“Navillera”—Soar Like a Butterfly

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

In the opening scene Sim Deok-chul (the renowned Park In-hwan) is celebrating his 70th birthday with his wife, three sons and their wives.  Only the youngest son, considered a failure for quitting his hospital position as a doctor, is unmarried.  Sim is a retired mailman who always dreamed of performing “Swan Lake” on stage and now, at his advanced age,  is determined to follow his passion after seeing how  his friends regret not pursuing the dreams of their youth.  Accidentally, he observes the gifted Lee Chae-rok (Song Kang) practicing for his upcoming ballet competition.  Unbeknownst to Sim, Chae-rok is struggling financially, working a part-time job as a waiter, and is considering giving up ballet.

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

Navillera

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

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

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

Availability:  Netflix streaming

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

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

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

    Hope all’s well with you,
    Best,
    Lenore

“Cruella”–DeVil’s Delight?

Set in London in the 1970s, Cruella focuses on the backstory of the woman who becomes Cruella DeVil, the villain in the beloved children’s story, 101 Dalmatians.  This Disney film is the origin story of Cruella DeVil.   Beautifully costumed, creatively re-interpreting characters from the much-loved two previous 101 Dalmatians films, we are treated to a prequel like none this reviewer ever expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Availability: Disney+

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“Mare of Easttown”–Living with the Unacceptable

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

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

In this merciless seesaw of harrowing grief, we witness Mare– and all those impacted by Kevin’s death–lose him a thousand times in a thousand ways. As a mother, a source of her agony is the realization that she cannot protect her children.  And in perhaps one of the most powerful scenes before the final closing, Mare consoles a widow who doesn’t know how to deal with the death of his wife:  “After a while, you learn to live with the unacceptable.”

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

Availability:  HBOMax for streaming

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

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

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

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

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

“Underground Railroad”–Tracking US History

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

The Underground Railroad, in the mid-1800s,  was actually a network of safe houses and routes from the southern US up into Canada– with other routes to Mexico (which had abolished slavery decades earlier).  The book and film re-imagine these escape routes and safe havens as an actual train running underground to assist runaway slaves in their escape from their plantation owners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Availability:  Amazon Prime

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

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

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

    Hope all’s well with you!
    Cheers,
    Lenore

“Tell Me Your Secrets”–Tell Me Your Lies

In this Amazon Prime mini-series of ten episodes, Tell Me Your Secrets has  three plots:  1) The main plot involves a woman named Karen Miller (Lily Rabe), who was arrested seven years ago as a presumed accomplice to her boyfriend, Kit (Xavier Samuel) for the brutal murders of nine women. She claims not to remember anything, due to trauma. 2) Mary Barlow (Amy Brenneman), a wealthy woman who has established a foundation to help find missing children,  believes her own daughter, Theresa,  was kidnapped by Karen Miller and Kit and is still alive.  3) John Tyler, (Hamish Linklater), a serial rapist, is now on parole and claims to have suppressed his urges and wishes to atone for his past crimes.  Additional missing teenage girls provide subplots, contributing to a complex mix of characters.

Karen Miller,  now in witness protection as Emma Hall,  has moved to a small town, St. James, Louisiana, hoping to leave her past in Minneapolis.    Mary Barlow,  a mother who  adamantly refuses to grieve or acknowledge her daughter may be  dead, becomes an avenger.  John soon becomes intertwined with both Karen/Emma and Mary. All three have pasts which haunt them and each other.  As their damaged psyches unravel their secrets to each other, more questions arise:  Is Karen/Emma being truthful when she claims she doesn’t know about the murders? Is there a natural tendency to gaslight and condemn women whose lovers are criminals, guilty by association? Can a brutal serial killer actually be capable of redemption?  And when does a mother’s obsessive quest for a missing child become pathological?

The cast is superb.  Lily Rabe, as the traumatized Karen Miller hiding behind the identity of Emma Hall, emotes a believable amnesia, and also an openness to trusting others that seems at times naive.  Her torment is palpable.   Amy Brenneman, in one of her most substantial roles to date, is scheming, manipulative, and self-destructive to the point of madness. Hamish Linklater, as the unsettling, affectless serial rapist, goes beyond onscreen serial killers with  a chilling brilliance to his understanding of his targeted victims’ core vulnerabilities (similar, in some respects, to Hannibal Lecter). His desperation and loneliness for a relationship not defined by his crimes is harrowing.

There are multiple plots with so many characters the viewer has to make an effort to keep them straight.  Their relationships are intertwined but also independent, so that the few plot holes do not become confusing. Tell Me Your Secrets is packed with storylines, character arcs, and sometimes ghoulish intensity.  A Season Two is planned, and some of the drama left hanging has been set up for resolution or expansion next year.

Note:  This is definitely not for everyone.  In some sense, it is cross-genre, a psychological thriller bordering on horror, analogous to the mini-series Bates Motel, or its precursor, the classic Hitchcock movie,  Psycho.  Violence is presented both visually and indirectly, but is not dwelled upon at length.  Nonetheless, this potboiler is heart-pounding.

Availability:  Amazon Prime

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One Reply to ““Tell Me Your Secrets”–Tell Me Your Lies”

  1. Thanks for the review. Not one for me. I’m trying to catch up on fantasy book work. Many publishers are full or closed or you have to have an agent before you can apply. Tedious work but needed.

    Hope all’s well with you!
    Cheers,
    Lenore

“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution”

Oscar-nominated for 2020 Best Documentary Feature, Crip Camp is  directed and produced by Jim Lebrech, who uses a wheelchair and is partly financed by Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company, Higher Ground. 

Released by Netflix in March 2020, this little-known story portrays a group of young disabled teenagers  at  Camp Jened, their experience serving as a catalyst for the disability rights movement in the United States.  After becoming empowered at camp in upstate New York in 1971, several key campers became activists. Masterminding a month-long sit-in at the HEW branch office in San Francisco, blocking traffic with their wheelchairs and bodies lying on the street, these young activists embarrassed Carter administration secretary James Califano to enact major disability rights legislation (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act)  which evolved into the eventual passage of the American Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).    Crip Camp is perhaps best comprehended as an extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

This powerful and moving documentary reveals archival footage at Camp Jened, at the San Francisco sit-in, and in the post-ADA lives of the former teenagers, now past middle-age.  Footage of campers who had to sit-in for over a month in the branch office of HEW, without their assistants who were relied upon for bathroom and mobility assistance,  without necessary catheters, food and drink withheld by federal officials, is unconscionable and shocking to watch.  So are film clips of Willowbrook, an institution for disabled children, visually an Abu Ghraib warehouse of unimaginable cruelty.

Crip Camp is, first and foremost,  primarily Judy Heumann’s story.  A young fifteen-year old camper, she  awakens to  the demand of  their civil rights, after hearing fellow campers discuss their fear of institutionalization.  Heumann becomes a charismatic,  determined, and commanding leader.  Organizing and demanding a hearing before Congress, after Bay Area coverage of their protest and sit-in is reported by only one local television channel, Heumann orders her young cohort– without access to ramps or elevators,– to crawl on their stomachs up the steps of the federal building, hauling their paraplegic bodies after them.   This footage of people with polio, cerebral palsy, and other disabilities is gut-wrenching.

Crip Camp    is essential to understanding what is unknown territory for many viewers.  Campers give unexpected responses about privacy, sexuality, and solitude.  Unconventional trajectories of local Black Panthers’ support are juxtaposed next to the cowardice of local and national politicians on both sides of the aisle.  Still, in spite of the odds, this documentary highlights human resilience in the face of the nation’s heart of darkness. People with disabilities want acceptance just like everyone else.  Merely achieving the result of being seen and heard, the disabled achieve a psychological as well as legal revolution, still in the early stages. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990  continues to have a huge impact in raising awareness about inclusion of all people globally and removing obstacles to personhood.  Groundbreaking and unforgettable.

Note: This is a recent USA Today article byJudy Heumann, who remains   very active on disability rights.  https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/voices/2021/04/23/why-oscar-nominated-crip-camp-victory-disability-rights-column/7333682002/

Availability: Netflix streaming

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2 Replies to ““Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution””

  1. Yes, this is a film I’d like to see. Thanks.

    Hope all’s well with you. I’ve finished wizard book and have sent it to a few SF/fantasy publishers. Assumed that SWP wouldn’t be interested in fantasy. Now back to work on the sequel of Shelter of Leaves.

    Cheers!
    Lenore

  2. Thanks for the review. I watched it last night and thought it was very well done. I had a quadriplegic cousin who lived in Berkeley in the 1980’s. He wasn’t an activist but found the social support there unlike any other place in the country.

Concrete Cowboy

Concrete Cowboy movie review

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

         Concrete Cowboy:  Two words that don’t go together.  But an apt title for this new movie streaming on Netflix.  The words collide because it’s about two wildly different worlds.  A classic Western tale of father-son redemption told in the shadow of the mean streets of a contemporary Big City.  Happens to be a real story.

         Cole (Caleb McLaughlin from “Stranger Things”) is a troubled teenager whose mother sees him going down the tubes in crime-wrecked  Detroit.  So she ships him off for the summer to her ex-husband Harp (Idris Elba, “The Wire,” “Luther”) in Philadelphia.  Problem is Cole doesn’t know his father.  His parents divorced when he was an infant.  And this isn’t Ben Franklin’s Liberty Bell Philadelphia – this is a little known backwater where a small group known as the Fletcher Street Riders live, mostly in the past,  but hoping for a future. Constantly threatened, once these rented stables surrounding a meadow were considered the Boonies, but now land developers covet the area for condos.

         Cole feels trapped in a tiny house where his father’s horse is stabled in the living room.  And Harp’s friends all seem just as weird.  A culture that breeds and trains horses for racing and riding and to keep alive a tradition?  Gradually the mystique of the old ways envelops him, evenings spent sitting around the fire barrel, swapping lies and legends. Learning new skills.  But there’s also the counter-pull of his young friend Smursh (Jharel Jerome) who used to be one of the Riders but now is peddling street-corner drugs as a ticket to the big bucks.

         There are many reasons a movie gets made.  I suspect the additional credit of Idris Elba as not only star but also producer propelled Concrete Cowboy into existence.  Also the presence of Lee Daniels (“Empire,” The U.S. vs. Billie Holiday) does much to recommend the movie, which was co-written and directed by Ricky Staub.  Like the recent Nomadland, many of the characters are played by their real-life counterparts.  Together they tell a truthful but not bloody story.  It’s not simple, but it manages to find a somewhat positive ending.  It’s worth watching. 

Availability:  Netflix streaming                                                          

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2 Replies to “Concrete Cowboy”

  1. Interesting, but not my genre. Not since my 20’s.

    Hope you’re doing well! Sending out wizard manuscript, still lots of work on the Shelter of Leaves sequel to do.
    Cheers,
    Lenore

  2. Thank you for the review, Jerry.
    I have this movie on my “list”, but it sounds so unconnected to reality, I’ve put off watching it. Now that I’ve read your review, I will watch it with an open mind.

“The Morning Show”–Wake Up America

The Morning Show, an award-winning AppleTV+ mini-series, is inspired by Brian Stelter’s book about Matt Lauer and the Today Show. Dominant themes and subplots focus on the vile, abject humiliation involved in corporate politics, gender roles, and sexual predation.

In the opening scene, co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) has just been fired for sexual harassment and possible assault, leaving his co-host Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) without her onscreen partner of the past fifteen years.  Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a West Virginian small-town reporter, is covering a coal mine protest. When a protester knocks down her cameraman, Bradley furiously grabs him by the collar, challenging him on his ignorance of the coal mine industry. The altercation is filmed on a  cell phone and goes viral.   Invited on The Morning Show by  producer Corey Ellison (Billy Crudup), Bradley gives a stunning defense against an irritated and jealous Alex.

Alex is aware of the constant need to be “entertaining”.  She knows the network’s politics– a competing network’s nipping at The Morning Show’s ratings–and that she may have a “sell-by” date fast approaching.  In a precarious position to renew her contract, Alex impulsively names Bradley as her new on-air co-anchor.   But will the addition of Bradley as her co-anchor improve the show’s ratings as America’s favorite morning show or will Bradley endanger Alex’s position and power?

Maggie Brener, a journalist at New York magazine (Marcia Gay Harden), suspects a  behind-the-scenes coverup of Mitch Kessler’s sexual predation, the darker side of the network’s public image. Powerful but vulnerable men at every level are desperate to hang on to their jobs: the smarmy and frightened producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass), the Macchiavellian  Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) in charge of the news department, and the CEO Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin).   The entire C-suite is in intense survival mode to  prevent their house of cards from collapsing. 

All episodes have nuanced character arcs. For example,  some of Mitch’s male co-workers, in a state of disbelief at the accusations against Mitch,  find him  funny and simply flirtatious.   Women claim unregretted sexual encounters with him–or so they publicly tell their associates. We see Mitch in  excruciating self-pity,  unreflective and egomaniacal,  thinking he’s just unlucky to be a powerful man held accountable for using his “seductive” powers. He cannot comprehend  how he is cruel and brutal,  defying any true communication with women.  As one survivor– Hannah Shoenfeld (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)–tries to explain: “I remember what happened differently from you.”

This high-stakes drama is dialed up in almost every scene in every episode,  undoubtedly influenced by the  controversies of the #MeToo wake-up calls alarming the nation.It’s like a tightrope act where you think they’re going to fall.”   Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. 

The entire cast  exceeds expectations, an ensemble that, at times, seems like a therapy session, particularly for the two main actors,  Jennifer Anniston and Reese Witherspoon.  Aniston has a difficult road to navigate:  Her character Alex is both sympathetic and complicated. She may have enabled Mitch and looked the other way, partly out of fear and denial. Alex is not always a great ally to other women, either, because she has come to feel she has no allies herself. In a state of constant high alert, Alex is determined to remain in control of her own life.  Bradley –in a role made for Reese Witherspoon–also has to express both her character’s inward and outward struggles, coming from a highly dysfunctional and damaging family.  Her fiery ambition and courage to make the world a better place are her only escape.

Steve Carell continues to stretch his dramatic range as he traverses the unenviable terrain of mining the psyche of  a sexual predator, who validates  his actions as “extracurricular sex” instead of traumatizing.   In a pivotal scene  Mitch is flustered for the first time when a filmmaker (played by Martin Short), facing similar allegations, justifies his actions by saying: “There’s nothing sexy about consent.” The close-up on Carell’s face is classic. 

As both the main actors and executive producers, Anniston and Witherspoon are playing against type:  their ingrained images as America’s Sweethearts.  In The Morning Show  they are stand-ins for women everyone thinks they know, but don’t. As Alex says, “Sometimes women can’t ask for control. So they have to take it” — and the show works best when they do. 

The Morning Show is a  cultural reckoning of #MeToo.  Current events have marked a radical shift in our cultural outlook regarding sexual harassment, the abuse of power, and the silencing of women’s voices.  All are bravely tackled in The Morning Show.

Availability:  AppleTV+–available for a 7-day free trial.

Note:  Brian Stelter, Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV

Note 2:  Warnings about sexual violence are given for Episode 8 and the F-word is used throughout the series.

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One Reply to ““The Morning Show”–Wake Up America”

  1. Hey,
    this one looks good. Like the cast and the movie is certainly timely.
    I’ll hunt it up.

    Hope all’s well with you! Finishing up another round of edits for the wizard book, then back to work on Sharp&Sabine.

    Best wishes,
    Lenore

“Official Secrets”–Blowing in the Wind

Based upon the  true story of British Intelligence whistle-blower Katharine Gun (played by Keira Knightley) immediately before the planned 2003 Iraq invasion, Official Secrets exposes a joint US-UK illegal extortion plan [under President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair).  Both governments colluded against members of the UN Security Council in order to obtain their votes for invasion.  Gun, a minor functionary and translator of highly confidential documents, leaks a top secret NSA memo  that  proposes blackmailing smaller, less powerful Security Council members. Official Secrets is a case study of the heroic whistle-blower who is willing to stand up for her values, regardless of the consequences. In the case of Katherine Gun, she naively did not expect the closing of ranks and the harm to her personal life. Nevertheless she was a heroine who deserves to be recognized for her truth-telling, at great emotional and physical cost.

Also at great personal and professional risk, journalist Martin Bright (Ralph Fiennes) publishes the leaked document in The Observer. The story made headlines around the world. Members of the Security Council were outraged and any chance of a UN resolution in favor of war collapsed. But within days, Bush declared he no longer needed UN backing.  The US  invaded anyway, with Colin Powell presenting his views supporting the invasion and weapons of mass destruction.  

The Official Secrets Act is then invoked, with treason and sedition charges brought against both Katherine Gun and Martin Bright. Their legal battles expose the highest levels of government in both London and Washington.  Katherine is put on trial in 2003.

The soul of the film is the ethical question of whether state employees act for the people or for the government, echoing Watergate.   At its core, Official Secrets is a portrait of  a courageous individual who believes an illegal war is about to be declared.  Her moral compass does not allow her to remain silent.  With impeccable timing, Official Secrets demonstrates how coverups can impact the course of history.

Note: When Secretary of State Colin Powell learned that the information he was given for his presentation to the United Nations was false, he resigned. 

Availability: Netflix DVD

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“Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker”–First Female Millionaire in US

This mini-series was inspired by a  biography written by Madam CJ Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles (“On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker”).  This Netflix four-episode mini-series highlights the extraordinary, –almost unbelievable– life of Sarah Breedlove (1867 –1919), an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist. Sara Breedlove–soon to prefer the brand name Madam CJ Walker– is the first female self-made millionaire in America (regardless of ethnicity) in the Guinness Book of World Records. 

Self-Made is a little-known and highly unlikely story of the black hair care pioneer during turn-of-the-century America, who created thousands of jobs and became a neighbor of John Rockefeller in upstate New York.

Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer plays Madam CJ Walker, during the worst of the Jim Crow era.   No bank loans, no white retail store support, and competition and sexism among the Black male business community presented almost insurmountable obstacles to Madam CJ Walker’s dreams and ambitions.  Walker’s story is one of extraordinary grit, cunning and marketing ingenuity, and absolute determination against post-slavery racial and gender oppression.

Self-Made opens at the beginning of the 20th Century, sandwiched twenty years after the Civil War and a half-century before the Civil Rights movement.  An indigent African American laundry woman widowed by her first husband, who left her a single mother of a two-year old daughter Lelia, and abused by her second husband, Sarah Breedlove yearns for a path out of her desperate circumstances. 

During the early 1900s most homes lacked plumbing and electricity. Environmental pollution, lice, and bacteria also threatened one’s health.  Bathing was a luxury and women were going bald.  As the laundry woman for a beauty-products business woman, Addie Malone (the luminous Carmen Ejogo of “Your Honor”), Sarah is rejected when she proposes being Addie’s business partner. The reason?  Her appearance: 

 “Even in your Sunday best you still look like you just stepped off the plantation,” Addie –brutal and arrogant—insultingly dismisses her.   

The complicated relationship between Black hair and white ideals of beauty soon become a central theme of Self-Made.  Addie represents a lighter skinned, long-hair type which some Black women wanted to emulate.  Sarah– soon to label her products Madam CJ Walker–understood that hair was not a benign topic for Black women but a potent measure of a Black woman’s worth.  And she wanted to create another ideal of beauty that appreciated and acknowledged Black women on their own terms, not ones imputed on them.  At first, she gratefully receives validation from her husband, CJ Walker (Blair Underwood), for his admiration of her physical appearance.

Her daughter, Lelia (Tiffany Haddish), is both a source of disappointment and later of joy as she recognizes the sacrifices her mother has made for her family and for her business.  While other products for Black hair (largely manufactured by white businesses) were on the market, Walker’s products emphasized health and natural ingredients, not the lye and harmful chemicals often found in Black hair products.  She sold her homemade products directly to Black women, using a personal approach that won her loyal customers. She went on to employ a fleet of saleswomen to sell her products whom she called “beauty culturalists.” [This method of “direct sales” was later copied–most notably by Fuller Brush and Avon.]

Walker proved to be a marketing magician, promoting a better lifestyle for Black women, bolstering them with pride for advancement and higher pay: “Wonderful hair leads to wonderful opportunities.”

In one scene, Madam CJ Walker pleads with a rather officious Booker T. Washington to help her secure a business loan from wealthy Black businessmen in the community, but he admonishes her that Black women should know their place. Undeterred, Sarah appeals to Washington’s wife and taps into a whole community of wealthy, highly educated, but disgruntled women.  In sharp contrast, W.E.B. DuBois warmly welcomes her business acumen.

The performances knock it out of the park.  Octavia Spencer is made for this role: smart and contained, a no-nonsense entrepreneur who won’t take “No” for an answer.

The major flaw in Self-Made–and not to be ignored–is the somewhat cringeworthy cinematic device of fantasy sequences with dancers or boxers to indicate the mean-spirited and unrelenting rivalry between Walker and Addie.    Such visual clutter is a distraction from an otherwise forceful script. The soundtrack is also, at times, jarring and out of tone or theme with the scenes. 

A highly inspirational mini-series of almost miraculous feats by Madam CJ Walker.  Should be on everyone’s watch list!

Availability:  Netflix streaming

Note:  Lelia Walker, who succeeded as president of her mother’s company, was dubbed “The Joy Goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” by Langston Hughes because of the crucial role she played in creating a

Manhattan salon, The Dark Tower.  This salon contributed to the arts scene of one of the most fertile periods in American literature and the arts, especially forging a safehaven for gay artists during the Harlem Renaissance. 

Note:   The self-made millionaire used her fortune to fund scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute and donated significant funds to orphanages, the NAACP, the Black YMCA and other charities.

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One Reply to ““Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker”–First Female Millionaire in US”

  1. Interesting and indeed needs watching.

    Finished a fantasy book and still at work on literary novel, Sharp&Sabine. In process to trying to find a fantasy publisher. Don’t know that territory, but I’m looking!

    Hope all’s well with you,
    Best,
    Lenore

“Red Dot”(2021)– Laser Focused

Trying to put more excitement into their marriage, Nadja and David, a young doctor and engineer, decide to go on a camping trip in a remote forest in Sweden, fantasizing that it will be romantic, gazing at the Northern Lights with their adorable dog.  The impending “excitement” is not exactly what they bargained for, however.  Stalked by an unseen enemy, they become the targets of a hellish nightmare.  Red Dot is an intense psychological thriller.

In a reversal of gender roles, frequently seen in Nordic Noir, Nadja is not in need of saving. A very competent and efficient physician, she is the one usually fixing and encouraging her partner, an engineer who thinks he has all the answers, not to give up as they are hunted down. 

But the real reason behind their status as prey emerges from a dark secret from their past they thought they had left behind.  With very little foreshadowing, the viewer is left a little short-changed, despite the heavy impact of multiple plot twists and the inescapable message that there are consequences for your actions, even if it takes years to come to fruition.

Red Dot delivers.   There are thrills you expect and those you don’t.   A mixture of poor choices and mistakes on the part of the couple makes for a disturbing story about moral ambiguity and recklessness, a lack of empathy and community, a smug sense of entitlement, and callous anonymity.  How swiftly and soundlessly life can deliver unwanted realities.

This Nordic Noir thriller could be compared with the Liam Neeson’s star turn in ‘The Grey”, and Timothy Olyphant in “A Perfect Getaway”, and the British thriller “Calibre” (reviewed August 5, 2018).    Highly watchable and heart-pounding!

Availability:  Netflix streaming

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One Reply to ““Red Dot”(2021)– Laser Focused”

  1. Sometimes movies out in the wild are great. Sounds like this one might be worth watching.

    Still a bit behind in reading, I’m minimizing, ha. Hope all’s well with you and yours.
    Cheers,
    Lenore

“Palmer” (2021)–Second Chances

In this little sleeper of a movie, Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) is released from prison after serving twelve years for attempted murder in a robbery gone wrong.  With nowhere to live but at his beloved grandmother’s (June Squibb of Nebraska), Palmer soon is forced to reexamine his life and,  in the process of learning to accept his past, finds ways of expressing his feelings.  A bullied young non-binary child, Sam  (Ryder Allen), lives with his drug addicted mother, Shelly (Juno Temple),  in a trailer on the grandmother’s property.  Soon they enter Palmer’s life in a major, life-transforming way.

Palmer is a macho character, the badass who reflexively expressed himself with his fists in his pre-prison past.  Yet, Sam–who is bullied repeatedly for his love of princesses, tiaras, and dolls–sits down with Palmer and expresses his joy at being who he is. Both Sam and Palmer are allowed to be painfully vulnerable in these scenes.  Full, absolute, acceptance is the overriding theme and heart of Palmer. There’s no denying who you are and no reason to try to change.

Palmer is a poignant, unexpected winner.  It is  very difficult to develop the character of a little boy who just doesn’t happen to conform to normative male traits.  Sam has personal dreams that don’t meet others’ expectations and he wants to be fine with that.  The quiet, understated performance by Justin Timberlake as the tight-lipped small-town miscreant– to whom no one wants to give a second chance to–is his  finest yet. And the angel-faced Ryder Allen is  cast so perfectly  that this viewer forgot, at times, that he was acting.  Check this one out!

Note:  Compare Palmer to Peanut Butter Falcon starring Shia LaBoeuf, on a similar theme.  Both are good films  but I would choose Palmer  if you have only time or interest in watching one portrayal of a millennial lost soul and his friendship with a young boy.

Availability:  Apple TV+

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  1. This one looks good. I’ll keep the title in mind. Have only been to the movie theater once in the past year and a half. With my grandson to see a movie he wanted to see. I’ve missed a lot, as have many people.

    Hope all’s well with you. Bet you watch a lot of movies. I watch too much tv but slowly getting back to more books.

    Sending best,
    Lenore