In Order of Disappearance–Plowing through Suspense

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 plows. In Order of Disappearance is part “Fargo” and part other Coen brothers’ comedic treatment of snow country.  The main character, Nils (the Scandinavian acting legend Stellan Skarsgard), is a Norwegian government employee, a snow plower,  who has  recently been awarded a Citizen of the Year Award. When his only son is murdered for being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong friend, Nils seeks revenge. Winning a blood feud isn’t easy, especially in a welfare state with organized crime expertly hidden beneath the radar. But Nils has something going for him: his spotless reputation as a devoted civil servant, heavy machinery that can plow through more than snow, and the strategic and tactical skills required for plotting against a mob.

In Order of Disappearance involves, as the title suggests, a morbid body count. Nils  soon turns ruthless, laser-focused avenging angel. Greven,   drug lord and “godfather ” to a cutthroat Norwegian drug syndicate, is a borderline psychotic.  Nonetheless, and somewhat incongruously, there are some bizarre, comic scenes with Greven’s child who is bullied at school.

Beautifully filmed, In Order of Disappearance brilliantly evokes the white cold and brutal conditions of a Norwegian winter.   With a sense of isolation and desolation of soul in a white-out, there is nothing visible except blood and mayhem.

This irresistibly nasty little film combines snowplowing roads for commuters, with contemplating suicide, and dumping corpses over water falls.  Skarsgard brings a stoic detachment to the revenge he he is determined to see to the end–served cold.   Just as you will never look at a table saw chopping wood in the same way after seeing the movie “Fargo”, you’ll never watch a snowplow with the usual disinterest again.

Well worth seeing.

Note: “In Order of Disappearance” is available to stream on Netflix and was remade as “Cold Pursuit” starring Liam Neeson earler this year. 

Kusama–Infinity

The art of critically-acclaimed Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama,  now commands the highest price for any female artist alive today.  As an art-world superstar, Kusama has attracted millions of  museum-goers worldwide who wait for hours for the chance to take selfies to post on Instagram in one of her mirrored Infinity Rooms.  Yet little is known of this nonagenarian artist obsessed with dots and the film Kusama-Infinity reveals much about the artist.  She committed herself to a mental hospital in the 1970s, out of fear that she might commit suicide.  Her long arduous road to success was painful and took decades to reach.

Infinity follows a young and beautiful Kusama whose tortuous path not only reveals the artist’s persistence, resilience, and confidence but also her understanding of women’s rights, sexual freedom,  and gay rights in the US.  She symbolically performed the first gay marriage in the US,  in Central Park,  long before most Americans were cognizant of the cultural revolution about to take over the mainstream psyche. 

Endlessly courageous, Kusama aggressively promoted her work in the male-dominated artworld of New York City, only a decade after the end of the Second World War.  Despite staggering odds, this petite, unassuming Japanese woman, speaking faltering English, was determined to exhibit her art as she wanted, not as the gatekeepers of the artworld demanded. 

Infinity suggests that Yayoi Kusama’s mental illness may have stemmed from a traumatic childhood.  Both her parents wanted her to have a traditional Japanese marriage, with an upper class lifestyle.  Instead, the young artist escaped to New York City. While Kusama was waiting for recognition, she had an intimate but nonsexual relationship with the famous artist, Joseph Cornell. Under the mentorship of Georgia O’Keefe, Kusama had her first important gallery show.  Frank Stella became an avid collector of her work as well as a supporter.

Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, among others, “borrowed heavily”from Kusama’s work which was still relatively obscure while these male artists became sensations.   This repeated pattern, with white male artists being recognized for work that seemed influenced by her own innovations, understandably upset Kusama. The theft of her ideas may have been a catalyst for her depression and decision to return to Japan in the late 70s.

Slowly, as Kusama reached her late sixties, her art became fully acknowledged and skyrocketed in value. The 1993 Venice Biennale exemplified the art world’s recognition.

Infinity should have broad appeal as this film is also a condemnation  of the patronizing art overseers and their impact as gatekeepers of  what art becomes internationally recognized.

Note:  Kusama–Infinity is available on Netflix DVD.  “Velvet Buzzsaw” (see my  February 12, 2019 review),  a dramatization of a fictionalized and futuristic artworld is a fascinating metaphor for what Yayoi Kusama experienced over half a century ago.

The Dinner–Food for Thought

The Dinner movie


This darkly suspenseful tale of two privileged families is based upon the Dutch author Herman Koch’s bestselling 2013 novel.  The families struggle to make the most consequential decision of their lives, all over the course of  dinner at an exclusive Manhattan restaurant. Upper class privilege and sibling rivalry are at the heart of The Dinner, a psychologically astute family saga. 

A middle-aged high school history teacher, Paul (Steven Coogan), and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) reluctantly have dinner with Paul’s elder brother, Stan (Richard Gere), a prominent politician running for governor, and his second wife Babette (Rebecca Hall).

We slowly become aware that a savage and heinous family trauma has occurred.  As silver globes are pretentiously lifted to reveal dinner courses, a family secret will soon be revealed.  The setting underscores the absurdities of deeply unhappy, entitled lives, hiding underneath the shimmering surface beauty of elegance.  Appearances are deceiving.  Paul despises the pretentiousness of the restaurant, as much as  he does his brother’s success. Neither brother wants to be at this dinner.

Reminiscent of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” or Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie”, The Dinner ominously guides the viewer to witness the desperate tenacity a parent will resort to in order to secure their child’s future or the dissolution of a marriage, sometimes both.  Is no act too reprehensible? What if collateral damage is unavoidable?

The Dinner just ends, as if in mid-sentence. I personally loved this. Some reviewers and audience members absolutely hated this. Questions of morality and justice remain unanswered.  Viewer beware:  There really is  no one to root for or like.  But the four characters are equally riveting and their moral dilemmas persuasive.


And this is what makes The Dinner so compelling.  It is a dissection of family obligation and where it ends.  As Stan, the gubernatorial candidate responds, “family is always political.” 

It will not be for the viewer who seeks the cozy, the redemptive or the uplifting. If you are such a viewer, do not see this dark, noir, nihilistic film.  The specter of no moral compass is hinted at throughout. 

This is a different review because of  The Dinner’s not insignificant flaws. The Dinner does not become a spellbinder until way into the second half of the film.  The first languorous forty-five minutes are almost too painful to watch, except for essential snippets of the family’s history.

As difficult a task as this may sound, persevere even though the irrelevance of most of the first half of this movie may wear you out.  When The Dinner does finally reach its climax, the movie crackles, incendiary and explosive. All four actors give extraordinary, unsettling, and unforgettable performances. More cohesion and restraint in editing would have made The Dinner truly exceptional.

Note: Available on Netflix streaming.

Dawn Wall–They Persisted (The Only Wall to Consider?)

Dawn Wall documentary

Dawn Wall was last year’s SXSW Audience Award documentary winner. Free climber Tommy Caldwell and his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, attempt to scale the unscalable 3000 ft. Dawn Wall, a vertical granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Dawn Wall  is much more than a documentary about climbing, however.  There is the horrific incident in Krzygistan, the years of gaining experience climbing the other faces of El Capitan, and the friendship with two female climbing partners, both of whom he had married. After an accident, Caldwell resolved not to stop his free climbing but persevered, often blurring the boundary between commitment and obsession.

All can appreciate Dawn Wall,  even if you don’t have a clue about climbing. This is an engrossing documentary that is, first and foremost, about the friendship between Caldwell and Jorgeson. Kevin Jorgeson was inexperienced as a free climber but expert at “bouldering”, a type of free climbing at 50-100 feet.  Together the two climbers   spend more than six years meticulously mapping and practicing their route. Their resilience and courage are beyond astonishing as the two climbers make history.

Dawn Wall is about the indefatigable human spirit, and the ability to overcome and accomplish the impossible. The power of friendship and supportive brotherly love in the face of adversity is beautifully crafted. While Caldwell’s obsessive nature is apparent in almost every frame of this movie, he avoids narcissism in the turning point of their climb.

This is where Dawn Wall transfixes the viewer. I felt like I was literally hanging on the side of the mountain with both climbers as they slept in a portaledger tent suspended in mid-air and laughed about what they ate and how they adapted to toilet needs as they climbed for weeks.  This isn’t really a sports film. 

The magic is in this amazing journey between kindred spirits. The fact that there are two humans in a partnership without jealousy or competitive pettiness outstrips other movies about supra-human feats and endurance such as “Man on a Wire” and “Free Solo”.  The need for human companionship and sharing in the victory makes Dawn Wall more compelling.  Adversity and setbacks drive their  personal challenges but  their friendship triumphs over all.   Dawn Wall is full of heart and soul, for everyone who has experienced hard climbs, slipping and losing our grip, and then pushing through.  Highly recommended!

Note: This YouTube behind-the-scenes clip is an added bonus for appreciating the heroic efforts the film crew undertook as well!

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — The Golden Rule

There’s a lot to like about producer/director Morgan Neville’s moving,  2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  Neville (who also created 20 Feet from Stardom – see my August 19, 2018 review) interviews just about everyone who knew Fred Rogers– his wife and two sons, his longtime cast and crew on the pioneering PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood  (1968 to 2001).  Some baby-boomers, their children and their grandchildren grew up on the soothing words of Mister Rogers:

   So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day/Since we’re together we might as well say/Would you be mine?/Could you be  mine?/Won’t you be my neighbor?”

        Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was pokey enough to be cringe-worthy for adults who wondered how their children could be spellbound by a nondescript, unassuming man in a cardigan, who changed his shoes while singing the same opening song for almost forty years.

Fred Rogers, a graduate of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the mid-60’s, soon realized that television could be revolutionary and that children’s lives would be impacted by this new medium.  Why not offer a show that deals with a child’s feelings–anger, fear, self-esteem, grief–to prepare them for their new world?  Mister Rogers proved to be a master at eliciting children’s  feelings, and recommending  trusting grownups to listen.    Daniel Striped Tiger–Mister Rogers’ alter ego in a furry puppet form– tackled the everyday emotional needs of pre-schoolers with respect, honesty, and thoughtfulness rarely seen on television then or now.

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

 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.  Without preaching but with integrity and visual connection, Mister Rogers would show by example.  Soaking his feet in a kiddie pool with his friend, the African American policeman, Officer Clemmons,  demonstrated community in a time of segregated swimming pools.

When cellist Yo-Yo Ma describes first meeting Fred Rogers, he recalls that Rogers put his face three inches from Ma’s while gently smiling at him.  “He scared the hell out of me,” says Ma.  Rogers did the same thing when he first met the gorilla Koko, who then held his hand and signed that she loved him.

Under Mr. Rogers’ seemingly bland exterior was a true radical.   Here was a white middle-aged man inviting everyone to live in his neighborhood, regardless of color.  And his cast reflected diversity not yet seen on most shows today.

Almost hagiographical in scope, Neville does reveal one of Fred Rogers’ blind spots.  The actor who played Officer Clemmons had been to a gay bar.   Rogers soon informed him that if there were any future visits to gay bars, he would be terminated out of fear of losing corporate sponsors. The inclusion and fostering of community revealed in the context of its time was  still not universally accepting. 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? elevates this classic children’s show and its star to a standard we need to remind ourselves of and recommit to.  The unspoken question is:  What would Fred Rogers think of a culture congealed into a state of outrage, vulgarity and intolerance?  How would we build a neighborhood and live together in an era of proposed wall-building?

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood   was a realistic lens on how a child must make sense of an emotionally complex and sometimes irrational world. 

 It’s this idea that kindness is not a naive notion like believing in unicorns and rainbows. It’s oxygen: It’s vital, and needs to be nurtured.

When you watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor? you don’t see a Republican or a Democrat.  Mister Rogers speaks to the fundamental ways we should all speak to each other.

Note: Available on PBS.com and Netflix DVD.

Bordertown, Season 2–Borderline Thriller

This long-awaited Finnish noir thriller’s second season continues to feature the quirky and sullen detective Kari  Sorjonen (Ville Virtanen) and his partner, Lena Jaakola (Anu Sinisalo),    as they obsessively pursue a series of grizzly murders similar to the first season of 2016 (see my July 23, 2017 review of Season 1) .  The format of Bordertown Season 2 is similar to the first season, namely  five criminal cases, each two episodes in length.

This dark and moody crime series swept Finland’s top TV awards in its first season, winning Best Drama, Best Actor and Best Actress and was the most-watched series in Finland’s television history.

The two crimes which are the most gripping–“The Rite of Spring” and “Bloodmaid”– are both  bloody and dramatic with  themes of infanticide and pedophilia (“The Rite of Spring”) and predatory stalking (“Bloodmaid”). We burrow into the wormhole of the criminal mind and its darkest, most sickening secrets and lies.

Season 2 is a mere shadow of the first season with a lesser quality of writing and  egregious plot holes. The lead detective, Kari Sorjonen, is reduced to a caricature of his earlier self. Often distracting, odd, and gratuitously annoying, Sorjonen now possesses a layer of over-the-top facial and body tics. Poking at his head, presumably to demonstrate to the viewer that he is a brilliant criminal analyst, and even stepping on documents to somehow inspire his investigative skills, this portrayal of Sorjonen is fraught with cliche and formula.

I will wait until Season 3 to see if Bordertown continues to cover the ground I loved in the first season, namely a complicated emotional family life that propels Sorjonen to solve crimes in order to keep his family and community safe.  This season did not move the needle forward with sufficient speed, sagging sometimes painfully, when tighter structure of each crime would have made Session 2  taut and mesmerizing.

Note: Available on Netflix streaming

 The Favourite–A Compelling Menage à Trois

 

 

The Favourite

Nominated for ten Academy Awards including best picture, The Favourite is perhaps one of the best revenge thrillers of 2018. Reminiscent of Downton Abbey with its opulent settings and costumes, The Favourite is also an historical drama.

In the early 18th century court of Queen Anne, we see a mentally fragile and damaged queen (the sublime Olivia Colman), facing the usual suspects vying to seize the growing power of an emerging empire. The queen’s closest advisor and friend, Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), governs the country behind the scenes through manipulating Anne’s vulnerabilities, infantilizing her, and enabling the Queen’s weakened health to worsen.

When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, desolate and no longer considered aristocratic, Lady Sarah becomes indebted to her for assuaging the Queen’s episode of gout. Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots if she can become a trusted confidante of the queen. The plot thickens, as we see the two ladies-in-waiting wrestle for the queen’s attention and affection. Queen Anne seems to slip deeper into madness, while delighting in being fought over by Lady Sarah and Lady Abigail.

 

The Favourite movie

The Favourite is not only a thriller but a love triangle. Are Lady Sarah and Lady Abigail really in love with the Queen or simply ingratiating themselves in order to manipulate her for their own self interests? We’re never quite sure.

Colman, Weisz and Stone are fully in control in every scene, giving powerhouse performances. Their virtuoso acting is the engine that drives the subplots and unexpected twists and turns at Kensington Palace. (With subchapter titles like “I Dreamt I Stabbed You in the Eye”, the viewer is still left unprepared.) In the end, however, it is Colman who is unforgettable, whose eyes subtly water at hurtful comments, the gaze of one who hopes that no one notices the injury. Those eyes and the subtly of her acting, repeatedly holding this viewer’s undivided attention, are exceptional.

Through her mesmerizing performance as Queen Anne– broken, impulsive, lustful, needy and angry all at once, –Olivia Colman owns almost every iconic moment. All is communicated through her eyes. Few can rival that.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone give the performances of their lives too, with tantrums, furious raging, and sexual excesses. Uncomfortably intimate close-ups, with a wide range of emotions richly displayed, reveal their desperate loneliness and despair.

While the wicked schemes and betrayals make The Favourite a very strong contender for an Academy Award for best picture, the historical setting was puzzling at times. It is the early 18th century and England is at war with the French, but The Favourite does little to inform the audience that the war is known as Queen Anne’s War and foreshadows the Napoleonic  Wars so this is a critical time for building an empire. The addition of a little historical context would have put the crowning touch on The Favourite.

 

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

 

Lo and Behold documentaryFilmmaker Werner Herzog, in this tech-retrospective of the history of the internet and the convoluted relationship between humans and computers, examines the past, present and future of the internet. His easily recognizable gravelled-voice of the narrator is both ominous and puzzling.

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. Some of the segments are dazzling glimpses of the brilliance of discovering this way of communication(with a few academic and boring bits of calculus), some are amusing (the increasing ubiquity of porn), and some are heartbreaking (cyber bullying, suicide, and grief). Anyone who spends a lot of time online will find plenty here to process and reflect on.

We see extremes: medical marvels saving lives or electromagnetic waves that debilitate. Each chapter introduces a different positive or negative dynamic of the internet.

Lo and Behold documentary

At the end of Lo and Behold, after examining the intelligence of robots and their position in our lives (chapter: “Artificial Intelligence”), Herzog poses the question “Can the internet dream of itself?” This is a fascinating look at the pros and cons of our internet world–riveting and memorable!

 

“My Top 22 Movies and TV Series for 2018”

 

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, 2018 was absolutely stunning. Both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling and intriguing characters.

The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre. I could not limit my choices to only 10 or 20.

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1)  “The Invisible Guest”–What You See Is Not What You Guess (October 26 review)

(Spanish: Contratiempo): a 2016 Spanish crime thriller that will leave the viewer spellbound. Adrián Doria, a successful business entrepreneur, husband and father, is knocked unconscious, and wakes up in a locked hotel room to find the dead body of Laura Vidal, his married lover. Charged with murder but wealthy enough to be out on bail, Adrian soon learns that his lawyer, Félix Leiva, has hired the renowned defense attorney, Virginia Goodman, to represent him. Goodman pulls no punches in the resulting cat-and-mouse game.

2) “The Devil’s Backbone”–Peter Pan meets “The Shape of Water” (August 26)

 A visual metaphor illustrating how war entraps, just like insects in amber and fetuses in jars, this Spanish film The Devil’s Backbone (2001) exposes the horrors of war and fascism through the lens of fantasy.

 3) “20 Feet from Stardom”–Stellar Performers (August 19)

 The mainly female backup singers featured in 20 Feet From Stardom are all daughters of preachers, as was Aretha Franklin, who fine-tuned their extraordinary singing voices in the church choir while very, very young. Director Morgan Neville connects Gospel, Blues, and Soul to these roots of Rock and Roll.

 4) “La Mante” –The Praying Mantis (July 24)

 This  must-see French suspense thriller focuses on   an imprisoned female serial killer, recruited to help solve a string of copycat murders, but only if her son, Damien, now a policeman, works with her on the case.  The mother is nicknamed “La Mante”,  the praying mantis.

 5) “An Inspector Calls” –Nothing Will Ever Be the Same (June 17)

The BBC mystery An Inspector Calls (2015),  based upon the 1947 J.B. Priestley play by the same name, is a morality tale for our time. Set in 1912 Arthur Birling, a wealthy self-made industrialist, has hopes of a knighthood and implicit social elevation through the engagement of his daughter to an aristocrat. Inspector Goole (the superlative David Thewlis) brusquely arrives, announcing he is there to investigate the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. At first the Birling family claims not to know anything about her but Inspector Goole begins revealing that they do.

 6) “RBG” –Truth to Power (May 21)

 Regardless of your political tastes, the documentary RBG offers an insightful peek into the life and work of a lifelong advocate for equal rights for women and minorities. As one of three female Supreme Court justices serving on the nine-judge bench, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a cultural icon and something of a “fan-girl” sensation.

7) “Black Sea” –The Darkness Beneath the Surface” (February 27)

 While dejected and wondering what his future holds, Robinson, a deep-sea salvage captain, recently unemployed and divorced with a young son, has drinks with a fellow co-worker, Kurston, in similar circumstances.    Soon the two friends assemble a misfit crew to go after the treasure (rumored to be worth millions in gold bullion) from a World War II U-boat sunken in the Black Sea.

 PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

8) “Green Book”–Required Reading (December 5)

 It’s 1962, you are African American and you don’t travel in the US without the Green Bookan unofficial domestic passport (for Jim Crow laws).  The Green Book is an indispensable guide for African Americans looking for accommodations while traveling. (Similar guides existed for Jewish and gay travelers.)

9) “The Final Year”–The End of a Term (November 28)

 The Final Year, Greg Barker’s HBO documentary, covers January 2016 to January 2017 of the Barack Obama administration . It is quietly devastating and demoralizing footage of the last twelve months of foreign statesmanship before the Trump administration.

 10) “The Wife”–The Invisible Woman, or…Stand by My Man (October 6)

 A raw unfolding of secrets, infidelity, resentment, self-sacrifice, delusion, and rage erupt from the couple’s souls and that of their son, who is reminded by his father that he is merely a shadow of his own greatness. The complexities of their relationships reveal a whirlwind of bliss and toxicity (not unlike Ingmar Bergman’s classic “Scenes from a Marriage”.)

 “11) “BlacKkKlansman”–Part of the American Fabric? (September 3)

 In 1979 Stallworth becomes the first black detective in Colorado Springs’s police department. The police chief warns Stallworth:  “We’ve never had a black police officer. So you’ll be the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police department.”

 12) “The Gift” –Nothing is Free (June 25)

 Darkly unnerving, The Gift first conveys a vibe of horror, but then the narrative moves in the direction of “Fatal Attraction”, with a deft maneuvering of plot, character, style, and tone. No blood or gore, but a heart-pounding series of scenes without a stewed rabbit.

 13) “The Internet’s Own Boy”–The Story of Aaron Swartz (April 16)

 Chronicling the life and tragic death of computer wunderkind Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), The Internet’s Own Boy is a documentary into a life too brief and incredibly brilliant as we witness a young boy’s intellectual development as well as his emotionally opaque inner life. The testimony of those who deeply loved him and grieved over his untimely death at the age of 25 is sensitively and truthfully conveyed.

 14) “Seeing Allred” –A Hero Before #MeToo (March 26)

 A new portrait of the revolutionary Gloria Allred, the feminist lawyer who singlehandedly took on legal cases including the Equal Rights Amendment (which failed to pass in Congress), and Roe vs. Wade. What propelled Gloria Allred to become the woman she is–an intrepid fighter for women’s rights, the rights of minorities, and LGBT? That is the major theme of “Seeing Allred”.

15) “I Am Not Your Negro”–James Baldwin (February 4)

  I Am Not Your Negro gives us a fuller understanding of the brilliant mind and soul of James Baldwin, a critical thinker, writer, and essayist, whose work is not as well-known as it should be. At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind thirty pages of an unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, interweaving his incisive and excoriating psychological analysis of race, national identity, and morality.

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

16) “House of Cards”–A Different Shuffle (Final Season)  (November 20)

Frank Underwood is dead, but we don’t know how.  His widow, Claire Underwood is President and has inherited her dead husband’s enemies.Dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death, and declaring that “the reign of the middle-aged white man is over”, Claire clashes with corporate moguls, the Russian prime minister, and her own vice president. Trying to forge her own path as President, Claire takes no prisoners and feels no regret.

 17) “Ozark”–Season 2–“Dexter” Meets “Breaking Bad” (October 16) [Netflix]

 In Ozark season 2 we wonder how it will end: Will the Byrdes – and their children – ever be able to feel safe, secure, and content? How will they continue as criminal minds laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel with roots in Chicago? This season is even better than the first in tackling the corrupting power of wealth and greed, human nature, and the ties that bind a family and define it.

 18) “The Tunnel” (Seasons 2 and 3) (August 14) [Netflix]

 British and French detective partners again intend to solve a heinous series of crimes. Twisted ideologies, revenge, spies, terrorism, “marriage for sale”, sex trafficking, the vulnerability of love and loss, and the insidious nature of high-tech equipment in the hands of malevolent actors all make digging into seasons two and three as spellbinding as the first season.

19) “Calibre”–A Bullet Through the Heart  (August 5)

 A friendship is tested with moral dilemmas existing at each plot twist. Vaughan has to deal with his future as a father (with his expectant wife almost due to deliver) and his drug-addled best friend Marcus.   In its best moments, Calibre is part “Deliverance” and part “Dogville”. It attacks your nerves, ratcheting up the tension and suspense.

 20) “Unforgotten”–The Power to Recall (June 11) [Hulu]

 Unforgotten, like all good mysteries, creates encrusted layers of complex clues, red herrings, and surprises. There is no last-minute perpetrator inserted to fool the viewer. Nor is the culprit easy to guess in the first few minutes of watching. Characters are inserted in such a way that the viewer wonders where the interrelated scenes are going– a priest who helps the homeless, an older man losing patience with his wife’s descent into dementia, a woman tutoring students for their exams, and a man who obsesses over political power.

 21) “The Terror”–A Chilling Northwest Passage Nightmare (May 13)

 The Terror opens in 1846, with two crews–the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror on a tandem quest to open the treacherous Northwest Passage for the British Empire and its trade mission. Faced with limited resources, an unruly crew, and fear of an unknown killing spirit, the Tuunbaq (borrowed from Inuit mythology), both ships are sailing towards the brink of extinction, isolated by the frozen tundra, and trapped at the end of the earth.

22) “Seven Seconds”–Black Lives Matter? (April 20)

 In the opening scene a hit-and-run of an African-American teenager by a white Jersey City rookie cop is covered up by three other members of the police force.The story is harrowing and complicated, with several subplots that are not resolved. But the seminal theme is clear: does a hit-and-run crime against a young black fifteen-year-old go unpunished, no matter what the evidence or the commitment of the prosecutor?

Note: Almost half of the films and series reviewed here are older than 2018 but were watched this past year.

 

First Man–Not Over the Moon

 First Man movie

First Man is a movie  biopic about the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, in the years 1961 to 1969 .   We are introduced to Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his days before being selected for the dangerous mission of first “Man on the Moon.”

Armstrong is involved in  a series of errors while flying experimental missions,  in training for  the NASA moon landing. While he is undergoing the rigors of flight simulation, his two-and-a half-year-old daughter is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor.   Despite the couple’s  best efforts, the child dies, leaving the parents and their young son to deal with the  tragedy.  To compound Neil Armstrong’s difficulties, a series of aborted efforts and deaths occur  during trial beta-testing for the moon mission.

Apollo 11’s crew is selected and  Armstrong is surprised to find he will be in charge.  Now with two young sons who may lose their father on this spaceflight,  his wife Janet (Claire Foy)  insists that Neil inform  his sons about the real  risks  and that he may not survive the mission.

The enigmatic relationship between Neil and his wife, on the one hand, and his two children, on the other, are not fully developed but are the emotional core of the film.  Despite the rather peripheral role Claire Foy is given as Janet Armstrong,  her understated  performance  reveals the steely strength and  confronts the demons of a family’s sacrifice for the sake of the heroic (and narcissistic) impulses of her husband.  The “stand by my man” attitude of the selfless wife does not hold true for the actual Janet Armstrong  and with little dialogue to work with,  Claire Foy in First Man still manages to show her resolute reserve in order to protect her children.   First Man would have been even stronger with more backstory about Neil Armstrong’s   motivation to prove himself at the expense of his own family.  This film could have been so much better.

“Green Book”–Required Reading

Green Book movie

It’s 1962, you are African American and you don’t travel in the US without the Green Book, an unofficial domestic passport (for Jim Crow laws).  The Green Book is an indispensable guide for African Americans looking for accommodations while traveling. (Similar guides existed for Jewish and gay travelers.)

Inspired by a true story, we see Dr. Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali of “Moonlight”), a renowned pianist, about to embark on a concert tour throughout the US. Shirley hires Tony Valleylonga –“the Lip”–(played by Viggo Mortensen of “Lord of the Rings” and “Eastern Promises”), a bouncer from an Italian-American nightclub in the Bronx, as his driver and bodyguard. Despite their differences in education and sophistication, the two men unexpectedly develop a close friendship while confronting racism and danger on the road. Neither of the men expects to face the situations they encounter. Respectful treatment of the two main characters gives Green Book heart and universal appeal.

The facile ending, however, does not do justice to this award-worthy film. The complexity of Don Shirley and Tony Valleylonga is not developed, although attitudes of “cultured wealthy elites” and hostile “country folk” avoid stereotyping.

An intellectual with an implied secret life as a homosexual, Shirley does not feel at home with blacks or whites. His loneliness propels him to emotional desolation. Portraying this part of his life more fully would have made Green Book even stronger

Green Book

Nonetheless, Green Book is a worthwhile movie to add to the 2018 list of must-see films. Awareness of this shameful period in which Green Books existed is long overdue. Green Book touches upon the gripping fear that African Americans endure even today, whether driving on a country road down South or walking with a hoodie up North.

Note: Currently at theaters. Watch for Academy nominations for both Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, well-matched as a dueling duo.

The Final Year–The End of a Term

 

The Final Year

The Final Year, Greg Barker’s HBO documentary, covers January 2016 to January 2017 of the Barack Obama administration . It is quietly devastating and demoralizing footage of the last twelve months of foreign statesmanship before the Trump administration.

Don’t expect that The Final Year will give you a portrait of the 44th president in the looming shadow of what was to come. The Final Year actually follows Samantha Power, U.N. Ambassador and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, as they almost inexhaustibly pursue Obama’s foreign policy agenda with heart and soul. The empathy they have for global unity is palpable. The Final Year documentary

The undoing of every last element of what the people onscreen are busy accomplishing is the not-so-subtle theme of The Final Year. The power of this documentary is gut-wrenching.

Tense, empathetic Samantha Power doesn’t avoid exposure to the horrific pain of parents in refugee camps. She is especially moving as she fights tears in the name of duty, having been an immigrant from Ireland herself. Outraged by an attack on a humanitarian convoy in Syria almost certainly ordered by Putin, Power shouts at the implacable Russian ambassador, “Is there literally nothing that can shame you?”

The tireless 72-year-old John Kerry, who travels by boat amid spectacular but melting Greenland icebergs, is conflicted– as a Vietnam War vet– in his attitude toward military invention in the Middle East. And the brilliant Rhodes, whose magic as a wordsmith provides alchemy to Obama’s speeches in Vietnam, Laos, and Hiroshima, is rendered speechless in the immediate aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

While Obama’s intellectual demeanor continues to inspire his staff, The Final Year rather surprisingly also suggests Obama’s emotional distancing, an abstraction or cutting off from what would certainly follow: the eradication of many of the policies his administration fought for. He believes that deaths from global conflict are far fewer compared to the last century and that democracy is going in the right direction. Power and Rhodes, both of whom have great pride and zeal in working for President Obama, nevertheless disagree.

As The Final Year concludes, Obama supporters are likely to find the movie terribly crushing and bleak. And viewers who opposed him? They probably won’t be interested in watching The Final Year at all.

 

Note:  Available on Netflix as a DVD.