“The Dressmaker”–Quirky Down-Under Drama

Based upon Rosalie Ham’s novel by the same name, The Dressmaker  (2015) gives us an opening scene in which  10-year-old Tilly Dunnage is being bullied by classmate Stewart Pettyman, the mayor’s son,  and a group of boys in Dungatar, a town in the  Australian outback. With little investigation she is sent away by police Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving) for the boy’s murder.

Twenty-five years later (1951) Tilly (Kate Winslet) returns to Dungatar after a highly successful career as a couturier working in Paris.  Presumably returning to care for her mentally unstable mother Molly (Judy Davis), Tilly is mistreated by her mother and all the townspeople who have animus towards her for the alleged murder of Stewart Pettyman.  Her mother does not remember the past nor her daughter’s ordeal as a child, but clarity of mind soon prevails and Molly begins to realize her recall bias and the faulty, convenient memories of the townspeople of Dungatar.  Only a few townspeople, including Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) and Gertrude (the surprising Sarah Snook who plays “Shiv” in the HBO series Succession), are willing to accept Tilly as she is, not her rumored past. Tilly is immediately too generous in spirit and too sophisticated, not to mention too glamorous, for Dungatar. But, she’s also unwilling to forgive and forget.

The characters are a wonderful, unexpected and thoroughly captivating array of narrative weirdness which will hold viewers’ attention.   The goofball, comedic scenes–a crossdresser, for example– may or may not be a comfortable fit for some viewers.  And humor is mixed with the cusp of a thriller, Dexter-style, in a surprising plot twist.  In some ways The Dressmaker reminded this reviewer of the classic “The Visit” (1964) or the more recent “Dogville” (2003).

The actors embrace the mayhem, with the remarkable, always noteworthy and energetic Kate Winslet and Judy Davis in the lead roles.  As the events of The Dressmaker unspool, it is frequently unpredictable:  where will the narrative take us next?  And then it goes further than one would think:  into the absurd…in a good way.  The unexpected journey is one worth taking.  The ensemble of misfits is highly original and quirky, making The Dressmaker an enjoyable and cheeky indie film. 

Availability:  Netflix DVD and Amazon Prime

“The Lost Daughter”–Missing Mom

In her directing and writing debut  Maggie Gyllenhaal gives us  The Lost Daughter,  a courageous look at the “maternal instinct”… which isn’t. Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman), a college professor, is vacationing in a quaint Greek resort. Traveling alone with her books, she is enjoying a lazy day on the beach when she observes Nina (Dakota Johnson), a distracted young mother,who is not watching her little girl. When her daughter goes missing, Leda manages to find her. In a series of  flashbacks, a younger Leda (played by Jessie Buckley) has a troubled relationship with her two daughters.  The two women–Leda and Nina–seem to have parallel lives.

The Lost Daughter is a multi-layered, nuanced look at how overwhelming  and relentless parenting can often feel. Unbearable feelings of guilt are hard to suppress. It’s rare to see such a raw look at the emotions behind what is often referred to as the joy of motherhood.  [I am reminded of the phenomenal 2021 novel, The Push, by Ashley Audrain.]

Colman and Buckley give supeb perfomances as Leda.  But not all is well here.  The Lost Daughter is amorphous with little backstory to explain why and how Leda became such a damaged mother. This resulted in not caring or becoming sympathetic to their unfortunate relationship with their daughters and the dilemmas and difficult choices they felt they had to make.

How much of a woman’s identity is given up for the sake of mothering a child?.  The Lost Daughter is a  compelling portrait of troubled  motherhood. Nina and Leda have  no obvious support for things unsaid. Although The Lost Daughter lacks sufficient backstory to understand why motherhood can be so difficult for Leda, it is a fascinating venture into unmarked territory.

Availability: Netflix streaming

“Protégé”–Who’s the Student? Who’s the Teacher?

The Protege (2021) is a  throwback to the 90s action thrillers with one exception: a badass, beautiful assassin in the Nikita genre.  (Maggie Q, who has played Nikita in a television series.)

Anna Dutton (Maggie Q) is rescued as a little girl from the savagery of the Vietnam War by the legendary assassin Moody (Samuel Jackson). Raised by him as her surrogate father, she is now an antiquity book store owner in London.   Anna–in her secret life– is  a  fierce, highly skilled  assassin who can find people who are hard to find–just as she can locate rare books.  Her personal life gets turned upside down, however, when Moody gets assassinated and she seeks revenge.

One day a prospective customer, Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), comes into her store to by a rare book as a gift.  This is only a pretext.  Soon Anna becomes professionally and romantically entangled with Rembrandt, who is her match as a highly experienced assassin.  Their  cat-and-mouse dance turns deadly as their experience as seasoned murderers raises the stakes and instinctual drive for survival.

If you like revenge thrillers with a dynamic female protagonist,  you will enjoy The Protege’s stunning action scenes, an excellent cast, and an incredibly fast-paced drama with some surprising twists. Some scenes involve intense violence, bloody knife fights and martial arts elements similar to the  latest James Bond movie (“No Time to Die”) but so much better.

 It is entertaining to see Michael Keaton as an action figure after his Batman role.  Maggie Q is the real star here, however.  She  would make an excellent female replacement for James Bond and certainly is a super-hero to watch going forward!

Availability: Netflix DVD

“Dopesick” (2021)–Lies Upon Lies

Based on journalist Beth Macy’s book Dopesick, this Hulu eight-episode miniseries focuses on the early epicenter of the US’s struggle with the opioid addiction. Purdue Pharma, the Sackler mega-company that manufactured the deadly painkiller OxyContin, is the catalyst for an epic tragedy involving the duplicitous collusion with drug distributors, doctors, university researchers, and government agencies (Department of Justice, DEA, and FDA).

Dopesick involves a series of characters impacted by OxyContin:. Finnix (Michael Keaton) a family physician in a small coal-mining town in Virginia,. Relying  on  Purdue’s claim that  addiction to OxyContin is rare, Finnix prescribes it to coal miners suffering severe pain.  Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson),   a determined DEA investigator, digs for the facts behind a rapid rise in crime in the state of Virginia.  Betsy (Kaitly Dever) is a teenage girl who suffers a serious back injury and receives OxyContin from Finnix.  Billy Cutler (Will Poulter) is a highly ambitious pharmaceutical sales rep for Purdue Pharma.  Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard) is a US attorney in Virginia who begins investigating Purdue, joining with DEA’s Bridget Meyer. Each character’s story is from a different perspective  connected to OxyContin.

 Finnix begins to decrease Betsy’s  OxyContin prescription. Bridget zeroes in on mortality rates related to OxyContin. Rick Mountcastle investigates the world of “pain societies” and pharmaceutical sales “competitions”.   Richard Sackler makes increasingly dangerous business strategies for larger doses of OxyContin while his family is simultaneously repulsed and attracted to  his highly profitable schemes.

“Dopesick” refers to the excruciating withdrawal from OxyContin  Convincing evidence is laid out to prove how the multibillion-dollar Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, the private company’s owners,  are the true drug cartel behind America’s opioid crisis.  The Sacklers’  avoid culpability and accountability for years by paying relatively low million-dollar fines while retaining billions as they continued to increase distribution of the drug.  The drug lords here, like Walter White in “Breaking Bad”, are quite aware of the horrific consequences of their business.  As  a compelling study of corporate greed and unimaginable family dysfunction, Dopesick exposes the systemic manipulation of people for profit. 

With a marketing plan that promises pain relief without addiction, improving people’s lives without suffering, Purdue becomes obscenely rich while the Sackler family devolves into fear and deceit.  Here Dopesick trespasses on territory reserved for the fictional series “Succession” and  “Squid Game”.

Dopesick covers almost 25 years of the drug company’s history:  from the first release of OxyContin in 1996 to states’ failed attempts to sue Purdue beginning in 2004, to the relabeling of the drug as addictive in 2006 (“black boxing”) and to the litigation starting in 2007. The Sackler family’s antipathy for each other, the sales force cut-throat competition to win excessive bonuses and ultra-luxurious vacations, and the no-holds barred tactics to increase profits, even if it means death to its customers is raw, emotionally frightening and brutal. 

Dopesick is at its best when it mirrors investigative journalism, more educational than entertaining. Still, it is powerful storytelling in showing the complicity of big pharma, FDA, DEA, the Department of Justice  and politicians and academics..  Unique in its portrayal of addiction, Dopesick  depicts  withdrawals in  visceral detail where most other shows only touch the periphery.   While Dopesick can be viewed as another story of a company making obscene profits without scruples, the heroes and whisteblowers are reassuring–as in the movies Post and Spotlight.

Michael Keaton gives a career-best performance as Finnix.  The stellar supporting cast immerses us into  a small town ethos as well as the heinous corruption involving not only overtly craven bureaucrats but those who keep their jobs by keeping quiet.  The role of Rudy Giuliani as Purdue’s attorney in the early days of litigation is revealing of the fraudulent and unprecedented sales of this “magic pain pill” that remained impervious to any criminal charges.

The timeline and flashbacks may be confusing, and some jumping back and forth could have been avoided to make connecting the dots in Big Pharma’s duplicitous marketing power, egomaniacal and self-serving philanthropy, and impact on communities even more powerful. Celebrating donations to art museum collections while the desperately addicted die is memorable drama underscoring that Big Pharma is not our friend, no matter the advertising and public relations.

Dopesick is poignant in keeping its eye on emotional truth, on a sobering picture of monstrous greed.  Ripping back the curtain on one company among many, Dopesick  discloses how easily we can be taken advantage of.   Hulu’s Dopesick offers a reassuring moral clarity. The U.S. justice system has not reached similar clarity for Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers and other Big Pharma companies that earned billions selling prescription opioids as more and more Americans died. The battles are far from over.

A “can’t-miss” mini-series.

Availability:  Hulu streaming

Note:  Compare Dopesick with Crime of the Century, HBOMax documentary about the opiod crisis from director Alex Gibney.

Note:  500,000 Americans have died from opioid-related overdoses since 2000.   The ongoing crisis has continued to worsen under this pandemic.

Note:  Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain said (on September 7, 2021) he felt like the family at the center of this opioid crisis should have paid more. “But this is how corporate accountability works right now — and it appears the Sacklers navigated the system, brilliantly.”  https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/business/article/This-is-an-outrage-CT-not-backing-down-16439823.php

Impeachment: American Crime Story

We revisit former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment from the point of view of Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein of Booksmart). This Hulu mini-series begins with a naive twenty-two years old intern’s infatuation with a charismatic  president. 

There are more than several awful and illegal actions taken against Monica: interrogation in a hotel room by the FBI without legal counsel present; threats by Bill Clinton’s staff; media “slut-shaming” for her testimony–all make Impeachment a compelling narrative presenting facts and corrupt behavior not well-known .

Monica’s betrayal by Linda Tripp (an unrecognizable Sarah Paulson), a fellow employee she trusted, is the focus of the drama.  There are  a number of detailed scenes about the well-known recording of private telephone conversations between the two women.  The fiftyish Linda Tripp, in spite of revealing lurid sexual details between Bill and Monica, maintains that her mission is to save Monica from a sexual predator and from humiliation. Linda denies any self-interest in  a book deal she is discussing with a literary agent.

Ken Starr, Special Prosecutor, in alliance with a the vast right-wing conspiracy that sought to take down Clinton (Clive Owen), is seen in his “war room” with Ann Coulter, Brett Kavanaugh, and in communication with Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report (which later morphs into the Breitbart Report  and Steve Bannon).  They all willingly accept Lewinsky as collateral damage for going after Bill.

We also witness the collateral damage in a scene where Bill Clinton has to read about his affair online, along with the rest of the world.  Daughter Chelsea is shown reading about her dad’s sexual proclivities while doing homework in Stanford University’s undergraduate library.  Ann Coulter is gleeful with every revealing prurient detail.  And Marcia Lewinsky (Mira Sorvino), Monica’s mother,  warns her ex-husband (Monica’s dad), not to read it. Ken Starr has possibly overloaded the internet with release of his report for an avidly obsessed public thirsting for every detail,  resulting in a country-wide internet crash. 

Two months after Starr releases his report, the House Judiciary Committee uploads all of the Tripp audio tapes.  Nevertheless,  Hillary Clinton’s (Edie Falco) approval rating soars,  Bill’s presidency  holds on to popular support, and Monica receives America’s sympathies from some, but also shame and scorn from others. But the needle doesn’t budge on Linda Tripp, who  faces prosecution for illegal wiretapping.

Throughout Impeachment Linda Tripp convinces herself that she is protecting Lewinsky, even though she is unable to see the wounds she is inflicting on her:

“I know it looks horrible. I know it looks like a betrayal — but she was his victim,”  Linda Tripp adamantly claims during an interview. “I just wish that she could see that I saved her.”

Impeachment doesn’t update us on the Clintons, Lewinsky, Starr or any of the other main agents in this drama.  However, as we fast forward to the #MeToo movement, there is a willingness to believe women’s testimony and understand what it costs for a woman to give her account of sexual assault.   In Impeachment  the national scandal of adultery in the Oval Office simply doesn’t register since the Trump era. The headlines of the ’90s and the Clintons almost seem quaint.  The acts of the powerful perpetrated on the powerless never are.

I thought that this series was breathtaking in its depiction of women’s invisibility: Hillary, Monica, Linda Tripp and all the other women who suffer from feeling unseen and unheard. The pain still lingers–a definite motivation for Tripp who felt she had been overlooked for a deserved promotion, Monica for wanting her affection for Bill to be acknowledged by him and perhaps most of all, Hillary, for an unworthy alliance from which she could or would never extricate herself.

Highly recommend!

Availability:  Hulu

“American Rust”(2021)–Corrosion and Decay

American Rust  is based on Philipp Meyer’s titular novel.  This is a   Showtime’s original series in which we watch police chief Del Harris (Jeff Daniels), struggle with his past.  He is  an  Army combat veteran with  PTSD, investigating the  murder of a fellow police officer. Billy Poe, son of the woman he loves , Grace (Maura Tierney),  is suspected of the murder.

The camera, in the open scene, pans the waste and decay in Buell, Pennsylvania–a “flyover” town outside Pittsburgh. The residents and community are on the margins of life.  Two teenagers, Billy Poe and his best friend, Isaac English, are seen running from the murder scene,  the abandoned steel mill.  Isaac flees and Billy is left to maneuver the police and prison system.

Del is no fool, yet he cannot seem to have a strategy that will exonerate Billy, whom he is certain did not commit the murder.  And if he doesn’t find a way to save Billy–who is the most important person in Grace’s life– he will lose her.

Gradually we see Del’s honor and integrity start to deflate.  How far is he willing to go for the woman he loves? Would he kill to save his relationship? Does he set up crimes and pretend that these crimes were perpetrated by other people? After all he has the experience and skill set to do just that.  While we witness  the genuine connection Del and Grace have for each other,   is there manipulation too?  Is there a neediness in Del because of a past he cannot escape?   Will Del and Grace break up, if they don’t save Grace’s son?

And then there is a powerful and moving subplot:  between Billy and Isaac. They share a traumatic experience. One is charged with murder while the other escapes. Isaac’s sister, Lee (whom Billy loves)  and their father (Bill Camp) have wounds that, if left unhealed, will damage their family further.  Isaac  shouldered the caregiving burden for his ailing, wheel-chair-bound father while Lee escaped to New York and law school. eventually marrying a wealthy businessman.   She pursued her dreams while knowing Isaac couldn’t afford to have any. 

As the stakes increase, we see Del devise the perfect crime.  But will it change him  into a person he no longer recognizes?

In the finale–the ninth episode–the cliffhanger has many plot points and character arcs left hanging, loose ends that beg for a second season.  Actions have consequences, or do they?  How is Del going to deal with what he has done?  And Grace–is Del the man in her life or is Billy?  Does she have to choose between them?  Can each of these characters wiggle out of the snares that entrap them?

So many unresolved issues!  Sibling rivalry between Lee and Isaac remain. How do brother and sister recover from their past?  And we see the father in the penultimate scene and wonder will he reappear in a second season?

Images  of cold and barren land, withered industry, broken residents, a town acting against its own best interests:  I’ve never watched a mini-series with so many hanging chads.  The main characters’ futures are anyone’s guess.  No resolution.  No moral clues as to outcome.

Highly original, well portrayed with superb acting and writing that deliver in almost every scene.  Only a few sagging scenes–in the middle episodes–but all is forgiven.  Please, please release a second season of American Rust soon! 

Availability: Showtime streaming

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“Blackbird” (2019)–The Final Flight

In this timely and sensitive film, three generations get together for Christmas dinner–instead of  Thanksgiving, even though it actually is Thanksgiving.  As often happens in real-life family gatherings as well as in Blackbird, there will be dysfunction, a farrago scattered within warm laughter about shared memories and sometimes bitter accusations.  In this drama a dying mother assembles her family to spend a final weekend together before she ends her life.

An alarm goes off and Paul (Sam Neill), a doctor and husband to Lily (Susan Sarandon), reaches up to turn off the clock.   Lily is awake. Her left hand is permanently in a claw.  Nonetheless, she laboriously  lifts  her legs with her good right hand, determined to put her own slippers on, rejecting her husband’s assistance.

Lily has invited her two daughters (Kate Winslet as Jennifer and Mia Wasikowska as Anna) along with their partners and her grandson to one final dinner before she ends her suffering. She has a degenerative disease and with the permission of her family, decides to ingest pentobarbital administered by her husband. This weekend is their terminal goodbye, and Lily wants one more Christmas dinner before she goes.  She is anticipating a celebration, complete with tree and gifts, in a cozy family cocoon.

Jennifer arrives early with her husband, Michael (Rainn Wilson) and their teenage son Jonathan (Anson Boon). She has brought an odd and inappropriate gift.   “I can’t wait to see what the stores recommend for an event like this,” Lily says dryly as she struggles to open it with her good hand. Younger daughter Anna is late, bringing her uninvited partner Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Lily’s best friend, Elisabeth (Lindsay Duncan), also uninvited, somehow seems part of the family too. 

“Blackbird” is a simple tale, occasionally well-told without too much melodrama:  the tale of all tales– of life, death and family secrets and lies.  Unhealed wounds are everywhere and time is running out to heal them.  The stakes are very high.  The grandson is a sullen teenage outlier, the two adult daughters have extreme sibling rivalry, Jen’s husband is ignored, and the parents seem oblivious to how their children remember their family’s past time together.  The family friend is pulled into the conflict. Lily’s wish to die in a peaceful chemical cloud before her disease incapacitates her and takes all control from her grows more untenable as conflicts surface.

The ending of Blackbird could have been genuinely touching and emotionally powerful. Instead, the film devolves into a contrived and highly clichéd death bed scene.  While Blackbird adds sensitivity to a difficult and controversial subject, the film is far from subtle and does not conclude the story soon enough.  One wishes for a more powerful scene towards the end. 

Blackbird is filmed in a spectacular beach house only the fabulously wealthy can afford, with sterile interiors paralleling the sterile lives of the family gathered there. The bigger problem is that the world of the characters is not fully developed, with enough backstory to give each family the essential dimensions for us to understand and care about them. 

The stellar cast–especially the ensemble characters who are not the main focus–rescue this film and provide enough interest to sustain watching a film that does not quite live up to its potential.

Availability:  Netflix DVD

Note:  The reason for the title “Blackbird” is not clear.  Perhaps in homage to the Beatles’ song and the lyrics:  “Take these broken wings and learn to fly”.   The song was not incorporated into the final cut but a shot of blackbirds flying in the sky appears in the middle of the film.

“The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” (2019)

This 2019 HBO documentary, directed and produced by Alex Gibney (of “Enron:  The Smartest Men in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side”) opens in 2014    with Theranos, a startup in blood-testing technology.  The Inventor is filmed at Theranos’s spectacular Silicon Valley chic headquarters in Palo Alto.  Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, is hailed as the youngest self-made female billionaire by Fortune magazine.  With a multi-billion-dollar valuation, and a recent $400 million investment from many Trump supporters (the Waltons, Betsy DeVos, Murdoch) as well as other luminaries with gravitas–George Shultz and Henry Kissinger (both former Secretaries of State), General James Mattis, and a stable of others, Theranos is revealed to have been a massive con game, with its pending collapse looming just around the corner.

Claiming to be developing a small, portable sized machine to test over 200 different diseases and disorders with only a few drops of blood, the persuasive influencer, Elizabeth Holmes, cons investors.   She promotes the groundbreaking technology on television, TED talks, and wherever she can find an audience.  Holmes is very good at what she does.

John Carreyrou (best-selling author of Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup), a Wall Street Journal reporter, sees a New Yorker article (2014)  by Ken Auletta accusing Theranos of gross misrepresentation of their product. The two reporters together are the catalyst for government regulators to finally investigate claims of fraud.

In addition, two very young employees–Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz (grandson of George Shultz) –become whistleblowers, despite strong-arm tactics by Theranos to silence them.  David Boies, the prominent attorney known for vitriolic threats against opposing counsel (he represented Harvey Weinstein and a number of tobacco companies) is hired to terminate their speaking out.  Without their heroic efforts (and in spite of grandfather George Shultz’s reluctant belief in his grandson), Theranos would have harmed even more investors and customers.   Protected by whistleblower status, Cheung sends a letter to the clinical regulator CMS (Centers  for Medicare and Medicaid  Services) citing malfeasance in marketing, efficacy of products, and examples of misdiagnosis.

What makes The Inventor so spellbinding, in part, is due to the fact that much of the footage is archival imagery created and crafted by Holmes herself to promote Theranos.   Accordingly, aside from brief footage from her deposition, the footage of Holmes is filmed before she was charged. We see her own words, not exclusively others reporting about what she has to say.  Alex Gibney remarked: “She made the documentary she wanted me to invest in and I used it to a different purpose.”

Elizabeth Holmes was brilliant at selling to investors and motivating her employees.

How Holmes was able to deceive a number of powerful old men, and then leverage that to achieve great visibility, further investment, and the Walgreens deal is pretty shocking, even by Silicon Valley standards.  What is perhaps most disturbing is the fact that all the “name-dropping” about who has invested so others follow lemming-style opens doors to the gullible and foolish, no matter how wealthy. 

Holmes is a master manipulator –and perhaps borderline delusional, –one deceptively cloaked in the humanitarian goal of revolutionizing health care.  But The Inventor raises the question: What about all those “intellects” experienced in investment, negotiations, and science from Stanford and the highest realms of US government?  In the end Holmes is fabricating and lying, but she has an audience ripe for believing that the impossible can happen: The Silicon Valley ritualistic practice of investing in only a business plan.  It’s a chilling, chilling portrait.

Availability: HBOMax

Note:  Ultimately Holmes was charged with a host of federal violations. She married shortly after this film was released (in 2019) and gave birth to a baby boy in July of this year, postponing her trial until August 31.  Now ongoing in federal court in San Jose, the judge will have to decide on a sentence, if she is found guilty, weighing in on her baby’s future.

“Supernova”(2021) –Nebulous?

“A person dies when he loses his memories.”

In Supernova we see Sam (Colin Firth), a concert pianist, and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), a novelist, traveling across England’s Lake District,  in their RV van  to visit friends, family and places from their past. Tusker was diagnosed with dementia two years ago, and Sam and Tusker have been partners for over thirty years.

Driving along in their van, Sam and Tusker first engage in the familiar banter of any long-married couple who have spent the majority of their lives together.  Tusker’s early onset dementia, frightening to both of them but left unsaid, soon has to be acknowledged.

“You’ll break my heart. It’ll last forever,” Sam confesses in one of the most heart-breaking lines in Supernova.

A supernova is a sudden unpredictable stellar explosion, sending shock waves into the starry sky. Normally, when a supernova is discovered, it has already progressed in the explosive process.  That is what we witness–in a very understated British way–as Tusker loses the ability to control the executive functions of his mind.  Dementia is a slow fade.

The chemistry between Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, in two equally matched extraordinary lead performances, makes Supernova a beautiful portrait of love which has lasted over decades.  And, on a more general theme, exposes us to the cruel loneliness as we age.

Note:  The title of this film–Supernova–is a struggle to comprehend.  I believe it is meant to be a metaphor for what we don’t know in a relationship which can implode or be late to discover.  The script could have handled this theme more lucidly.  The two main characters are amateur astronomers, but dialog about the relevance of the stars is hazy and nebulous.

Availability:  Netflix DVD

“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

“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

“Guilt”–A Hit-and-Run

Guilt is a four-episode Masterpiece Theater mini-series, a darkly sinister and acerbic Scottish thriller about two Edinburgh brothers who leave a wedding drunk and eager to get home. We see the elegant lawyer Max (Mark Bonnar of “Shetland”) and his ne’er-do-well younger brother Jake hit an elderly man who steps in front of Max’s car.  Jake (Jamie Sives) is driving because Max thinks his brother is less inebriated than he is.

Jake wants to report the accident to the police, but Max is concerned about his professional reputation so they agree to cover up the hit-and-run by dragging the old man back into his house, positioning him to look as if he died of natural causes.

Max is very clever with the cover-up, having knowledge of what constitutes evidentiary material.  So, luck appears to be on their side. But then Angie (Ruth Bradley), the only living relative of the old man, shows up and begins to ask questions.

Nervous about the subterfuge, Jake wants to come clean, but Max will have none of it.  Reassuring his younger brother that he has always had his best interests at heart, Max convinces Jake that he will be safe with his older brother in control. But there are no secrets kept.

A nosy neighbor, a newly sober detective, and Angie’s change of heart all add to the suspense–can the cover up be sustained?  Will the two brothers face their own reckoning as the lies of the past and the crimes of the present come back to haunt and possibly destroy them?  For Jake–the man-child whose record shop was bought by his brother to help him out–the guilt over the hit-and-run gets more intense.   Jake dreams of a life with Angie, far removed from his brother’s shadow.  For Max, guilt is what the evidence reveals.  If there is insufficient evidence to convict, then they’re not guilty, whether a crime was committed or not.

Guilt is a four-hour guilty pleasure for those viewers who love a good mystery with lots of subplots. At times–particularly when a new character pops up on screen–the viewer is jostled trying to figure out where he or she belongs in the story.  Full of surprises –cannot mention all the characters for that reason–this is quite a chilling portrait of betrayal and brotherly love.

Highly recommend!

Availability:  PBS streaming (Masterpiece Theater)