“The Good Liar”–A Story Within a Story

The Good Liar, a 2019 crime thriller,   based on the titular novel by Nicholas Searle, is a cat-and-mouse plot featuring a septuagenarian wealthy widow, Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) and an octogenarian con artist  Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen). They meet on a first date scheduled through a dating app for seniors.

Roy obviously does not have good intentions and his motives are soon recognized as dishonorable by Betty’s grandson, Stephen (Russell Tovey), who grows increasingly suspicious and resentful.  Betty, on the other hand, seems smitten.  Will she see that Roy is a clever liar, not a kind gentleman who will assuage her loneliness?

This theme of the easily manipulated widow, who is too lonely and engulfed by grief to see reality for what it is, usually has few surprises.  Not so for The Good Liar.  Full of twists and turns that some viewers may think stretch credulity, like any good thriller the foreshadowing and clues are there if one watches carefully and asks why that scene is there.


Even if you guess the lying,  deception, and backstory, it is wonderful to  watch two much-loved veteran actors fine-tuning every nuance of their characters’ personalities, and every moment of their time on screen. While there are  occasional lapses into melodrama, a few subplot holes, and an ending that is weak while the true ending would have been chilling,  seeing Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren play unexpected characters against type is more than  entertaining.  They also have to engage in quite physically demanding action sequences that reward the viewer in and of itself, a tribute to their professionalism and stamina at the height of their game.  Ian McKellen is at times convincingly charming, menacing throughout, and vulnerable. Helen Mirren, the sweet widow and grandmother, has a multi-layered persona and pointed, scathing dialogue that asks the viewer:  Who is lying now?

This is a sleeper to add to your watch list!

Note:  Available on DVD (Netflix) and HBO streaming.

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“High Seas”–“Death on the Nile” meets “Murder on the Orient Express”

In this Spanish melodrama (Spanish:  Alta Mar) , two sisters discover some very disturbing family secrets aboard a ship sailing from Spain to Brazil just after World War II.  Agatha Christie’s style of mystery plotting, overlaid with the  Spanish love of melodrama and telenovela, makes High Seas an unusual series.

Following the death of their father, sisters Eva and Carolina Villanueva travel on the luxury ocean liner, Bárbara de Braganza.  The sisters, over the course of three seasons,  become committed to  investigating mysterious deaths that occur on the cruise ship.  Each character–the sisters, their love interests, and a number of other passengers– provide intrigue as they reveal their backstories, increasing suspicions about once benign-looking individuals.  Having so many complex characters helps with pacing, cutting in expertly from one subplot to the next.   In Season One the mysterious murder,  solved fairly quickly, moves the story to lies, betrayal, and family scandal. This is the best of the three seasons.  Season Two adds an ephemeral ghost story and the red herrings sometimes are dropped suddenly, leaving obvious plot holes.  Season Three, about a virus onboard the cruise ship, has a terrific premise but too many characters’ scenes are either incomplete in moving the drama forward or the pace is ground to almost a halt.

Easy to watch, mostly entertaining without insulting your intelligence or emotions, High Seas is a good-looking, light-hearted, sometimes farcical mystery with performances that signal that the actors are not taking the drama too seriously, which is a good thing.  The influence of Art Deco in the set designs and the period clothing are stunning and reliably historical. While this is not A-class drama, it is definitely an enjoyable Netflix series.  My only major criticism is that the narrative did not really support so many episodes per season.  Four to five episodes, more tightly scripted, would have improved this whodunit.

Note:  Only watch High Seas with subtitles, even though some are very fast and others are in white font on an almost white background.  As with most foreign films, the dubbed version is usually annoying and the acting is awful.

“Humans”–“Dark Mirror” Meets “Ex Machina”

The Amazon Prime sci-fi series, Humans (three seasons), takes place in the not- too-distant future where the affluent purchase “synths”, artificially intelligent human-looking robots that can perform a multitude of tasks from housecleaning, surveillance, and sex-toy services.  A suburban  family buys Anita (the exquisitely beautiful Gemma Chan of “Crazy Rich Asians”) to help with the burdens of a professional couple. The father, Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), is a manager in a factory  who is replaced by synths.   His wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson of Pirate Radio and Doc Martin), a human rights attorney and activist, responds viscerally  to living with Anita.  The three children become very attached, as Anita learns to know them better than their parents.

A computer scientist, Dr. George Millican (William Hurt), helped develop the earlier synth models and has become emotionally attached to an obsolete prototype named Odi. As George’s memory fails, Odi has become the archive of the younger George’s past, especially regarding his beloved, now deceased wife. George finds his humanity and his dignity in the circuitry of Odi.

Reference is made to “Asimov blocks”, the Isaac Asimov first law of robotics: do no harm to humans.  But Humans is, first and foremost, dystopian.   Dark and brooding, Humans raises more questions than it answers about the interaction between humans and the computerized world of artificial intelligence.  A subtext exists also.  How do humans react to what or who is different?  Is discrimination based on appearance inevitable?  Are they empathetic?  Merely suspicious?  Violent? A range of  responses are given.  And, how does the employer treat those who serve?  Does the employer lack empathy for  employees as if they are  less human?  How do employees feel about their treatment by the boss?  And most importantly, what does “human” even mean? 

Season 3 mines deeper into the sociopolitical dimensions of technology without diluting the potency of well-drawn characters.  Great writing and acting avoid preaching on human morality. Instead, Humans  is at times warm and funny, frightening and disturbing, in developing  a powerful set of  characters who ask the viewer what it means to claim you are human.

Needless to say, this series is binge-worthy even for those who are not sci-fi fans.

Availability:  Amazon Prime (UK Version)

“The Alienist: Angel of Darkness” (Season Two)–Stranger Things Happen

In this  relatively seamless sequel to “The Alienist”, based on Caleb Carr’s second psychological thriller, season two is a retelling of Carr’s Angel of Darkness.  But this is much more than a sequel.  (For my review of season one, see my April 29, 2018 review:  “The Alienist”–Something Wicked This Way Comes).

The year is 1897, a scant three years before the dawn of the 20th century, in the Gilded Age.  In New York City, a serial killer is kidnapping and murdering babies. Angel of Darkness opens with a grisly scene of Martha Napp, perhaps wrongfully accused of murdering her child, sitting in the electric chair preparing to be the first woman to be executed by that means as well as the first person in the US to be found guilty without finding a murdered body as evidence.

In season two there is a new case to solve. And Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), the “alienist” (the Victorian term for the new profession of psychiatrist), John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans)  now a New York Times journalist and one of high society’s most eligible bachelors, and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning),  the first woman detective with her own agency in New York.  They are determined to find the baby-murderer.

Martha Napp’s baby disappeared from a lying-in hospital, born to an unwed mother. The second baby, taken the same day as the first mother’s execution, was kidnapped from the  Fifth Avenue mansion of the Spanish ambassador.

In this season Sara takes the lead as the forceful investigator who must confront not only the city’s underground gangsters, but sexism, a corrupt police commissioner (the wonderfully quirky Ted Levine from “The Closer”) and the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. This is a major shift from the first season when Dr. Laszlo Kreizler was the compelling but abrasive smartest guy in the room.  Now he plays a secondary, not really titular role, as the alienist who lacks any social skills  and forgets other people in the room have feelings.  It’s Sara Howard who is the mastermind.

Sara Howard [Dakota Fanning} and John Schuyler Moore [Luke Evans]

The “lying-in hospital” is the venue of interest, perhaps the source of the crimes involving newborns.  Libby Hatch (newcomer Rosy McEwen), is a young nurse and would-be whistleblower who befriends Sara and supplies much-needed information. 

Red herrings proliferate throughout the eight episodes.

As with Season 1, Angel of Darkness skewers themes relating to social status, discrimination based on sex and ethnicity, corrupt policing, and crony journalism.  One of the more interesting subplots in this season is the competing newspapers’ need for headline-grabbing: William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal versus the New York Times.

There are also a few clever gender reversals when it comes to who rescues a colleague from a beating, who’s marrying for money, and who has the courage to express their feelings towards the object of their affection.

In one particularly memorable scene, Sara Howard as a laser-focused Sherlock Holmes type, ponders a doll, purchased at a department store catering to the upper-class. Viewers watch a little girl innocently pick up an odd purple babydoll, which turns out to be a dead infant.

Decadence and gentility reside side by side with degradation, cruelty and violence. That this Gilded Age is mere window dressing for a savage  murder mystery should be riveting enough for binge-viewing.

Availability:  TNT channel and TNT.com.  Season Two [The Alienist: Angel of Darkness] can be seen without having to watch Season One first.  Both seasons are excellent.

Note:  Newcomer Rosy McEwen is an actress to watch.  Reminding this viewer of Nicole Kidman both in superb skill and appearance, every scene she is in is unforgettable.

The series loosely ties itself to history. Howard, for instance, is (sort of) based on Isabella Goodwin, New York’s first female detective.

Note: For an interesting interview with the three main actors, see the Hollywood Reporter.

Dark Waters–Still an Abyss

Dark Waters is a 2019 American legal thriller  directed by Todd Haynes (“Carol” and “Far from Heaven”).  The movie dramatizes the whistleblowing story of a cover-up of toxic waste.  We see close up the  corporate corruption involving Dupont’s manufacturing of Teflon.  The hero is Robert Bilott, (played by Mark Ruffalo of “I Know This Much is True”) an Ohio lawyer who spends more than  eighteen years proving that DuPont was responsible for poisoning the town of Parkersburg, West Virginia with unregulated “forever” chemicals.

Based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, Dark Waters takes us on the journey by a tenacious attorney, Rob Bilott  to uncover the  dark secret hidden by one of the US’s most illustrious corporations–DuPont.  “Better Living Through Chemistry–DuPont’s advertising jingle–this is not. 

A growing number of unexplained farm animal deaths are brought to Bilott’s attention when a friend of his grandmother’s brings videotapes of pollution, dying cattle with gross mutations, and assorted abnormalities  on his farm.  Bilott naively believes when he brings this to DuPont’s attention,  they will comply voluntarily with the self-regulation of their toxic chemicals for the community’s welfare.

In the process of expecting cooperation, he risks everything — his future career, his family, and his own life — to expose the truth. DuPont has known for years through their own corporate research, that they were responsible for a shocking increase in cancer,  birth defects, death of livestock, and polluted river beds. They fight the lawsuit with the standard practice of deluging the plaintiff lawyer  with hundreds of boxes of documents, indirect and more direct threats of loss of employment, and corporate croneyism. 

This is no “Erin Brockovich”, but it is a close second. Corporate profits of over $1 billion per year were not going to be sacrificed by the regulation of their most profitable and monopolized product.  Dupont is caught in multiple lies from the CEO  on down, the company’s defenses refuted by the their  own studies.  Dark Waters highlights the necessity of compliance by independent agencies like the EPA and intrepid attorneys like Bilott.  Both are essential partners, as the EPA lacked power and failed to use what little regulatory authority they did have to eradicate Teflon from the market. 

 By the end of the film, we learn that 99% of everyone on the planet has Teflon in their bodies. A powerful multinational corporation aligned with the US government let this happen.  

Mark Ruffalo truly identifies with Bilott, giving an outstanding interpretation of the contribution the attorney has made to public safety. In outtakes at the end of the film, Rob Bilott and his wife are invited on set and interviewed.  In addition, victims who suffered from birth defects due to the chemicals in Teflon appear.  Several  victims  appear in the movie and one has a brief cameo role as well. 

Although DuPont should have suffered more, I highly recommend Dark Waters.

Availability: Netflix DVD and Amazon Prime streaming.

Note:   Teflon and its chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) are still available in markets worldwide.

Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal: The Hidden Dangers of C8 by Callie Lyons, a Mid-Ohio Valley journalist, was the first book to uncover the DuPont coverup at their site in Parkersburg, West Virginia.  And read the  follow-up on Lyons’ coverage in the May 2007 article in Mother Jones, “Teflon is Forever”