“I Care a Lot”–Caregiver or Caretaker?

In this Netflix original movie, I Care a Lot, the highly successful court-appointed guardian, Marla Grayson (the astonishing Rosamund Pike of “Gone Girl” fame), masterminds a scheme to being appointed guardian of  wealthy elderly patients by the state court.   Marla is charged with  caring for the elderly who are identified by doctors as incompetent to manage their own health needs, daily living and assets.

Marla and her partner Fran (Eiza González) run a highly profitable hustle –a guardianship grift of elderly “wards of the state”.  To the judge who appoints her to be caregiver, she appears as highly professional, extraordinarily articulate, and convincing in asserting her qualifications. On first appearance, the onlooker sees a measured, seemingly trustworthy advocate for eldercare.    But underneath that veneer and polish, Marla is abusing a legal system by targeting wealthy seniors that actually aren’t incompetent,  throwing them in care facilities and assuming absolute control of their assets.  She understands this  system better than most: how she can manipulate (and sometimes) bribe doctors and the courts to her advantage,   essentially kidnapping the elderly, robbing them of  their assets, and separating them forever from their families.   She’s not a caregiver, not a caretaker.  She’s neither.  Marla’s an irresolute taker.

And then the “cherry”–Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest in an unforgettable performance)  is introduced to them by an unscrupulous physician.  A “cherry” is a very wealthy old person with no family or friends to look out for them, ready for the picking.  But,  unexpected trouble arises when Jennifer Peterson is not who she seems.  A very difficult “cherry” indeed.   The  predatory guardians, Marla and Fran, soon become the prey.

Unfortunately for Marla, Jennifer has an undisclosed and mysterious relationship with a powerful mobster (the delightfully malevolent Peter Dinklage from “Game of Thrones”) who will go to great lengths to protect Jennifer.  He releases her from Marla’s clutches.

It’s a stomach-churning ride with a lot of venom and dismay that people assigned to be guardians for the most vulnerable may get away with highly irregular, if not criminal behavior.   Resources are stretched allowing the court-appointed caregivers to  conceal bad acts  because they are  trusted.

They come in and steal under false pretenses and strip the victim of all credibility.   And Rosamund Pike’s and Peter Dinklage’s twitchy, angry staggering performances menace one another in a vicious death spiral. Until the very end of I Care a Lot the viewer is treated to unexpected twists and turns, in one traumatic scene after another.

What is most unsettling about I Care a Lot , however, is the picture it presents of eldercare:  Just park them, rob them, and then move on to the next one.  What seems like a  con game — a gangster’s operation–is taking advantage of loopholes in the law.  Watching Marla game the system to her own ends is far from comforting.  The viewer has to ask:  Is this amoral predator behavior really widespread?  Is the eldercare/guardianship system  susceptible  to people like Marla and Fran to manipulate? Do some guardians stretch the rules as far as they possibly can?

Make sure your parents and grandparents are protected at all costs!  I Care a Lot  is a cautionary tale for all of us!

Availability:  On Netflix streaming and Golden Globe-nominated for a best film.

“Soul”—The Spirit of Rebirth

Guest Blogger:  Mahshid Zamani Bozorgnia,   film critic

[Edited by Diana Y. Paul]

Soul,  an animated and  complex film from Pixar directed and created by Pete Dokter (who also created “Toy Story”, “Inside Out” and “Monsters Inc”), refers to the jazz music genre and tackles the theme of what is the spirit or soul, the distinction between passion and obsession, and what constitutes the “spark” of happiness.

There is something compulsively watchable and comforting about Pixar movies with their photo-realistic imaginary worlds. But there is much more.  There are built-in  philosophical questions of life and death and self-identity embedded in the story, which appeal to adults with the openness of a child.

The main character, Joe Gardner–an African American middle school music teacher (who, like his father, is passionate about jazz music)–deals with the choice of wanting to make a living or following his passion.  But this decision-making entails an existential life crisis.

(One finds traces of the transcendental philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, with  some of his actual words adopted into the film’s dialogue.)

Joe, an ambitious pianist aspiring to accompany one of the great saxophonists, Dorothea Williams, feels that his life has been, at best,  ordinary, and more likely an epic failure.  In order to understand Emerson’s view  that “there is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful,” Joe has to rebuild himself. And what can be a better metaphor for being reborn than actually dying and coming back?

In Soul, the Great Beyond and the Great Before, –the interstitial space between life and death– are the universe’s recycling of nature and soul. Joe is not ready for the rare moment of “transcendence,” or “Great Before,” Yet, when he realizes that he either has to mentor a baby soul (called “22”) to be given “a new and unique personality” or go to the Great Beyond, he decides to stay and take the training in the “You Seminar”. During the presentation, the seminar instructor, Jerry, explains that souls are missing “the spark” and that they can only enter a body if they find that spark. Joe believes his spark is jazz and that his life can inspire other souls.  Matched with recalcitrant soul number 22, who has never found her spark and has no desire to go to earth, Joe is determined that she is his ticket to rebirth.

Together, they enter the “the zone” that 22 defines as “the place between space and physical.”  Baby soul 22 takes Joe to Moonwind, who tells them that he himself was once a lost soul: “There is not much difference between souls in the zone and  lost souls:  joy can turn into obsessions and some people cannot let go of their anxiety and obsessions, leaving them lost and disconnected from life.” However, Joe does not yet understand what Moonwind is saying.  

Soon 22 sees the spark in every element in New York City, where they both temporarily land.  From the smell of pizza to small seed pods, 22 is ready to get life on Earth, believing that she has found her spark, but Joe remains unconvinced.  After a sensational performance with Dorothea Williams, she recalls a story of a fish who was in the ocean and yet dreamed of getting to the ocean. This wonderful analogy is a turning point for Joe.

And if we believe that Emerson’s theories were mostly about the idea of America–“that its existence matters, not its past nor its future”–what better place for Joe to become a transparent eyeball and define for himself what success is than on the streets of New York City?

Availability: Disney+

Note: Certainly an important curriculum topic for college freshman.  A very mature theme about what makes life worth living—may need to proceed with caution for some youth.  Young children may not be that interested, especially in the beginning of Soul.

“Your Honor”–Judge Me Not

Unconditional love–are there limits?  In Your Honor, a ShowTime mini-series,  a highly respected recently widowed New Orleans judge, Michael Desiato (Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad”) is known for his fair and impartial sentencing of young criminals. But the judge  gets personal   to protect his teenage son, Adam (newcomer Hunter Doohan)   from the consequences of his reckless actions. At first, the  judge advises his son to turn himself in to the police, and explain how he panicked after hitting another teen. But then he discovers that the boy his son ran over was the son of a notorious mafia don, Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Call Me By My Name” and “The Shape of Water”). The judge knows that the mafia will wreak vengeance. Time after time the judge tries to use some moral principle to justify bad acts, and it all goes horribly wrong.

Adam is a total screw up, a clueless teenager who can’t think straight and is painfully annoying, causing the viewer to lose patience. Who doesn’t know a teenager who acts that way–reckless driving, too much alcohol or drugs, and unintended consequences for bad judgment?

There’s a certain tone reminiscent of “Breaking Bad” because the viewer is  put in the position of sympathizing with a scofflaw, albeit with a higher motive to protect as only a parent can. When it comes to your family, what would you do to save them? Where would you draw the line? And what effect would that have upon your moral code, your relationships with others and your honor?

Kudos to the director for crafting an ending that was totally unexpected. What would I do in similar circumstances?    Judge me not until you’re there.

Availability:  ShowTime streaming.

“Promising Young Woman” –Breaking Over and Over Again

Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell,  is a revenge thriller on a brutal topic–Don’t let the title mislead you.  Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a 30-year old former medical student, is now a barista living with her parents  In the opening scene we see a very inebriated Cassie barhopping and wandering the city streets at night.

The viewer doesn’t know why this bright and attractive woman is engaged in such risky, dangerous behavior.  To say much more about the film’s artistic and courageous story would ruin it.  But this is an extraordinary directorial debut that explores sexual aggression, objectification of women, and the denial of women’s voices.

Promising Young Woman not only portrays male antagonists, but also  “non-believers” who are women and enablers to the trauma.   This will inevitably be a controversial film because it depicts people hiding behind their smiles, popularity, and success without the underbelly of their criminal behavior being exposed or punished. 

There is no redemption in Promising Young Woman and none can be expected.  The bold ending was a surprise but satisfying in a way, and changes the entire tenor of the film and the perception of Cassie.

Carey Mulligan gives an Academy Award-worthy performance unlike any in her previous (mostly historical) films. She has to pivot from a fiery vessel of rage to a vulnerable young person hoping for change.   Caught in a web of pain, rage, and broken dreams,  Carey Mulligan’s character cannot imagine an alternative web of healing and mercy.

The supporting cast also is very strong:  Bo Burnham as Ryan Cooper, a pediatric surgeon and love interest for Cassie, Alfred Molina as a conscience-struck lawyer filled with regrets, and Allison Brie as a medical school classmate. 

Promising Young Woman is one of the darkest, most painful films I have seen in a very long time.  It may stay with you for days after viewing, clotting your thoughts and feelings on this brutal subject.

The movie delivers its sucker punch when you least expect it.  Not for everyone but for those who are intrigued by the relentless depth into human crimes and misdemeanors, don’t miss it!

Note:  This film has echoes of “13 Reasons Why”, “Lila and Eve”,  the classic “Goodbye Mr. Goodbar”, and “Killing Eve”.

Availability:  Amazon Prime Video

“The Life Ahead” –And Then the End

This 2020 Italian drama stars Sophia Loren in an adaptation of the Romain Gary novel, The Life Before Us.   Directed by Sophia Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti, The Life Ahead is the third film based on Gary’s novel.

The Life Ahead  has two main characters:  Madame Rosa, an octogenarian ex-prostitute and former  Holocaust survivor, and a 12-year old Somalian child.  To support herself Madame Rosa  cares for the children of local sex workers in her apartment. Consequently, Rosa is the glue in her neighborhood and the lifeline for women desperate to maintain a sense of motherhood as they prostitute themselves.

Near the end of Madame Rosa’s  life, 12-year old Momo (a vivid performance by Ibrahima Gueye), abruptly is thrust upon her. A local doctor who has been trying to find a foster home for Momo pleads with Rosa to accept the Somalian child into her informal daycare center. 

A Muslim boy from Senegal, Momo has no memory of Senegal, except for the trauma of watching his father kill his mother when she refused to prostitute herself. Abandoned by the father, now Momo is  a  tough, angry, and lonely street kid  who makes money selling drugs.   Madame Rosa suspects  the boy is engaging in criminal acts and endangering his future. She wheedles a local store-owner (Babak Karimi, from “The Salesman” and  “A Separation”) into giving Momo a job a couple days a week in his carpet  store.

The Life Ahead

Very slowly Momo starts to open his heart, first towards another little boy  he shares a room with at Madame Rosa’s.  Then with the  carpet store owner who shows him how to repair valuable rugs, and finally with the small community of women who wish to protect Madame Rosa as she starts to decline. Most of all, however, it is the Momo-Madame Rosa friendship which becomes fierce and protective.  When Rosa most needs support to fulfill her dream, she tells Momo:  “You’re a little shit but I know you keep your word.”

Momo very gradually learns to understand and appreciate  Madame Rosa, taking in all she gives him .  Through their pain and fear and need, they still see beauty:  in the boy’s drawings and in the old woman’s memories of her childhood.  Momo draws lions when his memories become unbearable.  When Madame Rosa’s trauma is  too much, she retreats into the building’s basement to listen to her music.  Almost  incredibly, both characters are  still capable of acts of great generosity. Both the very young  and the very old are exceptional  as they forge their friendship, despite their scars and unhealed wounds.

Sophia Loren’s Madame Rosa is alternately imperious and vulnerable, warm and cranky, strong and fragile.  It is  a heroic role for her.  She foregoes cosmetically softening that once glamorous and beautiful face for one that is almost unrecognizable. But it is a masterful decision for her to make. Loren’s exterior has been toughened for this role.     In those moments when she is trying to protect her traumatized soul, Loren seems truly broken and unreachable. Except for the boy.  Theirs is an unlikely friendship, to say the least.  Momo has never heard of Auschwitz—he thinks she is saying “house witch”.

A small but surprising film, quirky with only a bit of a saggy middle and an unnecessarily weak ending. Charming and endearing performances make a sometimes ordinary story quite masterful.  Highly recommend.

Availability:  Netflix streaming; released on November 6, 2020.

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”–Dissembling the American Dream





Toni Morrison (1931-2019), the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, was a complex artist who did not hold back from confronting the worst of human history. The documentary, Toni Morrison:  Pieces I Am, is a historical panorama of a slice of history dating from the 1930’s until the conclusion of the film in 2019.  Morrison emerges as a powerful, iconic, and formidable moral and intellectual force. The film gives us a retrospective of her groundbreaking novels which challenged the literary status quo,   rewarding the reader with imagining black lives on their own terms, devoid of the “white male gaze”.

Toni Morrison, born in Lorain, Ohio, a steel-town she remembers as being integrated, recalls experiencing segregation in the 1950’s only after she arrived in Washington, DC to attend Howard University. She published much later than most writers, but her college experience textured her writings.  She wrote from the vantage point of wounded women who had the strength and will to find often unexpected and hard-won redemption and triumph, not victimhood.  But her novels speak to people globally, to their traumas and their joys, in a language which is pure inspiration. Places and people– previously invisible or unnoticed– become powerful voices.

The documentary deftly reveals that Toni Morrison’s work is the essence of beautiful storytelling.  Despite the fact that her novels are about private pain as well as  collective trauma, both raw and searing, tender and compassionate, Toni Morrison is an electrifying and positive personality. Perhaps startling, — given the dark and sobering themes of her novels,– the viewer sees an ebullient, charismatic and theatrical mind of extraordinary talent:  both buoyant and vivacious.  Friends repeatedly describe her as a party-goer who loves clothes and is joyful in being herself and celebrating any occasion with friends. Many were invited to her Nobel Prize parties.  But she doesn’t tolerate fools easily, either.

First and foremost,  Morrison is a literary warrior reflecting the dark mirror of untold truths, things unsaid.   When asked by Dick Cavett on his nightly talk show if she dislikes being praised as a Black writer, she beams and answers that she is proud of being a Black woman writer but cringes at being asked that question by white interviewers.

Blowback was inevitable in the context of her meteoric rise in popularity.  The New York Times declared Morrison too talented to “remain a recorder of black provincial life” in its review of her book, Sula.  The mid-1980s furor that followed resulted in a petition signed by prominent Black authors urging that Morrison be given a major literary prize. In 1993 it was in Europe that her magnificent work was first awarded  the highest honor any author can receive:  the Nobel Prize in Literature.

But we also see a private, delightful writer who has the heft and electrical charge of a powerhouse to be reckoned with. Her prose is intricately woven with intelligence, wit, unpredictability, toughness and fearlessness.  And so is the woman–who challenged the inflection and fantasy of the American dream in every sentence she spoke publicly and in every line she wrote.  Moving photographs–some of her family threaded together with  19th-century engravings  and contemporary art by Kerry James Marshall, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden among others–contribute to the memorable beauty of Toni Morrison and the world she has created.

I watched this and was transfixed. The wisdom of Ms. Morrison is eternal…it touches us all.

Availability:   Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix.

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Ragnarok–Thor on Steroids

Ragnarok,  a Norwegian fantasy series, takes place in the fictional town  of Edda, in Hordaland, the home of the mythological Norse god of thunder, Thor.  This modern day Ragnarök follows the story of  the Norse mythology of the god Thor.  Ragnarok stands for the end of the world and the twilight of the gods, with natural disasters leading to a battle between the gods (Thor) and giants (Jutuls).  In this reimagining of the myth, Ragnarok is environmental disaster due to climate change from corporate giants.  Edda is owned and controlled by the Jutul family, the fifth richest family in Norway, and the owners of much of the town’s economy as well as responsible for its rampant industrial pollution.

Magne Seier, a reincarnation of the thunder-god Thor, is a teenage boy who has recently moved to Edda with his younger brother and single mom, recently widowed. The mom has returned to work for her former classmate and lover, Vidar Jutul, the patriarch and corporate power that dominates Edda.  In a duplicitous scheme, Vidar is advertising the town as a nature destination while polluting it with company effluents.

Slowly Magne begins to realize he has the superpowers of a god, which becomes evident and threatening to the Jutuls.  Magne’s first and only friend at school is an environmental activist, a sort of Greta Thunberg,  with a YouTube channel she uses to expose pollution, glacial melt, and mutant trout guts. One teacher asks Magne to make sure his whole project isn’t about how “old white men” are destroying the world. Magne’s comeback: “Well, aren’t they?”

Ragnarok mini-series

Can Magne, this awkward, , dyslexic, good-natured teenager save the world against some formidable enemies? And how is this teenage hero going to handle his newfound power?  Magne soon discovers that the illness and death arising in the town is due to the toxic waste from Jutul Industries.

Ragnarok is a novel approach to the Norse legend story, fun to watch, and a break from the Marvel comic blockbuster  version of Thor and his superpowers.

Availability:  Premiered on Netflix streaming on January 31, 2020.

The Spanish Princess–An Imperial Royal Highness

The Spanish Princess is a ShowTime limited series based on the novels The Constant Princess (2005) and The King’s Curse (2014) by Philippa Gregory.  This is a  drama about the teenage Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope who played Ramsay Boulton’s lover Myranda in “Game of Thrones”). She becomes  the first queen of England betrothed to King Henry VIII  (Ruairi O’Connor).

Teenage princess Catherine of Aragon, daughter of  the Spanish Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, travels to England  in 1501, to meet her husband by arranged marriage to  Arthur, Prince of Wales, heir apparent to Henry VII of England.  Smitten with the love letters she had been receiving, Catherine assumes that Prince Arthur is the man of her dreams.   Betrothed since she was a young child, the marriage is also an economic negotiation for wealth from Spain to a sorely needed English court desperate for funds. Unwelcomed by some as a foreigner and by others as too headstrong for a future queen, Catherine of Aragon and her diverse court retainers struggle to fit in. Soon Arthur’s younger brother, the magnetic Henry, Duke of York, reveals he is  the author of the romantic letters she has cherished. When Arthur dies suddenly, her fate becomes perilous.  She longs to marry Henry but– as she had been married to his brother– Catherine is confronted by  the Old Testament ban on  marriage to a brother’s widow.   Only a papal dispensation can allow the marriage to take place.  Furthermore, Catherine maintains that she is still a virgin because her marriage to Arthur was never consummated (a lie).

With court intrigue mounting between Henry’s diabolical mother, Lady Margaret (Harriet Walter) , who severely disapproves of Catherine, and Catherine’s fighting for the status and security of a queen, the viewer is treated to several subplots.  One  is a lady-in-waiting deeply involved with a Muslim knight who is accused of being a “heathen”. Another is  the burden on the royal family to broker marriages which will provide male heirs.   To ensure continuity of the regime, their hegemony, and their exorbitant property holdings,  court intrigue was not for the faint of heart.  And the draining of court coffers due to the high cost of continual war  ensured that marriage was a business negotiation for national interests and power struggles.  Catherine of Aragon is merely an asset from Spain to add to the British court’s  wealth through her dowry and her family’s alliances. But Catherine of Aragon  won’t be dismissed easily.  She is imperious, manipulative, and scheming–everything that makes The Spanish Princess so entertaining!

Note: The first eight episodes premiered on May 5, 2019. The remaining eight episodes– Season 2– premiered on October 11, 2020. The series finale aired on November 29, 2020.

“News of the World”–A Gift for the Heart

News of the World is based on the Paulette Jiles’s bestseller by the same name. The story follows a sixty-something curmudgeonly widower,   Captain  Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a traveling newspaper reader. Captain Kidd  entertains and informs townspeople–some of whom are illiterate– in small communities all over  Texas:  for the price of a silver dime. The year is 1870, five years after Reconstruction, and Texans still are disgruntled by their defeat after the end of the Civil War.

In the opening scene a Black man has been lynched and a ten-year-old blonde white girl (Helena Zengel) is hiding from Union authorities looking for her.  The girl speaks only Kiowa, the language of the tribe who has raised her after killing her parents and her older sister in retaliation for the government’s land grab of their territories.  She yearns to be with her Kiowa family.

At the insistence of the Union authorities  Kidd reluctantly assumes responsibility for returning the girl to her German immigrant relatives, a task the girl resents. Kidd feels ill-equipped to accompany her there, a trip of several hundred miles, while continuing his itinerant life as a newspaper reader.  But this is no ordinary Western and Kidd and the little girl he calls Johanna have challenges in establishing communication and trust in each other.

News of the World is marketed as a Western involving a horse-and-wagon road trip in a fight for survival in inhospitable, unwelcoming regions of the Texas Panhandle.  But primarily it is a feel-good “old man and little girl” story of human decency and the need for family.  Both Tom Hanks–who is made for this role–and Helena Zengel who performs the feat of conveying all of her angst without uttering more than a few words of English, Kiowa or German–make News of the World  a gift for the heart.

Availability: Paid “theater” ticket for streaming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Availability: Netflix streaming

“The Reagans”–Truth At Last

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

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

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

Watch this and draw your own conclusions.

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

My Top 30 Movies and TV Series for 2020

Looking for your next movie to watch?  

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

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

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

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This theme of the easily manipulated widow, who is too lonely and engulfed by grief to see reality for what it is, usually has few surprises.  Not so for this film. Full of twists and turns that some viewers may think stretch credulity, like any good thriller the foreshadowing and clues are there if one watches carefully and asks why that scene is there.

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

A tenacious attorney uncovers the  dark secret hidden by one of the US’s most illustrious corporations–DuPont.  “Better Living Through Chemistry–DuPont’s advertising jingle–this is not. A growing number of unexplained animal deaths is investigated.

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

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

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

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

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

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

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

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

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

12) Hillary— Unmasked  (May 19)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference is made to “Asimov blocks”, the Isaac Asimov first law of robotics: do no harm to humans.  But Humans is, first and foremost, dystopian.   Dark and brooding, Humans raises more questions than it answers about the interaction between humans and the computerized world of artificial intelligence. 

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

Decadence and gentility reside side by side with degradation, cruelty and violence. That this Gilded Age is mere window dressing for a savage  murder mystery.  Sara takes the lead as the forceful investigator who must confront not only the city’s underground gangsters, but sexism, a corrupt police commissioner (and the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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