An Inspector Calls–Nothing Will Ever Be the Same


An Inspector CallsThe BBC mystery An Inspector Calls (2015),  based upon the 1947 J.B. Priestley play by the same name, is a morality tale for our time. Set in 1912 Arthur Birling, a wealthy self-made industrialist, has hopes of a knighthood and implicit social elevation through the engagement of his daughter to an aristocrat. Inspector Goole (the superlative David Thewlis) brusquely arrives, , announcing he is there to investigate the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. At first the Birling family claims not to know anything about her but Inspector Goole begins revealing that they do.

As the Inspector interviews each family member, the investigation progresses, unfolding secrets and lies. The family’s past actions are brutally exposed. Inspector Goole lays bare the family members’ lack of awareness of the impact their callous behavior has had on Eva Smith. “We don’t live alone upon this earth. We are responsible for each other,” the Inspector admonishes.

In one-to-one interrogations with the husband, wife, daughter, fiance, and son, Inspector Goole dissects the family’s hypocrisy, self-delusion, and cowardice. Arthur’s wife (the extraordinary Miranda Richardson) thinks the worst fate is a loss in social standing, unconcerned with the death of Eva Smith. Their daughter is also complicit. The fiance has unclean hands as well. The mother and son combine to finally push Eva over the edge. In addressing each of the family’s self-absorbed, self-protecting attitudes and behavior, Inspector Goole addresses how deeply damaging their actions are and what constitutes human decency.

An Inspector Calls is perhaps most provocative for its sharp rebuke of the family-centered, but highly insular and exclusionary views of Arthur and his wife, who believe individuals should protect themselves and their families at all cost, regardless of consequences to others. One may never know how actions may affect another, perhaps even throughout another’s lifetime, and so one must be aware and be kind. No actions are without consequences.

The plot is simply superb, tightly woven, and relentless in ratcheting the tension higher and higher. The lessons ring as true today as they did in 1912. David Thewlis performance is so understated that the effect is even more spellbinding.

An Inspector Calls is a clarion blast, warning human beings to care for those beyond their own inner circle, demonstrating a more inclusive attitude and empathy for those with less good fortune. The play is about identity and tribe–nothing will ever be the same.

Note: Available on Amazon Prime.

 

 

 

“Unforgotten”–The Power to Recall

 

Unforgotten PBS series

This British crime drama (PBS Masterpiece Mystery), comprised of three episodes in two seasons, focuses on one stone-cold case per season. Each involves a murder at least three decades old. The detective team– Cassie Stuart (the wonderful Nicola Walker of “Last Tango in Halifax” and Sunny Khan (the perfectly cast Sanjeev Bhaskar of “Indian Summers”)–solve each cold case in a delicate balancing of tension with hints of romance.

In Season 1 of Unforgotten the detectives discover the 1976 remains of a teenage boy found in the sub-basement of an apartment complex. No one but the two detectives seems to care or expect closure to the case, presuming any persons of interest would be untraceable or dead.

Unforgotten, like all good mysteries, creates encrusted layers of complex clues, red herrings, and surprises. There is no last-minute perpetrator inserted to fool the viewer. Nor is the culprit easy to guess in the first few minutes of watching. Characters are inserted in such a way that the viewer wonders where the interrelated scenes are going– a priest who helps the homeless, an older man losing patience with his wife’s descent into dementia, a woman tutoring students for their exams, and a man who obsesses over political power. There’s no indication that any of them know each other — or, really, could possibly know each other.

Season 2 of Unforgotten takes the drama up a notch. The detective team investigates another cold case– of a middle-aged man stuffed into a suitcase. His past is sordid. As the two detectives investigate the texts of possible suspects left on the pager of the deceased, secrets and lies are revealed for each of the persons of interest. But, all of them have rock-solid alibis. Questions of what constitutes justice are provocative. The two detectives eventually solve the mystery.

What distinguishes a mystery about a cold case is the stories of older people who have tremendous arcs revealing a complex series of rebirths: their pasts so complicated that who they are in the present is virtually unrecognizable. All middle-aged and old people were once young, with challenges and sex lives they may wish to forget but are not forgotten. In Unforgotten the history of each character– of their secrets and regrets– is the core narrative.  Like all good stories, the characters’ arcs reveal who we were, who we have become, and who we could be. Unforgotten is a stunning melodrama!

Note: The two-season series has now ended, but can be seen on PBS.com. Season 3 of Unforgotten is now in production.

 

“The Look of Silence”–Beyond Words to Forgive

The Look of Silence movie

This film (2015) is a companion piece and powerful account of the 1960’s genocide in Indonesia, a follow-up to Joshua Oppenheimer’s debut and Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing” (2012). Less horrific but more emotionally compelling, “The Look of Silence” is a haunting revisiting of the killing fields of Indonesia and the US’s role in the carnage. (The US purportedly promised gifts to those who rid the country of “communist resisters”.)   More than a million people were slaughtered.

An Indonesian eyeglass salesman named Adi Runkun is investigating the brutal murder of his brother back in 1965 during the dictatorship’s purge of “communists”.   While selling eyeglasses and giving eye exams, Adi discovers the men responsible for the murder. As a metaphor perhaps for “seeing”, the eyeglasses that Adi provides to to the murders still prevent them from comprehending the enormous suffering and ruin that they have inflicted on millions of survivors half a century after.

The scenes are startling and unforgettable, filming family members who have to live in the village alongside the murderers of Adi’s brother and the brutalization of his father. In between investigating the background of the killing fields (=holocaust), Adi and his mother are shown bathing his fragile emaciated father, who was also a victim of the holocaust. “The Look of Silence” is brilliant in focusing on one family’s pain and suffering fifty years later, still reeling from the unthinkable loss, with the killers still in power and exhibiting no regret or remorse.

At times government officials even boast as they revisit the killing fields. Adi forgives them, but the viewer will not be able to forget! “The Look of Silence” is a documentary not to be missed about government’s inhumanity in the name of fighting communism. It is not easy to watch.

Note: Rated PG-13 but definitely NOT for that age group!  Available on Netflix as a DVD.

 

 

“In Secret”–Family Casualties

In Secret movie

In Secret depicts the desperate life of an orphaned girl as she becomes a  sexually repressed young woman. This 2013 American erotic thriller (previously titled Thérèse), is based on Émile Zola’s  classic novel,  Thérèse Raquin.  

In 1860s Paris, Thérèse Raquin (Elizabeth Olsen) is trapped in a loveless and sexless marriage to her sickly cousin, Camille (Tom Felton who played Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” series). Thérèse is forced by her domineering aunt, Madame Raquin (the extraordinary Jessica Lange), to accept his marriage proposal, which essentially binding her to becoming a full-time caretaker. She spends her days languishing behind the counter of her aunt’s small shop until she meets her husband’s alluring artist friend Laurent LeClaire (Oscar Isaac). whose sexual charms she finds irresistible. Later Madame Raquin is incapacitated by a stroke and Thérèse’s caregiving role expands. The psychological tension rivals Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment. Who understands one’s motives? Although it’s not easy to empathize with any of the characters, we can follow their flawed neurotic devolution into a dark and frightening world of unforeseen consequences.

In this captivating drama the lines are brilliantly blurred between hero and villain, lover and traitor. The viewer will quickly discover that there are no characters to cheer: one moment there is empathy and the next, repugnance.   The ensemble cast depicts these multi-dimensional characters fraught with mental aberrations almost effortlessly and with brutal honesty, capturing the devastating effects of attempting to achieve freedom and happiness no matter what the cost.

So cleverly ambiguous is the moral ground constructed by Zola that a powerful, intense, shocking human tale of lust, revenge and tragedy unfolds.  In Secret is a sleeper of a movie not to be missed!

 

Note: Available on DVD from Netflix.

RBG–Truth to Power

 

RBG the movie
RBG movie poster

Regardless of your political tastes, the documentary RBG offers an insightful peek into the life and work of a lifelong advocate for equal rights for women and minorities.

As one of three female Supreme Court justices serving on the nine-judge bench, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a cultural icon and something of a “fan-girl” sensation. We are entertained by the T-shirts and costumes depicting RBG as a superhero. Early in her career as counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginsburg argued more than 300 gender discrimination cases, including six in front of the SCOTUS, five of which she won.

The inspiring story of the 85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a diminutive and shy but formidable  judicial powerhouse, begins with her upbringing in Brooklyn, the daughter of Russian Jewish parents. Personal interviews with Ginsburg’s childhood friends, family members, colleagues and young millennial fans reveal her impact on US law, as well as her contribution to social change.

 

RBG can’t contain its love for this remarkable legal mind. And rather surprisingly, this documentary is a valentine not only to RBG but also to her supremely proud and supportive husband, Martin–and their love story is very moving and poignant. Meeting at Harvard Law School, the young couple married and carried each other through school, sickness, and parenthood from 1956 until his death in 2010. (Martin was considered one of the top tax attorneys in the country and an endowed chair at Georgetown Law School bears his name.)

RBG the movie

After her husband’s death RBG has taken on even a more courageous, energetic stand in the Supreme Court and was given the moniker Notorious RBG after the rapper Notorious B.I.G. for her feisty style of resistance. Author and activist Gloria Steinem at one point describes Ginsburg as the “closest thing to a superhero I know.”

What ultimately emerges in RBG is a touching portrait of a brilliant Supreme Court justice– described as shy and retiring but with “a quiet magnetism”– a work horse and a master legal strategist in the tiniest and most unassuming of figures. A force of nature, RBG is a glorious homage of truth to power today.

 

Note:  For a charming portrait of the quirky little-known aspects of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, see Jeffrey Toobin’s March 2018 article, “Heavyweight”.

 

The Terror–A Chilling Northwest Passage Nightmare

 

The Terror series

Inspired by a true story and the novel by Dan Simmons, The Terror, a new AMC television series, takes the viewer into perilous territory as a 19th century Royal Navy crew attempts to discover the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Circle. A holy grail for intrepid explorers dating back to the 1700’s, the Northwest Passage is now open to cargo ships, oil tankers, and cruise ships because of climate change. That wasn’t always the case.

The Terror opens in 1846, with two crews–the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror on a tandem quest to open the treacherous Northwest Passage for the British Empire and its trade mission. Faced with limited resources, an unruly crew, and fear of an unknown killing spirit, the Tuunbaq (borrowed from Inuit mythology), both ships are sailing towards the brink of extinction, isolated by the frozen tundra, and trapped at the end of the earth. Terror ensues.

HMS Terror’s Captain Francis Crozier (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) has every expectation of achieving the opening of the Northwest Passage, after replacing the expedition’s leader, Sir John Franklin (Game of Thrones” Ciaran HInds). Having a change of heart as he assumes command, Crozier must believe in their mission at the same time he is doubtful that they will succeed. His command and pretense at confidence are revealed through the toll that his deception takes on the man. In the first epsiode the word hubris is muttered, and it hangs over the rest of the series, a diagnosis, a rebuke, and a lesson on the profound misunderstanding of other worlds.

As winter approaches, with scurvy and starvation growing more severe, a young frightened Inuit woman (sneeringly nicknamed “Lady Silence”) is demonized.The Terror lives up to its name–not only as the name of a ship but also as the state of mind trapped in a frozen seascape.

In all the episodes we begin to understand uncomfortable truths: These men — all men — would survive, or at least find peace, if they could consider the world through someone else’s perspective. And they can’t.The Terror highlights all that can go wrong when a group of men, desperate to survive, struggle not only with the elements, but with each other and with a type of life that threatens their belief system.

Meticulous detail and painstaking reconstruction of what life on a naval ship looked like in 1846 are impressive as are the visual effects which rarely seem like a set or too many CGI special effects.

The Terror is a haunting, gripping story–not a horror flick– which will nonetheless chill you to your core. The tightness of the miniseries format certainly helps. I tore through precious food rations.  An unbelievably taut and original spin on adventure, exploration, and trespassing the boundaries of nature!

 

 

Lean On Pete

Review written by contributing blogger extraordinaire, Bill Clark

William Clark's review of Lean On Pete for Diana Y Paul's blog, Unhealed WoundLean on Pete, British director Andrew Haigh’s first American- made film, opens with the camera following behind 15-year-old Charley Thompson as he does his morning run through an impoverished Portland neighborhood under overcast summer skies.

Charlie Plummer (no relation to Christopher) brilliantly plays Charley as the son of his single alcoholic father Ray (Travis Fimmel) and is in almost every scene with an award-winning performance.

Having left Spokane due to his father’s search for another warehouse job, Charley is uprooted from his old high school, his friends and his role as cornerback and sometimes wide receiver on the football team, a metaphor for Charley’s penchant for being left out there, alone.

On his own, he finds work as a stable hand at a second-class racetrack working for Del (Steve Buscemi), a down-on-his-luck gruff and brusque owner of quarter horses he races on the county-fair circuit. Del becomes Charley’s mentor – if you can call, “Just clean out the shit from the trailer,” mentoring – and pays Charley in cash, a scarce resource in the Thompson household.

Charley’s father reluctantly accepts the cash and shows his love for his son in a hardscrabble kind of way – a tug on Charley’s baseball cap as he goes out for another night of drinking.

Somewhat predictably, Charley grows fond of one of the older quarter horses, Lean on Pete, who is at the end of his racing career and destined to a one-way trip to a Mexican slaughterhouse.

Just when you think this may be the British director’s slow-unfolding take on a remake of My Friend Flicka, a series of sudden, disastrous, fatal, random events, including the death of his father, leave Charley alone with Pete.

In one evening Charley becomes both a rustler and a car thief as he leads Pete into the horse trailer to avoid the abattoir and drives off in Del’s old pickup truck in search of a long-lost aunt in Wyoming, a thousand miles away – a teenage outlaw on the run in the New West.

The film faithfully follows the episodic arc of the 2010 Willy Vlautin novel, with a series of characters who unfailingly help Charley and his horse, revealing Vlautin’s melancholic view of the New West and its marginalized inhabitants.

But the pair’s situation becomes even more and more desperate, finally forced on foot to cross high desert terrain beautifully photographed by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck and accompanied by James Edward Barker’s haunting music score.

As they journey through some of the most bleak areas in the country, dehydrated and starving Charley recounts to Pete in jagged soliloquies his own desolate inner life and life events.

As if nothing more could happen to Charley, it does.

Left alone utterly, he continues to search for his aunt.

At the end, after successfully reunited with his aunt, we watch Charley from behind, running alone as he was at the beginning, then stopping and looking back. Plummer’s expression silently illuminates what Charley feels: hope, apprehension, fear, determination, vulnerability – human realness.

The film was made by A24 Studios, the same studio that brought us Moonlight. Together with films like The Florida Project we are beginning to see mainstream movies depicting  the same human realness of   the working, and not so working, poor i in nonglamourous, nonsentimental, nonsensationalized ways. Least we forget.

“The Alienist”– Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Alienist series

“The Alienist”, a TNT psychological thriller set in 1896, is based on the novel by Caleb Carr. People with mental illness were once considered “alienated from society,” unfathomable to doctors and laymen alike. Those who thought they could treat them were referred to as alienists, pre-dating the Freudian psychiatric movement by more than a decade. The Alienist foreshadows the Freudian theory of the unconscious, and the incipient emergence of forensics (including the first attempts at fingerprinting). If that is not enough, the series also foreshadows the suffragist movement, through the eyes of a police assistant trying to break through the glass ceiling of the NYPD.

The Alienist opens with a series of haunting, gruesome murders of boy prostitutes, terrorizing New York City . Newly appointed police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) calls upon criminal psychologist/alienist) Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) to conduct a secret investigation. They are joined by Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), a headstrong secretary determined to become the city’s first female police detective and who is the key to solving the crimes. Using the emerging disciplines of psychology and early forensic investigation techniques, this band of outsiders sets out to find and apprehend New York City’s infamous serial killer.

The dark foreboding era of the Gilded Age is impeccably captured, immersing the viewer into a time period when the poor and the uber-rich were seen as two separate species. J.P. Morgan, the Astor family and their rarified social circles are played as the underbelly influencing not only finance and industry but also law enforcement and the news media.

Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt must maneuver his way through the power structure of Morgan and the Astors while the journalist Lincoln Steffens is trying to keep everyone honest. The acting is superb, with wonderful ensemble performances. The ending is a bit weak, an attempt to humanize the unsympathetic anti-hero Dr. Kreizler, and could have been omitted.

Nonetheless, this enthralling portrait of the mean streets of Victorian New York City is a keeper.

 

Seven Seconds–Black Lives Matter?

 

Seven Seconds Netflix Original Series

The Netflix Original  series Seven Seconds (premiered February 23) is about race, corrupt police and unequal justice. In the opening scene a hit-and-run of an African-American teenager by a white Jersey City rookie cop (Beau Knapp) is covered up by three other members of the police force.

The story is harrowing and complicated, with several subplots that are not resolved. But the seminal theme is clear: does a hit-and-run crime against a young black fifteen-year-old go unpunished, no matter what the evidence or the commitment of the prosecutor?

In ten episodes, Seven Seconds gives us an unflinching portrayal of a mother’s grief over her son, the brutal streets he had to survive in, and the demands of her religion. The opening scene and a number of subsequent ones display the ragged splashes of blood in the snow, the only remaining trace of the teenage bicyclist.

There are two main characters, both black women.   Prosecutor KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is sexually promiscuous and given to drunken stupors and self-doubt. Although from a privileged family, KJ uses none of her family’s status to enhance hers in the city’s power structure. Blunt and emotional, floundering in her personal life and in the courtroom, we see her undercut her own case. Nonetheless, KJ perseveres pursuing the hit-and-run case together with a cop, “Fish” (Michael Mosley), recently transferred from another precinct.

The other main character is the teenage victim’s mother, Latrice Butler (the extraordinary Regina King). She is determined to have justice be served based upon the love she has as a mother. She fights to win the affirmation that her son had existed, a human being not accorded the validation he deserved.

These two characters are the pas-de-deux of the story, the dynamic dance and driving force between what they hope for and what will happen. Veena Sud, the show’s creator (also showrunner for the award-winning The Killing), tackles the anti-hero as female, deeply-flawed, and often unappealing. KJ and Latrice are characters not often associated with film and television. At once unsympathetic but so vulnerable and damaged, both KJ and Latrice reveal how they must maneuver as black women in a white and often dangerous world and remain determined to have their voices heard, no matter what, no matter how painful.

Challenging stereotypes not only of race but also of gender, sexual identity, religion, and military service, Seven Seconds does not so much answer questions as raise them.  This mini-series is Netflix at its best: courageous, intelligent, and beautifully written. There are subplot holes, but the drama nonetheless is riveting and some of the writing is exceptional. Watching it is like reading a good novel, with commitment and depth: binge-viewing with few interruptions makes Seven Seconds even more powerful.

 

Note: Although Seven Seconds has been critically acclaimed and binge-viewed by its fans, Netflix announced this week that Seven Seconds will not be renewed for a second season. Why? This is a travesty!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Internet’s Own Boy”: The Story of Aaron Swartz

 

The Internet's Own Boy

Chronicling the life and tragic death of computer wunderkind Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), “The Internet’s Own Boy” is a documentary that pulls the viewer into a life too brief and incredibly brilliant as we witness a young boy’s intellectual development as well as his emotionally opaque inner life. The testimony of those who deeply loved him and grieved over his untimely death at the age of 25 is sensitively and truthfully conveyed.

A master in software development (some would argue the computer programmer equivalent of the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking), Aaron was reading novels by kindergarten. When he was 13, Aaron had started the equivalent of Wikipedia, before Wikipedia existed, but it failed to attract attention. He went on to create watchdog.net, a precursor to change.org, but nothing came of either of those. Why did Wikipedia and change.org become Internet giants while the Web sites he developed at the age of 13 and 14 were failures? Probably because the gatekeepers in the fields of technology did not take seriously the insightful, prescient programming of a barely pubescent boy.

Later, Aaron drops out of high school and yet is accepted at Stanford. Then Aaron leaves the university’s computer science program after one year, because the classes were “pointless and boring”. Funded by Y Combinator, an “incubator” firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Aaron starts Infogami, eventually merging with another Y Combinator start-up, Reddit, which is sold to Condé Nast. Aaron becomes a millionaire at the age of 20.

“The Internet’s Own Boy” gains more momentum as a dramatic thriller, after the historical overview of why Aaron Swartz’s life matters. Beyond the contributions this young savant has made to the Internet as we know it, we witness the FBI’s two-year surveillance of every move he makes. Why the surveillance? After becoming a millionaire, Aaron Swartz turned to political activism, developing software for open access to public information, including medical and legal documents. After all, corporate websites saw these databases as a source of revenue. The public had to pay to gain access, charging for information sponsored by nonprofit institutions or undertaken with government funding. Neither the corporations nor academia were pleased with Aaron Swartz and open access.

Swartz was indicted on multiple felony counts for downloading several million articles from the academic medical database JSTOR. [For those of you who have googled a medical problem on the Internet, JSTOR is one of the primary databases for medical research. After one or two sentences describing research from a prestigious university, the user has to pay several hundred dollars to read the entire university report.) JSTOR filed a complaint with the US government, in conjunction with MIT (even though MIT’s computer system is open to anyone on campus).

Soon after his arrest, he returned the data he had taken, and JSTOR considered the matter settled. For reasons that are unclear, MIT continued to cooperate with the prosecution, despite many efforts, internal and external, to dissuade it.

Aaron Swartz was also concerned about the relation between political candidates’ wealth and their electoral success, and, while successful candidates’ financial disclosure records were available on the Internet, unsuccessful candidates’ records, while public and digitized, were not online. If you wanted to see them, you were required to make paper copies in a library, but Swartz wanted access to the digital files so he could analyze the data. With the help of fellow programmer Alec Resnick, they spent days in a library attempting to hack into the files. But the government had not forgotten about Aaron’s mission to make public records accessible. Resnick was held in jail overnight and then released.

Next Swartz went to a library in Chicago and downloaded twenty per cent of the pacer (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database for public documents. He then gave the data to the Stanford Law Review for publication. As the FBI investigation was in its infancy in 2008, Swartz and a few other hackers wrote the “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto.” Meanwhile , the FBI conducting surveillance on his parents’ house, near Chicago.

Shortly after Swartz was arrested, the prosecutors subpoenaed Quinn Norton, his ex-girlfriend. This is perhaps one of the most devastating scenes in which we see how the US prosecutorial team manipulated Norton, in order to compel her to cooperate with the investigation.  His family was horrified. There was concern that he would commit suicide if he went to prison.

“The  Internet’s Own Boy” has relevance that has never been stronger than it is today with the manipulation of Facebook by unseen agents . Swartz’s belief that the influence of money in American politics was so enormous a problem that he wanted to devote his considerable programming genius to expose the influence of wealth on the political process.

But it was Swartz’s groundbreaking work in social justice and political organizing combined with his aggressive approach to information access that has us all deeply in his debt. This film is Aaron Swartz’s personal story about the price we all pay when we accept the business models undergirding their profits  on one hand , and misunderstand or ignore the power of free access to public information. The privatization of public information is at stake.

“The  Internet’s Own Boy”, a  moving portrait of a computer genius whose mission was to provide a better world through digital access to information, reveals how powerful information is and how access to it is hoarded and brutally protected by corporations and government agencies. Timely exposé indeed!

 

Note:  “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” (2014) is available on Netflix (DVD).

 

 

 

 

 

“Roseanne” (2018): Neither Here Nor There

Roseanne 2018

Having the highest ratings for any network sitcom in almost four years, the revival of the ABC television show “Roseanne” had 18.2 million viewers last week, and features most of the original cast.

And then this high-concept sitcom begins to evoke memories of the good old days of “Roseanne” and “All in the Family”, with the same old-fashioned couch, the living room that made “Roseanne” a bona fide pioneer (1988-1997) with its focus on blue-collar Americans in Lanford, Illinois. Still set in this fictional town in the Midwest, now Roseanne is back, and Trump is in. And every viewer knows Illinois is a “red state”.

Although the divisive Trump is never mentioned by name (rumored to be a requirement for funding the show), Roseanne Barr has let it be known that her show would grapple with how the 2016 election has divided American families and friendships. This is an intriguing goal for revitalizing the most difficult of comedic themes: family dysfunction and how families change and redefine themselves. Now overlay that with the cultural and political wars of today.

In the opening scene we see Dan Conner (played by John Goodman) come back to life literally after the 1997 finale in which Dan died of a heart attack. The new Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) is an unabashed Trump supporter while her sister, Jackie (the Tony-award winning Laurie Metcalfe) again plays Roseanne’s polar opposite. She wears a “pussy hat” , “Nasty Woman” t-shirt, and battles almost every argument her sister puts forth.

“Roseanne” of the 1988-1997 seasons had many darkly political themes including sexism, racism, abortion rights, and gay rights. But the landscape has changed. The highest-rated series among adults under 50 is currently “This Is Us,” and tackles the same issues of the old “Roseanne” but now interracial marriages and relationships, same-sex marriage, and a host of former hot-button divisive issues are more widely accepted in some demographics. In attempting to update the new “Roseanne” with current issues, the premiere features a grandson who wears skirts suggesting he will be transgender and a granddaughter who is biracial.

Laughing at the old Roseanne, Jackie, and Dan Conner of the late 20th century, viewers were encouraged to see the Conner family torn by everyday challenges that many viewers did not have personal experience with. We were pulled in by razor-sharp dialogue, character arcs driven by superb actors, and humor not overridden by laugh tracks. The vintage sitcom was enjoyable regardless of whether the political arguments were ones the viewer agreed with.

What happened to Roseanne Barr’s gift for vocal range, not strident or flat delivery? And the two additions of child actors–the possibly transgender little boy struggling with bullying from classmates and the little biracial girl who silently sits at the dining room table so the viewer notices her? They have no character development. Roseanne is afraid for her little grandson but isn’t sure confronting the school administrators is the answer. Why not have Dan go to school in a tutu to challenge the bullies? The little girl is assumed to be part African American. Why not have her play with a white Barbie and a black one and ask her grandpa which one he thinks is prettier? That would be suggestive of the “Roseanne” I miss so much.

The reboot of “Roseanne” was an opportunity to explain the nation’s culture wars to an audience that sorely needs to hear it. And the producers and writers passed. Millions of viewers, perhaps, gathered around their televisions and, as in the vintage ” Roseanne”, some may still see themselves in the Conner family. But it is not the Conner family we came to understand in the vintage show. The 2018 “Roseanne” doesn’t deliver what was promised and the acting is a lukewarm flat series of performances, with the exception of the incomparable Laurie Metcalfe.

Too bad that blue collar and low socio-economic class are now identified with Trump. This is both inaccurate and overly simplistic.

Some reviewers called the new “Roseanne” timeless, but with its overtly political message that no one (including Trump) can ignore, what is timeless about 2016? ABC executives and “Roseanne” producers reject the notion that the show’s popularity is mainly because of its appeal to Trump supporters. Will we see sustained viewer numbers or will the gap between what was promised and what was delivered be too wide? Certainly this viewer was turned off.

Note: The top audience markets for the debut were a red-state checklist: Cincinnati, OH; Kansas City, MO.; Tulsa, OK, Springfield, IL. Liberal metropolises like New York and Los Angeles did not crack the top 20.   Channing Dungey, the president of ABC Entertainment, said “the success of ‘Roseanne’ was a direct result of the post-Election Day initiative to pursue an audience that the network had overlooked.”

Seeing Allred–A Hero Before #MeToo

 

Seeing Allred

Seeing Allred, which premiered at Sundance in January (and now available on Netflix,) gives us a new portrait of the revolutionary Gloria Allred, the feminist lawyer who singlehandedly took on legal cases including the Equal Rights Amendment (which failed to pass in Congress), and Roe vs. Wade. The list of men Gloria Allred has taken to court on violation of women’s rights reads like a Who’s Who of the not so great: Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump.

What propelled Gloria Allred to become the woman she is–an intrepid fighter for women’s rights, the rights of minorities, and LGBT? That is the major theme of “Seeing Allred”.

In the opening scene at a 1977 taping of the Dinah Shore show, Dinah asks the female audience to vote on what their husbands want most when they come home from work– a hot meal or seeing their spouses in a sheer negligee. A thirty-something diminutive Allred stands up and defiantly challenges the vote: “I think we have a uterus and a brain and they both work!” The camera pans to shocked faces in the audience, and, finally, someone cheers.

A master for calculating the public’s reactions on camera, Allred is, in sharp contrast, a deeply private person. You can see her reluctance to this filming.  

“Power only understands power,” Allred responds when asked about her decades of warfare that her opponents as well as talk-show hosts have called shrill, unlikable, and a lying, money-hungry bitch. Gloria Allred is at her best: in front of reporters where she often argues her case before the court of public opinion.

Almost prescient, Allred battled for gay soldiers to serve in the military and for the first lesbian couple wanting to marry in 2004. She opposed different treatment for men and women for their insurance, dry cleaning, and wages. Almost all of these battles Allred won. More than 45 years ago, she represented McCorvey in Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court.

In my opinion, the most spellbinding moment in the film, is when Allred reveals she was raped at gunpoint at the age of 25 by a man she trusted. After the sexual assault, she became pregnant, had an illegal abortion (the only kind available) and almost died. Hemorrhaging, she reports in her memoir that a nurse told her: “This will teach you a lesson.” And Allred realized a lesson she wanted to teach others. She wanted women’s rage turned outward, not inward. Now we know her heart and her mission.

Allred’s feisty, fearless persona as an attorney is sharply contrasted with her devotion and close relationship with her daughter, Lisa Bloom. Very close in their mother-daughter relationship, Allred divorced her first husband when Lisa was five and raised her mostly by herself.   Bloom is also an attorney representing women’s rights.

Perhaps what is most startling in watching Seeing Allred is observing her two sides, the remarkably sensitive but highly dramatic attorney who feels the pain of the women she represents and the more protective private woman who stiffens and shuts down at any personal questions.   This is the attorney who dangled a chastity belt at a California state congressman for denying passage of an abortion bill early in her legalization campaign. An interlocutor unafraid to argue her point, she’s loved and treasured by many, receiving the spotlight at last year’s Women’s March in Washington, DC.

Allred used humor to her advantage in 2012, when a Canadian transgender beauty contestant was disqualified from a Miss Universe pageant owned by Trump. Taking up her case, Allred called a press conference:

“Mr Trump, we don’t care what your anatomy looked like when you were born, and you shouldn’t care what her anatomy looked like when she was born.” Trump retorted in swaggering fashion.: “Oh, Gloria would probably love to see what’s under my pants.” Allred countered she didn’t have a magnifying glass strong enough to see something that small. The transgender contestant was reinstated; another win for Allred.

Allred represents Summer Zervos, a former “Apprentice” suing Trump; a woman who accused Roy Moore of sexual assault; and 33 women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault.

Seeing Allred ends with the filing of new suits against Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein.