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                                                          

“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.

“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

“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.

“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

“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+

“Ammonite”–Two Women Shedding Their Shell

This highly original biopic of a little-known woman scientist highlights the obscurity in which women of renown nevertheless hid in plain sight.   Ammonite, set in the coastal village of Lyme Regis, in 1840s England, chronicles the intense relationship between the acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter and paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and a young affluent woman, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan).  Their friendship transforms both of their lives.

Charlotte Murchison visits Mary Anning’s fossil shop with her dilettante husband, Roderick (James McArdle), who wishes to observe Mary discovering the fossils that have made her well-known at the British Museum yet paradoxically unknown.  Charlotte is supposed to convalesce by the sea while her husband seeks Mary’s know-how and ostensibly hopes to elevate his reputation without attribution to Mary’s tutelage.

Ammonite film

Living a solitary and deeply lonely existence with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones), who plays with nine ceramic figurines symbolizing the deceased children, Mary is not interested at all in Roderick’s offer to pay generously for a “tour” of her fossil sites.  Reluctantly, at her mother’s urging, she obliges his request.

Mary silently and coldly witnesses how Roderick treats his wife more roughly than he would the delicate care required for revealing the beauty of a fossil.  As a talented paleontologist who discovers what lies beneath the surface, Mary has little use for either of them.

Disenchanted with his beautiful young wife “who used to shine and dazzle”, Roderick abandons her while he continues his explorations abroad.  In the interim, we see Anning slowly uncover the intrinsic beauty of Charlotte.

The grey of Ammonite’s cinematography, underscoring the depressing and cold isolation of both Mary and Charlotte, is sharply contrasted to the color in the scenes of their friendship and intimacy.   Both actors’ faces convey the inner conflict and almost unbearable loneliness in one exquisitely graceful scene after the next. Nothing is  forced or manufactured and both Winslet and Ronan are evenly matched, seasoned performers whose intelligent decisions never misfire.  Both characters, at times, seem to be screaming for help from the bottom of a well.  Viewers first see the two women detached and wounded, their icy cold veneers slowly warming and cracking, revealing buried vulnerability needing to be excavated.

There’s so much grace and nuance in these two actors’ performance with remarkably little dialogue and no narration.  Individual, wordless moments that express both an understated delight and the devastating knowledge that it may not last are superimposed upon an extraordinarily palpable chemistry between Ronan and Winslet.

Highly recommended, especially for fans of historical drama, biopics, and women’s history.

Note:  Anning was a genuine legend in her own time.  Her fossil shop is now the Lyme Regis Museum.  For an interesting article on the historical accuracy of her life and the film’s interpretation of her friendship with Murchison, see the March 20, 2019 article in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/20/mary-anning-lesbian-palaeontologist-women-film

“Behind Her Eyes”–For All To See

Behind Her Eyes, based on Sarah Pinborough’s best-selling novel of the same name,  tells the story of Adele and her husband David, a renowned psychiatrist specializing in drug addiction. The couple live an ostensibly perfect life in an exclusive London suburb.

The beautiful Adele Ferguson (Eve Hewson) was recently a patient in a mental institution where her husband was the presiding psychiatrist.  Upon release she  marries the handsome doctor. While a patient, Adele becomes best friends with a gay working-class Glasgow junkie, Rob (Robert Aramayo) who seems to be energized in her presence and she in his.  Together they play a dangerous series of mind games whose consequences are only hinted at throughout most episodes.

Enter Louise Barnsley (the excellent Simona Brown),   a beautiful young Black single mom living with her seven-year-old son, Adam (an adorable Tyler Howitt who reminds this viewer of the little boy in “Jerry Maguire”). On a rare night out, Louise meets a charming stranger who turns out to be David (Tom Bateman), the new psychiatrist hired at the upscale mental-health clinic where Louise is a part-time secretary.

Accidentally, Louise literally bumps into Adele and becomes friends.  What follows is a nurturing Adele, skilled in the art of lucid dreaming, teaching Louise how to take control of her night terrors.

And so the menage-a-trois begins–with a husband and wife both drawn to Louise and she to them.  The suspense and psychology of having conflicted feelings towards someone because of a sexual relationship with her partner is difficult to navigate and empathize under any circumstances, but Behind Her Eyes manages to pull in the viewer’s investment in understanding, especially Louise and Adele. …until it doesn’t.

In the fifth episode,  Behind Her Eyes inexplicably  swerves into sci-fi and fantasy, with dreamland sequences of bright-blue skies, ponds, floating Tinker-bell fairies, and gingerbread houses and tea parties.  Are we falling down a rabbit hole here?  Why  waste  a psychological thriller with so much possibility? 

There are many fans of this limited series. Sadly, I’m not one of them. Nevertheless,  it did have real potential.

Availability:  Netflix streaming

“The Mauritanian”–Guantanamo Diary

Based upon the NYT best-selling memoir, Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Salahi, we see the endurance of a young Mauritanian, Mohamedou Slahi (played by Tahar Rahim, The Prophet).  He is being held in Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.  The legal drama The Mauritanian demonstrates the lawyer’s duty to represent a client, regardless of  doubt in his innocence, and whether winning at all costs is what a justice system should condone.  

Attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster in her Golden Globe winning performance) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) are committed to defending the young Muslim who has been imprisoned without charge in what is soon revealed to be notorious conditions (with echoes of Abu Ghraib in several scenes). The military prosecutor,  Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), has lost a friend to the 9/11 tragedy and wishes to pursue the death sentence for Slahi. A church-going straight-shooter Marine, Couch is determined that the law will prevail and that the government is honorable in its prosecution.  After a crisis in conscience, unfortunately, Couch is crushed –by his commander in charge and by his own values for what constitutes habeas corpus, justice and human rights.  In  uncovering shocking truths about incarceration, prison conditions and illegal methods for  obtaining Slahi’s confession, Couch faces an unnerving dilemma as Hollander and Duncan fight a massive government cover-up, stonewalling, and obstruction to acquiring the facts and documentation necessary for a fair trial.    

The young Algerian actor, Tahar Rahim, delivers an intensely gut-wrenching performance of a man tortured and humiliated, threatened with ominous treatment of his mother and brothers, and betrayal by his friends.  Jodie Foster and Tahar Rahim are superb in all the client-attorney conversations in the prison interrogation cell.   The two actors are extraordinarily well-matched and understated in conveying the horror they both need to accept as truth.    

Finally, after going to trial, there is a surprising turn of events.  Definitely worth watching for a better understanding of the existence and ostensible justification for Guantanamo Bay.  A painful reminder that Gitmo still prevails, twenty years after 9/11, with detainees who have never been charged.        

Note:  The out-takes of the actual Slahi, Hollander, Couch and Duncan are particularly moving!  The Mauritanian may raise more questions than it answers and is not for the squeamish.    
 

“The Father”–A Patriarch’s Decline

The Father is  a devastating, disquieting journey into the horrors of dementia, both for the afflicted and for those who are close to the afflicted.    Artfully helmed by French playwright Florian Zeller in his directorial debut, Zeller invites the viewer into a breathtaking and  wrenching look at advancing dementia through both the individual frightened by what is happening and to the no-less-terrified family and caregivers. Watching a loved one die is always harrowing, but dementia makes it especially so, as the patient not only slips away mentally, but lashes out in angry and hurtful ways as they do so.  Given the increase in movies about an aging population susceptible to dementia and Alzheimer’s, The Father nonetheless breaks new ground.   

The main character, Anthony (the astonishing Anthony Hopkins),   is the  unreliable narrator, forcing the audience to see what he sees and try to make sense of that world. In a superb feat of writing, directing, and acting, The Father hurls the audience into the main character’s head with    time and space revealing a more constricting and often confusing perspective.  In doing so, The Father  conveys the full tragedy and vertiginous confusion of dementia. Anthony slowly unravels into  someone almost unrecognizable to himself and to his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman). 

Without any spoilers, we see  the brilliant way The Father  communicates Anthony’s increasing inability to differentiate  his loved ones from strangers. The viewer feels as trapped in this small, shifting space as Anthony does. The present invades the past to the point where it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. To that end, the timeline is critical: a missing watch, changes in apartment decor and furnishings symbolizing Anthony’s chronological undoing. Are his daughter and nurse playing cruel games on him?  The conflicting scenes offer a puzzle with no easy solution.  That, essentially, is the prison of Anthony’s mind.  And Anthony’s confusion is, in itself,  disorientating for the viewer.

First and foremost, Anthony Hopkins, –in his career-best performance,– is truly astonishing as a shattered, aging, and fragile  soul slowly surrendering to his mind as an enemy inside his body.  To play a man who’s begun to lose his mental faculties, Hopkins methodically peels away everything until there’s nothing left but frailty,  distress, and despair. 

Olivia Colman is the keystone to Hopkins, giving a sympathetic and equally heart-wrenching performance as the daughter undeserving of her father’s hurtful responses. Colman is also tasked with the unenviable role of the concerned daughter trying to balance parental love with her own  needs, without seeming cold and egotistical.  She never fails to deliver.

Fantastic work from both actors is sustained throughout the film, with sensitively interpreted, nuanced roles by the seasoned supporting cast, especially Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams and Imogen Poots.

One day, everyone you know and love will die, the immutable truth we all carry  with us.  The inevitability of decay becomes a little harder to turn away from with every passing year. Rarely is the nature of death and dignity explored as terrifyingly andtenderly as it is in The Father.

With a profound sadness at its core , The Father is emotionally charged and upsetting, particularly in one of the last scenes.  You’ll think about The Father long after itends.

Note:  Both Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman have been nominated for Academy Awards this year for their performances.

“I Care a Lot”–Caregiver or Caretaker?

In this Netflix original movie, I Care a Lot, the highly successful court-appointed guardian, Marla Grayson (the astonishing Rosamund Pike of “Gone Girl” fame), masterminds a scheme to being appointed guardian of  wealthy elderly patients by the state court.   Marla is charged with  caring for the elderly who are identified by doctors as incompetent to manage their own health needs, daily living and assets.

Marla and her partner Fran (Eiza González) run a highly profitable hustle –a guardianship grift of elderly “wards of the state”.  To the judge who appoints her to be caregiver, she appears as highly professional, extraordinarily articulate, and convincing in asserting her qualifications. On first appearance, the onlooker sees a measured, seemingly trustworthy advocate for eldercare.    But underneath that veneer and polish, Marla is abusing a legal system by targeting wealthy seniors that actually aren’t incompetent,  throwing them in care facilities and assuming absolute control of their assets.  She understands this  system better than most: how she can manipulate (and sometimes) bribe doctors and the courts to her advantage,   essentially kidnapping the elderly, robbing them of  their assets, and separating them forever from their families.   She’s not a caregiver, not a caretaker.  She’s neither.  Marla’s an irresolute taker.

And then the “cherry”–Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest in an unforgettable performance)  is introduced to them by an unscrupulous physician.  A “cherry” is a very wealthy old person with no family or friends to look out for them, ready for the picking.  But,  unexpected trouble arises when Jennifer Peterson is not who she seems.  A very difficult “cherry” indeed.   The  predatory guardians, Marla and Fran, soon become the prey.

Unfortunately for Marla, Jennifer has an undisclosed and mysterious relationship with a powerful mobster (the delightfully malevolent Peter Dinklage from “Game of Thrones”) who will go to great lengths to protect Jennifer.  He releases her from Marla’s clutches.

It’s a stomach-churning ride with a lot of venom and dismay that people assigned to be guardians for the most vulnerable may get away with highly irregular, if not criminal behavior.   Resources are stretched allowing the court-appointed caregivers to  conceal bad acts  because they are  trusted.

They come in and steal under false pretenses and strip the victim of all credibility.   And Rosamund Pike’s and Peter Dinklage’s twitchy, angry staggering performances menace one another in a vicious death spiral. Until the very end of I Care a Lot the viewer is treated to unexpected twists and turns, in one traumatic scene after another.

What is most unsettling about I Care a Lot , however, is the picture it presents of eldercare:  Just park them, rob them, and then move on to the next one.  What seems like a  con game — a gangster’s operation–is taking advantage of loopholes in the law.  Watching Marla game the system to her own ends is far from comforting.  The viewer has to ask:  Is this amoral predator behavior really widespread?  Is the eldercare/guardianship system  susceptible  to people like Marla and Fran to manipulate? Do some guardians stretch the rules as far as they possibly can?

Make sure your parents and grandparents are protected at all costs!  I Care a Lot  is a cautionary tale for all of us!

Availability:  On Netflix streaming and Golden Globe-nominated for a best film.

“Soul”—The Spirit of Rebirth

Guest Blogger:  Mahshid Zamani Bozorgnia,   film critic

[Edited by Diana Y. Paul]

Soul,  an animated and  complex film from Pixar directed and created by Pete Dokter (who also created “Toy Story”, “Inside Out” and “Monsters Inc”), refers to the jazz music genre and tackles the theme of what is the spirit or soul, the distinction between passion and obsession, and what constitutes the “spark” of happiness.

There is something compulsively watchable and comforting about Pixar movies with their photo-realistic imaginary worlds. But there is much more.  There are built-in  philosophical questions of life and death and self-identity embedded in the story, which appeal to adults with the openness of a child.

The main character, Joe Gardner–an African American middle school music teacher (who, like his father, is passionate about jazz music)–deals with the choice of wanting to make a living or following his passion.  But this decision-making entails an existential life crisis.

(One finds traces of the transcendental philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, with  some of his actual words adopted into the film’s dialogue.)

Joe, an ambitious pianist aspiring to accompany one of the great saxophonists, Dorothea Williams, feels that his life has been, at best,  ordinary, and more likely an epic failure.  In order to understand Emerson’s view  that “there is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful,” Joe has to rebuild himself. And what can be a better metaphor for being reborn than actually dying and coming back?

In Soul, the Great Beyond and the Great Before, –the interstitial space between life and death– are the universe’s recycling of nature and soul. Joe is not ready for the rare moment of “transcendence,” or “Great Before,” Yet, when he realizes that he either has to mentor a baby soul (called “22”) to be given “a new and unique personality” or go to the Great Beyond, he decides to stay and take the training in the “You Seminar”. During the presentation, the seminar instructor, Jerry, explains that souls are missing “the spark” and that they can only enter a body if they find that spark. Joe believes his spark is jazz and that his life can inspire other souls.  Matched with recalcitrant soul number 22, who has never found her spark and has no desire to go to earth, Joe is determined that she is his ticket to rebirth.

Together, they enter the “the zone” that 22 defines as “the place between space and physical.”  Baby soul 22 takes Joe to Moonwind, who tells them that he himself was once a lost soul: “There is not much difference between souls in the zone and  lost souls:  joy can turn into obsessions and some people cannot let go of their anxiety and obsessions, leaving them lost and disconnected from life.” However, Joe does not yet understand what Moonwind is saying.  

Soon 22 sees the spark in every element in New York City, where they both temporarily land.  From the smell of pizza to small seed pods, 22 is ready to get life on Earth, believing that she has found her spark, but Joe remains unconvinced.  After a sensational performance with Dorothea Williams, she recalls a story of a fish who was in the ocean and yet dreamed of getting to the ocean. This wonderful analogy is a turning point for Joe.

And if we believe that Emerson’s theories were mostly about the idea of America–“that its existence matters, not its past nor its future”–what better place for Joe to become a transparent eyeball and define for himself what success is than on the streets of New York City?

Availability: Disney+

Note: Certainly an important curriculum topic for college freshman.  A very mature theme about what makes life worth living—may need to proceed with caution for some youth.  Young children may not be that interested, especially in the beginning of Soul.