“Fargo” (Season 4)—Like No Other

An enticing mob story with the texture of a graphic novel, Fargo (Season 4) is dissimilar from the previous three seasons.  As much a commentary on social and political justice as a drama about one gang competing to destroy another, this new season is like no other.

Fargo’s entire sweep of  1950’s organized crime in Kansas City is brutal and not for the faint-hearted.   With the rise of Jewish, Irish and Italian syndicates — whoever was “next off the boat”— three families (Jewish, Irish and Italian) kill each other off in a constant struggle for dominance. Family members ruthlessly  maneuver for  attention and loyalty. And we see how institutions in power have an incentive to see these immigrants  fight each other instead of joining forces to fight institutional injustice. A“Nurse Ratched” character (Jessie Buckley) who straddles the boundaries of all the feuding factions provides additional tension. 

An ambitious and more cerebral African American mobster, Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) trades his son for the son of the rival Italian mob, run by Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman). Loy  hopes  the trade will bring about  cooperation instead of conflict. Fadda has his own internal familial troubles, with his ruthless brother, recently arrived  “from the old country” and itching for a fight.  The two mob leaders, for the most part, are evenly matched with accomplices wrecking their best-laid plans. But in the end, Loy outsmarts Fadda.

Split screens feature the cast of  eccentric characters in simultaneous scenes of carnage and betrayal.  These include: a deranged and homicidal nurse (Jessie Buckley), a doleful foot soldier (Ben Whishaw) who deeply identifies with Loy Cannon’s young son, a zealously religious lawman (Timothy Olyphant) and a studious schoolgirl (E’myri Crutchfield) with ambitions to do more than a Black girl in 1950 is allowed. She assumes that hard work, a first-rate mind, and following the conventions of society will reward her…even in a Jim Crow de facto legal system.

What is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this crime story is that Loy Cannon feels it’s just his job,–being a mob boss– and his real life is the relationships he has with his wife, children and closest friends (some of whom die).  Outstanding performances by Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman playing against type make this season of Fargo a distinctive  stand-out.  This is “Sopranos” on steroids with no false sentimentality nor shrink-wrapped platitudes about law and order. Served on a plate with red-hot coals of injustice and a very crooked playing field, Season 4 of Fargo does not disappoint.

Availability:  HBO Max.

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.

“The Undoing”–Deeds Undone

This HBO original mini-series, The Undoingis  a police procedural based upon the novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz. 

We observe the daily life of a highly successful New York therapist, Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman), a specialist in marriage counseling, as well her husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant), a successful  pediatric oncologist. Their teenage son Henry attends an elite private school which receives generous donations from Grace’s father (Donald Sutherland).  At a school fundraiser Grace learns more about a beautiful woman Elena  (newcomer Matilda De Angelis), who turns up brutally murdered the next day. Elena’s son, whose life was saved by Jonathan, attends the same elite school.  The police soon consider Jonathan their primary suspect and the case subsequently goes to trial with Grace’s dad begrudgingly paying for the best criminal defense lawyer in Manhattan. 

When Jonathan takes the stand, he charms with his admission of his flaws and lies, but declares his innocence because he truly loved Elena. Grace is left crushed by his confession of love for the murdered victim. She must decide whether to walk away from life with Jonathan, and create another for her son and herself. Grace struggles with Henry’s obvious grief over their estrangement and the possibility of a murder conviction for his father.  Can their family survive this?  Should they try to remain a family?  Or will there be an inevitable undoing, a wind that threatens to unsettle everything?

There are many exceptional red herrings with so many suspects with motive.  Hints that the cheerful bright exterior of this “one-percenter” couple didn’t really “have it all” seemed to crescendo into a climax involving Grace’s father, her son, her best friend, Elena’s husband, and even Grace.

The ending was disappointing for this viewer, and casts a shadow on the preceding episodes which were often well-done electrifying family drama.  Intergenerational conflict– and a foreboding that ultimately didn’t materialize at all –were notable.  While many viewers judge an entire drama by the ending, and I understand this, The Undoing is still very much worth watching to see excellent performances by both Kidman and Grant, as well as the supporting cast.  Imagine another ending for an unconditional A+

Availability: HBO Max

“Retribution”–Karma is a Beast

Retribution  miniseries (Netflix)

Retribution ( a 2016 BBC production originally titled “One of Us”) opens with a horrific double murder, which will tear apart the lives of two families, the Douglases and the Elliots.  They are friends who live side-by-side in the isolated Scotland Highlands hamlet of Braeston.  The atmospherically remote Scottish scenery is  reminiscent of Nordic noir landscapes. 

Events soon take an even more brutal turn when a badly injured man arrives at the Douglas family’s doorstep after his car careens off the road – a man who they soon realize, after nursing his wounds,  is the killer of their adult son and daughter.  The aftermath of the double murder and the discovery of the murderer among them wreaks havoc over the course of the drama for both the Douglases and the Elliots.

Each character in Retribution has his or her own layered, dark backstory.  There are so many revelations and so many characters that the viewer ends up struggling with who is related to whom, and who has inflicted pain and who has suffered.  The characters,  vividly drawn,  are vulnerable and deeply flawed.  Almost everyone, whether a main character or a minor one, has some deep dark secret that propels them to immoral behavior.   Not one person is “normal” or even “likable”, with few exceptions.

Everyone in both families has means, motive and opportunity, resulting in a convoluted whodunit whose perpetrator is not easily guessed until the final episode.

Retribution tightens the tension for the viewer with each episode, and close attention is essential.   What backstory belongs to which character and are that character’s secrets sufficient motive for murder?  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.

Dynamite story but requiring more than the usual effort to solve the murders.

Availability:  Netflix streaming.  Subtitled captions for the deaf and hearing impaired are recommended, due to the strong Scottish brogue.

“The Comey Rule”–Inner Conflict

In this two-part Hulu and Showtime series, FBI Director James Comey (Jeff Daniels) begins a collision course against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (Brendan Gleeson).  Based on Comey’s book, “A Higher Loyalty”, the first part of The Comey Rule follows the investigation into Hillary’s email and its impact on the 2016 election.  Part Two follows the aftermath of the election on Comey’s career and on his family, together with his investigation into Russia, code-named “Crossfire Hurricane”.   This is not just a political docudrama but  an emotional account of what happened:  Comey’s side of the story.

The Comey Rule attempts to give the viewer insight into the stress intertwined within the decisions government civil servants make on a daily basis.   The major question being raised:  Why did Comey do it?  Why did he thrust a hand grenade into the gears of the Democratic Party’s campaign for Hillary Clinton– not just once but twice. There was no going back. 

Watching The Comey Rule we see the moral compass that rigidly guides Comey’s every thought. What an impossible situation he finds himself in, based on the fundamentals of what he stoically considers his only course of action. Without reflecting on the consequences of his actions from a more complex moral gradient, the middle-aged Comey seems to have the naive behavior of a twenty-something bureaucrat not yet used to the bloodsport of politics in DC.   The Comey Rule  is both engrossing and maddening:  seeing how Comey makes his  decisions and how shocked he is by their repercussions.

“What would I have done in Comey’s position?” The Comey Rule offers no simple answer other than Comey sincerely felt he was saving the integrity of the FBI.   There does seem to be tentativeness in how Comey is portrayed in “Crossfire Hurricane”, the catalyst for Trump terminating his career at the FBI .   A man so morally stalwart by his own standards, Comey seems to have wanted to do the right thing no matter what. Refusing to cross a line he had drawn for himself, regardless of advice from his own team members  in the FBI and from his family, Comey is portrayed as a tragic figure.

Jeff Daniels, as is expected, embodies the tortuous conflict within James Comey.   A superb, extraordinarily subtle, but very credible performance.   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.

As a drama, this was so well-executed.  Historians will have to decide. what is fact and what is fiction.  

Although we are too close to truly see what happened, watch The Comey Rule.  It is disturbing.   

“Hinterland” —The Remote Interior of the Mind

An  original Welsh-noir murder series on Netflix (in three seasons, 13 total episodes), Hinterland  is for those who love this genre.   The main character, DCI Tom Mathias, is a deeply troubled unsympathetic detective who, together with his more mature and brilliant partner Mared Rhys, travels around a small hamlet in Wales solving at least one murder per episode.  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.

Police investigatory work in Hinterland often seems to go  nowhere. Where are the brilliant breakthroughs?  In this police procedural, Mathias and his supernaturally patient partner, Mared, lead the viewer to red herring after red herring, sometimes at an annoyingly slow pace. There are few malevolently brilliant  masterminds which makes the surprising endings even less expected. 

 
If you like detectives unraveling intricate master plans, only a few episodes provide that type of drama.   The suspect is never the “easy” one with means, motive, and opportunity.  Even when the perpetrator is identified early on, the motivation is superbly unraveled,  with an infrequent note of empathy for why he or she committed the murder. Broken murderers abound.   Moral lessons to be learned are often paired with  suffering that created more suffering.

The structuring of the three seasons with the “book-ending” of  episode one (in Season One) with the finale (in Season Three) is exceptional.  While each episode stands on its own for a single murder, it is beginning in Season Two that we see how the show’s screenwriters wished to tightly weave the darkest hinterland of psychological pain into the climax in Season Three’s finale.  

For those who also appreciate exceptional photography and cinematography, each episode has beautiful framing of shots through door frames and windows to underscore the need to shift perspective along side the detectives Mathias and Rhys. 

Highly recommend this sleeper!  

Availability: Netflix streaming.

“Flesh and Blood”–Deadly Sins

Don’t be fooled.  This dysfunctional family gives the appearance of happiness and love,  but Flesh and Blood disguises a murder.  This mystery-thriller set in the sunshine and warm beaches of West Sussex is a multigenerational psychodrama. The gentle surf and sunny skies can lull the residents into a false sense of comfort and security.  Flesh and Blood immediately goes to the darkly secretive interior family drama that throws shade on the murdered. Wisely keeping the identity of the victim hidden,–although the obscured victim is wheeled into an ambulance in the opening scene–viewers are left guessing which of the two main characters was murdered. 

The major narrative is an affluent widow’s new romance at the age of almost–seventy.  Retired Dr. Mark Kenneally seems the perfect romantic partner for her:  warm, understanding, and completely devoted to her.  On Vivien’s  seventieth birthday, family secrets and betrayal surface in a perfect storm.  Vivien (the beautiful Francesca Annis), in pursuing her desire for companionship and adventure eighteen months after her husband’s passing.  Disappointed,  she  is confronted with her adult kids’ disapproval, envy, and rivalry over their expected inheritance.   The ugly lives of each of the three adult children impact how they feel towards their mother’s newfound joy and passion.  All three are deeply suspicious of Dr. Mark Keneally.

To increase the tensions further, there is the septuagenarian neighbor, Mary (Imelda Staunton in an impeccably nuanced performance).  She is timid, lonely and living her life through the seemingly perfect family she watches with binoculars from her kitchen window. But Mary is uncomfortably crossing boundaries of identity between herself and Vivien.  Having no close family of her own,–her husband gone and her young son dead– she has been a second mother, not solely a caregiver,  to Vivien’s three children.  Mary’s passive-aggressive helpfulness eggs on  the adult children’s conflict with their mother’s romantic relationship with the doctor.   Vivien seems to have sincere affection for Mary but Mary appears unhealthily attached to Vivien.

As for Mark:  Is he hiding something?  Is he really what he seems?  

In this four-episode whodunit, we see the police detective interview the three adult children and the neighbor.  However, not all of the background information they provide on the days leading up to the murder quite match the truths the viewer is shown.

Highly entertaining and clever–a great evening’s worth of binge-viewing on Masterpiece Theater, or relish this mystery thriller in smaller doses.  For those who like Flesh and Blood, you’ll also enjoy the novel Things Unsaid.

Note:  Available on pbs.org under Masterpiece Theater programs. Not to be confused with Hulu’s original series: Flesh and Blood–Into the Dark.

“Ratched”–Ratcheting Up the Tension

This Netflix 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 and unempathetic?” 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.  

Ratched  opens in 1947 as Mildred Ratched arrives in Big Sur to seek employment at a leading psychiatric hospital.  New experiments, believed to be cutting-edge,  have begun on the mostly affluent patients committed to their care. But there is  a brutal darkness within the hospital’s walls, literally cutting-edge, as lobotomies and other heinous surgical operations become almost daily routine.  In  eight episodes set in Hitchcock-style scenes, the diabolical scheming regurgitates similar carnage to “American Horror Story”(by the same producer, Ryan Murphy).

 In Ratched Sarah Paulson (also starring in “American Horror Story”)  plays the conniving, pathologically manipulative title character.  She performs with such intensity that the viewer wants to turn away from watching   how she entertains herself by creating chaos at others’ expense. As a predator master-planning each killing blow, Ratched’s targets all know she is coming for them but none are her match.  

The first four episodes are spellbinding, with an occasional act of kindness from Ratched to prevent a  one-dimensional  villain and sadist.   Ratched becomes understandable–if not relatable.  A subplot in which she has a tenuous relationship with Gwendolyn Briggs (the always wonderful Cynthia Nixon) has some of the best dialogue in the series. 

Nurse Ratched  becomes a metaphor for the corrupting influence of institutional power and authority.  And in Ratched, almost everyone is amoral.  Mildred’s co-worker and adversary, Nurse Betsy Bucket (the terrific Judy Davis), has the same ice-cold authoritarian blood. And Edmund, Mildred’s brother (Finn Wittrock), is both the embodiment of evil and a hopelessly wounded victim.   

The second half of the mini-series stands in stark contrast to the first.  In Episode 5 the story goes into a dizzying spiral downward in both plot and structure.  Charlotte Wells (the astonishing actor  Sophie Okonedo) is a patient being treated for severe multiple personality disorder. Why she is introduced and so poorly interwoven with the other characters is puzzling.  Okonedo, in a role not worthy of her in spite of sensational acting,   unravels the first half of what otherwise would have been an extraordinarily riveting narrative.  The first four episodes could stand alone as a far more integrated whole.  

Conclusion:  Watch for a very exciting story for the first half.  Stop if you don’t have time or the inclination to finish what is a very disappointing downhill narrative .

“Van der Valk”– Going Dutch

Van der Valk PBS series

This quirky three-episode police procedural on Masterpiece Theater follows a  sullen, street-smart Dutch detective, Piet Van der Valk (Marc Warner), who  navigates the seedier side of lively Amsterdam.   Each two-hour episode of Van der Valk involves a  distinct crime that can be watched on its own. 


Solving convoluted crimes using astute human observation and inspired detection, Van der Valk is successful, in part, due to the support of  Inspector Lucienne Hassell (Maimie McCoy) and rookie Officer Job Cloovers (Elliot Barnes Worrell).  Cloovers is a brilliant,  nerdy intern who is barely tolerated by the sometimes overbearing Van der Valk. 

Since Van Der Valk investigates with little regard for police ethics or policies, his exasperated boss, Chief Inspector Dahlman (Emma Fielding), is often on the verge of firing him. His partner, Lucienne,  as second-in-command, tolerates his antics and supports him, and suspects he is  possibly deeply damaged, sometimes revealing touching moments. 

The first episode, “Love in Amsterdam”, deals with a political campaign pitting an alt-right wing politician against a progressive, popular candidate for mayor.  With two murders involving his campaign workers and a surprise romantic connection, the progressive candidate’s pending scandal may cause the end of his career.  

In the second episode, “Only in Amsterdam,” a Muslim worker at an addiction clinic is found dead. Evidence
 from a religious book of erotic rituals connects her murder to a Catholic nun and two academics who specialize in this arcane religious cult. 

In episode three, “Death in Amsterdam”,  a fashion vlogger with a number of enemies is found dead.  Cloovers takes a particular interest in the case since he follows that vlogger’s posts.  In this finale, we see why 

Inspector  Van Der Valk is irritating and unlikable, a guarded cipher no more. His proclivity towards wrong-headed   romantic hook-ups also gets some closure, although maybe a bit later than the mini-series warrants. 

Having Van der Valk’s second lieutenant, Lucienne, be a lesbian police officer, not his romantic interest (as in the majority of male-female detective teams on screen and in mysteries) makes for a more original and idiosyncratic relationship between the two.  And in spite of–perhaps because — they see each other’s flaws,  the two detectives feel even more respect and affection for each other.

The red herrings are often subtle with clues that do not reveal the perpetrator, taking the reviewer on a tangent to another purported murderer.  While Van der Walk has wonderful twisted plots, sometimes it is difficult  to follow the path of clues, with many characters’  names to remember and clues stacked more heavily in the second half of each episode than the first.  As a consequence of clue-stacking during the last half-hour, the middle of each episode sometimes sags as the pacing slows.

An entertaining, challenging set of mysteries to solve,   the second and third episodes of Van der Valk are more cleverly constructed than the first.

Availability:  On pbs.org

“The Goldfinch”–Art and Loss

Goldfinch (2020), based upon Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, tells the story of  a young boy, Theo ( the astonishing Oakes Fegley), who is walking through galleries with his beloved mother at the  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  They gaze at a Dutch Master painting of a chained bird, the Goldfinch,  when a terrorist bomb goes off. Theo’s mother dies and he escapes the rubble, clutching the 17th-century masterpiece and a dying man’s insistence that he take his ring.  The little boy’s life will change dramatically over the course of the film.

With his mother dead and his father a deadbeat, Theo is thrown into two worlds: The first in an  Upper East Side Barbour family led by a matriarch (Nicole Kidman), followed by the Las Vegas gambling underworld of his dad and Theo’s teenage friend Boris.  Both worlds have an irrevocable impact on Theo’s life. Random and unforeseen events, even tragedies, shape Theo into someone he  wouldn’t otherwise be.  

As one would expect from a novel with several plots to propel the characters’ arcs into surprising dramatic turning points,   Goldfinch, for the most part,  manages to hold the viewer’s interest.   Some scenes in the first half are a bit slow, but the second half of the film turns into a crime thriller.

The adult Theo (Ansel Elgort from “Baby Driver”), who is the narrator, does not rise to the heartbreaking performance of the young Oakes Fegley.   And Nicole Kidman and Jeffrey Wright as Hobie, –Theo’s refuge and loving father figure– are as good as they always are, subtle and understated.   

This is a movie with deeply flawed characters.  Viewers who can appreciate the destructive elements  of lies, secrets, and betrayal will understand that this is a story about the loss and grief of a young child, and the young adult’s journey towards healing, with the promise of love and forgiveness.  This film kept me watching until the end.

Note: I believe the  critics judged this movie a little too harshly.  I did not read the book so I was not influenced by a comparison with Tartt’s novel.  However, the two media are radically different and I have never felt that the psychological interior lives portrayed in a novel can be presented visually on the screen in the same way that the abstraction of the narrative is created in the mind of the reader. 

“Belgravia”– Downton Abbey REDUX

Belgravia,  based on “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes’ 2016 novel of the same name,  opens two days before the Battle of Waterloo at an aristocratic ball.  Two London families—the Earl (Tom Wilkinson) and Countess of Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter) and the up-and-coming merchants, Anne (Tamsin Greig) and Philip Trenchard (Philip Glenister), are uncomfortable in their brief interactions.  There are insurmountable  class differences and  if that were not enough, the romance between the Brockenhursts’ son and the Trenchards’ daughter fuels the discomfort.  Over the course of twenty-five years, a long-buried secret unravels and threatens to ruin both families.  The shadows of that ball  demand a reckoning. 

 Belgravia soon becomes a suburban residence for the affluent, developed by the Trenchards’ company, as one of the first housing developments of its kind.   Betrayal, class warfare, subterfuge between family members, and secret love affairs proceed at a rapid pace as underhanded tactics and greed dominate the plot. 

Laced with intrigue, Belgravia is darker and meaner than “Downton Abbey”.  Characters have darker places in their souls, if they have one at all.  Some family members surprise with their character development and shift in moral compass.

Tamsin Greig and Harriet Walter as the two mothers are at turns, haunting and devious . The veneer of gentility radiates in public places, disguising cozy manners wrapped around a hard core.  Both actresses have a remarkable ability to make the viewer share their innermost private feelings.

A thoroughly engaging soap opera/melodrama, Belgravia is certain to be a crowd-pleaser for fans of historical drama and is an engaging follow-up to “Downton Abbey”.

Note: Available on Amazon Prime (Epix) and on Netflix as a DVD.

“High Seas”–“Death on the Nile” meets “Murder on the Orient Express”

In this Spanish melodrama (Spanish:  Alta Mar) , two sisters discover some very disturbing family secrets aboard a ship sailing from Spain to Brazil just after World War II.  Agatha Christie’s style of mystery plotting, overlaid with the  Spanish love of melodrama and telenovela, makes High Seas an unusual series.

Following the death of their father, sisters Eva and Carolina Villanueva travel on the luxury ocean liner, Bárbara de Braganza.  The sisters, over the course of three seasons,  become committed to  investigating mysterious deaths that occur on the cruise ship.  Each character–the sisters, their love interests, and a number of other passengers– provide intrigue as they reveal their backstories, increasing suspicions about once benign-looking individuals.  Having so many complex characters helps with pacing, cutting in expertly from one subplot to the next.   In Season One the mysterious murder,  solved fairly quickly, moves the story to lies, betrayal, and family scandal. This is the best of the three seasons.  Season Two adds an ephemeral ghost story and the red herrings sometimes are dropped suddenly, leaving obvious plot holes.  Season Three, about a virus onboard the cruise ship, has a terrific premise but too many characters’ scenes are either incomplete in moving the drama forward or the pace is ground to almost a halt.

Easy to watch, mostly entertaining without insulting your intelligence or emotions, High Seas is a good-looking, light-hearted, sometimes farcical mystery with performances that signal that the actors are not taking the drama too seriously, which is a good thing.  The influence of Art Deco in the set designs and the period clothing are stunning and reliably historical. While this is not A-class drama, it is definitely an enjoyable Netflix series.  My only major criticism is that the narrative did not really support so many episodes per season.  Four to five episodes, more tightly scripted, would have improved this whodunit.

Note:  Only watch High Seas with subtitles, even though some are very fast and others are in white font on an almost white background.  As with most foreign films, the dubbed version is usually annoying and the acting is awful.