“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)

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3 Replies to ““Sandra Day O’Connor–The First””

  1. What an amazing woman and what an amazing summary of her life and PBS’s American Experience: SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR:THE FIRST. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your comments about this documentary! There was so much I didn’t know about Justice O’Connor and her decisions, particularly Bush v Gore.

      Fascinating jurist!

“Guilt”–A Hit-and-Run

Guilt is a four-episode Masterpiece Theater mini-series, a darkly sinister and acerbic Scottish thriller about two Edinburgh brothers who leave a wedding drunk and eager to get home. We see the elegant lawyer Max (Mark Bonnar of “Shetland”) and his ne’er-do-well younger brother Jake hit an elderly man who steps in front of Max’s car.  Jake (Jamie Sives) is driving because Max thinks his brother is less inebriated than he is.

Jake wants to report the accident to the police, but Max is concerned about his professional reputation so they agree to cover up the hit-and-run by dragging the old man back into his house, positioning him to look as if he died of natural causes.

Max is very clever with the cover-up, having knowledge of what constitutes evidentiary material.  So, luck appears to be on their side. But then Angie (Ruth Bradley), the only living relative of the old man, shows up and begins to ask questions.

Nervous about the subterfuge, Jake wants to come clean, but Max will have none of it.  Reassuring his younger brother that he has always had his best interests at heart, Max convinces Jake that he will be safe with his older brother in control. But there are no secrets kept.

A nosy neighbor, a newly sober detective, and Angie’s change of heart all add to the suspense–can the cover up be sustained?  Will the two brothers face their own reckoning as the lies of the past and the crimes of the present come back to haunt and possibly destroy them?  For Jake–the man-child whose record shop was bought by his brother to help him out–the guilt over the hit-and-run gets more intense.   Jake dreams of a life with Angie, far removed from his brother’s shadow.  For Max, guilt is what the evidence reveals.  If there is insufficient evidence to convict, then they’re not guilty, whether a crime was committed or not.

Guilt is a four-hour guilty pleasure for those viewers who love a good mystery with lots of subplots. At times–particularly when a new character pops up on screen–the viewer is jostled trying to figure out where he or she belongs in the story.  Full of surprises –cannot mention all the characters for that reason–this is quite a chilling portrait of betrayal and brotherly love.

Highly recommend!

Availability:  PBS streaming (Masterpiece Theater)

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“Coda”– A Song from the Heart

In this unusual introduction into the Deaf world, Coda features a high school student, Ruby Rossi (British newcomer, Emilia Jones), who is in love with music.  Trying out for the choir, she learns that a monumental decision will force her to leave her deaf parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur), and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant).  As the only hearing member of the family (CODA=Child of Deaf Adults), she is the communicator and interpreter for their struggling fishing business in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

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. A hilarious early scene has Ruby accompany her parents to the doctor’s office where she translates, via ASL, her father’s symptoms.  He signs that his “nuts are on fire” and scrunches his hands into fists, his fingers like crabs clawing into his skin. The diagnosis? Ruby has to sign “jock itch.”  The treatment?  No sex for two weeks.  Frank then asks his daughter to respond to the doctor for him:  “But I can’t.  Don’t you see how hot my wife is?”  Ruby is mortified, but the physical comedy is even more uproarious because of the sign language, so visual the viewer doesn’t need to understand ASL.

Ruby also experiences her first possible chance at love with Miles (Ferdie Walsh-Peelo), the student assigned to sing a duet with her for the school concert.  This subplot is rather weak and distracting.

Dreaming of a career as a singer, Ruby faces challenges practicing for an audition to win a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee School of Music.  The choir teacher, Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), recognizes her talent, empathizes with her family’s needs, but nevertheless reminds Ruby of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Particularly noteworthy are moments of poignancy, particularly between Ruby and her mother and separately, with her father that are universal but also specific to Deaf culture. Because her parents will never experience the sound of Ruby’s exquisite voice, the scene between Frank and Ruby, where he tries to understand the timbre of her voice and resulting talent, is exceptionally touching.

A very heartwarming glimpse of Deaf culture, without becoming unforgivably saccharine, in no small part is due to the gifted actors, especially Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, and Troy Kotsur.

Availability:  Apple+

Note:   Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant are deaf actors. The French movie upon which Coda is based–La Famille Bélier–controversially cast hearing actors for all major roles.

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“The Chair”–Academic Patriarchy

The Chair, a Netflix series created by Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman, is executive produced by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners for Game of Thrones. This comedy drama startles with unexpected energy.  After all, any theme involving university professors promises to be a snooze fest.

The opening scene features Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) as the newly appointed first female Chair of the English department and the first person of color. On her first day, her office chair collapses, foreshadowing the circumstances soon to overtake her.

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 while teaching the “Great Books”.  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.

“I feel like someone handed me a ticking time-bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes,” says a frustrated Professor Kim.   

One of the major plots is the conflict and cognitive disconnect between the young progressive and idealistic professors (untenured) and the aged faculty who once thought of themselves as at the forefront of intellectual thought.   Now they are just part of an antiquated, petrified system of white patriarchy.  There is some uproarious dialogue between the old boys sharing their sanctimonious opinions.

Recently widowed colleague, Bill Dobson (whose complex personality is played energetically by Jay Duplass), is the former chairman and possible romantic interest of Dr.  Kim.  Idiotically “joking” about fascism with a Nazi salute, Bill faces the deleterious consequences not only for his own career but also for Ji-Yoon’s as well as the reputation of the university.

Two female professors add subplots that raise the interest in academic backstabbing and pedantic squabbles.  Professor Joan Hambling (the always sensational Holland Taylor) is past retirement age and is battle-worn from her own skirmishes with the old boys. Dean Paul Larson (the consistently reliable David Morse) relegates Joan to an office in the basement, hoping to antagonize her enough to retire.  Meanwhile, Professor Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah) is a young Black rising star being courted by Ivy League schools.  Not surprisingly, she is overtly disrespected by the senior white male professors. Yaz’s inclusion of feminist and rap-style dramatization of classic literature is anathema to the old profs as well as threatening, providing grounds for denying her tenure.  

The Chair mini-series

As if Ji-Yoon doesn’t have enough to contend with, Dean Larson reminds her that the university’s image and very existence is dependent upon donations.  Add more pressure from her personal life where her “aunties” wonder if there are still available men to marry.  And her adopted six-year old little girl, Ju Ju (the whimsical Everly Carganilla), is emotionally distant from her and from her grandfather (Ji-Yoon’s father), who only speaks Korean and who is an unwilling babysitter.  Ju Ju doesn’t understand a word he says.

The struggles that Ji-Yoon faces–in her role as a mother, her desire for a soulmate, and her wish to change the playing field and intellectual landscape of academia– are all too familiar for women.  No one is ready to take accountability for their actions nor recognize the need for moving on to meet current values and research directives.

Sandra Oh’s Ji-Yoon, without over-the-top theatrics, has perfect comedic timing in her attempts to balance what is impossibly askew.  Known primarily for “Sideways”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, and most recently, “Killing Eve”, The Chair allows us to enjoy her hilarious performance with physical, and especially facial expressions poking through the mask of her professorial demeanor. Her body and face do one type of acting, while her words do another, magnifying the humor with the disconnect.

The Chair has moments of slag, scenes that should have been tightened to ratchet up the comedic potential.  One bewildering minor character playing himself–David Duchovny (“X-Files” and “Californication”)–is sorely extended in a scene needing to be truncated, but a hilarious moment saves even this awkward intrusion.

The Chair is a surprising emotional drama with charm beneath a sometimes goofy exterior.  Highly entertaining!

Availability:  Netflix streaming

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4 Replies to ““The Chair”–Academic Patriarchy”

  1. Perhaps this was different than a comedy. I view the events depicted in the show (after 40 years in academia) as an all too true tragedy.

­”The One”–A Perfect Match DNA-Style

Can true love be analyzed and dissected by science?  That is the premise of the  Netflix mini-series, The One.  Entrepreneur Rebecca Webb (Hannah Ware),  uses her own husband Ethan (Wilf Scolding) as living proof that genetic matchmaking can produce “the one” against all odds.  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 the dating disappointments one usually experiences.

The backstory for Rebecca Webb, before she  becomes a female version of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, involves the scientific brains of her friend and partner James Whiting (Dimitri Leonidas). His genetic research on ants’ teambuilding and mating leads to the breakthrough innovation of  applying DNA data to the human mating game.  James soon leaves the MatchDNA start-up about the time Rebecca’s apartment roommate Ben Naser (Amir El-Masry) is found dead, floating in the Thames.

Enter a local reporter Mark Bailey (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) who is quite happy with his wife  Hannah (Lois Chimimba).  But Hannah is curious, wondering if there is someone better out there for her and perhaps for him.  FOMO. Tragedy soon reveals its ugly head.

The One becomes part sci-fi crime thriller and part ruthless corporate conspiracy.  Several key players have motive to murder Ben. DCI Kate Saunders (Zoë Tapper), and her partner, DS Nick Gedny (Gregg Chillin) follow clues that eventually lead them to the main entrepreneurs behind MatchDNA and its lurid financing. 

So many characters and subplots, The One reminds me of a number of Chinese melodramas replete with characters, murders, and suspects.  Keeping track of all of them is not easy, and the second season, in development, may pull together some loose ends.  The final episode was a cliffhanger!

Availability:  Netflix streaming

Note:  In “The Algorithm of the Marriage Pact” (New York Times, May 19, 2021) a Stanford student project and business plan– aptly named “The Marriage Pact”– exemplifies real life imitating fiction. 

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“The White Lotus”–White Gaze

In this HBOMax six-episode mini-series (which ended August 15), we watch two uber-wealthy families on vacation in Hawaii (at the upscale Four Seasons) make themselves miserable in a perfectly-seeming tropical paradise. Their privileged existence is the luxury not to be concerned with others. 

In White Lotus’s opening scene, at the airport, Shane Patton (Jake Lacy), an insufferable, narcissistic scion of a wealthy and powerful family, explains with great disdain to fellow passengers that his wife, Rachel, has died…on their honeymoon. A cardboard coffin marked  “human remains” is loading onto a plane.  We’re ready to be hooked in:  a mystery awaits.  Who killed Shane’s wife?

Privileged to a degree that the wrong hotel suite–one without a plunge pool–can ruin his honeymoon, Shane zeroes in on making Armond, the hotel manager pay–with a vengeance–for assigning him an “inferior”suite.  Shane deserves the best of the best–and feels unhinged by the perceived slight.  Armond (the scene-stealing Murray Bartlett), the “hired help” providing impeccable but fulsome service to those who expect no less, cannot comply with Shane’s wishes but is excruciatingly obsequious in trying to placate him…as do all hotel staff.

His young journalist wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) comes from a far more modest background, and is proud of her budding career.  She is beautiful, sincerely wants to be an independent woman, and is frightened by the specter of being Shane’s trophy wife.  Unable to endure Shane’s tantrums and humiliation of the hotel manager, Rachel soon becomes inconsolable.  Shane’s mother (Molly Shannon), who pays a surprise visit to her son and daughter-in-law on their honeymoon, tries to convince Rachel that being a trophy wife can be lots of fun.

The Mossbachers are equivalent to Shane Patton’s family in excess and decadence.  Nicole (Connie Britton) is a Forbes-style mega-entrepreneur emulated by ambitious women. But her teenage daughter, Olivia, can barely share the room’s oxygen with her. Bringing her friend, Paula, to distract from her dysfunctional family, Olivia hopes her friend will ease the tension on vacation.  Paula, however, grows increasingly uneasy with what she observes.  The dad, Mark (Steve Zahn), questions his own relationship with his son Quinn, the outlier in the family, after learning some secrets concerning his own father.

And then there is the wealthy single Tanya (the outstanding Jennifer Coolidge), who is in Maui to scatter the ashes of her unloving mother.  Lost, wanting some peace of mind, she offers to finance the dream of a local hotel masseuse, Brenda (Natasha Rothwell) to own her own spa.

This  luxury vacation is all about relaxation and renewal… until it is not..  The social critique of colonialism and its impact on the local residents is scathing and, at times, insightful.

All the characters have unhealed wounds, and most don’t know it.  They surround themselves with distractions, with what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “need to be white”,– the addiction to having power over others,– to use wealth and privilege to maintain position, oftentimes unaware of this thirst or the deep emptiness in their own souls.   Paula, in one scene, astringently observes that her friend, Olivia’s, insistence that she is not privileged and entitled is delusional:  “I guess it’s not stealing when you think that everything’s already yours.”  The self-absorption is, at times, on the verge of suffocation.

The hotel employees, caught up as providers for the served, want independence from being dominated. What drives the engine in all relationships throughout The White Lotus is money.  The hotel staff is essentially bought– body and soul– by the guests,

So many characters, so many threads of possibility:  dramatic turns of characters and their arcs.  We are hopeful.  But then they almost all fall flat. The ending of The White Lotus borders on fraudulent.  Hooking the viewer with an opening scene of a dead honeymooner in the tradition of a whodunit but then not delivering.

 No, no, no!   This series was such a disappointment in concept, writing, and overall structure with more questions than answers about amorphous, half-developed characters.  There were some good lines but I’m afraid a grade of C+ is generous, and only given because there was so much promise from excellent actors who needed a tightly plotted script, and a few highly original political and social comments about the “white gaze”.  A second season? Really?

Availability: HBOMax

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“Silent Witness”-or Dead on Arrival

Silent Witness,  one of the longest running  BBC television series (broadcast in more than 235 countries),  focuses on a team of brilliant forensic pathologists who investigate a crime every two episodes. First broadcast in 1996, there now have been twenty-three seasons,  making  Silent Witness  the  entertainment industry’s longest running crime drama. 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.   Toxicology reports and DNA to identify a severed limb or family connection are quintessential procedural investigative stages.  Post-mortem dissection of body parts is not for the squeamish, as the pathologists, without noticeable  reaction, cut open and squeeze contents before plopping them onto a steel basin.  For those who flinch at biologically realistic appearing organs, bones and tissue, you might want to skip this series.  For those not squeamish you will find the scientific precision extolling  conclusions based on research and science to be riveting.

A brilliant, often ignored  female pathologist is commonly the key to solving the crime(s).  [Each two-episode case also features at least two corpses and two crimes to solve.]  The series has had multiple casting changes, including the actors who play the three pathologists.

It is challenging and so much fun to solve the crimes, from the viewer’s perspective.  All clues are there, if you pay close attention.  However, often an insignificant comment in a conversation at the beginning of an opening scene foreshadows who is the culprit. (Note:  It is never the most obvious suspect.) 

It is obvious why this series is such a crowd-pleaser.  Even with multiple casting changes throughout the twenty-three year history of Silent Witness, the drama keeps pace with  social change.  Nothing seems dated in any of the narratives, with the exception of some of the cases in South Africa.  In addition, not only the mystery and suspense of a whodunit plays to the audience’s interest, but also the backstories of the three key forensic pathologists.  Each is flawed with a corresponding family history and drama. The three pathologists’ unstable private lives often underscore the chaotic paths of their dogged, determined hunt for the killer, poking into their own psyches as they probe the “silent witness” to the crime.

Silent Witness is not headed to the morgue anytime soon, and certainly, is not dead on arrival.

Note:  A bonus feature to watching Silent Witness is seeing some of Britain’s most talented actors at the very beginning of their careers, mere acolytes learning the trade.  For the gimlet-eyed, some of the more notable are Idris Elba as an ambitious young boxer, Benedict Cumberbatch as a callow university student, Jodie Comer as the unfortunate subject of an exorcism,  and Daniel Kaluuya, as a teenager trying to eradicate a local gang’s influence on his family.

Availability:  Amazon Prime streaming.

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2 Replies to ““Silent Witness”-or Dead on Arrival”

    1. A shout-out to Susie Berteaux for letting me know that Silent Witness is only available on Amazon Prime, not Netflix!
      My bad! I watch everything via FireStick and didn’t realize this series is not on Netflix. Readers, please let me know if I get the availability of a program wrong! I’ve corrected the Availability info here.

      Thank you!

“Unforgotten” (Season 4)–And Unforgettable

Season 4 of    Unforgotten   has been breaking records with over 7.5 million viewers tuning in every week for the latest developments in the cold case drama (PBS Masterpiece Theater premier July 11,  2021).  It is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the most powerful and cleverly written season of the critically acclaimed cold case crime drama.  As in the past three seasons, all suspects are interconnected though not revealed in the beginning.  Red herrings abound and it is very difficult to sort out motive, means, and opportunity in this complex police procedural. Obvious isn’t always right and in this season nothing is remotely obvious.

We see season four open with a physically and mentally exhausted DCI Cassie Stuart (the extraordinary Nicola Walker) having taken medical leave from being the chief detective in London, due to a harrowing cold case in season three involving a serial killer of teenage girls.  Now she struggles with her existing mental illness while having to take charge of yet another cold case, aided by DC Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar). 

Matthew Walsh, a young twenty-something whose headless and handless corpse, frozen inside a small compact apartment-sized refrigerator, has been discovered in a junkyard, when the refrigerator door swings open and the contents dumped on top of heaps of junk. 

Unforgotten season 4

After some ingenious tracking of ownership of the refrigerator, a candy wrapper, and odd tattoo, Cassie and Sunny identify four police officers from the same academy– Fiona Grayson, Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Baildon, Dean Barton, and Ram Sidhu– who had a relationship going back thirty years with the now-deceased refrigerator owner.  Cassie and Sunny delve deeply into the rookie police officers’ training program and their lives since putting on the badge. Two of the five are currently police officers and all have reason to deny a relationship with Walsh.

Above all else, Cassie 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.

One of the more original character developments in Unforgotten, throughout the series, is the portrayal of Cassie and Sunny as  a man and woman who really love and respect each other in their professional roles, supporting each other, emotionally and personally, when the need arises without  surly competitive repartee or romantic undertones. They are a male-female team who have a strong bond as friends and colleagues without any hidden agenda.

Bravo!

Note:  It is highly recommended to watch season three before watching season four, to understand why DCI Cassie Stuart needs medical leave. For my June 11, 2018 review of seasons 1 and 2, go to https://unhealedwound.com/2018/06/unforgotten-the-power-to-recall/

Availability:  On PBS Masterpiece Theater and for streaming on PBS Passport.

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3 Replies to ““Unforgotten” (Season 4)–And Unforgettable”

  1. Hey,
    watched one episode a while back. Didn’t go back. I’ll usually watch once and decide if it’s worth while. Same old. I used to watch the genre a lot and guess I’m just tired of it.

“Navillera”—Soar Like a Butterfly

This quirky and endearing sleeper mini-series from Korea (premiered on Netflix,  March 2021)  is a definite winner.  (Navillera in Korean means “like a butterfly.”) 

In the opening scene Sim Deok-chul (the renowned Park In-hwan) is celebrating his 70th birthday with his wife, three sons and their wives.  Only the youngest son, considered a failure for quitting his hospital position as a doctor, is unmarried.  Sim is a retired mailman who 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 the gifted Lee Chae-rok (Song Kang) practicing for his upcoming ballet competition.  Unbeknownst to Sim, Chae-rok is struggling financially, working a part-time job as a waiter, and is considering giving up ballet.

Sim persuades the ballet studio’s manager to accept him as a ballet student.  So Sim is assigned to be the young Chae-rok’s manager and follows Chae-rok around, making sure he eats well and practices without distraction.  Sim literally stalks him, almost following him into the bathroom.   At first Chae-rok is irritated and deeply annoyed, but both Chae-rok and Sim have family issues and dysfunctional relationships with their fathers.   They have a lot to learn from each other and most of all, have the need to develop empathy.   Sim’s family—and especially his wife in some hilarious scenes—can’t understand why he doesn’t play golf and follow the usual routine of a retiree.

Navillera

There are comic scenes between the elder Mr. Sim and his millennial counterpart as well.  Watching a 70 year-old dress up in a leotard with a beaming smile on his face is entirely unexpected and for this viewer, utterly charming.  Not quite a melodrama because of the extraordinary pas-de-deux (both figuratively and literally) between these two powerful and beautiful actors, Navillera does make us soar as the septuagenarian and his 20-something counterpart lift the story to a breathtaking, poignant finale where dreams and memories are not completely extinguished.  The peak of youth and the decline of the aging are mirrored images of disappointment and loss, seamlessly and poetically intertwined throughout the film.

Viewers will fall in love with this pair of sympathetic characters who must resolve issues from their painful past with mutual grace and compassion.  Don’t be surprised if you experience   a heart squeezing, and are moved to tears.

Note:  A great family show for adults and older children who can read subtitles.

Availability:  Netflix streaming

­

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One Reply to ““Navillera”—Soar Like a Butterfly”

  1. Thanks. Looks interesting. Right now working on sequel to Shelter of Leaves and have made some decisions about the direction.

    You and Pam Webber will have your condensed reviews on Other Fires in the magazine Forward Reviews, Sept./Oct,2021 issue.

    Hope all’s well with you,
    Best,
    Lenore

“Cruella”–DeVil’s Delight?

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.

Estella Miller (the outstanding Emma Stone), is an aspiring fashion designer, orphaned and relegated to being a street grifter with two boys in a Dickensian survival-of-the-smartest.  As she is determined to pull no punches to achieve her dream, Estella will become Cruella by the end of the film.

Treated very poorly by the unparalleled fashion designer, Baroness von Hellman (played brilliantly by Emma Thompson), Estella/Cruella plots to gain recognition from the Baroness and then to take over her empire.  The dueling competition over who is the greatest fashionista of all is immensely entertaining. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the darker tones of two women who have lost family and now feel so unloved, delve deep into nuances of character that are very adult psychological themes. 

Baroness, as a child, was humiliated in dreaming of a world of  fashion.  Now she does the same to Estella. The two are mirror-images of each other, but Estella has yet to realize that.  This is the emotional centerpiece of the film.

Part Ocean’s Eleven for the heist during the Baroness’s fashion gala, and part Joker for the torment and trauma that morphs Estella into Cruella, this is not your typical Disney movie.  There is something for everyone. The young viewer will enjoy the breathtaking staging.  Sumptuous costumes and Joker-like makeup are performances in their own right.  For adults,  we see vulnerability in both characters being crushed.  What an origin story!

Without a doubt Cruella is the very best of the Disney live-action dramas, not merely an engaging snow globe of entertainment, and it will likely become a classic. Cruella is definitely a DeVil’s Delight!

Note:  Some children under the age of ten may not be comfortable with the intensity of certain scenes and unexpected behavior.  They might end up watching a few action scenes through their fingers.  My two granddaughters, ages six and eight, who watched this movie with me for the second time, loved it!  So did I –but for some very different reasons, I’m sure. 

Availability: Disney+

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“Mare of Easttown”–Living with the Unacceptable

Mare of Easttown, a seven-episode HBOMax mini-series, we watch a mother,  Mare Sheehan (the remarkable Kate Winslet) attempting to come to terms with her unexpressed and unresolved grief over the death of her young adult son, Kevin. She is also a detective living in Easttown, a working-class suburb of Philadelphia, who is  investigating the murder of an adolescent single mother, Erin McMenamin. 

Mare is a local hero, a high-school basketball champion dating back 25 years. She now has multiple setbacks and tragedies to deal with:  an unsolved missing case of a young girl, a divorce, her judgmental mother, her grief-stricken and wounded daughter Siobhan, a professor boyfriend, her best friend’s suspicions, and an ex- addict ex-daughter-in-law battling for custody of Mare’s grandson.  The multiple characters demand focus and attention to detail in order to understand the mystery and the jaw-dropping final scene. 

In this merciless seesaw of harrowing grief, we witness Mare– and all those impacted by Kevin’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.  And in perhaps one of the most powerful scenes before the final closing, Mare consoles a widow who doesn’t know how to deal with the death of his wife:  “After a while, you learn to live with the unacceptable.”

The supporting ensemble cast– which includes Guy Pearce (Memento, LA Confidential), Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County), Evan Peters (American Horror Story), and Jean Smart (Hope Springs, The Accountant) — is exceptional.  All integrate their characters’ backstories, whether revealed on screen or on their faces, as past histories remaining untold.  Winslet, Nicholson, and Smart deliver shattering, emotionally brittle performances, often leaving them trembling from their open wounds. In unforgettable scenes pairing Winslet with Nicholson and Winslet with Smart, we see female empowerment and vulnerability simultaneously and inseparably.   Simply brilliant acting!

Availability:  HBOMax for streaming

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5 Replies to ““Mare of Easttown”–Living with the Unacceptable”

  1. Hey,
    well, surely the film has wonderful actors! And the read makes it look and sound terrific, unless you’re very familiar with that level of sadness and anger at losses. Sometimes working with my clients that had continuous problems it could seem like a movie, except it was their lives. Usually the chaos and losses were connected. Recovery was possible, but the work was often slow. Those clients were often with me for 2 or 3 years.

  2. It started out so dark that we almost didn’t watch it, but Kate Winslet and the rest of the cast won out. Remarkable series.

  3. Excellent review of a quality streaming series. Plots and subplots that keep the viewer constantly engaged by quality acting.

  4. I loved this series. I wish I’d written it. Superb casting/acting. Even if Guy Ritchie was a red herring.

“Underground Railroad”–Tracking US History

Based upon the Pulitzer-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, Underground Railroad, is produced and directed by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlighting”). This gripping portrayal   is an allegorical account of slavery and the role it has played in American history from colonial times. 

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.

A young slave, Cora Randall (the astounding South African newcomer, Thuso Mbedu) suffers one heartbreaking loss after another–of her mother, beloved friends, and two lovers.  In an act of desperation, she tries to escape a Georgia plantation and discovers the Underground Railroad.

In spite of almost insurmountable obstacles and defeats, she triumphs– somewhat miraculously– first, over her slave owner, and then over a notorious and avaricious “slave catcher” with a demented, damaged soul (the excellent Joel Edgerton), and somewhat surprisingly, over a free-state town council. Cora is compelled to run for her life over and over again. 

Overlaid with magical realism evoking uncanny spiritual powers, the Black communities, depicted as Valentine Hill (echoing the Greenwood “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma) have a strength, which their white neighbors fear, yet deny.

This is a must-see film. It is a history lesson for us all. Underground Railroad reveals, through imagery and drama,  why so many state governments try so hard to ban “critical race theory” from schools.  Perhaps the most disheartening conclusion from watching this masterpiece of visual storytelling, is that the behaviors of those in power back then are so recognizable today.

The viewer needs to have time to feel the raw and brutal emotional truths of those who are trapped and powerless, as well as those who are detached and power-drunk.  The outrage and resentment are brilliantly acted by the main characters to deepen the dramatic effect.

Central to the story is the examination of trust and resilience, dependency and the disingenuous guises of the powerful.  While the psychology of domination and subjugation are unforgettably rendered, the stunning genius and poetry of the cinematic art form need to be mentioned as well.  The cinematography is impeccable.  Watch the photographer’s use of light–some scenes yield extraordinary photographs as works of art.  The lighting is masterful and exceptional.

Criticism, on some of the major internet movie sites–of the darkness of  some scenes– misses the point.  Dark tones are intentional, underscoring the underbelly and darkness of US slavery.  Yet accompanying slivers of light reveal an ineffable quality of heroism and a tentative optimism.

Needless to say, this is not a movie to binge watch. It is too overwhelming.  But the feelings you have after watching each single episode are, in part, because of the quality of the  art.

The subject matter is immeasurably uncomfortable because of its closeness to all of us. It is a time for reckoning.  That in itself may feel menacing.

If you want to know about the burden of  America –without any tone of preaching or lecturing,– watch this masterpiece!

Availability:  Amazon Prime

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One Reply to ““Underground Railroad”–Tracking US History”

  1. Don’t think I saw this movie. But think I read this Colson Whitehead book. I think two books. Whitehead’s a fine writer! Thank you.

    I’m back to working on Sharp&Sabine after a break to send out the wizard book. Sent to several publishers but no idea my
    chances.

    Hope all’s well with you!
    Cheers,
    Lenore