“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

.

“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.

“Supernova”(2021) –Nebulous?

“A person dies when he loses his memories.”

In Supernova we see Sam (Colin Firth), a concert pianist, and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), a novelist, traveling across England’s Lake District,  in their RV 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.

“You’ll break my heart. It’ll last forever,” Sam confesses in one of the most heart-breaking lines in Supernova.

A supernova is a sudden unpredictable stellar explosion, sending shock waves into the starry sky. Normally, when a supernova is discovered, it has already progressed in the explosive process.  That is what we witness–in a very understated British way–as Tusker loses the ability to control the executive functions of his mind.  Dementia is a slow fade.

The chemistry between Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, in two equally matched extraordinary lead performances, makes Supernova a beautiful portrait of love which has lasted over decades.  And, on a more general theme, exposes us to the cruel loneliness as we age.

Note:  The title of this film–Supernova–is a struggle to comprehend.  I believe it is meant to be a metaphor for what we don’t know in a relationship which can implode or be late to discover.  The script could have handled this theme more lucidly.  The two main characters are amateur astronomers, but dialog about the relevance of the stars is hazy and nebulous.

Availability:  Netflix DVD

“Only Murders in the Building”–A Cozy Mystery

In this Hulu original mini-series we see two septuagenarians from the entertainment industry begrudgingly have to team together to solve the murder of a young wealthy neighbor–Tim Kono– in The Arconia, a luxury New York City apartment building. Oliver (Martin Short), an out-of-work theatre director who relies upon his estranged son for financial support, imagines that the recent murder would make a popular “true-crime” podcast. Charles (Steve Martin), a retired actor who starred as a TV detective decades ago, will star as the narrator. Mabel, a millennial (Selena Gomez) a fledgling cosmetic artist remodeling a family member’s upscale residence, is talked into assisting them with the detective work.

Only Murders in the Building is reminiscent of the old-school cozy mysteries like “Murder She Wrote” and “Doc Martin”, but with the emotional old guys providing the comedy while the no-nonsense Mabel, the twenty-something artist-wannabe, tries to bring them into the 21st century world of technology. The unlikely threesome, brought together by a shared loneliness and need for friendship, offers the viewer an entertaining, if sometimes cringeworthy, one-upmanship on who is the most hipster of the three.  And then a fourth character, Jan (Amy Ryan), a bassoonist, enters the scene as a distracting love interest for Charles.

Only Murders in the Building proves to be a lighthearted, amusing comedy/mystery with some twists and turns, only a few red herrings, and fun to solve.   Yet what really makes this series work beyond its reach as a cozy mystery is the multi-generational friendships and romance.  Breaking out of the common segregation- by-age friendships, we see three strangers in a New York City high-rise yearn for and create a sense of community despite huge generational gaps.  While the gaps provide much of the good-natured and on-point humor, the genuine friendships that are created are reminiscent of an adult child with her grandparent. 

Selena Gomez is perfectly cast (in a role worthy of her “Fundamentals of Caring”, see my August 22, 2016 review­­­­), an emotionally blunt “granddaughter” to Steve Martin and Martin Short’s curmudgeonly seniors.  Comic in tone with some almost clownish lines, the cast nonetheless integrates comedy, mystery, and the drama of quiet sadness when loneliness and family problems surface.

An entertaining, easy-to-watch family series with a second season under contract.

Availability:  Hulu streaming

ON THE VERGE

On the Verge Netflix mini-series

Guest Reviewer:  Jerry Ludwig, retired Hollywood screenwriter and author of The Black List   

            Let’s hear it for the ladies.  Actually, let’s hear from the ladies.  “On The Verge” is a popular new Netflix show.  Twelve half hours set in the snazzy Venice and Santa Monica beach playgrounds of L.A.  It features an overlooked section of the audience.  “Sex and the City” was about 30ish women, “The Golden Girls” covered the over-sixty crowd, now we have four (always the optimal number) besties in their fifties.

            Justine  (played by series creator Julie Delpy) is a French transplant frantically running Chez Juste, her chic restaurant.  She’s got kids but her malcontent, thorny out-of-work Paris architect husband is the real handful.

            Anne (Elizabeth Shue) is on marriage number two or three, a rich girl courtesy of her money-bags ultra-critical mother (Stefanie Powers, “Hart To Hart,” remember her?).  Anne has artistic talents, but mostly she’s affably high on pot.

            Ell Horowitz (Alexia Landeau) is a single mom with few marketable talents, scrambling to pay the bills, while refereeing the hassles between her three kids — until she gets the idea to tape the skirmishes and try to package them on YouTube in hopes of becoming low-rent Kardashians.

And then there’s Yasmin (Sarah Jones), formerly a political campaign staffer, now a stay-at-home mom at loose ends.  Money is no problem; her husband is a brainy well-paid code writer.  Her talent is attracting self-made crises that frequently suck in the others.

Which is fine because these four are happiest when they’re hanging together.  That’s when all the laughing and real talk goes on.  It’s like eavesdropping at the command post for the Battle of the Sexes.  “On The Verge” is a light-weight series that occasionally deals with heavy-duty issues.  I can’t wait for Season Two.

“Squid Game”–Hunger Games Meets Snowpiercer: Gangnam Style

This #1 Netflix mega-hit, streaming in nine episodes, is a Korean dystopian story of survival.  A mastermind known as the Front Man, in a mask like Darth Vader, stages a series of deadly childhood games (tug of war, red-light-green-light, and the Korean-specific squid game).  The debt-ridden players, trapped on a remote island, are forced to compete in deadly versions of the gladiator-style games: gunned down if they lose.  Guards with triangles, circles, or squares marked on their masks are anonymous.

Squid Game’s sometimes shocking–always bloody–drama of blood-letting scenes grimly captures desperate people degrading themselves for money and survival. We see the truly hopeless future of the participants as they struggle to win the games.

The competitors — an unemployed, divorced autoworker and gambler with a young daughter, a Pakistani refugee who has no means of financial support for his young wife and baby, a fraudulent investor who has sold his mother’s assets— are only a few of the hundreds of debtors, who are not necessarily victims of their circumstances. These distraught and miserable players see no other options except taking part in the kill-or-be-killed, increasingly vicious games designed by the autocratic Front Man. The potential payoff for the winner or winners is tens of millions of dollars hanging literally over the players’ heads in a glass chandelier globe.

A timely, — if 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.

Unrelenting carnage is the show’s most conspicuous feature.  Think “Pulp Fiction” (Quentin Tarrantino) which I couldn’t watch.

I don’t like gore, I don’t like horror movies, but 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.

In Squid Game the characters die in the order of their importance to the plot.  The “game” tone–“this is not serious” vibe–is underscored by the cinematography (set-designs that look like animated Lego games) and cos-play costumes.

Definitely a niche-market with Korean originality a strong reason to watch.

Warning:  Fear and anger can make people vindictive and abusive. The narrative relies on this behavior and its horrific consequences.

“Goliath” Season 4 (Finale)–Addiction

In this final season of Goliath   we again see 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, George Zax (J.K. Simmons).   In a fierce and lurid courtroom battle in San Francisco  (eerily conjuring the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma in recent headlines), will McBride prevail?

Season 4 opens with a flashback to Billy McBride, narrowly escaping death by gunshot.  Billy’s mental condition and circumstances propel him into flights of fantasy, perhaps post-traumatic stress disorder, mixed into a cocktail of alcohol. 

McBride is temporarily residing in Chinatown, his apartment paid for by Margolis & True, the white-shoe law firm representing Zax Pharma.  His former partner Patty (Nina Arianda), now employed by Margolis & True,  has offered him a gig not only as a loyal colleague, but also because McBride is the best litigator she knows, even if other colleagues don’t agree.

Other characters add to the escalating courtroom battle.  The estranged brother, Frank Zax (Bruce Dern), and a daughter whom his brother finagled into adopting.  As dueling, antagonistic brothers intent on destroying each other, Frank and George Zax turn sibling friction into fiery and merciless conflict.

Goliath Season 4 pulls back the curtain on the opioid crisis that is relevant to the present day. It hones in on its displeasure at the lives lost for obscene corporate profit.

This is the best season since Season 1 (see my October 23, 2016 review).  Goliath always has had noirish overtones of Alfred Hitchcock, but in Season 4 some (not so subtle) scenes pay  homage to Rear Window.  It’s not always easy to tell how much is real and what’s imagined (which usually, but not always, is telegraphed by filming in black-and-white flashbacks and fever-dream images).   Nonetheless, this finale is riveting and compulsive watching.  Some overwrought scenes drag the momentum from time to time.  There is even a dance-and-song routine by J.K. Simmons, but he is so much fun to watch at his villainous best! Binge-view it to keep track of characters and threads in the plot!

Availability: Amazon Prime

“Nine Perfect Strangers”–A Hot Mess­­­­­­­

Nine Perfect Strangers is based on the Liane Moriarty novel by the same name. Starring Nicole Kidman as Masha, a spiritual therapist, she  is reputed to heal all wounds of her wealthy  clients at her wellness retreat, Tranquillum.

Following closely after the release of White Lotus (see my August 17, 2021 review), the same territory is explored:  why do uber-rich white people seem so unhappy? There is the damaged novelist (Melissa McCarthy) who just can’t trust anyone.  Another has a virulent past of drug addiction (the superb Bobby  Cannavale as a physically damaged athlete) ,Another couple (played by Michael Shannon and Addie Keddie) and their adult daughter grieve over the death of their son,  Young marrieds   provide the much-desired mystery tension.   An investigative reporter and  a fragile divorcee ( Luke Evans and Regina Hall) round out the group.  Who is going to die?

Nine Perfect Strangers   could have been so much more.  Purportedly about the self-help movement and its tendencies to be a scam preying on the wounded affluent, this series could have satirized the “perfect strangers”  wounds, their slights and neuroses.  The staff who cater to their clientele’s demands, no matter how unreasonable, and to their boss, Masha, are angry and servile at the same time,  Again channeling White Lotus.  More of their anger and their dreams were sorely needed.

And let’s look at Masha.  A Russian emigre and highly successful former corporate CEO,  Masha suffers from multiple traumatic  experiences which we see in flashbacks.  Trauma is the impetus for leaving her adrenaline-pumped life for the tranquil retreat she builds for those like herself: sufferers who need and want to move on.  Nicole Kidman seems drugged, coated with a Russian accent so annoying it is difficult to decipher what she is saying.  Such a travesty of a role for a great actress.  What was she thinking?

Only Melissa McCarthy, as the demoralized author of romance novels, is watchable.  In every scene she is commanding. The viewer feels motivated to hang in there and not reach for the remote.  But even she cannot save Nine Perfect Strangers from its abject imperfections.  If you watch this to the conclusion of the ten episodes, you are likely to raise the same question I asked myself:  “Why did I waste my time watching this?”

Availability:  Hulu

“Sandra Day O’Connor–The First”

For almost 200 years, the United States Supreme Court was a male bastion. In PBS’s American Experience: “Sandra Day O’Connor: The First” we see Sandra Day O’Connor become the first woman Supreme Court Justice.   She is remembered for being the critical swing vote on cases involving this country’s most controversial issues, including race, gender and reproductive rights — and for casting the decisive vote in Bush v. Gore.  Her riveting–often unexpected– family and career trajectory are explored in this timely biographical portrait. 

Born in 1930 in El Paso, Texas, O’Connor grew up on  the second largest  cattle ranch in Arizona. Learning to ride a horse across that vast ranch, change a flat tire, and herd cattle, the pre-teen “never got the message that there were limits to what she could accomplish.”  A brilliant student, she entered Stanford University at the age of sixteen. 

Although O’Connor went on to graduate 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 (whom she married in 1952) 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.  From this unassuming start, O’Connor moved to city, then state legal offices.  Eventually nominated to fill a vacant Arizona Senate seat, she drew the attention of the state’s Republican power broker,   US Senator Barry Goldwater.

Fulfilling his campaign promise to appoint the most qualified woman to the high court, and in order to appease the educated white female Republican voters the party had fear of losing, Reagan nominates O’Connor.  He expected a modest unassuming Supreme Court justice. She was considered a safe bet and  was unanimously confirmed by the Senate (99-0). Surprisingly, the only objection to her nomination came from a burgeoning and increasingly powerful faction of Republican conservatives, led by Jerry Falwell,  who wanted to restore “family values” to America.

O’Connor would soon defy the suggestion that she would modestly defer to her male colleagues.  She approached each case with meticulous care and attention, and with the unshakeable  conviction that the role of the Court was to provide a limited check on the powers of government, not to legislate changes in current law.  Social change was to be dealt with by the legislature, not the courts. 

O’Connor emerged as the Supreme Court’s   crucial swing vote on the issues that mattered most to Americans.  As a result, the Supreme Court was nicknamed “O’Connor’s Court” since her vote was determinative. Yet she often wrote concurring opinions that limited the reach of the majority, interpreting most cases very narrowly. Hers was often the voice that spoke for the court. 

The only woman on the court for 12 years until Ruth Bader Ginsburg (see May 21, 2018 review: RBG–Truth to Power) was appointed by President Clinton in 1993, O’Connor was ecstatic at the confirmation:  “We just became two of the nine justices and it was just such a welcomed change, it was great.” In 1992 (before Ginsburg joined the Court) O’Connor served as the swing vote that reaffirmed  Roe v. Wade, despite the Republican push to overturn it (Planned Parenthood vs. Casey). 

In 2006 we see another upheaval for O’Connor.  Her husband, rapidly declining from Alzheimer’s,  compelled  her decision to retire earlier than expected at the age of 75. Her biographer, Evan Thomas,  writes that O’Connor confided to a friend, “John gave up his position in Phoenix to come with me [to Washington] so now I am giving up my job to take care of him.”

A glaring omission  in this American Experience production is the lack of coverage of  the impact of O’Connor’s decision.  She told her biographer that she sorely regretted early retirement: “It was the biggest mistake, the dumbest thing I ever did.”  Watching the succeeding judges, particularly Sam Alito, whittle away at her legacy greatly dismayed her as she came to conclude that the Republican Party she so dearly loved was no more. Her decision to leave at the peak of her influence and ability is, in this American Experience episode, tragic.

A woman of her times, raised in a culture in which she overcame nearly insurmountable obstacles, is an eye-opener.  These obstacles occurred almost half a century ago but seem persistent today. 

Highly compelling glimpse into a remarkable legal mind, jurist,  and political strategist.

Note:  To this day Sandra Day O’Connor is the only Supreme Court justice with experience in all three branches of government  (executive:  state assistant attorney general; legislative:  Arizona state senator and first woman speaker of the state senate; and judicial:  Arizona State Court of Appeals),

Availability: PBS American Experience (streaming)