Queen & Slim–Majestic Yet Thin

Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas (“Insecure”) and written by Lena Waithe (“Master of None”),  was influenced by the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.  A story about police brutality and the stress and horror of daily life for a black person in America, Queen & Slim is a gripping fictional film that feels all too real.  

A first Tinder date– mediocre and uneventful–  takes an unexpected turn.  On their way home in a blustery winter night in Cleveland, a young couple are  pulled over for a minor traffic incident. Slim (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith)  are calm and cooperative.  The situation soon escalates. The policeman wounds Queen.  Slim, expecting to be next, grabs the officer’s gun,  shooting him in self-defense. Now targeted as cop-killers, Slim and Queen go  on the run. She is a successful criminal defense lawyer whose legal experience tells her that the court  is unlikely to give them a fair hearing.  Slim is, nevertheless, resistant  in accepting that he is now  a fugitive.

Unaware that the incident is captured on video and that the cop has a history of rogue murders, Queen and Slim unwittingly become a symbol of structural racism, trauma, terror, grief and pain for African Americans across the country. The video goes viral. The couple convince themselves that they should run, even though Queen knows that they are facing a death sentence. Slim is in denial.  But they still hope for a miracle while unable to plan an escape. In this thriller, where  a pair of young soon-to-be lovers are making a mad dash for freedom, the viewer is entangled emotionally with their inept  effort, hoping against odds that they will survive.

Queen & Slim is a difficult movie to review.  The film is deeply interesting, focused on legacy,  the power of memory and the symbols that propel political and social movements.   Queen & Slim  frames the plot on the history of  a nation infected by a racial inequality so virulent that good people are forced to take the law into their own hands. There is anger without apology, one of the most deeply moving themes in this movie.

The story is powerful, both politically charged and psychologically draining. The content of the film, however, is uneven and incompletely constructed.   Slim and Queen’s  characters are only loosely sketched,  particularly their backstory.  How did Queen become so successful in a courtroom often hostile to her clients?  Why is her relationship with her mother so dysfunctional?  How does Slim fall in love with someone so opposed to him?   

Kaluuya’s performance as the reticent and pure-hearted Slim, in deep denial that a crime was committed, is worth watching in itself.  And newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith matches his performance.  Even though the characters often don’t act rationally,  one has to be reminded that they are young, lonely, and want to have the thrill of romance. They suppress the  reality that  the police, at any moment, could overtake them.

More robust  portraits of Queen and Slim–their interior lives– would create scenes more personally compelling as well as more memorable.   Furthermore, the music track often disrupts the tension and momentum of the story.

Queen & Slim is a provocative, sometimes uncomfortable and frequently unsettling movie experience that is still very much worth seeing. It presents to the audience what it is like to have your grip on the world shattered while asking  what use that grip was anyway.

Note: Available on Netflix.

“The Restaurant”–A Banquet of Plots

This Sundance Now series from Sweden begins  in May 1945 in celebration of the end of World War II. Calle Svensson, a young working class aspiring chef, plants an impulsive kiss on a pretty young stranger, Nina Löwander.  Her family owns a traditional, if old-fashioned, restaurant in Stockholm.  Although officially neutral during the war,  Sweden had both Nazi supporters and resisters.  The first of three seasons in The Restaurant grapples with the war’s aftermath.

While peace is proclaimed all over Europe, a family battle begins to rage among Löwander family members: the matriarch, Helga, the widow of the restaurant founder; her eldest son, Gustaf;   his brother Peter; and the daughter Nina. At times a fierce sibling rivalry for control of the restaurant becomes brutal and embittered with betrayal and deceit.  Meanwhile, free-spirited Nina, the youngest, seeks independence.  Unforeseen consequences happen.  Subplots involve Margareta, a waitress struggling to support her three-year-old son,  immigrant employees diabolically abused, and in-fighting among the chef’s staff.

No one in the drama experiences anything but momentary  happiness, intensifying the action and moving the story forward.  Rarely does an episode drag, except with somewhat lengthy music and dancing in the restaurant club that Nina manages. Primarily a richly plotted multigenerational family saga, The Restaurant deals with the world we are born into (including class) and how we react when that world changes. Much of the Lowander’s story focuses on the mother’s treatment of  each sibling and how that impacts  their decisions.

Sometimes called the Swedish “Downton Abbey, with its class hierarchy,  The Restaurant goes beyond that reductionist label. The “Upstairs, Downstairs” restrictive behavior is soon nullified by the family saga within the Lowander family itself. Each main character has to struggle with financial considerations that impact their own families separate from their siblings.

Embracing time-leaps over two decades (1946-1962), The Restaurant,  sustains the drama’s momentum from falling into boredom-creep that plagues so many period dramas. Characters  evolve along with the radical social changes engulfing the conservative Swedish government. Historical footage of Stockholm and exquisite cinematography evokes the changes The Restaurant series touches on: issues including abortion, sexual identity and the political animus towards unionization.

A true gem to discover during this lockdown! 

“The Aftermath” (2019) — Unforeseen Consequences

Hamburg is in ruins five months after Germany surrenders in 1946.  The Aftermath opens with scenes of German residents  starving and displaced in bombed-out neighborhoods.  Now, they must face Brits and Americans bossing them around their native land, requisitioning their most luxurious homes for their own use during the occupation. Some Germans are so resentful they’re still willing to die defiantly in the name of Hitler.

We don’t often see  a film centered on the immediate aftermath of World War II from a German perspective.  Yet The Aftermath is not only for history buffs and those who enjoy historical romance.  Here we are introduced to the overt tensions between the German people struggling to make a new life under the watchful eye of the same people who they tried to destroy and who destroyed their city.  The war’s immediate aftermath exacerbates unhealed wounds on both sides:  for the victorious and for the defeated.

Enter British officer Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), accompanied by his wife, Rachel (Keira Knightley), who  is livid that her husband  has offered to share the home they have requisitioned with its rightful owner Herr Lubert (Alexander Skarsgard) and his troubled teenage daughter, Freda. Otherwise, the Luberts would face grim conditions in a refugee camp.

Alexander Skarsgard and Keira Knightley

Tensions between the two  families inevitably build to a crisis in the midst of the rubble by the Allied forces. And in addition, Colonel Morgan, fundamentally a decent officer who wishes to treat the Germans with dignity, is overwhelmed with the obligation to rebuild the city, and is morally distraught by what he witnesses.  This has left Morgan emotionally numb.

All of the characters in The Aftermath are wounded in some way and it is fascinating to watch them clash and interact, repulse and attract.  All are deeply flawed but worthy of sympathy.

This sleeper of a war drama, The Aftermath,  is primarily a tale of lives skittering across the surface, unblessed, and at risk of drowning.

Note:  Available as a Netflix DVD now and on HBO July 1, 2020. For viewers who feel that subtitles are a bit cumbersome: The subtitles for the brief dialogue in German are in a much smaller font than for the English.  This is especially difficult in reading white letters against a light background.

“Mrs. America”–A Closet Feminist?

Mrs. America is the history-packed and binge-worthy nine-episode Hulu series created by Dahvi Waller (of “Mad Men”). We see a dazzling sweep of history from the early 1970s  to 1982 as the  fight against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment unfolds.  Still unpassed, the ERA would create a  constitutional ban on discrimination against women.  Its failure to win approval was due in large measure to the  brilliant political strategist Phyllis Schlafly. Cate Blanchett embodies captivating contradictions as Schlafly, the antiheroine in Mrs. America.

The story of her STOP ERA movement was in many ways an origin story for the culture wars still raging today, a  playbook for how we got to be the polarized nation we are.  We see the   beginning with Schlafly’s brilliant use of grassroots mobilization–mailing lists, manipulating recorded speeches for the media, and moving supporters across state lines to protest what had been seen as a benign and popular constitutional amendment.  The issues were many: gendered pay equity. LGBTQ rights, access to abortion, racism, protections against sexual harassment (i.e., #MeToo) and domestic abuse.

While Mrs. America is foremost a docudrama about Phyllis Schlafly, a parallel plot involving two fictional characters:   Alice (Sarah Paulson) and Pamela (Kayli Carter) begin as women who believe that their  most important job is to be a wife supporting her husband’s ambitions and a mother. For someone like Phyllis Schlafly, a privileged, highly educated woman (who had run for a political position in Illinois), to come along and say, “We’re going to protect your status,” was an irresistible elixir for many.   

Mrs. America is complicated and richly multi-dimensional on several surprising levels.  Schlafly basically built a gilded cage and got locked inside it herself.  Here’s an elegant intellectual and ambitious woman who was rejected by the Washington establishment in spite of the fact that she wrote brilliant position papers on nuclear disarmament which Henry Kissinger adopted as his own,.  Almost in a retaliatory way, Schlafly takes up a cause that has some traction,–pro-family, pro-choice, anti-ERA and anti-gay rights– to build her base. And  she uses that base to magnificent effect: building email lists that senators and presidential candidates beg for, including Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.  Both of whom she supported enthusiastically but did not garner their explicit anti-ERA support after they secured the nomination and, in Reagan’s case, the presidency.

There’s no denying the homemakers that comprised Schlafly’s army are sympathetic, because they’ve lost status when compared to working women. And Schlafly senses that longing for visibility and acceptance.  Benign sexism was the petri dish in which she cultivated her Eagle Forum movement, recruiting churches as a source for her mailing lists and memberships.  Grassroots politics became a stunning juggernaut for influencing voters:  “The person that everybody’s paying attention to always wins” Phyllis preaches to her choir.  Her followers became a fervent cult of acolytes and certainly not stay-at-home housewives.  The irony is palpable.

A lot of the people who made up the counterrevolution to the women’s movement were the same people who led the backlash to the civil rights movement. The segregationists became the anti-feminists. The Ku Klux Klan supported her financially but secretly.  The overriding theme for the anti-ERA movement was  a fear of change to traditional womens’ status.

Schlafly ran for Congress in 1952, wrote four books on nuclear weapons strategy as well as  “The Conservative Case for Trump” (published the day after she died in 2016).  She helped Barry Goldwater secure the Republican presidential nomination and wrote a syndicated column that ran in more than 100 American newspapers for 30 years.  Schlaffly also had been a national-security expert on Soviet Union politics for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

The irony of Phyllis Schlafly is that she created a battalion of  affluent housewives,  empowered them to leave their homes to attend conventions, and turned into political activists who understood the power structure in Washington. Certainly no mere stay-at-home moms.  We see the ascendancy of the far-right with Phil Crane (later co-founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation), Paul Manafort and Roger Stone asking for her political prowess to gain women voters. 

Bella Abzug and Schlafly even used the same campaign slogan in their congressional runs: “A Woman’s Place Is in the House”… the House of Representatives for Abzug,   For Schlafly’s followers it was the suburban home, but not for Schlafly herself who seemed to be rarely at home.

In the 1970’s the ambition had to be disguised for her cohort to follow.  Her husband, fifteen years her senior,  played by John Slattery of “Mad Men”, only reluctantly accepts her growing fame.  Perhaps one of the more poignant aspects of her not-easily-categorized personality is the fact that she understood the power of the polemic, of a binary either-or polarization that would evoke outrage and zealotry.  Schlafly was a master of the message, however brazenly a lie, and a master of bringing followers together without division and infighting for a bigger share of the power.

Perhaps the climax is twofold and viscerally bloodletting:  Schlafly in a scene at the end—victorious in defeating the ERA but betrayed by the male politicians who learned and gained from her.  And Alice, an erstwhile friend, who deplores why Schlafly became so “mean” in pursuit of a  winner-takes-all strategy.

Note:  The battle over ERA realigned the Republican and Democratic parties.  Not one Republican Congressman supports abortion and the Republican-controlled  Senate will not take up the ERA proposal, after the Democratic-controlled  House approved rescinding the deadline—previously 1982—for ratifying the ERA.  So far the thirty-eight states needed for ratification have occurred, with the latest—Virginia—passing the ERA this year, almost forty years  after the initial failure to acquire the necessary votes.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood  is a dramatization of the real-life friendship between the beloved Fred Rogers (March 20, 1928 – February 27, 2003) and the investigative reporter,  Lloyd Vogel (a pseudonym for Tom Junod.). Vogel (played by Emmy winner Matthew Rhys of “The Americans”), is a journalist known for being cynical and abrasive. He is given the assignment to profile the beloved PBS television host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: Fred Rogers (the incomparable Tom Hanks), But he is determined to reveal that no one can have such a good and warm-hearted nature.

A feel-good story of kindness and integrity triumphing over cynicism, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a chronicle of the groundbreaking show which became a cultural touchstone for more than two generations of children. [The show ran on PBS from 1968-2001, with a total of  895 episodes.]  Rather the US’s most beloved neighbor is intent upon demonstrating what a neighborhood really consists of.    This  takes great effort, introspection, and role-modeling.  (For an excellent documentary of the history and development of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, see my review of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, March 17, 2019.)

There is a dual plot. Roger’s empathy, kindness and decency prove to be an anodyne to Vogel’s unhealed wounds.  This forces the reporter to reconcile with his own painful relationship with his father (played by an astounding Chris Cooper, most recently in “Little Women”).   What children and their parents find endearing about Fred Rogers soon affects Vogel deeply:   the psychological healing when Rogers probes Vogel’s feelings about his parents the same way he taps into children’s.  The surprise for viewers is how much both the personalities–Rogers and Vogel–play off each other and gain strength from their relationship. 

Tom Hanks channels Fred Rogers in a jaw-dropping performance, including his vocal range, body language, and facial expressions. The viewer gets a powerful, touching tribute to Fred Rogers and the impact he had on so many children’s lives.  Matthew Rhys’s performance as Vogel matches the accomplished brilliance of Hanks.  The death scenes for both Vogel’s mother and father are  memorable and moving, with a theatrical sensibility of the stage, –stripped clean of any background noise or special effects–and a nuanced, impossible-to-forget performance by Chris Cooper.  The entire ensemble cast couldn’t be better

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood manages to make you think about yourself and how you can change the world “in your own special way”.   He tells millions of children all over the world that he likes them just the way they are.   His demonstration of the impact of kindness, –and courageous and positive ways of thinking and dealing with our emotions,–  makes feelings both “mentionable and manageable”. Speaking directly to the camera from his heart and transitioning to a make-believe world may be the most startling reality-TV show ever.

An unexpected delight to watch for every adult (but not young children).  I thought it would be saccharine…it is not.

Note: Available as a Netflix DVD. May 22 is the 143rd day of the year and a celebration of the late Fred Rogers’ favorite number. Shorthand for “I love you.” Because there is one letter in “I,” four in “love” and three in “you.”) of the calendar year, has been designated as “143 Day” in tribute to Mr. Rogers.

Fred Rogers is the sixth cousin of Tom Hanks.

“Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich”–Obscene Power

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is an explosive and deeply disturbing four-part Netflix Original documentary, that spotlights a dark international web of underage sex trafficking.  Billionaire playboy and financier Jeffrey Epstein operated his sick obsession in plain sight. In Filthy Rich we watch this wealthy predator cultivate links to extraordinarily powerful people including current and former presidents and a British prince.  In 2019 Epstein was finally convicted of  sex trafficking and associated crimes after similar charges ended in a widely-criticized plea deal. 

Released this year but filmed before his death on August 10, Filthy Rich underscores the desperation of young girls, often from abusive homes with little recourse for feeding or housing themselves. We see how these girls succumb to the promise of a better life promised by  Epstein and his socialite ex-girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell. These now young women  remain traumatized by the assault and abuse dating back  close to 30 years.   Several survivors give harrowing and courageous accounts of depravity, aborted attempts to escape,  and determination to move on.    Epstein’s real-estate portfolio –New York, New Mexico, the US Virgin Islands, London– provided  seclusion from the public eye.  Epstein’s homes were not easily penetrated from the outside. But surveillance systems enabled  video entrapment from the inside.

Several of the survivors display an  incredible lack of awareness and common sense.  They recruit their younger sisters and friends in a sex trafficking pyramid scheme involving payments for bringing in other minors. We witness a  couple of particularly memorable survivors eventually realize and come to understand the immoral power of the rich, who arrogantly believe they can buy other human beings with impunity.  And they did…for almost thirty years.  And still do.

An outrageous plea bargain, together with powerful friends Epstein could blackmail, and corrupt law enforcement protected Epstein from serious criminal sentencing. The first trial in 2005 was half-heartedly undertaken by Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta (who later became Secretary of Labor under Trump but resigned within days of Epstein’s arrest in July.)

The FBI is reportedly still investigating Ghislaine Maxwell who ‘facilitated’ Epstein’s depravity, but her current location remains unknown. Even after Epstein was found dead in prison, (purportedly from an apparent suicide), the investigation and prosecution continue.  Prince Andrew, pictured alongside an underage girl and Epstein, has so far refused to appear as a witness before US federal prosecutors pursuing criminal charges against Epstein’s co-conspirators. 

The attorney in charge, Geoffrey Berman, appears prominently in Filthy Rich, as do employees who worked for Epstein at his US Virgin Islands estate.  Also highlighted are the Florida police and FBI officials who were both overruled for their pursuit of this pedophile.  The courage of the women who came forward may, perhaps, not be stamped out this time.

Note:  Available to stream now on Netflix. 

See the Business Insider for a detailed description of Epstein’s playbook for sexual predation using offshore real estate and lavish accommodations to entice young girls to his mansions.  Also CNN footage of survivors’ accounts.

“The English Game”–From Provincial to International

The English Game, Netflix Original

The English Game, created by Julian Fellowes (of “Downton Abbey”),  is a Netflix Original period drama based upon a true story.  Set in 1880’s England, The English Game is a notable example of class divisions exhibited in the early evolution of football aka soccer.  Rising from a provincial game that was socially stratified for the “Old Etonians” of noble birth, we see the evolution of football to a world-class game, perhaps the most popular in the world.

Soccer’s first governing body was an “old-boy network” consistent with  a clubby insular game for the privileged.  They knew the playbook but to their chagrin soccer began to trickle down to the lower classes.

Edward Holcroft

By the time The English Game opens,  two Scotts from a mill town are drafted  as the first paid players in soccer.  Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie) and his friend, Jimmy Love (James Harkness) become the stars of the mill town soccer team, and prepare for playing in the semi-finals against the aristocrats.  They create a new strategy of playing that upends the traditional style followed by the elite.

However, players being compensated for their skills were against the Football Association’s rules and so, the plot thickens. Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), an Old Etonian of impeccable aristocratic status, is a founding member of the Football Association and heir to the white-shoe family bank that owns the mill sponsoring the paid players.  His team is the arch-rival to the mill town team and unaccustomed to their  innovative play strategy.

While The English Game is ostensibly about sportsmanship and soccer in particular, the overriding theme is class division and the leveling of the playing field for all who qualify, not just those who create exclusionary rules to avoid competition.  And the subplots of competition between father and son, women’s vulnerable status and exploitation in a world of privileged men,  in a highly rigid society are compelling to watch. 

You don’t need to be a sports fan to enjoy The English Game!

“Hillary”–Unmasked

Hillary,  an intimate and candid four-part series about  former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton– one of the most admired and vilified women in the world–features never-before-seen footage of her life from birth in a close-knit family in Chicago, Illinois.  The mission of this documentary is not only to interview Hillary Clinton (for a total of thirty-five hours) and several dozen colleagues and personal friends but also to try to analyze why people found 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.

For  the first time in perhaps four decades, we see Clinton engage in a wide-ranging conversation about herself as a private citizen with breathtaking courage and unflinching reflection on those mistakes. This is maybe the first time she hasn’t had to self-censor.

Even with her exclusive access to Hillary Clinton, filmmaker Nanette Burstein  did not intend to go over familiar territory about perhaps the most scrutinized public figure in the last half-century. “Can a woman ever—really, actually ever,– become president of the United States?”  To this day, there is no easy answer.  And only one woman has come extremely, some would say, perilously close.

Childhood friends,  her daughter Chelsea, former President Barack Obama as well as staff members, campaign managers, journalists, and senators, both Republican and Democrat, are interviewed. The former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich so hated the idea of being interviewed that he is on record as responding: “I would rather stick a needle in my eye than talk to you about Hillary Clinton in a documentary.”

Hillary frames the Hillary Clinton  of the past half-century as a woman who learned that to be taken seriously, she’d have to wear a mask. She never fully removes it, of course, but in these interviews it occasionally slips, and clues about a  brilliant intellectual that no one else seems to get are revealed. “I’m a private person,” Hillary confesses, “and I’ve made mistakes because of that.” As a woman especially, she may be just too cerebral for some people to put up with.  Hillary Clinton is a national lightning rod for women’s status and image–the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Hillary Clinton was criticized for coming off as too cold,–even emotionless– but she had been forced to learn how to be affectless as the rare female law student at Yale University. Clinton’s gender hindered her in unpredictable ways as Burstein’s documentary unfolds.   She was scrutinized, investigated, loved  and hated. 

At one interview, Hillary seems almost perplexed at the double standard, even after all the years on the campaign trail:  “I’ve been on platforms with lots of male candidates, and they have shouted, they have beaten the podium, they have gone crazy with their hands and arms, and nobody said a thing.” “A woman candidate? Her voice rises, and somehow that’s over a line.”   But what line has been drawn?

The filmmaker does a commendable job illustrating what Clinton was subjected to throughout her career:  from footage of protesters with “Iron My Shirt” signs at her rallies, to male supporters earnestly advising her to smile more and wear something besides pantsuits.  For younger viewers this past may seem almost unbelievable, in its  blatant sexism.  To the babyboomer generation, the behavior is dishearteningly familiar.

When Trump stalked behind Clinton in an effort to physically intimidate her,  Clinton wanted to call him out, but didn’t. “He was preening like an alpha male.” She knew how the press would react.

Her communications director elaborates on why confronting Trump would have been ill-advised. “I think the post-2016 election world is a different universe — I think a woman could do that and be lauded for standing up to a man who was trying to intimidate her, but not then.” The same resistance to pushing back occurs throughout the film, in  spite of anger: in the email with James Comey, in the PizzaGate trolling and in the Whitewater investigation.  

She demonstrates how aware she is of the public’s perception of her and the role her gender has played in her polarizing image.  And her most painful moments– when she had to face her husband’s sexual predation of Monica Lewinsky– are some of the most heartbreaking to watch.  Hillary is personally hurt, admits that she could hardly breathe when Bill admitted he was lying, and demanded that he explain to their daughter about the affair.  A fragile, chastened Bill Clinton is seen as a vulnerable humbled man for the unspeakable betrayal of her trust.

Clinton is also positive about how the women’s movement has brought change, but still there is no guarantee that the hard-fought changes and laws will not be rescinded or pushed back. Her tone is optimistic and hopeful, nonetheless.

Hillary is instructive and emblematic of a period in history that is not that long ago.  Even for those who despise her, the series offers a unique glimpse behind the scenes of some of the most consequential moments in recent political history.

She cracked the glass ceiling.  We now wait for it to be shattered. .

Note:  Available on Hulu.

“Baptiste”–After The Missing

In this spinoff of the BBC popular series “The Missing”, detective  Baptiste is now retired and recovering from brain surgery. The six-part crime procedural, Baptiste, is  an intense crime thriller.

Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo) is called in by Amsterdam’s Chief of Police and former lover to investigate the disappearance of Natalie, a young sex worker. He  meets her uncle Edward (Tom Hollander of “The Night Manager”) and soon Baptiste and Edward become involved in taking down a Romanian crime organization.   The Romanians are in the business of sex trafficking in the red light district of the city.  While still the same old curmudgeon as in “The Missing”,  Detective Baptiste now has conflicting emotions in his relationship with his own daughter, and with his former lover.  Nonetheless, he is quickly sucked into a case that exposes the seedy underworld of Amsterdam beneath the picturesque streets and canals. His family suffers while he becomes obsessed with the case.

Filled with a number of red herrings to throw the viewer off track, Baptiste may fool the viewer as to what really happened to Natalie, and who really is implicated in sex trafficking.  This is a great whodunit worthy of six hours of viewing time.

Note:  Available on Masterpiece Theater and pbs.org.  Baptiste premiered in April of this year.  A second season is planned for next year.

“Contagion”–Infects Us All

Contagion

With the tagline: “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone”, this B-rated movie “Contagion” (2011), directed by Stephen Soderbergh, is eerily prescient nine years later.

A pandemic–“a novel virus”– is about to create havoc, beginning with the opening scene where Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is at the Hong Kong airport, waiting to catch a plane back to Chicago.  Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) will soon discover that his wife is patient zero–the  original carrier of the deadly virus which begins to get out of control in a matter of days.  The CDC’s principal investigators,   Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet)  and Dr. Cheever   (Laurence Fishburne),  attempt to identify the virus and develop a vaccine while analyzing the exponential rate of growth.  Everyone worldwide is advised to stay calm, maintain social distancing (yes, they use that term) and wear masks to avoid touching their own faces.  It is unsettling to hear terms now commonplace such as fomites (the surfaces to which viruses cling) and R0 (“r-naught”)–the number of people a single carrier infects.   

Contagion movie

Several days pass before anyone realizes the extent or gravity of this new virus. In Contagion we see hospital workers with insufficient protective equipment,– some without N95 masks,– succumb as first responders. Do you hear the Twilight Zone theme song yet?  The Centers for Disease Control, led by Dr. Cheever’s investigative team, is villified and accused of conspiracies.  An unethical journalist profits from a homeopathic “cure” which creates mobs at local drugstores.  Looting and panic ensue.

As the contagion spreads to millions of people worldwide, societal order begins to break down as people panic in the uncertainty that a vaccine will be developed. 

The second time around, viewing Contagion is a chilling déjà vu. No longer a film of science fiction, depicting a dystopia in the distant future, Contagion is a cautionary tale right now… for all of us.

“Little Fires Everywhere”–Incendiary at Its Best

Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio during the late 1990s, Little Fires Everywhere is based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel by the same name. Reese Witherspoon (Elena)and Kerry Washington (Mia)  steal the show as mothers from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds.  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.

Shaker Heights’s community ethos prides itself on its civic duty, open and liberal lifestyle, and a desirability that does not include anything unseemly, dangerous or grass exceeding six inches in length.  The unpleasant and the disastrous reside elsewhere.  The community’s bubble is impenetrable…until it isn’t.

Elena Richardson is a smart, highly educated suburban mother and Shaker Heights reporter who is also a perfectionist.  Problem is that one of her four teenage children does not meet her expectations, no matter how low the bar she begrudgingly sets for Isabelle (Izzy), her youngest.  The mother and daughter are toxic:  opposing forces of nature. Elena is a narcissist, so the kids are self-reflecting objects … little trophy children, all about what others think.  Izzy doesnt play Elena’s game  and, in return, Elena seems incapable of any love or empathy for her.

Mia is a very talented artist but she can be overly protective and possessive about her teenage daughter Pearl.  And Elena believes she is in control of her kids and her life, but she really knows very little about  her children.  Neither Elena nor Mia are allowed into their daughters’ worlds and conversely, their daughters do not know them. 

Each mother believes herself to be a good and decent parent because both have structured their lives to shield their daughters from failure.   Yet their sense of self is not challenged.  Both Elena and Mia want a family with strong connections and bonds, but the connecting and dividing are sometimes in the same moment.

Little Fires Everywhere explores motherhood in all its pain, joy and self-denial, cutting to the bone.  Marriage, sexual identity, race and ethnicity are intertwined with the psychology of class and white privilege.

While Shaker Heights self-congratulatory residents believe they say all the correct things about race, their feelings of  superiority are subconsciously ingrained– in the way only wealthy white folks can be. The thing about whiteness is, of course, if you’re not white, you know whiteness and the rules of whiteness better than white people do, because you have to co-exist.   

There is no stammering and flailing in Little Fires Everywhere. Perhaps more than any other scene,  we see, in the final moments,   the human effort to want to get something right even after everything has gone wrong.  The dialog, acting and pacing are extraordinary. Witherspoon and Washington are at their best.

Note:  Available on Hulu streaming.  And for a fascinating interview with the author, Celeste Ng, on the book-to-screen adaptation, see the LA Times article.

“Blow the Man Down”–Maine Down Under

Premiering at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, Blow the Man Down   is  a film debut by writer-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy. It opens in Easter Cove, a small parochial fishing village along the coast of Maine, in a somewhat clichéd but contemporary riff on “Murder She Wrote”.

 We see a history of covering up secrets by the small town’s residents.  And we listen to a chorus of fishermen sing “blow the man down” –referring to the shoving of a man to the bottom of a boat, either accidentally or on purpose.  And that is where the seemingly simple story begins.

The town’s fish market owner is dead, leaving behind a debt-ridden shop, a house in foreclosure, hospital bills, and two twenty-something daughters with very different expectations: Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor). Priscilla stayed in Easter Cove while the more rebellious Mary Beth went away to college. She reluctantly  returned home when their mom got sick. Both Mary Beth and Priscilla have now had their  dreams derailed.

The deceased mother’s three AARP-age friends gather to remember cherished details of their relationship with her: Suze (June Squibb), Doreen (Marceline Hugot) and Gail (Annette O’Toole). Not present is Enid (Margo Martindale), which seems curious but, as we learn later, not unexpected.

Is Blow the Man Down going to be a cozy mystery with a comfy feeling about a sweet little threesome of elderly women who like to have tea and gossip? Just a simple story with everything on a straight line until the end?  Easter Cove almost immediately turns claustrophobic. Another reminder we are in “Murder She Wrote” territory.  Three murders take place within a week.

Blow the Man Down  is about sisterhood and the lengths to which sisters will go for each other, even when their better instincts say they shouldn’t.  Easter Cove is filled with women, young and old, who have their own dark secrets in a circle of superficially friendly grit and darker compromises.

In an early scene a man chases a screaming young woman through the snow as Enid coldly watches through the window.  We wonder who she is watching and why Enid is not responding to the young woman’s obvious fight for her life.

Saylor and Lowe are amusing in their depictions of desperation and cluelessness, occasionally reminiscent of Woody Allen and the Coen brothers.  And although the two major characters are the young millennial sisters, it is the babyboomer females who hold the screen.  Margo Martindale (of “The Americans” and “Justified” among others) is a quiet scream as  Enid, the protagonist-snake who is the source for the community’s original sin. And June Squibb (who, in “Nebraska”, memorably straddles over a former boyfriend’s grave and mocks his spirit with “See what you could have had”) is  delightful as the town’s action-oriented matron who turns out to be more than the white-haired old biddy the viewer is expecting. Locals always take care of their own.

The acting is solid, the plot perhaps lacking backstory in character development, but the cinematography capturing the foggy and salty experience of fish guts and turbulent waters evokes Maine’s rugged yet insular coastal villages.  Close-ups of a fish-gutting knife and a Sisters’ brand pancake box alongside ocean waves, –lots of ocean waves–underscores the tone…and humor.

Eminently watchable during these sequestered, streamable times.

Note:  Available on Amazon Prime (original series).