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

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

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

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

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

Availability: Paid “theater” ticket for streaming.

“The Reagans”–Truth At Last

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

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

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

Watch this and draw your own conclusions.

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

My Top 30 Movies and TV Series for 2020

Looking for your next movie to watch?  

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

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

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

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

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

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

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

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

12) Hillary— Unmasked  (May 19)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

“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.

The Way I See It–What’s Before Your Eyes

The Way I See It, a documentary film released by MSNBC on October 16, 2020, narrates the career of  the former Chief Official White House Photographer, Pete Souza.  He covered  two of the most popular US presidents of the past fifty years:  Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. 

Only in his mid-twenties when he was invited to be the White House official photographer for Ronald Reagan, Souza admits he wasn’t a fan of Reagan’s politics but  came to admire Reagan’s loving relationship with Nancy. The Way I See It zooms in on the couple holding hands after the First Lady’s surgery.  Souza humanizes his subject matter with a lens that exudes emotion.  But The Way I See It is all about the Obamas.

When Souza meets President Obama for the first time at the White House, Obama chuckles:  “We’re going to have some fun.” And that is exactly what happens.  Remarkably,  Souza captures intimate and tender moments: e.g. Barack coaching daughter Sasha’s middle-school basketball team “as if they were the NBA.” But Souza also documents what are now iconic images–  Obama, Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other high-ranking officials riveted to the screen as they witness the raid on Osama bin Laden; Obama shedding tears with Sandy Hook parents after the massacre;  hugging a severely handicapped soldier   after his return from the Middle East.  

The seemingly invisible camera of Souza’s captures eight years of the Obamas’ lives, taking hundreds of thousands of photographs.  Evolving into an exceptionally close relationship between photographer and the photographed, Souza profoundly and brilliantly encapsulates emotion in each of his shots.  In a lighthearted scene, the viewer is treated to  Souza being encouraged to marry his partner of eleven years, and being offered a wedding ceremony in the Rose Garden with President Obama serving as the officiant for an inducement.  Other humorous clips:  when Souza claims Obama’s actual favorite moment of his presidency  is  blocking Reggie Love’s shot on the basketball court; or an impromptu snowball fight and snow-angel matchup between Obama and his daughters. 

Souza is seen in 2017, when his tenure as White House photographer has ended, photographing birds in the woods near his home.  For an apparently self-effacing man accustomed to drawing attention to the person in front of the lens, not behind it, Souza will soon become the unanticipated center of attention for a new cohort of fans.  Appalled by Trump’s lack of empathy and his policy of refusing to allow candid photos, Souza begins an  Instagram account that evolves into a  political commentary. Souza himself seems surprised at the turn his life has taken, when he starts “throwing shade” (the name of his second book of photographs)  at Trump  by pairing the tweets from the current POTUS with contrasting photos of Obama, gaining more than 2.6 million Instagram followers, and becoming something of a cult celebrity. 

Scrupulously avoiding politics until the onset of the Trump years, Souza shows us a glimpse of what life was like in the Trump White House: candid documentation replaced by staged self-adulation. If  you’re feeling nostalgic,  maybe The Way I See It will be comforting.  Otherwise, if you remember a time when the US president behaved like an adult with integrity, not a narcissistic delinquent, bring out the kleenex.

Availability:  MSNBC and Amazon Prime.

“Them That Follow”–Faith, Interrupted

Them That Follow  (2019) is an odd  American indie thriller about an Appalachian, Pentecostal, Charismatic snake-handling Christian cult.  A close-knit community with extremely strong beliefs, it exists on the far-fringe of mainstream society. This is the backdrop for a love story between the Pentecostal pastor’s daughter and a boy in the community who no longer is fervent in his faith.

Mara Childs (newcomer Alice Englert) is a dutiful  daughter, raised to believe that her faith unites the community in a holy bond protecting them from others outside their religion.  Her father, the pastor Lemuel (Walter Goggins of “Justified”) is relieved  that his daughter, in her late teens, has agreed–albeit reluctantly– to marry Garrett, one of the parishioners he’s most fond of.  However, Mara really loves  Augie Slaughter (newcomer Thomas Mann) who has distanced himself from the church, much to his mother’s dismay  (Olivia Colman as Hope Slaughter).

By handling poisonous snakes,  worshippers demonstrate their faith in putting their lives in God’s hands.  If you avoid being bitten or survive the venom  all of your sins may be forgiven.. After a minor dies during a snake- handling church meeting, police warn Lemuel he is under investigation for reckless endangerment of a minor, and perhaps for murder. 

For the first half of the film, Mara does not question her father or her own faith, until she becomes engaged to Garrett, who doesn’t understand her disinterest in him. By the second half  Mara finds herself in an existential crisis, in which she must choose between her faith  and her love for Augie.  

Them That Follow  moves slowly with some irrelevant scenes during the first half of the drama,  but once the story moves to family dynamics and the sacrifices individuals have to make in order to save their souls, it becomes dramatic and tense.   A faith that had once been human and natural, now morphs into something twisted and grotesque like the snakes in the church’s vestibule.  We see the conflict between the security offered by the religious community and the courage needed to move beyond that community. 

The ending is unexpected.  While flawed, Them That Follow held this viewer’s attention until the end.  Any opportunity to watch Olivia Colman is worth taking and the other members of the cast provide nuanced performances.  This is not for everyone.  But it is  a glimpse into a controversial, quirky slice of Americana which is disturbing.

Available on Netflix DVD.

Note:  Them That Follow  was filmed in Youngstown and Salem, Ohio as a substitute for the more southern Appalachia region. In 2013 there were roughly 125 snake-handling churches in central Florida to West Virginia and as far west as Columbus, Ohio, as well in Edmonton and British Columbia.  Pentecostal Holiness churches base their  snake handling services  on a very literal interpretation of a biblical passage from the gospel of Mark 16:17-18:  “In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

“The Hater”–Social Media Run Amok

The Hater, a Polish thriller, captivates with its young nerd culture gone awry on social media. The movie is intelligent,  never simplifying the internecine competition between the elite college professional and those who yearn for that life.  The Hater 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. 

Tomasz’s zeal stems partly from humiliation at being found to be plagiarizing in law school and also partly from his benefactor’s family’s condescension towards him. Tomasz masterminds a smear campaign against those who have considered him socially inferior, using racism, xenophobia, and homophobia as not just tools of division but ways to get ahead at the expense of others. 

Weaponizing social media as a troll farm to recruit others with a similar sense of grievance against the world, Tomasz takes on institutional complacency and smugness.  He wonders if  their situation will always remain the same. In a disturbing but  original way,  The Hater pounds at the technological anxiety that increasingly seems to infuse societies worldwide.  A very nihilistic perspective on the internet’s tentacles into our lives.  Well done!

Note:  The Tribeca Film Festival winner for Best International Narrative Feature Award 2020. Now available on Netflix streaming.

“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. 

“Lila & Eve”–Loss Without Justice

Lila & Eve, a 2015 sleeper female vigilante thriller ,  stars Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder”) as Lila and Jennifer Lopez (“Hustlers”) as Eve, The opening scene shows Lila’s 18-year-old son, Stephon (Aml Ameen), in a pool of blood from a drive-by shooting. A grief-fueled fragile mother is determined to fix her life: to bring the murderers of her son to justice so she can move on in nurturing her fourteen-year- old son.

Unsure how to go on with the effort of living, partly numbed by anti-anxiety drugs, Lila joins a  support group for moms who have lost children to gang violence.   Another grieving single mother, Eve, rejects the unbearable powerlessness of being told to move on as the appropriate way to respond to  grief.  And soon Lila admires Eve’s strength and anger at the apathy of the local police assigned to cases like theirs, which remain unsolved.  Their loss has no recourse or consequences for the murderer.  Neither Lila nor Eve wants to request justice like supplicants.  Soon both form a bond to exact justice for their children’s  unnecessary deaths.

It is the cops’ dismissiveness of Stephon’s death as just another casualty in the drug-turf wars that sets the plot into motion..  Lila is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and seeking empathy from  Eve is preferable to being told that she is fortunate to still have another child.  The newly aligned couple go on a rampage, as Eve cajoles Lila to go further to seek revenge.  Lila & Eve moves from hopelessness and despair midstream in this film to rage, and eventually regret, giving the drama its powerful hook that pulls the viewer in. 

Viola Davis never disappoints,  giving another impressive performance alongside  high-caliber acting by Jennifer Lopez. The two actors play perfectly as  counterparts in a dance of doom, danger, and death.

Understated yet gut-wrenching and heart-pumping,  Lila & Eve is a character study of the lacerating effects a tragic death has on the living.  Davis plumbs the depths of  anguish and psychological trauma in an electrifying performance that transforms this story  into something far beyond a typical revenge thriller. 

I was not sure what to expect from Lila & Eve but was pleasantly surprised by this relatively unknown, little-seen indie film.  Lila & Eve offers a powerful   portrait  of a mother’s pain and her need to relieve it.

Note: Available on Netflix Streaming and DVD.

“Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich”–Obscene Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note:  Available to stream now on Netflix. 

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

“The Hunting Ground” (2015)–Preying on Our Daughters and Sons

Many college students who have been raped on campus face retaliation and harassment as they fight for justice.  In The Hunting Ground,  the 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.  This callousness is  as devastating and traumatic as the rampant sexual assaults themselves.

In this 103-minute documentary,  college rape is seen from the point of view of the raped student as well as  the faculty and administrators who were called upon to take action. One rapist agreed to be interviewed.  

While college rapists are a small fraction (about 8 %) of students on campus, they are often repeat offenders who continue to rape with impunity, committing 90% of the rapes.  Several women interviewed were raped by the same student.  These repeat rapists are empowered with the knowledge that the college will turn a blind eye.

The documentary follows two former University of North Carolina students who were the first rape victims to use Title IX to fight back.  (Title IX  bans gender discrimination at colleges.)  The failure to comply can result in the withdrawal of federal funding upon which  colleges depend.   To fight for justice and vindication for the indifference of the colleges, the students organize other rape survivors to  file  Title IX complaints.  The use of Title IX in campus sexual assault cases has become a model for rape victims across the country.

 The Hunting Ground goes right for the gut.  Although the palpable trauma of rape survivors is powerful–with barely contained tears, choking, and trembling–it is the in-depth reporting of the inevitable cover-up by college administrators that is sickening and gut-wrenching.    Parents trust  colleges to safeguard their daughters and sons.  There is an implicit covenant to do so.  Why else would parents willingly send their children away?   The brazen breach of that covenant  is more than shameful. Administrators deny culpability.  Former deans and professors who come forward are  retaliated against for standing with the survivors. The police give their side of the story which demonstrates their impotence.   Why are so many covering up the rapes? Money.   Mostly it is about the reputation of the college and the alumni and fraternity donations and the sports team frenzy that brings in millions of dollars. After all, college presidents are hired to raise money. Safeguarding the lives of  our children is secondary.   One hundred thousand rapes per year will occur if university policy and culture don’t change.

The student accounts — delivered in sorrow and rage, but also with a naiveté of the very young and inexperienced– make this imperfect, sometimes plodding documentary a must-watch for its activism and advocacy.

Note: The Obama administration made the issue of campus assault a priority. In 2014, the White House released guidelines strengthening victims’ rights on how campus rapes are to be treated,  Shamefully Secretary Betsy DeVos in May  instituted administrative changes that would make it more difficult for victims to file charges against rapists. Biden is on record to reverse  the new rules which are an obvious effort by the Trump administration to “shame and silence” survivors of sexual assault

David Edelstein, writing for New York magazine, advised parents to watch The Hunting Ground before sending their children to college.  See “College-Rape Documentary The Hunting Ground Plays Like a Horror Movie” February 23, 2015.