut all dating disappointments.

29) The Chair–Academic Patriarchy (August 29)

The English department is not at all popular with students. Declining enrollments are triggering budget cuts and forced early retirement on the old white professors who never thought of sexism and racism. Ji-Yoon is highly motivated to bring excitement to teaching, modernize the curriculum, and work toward greater diversity.  But the old-school profs will have none of it.  Sandra Oh’s Ji-Yoon, without over-the-top theatrics, has perfect comedic timing in her attempts to balance what is impossibly askew. 

30) The Last Kingdom –“Game of Thrones” Meets “Vikings”  (December 27)

Loosely based upon the history of tribal and internecine warfare between various factions of Saxons and Danes (=Vikings), \a Saxon aristocratic boy named Osbert, is taken after his father and older brother are slain by Danes. Only his ruthless uncle survives and robs him of his birthright. The year is 866.  Renamed Uhtred and, along with a little Saxon girl, Brida,  the two children are taken as slaves and raised by the powerful but loving Earl Ragnar in Danish Northumbria. Time passes and The Last Kingdom follows the now determined warrior Uhtred (newcomer Alexander Dreymon) to reclaim Bebbanburg  and seek revenge on his uncle.   

“The Last Kingdom”–“Game of Thrones” meets “Vikings”

Based on The Saxon Stories novels by Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom first premiered on BBC Two from 2015 to 2017, and on Netflix in 2018.  Four seasons (with a fifth in production) cover four of the twelve Cornwell books in the series, loosely based upon the history of tribal and internecine warfare between various factions of Saxons and Danes (=Vikings).

In the year 866 we see the protagonist–a Saxon aristocratic boy named Osbert –taken after his father and older brother are slain by Danes. Only his ruthless uncle survives and robs him of his birthright. Renamed Uhtred and, along with a little Saxon girl, Brida,  the two children are taken as slaves and raised by the powerful but loving Earl Ragnar in Danish Northumbria. Time passes and The Last Kingdom follows the now determined warrior Uhtred (newcomer Alexander Dreymon) to reclaim Bebbanburg  and seek revenge on his uncle.   

The central historical story — the birth of England–focuses on King Alfred of Wessex dreaming of a unification of the Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex. Invasions by the Danish prevent nationhood. And competing greed and power struggles from among the Saxon tribes don’t help with nation building either.

The separate kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia have all fallen to the Danes, leaving the great kingdom of Wessex standing alone and defiant under the command of King Alfred. In the midst of  this turbulent backdrop lives Uhtred. Born as a Saxon and raised as a Dane, The Last Kingdom  explores the conflicting and confusing dual identity with which Uhtred continually has to struggle.   His loyalties are tested, as he weighs injustice and jealousies thrown his way. Is he Saxon or Dane? Is he Christian (=Catholic) or “pagan” (=Viking)?

Unlike Game of Thrones  we see kings who are poor and struggling to satisfy their families, their armies,  and their ambitions.  No one is wealthy, and all are coveting other kingdoms for greater glory and gold.

Season 1 covers the years 866–878, season 2 from 878 to 886, season 3 from 893 to 900, and season 4 takes place from 901 to 912.  And with each season new villains and allies are introduced, resulting in an inability to summarize all the plots, intrigue, and betrayals here.  Overlaid on the narrative of epic battles is the religious fervor of the Saxons to destroy the “heathens”, not only for their territory but for their souls.

The pacing is extraordinary, perhaps due to a crisp story line in Cornwell’s books.  Every episode is beautifully structured. The cliffhanging ending in each episode makes the viewer want to watch the next episode immediately.  The Last Kingdom is designed for binge-viewing just as a good plot-driven novel tempts the reader to turn the next page.

In the final analysis, The Last Kingdom may be a more  enticing drama than Game of Thrones, since the backstory of each character reveals more of his or her motives and intentions.  The villain-hero crises and the unexpected results are as thrilling as  Game of Thrones without the magic, the dragons, and other fantasy elements.

Availability:  Netflix streaming

Note:  The final season, season 5, is in production with a movie planned to dramatize the remaining Saxon Stories.

“Protégé”–Who’s the Student? Who’s the Teacher?

The Protege (2021) is a  throwback to the 90s action thrillers with one exception: a badass, beautiful assassin in the Nikita genre.  (Maggie Q, who has played Nikita in a television series.)

Anna Dutton (Maggie Q) is rescued as a little girl from the savagery of the Vietnam War by the legendary assassin Moody (Samuel Jackson). Raised by him as her surrogate father, she is now an antiquity book store owner in London.   Anna–in her secret life– is  a  fierce, highly skilled  assassin who can find people who are hard to find–just as she can locate rare books.  Her personal life gets turned upside down, however, when Moody gets assassinated and she seeks revenge.

One day a prospective customer, Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), comes into her store to by a rare book as a gift.  This is only a pretext.  Soon Anna becomes professionally and romantically entangled with Rembrandt, who is her match as a highly experienced assassin.  Their  cat-and-mouse dance turns deadly as their experience as seasoned murderers raises the stakes and instinctual drive for survival.

If you like revenge thrillers with a dynamic female protagonist,  you will enjoy The Protege’s stunning action scenes, an excellent cast, and an incredibly fast-paced drama with some surprising twists. Some scenes involve intense violence, bloody knife fights and martial arts elements similar to the  latest James Bond movie (“No Time to Die”) but so much better.

 It is entertaining to see Michael Keaton as an action figure after his Batman role.  Maggie Q is the real star here, however.  She  would make an excellent female replacement for James Bond and certainly is a super-hero to watch going forward!

Availability: Netflix DVD

“Dopesick” (2021)–Lies Upon Lies

Based on journalist Beth Macy’s book Dopesick, this Hulu eight-episode miniseries focuses on the early epicenter of the US’s struggle with the opioid addiction. Purdue Pharma, the Sackler mega-company that manufactured the deadly painkiller OxyContin, is the catalyst for an epic tragedy involving the duplicitous collusion with drug distributors, doctors, university researchers, and government agencies (Department of Justice, DEA, and FDA).

Dopesick involves a series of characters impacted by OxyContin:. Finnix (Michael Keaton) a family physician in a small coal-mining town in Virginia,. Relying  on  Purdue’s claim that  addiction to OxyContin is rare, Finnix prescribes it to coal miners suffering severe pain.  Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson),   a determined DEA investigator, digs for the facts behind a rapid rise in crime in the state of Virginia.  Betsy (Kaitly Dever) is a teenage girl who suffers a serious back injury and receives OxyContin from Finnix.  Billy Cutler (Will Poulter) is a highly ambitious pharmaceutical sales rep for Purdue Pharma.  Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard) is a US attorney in Virginia who begins investigating Purdue, joining with DEA’s Bridget Meyer. Each character’s story is from a different perspective  connected to OxyContin.

 Finnix begins to decrease Betsy’s  OxyContin prescription. Bridget zeroes in on mortality rates related to OxyContin. Rick Mountcastle investigates the world of “pain societies” and pharmaceutical sales “competitions”.   Richard Sackler makes increasingly dangerous business strategies for larger doses of OxyContin while his family is simultaneously repulsed and attracted to  his highly profitable schemes.

“Dopesick” refers to the excruciating withdrawal from OxyContin  Convincing evidence is laid out to prove how the multibillion-dollar Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, the private company’s owners,  are the true drug cartel behind America’s opioid crisis.  The Sacklers’  avoid culpability and accountability for years by paying relatively low million-dollar fines while retaining billions as they continued to increase distribution of the drug.  The drug lords here, like Walter White in “Breaking Bad”, are quite aware of the horrific consequences of their business.  As  a compelling study of corporate greed and unimaginable family dysfunction, Dopesick exposes the systemic manipulation of people for profit. 

With a marketing plan that promises pain relief without addiction, improving people’s lives without suffering, Purdue becomes obscenely rich while the Sackler family devolves into fear and deceit.  Here Dopesick trespasses on territory reserved for the fictional series “Succession” and  “Squid Game”.

Dopesick covers almost 25 years of the drug company’s history:  from the first release of OxyContin in 1996 to states’ failed attempts to sue Purdue beginning in 2004, to the relabeling of the drug as addictive in 2006 (“black boxing”) and to the litigation starting in 2007. The Sackler family’s antipathy for each other, the sales force cut-throat competition to win excessive bonuses and ultra-luxurious vacations, and the no-holds barred tactics to increase profits, even if it means death to its customers is raw, emotionally frightening and brutal. 

Dopesick is at its best when it mirrors investigative journalism, more educational than entertaining. Still, it is powerful storytelling in showing the complicity of big pharma, FDA, DEA, the Department of Justice  and politicians and academics..  Unique in its portrayal of addiction, Dopesick  depicts  withdrawals in  visceral detail where most other shows only touch the periphery.   While Dopesick can be viewed as another story of a company making obscene profits without scruples, the heroes and whisteblowers are reassuring–as in the movies Post and Spotlight.

Michael Keaton gives a career-best performance as Finnix.  The stellar supporting cast immerses us into  a small town ethos as well as the heinous corruption involving not only overtly craven bureaucrats but those who keep their jobs by keeping quiet.  The role of Rudy Giuliani as Purdue’s attorney in the early days of litigation is revealing of the fraudulent and unprecedented sales of this “magic pain pill” that remained impervious to any criminal charges.

The timeline and flashbacks may be confusing, and some jumping back and forth could have been avoided to make connecting the dots in Big Pharma’s duplicitous marketing power, egomaniacal and self-serving philanthropy, and impact on communities even more powerful. Celebrating donations to art museum collections while the desperately addicted die is memorable drama underscoring that Big Pharma is not our friend, no matter the advertising and public relations.

Dopesick is poignant in keeping its eye on emotional truth, on a sobering picture of monstrous greed.  Ripping back the curtain on one company among many, Dopesick  discloses how easily we can be taken advantage of.   Hulu’s Dopesick offers a reassuring moral clarity. The U.S. justice system has not reached similar clarity for Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers and other Big Pharma companies that earned billions selling prescription opioids as more and more Americans died. The battles are far from over.

A “can’t-miss” mini-series.

Availability:  Hulu streaming

Note:  Compare Dopesick with Crime of the Century, HBOMax documentary about the opiod crisis from director Alex Gibney.

Note:  500,000 Americans have died from opioid-related overdoses since 2000.   The ongoing crisis has continued to worsen under this pandemic.

Note:  Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain said (on September 7, 2021) he felt like the family at the center of this opioid crisis should have paid more. “But this is how corporate accountability works right now — and it appears the Sacklers navigated the system, brilliantly.”  https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/business/article/This-is-an-outrage-CT-not-backing-down-16439823.php

“Chestnut Man”–A Nut Case

Chestnut Man, based on Søren Sveistrup’s 2018 novel, belongs to the many excellent Nordic Noir crime thrillers we can currently stream. The iconic formula is all there: violent and gruesome serial murders, a workaholic  female detective, an initially ineffectual male partner, and a dark and ominous landscape. This is  a story concerned with mangled corpses, haunting blood pools, and a weaponization of a childhood arts and crafts project.

In the opening scene in 1987, a local sheriff walks into a barn in response to a call that some of the farmer’s cows have escaped.  He finds three people brutally murdered, and a fourth seriously injured. In the basement a little girl is hiding under a bed. Chestnut figures, toothpicks sticking out for hands and feet, are nearby.   

Flash forward more than thirty years. A young woman is found brutally murdered in Copenhagen with one of her hands cut off. Detective Naia Thulin (Danica Curcic)  is called in to take charge of the case.  As a single mother, she feels guilty leaving her young daughter Le in the care of her stepfather, as warm and caring as he is.

Naia is reluctant but forced to partner with detective Mark Hess (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard).  The two soon discover clues joining the 1987 quadruple murders with other cold cases and the current onslaught of seemingly unconnected murdered young women.  Each detective walks through a vicious and bloody crime scene.  Each successive act of violence increases the number of extremities amputated with each murder victim. The pile keeps on growing.  And possible suspects and red herrings accumulate as well.  A tiny chestnut stick-figure lies next to each victim, and becomes the calling card and key clue to tracing and identifying the murderer.

Chestnut Man is  intense, and at times quite scary.  This Nordic noir thriller is incredibly well-paced as well as tightly structured, leaving a trail of dots to connect in an unexpected and satisfying ending, One of the devices that gives Chestnut Man an extra creep chill factor  is the chestnut dolls themselves.   After all, they symbolize a child’s entertainment. 

Keep looking for the sequel to  this meticulously woven police procedural where the unpredictable reaches new heights.   

Availability:  Netflix streaming

Note:  The author of Chestnut Man also wrote The Killing and was a screenwriter for The Snowman as well. 

Impeachment: American Crime Story

We revisit former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment from the point of view of Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein of Booksmart). This Hulu mini-series begins with a naive twenty-two years old intern’s infatuation with a charismatic  president. 

There are more than several awful and illegal actions taken against Monica: interrogation in a hotel room by the FBI without legal counsel present; threats by Bill Clinton’s staff; media “slut-shaming” for her testimony–all make Impeachment a compelling narrative presenting facts and corrupt behavior not well-known .

Monica’s betrayal by Linda Tripp (an unrecognizable Sarah Paulson), a fellow employee she trusted, is the focus of the drama.  There are  a number of detailed scenes about the well-known recording of private telephone conversations between the two women.  The fiftyish Linda Tripp, in spite of revealing lurid sexual details between Bill and Monica, maintains that her mission is to save Monica from a sexual predator and from humiliation. Linda denies any self-interest in  a book deal she is discussing with a literary agent.

Ken Starr, Special Prosecutor, in alliance with a the vast right-wing conspiracy that sought to take down Clinton (Clive Owen), is seen in his “war room” with Ann Coulter, Brett Kavanaugh, and in communication with Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report (which later morphs into the Breitbart Report  and Steve Bannon).  They all willingly accept Lewinsky as collateral damage for going after Bill.

We also witness the collateral damage in a scene where Bill Clinton has to read about his affair online, along with the rest of the world.  Daughter Chelsea is shown reading about her dad’s sexual proclivities while doing homework in Stanford University’s undergraduate library.  Ann Coulter is gleeful with every revealing prurient detail.  And Marcia Lewinsky (Mira Sorvino), Monica’s mother,  warns her ex-husband (Monica’s dad), not to read it. Ken Starr has possibly overloaded the internet with release of his report for an avidly obsessed public thirsting for every detail,  resulting in a country-wide internet crash. 

Two months after Starr releases his report, the House Judiciary Committee uploads all of the Tripp audio tapes.  Nevertheless,  Hillary Clinton’s (Edie Falco) approval rating soars,  Bill’s presidency  holds on to popular support, and Monica receives America’s sympathies from some, but also shame and scorn from others. But the needle doesn’t budge on Linda Tripp, who  faces prosecution for illegal wiretapping.

Throughout Impeachment Linda Tripp convinces herself that she is protecting Lewinsky, even though she is unable to see the wounds she is inflicting on her:

“I know it looks horrible. I know it looks like a betrayal — but she was his victim,”  Linda Tripp adamantly claims during an interview. “I just wish that she could see that I saved her.”

Impeachment doesn’t update us on the Clintons, Lewinsky, Starr or any of the other main agents in this drama.  However, as we fast forward to the #MeToo movement, there is a willingness to believe women’s testimony and understand what it costs for a woman to give her account of sexual assault.   In Impeachment  the national scandal of adultery in the Oval Office simply doesn’t register since the Trump era. The headlines of the ’90s and the Clintons almost seem quaint.  The acts of the powerful perpetrated on the powerless never are.

I thought that this series was breathtaking in its depiction of women’s invisibility: Hillary, Monica, Linda Tripp and all the other women who suffer from feeling unseen and unheard. The pain still lingers–a definite motivation for Tripp who felt she had been overlooked for a deserved promotion, Monica for wanting her affection for Bill to be acknowledged by him and perhaps most of all, Hillary, for an unworthy alliance from which she could or would never extricate herself.

Highly recommend!

Availability:  Hulu

“American Rust”(2021)–Corrosion and Decay

American Rust  is based on Philipp Meyer’s titular novel.  This is a   Showtime’s original series in which we watch police chief Del Harris (Jeff Daniels), struggle with his past.  He is  an  Army combat veteran with  PTSD, investigating the  murder of a fellow police officer. Billy Poe, son of the woman he loves , Grace (Maura Tierney),  is suspected of the murder.

The camera, in the open scene, pans the waste and decay in Buell, Pennsylvania–a “flyover” town outside Pittsburgh. The residents and community are on the margins of life.  Two teenagers, Billy Poe and his best friend, Isaac English, are seen running from the murder scene,  the abandoned steel mill.  Isaac flees and Billy is left to maneuver the police and prison system.

Del is no fool, yet he cannot seem to have a strategy that will exonerate Billy, whom he is certain did not commit the murder.  And if he doesn’t find a way to save Billy–who is the most important person in Grace’s life– he will lose her.

Gradually we see Del’s honor and integrity start to deflate.  How far is he willing to go for the woman he loves? Would he kill to save his relationship? Does he set up crimes and pretend that these crimes were perpetrated by other people? After all he has the experience and skill set to do just that.  While we witness  the genuine connection Del and Grace have for each other,   is there manipulation too?  Is there a neediness in Del because of a past he cannot escape?   Will Del and Grace break up, if they don’t save Grace’s son?

And then there is a powerful and moving subplot:  between Billy and Isaac. They share a traumatic experience. One is charged with murder while the other escapes. Isaac’s sister, Lee (whom Billy loves)  and their father (Bill Camp) have wounds that, if left unhealed, will damage their family further.  Isaac  shouldered the caregiving burden for his ailing, wheel-chair-bound father while Lee escaped to New York and law school. eventually marrying a wealthy businessman.   She pursued her dreams while knowing Isaac couldn’t afford to have any. 

As the stakes increase, we see Del devise the perfect crime.  But will it change him  into a person he no longer recognizes?

In the finale–the ninth episode–the cliffhanger has many plot points and character arcs left hanging, loose ends that beg for a second season.  Actions have consequences, or do they?  How is Del going to deal with what he has done?  And Grace–is Del the man in her life or is Billy?  Does she have to choose between them?  Can each of these characters wiggle out of the snares that entrap them?

So many unresolved issues!  Sibling rivalry between Lee and Isaac remain. How do brother and sister recover from their past?  And we see the father in the penultimate scene and wonder will he reappear in a second season?

Images  of cold and barren land, withered industry, broken residents, a town acting against its own best interests:  I’ve never watched a mini-series with so many hanging chads.  The main characters’ futures are anyone’s guess.  No resolution.  No moral clues as to outcome.

Highly original, well portrayed with superb acting and writing that deliver in almost every scene.  Only a few sagging scenes–in the middle episodes–but all is forgiven.  Please, please release a second season of American Rust soon! 

Availability: Showtime streaming

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“Blackbird” (2019)–The Final Flight

In this timely and sensitive film, three generations get together for Christmas dinner–instead of  Thanksgiving, even though it actually is Thanksgiving.  As often happens in real-life family gatherings as well as in Blackbird, there will be dysfunction, a farrago scattered within warm laughter about shared memories and sometimes bitter accusations.  In this drama a dying mother assembles her family to spend a final weekend together before she ends her life.

An alarm goes off and Paul (Sam Neill), a doctor and husband to Lily (Susan Sarandon), reaches up to turn off the clock.   Lily is awake. Her left hand is permanently in a claw.  Nonetheless, she laboriously  lifts  her legs with her good right hand, determined to put her own slippers on, rejecting her husband’s assistance.

Lily has invited her two daughters (Kate Winslet as Jennifer and Mia Wasikowska as Anna) along with their partners and her grandson to one final dinner before she ends her suffering. She has a degenerative disease and with the permission of her family, decides to ingest pentobarbital administered by her husband. This weekend is their terminal goodbye, and Lily wants one more Christmas dinner before she goes.  She is anticipating a celebration, complete with tree and gifts, in a cozy family cocoon.

Jennifer arrives early with her husband, Michael (Rainn Wilson) and their teenage son Jonathan (Anson Boon). She has brought an odd and inappropriate gift.   “I can’t wait to see what the stores recommend for an event like this,” Lily says dryly as she struggles to open it with her good hand. Younger daughter Anna is late, bringing her uninvited partner Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Lily’s best friend, Elisabeth (Lindsay Duncan), also uninvited, somehow seems part of the family too. 

“Blackbird” is a simple tale, occasionally well-told without too much melodrama:  the tale of all tales– of life, death and family secrets and lies.  Unhealed wounds are everywhere and time is running out to heal them.  The stakes are very high.  The grandson is a sullen teenage outlier, the two adult daughters have extreme sibling rivalry, Jen’s husband is ignored, and the parents seem oblivious to how their children remember their family’s past time together.  The family friend is pulled into the conflict. Lily’s wish to die in a peaceful chemical cloud before her disease incapacitates her and takes all control from her grows more untenable as conflicts surface.

The ending of Blackbird could have been genuinely touching and emotionally powerful. Instead, the film devolves into a contrived and highly clichéd death bed scene.  While Blackbird adds sensitivity to a difficult and controversial subject, the film is far from subtle and does not conclude the story soon enough.  One wishes for a more powerful scene towards the end. 

Blackbird is filmed in a spectacular beach house only the fabulously wealthy can afford, with sterile interiors paralleling the sterile lives of the family gathered there. The bigger problem is that the world of the characters is not fully developed, with enough backstory to give each family the essential dimensions for us to understand and care about them. 

The stellar cast–especially the ensemble characters who are not the main focus–rescue this film and provide enough interest to sustain watching a film that does not quite live up to its potential.

Availability:  Netflix DVD

Note:  The reason for the title “Blackbird” is not clear.  Perhaps in homage to the Beatles’ song and the lyrics:  “Take these broken wings and learn to fly”.   The song was not incorporated into the final cut but a shot of blackbirds flying in the sky appears in the middle of the film.

“The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” (2019)

This 2019 HBO documentary, directed and produced by Alex Gibney (of “Enron:  The Smartest Men in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side”) opens in 2014    with Theranos, a startup in blood-testing technology.  The Inventor is filmed at Theranos’s spectacular Silicon Valley chic headquarters in Palo Alto.  Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, is hailed as the youngest self-made female billionaire by Fortune magazine.  With a multi-billion-dollar valuation, and a recent $400 million investment from many Trump supporters (the Waltons, Betsy DeVos, Murdoch) as well as other luminaries with gravitas–George Shultz and Henry Kissinger (both former Secretaries of State), General James Mattis, and a stable of others, Theranos is revealed to have been a massive con game, with its pending collapse looming just around the corner.

Claiming to be developing a small, portable sized machine to test over 200 different diseases and disorders with only a few drops of blood, the persuasive influencer, Elizabeth Holmes, cons investors.   She promotes the groundbreaking technology on television, TED talks, and wherever she can find an audience.  Holmes is very good at what she does.

John Carreyrou (best-selling author of Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup), a Wall Street Journal reporter, sees a New Yorker article (2014)  by Ken Auletta accusing Theranos of gross misrepresentation of their product. The two reporters together are the catalyst for government regulators to finally investigate claims of fraud.

In addition, two very young employees–Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz (grandson of George Shultz) –become whistleblowers, despite strong-arm tactics by Theranos to silence them.  David Boies, the prominent attorney known for vitriolic threats against opposing counsel (he represented Harvey Weinstein and a number of tobacco companies) is hired to terminate their speaking out.  Without their heroic efforts (and in spite of grandfather George Shultz’s reluctant belief in his grandson), Theranos would have harmed even more investors and customers.   Protected by whistleblower status, Cheung sends a letter to the clinical regulator CMS (Centers  for Medicare and Medicaid  Services) citing malfeasance in marketing, efficacy of products, and examples of misdiagnosis.

What makes The Inventor so spellbinding, in part, is due to the fact that much of the footage is archival imagery created and crafted by Holmes herself to promote Theranos.   Accordingly, aside from brief footage from her deposition, the footage of Holmes is filmed before she was charged. We see her own words, not exclusively others reporting about what she has to say.  Alex Gibney remarked: “She made the documentary she wanted me to invest in and I used it to a different purpose.”

Elizabeth Holmes was brilliant at selling to investors and motivating her employees.

How Holmes was able to deceive a number of powerful old men, and then leverage that to achieve great visibility, further investment, and the Walgreens deal is pretty shocking, even by Silicon Valley standards.  What is perhaps most disturbing is the fact that all the “name-dropping” about who has invested so others follow lemming-style opens doors to the gullible and foolish, no matter how wealthy. 

Holmes is a master manipulator –and perhaps borderline delusional, –one deceptively cloaked in the humanitarian goal of revolutionizing health care.  But The Inventor raises the question: What about all those “intellects” experienced in investment, negotiations, and science from Stanford and the highest realms of US government?  In the end Holmes is fabricating and lying, but she has an audience ripe for believing that the impossible can happen: The Silicon Valley ritualistic practice of investing in only a business plan.  It’s a chilling, chilling portrait.

Availability: HBOMax

Note:  Ultimately Holmes was charged with a host of federal violations. She married shortly after this film was released (in 2019) and gave birth to a baby boy in July of this year, postponing her trial until August 31.  Now ongoing in federal court in San Jose, the judge will have to decide on a sentence, if she is found guilty, weighing in on her baby’s future.