“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)

“Coda”– A Song from the Heart

In this unusual introduction into the Deaf world, Coda features a high school student, Ruby Rossi (British newcomer, Emilia Jones), who is in love with music.  Trying out for the choir, she learns that a monumental decision will force her to leave her deaf parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur), and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant).  As the only hearing member of the family (CODA=Child of Deaf Adults), she is the communicator and interpreter for their struggling fishing business in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

How does a hearing child raised by deaf parents acquire speaking skills, and navigate school with students who do not understand what her life is like straddling two cultures:  Deaf and hearing?  That is the main theme of Coda, yet laced with humor and the usual teenage angst towards parents. . . and then some. A hilarious early scene has Ruby accompany her parents to the doctor’s office where she translates, via ASL, her father’s symptoms.  He signs that his “nuts are on fire” and scrunches his hands into fists, his fingers like crabs clawing into his skin. The diagnosis? Ruby has to sign “jock itch.”  The treatment?  No sex for two weeks.  Frank then asks his daughter to respond to the doctor for him:  “But I can’t.  Don’t you see how hot my wife is?”  Ruby is mortified, but the physical comedy is even more uproarious because of the sign language, so visual the viewer doesn’t need to understand ASL.

Ruby also experiences her first possible chance at love with Miles (Ferdie Walsh-Peelo), the student assigned to sing a duet with her for the school concert.  This subplot is rather weak and distracting.

Dreaming of a career as a singer, Ruby faces challenges practicing for an audition to win a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee School of Music.  The choir teacher, Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), recognizes her talent, empathizes with her family’s needs, but nevertheless reminds Ruby of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Particularly noteworthy are moments of poignancy, particularly between Ruby and her mother and separately, with her father that are universal but also specific to Deaf culture. Because her parents will never experience the sound of Ruby’s exquisite voice, the scene between Frank and Ruby, where he tries to understand the timbre of her voice and resulting talent, is exceptionally touching.

A very heartwarming glimpse of Deaf culture, without becoming unforgivably saccharine, in no small part is due to the gifted actors, especially Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, and Troy Kotsur.

Availability:  Apple+

Note:   Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant are deaf actors. The French movie upon which Coda is based–La Famille Bélier–controversially cast hearing actors for all major roles.

“The White Lotus”–White Gaze

In this HBOMax six-episode mini-series (which ended August 15), we watch two uber-wealthy families on vacation in Hawaii (at the upscale Four Seasons) make themselves miserable in a perfectly-seeming tropical paradise. Their privileged existence is the luxury not to be concerned with others. 

In White Lotus’s opening scene, at the airport, Shane Patton (Jake Lacy), an insufferable, narcissistic scion of a wealthy and powerful family, explains with great disdain to fellow passengers that his wife, Rachel, has died…on their honeymoon. A cardboard coffin marked  “human remains” is loading onto a plane.  We’re ready to be hooked in:  a mystery awaits.  Who killed Shane’s wife?

Privileged to a degree that the wrong hotel suite–one without a plunge pool–can ruin his honeymoon, Shane zeroes in on making Armond, the hotel manager pay–with a vengeance–for assigning him an “inferior”suite.  Shane deserves the best of the best–and feels unhinged by the perceived slight.  Armond (the scene-stealing Murray Bartlett), the “hired help” providing impeccable but fulsome service to those who expect no less, cannot comply with Shane’s wishes but is excruciatingly obsequious in trying to placate him…as do all hotel staff.

His young journalist wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) comes from a far more modest background, and is proud of her budding career.  She is beautiful, sincerely wants to be an independent woman, and is frightened by the specter of being Shane’s trophy wife.  Unable to endure Shane’s tantrums and humiliation of the hotel manager, Rachel soon becomes inconsolable.  Shane’s mother (Molly Shannon), who pays a surprise visit to her son and daughter-in-law on their honeymoon, tries to convince Rachel that being a trophy wife can be lots of fun.

The Mossbachers are equivalent to Shane Patton’s family in excess and decadence.  Nicole (Connie Britton) is a Forbes-style mega-entrepreneur emulated by ambitious women. But her teenage daughter, Olivia, can barely share the room’s oxygen with her. Bringing her friend, Paula, to distract from her dysfunctional family, Olivia hopes her friend will ease the tension on vacation.  Paula, however, grows increasingly uneasy with what she observes.  The dad, Mark (Steve Zahn), questions his own relationship with his son Quinn, the outlier in the family, after learning some secrets concerning his own father.

And then there is the wealthy single Tanya (the outstanding Jennifer Coolidge), who is in Maui to scatter the ashes of her unloving mother.  Lost, wanting some peace of mind, she offers to finance the dream of a local hotel masseuse, Brenda (Natasha Rothwell) to own her own spa.

This  luxury vacation is all about relaxation and renewal… until it is not..  The social critique of colonialism and its impact on the local residents is scathing and, at times, insightful.

All the characters have unhealed wounds, and most don’t know it.  They surround themselves with distractions, with what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “need to be white”,– the addiction to having power over others,– to use wealth and privilege to maintain position, oftentimes unaware of this thirst or the deep emptiness in their own souls.   Paula, in one scene, astringently observes that her friend, Olivia’s, insistence that she is not privileged and entitled is delusional:  “I guess it’s not stealing when you think that everything’s already yours.”  The self-absorption is, at times, on the verge of suffocation.

The hotel employees, caught up as providers for the served, want independence from being dominated. What drives the engine in all relationships throughout The White Lotus is money.  The hotel staff is essentially bought– body and soul– by the guests,

So many characters, so many threads of possibility:  dramatic turns of characters and their arcs.  We are hopeful.  But then they almost all fall flat. The ending of The White Lotus borders on fraudulent.  Hooking the viewer with an opening scene of a dead honeymooner in the tradition of a whodunit but then not delivering.

 No, no, no!   This series was such a disappointment in concept, writing, and overall structure with more questions than answers about amorphous, half-developed characters.  There were some good lines but I’m afraid a grade of C+ is generous, and only given because there was so much promise from excellent actors who needed a tightly plotted script, and a few highly original political and social comments about the “white gaze”.  A second season? Really?

Availability: HBOMax

“Silent Witness”-or Dead on Arrival

Silent Witness,  one of the longest running  BBC television series (broadcast in more than 235 countries),  focuses on a team of brilliant forensic pathologists who investigate a crime every two episodes. First broadcast in 1996, there now have been twenty-three seasons,  making  Silent Witness  the  entertainment industry’s longest running crime drama. The title character is a corpse lying on a slab prepared for a post-mortem analysis–a “silent witness”  providing evidence of a crime, suicide, or death by natural causes.   Stories untold, things unsaid. 

The crimes range  from human trafficking to  biological weapons, drug cartels, organized crime, corporate skullduggery, mental illness, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the occasional insurance scam or  accident. The most insignificant anatomical anomaly or physical trace of soil or insect can indicate whether a death is a suicide or a homicide, an accident or not.   Toxicology reports and DNA to identify a severed limb or family connection are quintessential procedural investigative stages.  Post-mortem dissection of body parts is not for the squeamish, as the pathologists, without noticeable  reaction, cut open and squeeze contents before plopping them onto a steel basin.  For those who flinch at biologically realistic appearing organs, bones and tissue, you might want to skip this series.  For those not squeamish you will find the scientific precision extolling  conclusions based on research and science to be riveting.

A brilliant, often ignored  female pathologist is commonly the key to solving the crime(s).  [Each two-episode case also features at least two corpses and two crimes to solve.]  The series has had multiple casting changes, including the actors who play the three pathologists.

It is challenging and so much fun to solve the crimes, from the viewer’s perspective.  All clues are there, if you pay close attention.  However, often an insignificant comment in a conversation at the beginning of an opening scene foreshadows who is the culprit. (Note:  It is never the most obvious suspect.) 

It is obvious why this series is such a crowd-pleaser.  Even with multiple casting changes throughout the twenty-three year history of Silent Witness, the drama keeps pace with  social change.  Nothing seems dated in any of the narratives, with the exception of some of the cases in South Africa.  In addition, not only the mystery and suspense of a whodunit plays to the audience’s interest, but also the backstories of the three key forensic pathologists.  Each is flawed with a corresponding family history and drama. The three pathologists’ unstable private lives often underscore the chaotic paths of their dogged, determined hunt for the killer, poking into their own psyches as they probe the “silent witness” to the crime.

Silent Witness is not headed to the morgue anytime soon, and certainly, is not dead on arrival.

Note:  A bonus feature to watching Silent Witness is seeing some of Britain’s most talented actors at the very beginning of their careers, mere acolytes learning the trade.  For the gimlet-eyed, some of the more notable are Idris Elba as an ambitious young boxer, Benedict Cumberbatch as a callow university student, Jodie Comer as the unfortunate subject of an exorcism,  and Daniel Kaluuya, as a teenager trying to eradicate a local gang’s influence on his family.

Availability:  Amazon Prime streaming.

“Navillera”—Soar Like a Butterfly

This quirky and endearing sleeper mini-series from Korea (premiered on Netflix,  March 2021)  is a definite winner.  (Navillera in Korean means “like a butterfly.”) 

In the opening scene Sim Deok-chul (the renowned Park In-hwan) is celebrating his 70th birthday with his wife, three sons and their wives.  Only the youngest son, considered a failure for quitting his hospital position as a doctor, is unmarried.  Sim is a retired mailman who always dreamed of performing “Swan Lake” on stage and now, at his advanced age,  is determined to follow his passion after seeing how  his friends regret not pursuing the dreams of their youth.  Accidentally, he observes the gifted Lee Chae-rok (Song Kang) practicing for his upcoming ballet competition.  Unbeknownst to Sim, Chae-rok is struggling financially, working a part-time job as a waiter, and is considering giving up ballet.

Sim persuades the ballet studio’s manager to accept him as a ballet student.  So Sim is assigned to be the young Chae-rok’s manager and follows Chae-rok around, making sure he eats well and practices without distraction.  Sim literally stalks him, almost following him into the bathroom.   At first Chae-rok is irritated and deeply annoyed, but both Chae-rok and Sim have family issues and dysfunctional relationships with their fathers.   They have a lot to learn from each other and most of all, have the need to develop empathy.   Sim’s family—and especially his wife in some hilarious scenes—can’t understand why he doesn’t play golf and follow the usual routine of a retiree.

Navillera

There are comic scenes between the elder Mr. Sim and his millennial counterpart as well.  Watching a 70 year-old dress up in a leotard with a beaming smile on his face is entirely unexpected and for this viewer, utterly charming.  Not quite a melodrama because of the extraordinary pas-de-deux (both figuratively and literally) between these two powerful and beautiful actors, Navillera does make us soar as the septuagenarian and his 20-something counterpart lift the story to a breathtaking, poignant finale where dreams and memories are not completely extinguished.  The peak of youth and the decline of the aging are mirrored images of disappointment and loss, seamlessly and poetically intertwined throughout the film.

Viewers will fall in love with this pair of sympathetic characters who must resolve issues from their painful past with mutual grace and compassion.  Don’t be surprised if you experience   a heart squeezing, and are moved to tears.

Note:  A great family show for adults and older children who can read subtitles.

Availability:  Netflix streaming

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“Cruella”–DeVil’s Delight?

Set in London in the 1970s, Cruella focuses on the backstory of the woman who becomes Cruella DeVil, the villain in the beloved children’s story, 101 Dalmatians.  This Disney film is the origin story of Cruella DeVil.   Beautifully costumed, creatively re-interpreting characters from the much-loved two previous 101 Dalmatians films, we are treated to a prequel like none this reviewer ever expected.

Estella Miller (the outstanding Emma Stone), is an aspiring fashion designer, orphaned and relegated to being a street grifter with two boys in a Dickensian survival-of-the-smartest.  As she is determined to pull no punches to achieve her dream, Estella will become Cruella by the end of the film.

Treated very poorly by the unparalleled fashion designer, Baroness von Hellman (played brilliantly by Emma Thompson), Estella/Cruella plots to gain recognition from the Baroness and then to take over her empire.  The dueling competition over who is the greatest fashionista of all is immensely entertaining. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the darker tones of two women who have lost family and now feel so unloved, delve deep into nuances of character that are very adult psychological themes. 

Baroness, as a child, was humiliated in dreaming of a world of  fashion.  Now she does the same to Estella. The two are mirror-images of each other, but Estella has yet to realize that.  This is the emotional centerpiece of the film.

Part Ocean’s Eleven for the heist during the Baroness’s fashion gala, and part Joker for the torment and trauma that morphs Estella into Cruella, this is not your typical Disney movie.  There is something for everyone. The young viewer will enjoy the breathtaking staging.  Sumptuous costumes and Joker-like makeup are performances in their own right.  For adults,  we see vulnerability in both characters being crushed.  What an origin story!

Without a doubt Cruella is the very best of the Disney live-action dramas, not merely an engaging snow globe of entertainment, and it will likely become a classic. Cruella is definitely a DeVil’s Delight!

Note:  Some children under the age of ten may not be comfortable with the intensity of certain scenes and unexpected behavior.  They might end up watching a few action scenes through their fingers.  My two granddaughters, ages six and eight, who watched this movie with me for the second time, loved it!  So did I –but for some very different reasons, I’m sure. 

Availability: Disney+

“Mare of Easttown”–Living with the Unacceptable

Mare of Easttown, a seven-episode HBOMax mini-series, we watch a mother,  Mare Sheehan (the remarkable Kate Winslet) attempting to come to terms with her unexpressed and unresolved grief over the death of her young adult son, Kevin. She is also a detective living in Easttown, a working-class suburb of Philadelphia, who is  investigating the murder of an adolescent single mother, Erin McMenamin. 

Mare is a local hero, a high-school basketball champion dating back 25 years. She now has multiple setbacks and tragedies to deal with:  an unsolved missing case of a young girl, a divorce, her judgmental mother, her grief-stricken and wounded daughter Siobhan, a professor boyfriend, her best friend’s suspicions, and an ex- addict ex-daughter-in-law battling for custody of Mare’s grandson.  The multiple characters demand focus and attention to detail in order to understand the mystery and the jaw-dropping final scene. 

In this merciless seesaw of harrowing grief, we witness Mare– and all those impacted by Kevin’s death–lose him a thousand times in a thousand ways. As a mother, a source of her agony is the realization that she cannot protect her children.  And in perhaps one of the most powerful scenes before the final closing, Mare consoles a widow who doesn’t know how to deal with the death of his wife:  “After a while, you learn to live with the unacceptable.”

The supporting ensemble cast– which includes Guy Pearce (Memento, LA Confidential), Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County), Evan Peters (American Horror Story), and Jean Smart (Hope Springs, The Accountant) — is exceptional.  All integrate their characters’ backstories, whether revealed on screen or on their faces, as past histories remaining untold.  Winslet, Nicholson, and Smart deliver shattering, emotionally brittle performances, often leaving them trembling from their open wounds. In unforgettable scenes pairing Winslet with Nicholson and Winslet with Smart, we see female empowerment and vulnerability simultaneously and inseparably.   Simply brilliant acting!

Availability:  HBOMax for streaming

“Underground Railroad”–Tracking US History

Based upon the Pulitzer-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, Underground Railroad, is produced and directed by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlighting”). This gripping portrayal   is an allegorical account of slavery and the role it has played in American history from colonial times. 

The Underground Railroad, in the mid-1800s,  was actually a network of safe houses and routes from the southern US up into Canada– with other routes to Mexico (which had abolished slavery decades earlier).  The book and film re-imagine these escape routes and safe havens as an actual train running underground to assist runaway slaves in their escape from their plantation owners.

A young slave, Cora Randall (the astounding South African newcomer, Thuso Mbedu) suffers one heartbreaking loss after another–of her mother, beloved friends, and two lovers.  In an act of desperation, she tries to escape a Georgia plantation and discovers the Underground Railroad.

In spite of almost insurmountable obstacles and defeats, she triumphs– somewhat miraculously– first, over her slave owner, and then over a notorious and avaricious “slave catcher” with a demented, damaged soul (the excellent Joel Edgerton), and somewhat surprisingly, over a free-state town council. Cora is compelled to run for her life over and over again. 

Overlaid with magical realism evoking uncanny spiritual powers, the Black communities, depicted as Valentine Hill (echoing the Greenwood “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma) have a strength, which their white neighbors fear, yet deny.

This is a must-see film. It is a history lesson for us all. Underground Railroad reveals, through imagery and drama,  why so many state governments try so hard to ban “critical race theory” from schools.  Perhaps the most disheartening conclusion from watching this masterpiece of visual storytelling, is that the behaviors of those in power back then are so recognizable today.

The viewer needs to have time to feel the raw and brutal emotional truths of those who are trapped and powerless, as well as those who are detached and power-drunk.  The outrage and resentment are brilliantly acted by the main characters to deepen the dramatic effect.

Central to the story is the examination of trust and resilience, dependency and the disingenuous guises of the powerful.  While the psychology of domination and subjugation are unforgettably rendered, the stunning genius and poetry of the cinematic art form need to be mentioned as well.  The cinematography is impeccable.  Watch the photographer’s use of light–some scenes yield extraordinary photographs as works of art.  The lighting is masterful and exceptional.

Criticism, on some of the major internet movie sites–of the darkness of  some scenes– misses the point.  Dark tones are intentional, underscoring the underbelly and darkness of US slavery.  Yet accompanying slivers of light reveal an ineffable quality of heroism and a tentative optimism.

Needless to say, this is not a movie to binge watch. It is too overwhelming.  But the feelings you have after watching each single episode are, in part, because of the quality of the  art.

The subject matter is immeasurably uncomfortable because of its closeness to all of us. It is a time for reckoning.  That in itself may feel menacing.

If you want to know about the burden of  America –without any tone of preaching or lecturing,– watch this masterpiece!

Availability:  Amazon Prime

“Tell Me Your Secrets”–Tell Me Your Lies

In this Amazon Prime mini-series of ten episodes, Tell Me Your Secrets has  three plots:  1) The main plot involves a woman named Karen Miller (Lily Rabe), who was arrested seven years ago as a presumed accomplice to her boyfriend, Kit (Xavier Samuel) for the brutal murders of nine women. She claims not to remember anything, due to trauma. 2) Mary Barlow (Amy Brenneman), a wealthy woman who has established a foundation to help find missing children,  believes her own daughter, Theresa,  was kidnapped by Karen Miller and Kit and is still alive.  3) John Tyler, (Hamish Linklater), a serial rapist, is now on parole and claims to have suppressed his urges and wishes to atone for his past crimes.  Additional missing teenage girls provide subplots, contributing to a complex mix of characters.

Karen Miller,  now in witness protection as Emma Hall,  has moved to a small town, St. James, Louisiana, hoping to leave her past in Minneapolis.    Mary Barlow,  a mother who  adamantly refuses to grieve or acknowledge her daughter may be  dead, becomes an avenger.  John soon becomes intertwined with both Karen/Emma and Mary. All three have pasts which haunt them and each other.  As their damaged psyches unravel their secrets to each other, more questions arise:  Is Karen/Emma being truthful when she claims she doesn’t know about the murders? Is there a natural tendency to gaslight and condemn women whose lovers are criminals, guilty by association? Can a brutal serial killer actually be capable of redemption?  And when does a mother’s obsessive quest for a missing child become pathological?

The cast is superb.  Lily Rabe, as the traumatized Karen Miller hiding behind the identity of Emma Hall, emotes a believable amnesia, and also an openness to trusting others that seems at times naive.  Her torment is palpable.   Amy Brenneman, in one of her most substantial roles to date, is scheming, manipulative, and self-destructive to the point of madness. Hamish Linklater, as the unsettling, affectless serial rapist, goes beyond onscreen serial killers with  a chilling brilliance to his understanding of his targeted victims’ core vulnerabilities (similar, in some respects, to Hannibal Lecter). His desperation and loneliness for a relationship not defined by his crimes is harrowing.

There are multiple plots with so many characters the viewer has to make an effort to keep them straight.  Their relationships are intertwined but also independent, so that the few plot holes do not become confusing. Tell Me Your Secrets is packed with storylines, character arcs, and sometimes ghoulish intensity.  A Season Two is planned, and some of the drama left hanging has been set up for resolution or expansion next year.

Note:  This is definitely not for everyone.  In some sense, it is cross-genre, a psychological thriller bordering on horror, analogous to the mini-series Bates Motel, or its precursor, the classic Hitchcock movie,  Psycho.  Violence is presented both visually and indirectly, but is not dwelled upon at length.  Nonetheless, this potboiler is heart-pounding.

Availability:  Amazon Prime

“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution”

Oscar-nominated for 2020 Best Documentary Feature, Crip Camp is  directed and produced by Jim Lebrech, who uses a wheelchair and is partly financed by Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company, Higher Ground. 

Released by Netflix in March 2020, this little-known story portrays a group of young disabled teenagers  at  Camp Jened, their experience serving as a catalyst for the disability rights movement in the United States.  After becoming empowered at camp in upstate New York in 1971, several key campers became activists. Masterminding a month-long sit-in at the HEW branch office in San Francisco, blocking traffic with their wheelchairs and bodies lying on the street, these young activists embarrassed Carter administration secretary James Califano to enact major disability rights legislation (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act)  which evolved into the eventual passage of the American Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).    Crip Camp is perhaps best comprehended as an extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

This powerful and moving documentary reveals archival footage at Camp Jened, at the San Francisco sit-in, and in the post-ADA lives of the former teenagers, now past middle-age.  Footage of campers who had to sit-in for over a month in the branch office of HEW, without their assistants who were relied upon for bathroom and mobility assistance,  without necessary catheters, food and drink withheld by federal officials, is unconscionable and shocking to watch.  So are film clips of Willowbrook, an institution for disabled children, visually an Abu Ghraib warehouse of unimaginable cruelty.

Crip Camp is, first and foremost,  primarily Judy Heumann’s story.  A young fifteen-year old camper, she  awakens to  the demand of  their civil rights, after hearing fellow campers discuss their fear of institutionalization.  Heumann becomes a charismatic,  determined, and commanding leader.  Organizing and demanding a hearing before Congress, after Bay Area coverage of their protest and sit-in is reported by only one local television channel, Heumann orders her young cohort– without access to ramps or elevators,– to crawl on their stomachs up the steps of the federal building, hauling their paraplegic bodies after them.   This footage of people with polio, cerebral palsy, and other disabilities is gut-wrenching.

Crip Camp    is essential to understanding what is unknown territory for many viewers.  Campers give unexpected responses about privacy, sexuality, and solitude.  Unconventional trajectories of local Black Panthers’ support are juxtaposed next to the cowardice of local and national politicians on both sides of the aisle.  Still, in spite of the odds, this documentary highlights human resilience in the face of the nation’s heart of darkness. People with disabilities want acceptance just like everyone else.  Merely achieving the result of being seen and heard, the disabled achieve a psychological as well as legal revolution, still in the early stages. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990  continues to have a huge impact in raising awareness about inclusion of all people globally and removing obstacles to personhood.  Groundbreaking and unforgettable.

Note: This is a recent USA Today article byJudy Heumann, who remains   very active on disability rights.  https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/voices/2021/04/23/why-oscar-nominated-crip-camp-victory-disability-rights-column/7333682002/

Availability: Netflix streaming

Concrete Cowboy

Concrete Cowboy movie review

Guest Reviewer:  Jerry Ludwig, retired Hollywood screenwriter and author of The Black List

         Concrete Cowboy:  Two words that don’t go together.  But an apt title for this new movie streaming on Netflix.  The words collide because it’s about two wildly different worlds.  A classic Western tale of father-son redemption told in the shadow of the mean streets of a contemporary Big City.  Happens to be a real story.

         Cole (Caleb McLaughlin from “Stranger Things”) is a troubled teenager whose mother sees him going down the tubes in crime-wrecked  Detroit.  So she ships him off for the summer to her ex-husband Harp (Idris Elba, “The Wire,” “Luther”) in Philadelphia.  Problem is Cole doesn’t know his father.  His parents divorced when he was an infant.  And this isn’t Ben Franklin’s Liberty Bell Philadelphia – this is a little known backwater where a small group known as the Fletcher Street Riders live, mostly in the past,  but hoping for a future. Constantly threatened, once these rented stables surrounding a meadow were considered the Boonies, but now land developers covet the area for condos.

         Cole feels trapped in a tiny house where his father’s horse is stabled in the living room.  And Harp’s friends all seem just as weird.  A culture that breeds and trains horses for racing and riding and to keep alive a tradition?  Gradually the mystique of the old ways envelops him, evenings spent sitting around the fire barrel, swapping lies and legends. Learning new skills.  But there’s also the counter-pull of his young friend Smursh (Jharel Jerome) who used to be one of the Riders but now is peddling street-corner drugs as a ticket to the big bucks.

         There are many reasons a movie gets made.  I suspect the additional credit of Idris Elba as not only star but also producer propelled Concrete Cowboy into existence.  Also the presence of Lee Daniels (“Empire,” The U.S. vs. Billie Holiday) does much to recommend the movie, which was co-written and directed by Ricky Staub.  Like the recent Nomadland, many of the characters are played by their real-life counterparts.  Together they tell a truthful but not bloody story.  It’s not simple, but it manages to find a somewhat positive ending.  It’s worth watching. 

Availability:  Netflix streaming