“Fargo” (Season 4)—Like No Other

An enticing mob story with the texture of a graphic novel, Fargo (Season 4) is dissimilar from the previous three seasons.  As much a commentary on social and political justice as a drama about one gang competing to destroy another, this new season is like no other.

Fargo’s entire sweep of  1950’s organized crime in Kansas City is brutal and not for the faint-hearted.   With the rise of Jewish, Irish and Italian syndicates — whoever was “next off the boat”— three families (Jewish, Irish and Italian) kill each other off in a constant struggle for dominance. Family members ruthlessly  maneuver for  attention and loyalty. And we see how institutions in power have an incentive to see these immigrants  fight each other instead of joining forces to fight institutional injustice. A“Nurse Ratched” character (Jessie Buckley) who straddles the boundaries of all the feuding factions provides additional tension. 

An ambitious and more cerebral African American mobster, Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) trades his son for the son of the rival Italian mob, run by Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman). Loy  hopes  the trade will bring about  cooperation instead of conflict. Fadda has his own internal familial troubles, with his ruthless brother, recently arrived  “from the old country” and itching for a fight.  The two mob leaders, for the most part, are evenly matched with accomplices wrecking their best-laid plans. But in the end, Loy outsmarts Fadda.

Split screens feature the cast of  eccentric characters in simultaneous scenes of carnage and betrayal.  These include: a deranged and homicidal nurse (Jessie Buckley), a doleful foot soldier (Ben Whishaw) who deeply identifies with Loy Cannon’s young son, a zealously religious lawman (Timothy Olyphant) and a studious schoolgirl (E’myri Crutchfield) with ambitions to do more than a Black girl in 1950 is allowed. She assumes that hard work, a first-rate mind, and following the conventions of society will reward her…even in a Jim Crow de facto legal system.

What is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this crime story is that Loy Cannon feels it’s just his job,–being a mob boss– and his real life is the relationships he has with his wife, children and closest friends (some of whom die).  Outstanding performances by Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman playing against type make this season of Fargo a distinctive  stand-out.  This is “Sopranos” on steroids with no false sentimentality nor shrink-wrapped platitudes about law and order. Served on a plate with red-hot coals of injustice and a very crooked playing field, Season 4 of Fargo does not disappoint.

Availability:  HBO Max.

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My Top 30 Movies and TV Series for 2020

Looking for your next movie to watch?  

While we all hunker down during this sheltering-in-place, many of us crave 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, 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) For Sama–A Letter to My Daughter (February 24 review)

A love letter to her infant daughter Sama,  born in Aleppo,   For Sama is a Syrian mother’s  first-person account of the bombing of her beloved homeland. A testament to human resilience and sacrifice for the sake of a community, For Sama reveals what really happens in war as we bear witness to pain and unimaginable suffering, both physical and mental.  

2) Clemency–No Mercy or Absolution  (February 17 review)

What’s the psychological and moral cost to a society that administers the death penalty?  So much more than a “death-row drama” ,  Clemency shifts the lens to the impact of  bureaucratized human cruelty:  a scathing portrait of the toll the process of administering an execution has on prison staff. 

3) Valhalla Murders–The House of the Dead (March 30)

A crime thriller about a gruesome serial killer whose murders go back over thirty-five years.  Valhalla Murders is based upon a series of murders that took place in Reykjavik. Fearlessly delving into the  horrifying past,  two detectives persevere despite the cost of unearthing unspeakable evil. 

4) Earthquake Bird–An Unpredictable Flight (March 15)

Earthquake Bird is all about guilt and the insidious nature and burden of carrying it.  This film captures the day-to-day life of guilt and jealousy, pulling back the curtain on what damage and unpredictability can do.  The Japanese setting also adds a cultural dimension, giving more complexity and suspense to the story.   This is an oddball film with a constant undercurrent of subtle tension.

5) Mr. Sunshine–Jane Austen Meets Downton Abbey (March 10)

An intricate historical romance set in 1871, when a US military ship docked in Korea, wishes to expand into Asia for the exploitation of natural resources and land. Maintaining a Jane Austen-type romantic tension over twenty-four episodes requires a meticulous attention to plot and dialogue, something the screenwriter does in  surprisingly inventive plot-points.  

6) The Good Liar–A Story Within a Story (August 31)

This theme of the easily manipulated widow, who is too lonely and engulfed by grief to see reality for what it is, usually has few surprises.  Not so for this film. Full of twists and turns that some viewers may think stretch credulity, like any good thriller the foreshadowing and clues are there if one watches carefully and asks why that scene is there.

7) Dark Waters–Still an Abyss  (August 3)

A tenacious attorney uncovers the  dark secret hidden by one of the US’s most illustrious corporations–DuPont.  “Better Living Through Chemistry–DuPont’s advertising jingle–this is not. A growing number of unexplained animal deaths is investigated.

8) The Hater–Social Media Run Amok (September 22)

This Polish thriller reveals a  cold, ruthless world of postmodern haves and have-nots.  The online emotional vengeance and despair are palpable as the young computer hacker, Tomasz, wreaks havoc on those he most wants to replace.  Channeling his sociopathic, obsessive behavior into a place designed to enhance it: Facebook. 

9) Run–Walking is Not an Option (December 21)

Mother and daughter seem to be very close. 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.

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

10) Marriage Story–The Bonds of Love (January 14 review)

Two people who really care about, respect, and love each other,  yearn for  a “gentle” amicable divorce resolution. They also are determined  to nurture and nourish their young son, Henry, with as little wounding as possible.  Marriage Story  eviscerates what happens in even the best-intentioned divorces, 

11) Last Days of Vietnam–The Best and Worst of Us (April 14 review)

Astonishing footage of the evacuation from Saigon with contemporary recollections from both Vietnamese and Americans who were there, Last Days in Vietnam films horrific scenes  to supplement the iconic image of desperate Vietnamese women, children, and elderly hanging off the roof of the US embassy fighting for their lives  to escape Saigon.

12) Hillary— Unmasked  (May 19)

Why do people find Hillary Clinton so compelling—and so polarizing? Yet Hillary is so much more than a biopic. It is a distillation of the history of contemporary feminism in the United States, sexism, the failure of journalism, and the history of partisan politics.

13) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (June 15)

The US’s most beloved neighbor is intent upon demonstrating what a neighborhood really consists of.    This  takes great effort, introspection, and role-modeling. This film manages to make you think about yourself and how you can change the world “in your own special way”.  

14) Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich–Obscene Power (June 8)

An explosive, deeply disturbing documentary spotlighting  a dark international web of underage sex trafficking.  Billionaire playboy and financier Jeffrey Epstein operated his sick obsession in plain sight. This wealthy predator cultivated links to extraordinarily powerful people including current and former presidents and a British prince.  

15) The Hunting Ground–Preying on Our Daughters and Sons (June 1)

Students (mostly female but some male) give a painful, absorbing account of not only their sexual assault but also  the systemic indifference of the college administrations  to whom the victims seek redress.  The callousness is  as devastating and traumatic as the rampant sexual assaults themselves.

16) The Way I See It–What’s Before Your Eyes (October 25)

A documentary covering the career of  the former  White House photographer, Pete Souza, who photographed two of the most popular US presidents of the past fifty years:  Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.  Souza humanizes his subject matter with a lens that exudes emotion.  But The Way I See It is all about the Obamas.

17) Richard Jewell–A Hidden Gem (November 30)

Almost a caricature of the lonely white male, living with his mother, we see a deeply isolated man with an excessive obsession  wounded by the indignities of ridicule and dismissal from his peers and superiors.  Even the teen boys don’t take him seriously.  An engaging and deeply moving portrayal of a bad-luck victim of chance who is mistaken for a domestic terrorist!

18) The Comey Rule–Inner Conflict (November 23)

The Comey Rule attempts to give insight into the stress intertwined within the decisions government civil servants make on a daily basis.  Regardless of  one’s political proclivities,  The Comey Rule tells a story that needs to be told. And listened to.  It is of Shakespearean proportions.  Historians will have to decide. what is fact and what is fiction.  

19) The Social Dilemma–Addiction or Threat? (November 9)

That social media can be addictive and threatening isn’t news to anyone who uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn (Isn’t that most of us?).  But the most disturbing and pernicious aspect of social media is that the system is designed structurally to gather BigBrother information for profit.  That is the  business model.

20) Just Mercy–“It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”  (December 28)

A powerful true story about the 1989 founding of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), 

Just Mercy reveals a justice system that “treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent.” Stevenson underscores the faith in the better side of human nature:  “We are all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done,”  he maintains.

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

21) Godfather of Harlem–Partners in Crime  (January 19 review)

Skillfully interweaves the combative and competing forces of the  mafia with the 60’s civil rights battle.  Other subplots include a love story reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet and a saga of dysfunctional families compartmentalized by criminal masterminds who are also fathers and husbands.  Reminiscent at times of “The Sopranos”, with an unforgettable scene in the finale.

22) The Report–An Exposé for Us All (February 10 review)

A Senate staff researcher, Daniel Jones  is assigned by Sen. Diane Feinstein to investigate  detainees held by the CIA in “black sites”.  A shameful chapter of American history unfolds , where torture was re-introduced as a legitimate tool in pursuit of national security. 

23) LIttle Fires Everywhere–Incendiary at Its Best (April 27)

This is a suburban saga with a painfully close lens focused on the income gap, class, and racial divide we know only so well.  In the opening scene  a house in Shaker Heights is engulfed in an inferno.  Is it the target of arson?  We will find out.  The year is 1997.

24) Ozark (Season 3)–Narcos in Missouri (April 6)

What happens when the entire family goes from white-collar  respectability to all-in involvement in a life of criminal activity?  The teenage son and daughter do not push back as they get caught up in their parents’ duplicity.  Season 3 is  devastating: a  witnessing of a nuclear-family-gone-rogue. 

25) Humans–Dark Mirror Meets Ex Machina (August 17)

Reference is made to “Asimov blocks”, the Isaac Asimov first law of robotics: do no harm to humans.  But Humans is, first and foremost, dystopian.   Dark and brooding, Humans raises more questions than it answers about the interaction between humans and the computerized world of artificial intelligence. 

26) The Alienist:  Angel of Darkness (Season 2)–Stranger Things Happen (August 11)

Decadence and gentility reside side by side with degradation, cruelty and violence. That this Gilded Age is mere window dressing for a savage  murder mystery.  Sara takes the lead as the forceful investigator who must confront not only the city’s underground gangsters, but sexism, a corrupt police commissioner (and the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. 

27) Ratched–Ratcheting Up the Tension (October 12)

This quasi-horror thriller creates a backstory for Nurse Ratched, the heartless villain in the 1975 Academy-Award winning classic “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.  “What made Ratched so vile and so unimaginably cruel?” The answer, of course, has roots in Nurse Ratched’s  tragic early years, unhealed wounds that continue to fester.   Ratched is a female-villain origin story.  

28) The Queen’s Gambit–A Passion for Winning (November 16)

Eight-year-old orphan, Beth Harmon,   resides at a bleak orphanage, Methuen, under a severe headmistress.  It is the mid-1950s and there are few options for an orphan, especially a little girl. Struggling with loneliness, adoption and being a social misfit, Beth finds solace through learning chess from the janitor and fights to be a champion.

29) Hinterland–The Remote Interior of the Mind (November 1) 

The dark, forboding, and gloomy landscape rivals that of the best Nordic noir raising the same question: how can there be so many murders in such a small town?  Dark and at times, sinister and ominous, the Welsh scenery parallels the characters and their secretive, bleak, often damaged lives.  There is a hinterland or backstory for each character.

30) Retribution–Karma Is a Beast (December 7) 

A horrific double murder tears apart the lives of two families, the Douglases and the Elliots.  This film is unusual in its portrayal of family and what they will and won’t do for each other.  They all seek to protect themselves and those they are related to, even when they no longer love them.

Note:  Check out the entire year’s reviews for other movies that, while not making this list, most are excellent.  It was a difficult task to limit my list to just 30.  Also look at past year’s listicles of my favorite movies.  For My Top 15 Movies and TV Shows of 2019 see my December 31 blog post.

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2 Replies to “My Top 30 Movies and TV Series for 2020”

  1. Wow! Thanks for the list.

    Last night I watched about 45 minutes of the much advertised Glenda Jackson movie. I’d been looking forward to it, but I found myself drifting, disinterested and turned off the TV. I read my Laura Van Den Berg book instead. Disappointed. Maybe the film got better but I didn’t wait.

“Just Mercy” (2020)–“It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”

A powerful true story about the 1989 founding of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), based upon Bryan Stevenson’s  2014 bestseller of the same name, Just Mercy.    EJI, located in Montgomery, Alabama –and situated near the Museum of Peace and Justice (a Stevenson project focusing on the US history of lynching and slavery)–  is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States.  EIJ challenges racial and economic injustice, protects basic human rights for the most vulnerable and shines a spotlight on structural racism.  Just Mercy reveals a justice system that “treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent.” Stevenson underscores the faith in the better side of human nature:  “We are all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done,”  he maintains.

In an opening scene, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx of “Ray”), is stopped by a posse of police determined not only to arrest him for the murder of an 18-year old white woman but also to ensure he is found guilty.  McMillian is Bryan Stevenson’s first client. Freshly graduated from Harvard law, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan of “Creed”), is committed to giving back to his community. He has made it his mission to defend those on death row he feels were wrongfully convicted.  (Additionally, Alabama is the only state in the country not to assign legal representation to prisoners on death row who wish to appeal their sentences.)  

Hopeful at first that reason,  evidentiary documents and witnesses will result in justice, Stevenson soon realizes that he was naive. At first he is  unaware of the risks he is taking and of the threat he represents as  an elite educated powerhouse of a young Black attorney.  He quickly learns how  to maneuver in a historically Jim Crow state, despite being  viewed exclusively as another Black man to be denied the power that the legal system  provides to attorneys.   Ignoring evidence of McMillian’s innocence, the county prosecutor and police sheriff have other motivations.

Feeling more  like a true-crime drama rather than a memoir, Just Mercy is both disturbing and hopeful.  A staggering set of performances by both Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx give this film its heft.    The undoing of mass incarceration is another matter.

Note:  Bryan Stevenson, a MacArthur Grant recipient dedicated to undoing mass incarceration in the US, asserts that mass incarceration is the devolution of the justice system rooted in over four hundred years of lynching and kangaroo courts in American society.  For other reviews on this theme,  see: “Scottsboro–The Inexcusable” (July 10, 2012);  “Slavery By Another Name” (September 18, 2016); and “13“–An Unlucky Number (April 24, 2017).

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One Reply to ““Just Mercy” (2020)–“It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven””

  1. Thanks. I haven’t seen this advertised but I’ll keep an eye out. I recall that era very clearly. Involved in Civil Rights, marches etc.

    Happy New Year, almost!
    Best to you for 2021, may we have a better year!
    Lenore

“Run”–Walking Is Not An Option

Run is an intense and suspenseful thriller starring the master at horror and diabolical characters:  Sarah Paulson.  Portraying Diane, the mother of Chloe, a disabled seventeen-year-old girl (newcomer Kiera Allen, who is also wheelchair-bound in real life), has chosen to raise her daughter at home, in a rural town outside Seattle. 

Mother and daughter seem to be very close.  They begin each day  settled into a cozy routine of  daily lessons in physics or American lit,  relaxing meals around the kitchen table, an occasional movie in town.  But Chloe’s days also include hoisting herself into her wheelchair, spitting up in the  toilet, massaging her skin with prescription creams, and swallowing a battery of prescription medicines.   Born with severe complications (arrhythmia, hemochromatosis, asthma, diabetes, and paralysis in her legs),  Chloe needs a lot of care that Diane provides diligently and lovingly, almost obsessively.  Typical of any teenager, Chloe is looking forward to life away from home at the University of Washington.  She waits every day for delivery of a letter of admissions.  

And then the thriller ramps up.  For this review I cannot say more or risk spoiler alerts and ruining the experience for some viewers.  Don’t watch the trailer ahead of time!  {It is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Dhh7q9Us5c)

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.

The buildup is excellent.   Run keeps the audience so tightly wound, some viewers may feel one step away from panic mode and hyperventilation.  Both leading actors–Allen and Paulson– are noteworthy  in succeeding to ratchet the suspense. 

In a lean 90 minutes, the viewer almost wants the experience to be over  because Run is so nerve-wracking, and you need to take a breath.  Hang in there!  There’s no way you should stop watching, even if you technically could end your anxiety by simply reaching for the remote!

The ending is well-worth the tension and– for this reviewer– is absolutely perfect!   

Availability:  Hulu as of November 20; originally scheduled for Mother’s Day (!)

Note: Casting newcomer Kiera Allen  marks the first time an actual wheelchair user has played a lead role in a major thriller.  

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  1. sounds as though this is too intense to watch alone…a real hand holder. thanks for review…looking forward to watching, definitely
    not alone.

“The Undoing”–Deeds Undone

This HBO original mini-series, The Undoingis  a police procedural based upon the novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz. 

We observe the daily life of a highly successful New York therapist, Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman), a specialist in marriage counseling, as well her husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant), a successful  pediatric oncologist. Their teenage son Henry attends an elite private school which receives generous donations from Grace’s father (Donald Sutherland).  At a school fundraiser Grace learns more about a beautiful woman Elena  (newcomer Matilda De Angelis), who turns up brutally murdered the next day. Elena’s son, whose life was saved by Jonathan, attends the same elite school.  The police soon consider Jonathan their primary suspect and the case subsequently goes to trial with Grace’s dad begrudgingly paying for the best criminal defense lawyer in Manhattan. 

When Jonathan takes the stand, he charms with his admission of his flaws and lies, but declares his innocence because he truly loved Elena. Grace is left crushed by his confession of love for the murdered victim. She must decide whether to walk away from life with Jonathan, and create another for her son and herself. Grace struggles with Henry’s obvious grief over their estrangement and the possibility of a murder conviction for his father.  Can their family survive this?  Should they try to remain a family?  Or will there be an inevitable undoing, a wind that threatens to unsettle everything?

There are many exceptional red herrings with so many suspects with motive.  Hints that the cheerful bright exterior of this “one-percenter” couple didn’t really “have it all” seemed to crescendo into a climax involving Grace’s father, her son, her best friend, Elena’s husband, and even Grace.

The ending was disappointing for this viewer, and casts a shadow on the preceding episodes which were often well-done electrifying family drama.  Intergenerational conflict– and a foreboding that ultimately didn’t materialize at all –were notable.  While many viewers judge an entire drama by the ending, and I understand this, The Undoing is still very much worth watching to see excellent performances by both Kidman and Grant, as well as the supporting cast.  Imagine another ending for an unconditional A+

Availability: HBO Max

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4 Replies to ““The Undoing”–Deeds Undone”

  1. Have seen it all except the final episode. A friend will tell me the ending after she sees it. Switching TV’s caused this problem. But all good in the long run.

    Sorry to hear of a blah ending. Yes, so far Kidman and Grant are excellent. And the rest of the cast also.

  2. I watched the series and was surprised by the ending, so I didn’t have a problem with it. I saw it as a reminder of just how easy one can be taken in by someone. I agree that the acting was great, as was the cinematography.

    My favorite part of the series was seeing the artwork that reminded me of our local artist, Tracey Adams. Turns out it was her beautiful artwork that was used for a scene in the series!

  3. I loved The Undoing—well-acted, and visually engaging . The various red herrings of possibilities made this program compelling. I agree the ending was a disappointment, though I was on the edge of my seat during the helicopter chase. I give this a thumbs up!

“Retribution”–Karma is a Beast

Retribution  miniseries (Netflix)

Retribution ( a 2016 BBC production originally titled “One of Us”) opens with a horrific double murder, which will tear apart the lives of two families, the Douglases and the Elliots.  They are friends who live side-by-side in the isolated Scotland Highlands hamlet of Braeston.  The atmospherically remote Scottish scenery is  reminiscent of Nordic noir landscapes. 

Events soon take an even more brutal turn when a badly injured man arrives at the Douglas family’s doorstep after his car careens off the road – a man who they soon realize, after nursing his wounds,  is the killer of their adult son and daughter.  The aftermath of the double murder and the discovery of the murderer among them wreaks havoc over the course of the drama for both the Douglases and the Elliots.

Each character in Retribution has his or her own layered, dark backstory.  There are so many revelations and so many characters that the viewer ends up struggling with who is related to whom, and who has inflicted pain and who has suffered.  The characters,  vividly drawn,  are vulnerable and deeply flawed.  Almost everyone, whether a main character or a minor one, has some deep dark secret that propels them to immoral behavior.   Not one person is “normal” or even “likable”, with few exceptions.

Everyone in both families has means, motive and opportunity, resulting in a convoluted whodunit whose perpetrator is not easily guessed until the final episode.

Retribution tightens the tension for the viewer with each episode, and close attention is essential.   What backstory belongs to which character and are that character’s secrets sufficient motive for murder?  This film is unusual in its portrayal of family and what they will and won’t do for each other.  They all seek to protect themselves and those they are related to, even when they no longer love them.

Dynamite story but requiring more than the usual effort to solve the murders.

Availability:  Netflix streaming.  Subtitled captions for the deaf and hearing impaired are recommended, due to the strong Scottish brogue.

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“Richard Jewell”–A Hidden Gem

In Richard Jewell, a 2019 Clint Eastwood docudrama, Richard Jewell (played by relative unknown Paul Walter Hauser) , is first adored as a  hero for thwarting the  bombing of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. But “alternative facts” and frenzied media coverage turn against him. His daily life is turned upside down when he is considered the principal suspect in the bombing by FBI and local police. 

Jewell is almost a caricature of the lonely white male, living with his mother (Kathy Bates, in an Academy Awards-nominated performance).  Deeply proud of his patriotic duty to uphold the law and protect the community, Jewell goes to herculean efforts to do so.  He  impersonates police on a college campus and  is belligerent to teenagers’ raucus behavior. His excessive obsession  results in the indignities of ridicule and dismissal from his peers and superiors.  Even the teen boys don’t take him seriously.

Then the Olympics bombing occurs.  Finally, Jewell gains the limelight–much to his surprise and satisfaction.  But his behavior fits the FBI profile for a domestic terrorist, and his treatment by government law enforcement, particularly FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) soon becomes a nightmare.  And, of all people, Jewell can’t believe they would treat him as a suspect. 

An engaging and deeply moving performance by Hauser raises this sleeper of a film to an unforgettable one in its portrayal of a bad-luck victim of chance!

Availability: Netflix

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One Reply to ““Richard Jewell”–A Hidden Gem”

  1. Thanks Diana, good review and letting people know about a movie that might have slipped under the radar. Look forward to watching.

“The Comey Rule”–Inner Conflict

In this two-part Hulu and Showtime series, FBI Director James Comey (Jeff Daniels) begins a collision course against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (Brendan Gleeson).  Based on Comey’s book, “A Higher Loyalty”, the first part of The Comey Rule follows the investigation into Hillary’s email and its impact on the 2016 election.  Part Two follows the aftermath of the election on Comey’s career and on his family, together with his investigation into Russia, code-named “Crossfire Hurricane”.   This is not just a political docudrama but  an emotional account of what happened:  Comey’s side of the story.

The Comey Rule attempts to give the viewer insight into the stress intertwined within the decisions government civil servants make on a daily basis.   The major question being raised:  Why did Comey do it?  Why did he thrust a hand grenade into the gears of the Democratic Party’s campaign for Hillary Clinton– not just once but twice. There was no going back. 

Watching The Comey Rule we see the moral compass that rigidly guides Comey’s every thought. What an impossible situation he finds himself in, based on the fundamentals of what he stoically considers his only course of action. Without reflecting on the consequences of his actions from a more complex moral gradient, the middle-aged Comey seems to have the naive behavior of a twenty-something bureaucrat not yet used to the bloodsport of politics in DC.   The Comey Rule  is both engrossing and maddening:  seeing how Comey makes his  decisions and how shocked he is by their repercussions.

“What would I have done in Comey’s position?” The Comey Rule offers no simple answer other than Comey sincerely felt he was saving the integrity of the FBI.   There does seem to be tentativeness in how Comey is portrayed in “Crossfire Hurricane”, the catalyst for Trump terminating his career at the FBI .   A man so morally stalwart by his own standards, Comey seems to have wanted to do the right thing no matter what. Refusing to cross a line he had drawn for himself, regardless of advice from his own team members  in the FBI and from his family, Comey is portrayed as a tragic figure.

Jeff Daniels, as is expected, embodies the tortuous conflict within James Comey.   A superb, extraordinarily subtle, but very credible performance.   Regardless of  one’s political proclivities,  The Comey Rule tells a story that needs to be told. And listened to.  It is of Shakespearean proportions.

As a drama, this was so well-executed.  Historians will have to decide. what is fact and what is fiction.  

Although we are too close to truly see what happened, watch The Comey Rule.  It is disturbing.   

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The Queen’s Gambit–A Passion for Winning

Queen's Gambit Netflix original

The Queen’s Gambit is a fictional story based upon the 1983 Walter Tevis novel by the same name.  A Netflix original series released October 30 of this year, the drama opens with a scene of an eight-year old girl, Beth Harmon (newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy), soon to become an orphan  residing at a bleak orphanage, Methuen, under a severe headmistress.  It is the mid-1950s and there are few options for an orphan, especially a little girl.

Struggling with loneliness, adoption and being a social misfit, Beth finds solace through learning chess from the janitor (Bill Camp) in the Methuen School’s basement. As she begins to earn begrudging recognition as a chess prodigy, emotional issues  with drug and alcohol dependency compete with her drive to win at all costs.   She is adopted as a teenager into a dysfunctional family. Her adoptive mother is both a support and an enabler in her addictions. If Beth Harmon doesn’t keep on winning, she will lose her soul in her aggressive fight for deliverance from her past.  

Watching The Queen’s Gambit the viewer may feel as if chess  is an endgame for survival. Other chess movies have also made the game a metaphor for redemption and transformation.  (Think In Search of Bobby Fischer and Queen of Katwe reviewed here on November 13, 2018). 

 Although the authenticity of the chess tournaments may be surprisingly riveting to some, for others they may slow down the pacing.  Nevertheless, Beth’s inner life and that of her friends and opponents still create a compelling story.  Watching Beth struggle on her journey to becoming independent and proud, –breaking  barriers to being the first female international chess grandmaster– is mirrored in each chess move.  You have to cheer for this underdog.  And some of the creativity in photographing the chess pieces truly is brilliant (including imagining a strategic slide of the queen’s pawn on the room’s ceiling).

Highly original and  surprisingly entertaining, this  mini-series is  a daring move indeed!

Availability:  Netflix streaming.

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7 Replies to “The Queen’s Gambit–A Passion for Winning”

  1. Diana:
    I am delighted to find your excellent review of The Queen’s Gambit. We finished the series about a week ago and found it engaging and fascinating. We don’t let ourselves binge watch (too much else to do), but this one almost got us.
    Thanks for a great review. We have already recommended the series to several friends–something we rarely do.
    –Matilda

  2. Queen’s Gambit is one of the best drama mini-series I’ve seen in years. Absolutely adored it and savored each episode until the end! I was hoping it was a true story. Thanks, Diana for reviewing it!

  3. I loved this series! At first we thought it might be too formulaic, but it became a little more complex, interesting and engaging. For my Chess playing husband, he did find the chess competitions, etc. interesting, too, once we got “into” the story. When we finished the series (the last 3 episodes in one evening,) a review in the NYT showed up that has renewed my interest into watching the series again to relax and look for subtleties that I now want to look for after reading the NYT review.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/03/arts/television/chess-queens-gambit.html?referringSource=articleShare

“The Social Dilemma”– Addiction or Threat?

This is a  Netflix docudrama not to be missed.  The Social Dilemma  a  granular investigation of the rise of social media and the  ongoing damage it is causing to segments of society around the globe, is chilling.  Focusing on exploitation of Internet  users, The Social Dilemma, produced by Jeff Orlowski, reveals how  most users are oblivious about how their surfing patterns have been monetized. We are all   highly valuable assets being sold for financial gain.  The user ‘s data is sold to advertisers through embedded algorithms.  The advertisers are the real customers of the social media giants.   Just follow the money.  Do we pay to use Facebook? Who does?  

The business model has been designed to create an addiction:  from maintaining “eyeballs”  from the three  bouncing balls the user sees while  waiting for  an incoming text to the “Like” and “hearts” buttons  which cause warm feelings validating the individual’s status and self-worth.  The content associated with the eyeballs (or “traction”) is then catalogued according to preferences, biases, and behavioral patterns to enable efficient data-mining.    Throughout The Social Dilemma, a teenager’s social-media addiction is dramatized with actors playing the roles of the naive young users being controlled by powerful algorithms structured by artificial intelligence.  The teenagers don’t stand a chance of ever detoxing.

That social media can be addictive and threatening isn’t news to anyone who uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn (Isn’t that most of us?).  But the most disturbing and pernicious aspect of Jeff Orlowski’s documentary is that the system is designed structurally to gather BigBrother information for profit.  That is the  business model.

An advertising mecca results.  In the hands of companies like Facebook and Twitter, the ads can be tailored to the potential customer’s taste.  Social media platforms’ use in politics, their effect on mental health and their role in spreading conspiracy theories  can and has undermined the stability of communities.

With Machiavellian precision,  the psychology of social media is at the cellular level.  Users want to be with the same tribe (blocking those who disagree), because that is a primordial imperative for survival.    Infinite scrolling and push notifications designed to feed information that the  users want to believe keeps us constantly addicted.  And this  personalized “data” not just  predicts but influences our actions.  Our world is thus re-created by the clickbait the largest social media companies predict we’re most comfortable seeing.  This is confirmation bias at its most extreme.  Advertisers and political propagandists are delivered the prey they earnestly seek with increasing accuracy.

To turn social media into some sort of Frankenstein for the digital age is too simplistic.  Social media can be an incredibly valuable tool for fact-finding, for mobilization of people’s good will and for efficient dissemination of news. However, what is dangerous in The Social Dilemma is how the tech experts (who were instrumental in developing the algorithms for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) are themselves deeply alarmed by how  positive social changes can suddenly and dramatically be hijacked,   morphing into changes that are nefarious and incendiary. 

Similar to how television was eventually regulated for its intrusion upon children’s minds for commercial success, The Social Dilemma raises the question: what can be done now that the genie is out of the bottle?  One answer proposed is that user information be treated as a taxable asset. Undoubtedly tech  companies would pass on the cost of the taxes causing advertisers to buy less..  Congress is now holding hearings on the monopolistic nature of the mega social media corporations, but The Social Dilemma hovers more closely to the specter of human engineering in the hands of potentially ruthless agents. Compliance and regulation are long overdue.

Truly eye-opening and disturbing.

Availability:  The Social Dilemma premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and was released on Netflix on September 9, 2020.

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“Hinterland” —The Remote Interior of the Mind

An  original Welsh-noir murder series on Netflix (in three seasons, 13 total episodes), Hinterland  is for those who love this genre.   The main character, DCI Tom Mathias, is a deeply troubled unsympathetic detective who, together with his more mature and brilliant partner Mared Rhys, travels around a small hamlet in Wales solving at least one murder per episode.  The dark, forboding, and gloomy landscape rivals that of the best Nordic noir raising the same question: how can there be so many murders in such a small town?  Dark and at times, sinister and ominous, the Welsh scenery parallels the characters and their secretive, bleak, often damaged lives.  There is a hinterland or backstory for each character.

Police investigatory work in Hinterland often seems to go  nowhere. Where are the brilliant breakthroughs?  In this police procedural, Mathias and his supernaturally patient partner, Mared, lead the viewer to red herring after red herring, sometimes at an annoyingly slow pace. There are few malevolently brilliant  masterminds which makes the surprising endings even less expected. 

 
If you like detectives unraveling intricate master plans, only a few episodes provide that type of drama.   The suspect is never the “easy” one with means, motive, and opportunity.  Even when the perpetrator is identified early on, the motivation is superbly unraveled,  with an infrequent note of empathy for why he or she committed the murder. Broken murderers abound.   Moral lessons to be learned are often paired with  suffering that created more suffering.

The structuring of the three seasons with the “book-ending” of  episode one (in Season One) with the finale (in Season Three) is exceptional.  While each episode stands on its own for a single murder, it is beginning in Season Two that we see how the show’s screenwriters wished to tightly weave the darkest hinterland of psychological pain into the climax in Season Three’s finale.  

For those who also appreciate exceptional photography and cinematography, each episode has beautiful framing of shots through door frames and windows to underscore the need to shift perspective along side the detectives Mathias and Rhys. 

Highly recommend this sleeper!  

Availability: Netflix streaming.

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One Reply to ““Hinterland” —The Remote Interior of the Mind”

  1. Hey,
    not a fan of murder stories. As a former therapist I’ve seen enough anger and brutality and don’t find it interesting. They are sad, pitiful people in need of help.

The Way I See It–What’s Before Your Eyes

The Way I See It, a documentary film released by MSNBC on October 16, 2020, narrates the career of  the former Chief Official White House Photographer, Pete Souza.  He covered  two of the most popular US presidents of the past fifty years:  Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. 

Only in his mid-twenties when he was invited to be the White House official photographer for Ronald Reagan, Souza admits he wasn’t a fan of Reagan’s politics but  came to admire Reagan’s loving relationship with Nancy. The Way I See It zooms in on the couple holding hands after the First Lady’s surgery.  Souza humanizes his subject matter with a lens that exudes emotion.  But The Way I See It is all about the Obamas.

When Souza meets President Obama for the first time at the White House, Obama chuckles:  “We’re going to have some fun.” And that is exactly what happens.  Remarkably,  Souza captures intimate and tender moments: e.g. Barack coaching daughter Sasha’s middle-school basketball team “as if they were the NBA.” But Souza also documents what are now iconic images–  Obama, Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other high-ranking officials riveted to the screen as they witness the raid on Osama bin Laden; Obama shedding tears with Sandy Hook parents after the massacre;  hugging a severely handicapped soldier   after his return from the Middle East.  

The seemingly invisible camera of Souza’s captures eight years of the Obamas’ lives, taking hundreds of thousands of photographs.  Evolving into an exceptionally close relationship between photographer and the photographed, Souza profoundly and brilliantly encapsulates emotion in each of his shots.  In a lighthearted scene, the viewer is treated to  Souza being encouraged to marry his partner of eleven years, and being offered a wedding ceremony in the Rose Garden with President Obama serving as the officiant for an inducement.  Other humorous clips:  when Souza claims Obama’s actual favorite moment of his presidency  is  blocking Reggie Love’s shot on the basketball court; or an impromptu snowball fight and snow-angel matchup between Obama and his daughters. 

Souza is seen in 2017, when his tenure as White House photographer has ended, photographing birds in the woods near his home.  For an apparently self-effacing man accustomed to drawing attention to the person in front of the lens, not behind it, Souza will soon become the unanticipated center of attention for a new cohort of fans.  Appalled by Trump’s lack of empathy and his policy of refusing to allow candid photos, Souza begins an  Instagram account that evolves into a  political commentary. Souza himself seems surprised at the turn his life has taken, when he starts “throwing shade” (the name of his second book of photographs)  at Trump  by pairing the tweets from the current POTUS with contrasting photos of Obama, gaining more than 2.6 million Instagram followers, and becoming something of a cult celebrity. 

Scrupulously avoiding politics until the onset of the Trump years, Souza shows us a glimpse of what life was like in the Trump White House: candid documentation replaced by staged self-adulation. If  you’re feeling nostalgic,  maybe The Way I See It will be comforting.  Otherwise, if you remember a time when the US president behaved like an adult with integrity, not a narcissistic delinquent, bring out the kleenex.

Availability:  MSNBC and Amazon Prime.

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3 Replies to “The Way I See It–What’s Before Your Eyes”

  1. Hey,
    I have seen a lot of these photos of Obama taken by Souza. They were wonderful, light and happy and smart. Obama did a great job despite lack of help from Congress and racism. I’m not surprised the photographer resigned with Trump. I imagine in his career he’ll continue to produce wonderful work.

  2. Thanks, Diana!
    I loved this film! Heartwarming and interesting.
    I like that you caught Souza’s sharing Obama’s sense of humor and the staging of the tRump administration’s photos.

    It is also available on Youtube.