Nominated this year for eleven Academy Awards, Marriage Story portrays two people who really care about, respect, and love each other, and 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.
Written, directed and produced by Noah
Baumbach (of “Squid and the Whale”, another excellent film about divorce), this
film eviscerates what happens in even the best-intentioned divorces,
reminiscent of the classic 1979 film
“Kramer vs Kramer”.
Charlie (Adam Driver) is a very competitive, driven theater director
whose wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) has substantially contributed to his recent
success. As the leading actress and idea-generator for this theatrical company,
Nicole loves witnessing the accolades
and fame Charlie is garnering, including receiving the prestigious MacArthur
grant. (There are parallels to last
year’s hit, The Wife, here.)
Until she doesn’t.
Neither character is portrayed as
overly narcissistic (although Charlie comes close) but both are flawed. While the viewer comes to understand and
empathize with both of them wanting to pursue their dreams, we see the character arcs change
radically. The hoped-for amicable
divorce proceedings turn very ugly when lawyers get involved.
This is an emotionally raw journey
into trying to figure out how to be an independent adult and survive alone. It is so grief-stricken in impact that it is as
if the viewer’s observing the psychological amputation of the couple’s former
Charlie and Nicole’s assumptions about each other were lovingly
expressed while they were a couple, and are now weaponized. What they had been fond of in each other’s
character, turns into deep wounds and grievances.
The cast is phenomenal. Adam Driver
offers a transformative, heartbreaking performance that may surprise many. Scarlett Johansson is his equal, playing a
broken woman who wants the best for her family, but can no longer hope for her marriage
to change. Their performances are as intertwined and nuanced as they are
fragmented, and they play off each other
with rarely seen chemistry.
Marriage Story is a delicate dance and dialectic of vertiginous rage and devastating miscommunication, weaving together themes of loneliness, heartbreak, and regret acutely reflecting the imperfect and painful nature of human relationships. An unnerving capture of the complexities of character and the dissolution of a marriage between two loving people, Marriage Story will become a classic allegory for us all.
The Buddha taught rats first, among the animals in the Buddhist pantheon, and rats rank first on the Chinese zodiac. Though people who follow Western animal symbolism do not consider the rat either adorable or auspicious, nevertheless the characteristics of the rat are considered spirited, witty, alert, flexible, and that of a survivor. The Chinese New Year will begin on January 25, 2020 with the final celebration on February 11.
The Metal Rat Year is going to be a strong, prosperous, and lucky year for those who conduct financial research and follow through on investments. For investors in real estate, or venturing on their own to start a business or to invest money in a long-term project, major decisions on money matters will affect the entire twelve-year cycle of the zodiac–until 2032.
On the political front, those who fight against corruption will be accused of duplicity and hypocrisy. Political unrest will continue and revolutionary disruption of the establishment will gain momentum. Increased tensions and misunderstanding between allies will occur.
To avoid escalating conflict by
unscrupulous populist governments who overlook
or ignore the common interest of society, moderation, patience and compromise must
be recognized and practiced. In
addition, all nations must implement strict and disciplinary measures to
ameliorate climate change. Jealousy of
those who have polluted the plant will rise.
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, 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) Lo and Behold–Reveries of the Connected World (January 13 review)
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.
We see extremes: medical marvels
saving lives or electromagnetic waves that debilitate. Each chapter introduces
a different positive or negative dynamic of the internet.
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.
this combination of black comedy and Nordic noir, we are treated to a series of
scenes involving gangster mobs, drug trade, a father’s revenge, kidnapping, and
snow plows. In Order of
Disappearanceis part “Fargo” and part other Coen brothers’
comedic treatment of snow country.
this gripping 2010 Academy Award nominated HBO documentary, Which Way Home opens with something large and bulbous
floating down the Rio Grande. The viewer soon learns it is a corpse, perhaps
that of a child, and an observer comments matter-of-factly that this happens
multiple times a day.
Netflix Original Always Be My Maybe gives us a reason for
watching rom-coms again. A modern riff on “When Harry Met Sally.” Set in San
Francisco, Always Be My Maybe is
a story of childhood sweethearts who go their separate ways only to meet
up fifteen years later. Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall
Park) were best friends who, as teenagers, had sex for the first time and
then stopped talking to each other.
comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.” The
universal theme– of the gathering of a family clan harboring secrets and
lies, told and sometimes motivated by love.
7) Late Night—Women Do
It Right (November 5 review)
In Late Night we
see a notoriously, male-dominated world of late-night network TV in
which a woman–Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)– is the host of her own
talk show. (Think “The Devil Wears Prada” and Meryl Streep as the
“bitch-boss from hell”).
Carter, a sixteen-year-old gifted student, has to adeptly maneuver
between two worlds — her poor, mostly black neighborhood and a wealthy, mostly
white prep school. Facing pressure from all sides, Starr must find her voice
and decide to stand up for what’s right.
9) Rocketman—Seeing the Light Through the Darkness (July 28)
backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his
self-worth and genius. Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply
lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven
Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces
himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.”
Jokeris a devastating
portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero
Batman, takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and
for good reason. Now we see the masked Joker as few could have
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.
Chernobyl is an HBO
historical drama miniseries depicting the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear
disaster and the unprecedented coverup that followed. The flawed
reactor design operated by inadequately trained technicians is
jaw-clenching and chilling. That lack of transparency and flagrant
disregard for human life depicts greed, lack of moral integrity, and political
corruption. Chernobyl is a cautionary tale for today’s
criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist
in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He
recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have
nothing to lose.
14) Locked Up—Spain’s “Orange is the New Black”
(September 11 review)
with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main
theme is unexpected consequences: the turmoil of events that turn
everything upside down.
A “Narcos” or “El
Chapo”-style drama about the rise of drug lord Teresa Mendoza (played by
the exceptional Alice Braga, niece of the renowned actress Sonia Braga),
we see a new first. Instead of a ruthless kingpin of a Mexican drug
cartel like Guzman (El Chapo), we see Teresa Mendoza. She navigates and
outsmarts a world dominated by men and machismo to become the queen (or
queenpin?) of Sinaloa.
This investigative journalistic documentary invites the viewer to take a closer look at four committed women who ran for Congress in 2018: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Cori Bush of Maryland, Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, and Amy Vilela of Nevada. First and foremost, however, Knock Down the House is AOC’s story. The former bartender from the Bronx turned first-time congresswoman needs no introduction.
of director Rachel Lears’s early access
to the four Congressional candidates, she and her camera have been in the war
rooms of the campaigns right from the start, making the footage even more
From a pool
of committed political neophytes, Lears selected four exceptional female
candidates — Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin and Amy Vilela —
each with an emotionally riveting back-story and a politically established,
seemingly unbeatable opponent. Their back-stories propelled them into
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she had to
work double shifts as a bartender to save her mother’s home from foreclosure.
After losing a daughter to a preventable medical condition because of lack of
health insurance, Amy Vilela became determined to improve America’s broken health-care system. Cori
Bush, a registered nurse and pastor, was appalled at the police shooting of an unarmed black man and
the resulting army tanks that showed up in her neighborhood. A coal miner’s daughter,
Paula Jean Swearengin, watched her
friends and family suffer from the devastating environmental effects of the
for AOC, the other three women candidates–although giving everything they had
to win—were defeated. With a raw and blistering honesty, we see the camera
hover over their physical and emotional deflation after the results come in. All four were heavily invested personally:
“We’re coming out of the belly of the beast kicking and screaming,” Swearengin
says. But ten-year incumbents are hard
unsurprisingly, emerges as a telegenic,
exuberant force . She is all that and
more. In the closing credits, we see AOC
riding a scooter, circling in front of the Congressional building, enjoying the
thrill of her victory on a crisp,
January morning before the swearing-in ceremony. She’s a television cameraman’s dream: young,
attractive, and charismatic with the emotive, energetic oratorial skills of a much more
seasoned public speaker. Nothing seems
to throw her off her game, whether she’s mopping the floor before distributing
leaflets for her campaign or talking with someone who has decided not to vote
social media presence alone shows why she has crossed over into pop celebrity,
whether she’s tweeting or live-streaming on Instagram while eating popcorn,
talking about staying grounded and dancing on YouTube. She is a media darling and that makes her a
political star worth watching.
Down the House will
knock you down too—with the energy that these women expended to advocate for
The title character, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is an all-star athlete and model straight-A student who is expected to achieve greatness in college. Luce’s liberal adoptive parents—physician Amy (Naomi Watts) and financier Peter (Tim Roth) adopted Luce when he was a little boy in Eritrea, a boy-soldier who experienced unimaginable horror.
A volatile and
incendiary essay he has written for an English teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), is brought to the attention
of Luce’s parents. The essay inflames
the liberal-minded community and most of all, his English teacher.
Luce’s parents do
not know who to believe, –his teacher and school administrators or their son–although
their intuition and gut-reaction is to believe their brilliant, beloved Luce. Other parents slowly face the same dilemma –who do
you believe in the face of unconditional love? Luce’s personal story unfolds as an attempt to
define what is the truth to the listener–the one that is acceptable and
therefore believed, or the one that shatters values you deeply hold.
A sense of sustained menace highlights the central theme of Luce: Do we really know who Luce is and how deeply his traumatic childhood experiences have affected him?
Luce is a
gut-wrenching story of love of child versus love of spouse. This film is also provocative in terms of
Luce’s achievements validating his liberal parents’ convictions about social
justice and racial equality, about transforming the human soul. There
are no easy answers.
Race and white privilege are
examined under a psychological microscope.
Sharp-edged and gimlet-eyed,
this is a difficult film that tries to say something nuanced about racism, making
for uncomfortable viewing.
Luce is boldly
ambitious in addressing so many questions in one film: Who is “anointed” by others to succeed? The
myth of the American dream and succeeding all on your own, especially in the glowing
light of suburbia (Arlington, Virginia), is painfully dissected.
with a chilling and morally ambiguous
ending. The creation of your own ending may depend upon your ethnic identity and
how much it has influenced who you are now.
No one person represents an entire demographic and Luce
shouts this to the audience loud and clear.
“You never really know what is
going on with people.” (Luce)
Booksmartfollows two academic superstars and high school best friends who, the night before graduation, suddenly realize that they should have worked less and played more. Major late-blooming FOMO!
Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein of “Lady
Bird”) are determined to cram four years of sacrificing fun for one all-night
party. After all, some of their
“party-animal” classmates have done drugs, partied every weekend while Amy and Molly were in the library, and still
were accepted at the same Ivy League college or prestigious NGO projects that the
two BFFs sacrificed so much for. Popular vs.
Intellectual: why not both? That is the
question underpinning Booksmart.
Directed by Olivia Wilde, Booksmart
has achieved a
film worthy of comparison with the classic John Hughes’ films Ferris Bueller’s Day
Off or The
Breakfast Club. A teen comedy with girl power, Booksmart encapsulates an inchoate female empowerment evolving without
Amy and Molly’s full comprehension. We have adolescent turmoil in which teenage angst over
every word and glance from classmates has a surprising and clever twist.
There is pain and an ecstatic thrill of female bonding intertwined with a best-friend sort of communication that embodies not only trust without question– and in a sense, first love– but also the complicated issue of sexual identity.
Booksmart has wisdom and a humorous generosity in showing a glimpse
of adulthood’s inevitable disappointments (played hilariously by Jason Sudeikis
in one scene as a high school principal moonlighting as a Lyft driver.) It’s difficult to do comedy well, especially of teenagers through
the lens of middle-aged directors and writers. Wilde gets the tone and subject
matter just right, giving Amy and Molly the material to imbue their characters
with the authentic and heartfelt voices of teenagers today. A delightful film for families with teenagers
and for all of us who remember our teenage angst when many days and nights were
both the best and worst of our lives.
In Late Night we see a notoriously, male-dominated world of late-night network TV in which a woman–Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)– is the host of her own talk show. (Think “The Devil Wears Prada” and Meryl Streep as the “bitch-boss from hell”). The world of late-night television is even more turned upside down when Katherine hires her first and only female staff writer, Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) to tamp down criticism of the show’s lack of diversity– a “two-fer”: a woman and a person of color. It’s brazen “tokenism”.
The show’s ratings have steadily declined as social media and viral videos take over the discussion of current affairs and trends. As a multiple award-winning nighttime late-show legend, Katherine will have nothing to do with social media. The network’s president warns her that she will be replaced soon if nothing changes.
The network frets that Katherine’s too much of a relic representative of a vanishing demographic, and that her thirty-years of experience means little to the millennial generation. She’s a hard-nosed veteran performer. She ignores the accusations of being out-of-touch and a dinosaur. Katherine’s writing staff, all men–some of whom have never met her–slack off when they can, and write jokes that are partly the reason for her show’s growing unpopularity.
Enter Molly who has little experience in comedy (she worked in a chemical manufacturing plant) and initially struggles. Nevertheless she proves she is talented and knows what a younger audience wants to see. Katherine and Molly are from different generations and different perspectives of what comedy is and should be.
The antagonist and adamant opponent to all of Molly’s comedic efforts is Tom (Reid Scott), who is in charge of writing the opening monologues for the late show and feels far superior to Molly’s status as a “diversity hire”. Ironically he is a “legacy hire” himself. It’s such an old boy’s club that the women’s restroom isn’t truly the women’s restroom, but where guys go to take a dump.
A laugh-out-loud comedy with subversive social commentary woven into it, sometimes Late Night is so subtle the viewer might miss some of the scathingly tongue-in-cheek banter. Kaling gives this script her all as the creator and chief writer, critiquing how television works. She also – examines what makes a joke funny, the subtleties of comedy, and why something goes viral. This satirical comedy is timely and a must-see!
Indochine (1993)–Heart of Darkness
Indochine is a testament to the hubris and delusions of first French imperialism and then American trauma to follow .The sense of time and place unfolds in 1930 French Indochina (Vietnam). from the years of French colonial rule to the stirring of a revolution by zealous and determined young Communist idealists,..
Indochine concludes in 1954 when the French are on the cusp of being forced out by Communist forces after a century of colonization. Seen through the eyes of a rubber plantation owner, Eliane (the ethereal Catherine Deneuve, nominated for an Academy Award for her performance), Indochine is an allegory for the corrupt and depraved. The often opium-smoking French are seen clinging to their delusional belief that they could sustain their dominion over the impoverished, virtually enslaved Vietnamese.
The narrative is a family drama between Eliane and the orphaned five-year old Vietnamese girl, Camille (newcomer Linh Dan Pham). who is adopted by Eliane . Indochine has another narrative as well: a love story between a French navy officer, Jean-Baptiste, and both Eliane and Camille.
As the struggle against French imperialism grips Vietnam, Jean-Baptiste and Camille have to choose sides. As the focus shifts to the love story between Camille and Jean-Baptiste, and the awakening of the sheltered privileged Camille to the plight of most Vietnamese Indochine‘s pace deepens and quickens.
The anticolonial revolt plays out in some expected patterns, with the decadence of the dying days of a fading colonial regime. Old paternalistic, often brutal customs have outlasted their lords and yet the patriarchs (and matriarchs, in this case) adhere tenaciously to property and servants with a certain stubborn and oblivious pride. They are yesterday’s story, but arenot ready to realize or admit it.
Indochine is ambitious, gorgeously photographed but also too slow, too long, and too languishly structured in the first half of the story. It is not altogether a successful film because of this. Yet it is still worth seeing, perhaps mostly for implying that the French still do not quite understand what happened to them in Vietnam, and they’re not alone.
Narrated by Anderson Cooper, Tricky Dick is a four-part CNN documentary that presents the lesser-known story of Richard Nixon’s life and times. The rise, fall and almost unbelievable comeback and final self-sabotage of his political career are adroitly deconstructed. Through access to archival footage never before seen by the public, the backstory of Richard Nixon’s complex view of opportunity and ambition unfolds.
The story of Nixon’s aggressive strategy for political success, together with his resentment of the elite and his animus towards the press, minorities, and Jews is a dramatic portrayal of resurrection from defeat and self-destruction. But the usual reasons for his failures when he was considered unbeatable are laid to rest here. For example, the televised debate debacle with Kennedy is usually explained as due to Nixon’s sweat and dourness while Kennedy looked polished, patrician, and relaxed. Tricky Dick’s archival footage, however, reveals that the moderator (Howard K. Smith) thought Nixon was too “nice” in demurring to Kennedy, thus elevating the inexperienced senator. Smith believed Nixon should have “fought back”, and that was the reason for the subsequent rapid decline in the polls. After the closest presidential election up to that time, defeated but not a quitter, Nixon determinedly runs for the governor’s seat in California, a major step down from being Eisenhower’s vice president, only to be profoundly humiliated with an unexpected loss. Nixon retreats from politics for the first time in his life.
Four years after JFK had become
president, with the US in crisis at
home and abroad, raging from an increasingly virulent Vietnam War, Nixon senses
an opportunity for a comeback. Confident he can shed his loser’s image, Nixon
plans his campaign which wins the presidency that should have been his.
As the anti-war movement gains
strength, Nixon suspects a conspiracy against him, one he will use any means
necessary to defeat. He isolates himself
with a handful of trusted advisors and
prepares for a second term.
In a historic landslide, Nixon is
re-elected but shortly into his second term, the cover-up of a break-in at the
Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate complex starts to unravel
his presidency. As the President wages a battle in the press and in the courts,
a desperate man becomes his own worst enemy, and movement to impeach begins.
It is the secret recordings in Nixon’s White House, often in the dark of night, along with a few brave whistleblowers and one Deep Throat, that truly are chilling. The perpetual subterfuge and self-loathing also reveal a deeply disturbed and aggrieved man, with flaws that Nixon never realizes he has. Tricky Dick is a portrait of a power gone unchecked, as we witness his unraveling from his own words on tape. Even if his self-aggrandizing mind has been wrong all along, he doesn’t know it and we are horrified by it. The parallels with today are frightening.
Based on the global best-selling novel “La Reina Del Sur,” by internationally-acclaimed author Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Queen of the South, a bilingual telenovela crime drama, has become one of the most popular series of all time for USA and its sister network, Telemundo. Queen of the South, now in its fifth season, is a winner. Thank you, USA, for continuing to add gritty, noir-ish series to your program roster!
or “El Chapo”-style
drama about the rise of drug lord Teresa Mendoza (played by the exceptional
Alice Braga, niece of the renowned actress Sonia Braga), we see a new first. Instead of a ruthless kingpin of a Mexican
drug cartel like Guzman (El Chapo), we see Teresa Mendoza. She navigates and
outsmarts a world dominated by men and machismo to become the queen (or
queenpin?) of Sinaloa.
At one point, forced to flee Mexico, Teresa finds herself in Dallas, Texas where her street-smarts move her rapidly into the highest ranks of the Vargas cartel,. The cartel is embroiled in a fierce rivalry between Epifanio Vargas and his estranged wife, Camila (the attention-stopping Veronica Falcon). A knuckle-biting set of episodes in each season highlights how Teresa is bound by a cat-and-mouse game in order to survive. She has to rely on her own strategic thinking and instincts to stay one step ahead of the feuding Vargas cartels and avoid capture and death.
A violent, intense drama in the genre of “narcos” , Queen of the South is highly original in providing two great lead performances by the pair of queens fighting over who shall rule the cartels of Culiacan.
Note: The violence is disturbing, with rape and brutal “interrogation” techniques. The writing, however, is superb and almost never sags in pace, characterization, and plot.
Joker is a devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness.
This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman, takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason. Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. And it is no small feat to have a performance which overshadows the also remarkable previous Jokers played by Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Heath Ledger.
In Joker a marginally
employed and aspiring stand-up comedian, Arthur Fleck (played by the
astonishing Joaquin Phoenix), has a series of menial gigs as a clown holding
a banner declaring a store’s bankruptcy or performing in the cancer ward of a
children’s hospital. He is a disposable,
invisible Gotham resident faithfully caring for his invalid mother with whom he
shares a dreary low-rent apartment.
Bullied, brutally abused and cruelly
mocked by almost everyone around him, Arthur Fleck devolves into the Joker as
the demented, bipolar mask of comedy and tragedy. Not yet evil or vile, but
more ignored and humiliated, his community fails him and his mental illness
In close-up shots of his clown-face
mask, this Joker is no clown, pulling down roughly on the corners of his face
to force a grin, more grimace and silent scream than a smile. The viewer feels
that Arthur Fleck is becoming ever more deeply damaged.
Joaquin Phoenix gives
such an unforgettable feral performance, this viewer was left wondering how the
actor could maintain his sanity after this manic act as the Joker. We are taken
on a journey to see the dissolution of sanity under a
Joaquin Phoenix’s exposed
bones and emaciated frame are part of the Joker’s makeup. His physicality is a
range of movements in madness, alternatingly unhinged and heartbreaking as he
dances after each horrific act, struggling to communicate and connect until he
surrenders to his insanity.
This is a character-driven plot, intensely cerebral and
at times subversive and disturbing. This
character study of the Joker will become a classic and a certain Academy Award
nomination for Joaquin Phoenix. A great
joke is inseparable from its ability to subvert, to say the unsaid and the unspeakable. Joker pushes all boundaries in its
portrayal of a deeply disturbing,
subversive character and I cannot think of a film with which to compare it–a
Terror: Infamy is the second and
current season (ten episodes) of AMC’s historical drama/horror series. Infamy takes a dark and
infamous chapter in US history and attempts
to give this shameful period both a humanizing and ghostly touch.
The often overlooked or little-known story of Japanese
American internment is the historical centerpiece of Infamy and asks the question: What does it truly mean to identify as an
American? From 1942 to 1945, more than 145,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese
Canadians were forced from their homes by presidential executive order and into
internment camps by their respective governments, simply because of where they
or their ancestors were born. Mostly set in a fictional “war relocation center” in Oregon a
month after Pearl Harbor, Infamy
reveals a family drama of the many injuries and conflicts of Japanese American
The Terror: Infamy opens with a bizarre, perhaps most viscerally frightening, death scene that haunts
a Japanese American community shortly before Pearl Harbor. Chester Nakayama, a young American, who has
some bewildering relationship with a ghost (Yuko), is the connection between
the ghost world and the concentration (“internment”) camp throughout time-jumps
from 1910 to about 1950. At one point we see Chester and his friends and family
be evacuated from California, to the internment camp. The many indignities an
entire community of Japanese Americans suffered under forced relocation and
detention is depicted in detail and in horror. Real-world and supernatural horrors collide in Infamy
as a Japanese ghost (obake) story creeps under the viewer’s skin.
Infamy displays an intriguing composite of two plots, one supernatural
and ghostly, the other historical. But
they are not tightly woven nor is the mythological importance of the ghost
clarified for the viewer who is not familiar with Japanese folktales. Is the obake ghost (“Yuko”) a
demon, or someone reborn who behaved badly in a past life and is suffering her
karmic consequences? She seems to be a culturally specific “monster” who, in order to understand her, requires a basic familiarity with Japanese
folklore, not the typical ghost or zombie familiar to American audiences.
It is possible that the director and writers
also could not decide what genre to emphasize–horror Japanese-style or
American. But what develops is a
production, so frequently subtitled that
it seems like a foreign film at times.
But it isn’t. So what we need is a statement once in a while about
the motivation for the ghost’s targeted actions, a backstory for Yuko that
should appear before episode 6, and a brief description of obake (and yurei,
which is more equivalent to a European notion of a ghost). Addressing these needs would result in a more comprehensible and visceral connection with the plot.
I wanted to love this series for its originality: combining the “old world” system of beliefs and values with the American. The intergenerational misunderstandings between immigrant parents and their American children is one of the more moving themes. However, the effect is dampened, rather than amplified, by some of the show’s ghostly horror which is not tightened together enough to see that the two universes–supernatural and earthly–are inextricable. The promise of the ghost story (think of the Japanese horror movie Ringu) mirrors the pain and suffering of humans. But Infamy rarely stops to explain Japanese concepts or relevant historical details, and their tradition of ghost folktales is very complex with a pantheon of different types. And as the season moves on, it sometimes fails to sustain the intense and wordless fear in the first two episodes.
Nonetheless, I still recommend Infamy. The most intriguing question to be raised: What is more horrific—a ghost with supernatural powers, or some government authority, wielding a gun, who knocks on the door and smiles as he destroys your life and that of your family? The show attests powerfully to the fact that the U.S. has a long tradition of enacting policies and holding up institutions that target communities of color. The timing of Infamy may draw comparisons with the caging of children at the border, forcing us to wonder what will be unleashed by the current horrors in our country.
Perhaps the writers of Infamy intended to focus on another,
more subtle kind of danger: the danger of forgetting, of historical
Note: The first season of “The Terror” was based on the disappearance of a ship and its men in the Arctic in the middle of the 19th century as they tried to discover the Northwest Passage, also crafting a story of monsters (human and otherwise) on the ice. See my May 2018 review of “The Terror–A Chilling Northwest Passage. .