“Bridgerton”–“Downton Abbey” Meets “Pride and Prejudice”

Produced by Shonda Rhimes as her first Netflix Original debut, Bridgerton  is based on a series of best-selling historical romance novels by Julia Quinn. Set in the Regency era, at the height of London’s aristocratic society, Bridgerton  tracks the lives and loves of the sprawling Bridgerton clan.

Bridgerton  is an amalgamation –part Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and part class snobbery (Downton Abbey).–  Queen Charlotte (played with astringent haughtiness by Gilda Rosheuvel) is black. So too is the highly sought after Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page). The Duke,  who appears during the  debutante season, leaves a string of “cat fights” in his wake.  This is compounded by mothers frantically arranging introductions of their daughters to society’s most eligible bachelors.  And no bachelor is more desired than the Duke.  And no debutante, at least at first, is quite as flawless as Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), whom Queen Charlotte has declared “the diamond of the season”.  Of course, the Duke of Hastings and Daphne Bridgerton are repulsed by each other’s presence at the first debutante ball, only to very slowly fall in love. 

The intrigue of romance, arranged marriage, and fortune-hunting in social circles rivals Macchiavelli in strategy  and ruthlessness in a  highly entertaining story.  There are unwanted pregnancies, mistresses, highly desired but forbidden pregnancies, fortunes lost and won.  There is even a gossip-sheet, a daily newsletter by an unidentified Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews) to overlay mystery on the sumptuous balls and family secrets. A word of scandal in Lady Whistledown’s newsletter can ruin the reputation of any debutante or suitor in a matter of minutes.  With a lemming mentality, the once “diamond of the season” becomes tarnished, polished, and then tarnished again by pure whim and schadenfreude by those who compete with her.

The identity of Lady Whistledown, mastermind of all this turmoil,  is revealed in the very last scene and there were many red herrings skillfully crafted.

Bridgerton is at its best when it is a commentary on marriage, its pitfalls, and the expectation imposed on women to wed.  Imagine 1813 London with an ethnically diverse aristocracy who thrives in high society, focused on marriage and family, and maintaining high social status.  “Downton Abbey” in living color?

Bridgerton‘s early 1800s London is a subtle, ironic, and humorous depiction of social mobility, gender, and ethnic limitations in a caste system.  It is  highly original and overdue in casting diversity to remind the viewer that overt themes of discrimination are unnecessary. Now it is time for the industry to step forward and help us move forward.

Groundbreaking and inspirational, I hope we will see more of this nonconventional casting in the future.  Forget about historical accuracy, this is not a documentary. It is fiction and a charming one at that. A beautiful and reimagined 19th century. The actors are excellent and the diversity feels right.

Note:  In a brilliant stroke of writing, Shonda Rhimes places the story during the marriage of (Mad) King George III and Queen Charlotte.  There has been some historical researth that Queen Charlotte may have had African ancestry.  Bridgerton accepts it as fact, imagining that the queen grants titles and land to other people of color.

Availability: Netflix streaming

“The Reagans”–Truth At Last

A four-part Showtime documentary series, The Reagans excoriates the epic failure of journalism to reveal the Reagan White House as it really was, not the fairy tale of near-sainthood of Ronald Reagan.   Ronald Reagan, Jr., the only son of the Reagans, is the primary source for details about his parents’ most private moments and their secrets behind closed doors.  One of his more frankly understated comments: “My father was a strange fellow to be president of this country.”

How the carefully curated story becomes the reality is the emphatic warning of The Reagans.  Beginning in  the 1950’s, when Reagan first testified in front of Senator McCarthy to support investigating and expelling film industry professionals as communists, we see the former Screen Actor Guild  president rewrite the facts of his own life.   From being a World War II combat veteran (which he wasn’t) to fighting for corporate interests (while the young Reagan was pro-union), Reagan and his uncannily astute  wife Nancy construct a confabulist’s story of a dream they both had for him to be president of a country that never was.  Scanning the political landscape with her bird-of-prey eyes and instincts, Nancy was a force to be ignored at a politician’s own peril.  Nancy’s stagecraft is in play when announcing her husband’s presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi –the notorious site of a Ku Klux Klan massacre.  The viewer sees Reagan’s dog whistle raise the attention of those who will be his first believers.

Sometimes jaw-droppingly shocking–based on rarely seen footage–we witness the previously unexamined tactics and strategy that laid the groundwork for the Tea Party, trickle-down economics and the Trump administration.  What was planned sixty years ago foreshadows what is going on now. The insightful  analysis of the parallel between the cult of the telegenic personality  and political campaigning since the rise of television is particularly unnerving.  Does it take a seasoned performer to be the most probable candidate for the highest office in government? 

Watch this and draw your own conclusions.

People who worship Ronald Reagan will hate The Reagans. They will see more of the man behind the curtain  than they would prefer. For those comfortably used to seeing Reagan canonized as a patron saint of moderate Republicanism, exposing  the veneer of a highly polished television image should be unsettling. For those who want to better understand how the current conservative movement was primed for performers to become POTUS, this is a disturbing documentary indeed.

“Fargo” (Season 4)—Like No Other

An enticing mob story with the texture of a graphic novel, Fargo (Season 4) is dissimilar from the previous three seasons.  As much a commentary on social and political justice as a drama about one gang competing to destroy another, this new season is like no other.

Fargo’s entire sweep of  1950’s organized crime in Kansas City is brutal and not for the faint-hearted.   With the rise of Jewish, Irish and Italian syndicates — whoever was “next off the boat”— three families (Jewish, Irish and Italian) kill each other off in a constant struggle for dominance. Family members ruthlessly  maneuver for  attention and loyalty. And we see how institutions in power have an incentive to see these immigrants  fight each other instead of joining forces to fight institutional injustice. A“Nurse Ratched” character (Jessie Buckley) who straddles the boundaries of all the feuding factions provides additional tension. 

An ambitious and more cerebral African American mobster, Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) trades his son for the son of the rival Italian mob, run by Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman). Loy  hopes  the trade will bring about  cooperation instead of conflict. Fadda has his own internal familial troubles, with his ruthless brother, recently arrived  “from the old country” and itching for a fight.  The two mob leaders, for the most part, are evenly matched with accomplices wrecking their best-laid plans. But in the end, Loy outsmarts Fadda.

Split screens feature the cast of  eccentric characters in simultaneous scenes of carnage and betrayal.  These include: a deranged and homicidal nurse (Jessie Buckley), a doleful foot soldier (Ben Whishaw) who deeply identifies with Loy Cannon’s young son, a zealously religious lawman (Timothy Olyphant) and a studious schoolgirl (E’myri Crutchfield) with ambitions to do more than a Black girl in 1950 is allowed. She assumes that hard work, a first-rate mind, and following the conventions of society will reward her…even in a Jim Crow de facto legal system.

What is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this crime story is that Loy Cannon feels it’s just his job,–being a mob boss– and his real life is the relationships he has with his wife, children and closest friends (some of whom die).  Outstanding performances by Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman playing against type make this season of Fargo a distinctive  stand-out.  This is “Sopranos” on steroids with no false sentimentality nor shrink-wrapped platitudes about law and order. Served on a plate with red-hot coals of injustice and a very crooked playing field, Season 4 of Fargo does not disappoint.

Availability:  HBO Max.

My Top 30 Movies and TV Series for 2020

Looking for your next movie to watch?  

While we all hunker down during this sheltering-in-place, many of us crave new content to watch, some less well-known and under-the-radar.  Well, this year I watched more movies and television than ever before, so I have thirty to recommend, instead of the usual 15-20.

Here are the reviews I wrote this past year with the criteria that they were available online since movie theaters were either shut down or offered very limited screenings. Of the 52 reviews, here are my favorites.  Yet another difficult year to make my “listicle”.  As in past years, both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling and intriguing characters.

The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre and date of review.  

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1) For Sama–A Letter to My Daughter (February 24 review)

A love letter to her infant daughter Sama,  born in Aleppo,   For Sama is a Syrian mother’s  first-person account of the bombing of her beloved homeland. A testament to human resilience and sacrifice for the sake of a community, For Sama reveals what really happens in war as we bear witness to pain and unimaginable suffering, both physical and mental.  

2) Clemency–No Mercy or Absolution  (February 17 review)

What’s the psychological and moral cost to a society that administers the death penalty?  So much more than a “death-row drama” ,  Clemency shifts the lens to the impact of  bureaucratized human cruelty:  a scathing portrait of the toll the process of administering an execution has on prison staff. 

3) Valhalla Murders–The House of the Dead (March 30)

A crime thriller about a gruesome serial killer whose murders go back over thirty-five years.  Valhalla Murders is based upon a series of murders that took place in Reykjavik. Fearlessly delving into the  horrifying past,  two detectives persevere despite the cost of unearthing unspeakable evil. 

4) Earthquake Bird–An Unpredictable Flight (March 15)

Earthquake Bird is all about guilt and the insidious nature and burden of carrying it.  This film captures the day-to-day life of guilt and jealousy, pulling back the curtain on what damage and unpredictability can do.  The Japanese setting also adds a cultural dimension, giving more complexity and suspense to the story.   This is an oddball film with a constant undercurrent of subtle tension.

5) Mr. Sunshine–Jane Austen Meets Downton Abbey (March 10)

An intricate historical romance set in 1871, when a US military ship docked in Korea, wishes to expand into Asia for the exploitation of natural resources and land. Maintaining a Jane Austen-type romantic tension over twenty-four episodes requires a meticulous attention to plot and dialogue, something the screenwriter does in  surprisingly inventive plot-points.  

6) The Good Liar–A Story Within a Story (August 31)

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 this film. 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.

7) Dark Waters–Still an Abyss  (August 3)

A tenacious attorney uncovers 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 animal deaths is investigated.

8) The Hater–Social Media Run Amok (September 22)

This Polish thriller reveals a  cold, ruthless world of postmodern haves and have-nots.  The online emotional vengeance and despair are palpable as the young computer hacker, Tomasz, wreaks havoc on those he most wants to replace.  Channeling his sociopathic, obsessive behavior into a place designed to enhance it: Facebook. 

9) Run–Walking is Not an Option (December 21)

Mother and daughter seem to be very close. Both main characters’  worlds begin to unravel in terrifying ways and the viewer soon realizes that whatever has just happened, the worst is yet to happen.

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

10) Marriage Story–The Bonds of Love (January 14 review)

Two people who really care about, respect, and love each other,  yearn for  a “gentle” amicable divorce resolution. They also are determined  to nurture and nourish their young son, Henry, with as little wounding as possible.  Marriage Story  eviscerates what happens in even the best-intentioned divorces, 

11) Last Days of Vietnam–The Best and Worst of Us (April 14 review)

Astonishing footage of the evacuation from Saigon with contemporary recollections from both Vietnamese and Americans who were there, Last Days in Vietnam films horrific scenes  to supplement the iconic image of desperate Vietnamese women, children, and elderly hanging off the roof of the US embassy fighting for their lives  to escape Saigon.

12) Hillary— Unmasked  (May 19)

Why do people find Hillary Clinton so compelling—and so polarizing? Yet Hillary is so much more than a biopic. It is a distillation of the history of contemporary feminism in the United States, sexism, the failure of journalism, and the history of partisan politics.

13) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (June 15)

The US’s most beloved neighbor is intent upon demonstrating what a neighborhood really consists of.    This  takes great effort, introspection, and role-modeling. This film manages to make you think about yourself and how you can change the world “in your own special way”.  

14) Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich–Obscene Power (June 8)

An explosive, deeply disturbing documentary spotlighting  a dark international web of underage sex trafficking.  Billionaire playboy and financier Jeffrey Epstein operated his sick obsession in plain sight. This wealthy predator cultivated links to extraordinarily powerful people including current and former presidents and a British prince.  

15) The Hunting Ground–Preying on Our Daughters and Sons (June 1)

Students (mostly female but some male) give a painful, absorbing account of not only their sexual assault but also  the systemic indifference of the college administrations  to whom the victims seek redress.  The callousness is  as devastating and traumatic as the rampant sexual assaults themselves.

16) The Way I See It–What’s Before Your Eyes (October 25)

A documentary covering the career of  the former  White House photographer, Pete Souza, who photographed two of the most popular US presidents of the past fifty years:  Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.  Souza humanizes his subject matter with a lens that exudes emotion.  But The Way I See It is all about the Obamas.

17) Richard Jewell–A Hidden Gem (November 30)

Almost a caricature of the lonely white male, living with his mother, we see a deeply isolated man with an excessive obsession  wounded by the indignities of ridicule and dismissal from his peers and superiors.  Even the teen boys don’t take him seriously.  An engaging and deeply moving portrayal of a bad-luck victim of chance who is mistaken for a domestic terrorist!

18) The Comey Rule–Inner Conflict (November 23)

The Comey Rule attempts to give insight into the stress intertwined within the decisions government civil servants make on a daily basis.  Regardless of  one’s political proclivities,  The Comey Rule tells a story that needs to be told. And listened to.  It is of Shakespearean proportions.  Historians will have to decide. what is fact and what is fiction.  

19) The Social Dilemma–Addiction or Threat? (November 9)

That social media can be addictive and threatening isn’t news to anyone who uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn (Isn’t that most of us?).  But the most disturbing and pernicious aspect of social media is that the system is designed structurally to gather BigBrother information for profit.  That is the  business model.

20) Just Mercy–“It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”  (December 28)

A powerful true story about the 1989 founding of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), 

Just Mercy reveals a justice system that “treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent.” Stevenson underscores the faith in the better side of human nature:  “We are all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done,”  he maintains.

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

21) Godfather of Harlem–Partners in Crime  (January 19 review)

Skillfully interweaves the combative and competing forces of the  mafia with the 60’s civil rights battle.  Other subplots include a love story reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet and a saga of dysfunctional families compartmentalized by criminal masterminds who are also fathers and husbands.  Reminiscent at times of “The Sopranos”, with an unforgettable scene in the finale.

22) The Report–An Exposé for Us All (February 10 review)

A Senate staff researcher, Daniel Jones  is assigned by Sen. Diane Feinstein to investigate  detainees held by the CIA in “black sites”.  A shameful chapter of American history unfolds , where torture was re-introduced as a legitimate tool in pursuit of national security. 

23) LIttle Fires Everywhere–Incendiary at Its Best (April 27)

This is a suburban saga with a painfully close lens focused on the income gap, class, and racial divide we know only so well.  In the opening scene  a house in Shaker Heights is engulfed in an inferno.  Is it the target of arson?  We will find out.  The year is 1997.

24) Ozark (Season 3)–Narcos in Missouri (April 6)

What happens when the entire family goes from white-collar  respectability to all-in involvement in a life of criminal activity?  The teenage son and daughter do not push back as they get caught up in their parents’ duplicity.  Season 3 is  devastating: a  witnessing of a nuclear-family-gone-rogue. 

25) Humans–Dark Mirror Meets Ex Machina (August 17)

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. 

26) The Alienist:  Angel of Darkness (Season 2)–Stranger Things Happen (August 11)

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.  Sara takes the lead as the forceful investigator who must confront not only the city’s underground gangsters, but sexism, a corrupt police commissioner (and the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. 

27) Ratched–Ratcheting Up the Tension (October 12)

This quasi-horror thriller creates a backstory for Nurse Ratched, the heartless villain in the 1975 Academy-Award winning classic “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.  “What made Ratched so vile and so unimaginably cruel?” The answer, of course, has roots in Nurse Ratched’s  tragic early years, unhealed wounds that continue to fester.   Ratched is a female-villain origin story.  

28) The Queen’s Gambit–A Passion for Winning (November 16)

Eight-year-old orphan, Beth Harmon,   resides at a bleak orphanage, Methuen, under a severe headmistress.  It is the mid-1950s and there are few options for an orphan, especially a little girl. Struggling with loneliness, adoption and being a social misfit, Beth finds solace through learning chess from the janitor and fights to be a champion.

29) Hinterland–The Remote Interior of the Mind (November 1) 

The dark, forboding, and gloomy landscape rivals that of the best Nordic noir raising the same question: how can there be so many murders in such a small town?  Dark and at times, sinister and ominous, the Welsh scenery parallels the characters and their secretive, bleak, often damaged lives.  There is a hinterland or backstory for each character.

30) Retribution–Karma Is a Beast (December 7) 

A horrific double murder tears apart the lives of two families, the Douglases and the Elliots.  This film is unusual in its portrayal of family and what they will and won’t do for each other.  They all seek to protect themselves and those they are related to, even when they no longer love them.

Note:  Check out the entire year’s reviews for other movies that, while not making this list, most are excellent.  It was a difficult task to limit my list to just 30.  Also look at past year’s listicles of my favorite movies.  For My Top 15 Movies and TV Shows of 2019 see my December 31 blog post.