“Squid Game”–Hunger Games Meets Snowpiercer: Gangnam Style

This #1 Netflix mega-hit, streaming in nine episodes, is a Korean dystopian story of survival.  A mastermind known as the Front Man, in a mask like Darth Vader, stages a series of deadly childhood games (tug of war, red-light-green-light, and the Korean-specific squid game).  The debt-ridden players, trapped on a remote island, are forced to compete in deadly versions of the gladiator-style games: gunned down if they lose.  Guards with triangles, circles, or squares marked on their masks are anonymous.

Squid Game’s sometimes shocking–always bloody–drama of blood-letting scenes grimly captures desperate people degrading themselves for money and survival. We see the truly hopeless future of the participants as they struggle to win the games.

The competitors — an unemployed, divorced autoworker and gambler with a young daughter, a Pakistani refugee who has no means of financial support for his young wife and baby, a fraudulent investor who has sold his mother’s assets— are only a few of the hundreds of debtors, who are not necessarily victims of their circumstances. These distraught and miserable players see no other options except taking part in the kill-or-be-killed, increasingly vicious games designed by the autocratic Front Man. The potential payoff for the winner or winners is tens of millions of dollars hanging literally over the players’ heads in a glass chandelier globe.

A timely, — if over-the-top– critique of what happens when the powerless are at the mercy of the powerful. The series’ brutality and bloodfest give off a computer-game vibe, where the body count is grotesque but meaningless.  This is what Squid Game drives home.

Unrelenting carnage is the show’s most conspicuous feature.  Think “Pulp Fiction” (Quentin Tarrantino) which I couldn’t watch.

I don’t like gore, I don’t like horror movies, but I was begrudgingly captivated by Squid Game. It hooks in the voyeur’s curiosity:  watching a car-accident, a boxing match, contact sports, “survival” tv, or gladiator-style competition.

In Squid Game the characters die in the order of their importance to the plot.  The “game” tone–“this is not serious” vibe–is underscored by the cinematography (set-designs that look like animated Lego games) and cos-play costumes.

Definitely a niche-market with Korean originality a strong reason to watch.

Warning:  Fear and anger can make people vindictive and abusive. The narrative relies on this behavior and its horrific consequences.

“Sandra Day O’Connor–The First”

For almost 200 years, the United States Supreme Court was a male bastion. In PBS’s American Experience: “Sandra Day O’Connor: The First” we see Sandra Day O’Connor become the first woman Supreme Court Justice.   She is remembered for being the critical swing vote on cases involving this country’s most controversial issues, including race, gender and reproductive rights — and for casting the decisive vote in Bush v. Gore.  Her riveting–often unexpected– family and career trajectory are explored in this timely biographical portrait. 

Born in 1930 in El Paso, Texas, O’Connor grew up on  the second largest  cattle ranch in Arizona. Learning to ride a horse across that vast ranch, change a flat tire, and herd cattle, the pre-teen “never got the message that there were limits to what she could accomplish.”  A brilliant student, she entered Stanford University at the age of sixteen. 

Although O’Connor went on to graduate at the top of her Stanford Law School class (one of only four female students),  no law firms interviewed her. While her fellow classmate and future husband, John O’Connor (whom she married in 1952) thrived in a successful law firm, Sandra was resigned to set up her own law office to offer her legal services to anyone who entered on a walk-in basis:  mostly bankruptcy and small claims clients.  From this unassuming start, O’Connor moved to city, then state legal offices.  Eventually nominated to fill a vacant Arizona Senate seat, she drew the attention of the state’s Republican power broker,   US Senator Barry Goldwater.

Fulfilling his campaign promise to appoint the most qualified woman to the high court, and in order to appease the educated white female Republican voters the party had fear of losing, Reagan nominates O’Connor.  He expected a modest unassuming Supreme Court justice. She was considered a safe bet and  was unanimously confirmed by the Senate (99-0). Surprisingly, the only objection to her nomination came from a burgeoning and increasingly powerful faction of Republican conservatives, led by Jerry Falwell,  who wanted to restore “family values” to America.

O’Connor would soon defy the suggestion that she would modestly defer to her male colleagues.  She approached each case with meticulous care and attention, and with the unshakeable  conviction that the role of the Court was to provide a limited check on the powers of government, not to legislate changes in current law.  Social change was to be dealt with by the legislature, not the courts. 

O’Connor emerged as the Supreme Court’s   crucial swing vote on the issues that mattered most to Americans.  As a result, the Supreme Court was nicknamed “O’Connor’s Court” since her vote was determinative. Yet she often wrote concurring opinions that limited the reach of the majority, interpreting most cases very narrowly. Hers was often the voice that spoke for the court. 

The only woman on the court for 12 years until Ruth Bader Ginsburg (see May 21, 2018 review: RBG–Truth to Power) was appointed by President Clinton in 1993, O’Connor was ecstatic at the confirmation:  “We just became two of the nine justices and it was just such a welcomed change, it was great.” In 1992 (before Ginsburg joined the Court) O’Connor served as the swing vote that reaffirmed  Roe v. Wade, despite the Republican push to overturn it (Planned Parenthood vs. Casey). 

In 2006 we see another upheaval for O’Connor.  Her husband, rapidly declining from Alzheimer’s,  compelled  her decision to retire earlier than expected at the age of 75. Her biographer, Evan Thomas,  writes that O’Connor confided to a friend, “John gave up his position in Phoenix to come with me [to Washington] so now I am giving up my job to take care of him.”

A glaring omission  in this American Experience production is the lack of coverage of  the impact of O’Connor’s decision.  She told her biographer that she sorely regretted early retirement: “It was the biggest mistake, the dumbest thing I ever did.”  Watching the succeeding judges, particularly Sam Alito, whittle away at her legacy greatly dismayed her as she came to conclude that the Republican Party she so dearly loved was no more. Her decision to leave at the peak of her influence and ability is, in this American Experience episode, tragic.

A woman of her times, raised in a culture in which she overcame nearly insurmountable obstacles, is an eye-opener.  These obstacles occurred almost half a century ago but seem persistent today. 

Highly compelling glimpse into a remarkable legal mind, jurist,  and political strategist.

Note:  To this day Sandra Day O’Connor is the only Supreme Court justice with experience in all three branches of government  (executive:  state assistant attorney general; legislative:  Arizona state senator and first woman speaker of the state senate; and judicial:  Arizona State Court of Appeals),

Availability: PBS American Experience (streaming)

“The Morning Show”–Wake Up America

The Morning Show, an award-winning AppleTV+ mini-series, is inspired by Brian Stelter’s book about Matt Lauer and the Today Show. Dominant themes and subplots focus on the vile, abject humiliation involved in corporate politics, gender roles, and sexual predation.

In the opening scene, co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) has just been fired for sexual harassment and possible assault, leaving his co-host Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) without her onscreen partner of the past fifteen years.  Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a West Virginian small-town reporter, is covering a coal mine protest. When a protester knocks down her cameraman, Bradley furiously grabs him by the collar, challenging him on his ignorance of the coal mine industry. The altercation is filmed on a  cell phone and goes viral.   Invited on The Morning Show by  producer Corey Ellison (Billy Crudup), Bradley gives a stunning defense against an irritated and jealous Alex.

Alex is aware of the constant need to be “entertaining”.  She knows the network’s politics– a competing network’s nipping at The Morning Show’s ratings–and that she may have a “sell-by” date fast approaching.  In a precarious position to renew her contract, Alex impulsively names Bradley as her new on-air co-anchor.   But will the addition of Bradley as her co-anchor improve the show’s ratings as America’s favorite morning show or will Bradley endanger Alex’s position and power?

Maggie Brener, a journalist at New York magazine (Marcia Gay Harden), suspects a  behind-the-scenes coverup of Mitch Kessler’s sexual predation, the darker side of the network’s public image. Powerful but vulnerable men at every level are desperate to hang on to their jobs: the smarmy and frightened producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass), the Macchiavellian  Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) in charge of the news department, and the CEO Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin).   The entire C-suite is in intense survival mode to  prevent their house of cards from collapsing. 

All episodes have nuanced character arcs. For example,  some of Mitch’s male co-workers, in a state of disbelief at the accusations against Mitch,  find him  funny and simply flirtatious.   Women claim unregretted sexual encounters with him–or so they publicly tell their associates. We see Mitch in  excruciating self-pity,  unreflective and egomaniacal,  thinking he’s just unlucky to be a powerful man held accountable for using his “seductive” powers. He cannot comprehend  how he is cruel and brutal,  defying any true communication with women.  As one survivor– Hannah Shoenfeld (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)–tries to explain: “I remember what happened differently from you.”

This high-stakes drama is dialed up in almost every scene in every episode,  undoubtedly influenced by the  controversies of the #MeToo wake-up calls alarming the nation.It’s like a tightrope act where you think they’re going to fall.”   Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. 

The entire cast  exceeds expectations, an ensemble that, at times, seems like a therapy session, particularly for the two main actors,  Jennifer Anniston and Reese Witherspoon.  Aniston has a difficult road to navigate:  Her character Alex is both sympathetic and complicated. She may have enabled Mitch and looked the other way, partly out of fear and denial. Alex is not always a great ally to other women, either, because she has come to feel she has no allies herself. In a state of constant high alert, Alex is determined to remain in control of her own life.  Bradley –in a role made for Reese Witherspoon–also has to express both her character’s inward and outward struggles, coming from a highly dysfunctional and damaging family.  Her fiery ambition and courage to make the world a better place are her only escape.

Steve Carell continues to stretch his dramatic range as he traverses the unenviable terrain of mining the psyche of  a sexual predator, who validates  his actions as “extracurricular sex” instead of traumatizing.   In a pivotal scene  Mitch is flustered for the first time when a filmmaker (played by Martin Short), facing similar allegations, justifies his actions by saying: “There’s nothing sexy about consent.” The close-up on Carell’s face is classic. 

As both the main actors and executive producers, Anniston and Witherspoon are playing against type:  their ingrained images as America’s Sweethearts.  In The Morning Show  they are stand-ins for women everyone thinks they know, but don’t. As Alex says, “Sometimes women can’t ask for control. So they have to take it” — and the show works best when they do. 

The Morning Show is a  cultural reckoning of #MeToo.  Current events have marked a radical shift in our cultural outlook regarding sexual harassment, the abuse of power, and the silencing of women’s voices.  All are bravely tackled in The Morning Show.

Availability:  AppleTV+–available for a 7-day free trial.

Note:  Brian Stelter, Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV

Note 2:  Warnings about sexual violence are given for Episode 8 and the F-word is used throughout the series.

“Official Secrets”–Blowing in the Wind

Based upon the  true story of British Intelligence whistle-blower Katharine Gun (played by Keira Knightley) immediately before the planned 2003 Iraq invasion, Official Secrets exposes a joint US-UK illegal extortion plan [under President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair).  Both governments colluded against members of the UN Security Council in order to obtain their votes for invasion.  Gun, a minor functionary and translator of highly confidential documents, leaks a top secret NSA memo  that  proposes blackmailing smaller, less powerful Security Council members. Official Secrets is a case study of the heroic whistle-blower who is willing to stand up for her values, regardless of the consequences. In the case of Katherine Gun, she naively did not expect the closing of ranks and the harm to her personal life. Nevertheless she was a heroine who deserves to be recognized for her truth-telling, at great emotional and physical cost.

Also at great personal and professional risk, journalist Martin Bright (Ralph Fiennes) publishes the leaked document in The Observer. The story made headlines around the world. Members of the Security Council were outraged and any chance of a UN resolution in favor of war collapsed. But within days, Bush declared he no longer needed UN backing.  The US  invaded anyway, with Colin Powell presenting his views supporting the invasion and weapons of mass destruction.  

The Official Secrets Act is then invoked, with treason and sedition charges brought against both Katherine Gun and Martin Bright. Their legal battles expose the highest levels of government in both London and Washington.  Katherine is put on trial in 2003.

The soul of the film is the ethical question of whether state employees act for the people or for the government, echoing Watergate.   At its core, Official Secrets is a portrait of  a courageous individual who believes an illegal war is about to be declared.  Her moral compass does not allow her to remain silent.  With impeccable timing, Official Secrets demonstrates how coverups can impact the course of history.

Note: When Secretary of State Colin Powell learned that the information he was given for his presentation to the United Nations was false, he resigned. 

Availability: Netflix DVD

“Behind Her Eyes”–For All To See

Behind Her Eyes, based on Sarah Pinborough’s best-selling novel of the same name,  tells the story of Adele and her husband David, a renowned psychiatrist specializing in drug addiction. The couple live an ostensibly perfect life in an exclusive London suburb.

The beautiful Adele Ferguson (Eve Hewson) was recently a patient in a mental institution where her husband was the presiding psychiatrist.  Upon release she  marries the handsome doctor. While a patient, Adele becomes best friends with a gay working-class Glasgow junkie, Rob (Robert Aramayo) who seems to be energized in her presence and she in his.  Together they play a dangerous series of mind games whose consequences are only hinted at throughout most episodes.

Enter Louise Barnsley (the excellent Simona Brown),   a beautiful young Black single mom living with her seven-year-old son, Adam (an adorable Tyler Howitt who reminds this viewer of the little boy in “Jerry Maguire”). On a rare night out, Louise meets a charming stranger who turns out to be David (Tom Bateman), the new psychiatrist hired at the upscale mental-health clinic where Louise is a part-time secretary.

Accidentally, Louise literally bumps into Adele and becomes friends.  What follows is a nurturing Adele, skilled in the art of lucid dreaming, teaching Louise how to take control of her night terrors.

And so the menage-a-trois begins–with a husband and wife both drawn to Louise and she to them.  The suspense and psychology of having conflicted feelings towards someone because of a sexual relationship with her partner is difficult to navigate and empathize under any circumstances, but Behind Her Eyes manages to pull in the viewer’s investment in understanding, especially Louise and Adele. …until it doesn’t.

In the fifth episode,  Behind Her Eyes inexplicably  swerves into sci-fi and fantasy, with dreamland sequences of bright-blue skies, ponds, floating Tinker-bell fairies, and gingerbread houses and tea parties.  Are we falling down a rabbit hole here?  Why  waste  a psychological thriller with so much possibility? 

There are many fans of this limited series. Sadly, I’m not one of them. Nevertheless,  it did have real potential.

Availability:  Netflix streaming

“The Mauritanian”–Guantanamo Diary

Based upon the NYT best-selling memoir, Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Salahi, we see the endurance of a young Mauritanian, Mohamedou Slahi (played by Tahar Rahim, The Prophet).  He is being held in Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.  The legal drama The Mauritanian demonstrates the lawyer’s duty to represent a client, regardless of  doubt in his innocence, and whether winning at all costs is what a justice system should condone.  

Attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster in her Golden Globe winning performance) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) are committed to defending the young Muslim who has been imprisoned without charge in what is soon revealed to be notorious conditions (with echoes of Abu Ghraib in several scenes). The military prosecutor,  Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), has lost a friend to the 9/11 tragedy and wishes to pursue the death sentence for Slahi. A church-going straight-shooter Marine, Couch is determined that the law will prevail and that the government is honorable in its prosecution.  After a crisis in conscience, unfortunately, Couch is crushed –by his commander in charge and by his own values for what constitutes habeas corpus, justice and human rights.  In  uncovering shocking truths about incarceration, prison conditions and illegal methods for  obtaining Slahi’s confession, Couch faces an unnerving dilemma as Hollander and Duncan fight a massive government cover-up, stonewalling, and obstruction to acquiring the facts and documentation necessary for a fair trial.    

The young Algerian actor, Tahar Rahim, delivers an intensely gut-wrenching performance of a man tortured and humiliated, threatened with ominous treatment of his mother and brothers, and betrayal by his friends.  Jodie Foster and Tahar Rahim are superb in all the client-attorney conversations in the prison interrogation cell.   The two actors are extraordinarily well-matched and understated in conveying the horror they both need to accept as truth.    

Finally, after going to trial, there is a surprising turn of events.  Definitely worth watching for a better understanding of the existence and ostensible justification for Guantanamo Bay.  A painful reminder that Gitmo still prevails, twenty years after 9/11, with detainees who have never been charged.        

Note:  The out-takes of the actual Slahi, Hollander, Couch and Duncan are particularly moving!  The Mauritanian may raise more questions than it answers and is not for the squeamish.    
 

“The Father”–A Patriarch’s Decline

The Father is  a devastating, disquieting journey into the horrors of dementia, both for the afflicted and for those who are close to the afflicted.    Artfully helmed by French playwright Florian Zeller in his directorial debut, Zeller invites the viewer into a breathtaking and  wrenching look at advancing dementia through both the individual frightened by what is happening and to the no-less-terrified family and caregivers. Watching a loved one die is always harrowing, but dementia makes it especially so, as the patient not only slips away mentally, but lashes out in angry and hurtful ways as they do so.  Given the increase in movies about an aging population susceptible to dementia and Alzheimer’s, The Father nonetheless breaks new ground.   

The main character, Anthony (the astonishing Anthony Hopkins),   is the  unreliable narrator, forcing the audience to see what he sees and try to make sense of that world. In a superb feat of writing, directing, and acting, The Father hurls the audience into the main character’s head with    time and space revealing a more constricting and often confusing perspective.  In doing so, The Father  conveys the full tragedy and vertiginous confusion of dementia. Anthony slowly unravels into  someone almost unrecognizable to himself and to his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman). 

Without any spoilers, we see  the brilliant way The Father  communicates Anthony’s increasing inability to differentiate  his loved ones from strangers. The viewer feels as trapped in this small, shifting space as Anthony does. The present invades the past to the point where it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. To that end, the timeline is critical: a missing watch, changes in apartment decor and furnishings symbolizing Anthony’s chronological undoing. Are his daughter and nurse playing cruel games on him?  The conflicting scenes offer a puzzle with no easy solution.  That, essentially, is the prison of Anthony’s mind.  And Anthony’s confusion is, in itself,  disorientating for the viewer.

First and foremost, Anthony Hopkins, –in his career-best performance,– is truly astonishing as a shattered, aging, and fragile  soul slowly surrendering to his mind as an enemy inside his body.  To play a man who’s begun to lose his mental faculties, Hopkins methodically peels away everything until there’s nothing left but frailty,  distress, and despair. 

Olivia Colman is the keystone to Hopkins, giving a sympathetic and equally heart-wrenching performance as the daughter undeserving of her father’s hurtful responses. Colman is also tasked with the unenviable role of the concerned daughter trying to balance parental love with her own  needs, without seeming cold and egotistical.  She never fails to deliver.

Fantastic work from both actors is sustained throughout the film, with sensitively interpreted, nuanced roles by the seasoned supporting cast, especially Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams and Imogen Poots.

One day, everyone you know and love will die, the immutable truth we all carry  with us.  The inevitability of decay becomes a little harder to turn away from with every passing year. Rarely is the nature of death and dignity explored as terrifyingly andtenderly as it is in The Father.

With a profound sadness at its core , The Father is emotionally charged and upsetting, particularly in one of the last scenes.  You’ll think about The Father long after itends.

Note:  Both Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman have been nominated for Academy Awards this year for their performances.

“I Care a Lot”–Caregiver or Caretaker?

In this Netflix original movie, I Care a Lot, the highly successful court-appointed guardian, Marla Grayson (the astonishing Rosamund Pike of “Gone Girl” fame), masterminds a scheme to being appointed guardian of  wealthy elderly patients by the state court.   Marla is charged with  caring for the elderly who are identified by doctors as incompetent to manage their own health needs, daily living and assets.

Marla and her partner Fran (Eiza González) run a highly profitable hustle –a guardianship grift of elderly “wards of the state”.  To the judge who appoints her to be caregiver, she appears as highly professional, extraordinarily articulate, and convincing in asserting her qualifications. On first appearance, the onlooker sees a measured, seemingly trustworthy advocate for eldercare.    But underneath that veneer and polish, Marla is abusing a legal system by targeting wealthy seniors that actually aren’t incompetent,  throwing them in care facilities and assuming absolute control of their assets.  She understands this  system better than most: how she can manipulate (and sometimes) bribe doctors and the courts to her advantage,   essentially kidnapping the elderly, robbing them of  their assets, and separating them forever from their families.   She’s not a caregiver, not a caretaker.  She’s neither.  Marla’s an irresolute taker.

And then the “cherry”–Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest in an unforgettable performance)  is introduced to them by an unscrupulous physician.  A “cherry” is a very wealthy old person with no family or friends to look out for them, ready for the picking.  But,  unexpected trouble arises when Jennifer Peterson is not who she seems.  A very difficult “cherry” indeed.   The  predatory guardians, Marla and Fran, soon become the prey.

Unfortunately for Marla, Jennifer has an undisclosed and mysterious relationship with a powerful mobster (the delightfully malevolent Peter Dinklage from “Game of Thrones”) who will go to great lengths to protect Jennifer.  He releases her from Marla’s clutches.

It’s a stomach-churning ride with a lot of venom and dismay that people assigned to be guardians for the most vulnerable may get away with highly irregular, if not criminal behavior.   Resources are stretched allowing the court-appointed caregivers to  conceal bad acts  because they are  trusted.

They come in and steal under false pretenses and strip the victim of all credibility.   And Rosamund Pike’s and Peter Dinklage’s twitchy, angry staggering performances menace one another in a vicious death spiral. Until the very end of I Care a Lot the viewer is treated to unexpected twists and turns, in one traumatic scene after another.

What is most unsettling about I Care a Lot , however, is the picture it presents of eldercare:  Just park them, rob them, and then move on to the next one.  What seems like a  con game — a gangster’s operation–is taking advantage of loopholes in the law.  Watching Marla game the system to her own ends is far from comforting.  The viewer has to ask:  Is this amoral predator behavior really widespread?  Is the eldercare/guardianship system  susceptible  to people like Marla and Fran to manipulate? Do some guardians stretch the rules as far as they possibly can?

Make sure your parents and grandparents are protected at all costs!  I Care a Lot  is a cautionary tale for all of us!

Availability:  On Netflix streaming and Golden Globe-nominated for a best film.

“Soul”—The Spirit of Rebirth

Guest Blogger:  Mahshid Zamani Bozorgnia,   film critic

[Edited by Diana Y. Paul]

Soul,  an animated and  complex film from Pixar directed and created by Pete Dokter (who also created “Toy Story”, “Inside Out” and “Monsters Inc”), refers to the jazz music genre and tackles the theme of what is the spirit or soul, the distinction between passion and obsession, and what constitutes the “spark” of happiness.

There is something compulsively watchable and comforting about Pixar movies with their photo-realistic imaginary worlds. But there is much more.  There are built-in  philosophical questions of life and death and self-identity embedded in the story, which appeal to adults with the openness of a child.

The main character, Joe Gardner–an African American middle school music teacher (who, like his father, is passionate about jazz music)–deals with the choice of wanting to make a living or following his passion.  But this decision-making entails an existential life crisis.

(One finds traces of the transcendental philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, with  some of his actual words adopted into the film’s dialogue.)

Joe, an ambitious pianist aspiring to accompany one of the great saxophonists, Dorothea Williams, feels that his life has been, at best,  ordinary, and more likely an epic failure.  In order to understand Emerson’s view  that “there is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful,” Joe has to rebuild himself. And what can be a better metaphor for being reborn than actually dying and coming back?

In Soul, the Great Beyond and the Great Before, –the interstitial space between life and death– are the universe’s recycling of nature and soul. Joe is not ready for the rare moment of “transcendence,” or “Great Before,” Yet, when he realizes that he either has to mentor a baby soul (called “22”) to be given “a new and unique personality” or go to the Great Beyond, he decides to stay and take the training in the “You Seminar”. During the presentation, the seminar instructor, Jerry, explains that souls are missing “the spark” and that they can only enter a body if they find that spark. Joe believes his spark is jazz and that his life can inspire other souls.  Matched with recalcitrant soul number 22, who has never found her spark and has no desire to go to earth, Joe is determined that she is his ticket to rebirth.

Together, they enter the “the zone” that 22 defines as “the place between space and physical.”  Baby soul 22 takes Joe to Moonwind, who tells them that he himself was once a lost soul: “There is not much difference between souls in the zone and  lost souls:  joy can turn into obsessions and some people cannot let go of their anxiety and obsessions, leaving them lost and disconnected from life.” However, Joe does not yet understand what Moonwind is saying.  

Soon 22 sees the spark in every element in New York City, where they both temporarily land.  From the smell of pizza to small seed pods, 22 is ready to get life on Earth, believing that she has found her spark, but Joe remains unconvinced.  After a sensational performance with Dorothea Williams, she recalls a story of a fish who was in the ocean and yet dreamed of getting to the ocean. This wonderful analogy is a turning point for Joe.

And if we believe that Emerson’s theories were mostly about the idea of America–“that its existence matters, not its past nor its future”–what better place for Joe to become a transparent eyeball and define for himself what success is than on the streets of New York City?

Availability: Disney+

Note: Certainly an important curriculum topic for college freshman.  A very mature theme about what makes life worth living—may need to proceed with caution for some youth.  Young children may not be that interested, especially in the beginning of Soul.

“Promising Young Woman” –Breaking Over and Over Again

Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell,  is a revenge thriller on a brutal topic–Don’t let the title mislead you.  Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a 30-year old former medical student, is now a barista living with her parents  In the opening scene we see a very inebriated Cassie barhopping and wandering the city streets at night.

The viewer doesn’t know why this bright and attractive woman is engaged in such risky, dangerous behavior.  To say much more about the film’s artistic and courageous story would ruin it.  But this is an extraordinary directorial debut that explores sexual aggression, objectification of women, and the denial of women’s voices.

Promising Young Woman not only portrays male antagonists, but also  “non-believers” who are women and enablers to the trauma.   This will inevitably be a controversial film because it depicts people hiding behind their smiles, popularity, and success without the underbelly of their criminal behavior being exposed or punished. 

There is no redemption in Promising Young Woman and none can be expected.  The bold ending was a surprise but satisfying in a way, and changes the entire tenor of the film and the perception of Cassie.

Carey Mulligan gives an Academy Award-worthy performance unlike any in her previous (mostly historical) films. She has to pivot from a fiery vessel of rage to a vulnerable young person hoping for change.   Caught in a web of pain, rage, and broken dreams,  Carey Mulligan’s character cannot imagine an alternative web of healing and mercy.

The supporting cast also is very strong:  Bo Burnham as Ryan Cooper, a pediatric surgeon and love interest for Cassie, Alfred Molina as a conscience-struck lawyer filled with regrets, and Allison Brie as a medical school classmate. 

Promising Young Woman is one of the darkest, most painful films I have seen in a very long time.  It may stay with you for days after viewing, clotting your thoughts and feelings on this brutal subject.

The movie delivers its sucker punch when you least expect it.  Not for everyone but for those who are intrigued by the relentless depth into human crimes and misdemeanors, don’t miss it!

Note:  This film has echoes of “13 Reasons Why”, “Lila and Eve”,  the classic “Goodbye Mr. Goodbar”, and “Killing Eve”.

Availability:  Amazon Prime Video

“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.