Godfather of Harlem—Partners in Crime

Inspired by a true story, Godfather of Harlem skillfully interweaves the combative and competing forces of the  mafia with the battle for civil rights in the mid-‘60s.  In the riveting Epix limited series, Godfather of Harlem, we see the character Bumpy Johnson (the exceptional Forest Whitaker) re-enter the world of organized crime after being released from Alcatraz. 

Drugs have taken over many of New York’s poor communities, and the Italian mafia runs most of them, now including the crime syndicate of Harlem which had been Bumpy Johnson’s exclusive domain.  Not wanting to be a snitch, Johnson survives an eleven-year prison sentence meant for members of the mafia.  Upon release,  Johnson feels he is owed back his territory.   However,   Vincent “Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio) refuses to give up the control of Harlem he has seized through brutal means,  so brutal they fall  outside the boundaries of the mafia’s own code of conduct.

During the turf war that follows, Bumpy Johnson forms an alliance with preacher Malcolm X  and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.  This additional  subplot of backroom politics and maneuvering gives force to the civil rights movement but threatens to tear the communities apart.  And other subplots that overlay the crime drama are 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”, Bumpy Johnson and his daughter in the finale have an unforgettable scene.

If you liked American Gangster with Denzel Washington, you will probably love its prequel, Godfather of Harlem. Denzel’s character Frank Lucas was Bumpy’s right hand until he took over the throne.

Great ensemble cast and some extraordinary dialogue delivered by both major and minor characters.  [The co-writer Chris Brancato also created the series Narcos.]  This is a real winner!

Marriage Story (2019)-The Bonds of Love

 

Nominated this year for eleven Academy Awards, Marriage Story portrays  two people who really care about, respect, and love each other, and 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.

 Written, directed and produced by Noah Baumbach (of “Squid and the Whale”, another excellent film about divorce), this film eviscerates what happens in even the best-intentioned divorces, reminiscent of  the classic 1979 film “Kramer vs Kramer”. 

Charlie (Adam Driver) is  a very competitive, driven theater director whose wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) has substantially contributed to his recent success. As the leading actress and idea-generator for this theatrical company, Nicole loves witnessing  the accolades and fame Charlie is garnering, including receiving the prestigious MacArthur grant.  (There are parallels to last year’s hit, The Wife, here.)  Until she doesn’t.

Neither character is portrayed as overly narcissistic (although Charlie comes close) but both are flawed.  While the viewer comes to understand and empathize with both of them wanting to pursue their dreams,  we see the character arcs change radically.  The hoped-for amicable divorce proceedings turn very ugly when lawyers get involved. 

This is an emotionally raw journey into trying to figure out how to be an independent adult and survive alone.  It is so grief-stricken in impact that it is as if the viewer’s observing the psychological amputation of the couple’s former selves.

Charlie and Nicole’s  assumptions about each other were lovingly expressed while they were a couple, and are now weaponized.  What they had been fond of in each other’s character, turns into deep wounds and grievances.

The cast is phenomenal. Adam Driver offers a transformative, heartbreaking performance that may surprise many.   Scarlett Johansson is his equal, playing a broken woman who wants the best for her family, but can no longer hope for her marriage to change.  Their performances are as intertwined and nuanced as they are fragmented, and they play  off each other with rarely seen chemistry.

Marriage Story is a delicate dance and dialectic of vertiginous rage and  devastating miscommunication, weaving together themes of loneliness, heartbreak, and regret acutely reflecting the imperfect and painful nature of human relationships.  An unnerving capture of the complexities of character and the dissolution of a marriage between two loving people, Marriage Story will become a classic allegory for us all.


My Top 15 Movies and TV Series for 2019

Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online or were at local movie theaters, although not necessarily under broad distribution nor widely distributed through move theaters.   Of the 43 reviews, here are my favorites.  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) Lo and Behold–Reveries of the Connected World  (January 13 review)

Lo and Behold gives the viewer a spellbinding, lesser-known walk back in time through the birth of the computer and its subsequent impact on our daily lives. We see extremes: medical marvels saving lives or electromagnetic waves that debilitate. Each chapter introduces a different positive or negative dynamic of the internet.

2) Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—The Golden Rule (March 17 review)

What the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores perhaps more clearly now than at the time the show was produced is just how revolutionary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood actually was.  Even through the tumultuous Sixties, subjects of political violence, racial discrimination, and the degrading messages children and adults frequently heard were never side-stepped or sugarcoated.  

3) In Order of Disappearance—Plowing Through Suspense (April 21 review)

In this combination of black comedy and Nordic noir, we are treated to a series of scenes involving gangster mobs, drug trade, a father’s revenge, kidnapping, and snow plowsIn Order of Disappearance is part “Fargo” and part other Coen brothers’ comedic treatment of snow country. 

4)  Which Way Home—Is There One?  (June 17 review)

In this gripping 2010 Academy Award nominated HBO documentary, Which Way Home opens with something large and bulbous floating down the Rio Grande. The viewer soon learns it is a corpse, perhaps that of a child, and an observer comments matter-of-factly that this happens multiple times a day.

5) Always Be My Maybe—Rom-Com at Its Best  (June 22 review)

The Netflix Original Always Be My Maybe gives us a reason for watching rom-coms again. A modern riff on “When Harry Met Sally.” Set in San Francisco, Always Be My Maybe is  a story of childhood sweethearts who go their separate ways only to meet up fifteen years later.  Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park) were best friends who, as teenagers,  had sex for the first time and then stopped talking to each other. 

6)  The Farewell—Family Matters (August 5 review)

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.

7) Late Night—Women Do It Right  (November 5 review)

In Late Night   we see a notoriously, male-dominated world of late-night network TV in which a woman–Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)– is the host of her own talk show.  (Think “The Devil Wears Prada” and Meryl Streep as the “bitch-boss from hell”).

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

8) The Hate U Give—T.H.U.G. (June 9 review)

Starr Carter,   a sixteen-year-old gifted student, has to adeptly maneuver between two worlds — her poor, mostly black neighborhood and a wealthy, mostly white prep school. Facing pressure from all sides, Starr must find her voice and decide to stand up for what’s right.

9) Rocketman—Seeing the Light Through the Darkness (July 28)

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.” 

10)  Joker—No Laughing Matter (October 7 review)

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. 

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

11)   Narcos, Narcos Mexico and El Chapo— Cinema Verite  (February 19 review)

Three Netflix series — NarcosNarcos Mexico and El Chapo– are gritty, raw, and bingeable. Each chronicles the most powerful drug lord and his cartel at the rise of cocaine and marijuana production in Colombia, Mexico, and other parts of the world.

12) Chernobyl—An Ignominious Reaction (July 16 review)

 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.

13) La Casa de Papel—”Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids  (September 2 review)

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.

14) Locked Up—Spain’s “Orange is the New Black”  (September 11 review)

Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences:  the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.

15) Queen of the South—Reigning Supreme (October 20 review)

A “Narcos” or “El Chapo”-style drama about the rise of drug lord Teresa Mendoza (played by the exceptional Alice Braga, niece of the renowned actress Sonia Braga),  we see a new first.  Instead of a ruthless kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel like Guzman (El Chapo), we see Teresa Mendoza. She navigates and outsmarts a world dominated by men and machismo to become the queen (or queenpin?) of Sinaloa.

Knock Down the House—A Remodel is Needed

This investigative journalistic  documentary invites the viewer to take a closer look at  four committed women who ran for Congress in 2018: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Cori Bush of Maryland, Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, and Amy Vilela of Nevada. First and foremost, however, Knock Down the House is AOC’s story.  The former bartender from the Bronx turned first-time congresswoman needs no introduction.

Because of director Rachel Lears’s  early access to the four Congressional candidates, she and her camera have been in the war rooms of the campaigns right from the start, making the footage even more compelling.

Knock Down the House movie

From a pool of committed political neophytes, Lears selected four exceptional female candidates — Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin and Amy Vilela — each with an emotionally riveting back-story and a politically established, seemingly unbeatable opponent. Their back-stories propelled them into politics.  For Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she  had to work double shifts as a bartender to save her mother’s home from foreclosure. After losing a daughter to a preventable medical condition because of lack of health insurance, Amy Vilela became determined to  improve  America’s broken health-care system. Cori Bush, a registered nurse and pastor, was appalled at the  police shooting of an unarmed black man and the resulting army tanks that showed up in  her neighborhood. A coal miner’s daughter, Paula Jean Swearengin, watched  her friends and family suffer from the devastating environmental effects of the coal industry.

Except for AOC, the other three women candidates–although giving everything they had to win—were defeated. With a raw and blistering honesty, we see the camera hover over their physical and emotional deflation after the results come in.  All four were heavily invested personally: “We’re coming out of the belly of the beast kicking and screaming,” Swearengin says.  But ten-year incumbents are hard to unseat.

Ocasio-Cortez, unsurprisingly,  emerges as a telegenic, exuberant force .  She is all that and more.  In the closing credits, we see AOC riding a scooter, circling in front of the Congressional building, enjoying the thrill of her victory  on a crisp, January morning before the swearing-in ceremony.  She’s a television cameraman’s dream:   young, attractive, and charismatic with the emotive,  energetic oratorial skills of a much more seasoned  public speaker. Nothing seems to throw her off her game, whether she’s mopping the floor before distributing leaflets for her campaign or talking with someone who has decided not to vote for her.

Her social media presence alone shows why she has crossed over into pop celebrity, whether she’s tweeting or live-streaming on Instagram while eating popcorn, talking about staying grounded and dancing on YouTube.  She is a media darling and that makes her a political star worth watching.

Knock Down the House will knock you down too—with the energy that these women expended to advocate for change.

Note:  Available on Netflix.

Luce—A Beam of Light?

Luce the movie

The title character, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)  is an all-star athlete and model straight-A student who is expected  to achieve greatness in college. Luce’s  liberal adoptive parents—physician Amy (Naomi Watts) and financier Peter (Tim Roth) adopted Luce when he was a little boy in Eritrea, a boy-soldier who experienced unimaginable horror.

A volatile and incendiary essay he has written for an English teacher, Harriet Wilson  (Octavia Spencer), is brought to the attention of Luce’s parents.  The essay inflames the liberal-minded community and most of all, his English teacher.

Luce’s parents do not know who to believe, –his teacher and school administrators or their son–although their intuition and gut-reaction is to believe their brilliant, beloved Luce.  Other  parents slowly face the same dilemma –who do you believe in the face of unconditional love?  Luce’s personal story unfolds as an attempt to define what is the truth to the listener–the one that is acceptable and therefore believed, or the one that shatters values you deeply hold. 

A sense of sustained menace highlights the central theme of Luce: Do we really know who Luce is and how deeply his traumatic childhood experiences have affected him? 

Luce is a gut-wrenching story of love of child versus love of spouse.  This film is also provocative in terms of Luce’s achievements validating  his  liberal parents’ convictions about social justice and racial equality, about transforming the human soul.   There are no easy answers.

Race and white privilege are examined under a psychological microscope.  Sharp-edged and gimlet-eyed, this is a difficult film that tries to say something nuanced about racism, making for uncomfortable viewing.  Luce  is boldly ambitious in addressing so many questions in one film:  Who is “anointed”  by others to succeed?   The myth of the American dream and succeeding  all on your own, especially in the glowing light of suburbia (Arlington, Virginia), is painfully dissected.

Luce closes with  a chilling and morally ambiguous ending.   The creation of your own ending may depend upon your ethnic identity and how much it has influenced who you are now.  No one person represents an entire demographic and Luce shouts this to the audience loud and clear. 

“You never really know what is going on with people.” (Luce)

Note:  Now available on Netflix.

Booksmart—Today’s “Breakfast Club”?

Booksmart:  the movie follows two academic superstars and high school best friends who feel major FOMO!
Booksmart

Booksmart follows two academic superstars and high school best friends who, the night before graduation, suddenly realize that they should have worked less and played more.  Major late-blooming FOMO! 

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein of “Lady Bird”) are determined to cram four years of sacrificing fun for one all-night party.  After all, some of their “party-animal” classmates have done drugs, partied every weekend while  Amy and Molly were in the library, and still were accepted at the same Ivy League college or prestigious NGO projects that the two BFFs sacrificed so much for.  Popular vs. Intellectual: why not both?  That is the question underpinning Booksmart.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever

Directed by Olivia Wilde, Booksmart has achieved a film worthy of comparison with the classic John Hughes’ films Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club.   A teen comedy with girl power, Booksmart encapsulates an inchoate female empowerment evolving without Amy and Molly’s full comprehension.  We have adolescent turmoil in which teenage angst over every word and glance from classmates has a surprising and clever twist.

There is pain and an ecstatic thrill of female bonding intertwined with a  best-friend sort of communication that embodies not only trust without question– and in a sense, first love– but also the complicated issue of sexual identity.

Booksmart has wisdom and a humorous generosity in showing a glimpse of adulthood’s inevitable disappointments (played hilariously by Jason Sudeikis in one scene as a high school principal moonlighting as a Lyft driver.)  It’s difficult to do comedy well, especially of teenagers through the lens of middle-aged directors and writers. Wilde gets the tone and subject matter just right, giving Amy and Molly the material to imbue their characters with the authentic and heartfelt voices of teenagers today.    A delightful film for families with teenagers and for all of us who remember our teenage angst when many days and nights were both the best and worst of our lives. 

Note:  Now available on Netflix DVD.

Late Night–Women Do It Right

Late Night movie

In Late Night   we see a notoriously, male-dominated world of late-night network TV in which a woman–Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)– is the host of her own talk show.  (Think “The Devil Wears Prada” and Meryl Streep as the “bitch-boss from hell”).  The world of late-night television is even more turned upside down when Katherine hires her first and only female staff writer, Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) to tamp down criticism of the show’s lack of diversity– a “two-fer”: a woman and a person of color.  It’s brazen “tokenism”.

The show’s ratings have steadily declined as social media and viral videos take over the discussion of current affairs and trends. As a multiple award-winning nighttime late-show legend, Katherine will have nothing to do with social media. The network’s president warns her that she will be replaced soon if nothing changes.

The network frets that  Katherine’s  too much of a relic representative of a vanishing demographic, and that her thirty-years of experience means little to the millennial generation. She’s a hard-nosed veteran performer.  She ignores the accusations of being out-of-touch and a dinosaur. Katherine’s writing staff, all men–some of whom have never met her–slack off when they can, and write jokes that are partly the reason for her show’s growing unpopularity. 

Enter Molly who has little experience in comedy (she worked in a chemical manufacturing plant) and initially struggles. Nevertheless she proves she is talented and knows what a younger audience wants to see. Katherine and Molly are from different generations and different perspectives of what comedy is and should be.   

The antagonist and adamant opponent to all of Molly’s comedic efforts is Tom (Reid Scott), who is in charge of writing the opening monologues for the late show and feels far superior to Molly’s status as a “diversity hire”.  Ironically he is a “legacy hire” himself.  It’s such an old boy’s club that the women’s restroom isn’t truly the women’s restroom, but where guys go to take a dump.

A laugh-out-loud comedy with subversive social commentary woven into it, sometimes Late Night   is so subtle the viewer might miss some of the scathingly tongue-in-cheek banter. Kaling gives this script her all as the creator and chief writer, critiquing how television  works. She  also – examines what makes a joke funny, the subtleties of comedy, and why something goes viral.   This satirical comedy is timely and a must-see!

Joker–No Laughing Matter

Joker the movie

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. 

This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. And it is no small feat to have a performance which overshadows the also remarkable previous Jokers played by Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Heath Ledger.

In Joker a marginally employed and aspiring stand-up comedian, Arthur Fleck (played by the astonishing Joaquin Phoenix), has a series of menial gigs as a clown holding a banner declaring a store’s bankruptcy or performing in the cancer ward of a children’s hospital.  He is a disposable, invisible Gotham resident faithfully caring for his invalid mother with whom he shares a dreary low-rent apartment.

Bullied, brutally abused and cruelly mocked by almost everyone around him, Arthur Fleck devolves into the Joker as the demented, bipolar mask of comedy and tragedy. Not yet evil or vile, but more ignored and humiliated, his community fails him and his mental illness isolates him.

In close-up shots of his clown-face mask, this Joker is no clown, pulling down roughly on the corners of his face to force a grin, more grimace and silent scream than a smile. The viewer feels that Arthur Fleck is becoming ever more deeply damaged.

 Joaquin Phoenix gives such an unforgettable feral performance, this viewer was left wondering how the actor could maintain his sanity after this manic act as the Joker. We are taken on a journey to  see the dissolution of sanity under a psychological microscope. 

Joker with Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix’s exposed bones and emaciated frame are part of the Joker’s makeup. His physicality is a range of movements in madness, alternatingly unhinged and heartbreaking as he dances after each horrific act, struggling to communicate and connect until he surrenders to his insanity.

This is a  character-driven plot, intensely cerebral and at times subversive and disturbing.   This character study of the Joker will become a classic and a certain Academy Award nomination for Joaquin Phoenix.   A great joke is inseparable from its ability to subvert, to say the unsaid and the unspeakable.  Joker pushes all boundaries in its portrayal of a  deeply disturbing, subversive character and I cannot think of a film with which to compare it–a must-see!

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.

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!