“Only Murders in the Building”–A Cozy Mystery

In this Hulu original mini-series we see two septuagenarians from the entertainment industry begrudgingly have to team together to solve the murder of a young wealthy neighbor–Tim Kono– in The Arconia, a luxury New York City apartment building. Oliver (Martin Short), an out-of-work theatre director who relies upon his estranged son for financial support, imagines that the recent murder would make a popular “true-crime” podcast. Charles (Steve Martin), a retired actor who starred as a TV detective decades ago, will star as the narrator. Mabel, a millennial (Selena Gomez) a fledgling cosmetic artist remodeling a family member’s upscale residence, is talked into assisting them with the detective work.

Only Murders in the Building is reminiscent of the old-school cozy mysteries like “Murder She Wrote” and “Doc Martin”, but with the emotional old guys providing the comedy while the no-nonsense Mabel, the twenty-something artist-wannabe, tries to bring them into the 21st century world of technology. The unlikely threesome, brought together by a shared loneliness and need for friendship, offers the viewer an entertaining, if sometimes cringeworthy, one-upmanship on who is the most hipster of the three.  And then a fourth character, Jan (Amy Ryan), a bassoonist, enters the scene as a distracting love interest for Charles.

Only Murders in the Building proves to be a lighthearted, amusing comedy/mystery with some twists and turns, only a few red herrings, and fun to solve.   Yet what really makes this series work beyond its reach as a cozy mystery is the multi-generational friendships and romance.  Breaking out of the common segregation- by-age friendships, we see three strangers in a New York City high-rise yearn for and create a sense of community despite huge generational gaps.  While the gaps provide much of the good-natured and on-point humor, the genuine friendships that are created are reminiscent of an adult child with her grandparent. 

Selena Gomez is perfectly cast (in a role worthy of her “Fundamentals of Caring”, see my August 22, 2016 review­­­­), an emotionally blunt “granddaughter” to Steve Martin and Martin Short’s curmudgeonly seniors.  Comic in tone with some almost clownish lines, the cast nonetheless integrates comedy, mystery, and the drama of quiet sadness when loneliness and family problems surface.

An entertaining, easy-to-watch family series with a second season under contract.

Availability:  Hulu streaming

ON THE VERGE

On the Verge Netflix mini-series

Guest Reviewer:  Jerry Ludwig, retired Hollywood screenwriter and author of The Black List   

            Let’s hear it for the ladies.  Actually, let’s hear from the ladies.  “On The Verge” is a popular new Netflix show.  Twelve half hours set in the snazzy Venice and Santa Monica beach playgrounds of L.A.  It features an overlooked section of the audience.  “Sex and the City” was about 30ish women, “The Golden Girls” covered the over-sixty crowd, now we have four (always the optimal number) besties in their fifties.

            Justine  (played by series creator Julie Delpy) is a French transplant frantically running Chez Juste, her chic restaurant.  She’s got kids but her malcontent, thorny out-of-work Paris architect husband is the real handful.

            Anne (Elizabeth Shue) is on marriage number two or three, a rich girl courtesy of her money-bags ultra-critical mother (Stefanie Powers, “Hart To Hart,” remember her?).  Anne has artistic talents, but mostly she’s affably high on pot.

            Ell Horowitz (Alexia Landeau) is a single mom with few marketable talents, scrambling to pay the bills, while refereeing the hassles between her three kids — until she gets the idea to tape the skirmishes and try to package them on YouTube in hopes of becoming low-rent Kardashians.

And then there’s Yasmin (Sarah Jones), formerly a political campaign staffer, now a stay-at-home mom at loose ends.  Money is no problem; her husband is a brainy well-paid code writer.  Her talent is attracting self-made crises that frequently suck in the others.

Which is fine because these four are happiest when they’re hanging together.  That’s when all the laughing and real talk goes on.  It’s like eavesdropping at the command post for the Battle of the Sexes.  “On The Verge” is a light-weight series that occasionally deals with heavy-duty issues.  I can’t wait for Season Two.

“Squid Game”–Hunger Games Meets Snowpiercer: Gangnam Style

This #1 Netflix mega-hit, streaming in nine episodes, is a Korean dystopian story of survival.  A mastermind known as the Front Man, in a mask like Darth Vader, stages a series of deadly childhood games (tug of war, red-light-green-light, and the Korean-specific squid game).  The debt-ridden players, trapped on a remote island, are forced to compete in deadly versions of the gladiator-style games: gunned down if they lose.  Guards with triangles, circles, or squares marked on their masks are anonymous.

Squid Game’s sometimes shocking–always bloody–drama of blood-letting scenes grimly captures desperate people degrading themselves for money and survival. We see the truly hopeless future of the participants as they struggle to win the games.

The competitors — an unemployed, divorced autoworker and gambler with a young daughter, a Pakistani refugee who has no means of financial support for his young wife and baby, a fraudulent investor who has sold his mother’s assets— are only a few of the hundreds of debtors, who are not necessarily victims of their circumstances. These distraught and miserable players see no other options except taking part in the kill-or-be-killed, increasingly vicious games designed by the autocratic Front Man. The potential payoff for the winner or winners is tens of millions of dollars hanging literally over the players’ heads in a glass chandelier globe.

A timely, — if over-the-top– critique of what happens when the powerless are at the mercy of the powerful. The series’ brutality and bloodfest give off a computer-game vibe, where the body count is grotesque but meaningless.  This is what Squid Game drives home.

Unrelenting carnage is the show’s most conspicuous feature.  Think “Pulp Fiction” (Quentin Tarrantino) which I couldn’t watch.

I don’t like gore, I don’t like horror movies, but I was begrudgingly captivated by Squid Game. It hooks in the voyeur’s curiosity:  watching a car-accident, a boxing match, contact sports, “survival” tv, or gladiator-style competition.

In Squid Game the characters die in the order of their importance to the plot.  The “game” tone–“this is not serious” vibe–is underscored by the cinematography (set-designs that look like animated Lego games) and cos-play costumes.

Definitely a niche-market with Korean originality a strong reason to watch.

Warning:  Fear and anger can make people vindictive and abusive. The narrative relies on this behavior and its horrific consequences.

“Goliath” Season 4 (Finale)–Addiction

In this final season of Goliath   we again see the still down-and-out “lemon lawyer” Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton) take on a giant corporation.  This time it is an opioid mega-corporation, Zax Pharmaceuticals, and its billionaire CEO, George Zax (J.K. Simmons).   In a fierce and lurid courtroom battle in San Francisco  (eerily conjuring the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma in recent headlines), will McBride prevail?

Season 4 opens with a flashback to Billy McBride, narrowly escaping death by gunshot.  Billy’s mental condition and circumstances propel him into flights of fantasy, perhaps post-traumatic stress disorder, mixed into a cocktail of alcohol. 

McBride is temporarily residing in Chinatown, his apartment paid for by Margolis & True, the white-shoe law firm representing Zax Pharma.  His former partner Patty (Nina Arianda), now employed by Margolis & True,  has offered him a gig not only as a loyal colleague, but also because McBride is the best litigator she knows, even if other colleagues don’t agree.

Other characters add to the escalating courtroom battle.  The estranged brother, Frank Zax (Bruce Dern), and a daughter whom his brother finagled into adopting.  As dueling, antagonistic brothers intent on destroying each other, Frank and George Zax turn sibling friction into fiery and merciless conflict.

Goliath Season 4 pulls back the curtain on the opioid crisis that is relevant to the present day. It hones in on its displeasure at the lives lost for obscene corporate profit.

This is the best season since Season 1 (see my October 23, 2016 review).  Goliath always has had noirish overtones of Alfred Hitchcock, but in Season 4 some (not so subtle) scenes pay  homage to Rear Window.  It’s not always easy to tell how much is real and what’s imagined (which usually, but not always, is telegraphed by filming in black-and-white flashbacks and fever-dream images).   Nonetheless, this finale is riveting and compulsive watching.  Some overwrought scenes drag the momentum from time to time.  There is even a dance-and-song routine by J.K. Simmons, but he is so much fun to watch at his villainous best! Binge-view it to keep track of characters and threads in the plot!

Availability: Amazon Prime