Years and Years–Our Future?

The HBO six-part series, Years and Years,  is a  dystopian drama of the near future that rivals “The Handmaid’s Tale” but with a focus on technology and financial crisis. 

In Years and Years the viewer witnesses a 15-year projection of nuclear strikes, technology that allows sulky teens to project Snapchat-style filters over their faces, and concentration camps for refugees and dissidents in Great Britain. 

The  harrowing image of Vivienne Rook MP (Emma Thompson), as an outspoken celebrity business woman turned political figure à la Trump, divides the nation with  her controversial opinions and policies.  In tandem, a second parallel story of one family– the Lyons family–details the impact of an unstable world on their lives.

Beginning in 2020,  three generations of the Lyons family watch the rapid change occurring around them due, in part, to the radical demagoguery of Vivienne Rook who eventually rises to power in 2027.  With a mix of horror, confusion, and occasional glee individual members align with Rook or resist her autocracy.

In rapid-fire time-jumps from 2020 to  2035, Years and Years  has Trump winning a second term as US president, Pence succeeding him and Rook seizing  power and proclaiming policies in similar autocratic style in England.

In 2020 air raid sirens blast over all regions of the UK,  with news that Trump has fired a nuclear missile at a Chinese island.  Panic and misinformation spiral out of control.

In a series of unfortunate events, there is a financial  crisis due to the collapse of an American investment bank.  A compulsory national IQ test is administered to exclude low-IQ individuals  from voting.  Arrests and detention become the rule of law for refugees, homosexuals, and dissidents.

By 2027  the coalition government of Great Britain has collapsed, and Viv Rook becomes the Prime Minister, backed by unidentified corporate moguls. Countries become unstable with similar governments being put into place.   

By  2028, Viv Rook promises freedom to her supporters but begins arresting her opponents, contracting with a giant corporation to maintain two “Erstwhile” concentration camps, intended as death camps with fascist oversight. 

By 2029 attacks on journalists increase, and the BBC is forced to shut down, having had its charter withdrawn. Muriel Lyons, matriarch and grandmother, blames the family and global citizens at large for the rampant dictatorships worldwide.  In one of  the most powerful monologues (see video clip) in television this year, she eloquently tells her family that many small acts of indifference have had a snowball effect,  creating the toxic environment everyone now lives in. Today perhaps?  And so it now seems that there is little control the Lyons have over their destinies.  The military isn’t storming parliament. The change is more insidious. Dictatorship creeps up on us very, very slowly, and yet with increasing speed, suddenly we are rendered powerless while ordinary life goes on.

Years and Years, through its flashbacks, forecasts the next decade-and-a-half  with a pessimistic, quasi-nihilistic lens.  A sum of the problems and anxieties currently playing out in Trump-land, this dystopia is a world-weary projection,  resonant of a   prequel to Black Mirror’s astringent tales.

Note:  The sixth and last episode took me by surprise.   The tone seemed off, shifting  gears into much more futuristic  science fiction. We’re being given fake videos with fake news, but this seemed to me like a  fake ending.

Locked Up–Spain’s “Orange Is the New Black”

In this riveting Netflix series, we see a psychological drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat..  A combination of “Dexter”, “Breaking Bad”, and “Orange Is the New Black” (OITNB), Locked Up is darker, more sinister, and more brutal and violent.  [Alex Pina is the creator of both this 2015 television series and 2017’s Casa de Papel. ]  Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences:  the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.

Every episode will keep you wanting more.  Perhaps a more realistic point of view of prison life than OITNB, Locked Up is binge-worthy and definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Macarena Ferreiro (played by Maggie Civantos)  is a twenty-nine year old professional financier who ends up in prison, after an affair with her manipulative boss who coaxed her into embezzling funds.  Sentenced to seven years at the Cruz del Sur Prison for women while her boss absconds jail-free, Macarena has to navigate her new and unfamiliar home where mostly murderers and drug dealers are her fellow cell mates.  At first, Macarena believes the justice system will realize that she was as much victim as perpetrator and will be released. Slowly she realizes survival in prison for a seven-year sentence will mean developing the cunning of her fellow inmates. 

The title of the Spanish version, Vis-à-Vis (literally,”face-to-face”), is also a colloquial term for conjugal visit used not only for the expected titillating aspect of sexual activity, but also for hiding, a metaphor for secrets and lies.  In a secondary plot, Macarena’s loving family–including her father, a former police officer,– are determined to help her get out of prison by any means necessary 

The ensemble cast could not be better. Brilliantly acted,  Locked Up never loses steam. Each episode surprises and leaves the viewer  wanting more and more. All the characters are an unnerving blend of good and evil, even the two obvious antagonists.  While the audience is never in doubt as to where its sympathies are supposed to lie, there are nudges of understanding for even the most vile.

Locked Up boldly and savagely challenges racist and homophobic attitudes. This prison drama makes OITNB  seem like summer camp, whereas in Locked Up  the inmates are  forever changed at almost a cellular level.  

Note:  Season 4 of Locked Up will be released September 25 on Netflix.

La Casa de Papel –“Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids

La Casa de Papel (“Money Heist”)

La Casa de Papel (Netflix English title: “Money Heist“) was the most-watched non-English language series of 2018 and one of the most-watched series overall on Netflix.  This is a Spanish  “Ocean’s Eleven” on steroids.

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

Named after cities, each robber has a backstory and the motivation to move on with a different, less desperate life. In La  Casa de Papel “Tokyo” is the unreliable narrator,  with a winner-take-all attitude, and no impulse control but lots of unhealed wounds.  She narrates each character’s backstory in flashbacks, time-jumps, and unmitigated judgment of her fellow team members. Dressed in red jumpsuits and wearing masks of the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, the burglars take 67 hostages as part of their plan in negotiating with the police.

The Professor oversees the heist from a different location, using state-of-the-art computer systems and an extraordinary psychological analysis of the police. Soon the charismatic, albeit excessively cerebral  Professor  wins over  the public, who are angry at the powerful banks and corrupt corporate and government elite.

The actors, in often tight camera shots, reveal the emotions and alienation at play as they have to deal with each other, the Professor, the hostages, and the police–particularly one vulnerable and needy police inspector.  An extraordinary string of plots over thirty-five episodes, La Casa de Papel rarely sags throughout an entire episode, but ratchets up tension, drama, and unexpected twists in psychology and power dynamics. A highly  unpredictable chess game between the police and the robbers, you will be surprised by almost every move, even with its “telenovela” elements. Can’t wait for  the next season!

Note:  There are three Parts [=Seasons].  Part 1 has  13 episodes;  Part 2: 9 episodes; Part 3: 8 episode and  were released December 2017 through July 2019.  The filming of Part 4 of La Casa de Papel ended last month and will be released sometime next year.

Lizzie–Quiet Desperation

Lizzie— a psychological thriller– is a reinterpretation of the story of Lizzie Borden, the  accused murderer of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892. Starring and produced by Chloe Sevigny and premiering at Sundance Film Festival last year, the viewer sees the highly restrictive circumstances of  women in a patriarchal society and what happens to them when they actively fight against a lifetime of subjugation.

Lizzie Borden, a thirty-two year old single woman,  has very few options other than  residing with her tyrannical father, a wealthy corrupt banker and real estate mogul.  Her  passive stepmother, Abby (the wonderful Fiona Shaw), and elder sister, Emma (Kim Dickens) all live under Andrew’s oppressive roof. An Irish immigrant, Bridget Sullivan (a fine-tuned performance by Kristen Stewart), moves in to the Borden residence as a maid. At first, seeking perhaps solace and a kindred spirit in Bridget, Lizzie teaches her to read.  Soon Lizzie and Bridget form an intimate but conspiratorial relationship.

The theme is female empowerment in a Gilded Age of punitive patriarchal strictures. Lizzie’s uncle and stepmother  provide no practical escape from  her father’s brutal supervision.  She is a woman on the verge  of a mental and physical breakdown.   Several scenes with pigeons that Lizzie nurtures and loves provide a brilliant metaphor for Lizzie’s own free-spirit: living in a cage, yearning for freedom and release from her entrapment.

Lizzie‘s cinematography (by Noah Greenberg) expertly conveys the dark, foreboding patriarchy in camera angles of candle-lit windows, doorways, behind stair-railings and bedroom doors. The lighting alone elicits the sense  that Lizzie and Bridget are both trapped, living a claustrophobic, spiritless life.

Although the pacing will challenge the patience of  some viewers, the opening scenes justifiably hook the viewer in. There is much to praise here besides the fantastic sepia-toned and black-and-white camera shots.  Lizzie is a thought-provoking and elegant Victorian-period tale of women attempting to take their destinies into their own hands when society will not allow that. 

Lizzie may, at times,  lack energy, due to slow pacing, but the hushed and mute austerity of the action plot and the character development are engaging and well-worth seeing.   Sometimes things unsaid increases the dramatic tension necessary to sustain a film.  Lizzie reflects on the abuse of power, class and sexual dynamics of a male dominated society that existed not so long ago. Today’s Handmaid’s Tale? 

Note: DVD available on Netflix

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood–A Lackluster Fairy Tale

Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to movie buffs.  And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood continues to feature the themes Tarantino cherishes.  With a fully-loaded cast of A-list actors, especially Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio,  what we witness is more a “buddy film” than the advertised “tribute to the final moments of Hollywood’s Golden Age”. But for the audience who does not know the story of Charles Manson and his grasp on the American collective psyche,  the film needs more backstory to fill in plot holes. On the plus side, Tarantino loves cinematic history and Once Upon a Time’s references to the landscape and artifacts of 1969 Hollywood are thoughtfully and minutely reconstructed.

The world around the aging Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio), along with his loyal body double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is both fictional and not. Both are co-dependent and struggling with declining careers.  The first moon landing a mere three weeks before the Beverly Hills massacre of five people, including the nine-months pregnant Sharon Tate, actress and wife to Roman Polanski, a top movie director of the time, August 1969 was a time of both horror and jubilation.

The viewer who knows about Charles Manson and his notorious bloodbath prepares for the pending violence Tarantino is often criticized for:  gratuitous depictions of violence against women. But no one escapes. Without giving too much away, Once Upon a Time builds upon a  “what if” narrative.  But for viewers who are not  familiar with the Charles Manson saga, there is no “what if,” just a senseless action thriller without the irony and fictionalization of history. 

And, to add to Once Upon a Time‘s reliance on shock value and stomach-churning bloodletting, especially of one woman’s skull, the only depictions of  the two women who have any roles more than a few lines–Sharon Tate (a waste of talented Margot Robbie) and Squeaky, one of Manson’s cult followers (played by the always reliable Dakota Fanning)– are cardboard cutouts in the Tarantino style, posturing with long-legged shots that focus more on their extremities than on what they are saying.    

I am not a fan of most of the films produced by Quentin Tarrantino, but  there is still something to admire about the attention to detail in reconstructing the time and place, and in the chemistry between Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.  And this is  a generous reading of what to like about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Note:  At almost three hours in length, the “saggy middle” of this movie could have been eliminated with less footage of driving, walking, smoking cigarettes, as well as the pointless Bruce Lee scene.

Wild Rose–Mothers and Daughters with Impossible Choices

Wild Rose, an indie film about a young aspiring country singer

Wild Rose centers on a young single mother and ex-con who dreams of moving from Scotland to Nashville to become a country singer.  This indie is currently in theaters.

Rose-Lynn Harlan (newcomer Jessie Buckley) dreams of becoming a country music star, while grappling with the regaining the trust of  her two school-age children who have been cared for by her mother (the always remarkable Julie Walters)   during her incarceration for drug dealing.

Why should she give up something she knows she is so good at? On the other hand, is success worth sacrificing her relationship with her children?  This is the impossible, heartbreaking dilemma Rose finds herself in. And dividing her time between maternal responsibilities and personal is rife with obstacles as anyone knows in struggling with work/balance issues.  She’s trapped between two worlds.  the tax on working mothers that will always affect career choices.

Wild Rose  is a powerful portrayal of the resentment that both Rose and her mother have endured in not following their own dreams.  Her mother is the foundation that has provided the love and stability for Rose’s children when their mother could not.   And the  consistent disharmony and disconnect between mother and daughter is contextualized and nuanced, adding a searing dynamic of two women with  unhealed wounds striving to be made whole.

Having to find employment fast as a condition of her parole, Rose’s mother, through a friend, finds a position for Rose as a “daily woman”, a housekeeper for a very wealthy family.  Soon the employer becomes Rose’s  benefactor (Sophie Okonedo), who generously supports her dream to go to Nashville.  Rose is a small-town-girl with big-city dreams, a familiar narrative, but with some unexpected twists.

Wild Rose showcases relationships between women, both maternal and supportive,  without power dynamics, but with a very strong sense of empathy.  This film is a real original!

The Farewell–Family Matters

The Farewell movie

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

In the opening scene of The Farewell, taking place in a local hospital in China, the winsome and irrepressible grandmother, Nai Nai, has a complete physical, but has no idea of what it portends. Her sister and doctor tell Nai Nai everything is fine,  she need not worry.  She has stage 4 lung cancer.

Determined to spare Nai Nai bad news, her adult children, under the pretext of planning a wedding for one of the grandsons, gather the family for what is to be presented as a family reunion.  The granddaughter, Billi,  a young millennial living in New York City (played by the extraordiary Awkwafina of “Crazy Rich Asians”), does not approve of the decision to hide the truth from Nai Nai. 

The rationale and Chinese tradition (similar to US medical practices forty years ago) believes that the shock of the diagnosis would worsen and hasten Nai Nai’s death due to her advanced age.  So, at the wedding, there is forced merriment as the family pretends to celebrate a happy occasion while secretly mourning their beloved Nai Nai.  Only Nai Nai doesn’t know she is dying and is in a joyous mood.

The cultural and geographical distance between Nai Nai and her granddaughter, Billi, becomes irrelevant as The Farewell progresses. In some ways, despite the gulf between them, Nai Nai seems to know and understands her granddaughter better than her American parents. Hilarious scenes discussing Billi’s weight and dating options underscore their closeness. 

But,  The Farewell also  delivers some powerful emotional blows. In its unflappably honest depiction of coming to terms with death, this disarming film examines family bonds and forced compromise, personal sacrifice, and the complexity and ambivalence of expressing emotions.

Awkwafina’s performance is raw, authentic and delicate in switching from humor to seriousness seemingly effortlessly.  The Farewell is  a winner!

Note:  The American director, Lulu Wang, has deftly constructed a very American film that seems like an independent foreign film, with subtitles, and cross-cultural shifts in perspective and comic nuance.

Rocketman –Seeing the Light through the Darkness

Rocketman , the recently released biopic of the music superstar, Elton John, will inevitably be compared to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody.  The two movies are portraits of flamboyantly-dressed gay rock stars from relatively the same era (1970’s and 1980’s) but they also shared the same manager and had the same director, Dexter Fletcher.   (Ironically, music manager John Reid was played by two actors from “Games of Thrones” fame).

In the opening scene, Elton John emerges, dressed in a satanic red “Hell Boy”-like costume with devil horns, wings, and dramatic cape. He marches directly at the camera, –backlit and sinister– as his face, partly disguised by heart-shaped sunglasses, comes into focus.   Theatrically plopping down on a chair in a circle of addicts in  group therapy, Elton John is there to exorcise his demons in a flashback revealing why he is where he is.  The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius.  Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.” 

In spite of being afflicted with unhealed wounds,  Elton finds comfort and motivation from recognition by a prestigious music academy and from a developing friendship with Bernie Taupin (a scene-stealing Jamie Bell in a beautifully touching performance). Taupin is an equally unknown musician, whose lyrics would come to inspire a  lifelong collaboration. The friendship between Elton and Bernie –Bernie calls it a brotherhood– is the film’s love story. Since Bernie is straight, there’s no sexual tension but there is such a strong emotional bond, the intimacy is palpable.

Taron Egerton, Rocketman
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.

For the closeted Elton the handsome, suave agent John Reid, (heart throb Richard Madden, Robb Stark of “Game of Thrones” and star of  “Bodyguard”) exudes a seductive eroticism, equal parts dazzle and danger. He  triggers Elton’s sexual desire.  They fall in love and then comes the  darkness, manipulation, and opportunism.

The major problem with the narrative arc is that Rocketman seems to want to be a biopic with songs, and inconsistently, also a musical that sings dialogue and dances away the drama. Rocketman becomes giddy and silly, especially earlier, in choreography and staging reminiscent of 1960’s jukebox ensemble dancing.  They distract, at least temporarily, from the demands of the storytelling–a “fourth wall”, namely  confronting the viewer with scenes that break the momentum and pacing using lyrics as dialogue.  [An analogous “fourth wall” occurs when a character talks to the screen and viewer, dislodging time and place of the story.]

A successful example of using the “fourth wall”:  when John’s estranged parents sing “I Want Love”, this interjection of song for dialogue is more effective.

Rocketman ends with Elton in rehab in 1990, singing “I’m Still Standing”, a shout-out to his survival. In the credits, there are facts about his notable generosity on behalf of HIV/AIDS international projects, his family life with his husband and two baby sons. And his sobriety  for nearly 30 years.

There’s  one crucial difference that, in the final analysis, makes Bohemian Rhapsody a more satisfying film, although not by much.  While Rhapsody climaxes with a feel-good stadium-rocking Live Aid concert, maintaining the over-the-top “party animal” style of Freddy Mercury, Rocketman is a more somber psychological study of a shattered psyche, insightfully epitomized in the therapy scene towards the end when the adult Elton John faces his little-boy wounded self in the same Hell Boy costume from the opening scene.  Coming full circle with who he now is, in the redemption he finally achieves, is the true end of this film. Rocketmanwould have been more inventive, adhering to the tone of the drama with such a final scene instead of trailing off to a triumphant burlesque song-and-dance routine at the end.

Dozens of lesser films fail to sustain a dramatic arc from assemblages of disparate hits, but Rocketman soars through both darkness and light in most of the second half .  The  electrifying Taron Egerton gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the gifted, complicated Elton John.  He immerses himself in the role and that is the major reason to see Rocketman.

Go see this movie –a universal story about redemption and survival, an underdog wrestling with his wounds from childhood, his sexuality, and a need for love.  Taron Egerton’s performance and the music are reasons enough to be entertained.

Note: Currently in theaters.

Victoria and Abdul (2017)–An Imperial Friendship

Victoria & Abdul

In Victoria and Abdul the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria (the majestic Judi Dench) is about to be celebrated in all its pomp and circumstance.  The year is 1887 and Queen Victoria is  sixty-eight years old. An honorary gold coin– a Mohur– has been minted as a token of appreciation from British-ruled India recognizing Victoria as the Empress of India.   Two Indians are conscripted to deliver the Mohur: Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar).   

The early comedic scenes tease with the warm-hearted, kind and generous nature of an elderly queen with her young, handsome Indian clerk.. She  is surprised to find that his company and his cultural differences are a refreshing respite from the hypocrisy of her retinue.

Victoria questions the role she is expected to play as the head of the Indian subcontinent, and as their unlikely friendship deepens, she becomes aware of the cultural richness of India and her ignorance of the country she reigns over.  Devoted to learning Urdu and the philosophy of the Qur’an, and writing in its script, the Queen regains her enjoyment of life in her old age, at the same time soon evoking jealousy and suspicion among members of the Royal Household. Her inner circle–particularly her ne’er-do-well eldest son Bertie (a remarkable Eddie Izzard), who has no affection for her,– wish to ultimately destroy Victoria and Abdul’s friendship or even the Queen herself.  Bertie,  who will become Edward VII upon her death, bemoans that she has lived so long. 

Abdul’s  swift rise to high status, including honorary memberhip in the Royal Household, immediately rankles her son, and other members of court, since royals and British in general never mingle socially with Indians except those who were royalty themselves.  For an Indian to be put very nearly on a level with the queen’s white servants was all but intolerable.   To eat at the same table as the aristocrats and  to share in their daily lives was viewed as an outrage. Racism was intolerable for the Queen, and her “dear good Munshi”–Victoria’s Urdu title of  “advisor” for Abdul– signaled Abdul was deserving of the utmost respect as her trusted confidante.  For  the final fourteen years of her reign, Queen Victoria continued to have an extraordinary friendship with Abdul, in spite of conspiracies and plots to undermine her maternal affection.

In the climax of Victoria and Abdul,  the Queen, despite her advisors’ prejudice and outright lies, insists they  welcome Abdul into their midst.  She gives an extremely moving “insanity” speech  which is  a masterpiece of acting. It serves  as a memorable meditation on her life in her twilight years.

Queen Victoria  is a role made for Judi Dench, who epitomizes both the loneliness and tiresome burden of a monarch ruling for over six decades. Learning a new language, a new religion, and a new role as the mother of a son she always wanted is typecast for Dench,. She plays weary and obstinate with equal believability and effectiveness.  In one poignant moment of dialogue, Victoria announces joyously that she has fallen back in love with life as she fights off  the inevitable “banquet of eternity” (mortality).

And Ali Fazal holds his own opposite Judi Dench in a compassionate, complicated role as the Munshi.  He exudes a purity, warmth, and compassion that seems well-balanced, not obsequious or fawning, towards the most powerful ruler in the world.

 Highly recommended.

Note:   Following Victoria’s death at the age of 82 in 1901, her son and successor, Edward VII, returned Abdul to India and ordered the confiscation and destruction of his correspondence with Victoria. Abdul subsequently lived quietly near Agra, on the estate that Victoria had arranged for him, until his death at the age of 46 in 1909.  The relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul remained  little-known until the discovery of Abdul’s journals a century later.

Chernobyl–An Ignominious Reaction

Chernobyl HBO miniseries

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

A  tour de force of unprecedented tragedy, Chernobyl is a masterpiece showcasing Russian heroes who have been unknown or forgotten by history.   In some ways, Chernobyl is a horror movie of the bio-disaster kind: the dramatization of that fateful morning when thousands of residents experienced the horror of intense radiation without any warning by the bureaucrats who knew or should have known what was at stake.  More than three decades later, the disaster remains haunting The creeping dread of  the suffering endured is portrayed starkly and brutally. A grim understatement of what can go terribly wrong at any moment, the viewer witnesses  the heroes who bear testimony to the unspeakable errors of human operators ordered to cut corners, threatening public safety. 

Chernobyl is difficult to watch.

Recreating this small city in 1980’s Ukraine, Chernobyl‘s producers carefully evoke the clothes, nuclear facility, hospitals, and  residential life in grim grey light, foreshadowing probably the worst nuclear accident in history.

“We seal off the city,” Zharkov–the manager of the nuclear reactor,– tells everyone in the plant. “No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor.”

The Soviet system of propaganda and corruption existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with lies, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.

But, unlike Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis, Chernobyl  is not only about nuclear-plant safety. Chernobyl is about a coverup of the worst kind: the most egregious arrogance and indifference to suffering  by a bureaucratic brotherhood  pledged to  secrecy.  Consequently, information was  shared only among a narrow elite obsessed with their own interests and survival.

Note:   The former Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant area won’t be safe for human habitation for at least 20,000 years.  Ukrainians are being reminded of the consequences of Chernobyl by a government that has slashed health benefits for the men who heroically fought to contain the Chernobyl disaster, instead reserving funds to develop Chernobyl as a tourist attraction.  For deeper research into the Chernobyl disaster, listen to the podcast, “Uncovering the Story of Chernobyl” on NPR: https://www.npr.org/2019/07/02/738019227/uncovering-the-story-of-chernobyl

The Commuter –Train to Hell

The Commuter

Action thrillers are not a staple in my movie-going diet.  Nonetheless,  I like the ones Liam Neeson stars in , and The Commuter fits his murder conspiracy/ abduction genre. 

Insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson’s character) is a 60-year-old ex-cop turned insurance salesman who commutes to midtown Manhattan every day, familiar with almost all of the other passengers. 

On the train home, Michael meets a mysterious woman named Joanna (the always-excellent Vera Farmiga), who claims to be a psychologist researching distinct classifications of personality types. Joanna makes a  proposal:  a  hypothetical situation to do “one little thing”– to locate “Prynne,” the alias of an unknown passenger, who doesn’t belong and has stolen something.  No one will get hurt.  And Michael will receive $100,000 as payment.

This happens to be the very day when Michael has been unceremoniously terminated from his job.  So Michael agrees, only to be unwittingly caught up in a criminal conspiracy that carries life and death consequences.

The Commuter is a crowd-pleaser for viewers who want an action-packed drama that will appeal to adults in the family–especially to those who like testosterone-driven action and  impossible leaps and bounds across train cars, simulating Tom Cruise in some of his Mission Impossible scenes and Denzel Washington’s besieged character in The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3.  Entertaining without too much violence. The Commuter held this viewer’s attention until the very surprising end.   

Note:  Available on Netflix (DVD) and Amazon Prime.  There is little  bloodshed but quite a few choreographed fights, both one-on-one physical combat and ammunition firing.

Fahrenheit 11/9–Fourth of July

Michael Moore’s most recent documentary,  Fahrenheit 11/9, released in September of last year, is an interesting take on the 2016  presidential election .  (The film is named for the day Trump was declared the electoral winner.) This is another film in Moore’s canon of what is wrong with America, not his best but still worth  seeing.  The 39th Golden Raspberry Award for worst actor went to Donald Trump.

Although purportedly about Trump’s election and how the country got there, Fahrenheit 11/9 is also about other issues close to Moore’s heart including the 2014 Flint water crisis, and the local government’s refusal to acknowledge the fact that levels of lead were unsafe to drink.  An unusual scene of Obama’s visit to Flint and how he disappointed local residents is eye-opening.

Moore also compares Trump’s rise to power to that of  Hitler in hate speeches against different ethnicities, religions and sexual orientation. Showcasing recent racial violence, Fahrenheit 11/9 concludes that the  Constitution no longer protects the majority of our citizens from the wealthy and powerful. And, therefore, the American Dream is now nothing but a dream.  Highlighting social and political injustices,  Fahrenheit 11/9  insists that the election of Trump is a wakeup-call to the country for radical transformation. 

Although extremely provocative with multiple political targets–including not only Republican presidents but also Clinton and Obama,– this is not one of Michael Moore’s best documentaries.  It is somewhat scattered and loses its focus on what happened to the country when Clinton won the popular vote but Trump took  the electoral college.

Nonetheless, there is much substantive analysis of the political structure we have in the US, filmed with the director’s characteristic zeal, passion, flair, and wicked sense of humor.  Highly recommend for the 4th of July or when any gimlet-eyed vision of the US is called for.