Dawn Wall–They Persisted (The Only Wall to Consider?)

Dawn Wall documentary

Dawn Wall was last year’s SXSW Audience Award documentary winner. Free climber Tommy Caldwell and his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, attempt to scale the unscalable 3000 ft. Dawn Wall, a vertical granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Dawn Wall  is much more than a documentary about climbing, however.  There is the horrific incident in Krzygistan, the years of gaining experience climbing the other faces of El Capitan, and the friendship with two female climbing partners, both of whom he had married. After an accident, Caldwell resolved not to stop his free climbing but persevered, often blurring the boundary between commitment and obsession.

All can appreciate Dawn Wall,  even if you don’t have a clue about climbing. This is an engrossing documentary that is, first and foremost, about the friendship between Caldwell and Jorgeson. Kevin Jorgeson was inexperienced as a free climber but expert at “bouldering”, a type of free climbing at 50-100 feet.  Together the two climbers   spend more than six years meticulously mapping and practicing their route. Their resilience and courage are beyond astonishing as the two climbers make history.

Dawn Wall is about the indefatigable human spirit, and the ability to overcome and accomplish the impossible. The power of friendship and supportive brotherly love in the face of adversity is beautifully crafted. While Caldwell’s obsessive nature is apparent in almost every frame of this movie, he avoids narcissism in the turning point of their climb.

This is where Dawn Wall transfixes the viewer. I felt like I was literally hanging on the side of the mountain with both climbers as they slept in a portaledger tent suspended in mid-air and laughed about what they ate and how they adapted to toilet needs as they climbed for weeks.  This isn’t really a sports film. 

The magic is in this amazing journey between kindred spirits. The fact that there are two humans in a partnership without jealousy or competitive pettiness outstrips other movies about supra-human feats and endurance such as “Man on a Wire” and “Free Solo”.  The need for human companionship and sharing in the victory makes Dawn Wall more compelling.  Adversity and setbacks drive their  personal challenges but  their friendship triumphs over all.   Dawn Wall is full of heart and soul, for everyone who has experienced hard climbs, slipping and losing our grip, and then pushing through.  Highly recommended!

Note: This YouTube behind-the-scenes clip is an added bonus for appreciating the heroic efforts the film crew undertook as well!

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — The Golden Rule

There’s a lot to like about producer/director Morgan Neville’s moving,  2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  Neville (who also created 20 Feet from Stardom – see my August 19, 2018 review) interviews just about everyone who knew Fred Rogers– his wife and two sons, his longtime cast and crew on the pioneering PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood  (1968 to 2001).  Some baby-boomers, their children and their grandchildren grew up on the soothing words of Mister Rogers:

   So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day/Since we’re together we might as well say/Would you be mine?/Could you be  mine?/Won’t you be my neighbor?”

        Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was pokey enough to be cringe-worthy for adults who wondered how their children could be spellbound by a nondescript, unassuming man in a cardigan, who changed his shoes while singing the same opening song for almost forty years.

Fred Rogers, a graduate of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the mid-60’s, soon realized that television could be revolutionary and that children’s lives would be impacted by this new medium.  Why not offer a show that deals with a child’s feelings–anger, fear, self-esteem, grief–to prepare them for their new world?  Mister Rogers proved to be a master at eliciting children’s  feelings, and recommending  trusting grownups to listen.    Daniel Striped Tiger–Mister Rogers’ alter ego in a furry puppet form– tackled the everyday emotional needs of pre-schoolers with respect, honesty, and thoughtfulness rarely seen on television then or now.

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

 What the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores perhaps more clearly now than at the time the show was produced is just how revolutionary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood actually was.  Even through the tumultuous Sixties, subjects of political violence, racial discrimination, and the degrading messages children and adults frequently heard were never side-stepped or sugarcoated.  Without preaching but with integrity and visual connection, Mister Rogers would show by example.  Soaking his feet in a kiddie pool with his friend, the African American policeman, Officer Clemmons,  demonstrated community in a time of segregated swimming pools.

When cellist Yo-Yo Ma describes first meeting Fred Rogers, he recalls that Rogers put his face three inches from Ma’s while gently smiling at him.  “He scared the hell out of me,” says Ma.  Rogers did the same thing when he first met the gorilla Koko, who then held his hand and signed that she loved him.

Under Mr. Rogers’ seemingly bland exterior was a true radical.   Here was a white middle-aged man inviting everyone to live in his neighborhood, regardless of color.  And his cast reflected diversity not yet seen on most shows today.

Almost hagiographical in scope, Neville does reveal one of Fred Rogers’ blind spots.  The actor who played Officer Clemmons had been to a gay bar.   Rogers soon informed him that if there were any future visits to gay bars, he would be terminated out of fear of losing corporate sponsors. The inclusion and fostering of community revealed in the context of its time was  still not universally accepting. 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? elevates this classic children’s show and its star to a standard we need to remind ourselves of and recommit to.  The unspoken question is:  What would Fred Rogers think of a culture congealed into a state of outrage, vulgarity and intolerance?  How would we build a neighborhood and live together in an era of proposed wall-building?

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood   was a realistic lens on how a child must make sense of an emotionally complex and sometimes irrational world. 

 It’s this idea that kindness is not a naive notion like believing in unicorns and rainbows. It’s oxygen: It’s vital, and needs to be nurtured.

When you watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor? you don’t see a Republican or a Democrat.  Mister Rogers speaks to the fundamental ways we should all speak to each other.

Note: Available on PBS.com and Netflix DVD.

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Bordertown, Season 2–Borderline Thriller

This long-awaited Finnish noir thriller’s second season continues to feature the quirky and sullen detective Kari  Sorjonen (Ville Virtanen) and his partner, Lena Jaakola (Anu Sinisalo),    as they obsessively pursue a series of grizzly murders similar to the first season of 2016 (see my July 23, 2017 review of Season 1) .  The format of Bordertown Season 2 is similar to the first season, namely  five criminal cases, each two episodes in length.

This dark and moody crime series swept Finland’s top TV awards in its first season, winning Best Drama, Best Actor and Best Actress and was the most-watched series in Finland’s television history.

The two crimes which are the most gripping–“The Rite of Spring” and “Bloodmaid”– are both  bloody and dramatic with  themes of infanticide and pedophilia (“The Rite of Spring”) and predatory stalking (“Bloodmaid”). We burrow into the wormhole of the criminal mind and its darkest, most sickening secrets and lies.

Season 2 is a mere shadow of the first season with a lesser quality of writing and  egregious plot holes. The lead detective, Kari Sorjonen, is reduced to a caricature of his earlier self. Often distracting, odd, and gratuitously annoying, Sorjonen now possesses a layer of over-the-top facial and body tics. Poking at his head, presumably to demonstrate to the viewer that he is a brilliant criminal analyst, and even stepping on documents to somehow inspire his investigative skills, this portrayal of Sorjonen is fraught with cliche and formula.

I will wait until Season 3 to see if Bordertown continues to cover the ground I loved in the first season, namely a complicated emotional family life that propels Sorjonen to solve crimes in order to keep his family and community safe.  This season did not move the needle forward with sufficient speed, sagging sometimes painfully, when tighter structure of each crime would have made Session 2  taut and mesmerizing.

Note: Available on Netflix streaming

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4 Replies to “Bordertown, Season 2–Borderline Thriller”

  1. I would have agreed with your assessment of the second season, but a funny thing happened after watching the first two episodes. I decided that something had changed between the first season and the second season. I decided we watched the first season in Finnish. So we switched back to watching in Finnish with the English subtitles. We watched the third and four episodes in Finnish. The change gave us back the feel of the original.

    Watching in English was horrible. In other words the dubbing was horrible.

    1. I didn’t know that there was a dubbed version, which I usually dread. We watched the Finnish being spoken with English subtitles. Thank you for alerting our readers to this alternative option. Watch the original Finnish to see the timbre and emotional tone of the actors!

True Detective Season 3–Whodunit…or Not?

For armchair sleuths, the latest season of True Detective will probably not fit neatly into the category of cops-and-killers genre, buddy-cop, film noir, or police procedural.  Surprisingly,True Detective’s latest season has elements of all four.

True Detective Season 3
True Detective Season 3

Set in the Ozarks in the ‘80s (with virulent Jim Crow traditions), the ‘90s, and the recent past (probably 2015 or 2016),  True Detectives focuses on one haunted Vietnam War veteran,  detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), as he investigates the disappearance of a little girl, and the death of her brother.  The narrative is, at times, a murder mystery, a love story,  and a friendship between an African American detective  and his preferentially treated white partner.  In the end, True Detectives  is a   meditation on death, memory, and the fragility of human relationships. 

The cultural and emotional legacy of the Vietnam War becomes increasingly important as we come to know Wayne Hays more completely.  His attempts at introspection and often unsympathetic reactive behavior towards the woman he loves, Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), changes the tone of the mystery.  A schoolteacher who knew the missing kids, Amelia writes a best-selling true-crime novel about the case. 

True Detective Season 3
True Detective Season 3

Although we never really discover what has scarred him so deeply,  Wayne Hays is so tightly bottled up and wounded that his feelings and thoughts are only expressed through watching his face and body as he moves through a world that is often racist.  We see US race relations flash forward through the three time periods of the case.

By 1990, the case is reopened when startling information surfaces. Now Wayne has  married Amelia, and his relationship with his own children–a son and daughter–becomes more remote as he becomes even more obsessed with solving the disappearance of the Purcell girl at the expense of his own family.

 While True Detectives is purportedly a story of obsession and crime, it is the tragic disintegration of Wayne’s mind that makes this season worth watching.  Dropping hints that his recollections might not be as accurate as they seem, that his past as a war veteran causes some of his serious family problems, are important revelations.

His performance drives the series, and is most compelling for the way the crime  intersects with his family life. Despite shadowy distractions, “True Detective” is worth watching for the multifaceted and virtuoso performance of Mahershala Ali.

Note: This is an HBO mini-series.

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Narcos, Narcos Mexico and El Chapo–Cinema Verité

Three Netflix series — Narcos, Narcos Mexico and El Chapo– are gritty, raw, and bingeable. Each chronicles the most powerful drug lord and his cartel at the rise of cocaine and marijuana production in Colombia, Mexico, and other parts of the world.

Based on sometimes astonishly real life stories of drug kingpins Pablo Escobar, Angel Felix Gallardo  and El Chapo, the viewer witnesses each of these drug dealers’ malevolently brilliant strategic maneuvers to avoid capture and extradition.  Corrupt government and law enforcement, including the DEA (US Drug Enforcement Administration), dance to their deaths in quick step, a carefully calibrated violent seizure of power.

The war on drugs is not simple for the agencies committed to win or for the producers and distributors committed to prosper. With billions of dollars in income, we are treated to observe, from the catbird’s seat, each drug lord continually shifting allegiances and deal-making in order to retain power.  Surviving in a cut-throat world of betrayal and loss, the thug subculture tries to maintain fierce loyalty while family members become the collateral damage.  An unlikeable character, no matter the circumstances, remains unlikeable, but in each of these Netflix series we see the drug lord’s vulnerability, focused on wives, girl friends, and children, giving humanity to otherwise horrifyingly brutish and cruel behavior.

The three award-winning series seem incredulous until the viewer realizes that the current and ongoing trial and sentencing of El Chapo demonstrates truth is stranger than fiction, and that screenwriters flocked to the courtoom in Queens, to gather more material for the ongoing series, Narcos Mexico, and that the young actor who plays El Chapo was greeted with a  wave by the actual El Chapo when he entered the courtroom.  At times gripping suspense and violence give way to scenes of Mexican culture and small towns surviving on the margins.  

Narcos, Narcos Mexico, and El Chapo Netflix TV series

Poppy and cannabis cultivations fit in well in among cucumbers and tomatoes.  This is one of the best series of drama and suspense to come from Netflix.  A winner without qualifications.

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Velvet Buzzsaw–Art Can Be Dangerous

In this grisly art-world satire, Velvet Buzzsaw opens with a renowned art critic, Morf Vandewalt (the sensational Jake Gyllenhaal), in his designer sunglasses, turning his pompous, gimlet eye on artwork at the highly hyped Art Basel Miami show. Pontificating about what he considers worthy or unworthy, Morf has the power to punish or reward.

Everything starts conventionally with the cocktail circuit of groveling artists’ representatives, but  soon it turns grisly.  Velvet Buzzsaw relishes in satirizing the pompous art-world,  blending horror  inside an artist’s disturbed mind.

The disturbed mind is that of a deceased elderly man, Vetril Dease, whose paintings are discovered by Josephina (Zawe Ashton) , a recently fired art gallery assistant.  Although Dease had instructed that his paintings be destroyed after his death, Josephina ambitiously appropriates them.  She sees an opportunity for profit, power, and status.  Partnering with her former boss (Rene Russo), the powerhouse owner of the Haze gallery, the two women form an unholy alliance to sell Dease’s “outsider art” for exorbitant sums of money.   Despite the fact that Rhodora Haze had humiliated Josephine previously, the young assistant soon becomes indispensable to Rhodora.

Art becomes personal, and Dease’s mysterious  paintings have a mind of their own.  What if the figures in his paintings reflect the artist’s past pain and suffering? Dease’s fear, melancholy, menace and agony?

Seemingly unfazed by growing concerns over Dease’s work and his past, Rhodora imperiously manipulates the profits from this windfall collection, creating more buzz as some paintings are destroyed. Josephina is her accomplice.

Velvet Buzzsaw’s pacing is skillful and adept with what-will-happen-next tension.  However, a few images are almost too far-fetched, even for the horror genre.  Part “Black Mirror” and part classic “The Red Violin”,  the viewer is left asking questions from the ambiguity of the ending:   Who is the perfect victim for a cursed object?  When is the punishment too extreme for the crime?  Velvet Buzzsaw is sharply rendered.

Note: This is a new release, a Netflix Original,  with grisly deaths and a few bloody scenes.   

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 The Favourite–A Compelling Menage à Trois

 

 

The Favourite

Nominated for ten Academy Awards including best picture, The Favourite is perhaps one of the best revenge thrillers of 2018. Reminiscent of Downton Abbey with its opulent settings and costumes, The Favourite is also an historical drama.

In the early 18th century court of Queen Anne, we see a mentally fragile and damaged queen (the sublime Olivia Colman), facing the usual suspects vying to seize the growing power of an emerging empire. The queen’s closest advisor and friend, Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), governs the country behind the scenes through manipulating Anne’s vulnerabilities, infantilizing her, and enabling the Queen’s weakened health to worsen.

When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, desolate and no longer considered aristocratic, Lady Sarah becomes indebted to her for assuaging the Queen’s episode of gout. Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots if she can become a trusted confidante of the queen. The plot thickens, as we see the two ladies-in-waiting wrestle for the queen’s attention and affection. Queen Anne seems to slip deeper into madness, while delighting in being fought over by Lady Sarah and Lady Abigail.

 

The Favourite movie

The Favourite is not only a thriller but a love triangle. Are Lady Sarah and Lady Abigail really in love with the Queen or simply ingratiating themselves in order to manipulate her for their own self interests? We’re never quite sure.

Colman, Weisz and Stone are fully in control in every scene, giving powerhouse performances. Their virtuoso acting is the engine that drives the subplots and unexpected twists and turns at Kensington Palace. (With subchapter titles like “I Dreamt I Stabbed You in the Eye”, the viewer is still left unprepared.) In the end, however, it is Colman who is unforgettable, whose eyes subtly water at hurtful comments, the gaze of one who hopes that no one notices the injury. Those eyes and the subtly of her acting, repeatedly holding this viewer’s undivided attention, are exceptional.

Through her mesmerizing performance as Queen Anne– broken, impulsive, lustful, needy and angry all at once, –Olivia Colman owns almost every iconic moment. All is communicated through her eyes. Few can rival that.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone give the performances of their lives too, with tantrums, furious raging, and sexual excesses. Uncomfortably intimate close-ups, with a wide range of emotions richly displayed, reveal their desperate loneliness and despair.

While the wicked schemes and betrayals make The Favourite a very strong contender for an Academy Award for best picture, the historical setting was puzzling at times. It is the early 18th century and England is at war with the French, but The Favourite does little to inform the audience that the war is known as Queen Anne’s War and foreshadows the Napoleonic  Wars so this is a critical time for building an empire. The addition of a little historical context would have put the crowning touch on The Favourite.

 

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3 Replies to “ The Favourite–A Compelling Menage à Trois”

  1. I saw the Favorite this past Saturday evening. I could not believe what an awful, slow, dumb, movie. The 2 hours viewing was an exercise in sitting quietly and enduring an assault on my mind.
    The movie had no historical value, the acting was nothing, it certainly was not erotic or a mystery. It was BAD…I would have expected you to call it out for the terrible movie that it was.

    1. We’re all different audiences, especially for historical dramas. I like them–and the actors were stunning to me, but I guess not for you which is fine. If you’re interested in reviewing a movie, I would be happy to consider a guest blog and we can see what others think about your evaluation. I LOVE knowing what others have to say. Thank you, Eugene, for following my reviews and taking the time to post your comments!

IndigNation–Jim Carrey’s Political Cartoons

 

Jim Carrey Robert Mueller
Squeeze. Mueller. Squeeze

Every time I think I know what Jim Carrey will do next as a comedian the actor throws me off balance. Think of his new HBO series Kidding. But most of all, his evolution as a no-holds-barred political artist just blows me away.

I recently was privileged to see more than 80 of his sketches at the Maccarone Gallery in Los Angeles, IndigNation: Political Cartoons by Jim Carrey, 2016–2018.” This Canadian actor is fearless in attacking the dysfunction of Trump’s presidency. The intensity of his aversion for Trump is felt pulsating through the 8 1/2 x 11 school notebook pages literally ripped from the binder. The torn, ragged edge of each sheet is perhaps a metaphor for how Carrey feels while painting with brush markers and acrylics, often in exceptionally fine detail.

From October 13 through December 7, the Los Angeles exhibit covered the Twitter sketches Carrey has posted weekly, since Trump’s inauguration. The Maccarone gallery had three huge rooms exhibiting his colorful drawings, simply framed, and with often scathing and vituperative captions revealing an artist talented with words as well as with color. Carrey has been quoted as saying that social media is his canvas. (Currently Carrey has 18 million Twitter followers @JimCarrey)

Jim Carrey A Void cartoon
A Void

But it is only since January 2017 that we have seen how accomplished his artistic talents are, as he reacts with outrage to what Trump has done.

Jim Carrey political cartoons
Our Ally. Our Missile. Our Crime.

I hope that the IndigNation exhibit will travel throughout the country so that followers of Carrey will see for themselves how irrepressible these drawings are. Truly turbocharged fulminations of our times.

 

 

Note: “IndigNation: Political Cartoons by Jim Carrey, 2016–2018” was on view at Maccarone, 300 South Mission Road, Los Angeles, October 13December 7, 2018.

 

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Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

 

Lo and Behold documentaryFilmmaker Werner Herzog, in this tech-retrospective of the history of the internet and the convoluted relationship between humans and computers, examines the past, present and future of the internet. His easily recognizable gravelled-voice of the narrator is both ominous and puzzling.

Lo and Behold gives the viewer a spellbinding, lesser-known walk back in time through the birth of the computer and its subsequent impact on our daily lives. Some of the segments are dazzling glimpses of the brilliance of discovering this way of communication(with a few academic and boring bits of calculus), some are amusing (the increasing ubiquity of porn), and some are heartbreaking (cyber bullying, suicide, and grief). Anyone who spends a lot of time online will find plenty here to process and reflect on.

We see extremes: medical marvels saving lives or electromagnetic waves that debilitate. Each chapter introduces a different positive or negative dynamic of the internet.

Lo and Behold documentary

At the end of Lo and Behold, after examining the intelligence of robots and their position in our lives (chapter: “Artificial Intelligence”), Herzog poses the question “Can the internet dream of itself?” This is a fascinating look at the pros and cons of our internet world–riveting and memorable!

 

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Happy New Year Chinese Style –Year of the Brown Earth Pig or Wild Boar (February 5, 2019–January 24, 2020)

Year of the Wild Boar

The Year of the Wild Boar (in the Japanese and Tibetan zodiac systems) or the Pig in the Chinese Zodiac:   the Buddha called a meeting of his monks, the townspeople, and the animals before entering Nirvana. The Pig was late to the sermon because he ate too much and overslept.

Chinese New Year 2019
Year of the Pig 2019

 

 

The fat, happy Pig’s nature  is to be naturally pleased with himself or herself, no matter what he or she does. The Pig likes creature comforts and is sensual in everything. Tolerant, compassionate, generous, he or she nonetheless has difficulty controlling  passions but hides neither faults, mistakes, nor  self-indulgence. One of Pig’s essential drives is  love of freedom and beauty. The eternal optimist, the Pig’s attitude is, “Don’t worry, be happy”.

Year of the Wild Boar

Although the Pig or Wild Boar is the symbol of both wealth and success in investments, the financial conditions of 2019 may increase unexpected expenses and debt for those born in the Year of the Pig but 2019 is a good year for making money  for everyone else (in today’s stock market?!)

The Year of the Pig (the 12th and last sign of the Chinese Zodiac) is associated with excess, an over-the-top attitude in lifestyle. Their chubby faces and big ears are  considered signs of good fortune.

Because 2019 is the last year in the cycle, this is a year of endings and a time to bring things to completion. This is not the time for new projects. We’ll have to wait until January 25, 2020–the Year of the Rat–to prepare for anything new.

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“My Top 22 Movies and TV Series for 2018”

 

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 under broad distribution nor widely distributed through move theaters.   Of the 43 reviews, here are my favorites.  Another difficult year to make my listicle. As in past years, 2018 was absolutely stunning. Both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling and intriguing characters.

The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre. I could not limit my choices to only 10 or 20.

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1)  “The Invisible Guest”–What You See Is Not What You Guess (October 26 review)

(Spanish: Contratiempo): a 2016 Spanish crime thriller that will leave the viewer spellbound. Adrián Doria, a successful business entrepreneur, husband and father, is knocked unconscious, and wakes up in a locked hotel room to find the dead body of Laura Vidal, his married lover. Charged with murder but wealthy enough to be out on bail, Adrian soon learns that his lawyer, Félix Leiva, has hired the renowned defense attorney, Virginia Goodman, to represent him. Goodman pulls no punches in the resulting cat-and-mouse game.

2) “The Devil’s Backbone”–Peter Pan meets “The Shape of Water” (August 26)

 A visual metaphor illustrating how war entraps, just like insects in amber and fetuses in jars, this Spanish film The Devil’s Backbone (2001) exposes the horrors of war and fascism through the lens of fantasy.

 3) “20 Feet from Stardom”–Stellar Performers (August 19)

 The mainly female backup singers featured in 20 Feet From Stardom are all daughters of preachers, as was Aretha Franklin, who fine-tuned their extraordinary singing voices in the church choir while very, very young. Director Morgan Neville connects Gospel, Blues, and Soul to these roots of Rock and Roll.

 4) “La Mante” –The Praying Mantis (July 24)

 This  must-see French suspense thriller focuses on   an imprisoned female serial killer, recruited to help solve a string of copycat murders, but only if her son, Damien, now a policeman, works with her on the case.  The mother is nicknamed “La Mante”,  the praying mantis.

 5) “An Inspector Calls” –Nothing Will Ever Be the Same (June 17)

The BBC mystery An Inspector Calls (2015),  based upon the 1947 J.B. Priestley play by the same name, is a morality tale for our time. Set in 1912 Arthur Birling, a wealthy self-made industrialist, has hopes of a knighthood and implicit social elevation through the engagement of his daughter to an aristocrat. Inspector Goole (the superlative David Thewlis) brusquely arrives, announcing he is there to investigate the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. At first the Birling family claims not to know anything about her but Inspector Goole begins revealing that they do.

 6) “RBG” –Truth to Power (May 21)

 Regardless of your political tastes, the documentary RBG offers an insightful peek into the life and work of a lifelong advocate for equal rights for women and minorities. As one of three female Supreme Court justices serving on the nine-judge bench, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a cultural icon and something of a “fan-girl” sensation.

7) “Black Sea” –The Darkness Beneath the Surface” (February 27)

 While dejected and wondering what his future holds, Robinson, a deep-sea salvage captain, recently unemployed and divorced with a young son, has drinks with a fellow co-worker, Kurston, in similar circumstances.    Soon the two friends assemble a misfit crew to go after the treasure (rumored to be worth millions in gold bullion) from a World War II U-boat sunken in the Black Sea.

 PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

8) “Green Book”–Required Reading (December 5)

 It’s 1962, you are African American and you don’t travel in the US without the Green Bookan unofficial domestic passport (for Jim Crow laws).  The Green Book is an indispensable guide for African Americans looking for accommodations while traveling. (Similar guides existed for Jewish and gay travelers.)

9) “The Final Year”–The End of a Term (November 28)

 The Final Year, Greg Barker’s HBO documentary, covers January 2016 to January 2017 of the Barack Obama administration . It is quietly devastating and demoralizing footage of the last twelve months of foreign statesmanship before the Trump administration.

 10) “The Wife”–The Invisible Woman, or…Stand by My Man (October 6)

 A raw unfolding of secrets, infidelity, resentment, self-sacrifice, delusion, and rage erupt from the couple’s souls and that of their son, who is reminded by his father that he is merely a shadow of his own greatness. The complexities of their relationships reveal a whirlwind of bliss and toxicity (not unlike Ingmar Bergman’s classic “Scenes from a Marriage”.)

 “11) “BlacKkKlansman”–Part of the American Fabric? (September 3)

 In 1979 Stallworth becomes the first black detective in Colorado Springs’s police department. The police chief warns Stallworth:  “We’ve never had a black police officer. So you’ll be the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police department.”

 12) “The Gift” –Nothing is Free (June 25)

 Darkly unnerving, The Gift first conveys a vibe of horror, but then the narrative moves in the direction of “Fatal Attraction”, with a deft maneuvering of plot, character, style, and tone. No blood or gore, but a heart-pounding series of scenes without a stewed rabbit.

 13) “The Internet’s Own Boy”–The Story of Aaron Swartz (April 16)

 Chronicling the life and tragic death of computer wunderkind Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), The Internet’s Own Boy is a documentary into a life too brief and incredibly brilliant as we witness a young boy’s intellectual development as well as his emotionally opaque inner life. The testimony of those who deeply loved him and grieved over his untimely death at the age of 25 is sensitively and truthfully conveyed.

 14) “Seeing Allred” –A Hero Before #MeToo (March 26)

 A new portrait of the revolutionary Gloria Allred, the feminist lawyer who singlehandedly took on legal cases including the Equal Rights Amendment (which failed to pass in Congress), and Roe vs. Wade. What propelled Gloria Allred to become the woman she is–an intrepid fighter for women’s rights, the rights of minorities, and LGBT? That is the major theme of “Seeing Allred”.

15) “I Am Not Your Negro”–James Baldwin (February 4)

  I Am Not Your Negro gives us a fuller understanding of the brilliant mind and soul of James Baldwin, a critical thinker, writer, and essayist, whose work is not as well-known as it should be. At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind thirty pages of an unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, interweaving his incisive and excoriating psychological analysis of race, national identity, and morality.

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

16) “House of Cards”–A Different Shuffle (Final Season)  (November 20)

Frank Underwood is dead, but we don’t know how.  His widow, Claire Underwood is President and has inherited her dead husband’s enemies.Dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death, and declaring that “the reign of the middle-aged white man is over”, Claire clashes with corporate moguls, the Russian prime minister, and her own vice president. Trying to forge her own path as President, Claire takes no prisoners and feels no regret.

 17) “Ozark”–Season 2–“Dexter” Meets “Breaking Bad” (October 16) [Netflix]

 In Ozark season 2 we wonder how it will end: Will the Byrdes – and their children – ever be able to feel safe, secure, and content? How will they continue as criminal minds laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel with roots in Chicago? This season is even better than the first in tackling the corrupting power of wealth and greed, human nature, and the ties that bind a family and define it.

 18) “The Tunnel” (Seasons 2 and 3) (August 14) [Netflix]

 British and French detective partners again intend to solve a heinous series of crimes. Twisted ideologies, revenge, spies, terrorism, “marriage for sale”, sex trafficking, the vulnerability of love and loss, and the insidious nature of high-tech equipment in the hands of malevolent actors all make digging into seasons two and three as spellbinding as the first season.

19) “Calibre”–A Bullet Through the Heart  (August 5)

 A friendship is tested with moral dilemmas existing at each plot twist. Vaughan has to deal with his future as a father (with his expectant wife almost due to deliver) and his drug-addled best friend Marcus.   In its best moments, Calibre is part “Deliverance” and part “Dogville”. It attacks your nerves, ratcheting up the tension and suspense.

 20) “Unforgotten”–The Power to Recall (June 11) [Hulu]

 Unforgotten, like all good mysteries, creates encrusted layers of complex clues, red herrings, and surprises. There is no last-minute perpetrator inserted to fool the viewer. Nor is the culprit easy to guess in the first few minutes of watching. Characters are inserted in such a way that the viewer wonders where the interrelated scenes are going– a priest who helps the homeless, an older man losing patience with his wife’s descent into dementia, a woman tutoring students for their exams, and a man who obsesses over political power.

 21) “The Terror”–A Chilling Northwest Passage Nightmare (May 13)

 The Terror opens in 1846, with two crews–the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror on a tandem quest to open the treacherous Northwest Passage for the British Empire and its trade mission. Faced with limited resources, an unruly crew, and fear of an unknown killing spirit, the Tuunbaq (borrowed from Inuit mythology), both ships are sailing towards the brink of extinction, isolated by the frozen tundra, and trapped at the end of the earth.

22) “Seven Seconds”–Black Lives Matter? (April 20)

 In the opening scene a hit-and-run of an African-American teenager by a white Jersey City rookie cop 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?

Note: Almost half of the films and series reviewed here are older than 2018 but were watched this past year.

 

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First Man–Not Over the Moon

 First Man movie

First Man is a movie  biopic about the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, in the years 1961 to 1969 .   We are introduced to Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his days before being selected for the dangerous mission of first “Man on the Moon.”

Armstrong is involved in  a series of errors while flying experimental missions,  in training for  the NASA moon landing. While he is undergoing the rigors of flight simulation, his two-and-a half-year-old daughter is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor.   Despite the couple’s  best efforts, the child dies, leaving the parents and their young son to deal with the  tragedy.  To compound Neil Armstrong’s difficulties, a series of aborted efforts and deaths occur  during trial beta-testing for the moon mission.

Apollo 11’s crew is selected and  Armstrong is surprised to find he will be in charge.  Now with two young sons who may lose their father on this spaceflight,  his wife Janet (Claire Foy)  insists that Neil inform  his sons about the real  risks  and that he may not survive the mission.

The enigmatic relationship between Neil and his wife, on the one hand, and his two children, on the other, are not fully developed but are the emotional core of the film.  Despite the rather peripheral role Claire Foy is given as Janet Armstrong,  her understated  performance  reveals the steely strength and  confronts the demons of a family’s sacrifice for the sake of the heroic (and narcissistic) impulses of her husband.  The “stand by my man” attitude of the selfless wife does not hold true for the actual Janet Armstrong  and with little dialogue to work with,  Claire Foy in First Man still manages to show her resolute reserve in order to protect her children.   First Man would have been even stronger with more backstory about Neil Armstrong’s   motivation to prove himself at the expense of his own family.  This film could have been so much better.

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