“Hillary”–Unmasked

Hillary,  an intimate and candid four-part series about  former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton– one of the most admired and vilified women in the world–features never-before-seen footage of her life from birth in a close-knit family in Chicago, Illinois.  The mission of this documentary is not only to interview Hillary Clinton (for a total of thirty-five hours) and several dozen colleagues and personal friends but also to try to analyze why people found Clinton so compelling—and so polarizing. Yet Hillary is so much more than a biopic. It is a distillation of the history of contemporary feminism in the United States, sexism, the failure of journalism, and the history of partisan politics.

For  the first time in perhaps four decades, we see Clinton engage in a wide-ranging conversation about herself as a private citizen with breathtaking courage and unflinching reflection on those mistakes. This is maybe the first time she hasn’t had to self-censor.

Even with her exclusive access to Hillary Clinton, filmmaker Nanette Burstein  did not intend to go over familiar territory about perhaps the most scrutinized public figure in the last half-century. “Can a woman ever—really, actually ever,– become president of the United States?”  To this day, there is no easy answer.  And only one woman has come extremely, some would say, perilously close.

Childhood friends,  her daughter Chelsea, former President Barack Obama as well as staff members, campaign managers, journalists, and senators, both Republican and Democrat, are interviewed. The former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich so hated the idea of being interviewed that he is on record as responding: “I would rather stick a needle in my eye than talk to you about Hillary Clinton in a documentary.”

Hillary frames the Hillary Clinton  of the past half-century as a woman who learned that to be taken seriously, she’d have to wear a mask. She never fully removes it, of course, but in these interviews it occasionally slips, and clues about a  brilliant intellectual that no one else seems to get are revealed. “I’m a private person,” Hillary confesses, “and I’ve made mistakes because of that.” As a woman especially, she may be just too cerebral for some people to put up with.  Hillary Clinton is a national lightning rod for women’s status and image–the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Hillary Clinton was criticized for coming off as too cold,–even emotionless– but she had been forced to learn how to be affectless as the rare female law student at Yale University. Clinton’s gender hindered her in unpredictable ways as Burstein’s documentary unfolds.   She was scrutinized, investigated, loved  and hated. 

At one interview, Hillary seems almost perplexed at the double standard, even after all the years on the campaign trail:  “I’ve been on platforms with lots of male candidates, and they have shouted, they have beaten the podium, they have gone crazy with their hands and arms, and nobody said a thing.” “A woman candidate? Her voice rises, and somehow that’s over a line.”   But what line has been drawn?

The filmmaker does a commendable job illustrating what Clinton was subjected to throughout her career:  from footage of protesters with “Iron My Shirt” signs at her rallies, to male supporters earnestly advising her to smile more and wear something besides pantsuits.  For younger viewers this past may seem almost unbelievable, in its  blatant sexism.  To the babyboomer generation, the behavior is dishearteningly familiar.

When Trump stalked behind Clinton in an effort to physically intimidate her,  Clinton wanted to call him out, but didn’t. “He was preening like an alpha male.” She knew how the press would react.

Her communications director elaborates on why confronting Trump would have been ill-advised. “I think the post-2016 election world is a different universe — I think a woman could do that and be lauded for standing up to a man who was trying to intimidate her, but not then.” The same resistance to pushing back occurs throughout the film, in  spite of anger: in the email with James Comey, in the PizzaGate trolling and in the Whitewater investigation.  

She demonstrates how aware she is of the public’s perception of her and the role her gender has played in her polarizing image.  And her most painful moments– when she had to face her husband’s sexual predation of Monica Lewinsky– are some of the most heartbreaking to watch.  Hillary is personally hurt, admits that she could hardly breathe when Bill admitted he was lying, and demanded that he explain to their daughter about the affair.  A fragile, chastened Bill Clinton is seen as a vulnerable humbled man for the unspeakable betrayal of her trust.

Clinton is also positive about how the women’s movement has brought change, but still there is no guarantee that the hard-fought changes and laws will not be rescinded or pushed back. Her tone is optimistic and hopeful, nonetheless.

Hillary is instructive and emblematic of a period in history that is not that long ago.  Even for those who despise her, the series offers a unique glimpse behind the scenes of some of the most consequential moments in recent political history.

She cracked the glass ceiling.  We now wait for it to be shattered. .

Note:  Available on Hulu.

“Little Fires Everywhere”–Incendiary at Its Best

Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio during the late 1990s, Little Fires Everywhere is based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel by the same name. Reese Witherspoon (Elena)and Kerry Washington (Mia)  steal the show as mothers from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds.  This is a suburban saga with a painfully close lens focused on the income gap, class, and racial divide we know only so well.  In the opening scene  a house in Shaker Heights is engulfed in an inferno.  Is it the target of arson?  We will find out.  The year is 1997.

Shaker Heights’s community ethos prides itself on its civic duty, open and liberal lifestyle, and a desirability that does not include anything unseemly, dangerous or grass exceeding six inches in length.  The unpleasant and the disastrous reside elsewhere.  The community’s bubble is impenetrable…until it isn’t.

Elena Richardson is a smart, highly educated suburban mother and Shaker Heights reporter who is also a perfectionist.  Problem is that one of her four teenage children does not meet her expectations, no matter how low the bar she begrudgingly sets for Isabelle (Izzy), her youngest.  The mother and daughter are toxic:  opposing forces of nature. Elena is a narcissist, so the kids are self-reflecting objects … little trophy children, all about what others think.  Izzy doesnt play Elena’s game  and, in return, Elena seems incapable of any love or empathy for her.

Mia is a very talented artist but she can be overly protective and possessive about her teenage daughter Pearl.  And Elena believes she is in control of her kids and her life, but she really knows very little about  her children.  Neither Elena nor Mia are allowed into their daughters’ worlds and conversely, their daughters do not know them. 

Each mother believes herself to be a good and decent parent because both have structured their lives to shield their daughters from failure.   Yet their sense of self is not challenged.  Both Elena and Mia want a family with strong connections and bonds, but the connecting and dividing are sometimes in the same moment.

Little Fires Everywhere explores motherhood in all its pain, joy and self-denial, cutting to the bone.  Marriage, sexual identity, race and ethnicity are intertwined with the psychology of class and white privilege.

While Shaker Heights self-congratulatory residents believe they say all the correct things about race, their feelings of  superiority are subconsciously ingrained– in the way only wealthy white folks can be. The thing about whiteness is, of course, if you’re not white, you know whiteness and the rules of whiteness better than white people do, because you have to co-exist.   

There is no stammering and flailing in Little Fires Everywhere. Perhaps more than any other scene,  we see, in the final moments,   the human effort to want to get something right even after everything has gone wrong.  The dialog, acting and pacing are extraordinary. Witherspoon and Washington are at their best.

Note:  Available on Hulu streaming.  And for a fascinating interview with the author, Celeste Ng, on the book-to-screen adaptation, see the LA Times article.

My Top 19 Movies and TV Series for 2017

 

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

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

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 PSYCHOLOGICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Handmaid’s Tale–In Service of Democracy?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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