Godfather of Harlem—Partners in Crime

Inspired by a true story, Godfather of Harlem skillfully interweaves the combative and competing forces of the  mafia with the battle for civil rights in the mid-‘60s.  In the riveting Epix limited series, Godfather of Harlem, we see the character Bumpy Johnson (the exceptional Forest Whitaker) re-enter the world of organized crime after being released from Alcatraz. 

Drugs have taken over many of New York’s poor communities, and the Italian mafia runs most of them, now including the crime syndicate of Harlem which had been Bumpy Johnson’s exclusive domain.  Not wanting to be a snitch, Johnson survives an eleven-year prison sentence meant for members of the mafia.  Upon release,  Johnson feels he is owed back his territory.   However,   Vincent “Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio) refuses to give up the control of Harlem he has seized through brutal means,  so brutal they fall  outside the boundaries of the mafia’s own code of conduct.

During the turf war that follows, Bumpy Johnson forms an alliance with preacher Malcolm X  and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.  This additional  subplot of backroom politics and maneuvering gives force to the civil rights movement but threatens to tear the communities apart.  And other subplots that overlay the crime drama are 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”, Bumpy Johnson and his daughter in the finale have an unforgettable scene.

If you liked American Gangster with Denzel Washington, you will probably love its prequel, Godfather of Harlem. Denzel’s character Frank Lucas was Bumpy’s right hand until he took over the throne.

Great ensemble cast and some extraordinary dialogue delivered by both major and minor characters.  [The co-writer Chris Brancato also created the series Narcos.]  This is a real winner!

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Marriage Story (2019)-The Bonds of Love

 

Nominated this year for eleven Academy Awards, Marriage Story portrays  two people who really care about, respect, and love each other, and 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.

 Written, directed and produced by Noah Baumbach (of “Squid and the Whale”, another excellent film about divorce), this film eviscerates what happens in even the best-intentioned divorces, reminiscent of  the classic 1979 film “Kramer vs Kramer”. 

Charlie (Adam Driver) is  a very competitive, driven theater director whose wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) has substantially contributed to his recent success. As the leading actress and idea-generator for this theatrical company, Nicole loves witnessing  the accolades and fame Charlie is garnering, including receiving the prestigious MacArthur grant.  (There are parallels to last year’s hit, The Wife, here.)  Until she doesn’t.

Neither character is portrayed as overly narcissistic (although Charlie comes close) but both are flawed.  While the viewer comes to understand and empathize with both of them wanting to pursue their dreams,  we see the character arcs change radically.  The hoped-for amicable divorce proceedings turn very ugly when lawyers get involved. 

This is an emotionally raw journey into trying to figure out how to be an independent adult and survive alone.  It is so grief-stricken in impact that it is as if the viewer’s observing the psychological amputation of the couple’s former selves.

Charlie and Nicole’s  assumptions about each other were lovingly expressed while they were a couple, and are now weaponized.  What they had been fond of in each other’s character, turns into deep wounds and grievances.

The cast is phenomenal. Adam Driver offers a transformative, heartbreaking performance that may surprise many.   Scarlett Johansson is his equal, playing a broken woman who wants the best for her family, but can no longer hope for her marriage to change.  Their performances are as intertwined and nuanced as they are fragmented, and they play  off each other with rarely seen chemistry.

Marriage Story is a delicate dance and dialectic of vertiginous rage and  devastating miscommunication, weaving together themes of loneliness, heartbreak, and regret acutely reflecting the imperfect and painful nature of human relationships.  An unnerving capture of the complexities of character and the dissolution of a marriage between two loving people, Marriage Story will become a classic allegory for us all.


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2 Replies to “Marriage Story (2019)-The Bonds of Love”

  1. A painful film to watch at times and yet so familiar and real to many of us. Acting is superb,. This film left me feeling raw and sad wondering about how and why we change and fall apart even with the best intentions.

  2. Loved this show so much ! Scarlett is fabulous/I have a new attraction to Adam. He’s not physically attractive to me but there is this “thing”

Happy New Year 2020: The Year of the [Metal] Rat

Happy Chinese New Year 2020!

The Buddha taught rats first, among the animals in the Buddhist pantheon, and rats rank first on the Chinese zodiac. Though people who follow Western animal symbolism do not consider the rat either adorable or auspicious, nevertheless the characteristics of the rat are considered spirited, witty, alert, flexible, and that of a survivor.  The Chinese New Year will begin on January 25, 2020  with the final celebration on  February 11.

The Metal Rat Year is going to be a strong, prosperous, and lucky year for those who conduct financial research and follow through on investments. For investors in  real estate, or venturing on their own to  start a business or to invest money in a long-term project,  major decisions on money matters will affect the entire twelve-year cycle of the zodiac–until 2032.

On the political front, those who fight against corruption will be accused of duplicity and hypocrisy.  Political unrest will continue   and revolutionary disruption of the establishment will gain momentum.  Increased tensions and misunderstanding between allies will occur.

To avoid escalating conflict by unscrupulous populist governments who  overlook or ignore the common interest of society, moderation, patience and compromise must be recognized and practiced.   In addition, all nations must implement strict and disciplinary measures to ameliorate climate change.  Jealousy of those who have polluted the plant will rise.

For more information on the Chinese zodiac and to read your horoscope for 2020, please go to:  https://www.thechinesezodiac.org/horoscope-2020/

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My Top 15 Movies and TV Series for 2019

Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online or were at local movie theaters, although not necessarily under broad distribution nor widely distributed through move theaters.   Of the 43 reviews, here are my favorites.  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) Lo and Behold–Reveries of the Connected World  (January 13 review)

Lo and Behold gives the viewer a spellbinding, lesser-known walk back in time through the birth of the computer and its subsequent impact on our daily lives. We see extremes: medical marvels saving lives or electromagnetic waves that debilitate. Each chapter introduces a different positive or negative dynamic of the internet.

2) Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—The Golden Rule (March 17 review)

What the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores perhaps more clearly now than at the time the show was produced is just how revolutionary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood actually was.  Even through the tumultuous Sixties, subjects of political violence, racial discrimination, and the degrading messages children and adults frequently heard were never side-stepped or sugarcoated.  

3) In Order of Disappearance—Plowing Through Suspense (April 21 review)

In this combination of black comedy and Nordic noir, we are treated to a series of scenes involving gangster mobs, drug trade, a father’s revenge, kidnapping, and snow plowsIn Order of Disappearance is part “Fargo” and part other Coen brothers’ comedic treatment of snow country. 

4)  Which Way Home—Is There One?  (June 17 review)

In this gripping 2010 Academy Award nominated HBO documentary, Which Way Home opens with something large and bulbous floating down the Rio Grande. The viewer soon learns it is a corpse, perhaps that of a child, and an observer comments matter-of-factly that this happens multiple times a day.

5) Always Be My Maybe—Rom-Com at Its Best  (June 22 review)

The Netflix Original Always Be My Maybe gives us a reason for watching rom-coms again. A modern riff on “When Harry Met Sally.” Set in San Francisco, Always Be My Maybe is  a story of childhood sweethearts who go their separate ways only to meet up fifteen years later.  Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park) were best friends who, as teenagers,  had sex for the first time and then stopped talking to each other. 

6)  The Farewell—Family Matters (August 5 review)

This comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.”  The universal theme– of the gathering of a family clan harboring  secrets and lies,  told and sometimes motivated by love.

7) Late Night—Women Do It Right  (November 5 review)

In Late Night   we see a notoriously, male-dominated world of late-night network TV in which a woman–Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)– is the host of her own talk show.  (Think “The Devil Wears Prada” and Meryl Streep as the “bitch-boss from hell”).

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

8) The Hate U Give—T.H.U.G. (June 9 review)

Starr Carter,   a sixteen-year-old gifted student, has to adeptly maneuver between two worlds — her poor, mostly black neighborhood and a wealthy, mostly white prep school. Facing pressure from all sides, Starr must find her voice and decide to stand up for what’s right.

9) Rocketman—Seeing the Light Through the Darkness (July 28)

The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius.  Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.” 

10)  Joker—No Laughing Matter (October 7 review)

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. 

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

11)   Narcos, Narcos Mexico and El Chapo— Cinema Verite  (February 19 review)

Three Netflix series — NarcosNarcos Mexico and El Chapo– are gritty, raw, and bingeable. Each chronicles the most powerful drug lord and his cartel at the rise of cocaine and marijuana production in Colombia, Mexico, and other parts of the world.

12) Chernobyl—An Ignominious Reaction (July 16 review)

 Chernobyl  is an HBO historical drama  miniseries depicting the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the unprecedented coverup that followed. The  flawed reactor design operated by inadequately trained technicians is jaw-clenching and chilling.  That lack of transparency and flagrant disregard for human life depicts greed, lack of moral integrity, and political corruption.  Chernobyl is a cautionary tale for today’s political climate.

13) La Casa de Papel—”Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids  (September 2 review)

A criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have nothing to lose.

14) Locked Up—Spain’s “Orange is the New Black”  (September 11 review)

Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences:  the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.

15) Queen of the South—Reigning Supreme (October 20 review)

A “Narcos” or “El Chapo”-style drama about the rise of drug lord Teresa Mendoza (played by the exceptional Alice Braga, niece of the renowned actress Sonia Braga),  we see a new first.  Instead of a ruthless kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel like Guzman (El Chapo), we see Teresa Mendoza. She navigates and outsmarts a world dominated by men and machismo to become the queen (or queenpin?) of Sinaloa.

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Knock Down the House—A Remodel is Needed

This investigative journalistic  documentary invites the viewer to take a closer look at  four committed women who ran for Congress in 2018: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Cori Bush of Maryland, Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, and Amy Vilela of Nevada. First and foremost, however, Knock Down the House is AOC’s story.  The former bartender from the Bronx turned first-time congresswoman needs no introduction.

Because of director Rachel Lears’s  early access to the four Congressional candidates, she and her camera have been in the war rooms of the campaigns right from the start, making the footage even more compelling.

Knock Down the House movie

From a pool of committed political neophytes, Lears selected four exceptional female candidates — Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin and Amy Vilela — each with an emotionally riveting back-story and a politically established, seemingly unbeatable opponent. Their back-stories propelled them into politics.  For Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she  had to work double shifts as a bartender to save her mother’s home from foreclosure. After losing a daughter to a preventable medical condition because of lack of health insurance, Amy Vilela became determined to  improve  America’s broken health-care system. Cori Bush, a registered nurse and pastor, was appalled at the  police shooting of an unarmed black man and the resulting army tanks that showed up in  her neighborhood. A coal miner’s daughter, Paula Jean Swearengin, watched  her friends and family suffer from the devastating environmental effects of the coal industry.

Except for AOC, the other three women candidates–although giving everything they had to win—were defeated. With a raw and blistering honesty, we see the camera hover over their physical and emotional deflation after the results come in.  All four were heavily invested personally: “We’re coming out of the belly of the beast kicking and screaming,” Swearengin says.  But ten-year incumbents are hard to unseat.

Ocasio-Cortez, unsurprisingly,  emerges as a telegenic, exuberant force .  She is all that and more.  In the closing credits, we see AOC riding a scooter, circling in front of the Congressional building, enjoying the thrill of her victory  on a crisp, January morning before the swearing-in ceremony.  She’s a television cameraman’s dream:   young, attractive, and charismatic with the emotive,  energetic oratorial skills of a much more seasoned  public speaker. Nothing seems to throw her off her game, whether she’s mopping the floor before distributing leaflets for her campaign or talking with someone who has decided not to vote for her.

Her social media presence alone shows why she has crossed over into pop celebrity, whether she’s tweeting or live-streaming on Instagram while eating popcorn, talking about staying grounded and dancing on YouTube.  She is a media darling and that makes her a political star worth watching.

Knock Down the House will knock you down too—with the energy that these women expended to advocate for change.

Note:  Available on Netflix.

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Luce—A Beam of Light?

Luce the movie

The title character, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)  is an all-star athlete and model straight-A student who is expected  to achieve greatness in college. Luce’s  liberal adoptive parents—physician Amy (Naomi Watts) and financier Peter (Tim Roth) adopted Luce when he was a little boy in Eritrea, a boy-soldier who experienced unimaginable horror.

A volatile and incendiary essay he has written for an English teacher, Harriet Wilson  (Octavia Spencer), is brought to the attention of Luce’s parents.  The essay inflames the liberal-minded community and most of all, his English teacher.

Luce’s parents do not know who to believe, –his teacher and school administrators or their son–although their intuition and gut-reaction is to believe their brilliant, beloved Luce.  Other  parents slowly face the same dilemma –who do you believe in the face of unconditional love?  Luce’s personal story unfolds as an attempt to define what is the truth to the listener–the one that is acceptable and therefore believed, or the one that shatters values you deeply hold. 

A sense of sustained menace highlights the central theme of Luce: Do we really know who Luce is and how deeply his traumatic childhood experiences have affected him? 

Luce is a gut-wrenching story of love of child versus love of spouse.  This film is also provocative in terms of Luce’s achievements validating  his  liberal parents’ convictions about social justice and racial equality, about transforming the human soul.   There are no easy answers.

Race and white privilege are examined under a psychological microscope.  Sharp-edged and gimlet-eyed, this is a difficult film that tries to say something nuanced about racism, making for uncomfortable viewing.  Luce  is boldly ambitious in addressing so many questions in one film:  Who is “anointed”  by others to succeed?   The myth of the American dream and succeeding  all on your own, especially in the glowing light of suburbia (Arlington, Virginia), is painfully dissected.

Luce closes with  a chilling and morally ambiguous ending.   The creation of your own ending may depend upon your ethnic identity and how much it has influenced who you are now.  No one person represents an entire demographic and Luce shouts this to the audience loud and clear. 

“You never really know what is going on with people.” (Luce)

Note:  Now available on Netflix.

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Booksmart—Today’s “Breakfast Club”?

Booksmart:  the movie follows two academic superstars and high school best friends who feel major FOMO!
Booksmart

Booksmart follows two academic superstars and high school best friends who, the night before graduation, suddenly realize that they should have worked less and played more.  Major late-blooming FOMO! 

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein of “Lady Bird”) are determined to cram four years of sacrificing fun for one all-night party.  After all, some of their “party-animal” classmates have done drugs, partied every weekend while  Amy and Molly were in the library, and still were accepted at the same Ivy League college or prestigious NGO projects that the two BFFs sacrificed so much for.  Popular vs. Intellectual: why not both?  That is the question underpinning Booksmart.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever

Directed by Olivia Wilde, Booksmart has achieved a film worthy of comparison with the classic John Hughes’ films Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club.   A teen comedy with girl power, Booksmart encapsulates an inchoate female empowerment evolving without Amy and Molly’s full comprehension.  We have adolescent turmoil in which teenage angst over every word and glance from classmates has a surprising and clever twist.

There is pain and an ecstatic thrill of female bonding intertwined with a  best-friend sort of communication that embodies not only trust without question– and in a sense, first love– but also the complicated issue of sexual identity.

Booksmart has wisdom and a humorous generosity in showing a glimpse of adulthood’s inevitable disappointments (played hilariously by Jason Sudeikis in one scene as a high school principal moonlighting as a Lyft driver.)  It’s difficult to do comedy well, especially of teenagers through the lens of middle-aged directors and writers. Wilde gets the tone and subject matter just right, giving Amy and Molly the material to imbue their characters with the authentic and heartfelt voices of teenagers today.    A delightful film for families with teenagers and for all of us who remember our teenage angst when many days and nights were both the best and worst of our lives. 

Note:  Now available on Netflix DVD.

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Late Night–Women Do It Right

Late Night movie

In Late Night   we see a notoriously, male-dominated world of late-night network TV in which a woman–Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)– is the host of her own talk show.  (Think “The Devil Wears Prada” and Meryl Streep as the “bitch-boss from hell”).  The world of late-night television is even more turned upside down when Katherine hires her first and only female staff writer, Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) to tamp down criticism of the show’s lack of diversity– a “two-fer”: a woman and a person of color.  It’s brazen “tokenism”.

The show’s ratings have steadily declined as social media and viral videos take over the discussion of current affairs and trends. As a multiple award-winning nighttime late-show legend, Katherine will have nothing to do with social media. The network’s president warns her that she will be replaced soon if nothing changes.

The network frets that  Katherine’s  too much of a relic representative of a vanishing demographic, and that her thirty-years of experience means little to the millennial generation. She’s a hard-nosed veteran performer.  She ignores the accusations of being out-of-touch and a dinosaur. Katherine’s writing staff, all men–some of whom have never met her–slack off when they can, and write jokes that are partly the reason for her show’s growing unpopularity. 

Enter Molly who has little experience in comedy (she worked in a chemical manufacturing plant) and initially struggles. Nevertheless she proves she is talented and knows what a younger audience wants to see. Katherine and Molly are from different generations and different perspectives of what comedy is and should be.   

The antagonist and adamant opponent to all of Molly’s comedic efforts is Tom (Reid Scott), who is in charge of writing the opening monologues for the late show and feels far superior to Molly’s status as a “diversity hire”.  Ironically he is a “legacy hire” himself.  It’s such an old boy’s club that the women’s restroom isn’t truly the women’s restroom, but where guys go to take a dump.

A laugh-out-loud comedy with subversive social commentary woven into it, sometimes Late Night   is so subtle the viewer might miss some of the scathingly tongue-in-cheek banter. Kaling gives this script her all as the creator and chief writer, critiquing how television  works. She  also – examines what makes a joke funny, the subtleties of comedy, and why something goes viral.   This satirical comedy is timely and a must-see!

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2 Replies to “Late Night–Women Do It Right”

  1. Thanks for the thumbs up review of Late Night — and holiday blessings on Mindy Kaling for writing such a marvelously nuanced role for Emma Thompson (and another for herself).

Indochine (1993)–Heart of Darkness

Indochine is a testament to the hubris and delusions of first French imperialism and then American trauma to follow .The sense of time and place  unfolds in 1930 French Indochina (Vietnam). from the years of French colonial rule to the stirring of a revolution by zealous and determined young Communist idealists,..  

Indochine concludes in 1954 when the French are on the cusp of being forced out by Communist forces after a century of colonization. Seen through the eyes of a rubber plantation owner, Eliane (the ethereal Catherine Deneuve, nominated for an Academy Award for her performance), Indochine is an allegory for the corrupt and depraved. The often opium-smoking French are seen clinging to their delusional belief that they could sustain their dominion over the  impoverished, virtually enslaved Vietnamese.

The narrative is a family drama between Eliane and the orphaned five-year old Vietnamese girl,  Camille (newcomer Linh Dan Pham). who is adopted by Eliane . Indochine has another narrative as well: a love story between a French navy officer, Jean-Baptiste,  and both Eliane and Camille. 

As the struggle against French imperialism grips Vietnam, Jean-Baptiste and Camille have to choose sides.   As the focus shifts to the love story between Camille and Jean-Baptiste, and the awakening of the sheltered privileged Camille to the plight of most Vietnamese Indochine‘s pace deepens and quickens.

The anticolonial revolt plays out in some expected patterns, with the decadence of the dying days of a fading colonial regime.   Old paternalistic, often brutal customs have outlasted their lords and yet the patriarchs (and matriarchs, in this case) adhere tenaciously to property and servants  with a certain stubborn and oblivious pride. They are yesterday’s story, but arenot ready to realize or admit it. 

Indochine is ambitious, gorgeously photographed but also  too slow, too long, and too languishly structured  in the first half of the story. It is not altogether a successful film because of this.   Yet it is still worth seeing, perhaps mostly for implying that the French still do not quite understand what happened to them in Vietnam, and they’re not alone.

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Tricky Dick–His Own Fantasy World

Narrated by Anderson Cooper, Tricky Dick is a four-part CNN documentary that  presents  the  lesser-known  story of Richard Nixon’s life and times. The rise, fall and almost unbelievable comeback and final self-sabotage of his political  career are  adroitly deconstructed. Through access to archival footage never before seen by the public, the backstory of Richard Nixon’s complex view of opportunity and ambition unfolds.

The story of Nixon’s aggressive strategy for political success, together with his resentment of the elite and his animus towards the press, minorities, and Jews is a dramatic portrayal of resurrection from defeat and self-destruction.  But the usual reasons for his failures when he was considered unbeatable are laid to rest here.  For example, the televised debate debacle with Kennedy is usually explained as due to  Nixon’s sweat and dourness while Kennedy looked polished, patrician, and relaxed. Tricky Dick’s archival footage, however, reveals that the moderator (Howard K. Smith) thought Nixon was too “nice” in demurring to Kennedy, thus elevating the inexperienced senator.  Smith believed Nixon should have “fought back”, and that was the reason for the subsequent rapid decline in the polls. After the closest presidential election up to that time, defeated but not a quitter, Nixon determinedly runs for the governor’s seat in California,  a major step down from being Eisenhower’s vice president, only to be profoundly humiliated with an unexpected loss.  Nixon retreats from politics for the first time in his life.

Four years after JFK had become president, with the US  in crisis at home and abroad, raging from an increasingly virulent Vietnam War, Nixon senses an opportunity for a comeback. Confident he can shed his loser’s image, Nixon plans his campaign which wins the presidency that should have been his.

As the anti-war movement gains strength, Nixon suspects a conspiracy against him, one he will use any means necessary to defeat. He  isolates himself with a handful of trusted advisors  and prepares for a second term.

In a historic landslide, Nixon is re-elected but shortly into his second term, the cover-up of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate complex starts to unravel his presidency. As the President wages a battle in the press and in the courts, a desperate man becomes his own worst enemy, and movement to impeach begins.

It is the secret recordings in Nixon’s White House, often in the dark of night, along with a few brave whistleblowers and one Deep Throat, that truly are chilling. The perpetual subterfuge and self-loathing also reveal a deeply disturbed and aggrieved man, with flaws that Nixon never realizes he has.  Tricky Dick is a portrait of a power gone unchecked, as we witness his unraveling from his own words on tape. Even if his self-aggrandizing mind has been wrong all along, he doesn’t know it and we are horrified by it.  The parallels with today are frightening.

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Queen of the South (La Reina del Sur)–Reigning Supreme

 

Based on the global best-selling novel “La Reina Del Sur,” by internationally-acclaimed author Arturo Pérez-Reverte,  Queen of the South, a bilingual telenovela crime drama, has become one of the most popular series of all time for USA and its sister network, Telemundo. Queen of the South, now in its fifth season, is a winner. Thank you, USA, for continuing  to add gritty, noir-ish series  to your program roster!  

A “Narcos” or “El Chapo”-style drama about the rise of drug lord Teresa Mendoza (played by the exceptional Alice Braga, niece of the renowned actress Sonia Braga),  we see a new first.  Instead of a ruthless kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel like Guzman (El Chapo), we see Teresa Mendoza. She navigates and outsmarts a world dominated by men and machismo to become the queen (or queenpin?) of Sinaloa.

At one point, forced to flee Mexico, Teresa finds herself in Dallas, Texas where her street-smarts move her rapidly into the highest ranks of the Vargas cartel,. The cartel is embroiled in a fierce rivalry between Epifanio Vargas and his estranged wife, Camila (the attention-stopping Veronica Falcon).  A knuckle-biting set of episodes in each season highlights how Teresa is bound by a cat-and-mouse game in order to survive. She has to rely  on her own strategic thinking and instincts to stay one step ahead of  the feuding Vargas cartels and avoid capture and death.

Veronica Falcon as Camila Vargas

A violent, intense drama in the genre of “narcos” , Queen of the South is highly original in providing two great lead performances by the pair of queens fighting over who shall rule the cartels of Culiacan.

Note:  The violence is disturbing, with rape and brutal “interrogation” techniques.  The writing, however, is superb and almost never sags in pace, characterization, and plot.

Available on Netflix Streaming.

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Joker–No Laughing Matter

Joker the movie

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. 

This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. And it is no small feat to have a performance which overshadows the also remarkable previous Jokers played by Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Heath Ledger.

In Joker a marginally employed and aspiring stand-up comedian, Arthur Fleck (played by the astonishing Joaquin Phoenix), has a series of menial gigs as a clown holding a banner declaring a store’s bankruptcy or performing in the cancer ward of a children’s hospital.  He is a disposable, invisible Gotham resident faithfully caring for his invalid mother with whom he shares a dreary low-rent apartment.

Bullied, brutally abused and cruelly mocked by almost everyone around him, Arthur Fleck devolves into the Joker as the demented, bipolar mask of comedy and tragedy. Not yet evil or vile, but more ignored and humiliated, his community fails him and his mental illness isolates him.

In close-up shots of his clown-face mask, this Joker is no clown, pulling down roughly on the corners of his face to force a grin, more grimace and silent scream than a smile. The viewer feels that Arthur Fleck is becoming ever more deeply damaged.

 Joaquin Phoenix gives such an unforgettable feral performance, this viewer was left wondering how the actor could maintain his sanity after this manic act as the Joker. We are taken on a journey to  see the dissolution of sanity under a psychological microscope. 

Joker with Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix’s exposed bones and emaciated frame are part of the Joker’s makeup. His physicality is a range of movements in madness, alternatingly unhinged and heartbreaking as he dances after each horrific act, struggling to communicate and connect until he surrenders to his insanity.

This is a  character-driven plot, intensely cerebral and at times subversive and disturbing.   This character study of the Joker will become a classic and a certain Academy Award nomination for Joaquin Phoenix.   A great joke is inseparable from its ability to subvert, to say the unsaid and the unspeakable.  Joker pushes all boundaries in its portrayal of a  deeply disturbing, subversive character and I cannot think of a film with which to compare it–a must-see!

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3 Replies to “Joker–No Laughing Matter”

  1. Interesting review. This review intrigues me, perhaps I’ll go see the film. I hadn’t planned to see it after some media anger at the film. I gather he’s always manic and not too depressed? I’ll be interested to see if he gives an accurate portrait of mania. Thanks.

  2. One thing I noticed that I haven’t seen brought up elsewhere is that before or during, any self destructive act, he’s smoking a cigarette.

    Otherwise spot on.

  3. Thanks for the enthusiastic report on Joker. I’ve been reading about the divergence of response — those who view it as a boundary-pushing cinematic exploration and those who see it as a reckless exploitation of violent behavior. Good to have a movie that stirs up such strong conversation. We can all benefit from that. look forward to seeing it!

    Jerry Ludwig