“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”–Dissembling the American Dream





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

Toni Morrison, born in Lorain, Ohio, a steel-town she remembers as being integrated, recalls experiencing segregation in the 1950’s only after she arrived in Washington, DC to attend Howard University. She published much later than most writers, but her college experience textured her writings.  She wrote from the vantage point of wounded women who had the strength and will to find often unexpected and hard-won redemption and triumph, not victimhood.  But her novels speak to people globally, to their traumas and their joys, in a language which is pure inspiration. Places and people– previously invisible or unnoticed– become powerful voices.

The documentary deftly reveals that Toni Morrison’s work is the essence of beautiful storytelling.  Despite the fact that her novels are about private pain as well as  collective trauma, both raw and searing, tender and compassionate, Toni Morrison is an electrifying and positive personality. Perhaps startling, — given the dark and sobering themes of her novels,– the viewer sees an ebullient, charismatic and theatrical mind of extraordinary talent:  both buoyant and vivacious.  Friends repeatedly describe her as a party-goer who loves clothes and is joyful in being herself and celebrating any occasion with friends. Many were invited to her Nobel Prize parties.  But she doesn’t tolerate fools easily, either.

First and foremost,  Morrison is a literary warrior reflecting the dark mirror of untold truths, things unsaid.   When asked by Dick Cavett on his nightly talk show if she dislikes being praised as a Black writer, she beams and answers that she is proud of being a Black woman writer but cringes at being asked that question by white interviewers.

Blowback was inevitable in the context of her meteoric rise in popularity.  The New York Times declared Morrison too talented to “remain a recorder of black provincial life” in its review of her book, Sula.  The mid-1980s furor that followed resulted in a petition signed by prominent Black authors urging that Morrison be given a major literary prize. In 1993 it was in Europe that her magnificent work was first awarded  the highest honor any author can receive:  the Nobel Prize in Literature.

But we also see a private, delightful writer who has the heft and electrical charge of a powerhouse to be reckoned with. Her prose is intricately woven with intelligence, wit, unpredictability, toughness and fearlessness.  And so is the woman–who challenged the inflection and fantasy of the American dream in every sentence she spoke publicly and in every line she wrote.  Moving photographs–some of her family threaded together with  19th-century engravings  and contemporary art by Kerry James Marshall, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden among others–contribute to the memorable beauty of Toni Morrison and the world she has created.

I watched this and was transfixed. The wisdom of Ms. Morrison is eternal…it touches us all.

Availability:   Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix.

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One Reply to ““Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”–Dissembling the American Dream”

  1. We are going to watch this documentary thanks to this write up about the film and your thoughts aboutToni Morrison. THANK YOU.

Ragnarok–Thor on Steroids

Ragnarok,  a Norwegian fantasy series, takes place in the fictional town  of Edda, in Hordaland, the home of the mythological Norse god of thunder, Thor.  This modern day Ragnarök follows the story of  the Norse mythology of the god Thor.  Ragnarok stands for the end of the world and the twilight of the gods, with natural disasters leading to a battle between the gods (Thor) and giants (Jutuls).  In this reimagining of the myth, Ragnarok is environmental disaster due to climate change from corporate giants.  Edda is owned and controlled by the Jutul family, the fifth richest family in Norway, and the owners of much of the town’s economy as well as responsible for its rampant industrial pollution.

Magne Seier, a reincarnation of the thunder-god Thor, is a teenage boy who has recently moved to Edda with his younger brother and single mom, recently widowed. The mom has returned to work for her former classmate and lover, Vidar Jutul, the patriarch and corporate power that dominates Edda.  In a duplicitous scheme, Vidar is advertising the town as a nature destination while polluting it with company effluents.

Slowly Magne begins to realize he has the superpowers of a god, which becomes evident and threatening to the Jutuls.  Magne’s first and only friend at school is an environmental activist, a sort of Greta Thunberg,  with a YouTube channel she uses to expose pollution, glacial melt, and mutant trout guts. One teacher asks Magne to make sure his whole project isn’t about how “old white men” are destroying the world. Magne’s comeback: “Well, aren’t they?”

Ragnarok mini-series

Can Magne, this awkward, , dyslexic, good-natured teenager save the world against some formidable enemies? And how is this teenage hero going to handle his newfound power?  Magne soon discovers that the illness and death arising in the town is due to the toxic waste from Jutul Industries.

Ragnarok is a novel approach to the Norse legend story, fun to watch, and a break from the Marvel comic blockbuster  version of Thor and his superpowers.

Availability:  Premiered on Netflix streaming on January 31, 2020.

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One Reply to “Ragnarok–Thor on Steroids”

  1. This looks good. I’ll put it on my list.

    Hope all’s well. Finishing wizard book ms. Sending it to a couple folks to look over – a new venture for me. Will get back to Sharp&Sabine ms. now.

    Are you working on anything new? Staying home in some ways helps writers. Cheers!

The Spanish Princess–An Imperial Royal Highness

The Spanish Princess is a ShowTime limited series based on the novels The Constant Princess (2005) and The King’s Curse (2014) by Philippa Gregory.  This is a  drama about the teenage Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope who played Ramsay Boulton’s lover Myranda in “Game of Thrones”). She becomes  the first queen of England betrothed to King Henry VIII  (Ruairi O’Connor).

Teenage princess Catherine of Aragon, daughter of  the Spanish Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, travels to England  in 1501, to meet her husband by arranged marriage to  Arthur, Prince of Wales, heir apparent to Henry VII of England.  Smitten with the love letters she had been receiving, Catherine assumes that Prince Arthur is the man of her dreams.   Betrothed since she was a young child, the marriage is also an economic negotiation for wealth from Spain to a sorely needed English court desperate for funds. Unwelcomed by some as a foreigner and by others as too headstrong for a future queen, Catherine of Aragon and her diverse court retainers struggle to fit in. Soon Arthur’s younger brother, the magnetic Henry, Duke of York, reveals he is  the author of the romantic letters she has cherished. When Arthur dies suddenly, her fate becomes perilous.  She longs to marry Henry but– as she had been married to his brother– Catherine is confronted by  the Old Testament ban on  marriage to a brother’s widow.   Only a papal dispensation can allow the marriage to take place.  Furthermore, Catherine maintains that she is still a virgin because her marriage to Arthur was never consummated (a lie).

With court intrigue mounting between Henry’s diabolical mother, Lady Margaret (Harriet Walter) , who severely disapproves of Catherine, and Catherine’s fighting for the status and security of a queen, the viewer is treated to several subplots.  One  is a lady-in-waiting deeply involved with a Muslim knight who is accused of being a “heathen”. Another is  the burden on the royal family to broker marriages which will provide male heirs.   To ensure continuity of the regime, their hegemony, and their exorbitant property holdings,  court intrigue was not for the faint of heart.  And the draining of court coffers due to the high cost of continual war  ensured that marriage was a business negotiation for national interests and power struggles.  Catherine of Aragon is merely an asset from Spain to add to the British court’s  wealth through her dowry and her family’s alliances. But Catherine of Aragon  won’t be dismissed easily.  She is imperious, manipulative, and scheming–everything that makes The Spanish Princess so entertaining!

Note: The first eight episodes premiered on May 5, 2019. The remaining eight episodes– Season 2– premiered on October 11, 2020. The series finale aired on November 29, 2020.

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“News of the World”–A Gift for the Heart

News of the World is based on the Paulette Jiles’s bestseller by the same name. The story follows a sixty-something curmudgeonly widower,   Captain  Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a traveling newspaper reader. Captain Kidd  entertains and informs townspeople–some of whom are illiterate– in small communities all over  Texas:  for the price of a silver dime. The year is 1870, five years after Reconstruction, and Texans still are disgruntled by their defeat after the end of the Civil War.

In the opening scene a Black man has been lynched and a ten-year-old blonde white girl (Helena Zengel) is hiding from Union authorities looking for her.  The girl speaks only Kiowa, the language of the tribe who has raised her after killing her parents and her older sister in retaliation for the government’s land grab of their territories.  She yearns to be with her Kiowa family.

At the insistence of the Union authorities  Kidd reluctantly assumes responsibility for returning the girl to her German immigrant relatives, a task the girl resents. Kidd feels ill-equipped to accompany her there, a trip of several hundred miles, while continuing his itinerant life as a newspaper reader.  But this is no ordinary Western and Kidd and the little girl he calls Johanna have challenges in establishing communication and trust in each other.

News of the World is marketed as a Western involving a horse-and-wagon road trip in a fight for survival in inhospitable, unwelcoming regions of the Texas Panhandle.  But primarily it is a feel-good “old man and little girl” story of human decency and the need for family.  Both Tom Hanks–who is made for this role–and Helena Zengel who performs the feat of conveying all of her angst without uttering more than a few words of English, Kiowa or German–make News of the World  a gift for the heart.

Availability: Paid “theater” ticket for streaming.

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5 Replies to ““News of the World”–A Gift for the Heart”

  1. Your light review sums up the movie and the book. I recommend reading the book before seeing the movie. The book has some interesting points, such as using the dimes instead of bird shot in the shotgun cartridges. Your description of a feel good movie with Tom Hanks being perfect for the part is right on.

    1. Using the dimes was part of the film as well, though it took me a while to figure out what she was doing and how could it work… time to ask the Science Guy.
      The acting was right on. Hanks nailed it again.

  2. Hey,
    thanks for the info. I’m a Tom Hanks fan, an actor for all seasons. I’ll put it on my list.

    I’m working on 2 new books, editing a final draft of a wizard book and writing a new book that’s a sequel to Shelter of Leaves. Staying home most of the time, good for a writer to get work done. I do miss seeing friends. But at least the vaccines are getting around more, since we have a savvy president now.
    Cheers to you, hope all’s well with you,

    Sending best,
    Lenore

  3. One of the best of the year. Tom Hanks is America’s Everyman. And the little girl is magical — a shoo-in for a best supporting actress Oscar nomination (and the likely winner).

  4. An engrossing western in the old style. Hanks was powerful in his portrayal of a widower curmudgeon. The twists and turns were well timed – some comfortable, some violent, but the ending left one with hope.

“Bridgerton”–“Downton Abbey” Meets “Pride and Prejudice”

Produced by Shonda Rhimes as her first Netflix Original debut, Bridgerton  is based on a series of best-selling historical romance novels by Julia Quinn. Set in the Regency era, at the height of London’s aristocratic society, Bridgerton  tracks the lives and loves of the sprawling Bridgerton clan.

Bridgerton  is an amalgamation –part Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and part class snobbery (Downton Abbey).–  Queen Charlotte (played with astringent haughtiness by Gilda Rosheuvel) is black. So too is the highly sought after Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page). The Duke,  who appears during the  debutante season, leaves a string of “cat fights” in his wake.  This is compounded by mothers frantically arranging introductions of their daughters to society’s most eligible bachelors.  And no bachelor is more desired than the Duke.  And no debutante, at least at first, is quite as flawless as Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), whom Queen Charlotte has declared “the diamond of the season”.  Of course, the Duke of Hastings and Daphne Bridgerton are repulsed by each other’s presence at the first debutante ball, only to very slowly fall in love. 

The intrigue of romance, arranged marriage, and fortune-hunting in social circles rivals Macchiavelli in strategy  and ruthlessness in a  highly entertaining story.  There are unwanted pregnancies, mistresses, highly desired but forbidden pregnancies, fortunes lost and won.  There is even a gossip-sheet, a daily newsletter by an unidentified Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews) to overlay mystery on the sumptuous balls and family secrets. A word of scandal in Lady Whistledown’s newsletter can ruin the reputation of any debutante or suitor in a matter of minutes.  With a lemming mentality, the once “diamond of the season” becomes tarnished, polished, and then tarnished again by pure whim and schadenfreude by those who compete with her.

The identity of Lady Whistledown, mastermind of all this turmoil,  is revealed in the very last scene and there were many red herrings skillfully crafted.

Bridgerton is at its best when it is a commentary on marriage, its pitfalls, and the expectation imposed on women to wed.  Imagine 1813 London with an ethnically diverse aristocracy who thrives in high society, focused on marriage and family, and maintaining high social status.  “Downton Abbey” in living color?

Bridgerton‘s early 1800s London is a subtle, ironic, and humorous depiction of social mobility, gender, and ethnic limitations in a caste system.  It is  highly original and overdue in casting diversity to remind the viewer that overt themes of discrimination are unnecessary. Now it is time for the industry to step forward and help us move forward.

Groundbreaking and inspirational, I hope we will see more of this nonconventional casting in the future.  Forget about historical accuracy, this is not a documentary. It is fiction and a charming one at that. A beautiful and reimagined 19th century. The actors are excellent and the diversity feels right.

Note:  In a brilliant stroke of writing, Shonda Rhimes places the story during the marriage of (Mad) King George III and Queen Charlotte.  There has been some historical researth that Queen Charlotte may have had African ancestry.  Bridgerton accepts it as fact, imagining that the queen grants titles and land to other people of color.

Availability: Netflix streaming

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2 Replies to ““Bridgerton”–“Downton Abbey” Meets “Pride and Prejudice””

  1. I hate to be the one to throw cold water on this superficial series, about a petty romance. Watch it for the costumes and nothing else.

  2. I wanted to know what everyone loved about this series. Because it was a Shondra Rhimes production I thought it would be light, romantic and fun with diversity undertones. Well, I was right.
    The first time I tried to watch it, I only made it through the first 10 minutes before I I thought it silly, shallow and unrealistic…
    The second time I tried to watch it, I made it through another 10 minutes still finding it unrealistic historically with no redeeming qualities and thinking this was a piece that should be saying something more about class and diversity.
    Then one night when I couldn’t sleep and didn’t have anything else on my play list, I finished the 1st episode and went onto the next episode. I was hooked.
    Aside from the fact that Queen Charlotte may have had some African ancestry, the diversity aspect of this series had very little “enlightenment” to it. Once I got over that the diversity aspect was not really racial but was a subtle statement about race and class, it became much more fun. I enjoyed the rest of the episodes very much. It was light, romantic and fun with diversity undertones.

“The Reagans”–Truth At Last

A four-part Showtime documentary series, The Reagans excoriates the epic failure of journalism to reveal the Reagan White House as it really was, not the fairy tale of near-sainthood of Ronald Reagan.   Ronald Reagan, Jr., the only son of the Reagans, is the primary source for details about his parents’ most private moments and their secrets behind closed doors.  One of his more frankly understated comments: “My father was a strange fellow to be president of this country.”

How the carefully curated story becomes the reality is the emphatic warning of The Reagans.  Beginning in  the 1950’s, when Reagan first testified in front of Senator McCarthy to support investigating and expelling film industry professionals as communists, we see the former Screen Actor Guild  president rewrite the facts of his own life.   From being a World War II combat veteran (which he wasn’t) to fighting for corporate interests (while the young Reagan was pro-union), Reagan and his uncannily astute  wife Nancy construct a confabulist’s story of a dream they both had for him to be president of a country that never was.  Scanning the political landscape with her bird-of-prey eyes and instincts, Nancy was a force to be ignored at a politician’s own peril.  Nancy’s stagecraft is in play when announcing her husband’s presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi –the notorious site of a Ku Klux Klan massacre.  The viewer sees Reagan’s dog whistle raise the attention of those who will be his first believers.

Sometimes jaw-droppingly shocking–based on rarely seen footage–we witness the previously unexamined tactics and strategy that laid the groundwork for the Tea Party, trickle-down economics and the Trump administration.  What was planned sixty years ago foreshadows what is going on now. The insightful  analysis of the parallel between the cult of the telegenic personality  and political campaigning since the rise of television is particularly unnerving.  Does it take a seasoned performer to be the most probable candidate for the highest office in government? 

Watch this and draw your own conclusions.

People who worship Ronald Reagan will hate The Reagans. They will see more of the man behind the curtain  than they would prefer. For those comfortably used to seeing Reagan canonized as a patron saint of moderate Republicanism, exposing  the veneer of a highly polished television image should be unsettling. For those who want to better understand how the current conservative movement was primed for performers to become POTUS, this is a disturbing documentary indeed.

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4 Replies to ““The Reagans”–Truth At Last”

  1. Hey,
    not into political memoirs or even fiction about them. Maybe if it’s great fiction, but I don’t follow that type of book. I see enough real stuff on TV these days. Ugh.

    Thanks for sending. Hope all’s well with you. I’m working on a couple writing projects.

  2. Very nicely said. I really enjoyed the candor from his son as well. I can’t wait to watch the last episode. Reagan certainly comes across as very disingenuous… sorta creepy

  3. Hi Diana:

    This looks fascinating. Unfortunately, we don’t have ShowTime. I am guessing that eventually The Reagans will be distributed more widely and we’ll see it then. It took us a while before we got around to seeing Vice. The movie insights into these political characters are valuable.

    –Matilda

“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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  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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