“The Alienist”– Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Alienist series

“The Alienist”, a TNT psychological thriller set in 1896, is based on the novel by Caleb Carr. People with mental illness were once considered “alienated from society,” unfathomable to doctors and laymen alike. Those who thought they could treat them were referred to as alienists, pre-dating the Freudian psychiatric movement by more than a decade. The Alienist foreshadows the Freudian theory of the unconscious, and the incipient emergence of forensics (including the first attempts at fingerprinting). If that is not enough, the series also foreshadows the suffragist movement, through the eyes of a police assistant trying to break through the glass ceiling of the NYPD.

The Alienist opens with a series of haunting, gruesome murders of boy prostitutes, terrorizing New York City . Newly appointed police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) calls upon criminal psychologist/alienist) Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) to conduct a secret investigation. They are joined by Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), a headstrong secretary determined to become the city’s first female police detective and who is the key to solving the crimes. Using the emerging disciplines of psychology and early forensic investigation techniques, this band of outsiders sets out to find and apprehend New York City’s infamous serial killer.

The dark foreboding era of the Gilded Age is impeccably captured, immersing the viewer into a time period when the poor and the uber-rich were seen as two separate species. J.P. Morgan, the Astor family and their rarified social circles are played as the underbelly influencing not only finance and industry but also law enforcement and the news media.

Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt must maneuver his way through the power structure of Morgan and the Astors while the journalist Lincoln Steffens is trying to keep everyone honest. The acting is superb, with wonderful ensemble performances. The ending is a bit weak, an attempt to humanize the unsympathetic anti-hero Dr. Kreizler, and could have been omitted.

Nonetheless, this enthralling portrait of the mean streets of Victorian New York City is a keeper.

 

Seven Seconds–Black Lives Matter?

 

Seven Seconds Netflix Original Series

The Netflix Original  series Seven Seconds (premiered February 23) is about race, corrupt police and unequal justice. In the opening scene a hit-and-run of an African-American teenager by a white Jersey City rookie cop (Beau Knapp) is covered up by three other members of the police force.

The story is harrowing and complicated, with several subplots that are not resolved. But the seminal theme is clear: does a hit-and-run crime against a young black fifteen-year-old go unpunished, no matter what the evidence or the commitment of the prosecutor?

In ten episodes, Seven Seconds gives us an unflinching portrayal of a mother’s grief over her son, the brutal streets he had to survive in, and the demands of her religion. The opening scene and a number of subsequent ones display the ragged splashes of blood in the snow, the only remaining trace of the teenage bicyclist.

There are two main characters, both black women.   Prosecutor KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is sexually promiscuous and given to drunken stupors and self-doubt. Although from a privileged family, KJ uses none of her family’s status to enhance hers in the city’s power structure. Blunt and emotional, floundering in her personal life and in the courtroom, we see her undercut her own case. Nonetheless, KJ perseveres pursuing the hit-and-run case together with a cop, “Fish” (Michael Mosley), recently transferred from another precinct.

The other main character is the teenage victim’s mother, Latrice Butler (the extraordinary Regina King). She is determined to have justice be served based upon the love she has as a mother. She fights to win the affirmation that her son had existed, a human being not accorded the validation he deserved.

These two characters are the pas-de-deux of the story, the dynamic dance and driving force between what they hope for and what will happen. Veena Sud, the show’s creator (also showrunner for the award-winning The Killing), tackles the anti-hero as female, deeply-flawed, and often unappealing. KJ and Latrice are characters not often associated with film and television. At once unsympathetic but so vulnerable and damaged, both KJ and Latrice reveal how they must maneuver as black women in a white and often dangerous world and remain determined to have their voices heard, no matter what, no matter how painful.

Challenging stereotypes not only of race but also of gender, sexual identity, religion, and military service, Seven Seconds does not so much answer questions as raise them.  This mini-series is Netflix at its best: courageous, intelligent, and beautifully written. There are subplot holes, but the drama nonetheless is riveting and some of the writing is exceptional. Watching it is like reading a good novel, with commitment and depth: binge-viewing with few interruptions makes Seven Seconds even more powerful.

 

Note: Although Seven Seconds has been critically acclaimed and binge-viewed by its fans, Netflix announced this week that Seven Seconds will not be renewed for a second season. Why? This is a travesty!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Roseanne” (2018): Neither Here Nor There

Roseanne 2018

Having the highest ratings for any network sitcom in almost four years, the revival of the ABC television show “Roseanne” had 18.2 million viewers last week, and features most of the original cast.

And then this high-concept sitcom begins to evoke memories of the good old days of “Roseanne” and “All in the Family”, with the same old-fashioned couch, the living room that made “Roseanne” a bona fide pioneer (1988-1997) with its focus on blue-collar Americans in Lanford, Illinois. Still set in this fictional town in the Midwest, now Roseanne is back, and Trump is in. And every viewer knows Illinois is a “red state”.

Although the divisive Trump is never mentioned by name (rumored to be a requirement for funding the show), Roseanne Barr has let it be known that her show would grapple with how the 2016 election has divided American families and friendships. This is an intriguing goal for revitalizing the most difficult of comedic themes: family dysfunction and how families change and redefine themselves. Now overlay that with the cultural and political wars of today.

In the opening scene we see Dan Conner (played by John Goodman) come back to life literally after the 1997 finale in which Dan died of a heart attack. The new Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) is an unabashed Trump supporter while her sister, Jackie (the Tony-award winning Laurie Metcalfe) again plays Roseanne’s polar opposite. She wears a “pussy hat” , “Nasty Woman” t-shirt, and battles almost every argument her sister puts forth.

“Roseanne” of the 1988-1997 seasons had many darkly political themes including sexism, racism, abortion rights, and gay rights. But the landscape has changed. The highest-rated series among adults under 50 is currently “This Is Us,” and tackles the same issues of the old “Roseanne” but now interracial marriages and relationships, same-sex marriage, and a host of former hot-button divisive issues are more widely accepted in some demographics. In attempting to update the new “Roseanne” with current issues, the premiere features a grandson who wears skirts suggesting he will be transgender and a granddaughter who is biracial.

Laughing at the old Roseanne, Jackie, and Dan Conner of the late 20th century, viewers were encouraged to see the Conner family torn by everyday challenges that many viewers did not have personal experience with. We were pulled in by razor-sharp dialogue, character arcs driven by superb actors, and humor not overridden by laugh tracks. The vintage sitcom was enjoyable regardless of whether the political arguments were ones the viewer agreed with.

What happened to Roseanne Barr’s gift for vocal range, not strident or flat delivery? And the two additions of child actors–the possibly transgender little boy struggling with bullying from classmates and the little biracial girl who silently sits at the dining room table so the viewer notices her? They have no character development. Roseanne is afraid for her little grandson but isn’t sure confronting the school administrators is the answer. Why not have Dan go to school in a tutu to challenge the bullies? The little girl is assumed to be part African American. Why not have her play with a white Barbie and a black one and ask her grandpa which one he thinks is prettier? That would be suggestive of the “Roseanne” I miss so much.

The reboot of “Roseanne” was an opportunity to explain the nation’s culture wars to an audience that sorely needs to hear it. And the producers and writers passed. Millions of viewers, perhaps, gathered around their televisions and, as in the vintage ” Roseanne”, some may still see themselves in the Conner family. But it is not the Conner family we came to understand in the vintage show. The 2018 “Roseanne” doesn’t deliver what was promised and the acting is a lukewarm flat series of performances, with the exception of the incomparable Laurie Metcalfe.

Too bad that blue collar and low socio-economic class are now identified with Trump. This is both inaccurate and overly simplistic.

Some reviewers called the new “Roseanne” timeless, but with its overtly political message that no one (including Trump) can ignore, what is timeless about 2016? ABC executives and “Roseanne” producers reject the notion that the show’s popularity is mainly because of its appeal to Trump supporters. Will we see sustained viewer numbers or will the gap between what was promised and what was delivered be too wide? Certainly this viewer was turned off.

Note: The top audience markets for the debut were a red-state checklist: Cincinnati, OH; Kansas City, MO.; Tulsa, OK, Springfield, IL. Liberal metropolises like New York and Los Angeles did not crack the top 20.   Channing Dungey, the president of ABC Entertainment, said “the success of ‘Roseanne’ was a direct result of the post-Election Day initiative to pursue an audience that the network had overlooked.”

The Vietnam War–Closure or Catharsis?

The Vietnam War TV series
The Vietnam War

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS masterpiece, The Vietnam War is a mournful, heartbreaking documentary: an essential expose and an unvarnished history of war. The refocusing of history using first-person stories is the most important “Ken Burns effect” producing his best documentary to date.

Burns loves to film everyday people’s “small” stories which give perspective and emotion to the larger picture.   The interviews are unforgettable and poignant–a viscerally searing reminder why there is no winner in war. The human faces, together with the visible psychological damage of all participants (American and Vietnamese), make The Vietnam War courageous and unflinching, staggering, raw and, at times, brutally honest. Decades of bad decisions are verified by archival footage from both North and South Vietnam and secret tape recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. A wasteful, dizzying vortex unfolds: devouring lives due to American overconfidence, arrogance and cultural ignorance on one hand and the relentless groundswell of Vietnam’s peasant resistance to foreign rule on the other.

The Vietnam War unwinds as a montage of the collateral damage of war. Pain is still palpable on the faces of all interviewees, American and Vietnamese, recalling a hellishly dark time they cannot forget. One American veteran articulates his loss succinctly:   “The other casualty was the civilized version of me.”

The Vietnam War’s overwhelming power comes from these oral histories, almost twenty hours of them. An American vet describes dragging insurgents’ corpses “to see who would cry ”. An upstate New York soldier’s mother remembers terror every time she heard the crunch of tires on her driveway. A North Vietnamese officer recalls entering a house abandoned by a South Vietnamese family, a dress half-sewn still lying on a table. A North Vietnamese grandmother is forced to look at her bombed son’s face. A US troop rapes a little girl, and one interviewee breaks down relating the incident that happened more than half a century ago. Rare footage of atrocities on all sides are not for the faint-hearted. The historical sweep and emotional punch are evident throughout: a minimum of 429,000 U.S. and allied soldiers and 533,000 Communist troops and civilians killed between 1954 and 1975 (according to Newsweek). Millions more were wounded. Many sources place the estimates far above these.

Burns believes that the Vietnam war begins in 1945, –not 1965 , when President Lyndon Johnson dispatched the first U.S. ground combat unit. The US could not lose a war, after having come out of World War II victorious.

We are introduced to France’s mid-19th century colonization of territories that would eventually become Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The French plundered the region of natural resources, impoverishing its workers while creating servile French-speaking native bureaucrats to carry out its orders, all largely financed by the opium trade. By the early 20th century resistance was on the rise. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of a nascent revolution, is betrayed by two American presidents culminating in the US installation of a dictatorial regime in Saigon and the canceling of free elections for the Vietnamese people. Now the American war was on. The U.S. installed Ngo Dinh Diem as South Vietnam’s autocratic ruler, and aided him in wiping out his enemies. In addition, the US government engineered an election that Diem stole. Ho Chi Minh, betrayed, becomes the brilliant tactician and leader of the resistance.

The Vietnam War also echoes today’s headlines, as in the subplot of foreign collusion in an American election. Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon had secretly requested that South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu stay out of peace talks with the North, in order to improve Nixon’s chances in the 1968 race. President Lyndon B. Johnson was aware of the deal through intelligence surveillance, knew Nixon was lying, but did not make that fact public. We hear Nixon’s lies on an audiotape of Johnson’s call. And Nixon’s paranoia about being found out in this lie partly contributes to Watergate.

The U.S. government begins justifying its growing military intervention in Vietnam, first under President Kennedy, then Lyndon Johnson. Washington policymakers redefine the war as a fight for freedom and democracy over communism. Both nations–the US and Vietnam– are torn apart.

The Vietnam War still holds out hope that we might learn from history, after presenting 20 hours of evidence to the contrary. This documentary no longer permits the US to evade the harsh reckoning that is long overdue. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick do not allow us to remain in denial about what we did in Viet Nam and why.

Note: The Vietnam War is brought into even sharper focus if watched with companion pieces, The Post, and I Am Not Your Negro (to be reviewed in my next post).

There are still buried landmines  killing people in Vietnam and international NGO’s are tasked with removing them.

My Top 19 Movies and TV Series for 2017

 

Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online or were at local movie theaters, although not necessarily widely distributed.   Of the 45 reviews, here are my favorites.  It was much more difficult than in past years, since this year was absolutely stunning as was 2016. Both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling.

The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre. I could not limit my choices to only 10.

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1) “Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri”: A BOLO for Justice” (December 17 review)  Martin McDonagh’s 2017 film, takes us along Mildred Hayes’ journey as she deals with the unsolved murder-rape of her teenage daughter. Golden Globe 2017 Winners for best drama, actress (Frances McDormand), and supporting actor (Sam Rockwell).

2) “Lady Bird”: A Girl’s Flight From Home (December 3 review) Seventeen-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, brilliantly played by Golden Globe 2017 Winner Saoirse Ronan navigates parent-child dynamics and the social complexities of her Catholic high school upbringing in Sacramento, California. Director/Writer Greta Gerwig does not let the film drift into a saccharine coming-of-age story.”

3)The Florida Project: Finding the Magic Kingdom (November 7 review) The Florida Project A sad, funny, happy, heart-breaking and most of all, unforgettable story of the secrets a child may have who lives in poverty near Orlando, Florida and Disney’s Magic Kingdom..

 4) The Big Sick: A Prescription for Love (October 16 review) Romance, cultural conflict, things unsaid–based on a true story, The Big Sick takes on the theme of how family bonds can break when their adult children’s relationships are not what the parents wish for.

 5) The Salt of the Earth: Drawing with Light (August 13 review) Perhaps the most startling experience in watching this documentary is the beauty that is embedded in the tragic and cruel situations of this journalistic photographer’s subjects. Each black and white photograph is a meditation, not a representation, and a record of his emotional response.

6) Wind River : Chilling and Icy, Drifting in the Snow (October 1 review)  A terrified Native American teenage girl is running in the snow, barefoot and bleeding.  She falls face down, gets up, and runs for six miles before dying from blood filling her lungs.  That is the opening hook in the true story of Wind River.

7) Loving:The Right to Choose (March 13 review)  Based on the landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia finally invalidates state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Loving is about hope, hope in the power of the individual –in this case, the least revolutionary couple–to change the fabric of the nation.

8) 13th: Not a Lucky Number (April 23 review) This Academy award-nominated documentary opens with the deeply disturbing fact that, even though the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. This is mass incarceration and it is deeply ingrained with race and our judicial system.

9) Pure: A Torn Soul (April 9 review)  20-year old Katarina is determined to flee her dreary grungy life, bullied by tormenters at school and neglected by her alcoholic prostitute mother. Everything changes when she hears a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, opening up a new world to a soul aching for an intellectual life.

 PSYCHOLOGICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

10 Merchants of Doubt: Certainty Nonetheless (September 26 review) This film is about the tactics used repeatedly by pseudo-experts to mislead the public about scientific findings critical to commercial products or practices.

11) The Staircase: A Fall to the Bottom (October 30 review)  The Staircase is not only an engrossing look at contemporary American justice that features more twists than a legal bestseller, but also an intimate glimpse into the world of the privileged and entitled, who seem bewildered by the entire justice system. The filmmakers had unusual access to the Peterson family within weeks of Kathleen’s death. We are invited behind the curtain but we don’t know why such total access was given.

 12) Bordertown: New Boundaries in Scandinavian Noir (July 23 review) The brooding, dark environment –like all great Nordic Noir —underscores the underbelly of nasty psychopaths and their heinous crimes. Bordertown is also a drama about family in which crime disrupts and plagues the family’s attempts at intimacy and communication.

13) Land of Mine: Made for You and Me (April 17 review)  A harrowing depiction of what many consider to be Denmark’s worst war crime. This film powerfully conveys the Danes’ bitterness towards the Nazi occupation, a rage so terrible that dismembered or exploding young boys were an acceptable, if uncomfortable, consequence.

14) The Accountant: A Hidden Asset (April 3 review)  A brilliant forensic accountant is demanded by organized crime syndicates around the globe, a high functioning Asperger math savant. There is an intense backstory of family dysfunction and a tragic family dynamics which switches to humor, at moments, for relief.

 15) Zero Days:Weaponizing Cyberspace (March 27 review)  A documentary that sounds the alarm about the world of cyberwarfare, and the weaponizing of the Internet, the computer-as-weapon. Stuxnet, the cyber espionage attack on an Iranian nuclear facility in 2010, results in unintended collateral damage to massive computer systems outside of Iran, some of which belonged to US and Israeli allies.

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

16) Ozark: A Stark, Dark Thriller (September 20 review) [Netflix] This mini-series showcases a couple relocating with their son and daughter to the Lake of the Ozarks, a summer resort community in Missouri.  Marty must find a way to  continue to launder  money for a Mexican drug cartel.

 17) The Keepers: Another Spotlight (July 1 review) [Netflix]  In this true-crime documentary, The Keepers explores the 1969 death of 26-year old Catholic nun and Baltimore schoolteacher Sister Cathy Cesnik and touches on 20-year-old Joyce Malecki’s murder four days later. Both slayings remain unsolved. The cover up that follows has echoes of Spotlight .

18) The Wizard of Lies: Decades of Untruth (June 12 review) [HBO] Providing some insights into the inner circle of the extremely wealthy, The Wizard of Lies  is first and foremost a family saga of tragedy and betrayal. In the course of decades of lies and secrets, we wonder if it were greed that blinded family and friends to believe that their lives were worthy of such excess.

19) Handmaid’s Tale: In Service of Democracy? (May 14 review) [Hulu] Within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America, residents in The Handmaid’s Tale are segregated along strict racial, sexual, and class lines with each social group is confined to a regimented behavioral code. Code infractions are punishable by torture or death.

Note: Both Hidden Figures and Fences would have been included on my list of all-time favorite movies for 2017, but after receiving so many awards, including 2016 Academy Award nominations and winners, these two movies have not been mentioned them in this list. I assume most blog followers have seen these two films by now. I was rather late–seeing both movies in January 2017. If you haven’t seen both of them, they are must-see films for everyone!

 

The Staircase–A Fall to the Bottom

 

The Staircase tv series

The Staircase, about a cold case murder that is resurrected again and again, is a crime thriller rivaling James Patterson. Filmed by Academy Award-winning French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, we see a gripping courtroom drama, offering an intimate look at a high-profile murder trial and the family of the accused. Reminiscent of the groundbreaking “reality” series, An American Family, from the seventies, author Michael Peterson is arraigned for the 2001 murder of his second wife, Kathleen, whose body was discovered lying in a pool of blood on the stairway of their Durham, North Carolina home. The Staircase is not only an engrossing look at contemporary American justice that features more twists than a bestselling crime thriller, but also is an intimate glimpse into the world of the privileged and entitled, who seem bewildered by the entire judicial system. The filmmakers had unusual access to the Peterson family within weeks of Kathleen’s death. We are invited behind the curtain but we don’t know why such total access was given.

The court case generated widespread interest at the time, and continues to do so with a second documentary scheduled for release this year. The Staircase details Peterson’s legal and personal troubles in eight 45-minute episodes edited from more than 600 hours of footage. The trial seems to have centered on varying analyses of blood spatter by both the defense and prosecution. The character of Michael Peterson is also put on trial.

 The Staircase was just re-broadcast by Sundance and Netflix to target today’s audience interested in shows like Making a Murderer and The Keepers  (see my July 1, 2017 review). Truth can be stranger than fiction, and Michael Peterson, the novelist, is purportedly planning to write a book about his experience with the judicial system. See for yourself —The Staircase is almost impossible to believe!

 

Ozark–A Stark, Dark Thriller

Ozark Netflix original series

This Netflix Original series (released July 21 of this year) was created by screenwriter Bill Dubuque (known for The Accountant, see my review). Ozark is so good it approaches the standard set by “Breaking Bad”.

The series showcases Chicago financial planner Marty Byrde (a sensational Jason Bateman from “Arrested Development”) and his wife Wendy (the impeccable Laura Linney of “Masterpiece Theater”)  a homemaker turned real estate agent. The couple relocate with their son and daughter to the Lake of the Ozarks, a summer resort community in Missouri.  Marty must find a way to  continue to launder  money for a Mexican drug cartel.

What ensues in ten episodes is a taut thriller with plot twists which are neither slow nor predictable. Ozark is populated with some seriously heinous flawed characters: think Walter White. But then again “flawed characters” are just more interesting, as long as we can understand their motivations. There is no message of hope–at least not so far. and the only reality we witness is of extremely wounded personalities.

The scenes from the Byrde marriage recall the relationship between Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards. Jason Bateman and Laura Linney have a conjugal dance that leaves the viewer cringing at each blow and confrontation.

Although the acting and dialog are brillant, Ozark may fall outside of some viewers comfort zones. While you would not want to be friends with ANY of the main characters, a few scenes may be “over the top” for some.

One criticism I do have of “Ozark” is that the minor characters who live in the Lake of the Ozarks are playing to type–or maybe stereotype–of rednecks–uneducated and desperate– who can’t think of any other life choices besides crime. There are a brother-sister pair attempting to escape their circumstances but tremendous fear and family loyalty prevent them from exiting their miserable situation. Mexicans are also stereotyped as either in drug cartels or “cleaning toilets”. Those aspects of Ozark I find offensive, and wish screenwriters would work a little harder at making their point rather than perpetrating stereotypes. The narrative is otherwise superb.

“Ozark carefully guides the audience through the story, sometimes to excess. (For example, one episode unnecessarily is devoted almost entirely to backstory.)  However, Ozark is far from predictable. Bateman’s disarming and deceptively complex performance contributes greatly to his character’s evolution. He’s not sympathetic, and he’s not good, but he’s not as bad as he could be. He is desperate to protect his family as well as to survive. He is smart, employing any ruthless means at his disposal.

Please hurry with the release of the next season!

Note: [Not a spoiler alert) The finale is an editing anomaly in comparison to the preceding episodes. I thought it was a bit sloppy and melodramatic, detracting from the overall craft of screenwriting throughout this notable series.

 

“Bordertown”– New Boundaries in Scandinavian Noir

Bordertown Netflix original
Bordertown (Sojornen)

You can escape the big city and its frenetic fierceness, but you can’t escape murder, not even in the hinterland of Finland. That’s the psychologically disturbing theme in Bordertown, Netflix’s latest international acquisition and the latest Scandinavian Noir drama that’s sure to mesmerize audiences.

Bordertown is also a drama about family in which crime disrupts and plagues the family’s attempts at intimacy and communication.

The main character, Detective Kari Sorjonen, decides he needs to leave the horrors of urban crime for a slower pace, moving his wife and teenage daughter to his wife’s hometown bordering St. Petersburg. Looking for balance between family and work, Sorjonen soon finds himself in the midst of a disturbing investigation tangentially linking the brutal murders of teenage girls to his own family.

The brooding, dark environment –like all great Nordic Noir —underscores the underbelly of nasty psychopaths and their heinous crimes. In Bordertown almost all of the horror involves teenage girls–but the main plot which carries emotional weight throughout the series is that Kari Sorjonen just wants to have dinner with his family without being called away to another brutal murder scene. The fact that his daughter is the same age as the victims overwhelms and drives Sorjonen to maniacally solve each crime.

Sorjonen, as a savant with picture-perfect photographic memory, literally constructs memory palaces with masking tape laid out on the floor. Dysfunctional and deeply flawed in many ways (like Sherlock Holmes, Adrian Monk, and the autistic female detective in each of three adaptations of Brön or The Bridge), Sorjonen is a brilliant crime solver.

If you’re looking for a new heart-pounding crime drama series with one crime solved in two or three succeeding episodes (“Doll’s House, Parts 1, 2 and 3; then “Dragonflies”, Parts 1 and 2), then this is a great option. You can binge view until the crime is solved, three hours of viewing max, before moving on to the next murder.

I’ve got six more episodes to go!

Note: Bordertown‘s series premiere in Finland (October 2016) drew a record 1.1 million viewers, which is roughly a fifth of the country’s population.

American Gods–A Subversive Riff on Religion

American Gods TV series (STARZ)

The dual theme of religion and government is an intriguing new exploration for television. Handmaid’s Tale (see my May 14th review) focuses on women’s debasement in the name of religion  American Gods, on the other hand, focuses on immigrants (pre-travel ban), and the brewing and stewing of mythology in opposition to institutional religions. Both myth and established religions fight a new belief system of technology and money.  This is experimental film-making and cinematography at its best.

Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is a convict who is released a few days early from prison, due to the death of his wife. Without income, he begrudgingly becomes a bodyguard and partner to the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (the magnetic Ian McShane).  American Gods is first and foremost the story of Mr. Wednesday.

Based on the 2001 novel by the same name by children’s book author Neil Gaiman (of Coraline fame), American Gods is part stylized art, part time-travel, part political commentary and part science fiction/fantasy. With its intensity, stellar acting, stunning visuals, and diverse cast, this is a complex fantasy series. The plots involving con men and forgotten but vengeful deities combat each other in horrific scenes of violence. The series begins with a Vikings episode of blood and gore commanded by the Norse gods.

American Gods is not for the faint-of-heart. But for those who are unafraid of the darkness of the soul, or of the repressive effects of religion —American Gods tackles difficult subject matter:     the human need for the spiritual., Not every viewer can watch this series without being offended. For those who can, they will experience a provocative tour of the divisions in spiritual versus material values. The divisions, coupled with the depredation of violence in the name of religion and egomania, are dazzling and impossible to forget. The series’ first season (on Starz) has not ended and the questions of division and unification remain to be answered.

The Handmaid’s Tale–In Service of Democracy?

 

Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale, based upon the psychological award-winning 1985 sci-fi thriller by Canadian author Margaret Atwood,  is the Hulu adaptation of the dystopian Republic of Gilead, a fascist autocracy resulting from a religious coup, a war focused mainly on women.

Within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America, residents in The Handmaid’s Tale are segregated along strict racial, sexual, and class lines with each social group is confined to a regimented behavioral code. Code infractions are punishable by torture or death. No one in Gilead has any autonomy, even at the top of the hierarchy, although the elite are given more benefits.

Environmental contamination has resulted in widespread infertility in this near-future world. We see the torment and hell for women and their families, when not allowed to speak truth to power. The ongoing  subjugation of women creates an underground resistance movement that is slowly gaining momentum. Only a few young fertile women,—called Handmaids [of the Lord], referring to a Biblical reference —assigned to the homes of the ruling elite, play the crucial role of replenishing the population. These “handmaids” are “fertility slaves”, submitted to ritualized rape from their male masters while the masters’ wives bear witness. The wives of the elite are concomitantly enraged and subliminally frightened by the situation they’re in.   

Offred (the brilliant Elisabeth Moss) is the handmaid assigned to a Gileadean Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife. She had been happily married with a daughter, husband, and dreams for her and her family. Now, post-coup, Offred is bound to the Commander and his wife.

As in the majority of abusive relationships, we see Offred’s isolation and imprisonment as she suffers constant surveillance, unable to trust any one, without friends but determined to survive. Offred lives a nightmare but she realizes that she can pull levers of power and manipulate those in control in order to escape. She is not powerless.

This Hulu original series has adapted a 32-year old novel at a time when The Handmaid’s Tale unexpectedly resonates in Trump’s America. Gilead is an imaginary society of the worst kind, an allegory for the anxieties about the world we live in now, told with heat and intensity. The Handmaid’s Tale dramatizes a way of seeing directly into darkness and madness, heartlessness and dehumanization. But The Handmaid’s Tale also emphasizes irony and tenacity while concluding that cynicism and despair are dead ends. But in the midst of this forlorn and seemingly hopeless world, the Handmaid remains optimistic and determined. At the heart of the story is a woman who has had everything taken away from her: her family, daughter, friends, rights, freedom — everything. And she will not give up. Nevertheless, she persisted….a message even more compelling today.

 

Note:  This is  available currently only on Hulu and the first three episodes have been broadcast already.

“Thirteen Reasons Why”–The Amber of the Moment

Thirteen Reasons Why

The Netflix Orginal Series, Thirteen Reasons Why, is based upon the 2007 YA novel by Jay Asher, depicting the trauma of teen angst, cyberbullying, sexual assault, and suicide. All thirteen episodes were released for streaming March 31.Co-produced by singer and actress Selena Gomez and her mother, Thirteen Reasons Why has evoked heated commentary, leading to the most-tweeted TV show this year.

Thirteen Reasons Why focuses on two narrators: Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) and his classmate and crush, Hannah Baker (Australian newcomer Katherine Langford in a breakthrough role). In the opening scene Clay returns home from school to discover a box containing six double-sided cassette tapes lying on his front porch. These are Hannah’s tape-recorded diary, an account of why she concluded that suicide was the only way out of her pain. The twelve reasons why (later, Clay adds the thirteenth) are an intricately woven, searing and gut-wrenching fabric of young Hannah’s life– confusion and desperation that rips out her will to live. Each of the twelve tapes calls out in detail a high school student’s grave injury to Hannah, leading to her unraveling.

Hannah, a beautiful teenager new to Lincoln High School, is an only child with devoted parents.   She is eager to make friends. Rather passive at first, succumbing to boys’ arrogant and callous mistreatment in order to be accepted, Hannah soon finds the role and status assigned to her to be overwhelming and demeaning.   The confidence needed to stand up and report to school administrators is just not there. Moreover, Clay–who is secretly and awkwardly in love with her–exhibits the same lack of confidence necessary to express his feelings towards her. This is a Romeo-Juliet dance ending with horrible repercussions for all involved in Hannah’s undoing.

Hannah’s parents—concerned, compassionate, and determined to understand their daughter’s suicide—are ultimately absent from Hannah’s life. Neither is able to even identify Hannah’s friends, let alone her enemies or tormenters.  The other parents can’t deal with what is happening and bewildered, distance themselves from Hannah’s parents. In the end, what’s most responsible is the failure of parents to understand the stresses in their teenage sons and daughters’ lives and of the administrators to care enough to intercede.   Alarms bells should ring. As Clay says in the final episode, reflecting on the student body’s treatment of Hannah: “It has to get better somehow–the way we treat each other.”

Thirteen Reasons Why is, in no small part, controversial because of its graphic portrayal of the act of suicide and of assault. Some have criticized the series as a how-to manual–an inspiration, even a glorification or act of revenge– for copycat teenage suicide.   But it is an expose of teenage angst and how it can accelerate and lead to tragedy, when there is no one to help. For those of us who only vaguely remember those years in which a glance or an insult could deeply wound and be almost unbearable, Thirteen Reasons Why may seem overwrought and slow in pacing. But give it time to sink in: that teenagers are unbelievably vulnerable. In the thirty-minute discussion with professional psychologists after the series finale, we see how the warning signs are always there, if we are perceptive enough to see them and brave enough to acknowledge them.

However problematic this series may seem to some, Thirteen Reasons Why  reveals a painful and undeniable truth. Many parents know next to nothing about what goes on in their teenagers’ lives.

Kurt Vonnegut may have said it best: “Here we are trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”

 

“The Break”– Or, The Nervous Breakdown?

 

The Break NetflixThe Break (La Trêve) is the first French-language Belgian TV crime drama now available as a Netflix Original. The Break is now my newest addition to my ever-growing listicle of bleak, grim, moody, obsessive dramas from around the world, many Scandinavian “noir”. This is a must-see.

The main character, police detective Yoann Peeters (the extraordinary Yoann Blanc)has moved rather reluctantly from Brussels to his hometown village of Heiderfeld. After the death of his wife and an internal affairs investigation that left his professional reputation compromised, Peeters is searching for a new start with his teenage daughter Camille.La Treve2

Almost immediately the body of a nineteen-year-old soccer player, Driss, is pulled from the river by a fly-fisherman and ruled a suicide by the police commissioner. Peeters suspects murder. The deeper he   investigates, the more suspects appear with unsavory connections,   often racist pasts, and other secrets both desperate and depraved.    His partner, an inexperienced young Sebastian Drummer, is a Heiderfeld native, who believes there can be no murderers in his peaceful hamlet. Peeters, on the other hand, believes anyone is capable of murder.

Soon Peeters’s investigation is thwarted by practically everyone in town leading to shocking plot twists.   Horrifying secrets surface from the bowels of a bucolic, picturesque community centered on farming, horses, and cows. The lush rolling hills in the Belgian countryside disguise the nightmarish tectonic shifts roiling in our imagination.  The Break

The Break is an adrenaline rush for viewers who enjoy crime and suspense. Decoding the criminal methods and identifying the murderer are surprisingly challenging. The first seven episodes (out of ten) each begin with a unique dream, conflating the imagined with the real. A forensic psychologist treating Peeters adds to the surreal difficulties of grasping truth from lies, insinuating that the truth has to be excavated with patience and determination. At least eight different suspects could be the murderer as more clues and more damaged characters are revealed.

The cinematography is muscular and the lighting haunting, insinuating the unexpected and  hidden violence within a web of complicity and deception. Uncontrollable violence is hinted at–in Peeters himself. While it might seem as if Nordic noir has reached saturation point, this drama suggests there is more to discover. Season 2 of The Break is projected for the end of this year!