“Navillera”—Soar Like a Butterfly

This quirky and endearing sleeper mini-series from Korea (premiered on Netflix,  March 2021)  is a definite winner.  (Navillera in Korean means “like a butterfly.”) 

In the opening scene Sim Deok-chul (the renowned Park In-hwan) is celebrating his 70th birthday with his wife, three sons and their wives.  Only the youngest son, considered a failure for quitting his hospital position as a doctor, is unmarried.  Sim is a retired mailman who always dreamed of performing “Swan Lake” on stage and now, at his advanced age,  is determined to follow his passion after seeing how  his friends regret not pursuing the dreams of their youth.  Accidentally, he observes the gifted Lee Chae-rok (Song Kang) practicing for his upcoming ballet competition.  Unbeknownst to Sim, Chae-rok is struggling financially, working a part-time job as a waiter, and is considering giving up ballet.

Sim persuades the ballet studio’s manager to accept him as a ballet student.  So Sim is assigned to be the young Chae-rok’s manager and literally follows Chae-rok around, making sure he eats well and practices without distraction.  Sim literally stalks him, almost following him into the bathroom.   At first Chae-rok is irritated and deeply annoyed, but both Chae-rok and Sim have family issues and dysfunctional relationships with their fathers.   They have a lot to learn from each other and most of all, have the need to develop empathy.   Sim’s family—and especially his wife in some hilarious scenes—can’t understand why he doesn’t play golf and follow the usual routine of a retiree.

Navillera

There are comic scenes between the elder Mr. Sim and his millennial counterpart as well.  Watching a 70 year-old dress up in a leotard with a beaming smile on his face is entirely unexpected and for this viewer, utterly charming.  Not quite a melodrama because of the extraordinary pas-de-deux (both figuratively and literally) between these two powerful and beautiful actors, Navillera does make us soar as the septuagenarian and his 20-something counterpart lift the story to a breathtaking, poignant finale where dreams and memories are not completely extinguished.  The peak of youth and the decline of the aging are mirrored images of disappointment and loss, seamlessly and poetically intertwined throughout the film.

Viewers will fall in love with this pair of sympathetic characters who must resolve issues from their painful past with mutual grace and compassion.  Don’t be surprised if you experience   a heart squeezing, and are moved to tears.

Note:  A great family show for adults and older children who can read subtitles.

Availability:  Netflix streaming

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“Red Dot”(2021)– Laser Focused

Trying to put more excitement into their marriage, Nadja and David, a young doctor and engineer, decide to go on a camping trip in a remote forest in Sweden, fantasizing that it will be romantic, gazing at the Northern Lights with their adorable dog.  The impending “excitement” is not exactly what they bargained for, however.  Stalked by an unseen enemy, they become the targets of a hellish nightmare.  Red Dot is an intense psychological thriller.

In a reversal of gender roles, frequently seen in Nordic Noir, Nadja is not in need of saving. A very competent and efficient physician, she is the one usually fixing and encouraging her partner, an engineer who thinks he has all the answers, not to give up as they are hunted down. 

But the real reason behind their status as prey emerges from a dark secret from their past they thought they had left behind.  With very little foreshadowing, the viewer is left a little short-changed, despite the heavy impact of multiple plot twists and the inescapable message that there are consequences for your actions, even if it takes years to come to fruition.

Red Dot delivers.   There are thrills you expect and those you don’t.   A mixture of poor choices and mistakes on the part of the couple makes for a disturbing story about moral ambiguity and recklessness, a lack of empathy and community, a smug sense of entitlement, and callous anonymity.  How swiftly and soundlessly life can deliver unwanted realities.

This Nordic Noir thriller could be compared with the Liam Neeson’s star turn in ‘The Grey”, and Timothy Olyphant in “A Perfect Getaway”, and the British thriller “Calibre” (reviewed August 5, 2018).    Highly watchable and heart-pounding!

Availability:  Netflix streaming

“The Life Ahead” –And Then the End

This 2020 Italian drama stars Sophia Loren in an adaptation of the Romain Gary novel, The Life Before Us.   Directed by Sophia Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti, The Life Ahead is the third film based on Gary’s novel.

The Life Ahead  has two main characters:  Madame Rosa, an octogenarian ex-prostitute and former  Holocaust survivor, and a 12-year old Somalian child.  To support herself Madame Rosa  cares for the children of local sex workers in her apartment. Consequently, Rosa is the glue in her neighborhood and the lifeline for women desperate to maintain a sense of motherhood as they prostitute themselves.

Near the end of Madame Rosa’s  life, 12-year old Momo (a vivid performance by Ibrahima Gueye), abruptly is thrust upon her. A local doctor who has been trying to find a foster home for Momo pleads with Rosa to accept the Somalian child into her informal daycare center. 

A Muslim boy from Senegal, Momo has no memory of Senegal, except for the trauma of watching his father kill his mother when she refused to prostitute herself. Abandoned by the father, now Momo is  a  tough, angry, and lonely street kid  who makes money selling drugs.   Madame Rosa suspects  the boy is engaging in criminal acts and endangering his future. She wheedles a local store-owner (Babak Karimi, from “The Salesman” and  “A Separation”) into giving Momo a job a couple days a week in his carpet  store.

The Life Ahead

Very slowly Momo starts to open his heart, first towards another little boy  he shares a room with at Madame Rosa’s.  Then with the  carpet store owner who shows him how to repair valuable rugs, and finally with the small community of women who wish to protect Madame Rosa as she starts to decline. Most of all, however, it is the Momo-Madame Rosa friendship which becomes fierce and protective.  When Rosa most needs support to fulfill her dream, she tells Momo:  “You’re a little shit but I know you keep your word.”

Momo very gradually learns to understand and appreciate  Madame Rosa, taking in all she gives him .  Through their pain and fear and need, they still see beauty:  in the boy’s drawings and in the old woman’s memories of her childhood.  Momo draws lions when his memories become unbearable.  When Madame Rosa’s trauma is  too much, she retreats into the building’s basement to listen to her music.  Almost  incredibly, both characters are  still capable of acts of great generosity. Both the very young  and the very old are exceptional  as they forge their friendship, despite their scars and unhealed wounds.

Sophia Loren’s Madame Rosa is alternately imperious and vulnerable, warm and cranky, strong and fragile.  It is  a heroic role for her.  She foregoes cosmetically softening that once glamorous and beautiful face for one that is almost unrecognizable. But it is a masterful decision for her to make. Loren’s exterior has been toughened for this role.     In those moments when she is trying to protect her traumatized soul, Loren seems truly broken and unreachable. Except for the boy.  Theirs is an unlikely friendship, to say the least.  Momo has never heard of Auschwitz—he thinks she is saying “house witch”.

A small but surprising film, quirky with only a bit of a saggy middle and an unnecessarily weak ending. Charming and endearing performances make a sometimes ordinary story quite masterful.  Highly recommend.

Availability:  Netflix streaming; released on November 6, 2020.

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”–Dissembling the American Dream





Toni Morrison (1931-2019), the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, was a complex artist who did not hold back from confronting the worst of human history. The documentary, Toni Morrison:  Pieces I Am, is a historical panorama of a slice of history dating from the 1930’s until the conclusion of the film in 2019.  Morrison emerges as a powerful, iconic, and formidable moral and intellectual force. The film gives us a retrospective of her groundbreaking novels which challenged the literary status quo,   rewarding the reader with imagining black lives on their own terms, devoid of the “white male gaze”.

Toni Morrison, born in Lorain, Ohio, a steel-town she remembers as being integrated, recalls experiencing segregation in the 1950’s only after she arrived in Washington, DC to attend Howard University. She published much later than most writers, but her college experience textured her writings.  She wrote from the vantage point of wounded women who had the strength and will to find often unexpected and hard-won redemption and triumph, not victimhood.  But her novels speak to people globally, to their traumas and their joys, in a language which is pure inspiration. Places and people– previously invisible or unnoticed– become powerful voices.

The documentary deftly reveals that Toni Morrison’s work is the essence of beautiful storytelling.  Despite the fact that her novels are about private pain as well as  collective trauma, both raw and searing, tender and compassionate, Toni Morrison is an electrifying and positive personality. Perhaps startling, — given the dark and sobering themes of her novels,– the viewer sees an ebullient, charismatic and theatrical mind of extraordinary talent:  both buoyant and vivacious.  Friends repeatedly describe her as a party-goer who loves clothes and is joyful in being herself and celebrating any occasion with friends. Many were invited to her Nobel Prize parties.  But she doesn’t tolerate fools easily, either.

First and foremost,  Morrison is a literary warrior reflecting the dark mirror of untold truths, things unsaid.   When asked by Dick Cavett on his nightly talk show if she dislikes being praised as a Black writer, she beams and answers that she is proud of being a Black woman writer but cringes at being asked that question by white interviewers.

Blowback was inevitable in the context of her meteoric rise in popularity.  The New York Times declared Morrison too talented to “remain a recorder of black provincial life” in its review of her book, Sula.  The mid-1980s furor that followed resulted in a petition signed by prominent Black authors urging that Morrison be given a major literary prize. In 1993 it was in Europe that her magnificent work was first awarded  the highest honor any author can receive:  the Nobel Prize in Literature.

But we also see a private, delightful writer who has the heft and electrical charge of a powerhouse to be reckoned with. Her prose is intricately woven with intelligence, wit, unpredictability, toughness and fearlessness.  And so is the woman–who challenged the inflection and fantasy of the American dream in every sentence she spoke publicly and in every line she wrote.  Moving photographs–some of her family threaded together with  19th-century engravings  and contemporary art by Kerry James Marshall, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden among others–contribute to the memorable beauty of Toni Morrison and the world she has created.

I watched this and was transfixed. The wisdom of Ms. Morrison is eternal…it touches us all.

Availability:   Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix.

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“Retribution”–Karma is a Beast

Retribution  miniseries (Netflix)

Retribution ( a 2016 BBC production originally titled “One of Us”) opens with a horrific double murder, which will tear apart the lives of two families, the Douglases and the Elliots.  They are friends who live side-by-side in the isolated Scotland Highlands hamlet of Braeston.  The atmospherically remote Scottish scenery is  reminiscent of Nordic noir landscapes. 

Events soon take an even more brutal turn when a badly injured man arrives at the Douglas family’s doorstep after his car careens off the road – a man who they soon realize, after nursing his wounds,  is the killer of their adult son and daughter.  The aftermath of the double murder and the discovery of the murderer among them wreaks havoc over the course of the drama for both the Douglases and the Elliots.

Each character in Retribution has his or her own layered, dark backstory.  There are so many revelations and so many characters that the viewer ends up struggling with who is related to whom, and who has inflicted pain and who has suffered.  The characters,  vividly drawn,  are vulnerable and deeply flawed.  Almost everyone, whether a main character or a minor one, has some deep dark secret that propels them to immoral behavior.   Not one person is “normal” or even “likable”, with few exceptions.

Everyone in both families has means, motive and opportunity, resulting in a convoluted whodunit whose perpetrator is not easily guessed until the final episode.

Retribution tightens the tension for the viewer with each episode, and close attention is essential.   What backstory belongs to which character and are that character’s secrets sufficient motive for murder?  This film is unusual in its portrayal of family and what they will and won’t do for each other.  They all seek to protect themselves and those they are related to, even when they no longer love them.

Dynamite story but requiring more than the usual effort to solve the murders.

Availability:  Netflix streaming.  Subtitled captions for the deaf and hearing impaired are recommended, due to the strong Scottish brogue.

“Richard Jewell”–A Hidden Gem

In Richard Jewell, a 2019 Clint Eastwood docudrama, Richard Jewell (played by relative unknown Paul Walter Hauser) , is first adored as a  hero for thwarting the  bombing of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. But “alternative facts” and frenzied media coverage turn against him. His daily life is turned upside down when he is considered the principal suspect in the bombing by FBI and local police. 

Jewell is almost a caricature of the lonely white male, living with his mother (Kathy Bates, in an Academy Awards-nominated performance).  Deeply proud of his patriotic duty to uphold the law and protect the community, Jewell goes to herculean efforts to do so.  He  impersonates police on a college campus and  is belligerent to teenagers’ raucus behavior. His excessive obsession  results in the indignities of ridicule and dismissal from his peers and superiors.  Even the teen boys don’t take him seriously.

Then the Olympics bombing occurs.  Finally, Jewell gains the limelight–much to his surprise and satisfaction.  But his behavior fits the FBI profile for a domestic terrorist, and his treatment by government law enforcement, particularly FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) soon becomes a nightmare.  And, of all people, Jewell can’t believe they would treat him as a suspect. 

An engaging and deeply moving performance by Hauser raises this sleeper of a film to an unforgettable one in its portrayal of a bad-luck victim of chance!

Availability: Netflix

“Belgravia”– Downton Abbey REDUX

Belgravia,  based on “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes’ 2016 novel of the same name,  opens two days before the Battle of Waterloo at an aristocratic ball.  Two London families—the Earl (Tom Wilkinson) and Countess of Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter) and the up-and-coming merchants, Anne (Tamsin Greig) and Philip Trenchard (Philip Glenister), are uncomfortable in their brief interactions.  There are insurmountable  class differences and  if that were not enough, the romance between the Brockenhursts’ son and the Trenchards’ daughter fuels the discomfort.  Over the course of twenty-five years, a long-buried secret unravels and threatens to ruin both families.  The shadows of that ball  demand a reckoning. 

 Belgravia soon becomes a suburban residence for the affluent, developed by the Trenchards’ company, as one of the first housing developments of its kind.   Betrayal, class warfare, subterfuge between family members, and secret love affairs proceed at a rapid pace as underhanded tactics and greed dominate the plot. 

Laced with intrigue, Belgravia is darker and meaner than “Downton Abbey”.  Characters have darker places in their souls, if they have one at all.  Some family members surprise with their character development and shift in moral compass.

Tamsin Greig and Harriet Walter as the two mothers are at turns, haunting and devious . The veneer of gentility radiates in public places, disguising cozy manners wrapped around a hard core.  Both actresses have a remarkable ability to make the viewer share their innermost private feelings.

A thoroughly engaging soap opera/melodrama, Belgravia is certain to be a crowd-pleaser for fans of historical drama and is an engaging follow-up to “Downton Abbey”.

Note: Available on Amazon Prime (Epix) and on Netflix as a DVD.

“The Good Liar”–A Story Within a Story

The Good Liar, a 2019 crime thriller,   based on the titular novel by Nicholas Searle, is a cat-and-mouse plot featuring a septuagenarian wealthy widow, Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) and an octogenarian con artist  Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen). They meet on a first date scheduled through a dating app for seniors.

Roy obviously does not have good intentions and his motives are soon recognized as dishonorable by Betty’s grandson, Stephen (Russell Tovey), who grows increasingly suspicious and resentful.  Betty, on the other hand, seems smitten.  Will she see that Roy is a clever liar, not a kind gentleman who will assuage her loneliness?

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


Even if you guess the lying,  deception, and backstory, it is wonderful to  watch two much-loved veteran actors fine-tuning every nuance of their characters’ personalities, and every moment of their time on screen. While there are  occasional lapses into melodrama, a few subplot holes, and an ending that is weak while the true ending would have been chilling,  seeing Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren play unexpected characters against type is more than  entertaining.  They also have to engage in quite physically demanding action sequences that reward the viewer in and of itself, a tribute to their professionalism and stamina at the height of their game.  Ian McKellen is at times convincingly charming, menacing throughout, and vulnerable. Helen Mirren, the sweet widow and grandmother, has a multi-layered persona and pointed, scathing dialogue that asks the viewer:  Who is lying now?

This is a sleeper to add to your watch list!

Note:  Available on DVD (Netflix) and HBO streaming.

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“High Seas”–“Death on the Nile” meets “Murder on the Orient Express”

In this Spanish melodrama (Spanish:  Alta Mar) , two sisters discover some very disturbing family secrets aboard a ship sailing from Spain to Brazil just after World War II.  Agatha Christie’s style of mystery plotting, overlaid with the  Spanish love of melodrama and telenovela, makes High Seas an unusual series.

Following the death of their father, sisters Eva and Carolina Villanueva travel on the luxury ocean liner, Bárbara de Braganza.  The sisters, over the course of three seasons,  become committed to  investigating mysterious deaths that occur on the cruise ship.  Each character–the sisters, their love interests, and a number of other passengers– provide intrigue as they reveal their backstories, increasing suspicions about once benign-looking individuals.  Having so many complex characters helps with pacing, cutting in expertly from one subplot to the next.   In Season One the mysterious murder,  solved fairly quickly, moves the story to lies, betrayal, and family scandal. This is the best of the three seasons.  Season Two adds an ephemeral ghost story and the red herrings sometimes are dropped suddenly, leaving obvious plot holes.  Season Three, about a virus onboard the cruise ship, has a terrific premise but too many characters’ scenes are either incomplete in moving the drama forward or the pace is ground to almost a halt.

Easy to watch, mostly entertaining without insulting your intelligence or emotions, High Seas is a good-looking, light-hearted, sometimes farcical mystery with performances that signal that the actors are not taking the drama too seriously, which is a good thing.  The influence of Art Deco in the set designs and the period clothing are stunning and reliably historical. While this is not A-class drama, it is definitely an enjoyable Netflix series.  My only major criticism is that the narrative did not really support so many episodes per season.  Four to five episodes, more tightly scripted, would have improved this whodunit.

Note:  Only watch High Seas with subtitles, even though some are very fast and others are in white font on an almost white background.  As with most foreign films, the dubbed version is usually annoying and the acting is awful.

“Valhalla Murders”—The House of the Dead

Kudos to Netflix for another great Nordic noir production. In this eight-episode series, Netflix’s first Icelandic co-production, we have a crime thriller about a gruesome serial killer whose murders go back over thirty-five years.  Valhalla Murders is actually based upon a series of murders that took place in Reykjavik.  There is some uneven pacing, but it is over shadowed by the unexpected twists and turns of this Nordic murder mystery.

In the opening scene the main character, Detective Kata, is severely wounded and on the verge of death.  Immediately Valhalla Murders flashes back to twelve days earlier: to the first of a series of brutal murders at a harbor in Reykjavik. Kata should be in charge, but her boss Magnus purposefully overlooks her. Resentment festers.  Magnus calls upon a Norwegian police officer, Arnar, to come back from Oslo to his native Iceland to assist with the investigation.  Kata begrudgingly works with Arnar on Iceland’s first-ever  serial murder case.  The Norwegian police officer’s painful past growing up in Iceland parallels  Kata’s painful relationships with her son, ex-husband, and Magnus.

However, the shocking events of the murders bring the two deeply flawed characters closer together as the  investigation unearths sordid secrets and horrors from decades ago. The deeper they delve into the murders, the more Kata and Arnar respect each other’s investigative skills and relentless commitment to finding the murderer.

The past connection with a state-run boys’ school, Valhalla, importantly leads to controversy and coverup.  As the name Valhalla implies, it is the hall for the heroic dead,  the residence of the Nordic god of war and death, Odin.   But was Valhalla’s home for boys, now closed, ever a safe haven for young boys? 

As the mystery deepens, we see how Kata and Arnar resist the twists and turns thrown at them by those obstructing justice. On fearlessly delving into the  horrifying past, which links the murders to each other,  the two detectives reveal the truth. They both persevere despite the cost of unearthing  unspeakable evil, the monster in the dark. 

Note: Netflix released Valhalla Murders on March 13, 2020 with all eight episodes streaming together.

The Stranger–or Estranged

Another series to binge during this C-virus pandemic is Netflix’s The Stranger. 

Produced by Harlan Coben and based on his novel of the same name, this newly released British series opens with a teenage drug fest complete with bonfire and more than a few hints of mayhem.   Part mystery, but most of all, family drama especially between fathers and their children, The Stranger quickly turns seemingly content lives into ones festering with secrets.

Adam Price (Richard Armitage), one of several main and deeply flawed characters, is approached by a beautiful stranger  (Hannah John-Kamen) and told  a shocking secret about his wife, Corinne.  Over the course of eight episodes, the stranger reveals more unimaginable secrets to a number of unsuspecting family members.  Each episode rewards the viewer with a more complicated plot, with additional characters and their secrets exposed. The stranger threatens to make public deeply personal and shameful events and insinuates  extortion.   Detective Johanna Griffin (Siobhan Finneran), soon to retire and contemplating divorce, has become both emotionally and professionally obsessed with solving the series of criminal acts that unfold each episode .

The blackmail initiated by the Stranger sets off a chain of unfortunate and suspenseful events.  By the end of the series we know why the stranger blackmails.  And we have assented to following unsympathetic characters to the end of the main story, with most of the subplots resolved, but not all.  For some viewers this will result in several  twisty plot threads unwinding not completely to their satisfaction.  While I applaud the complexity of characters which adds to the suspense, some are more a distraction than a contribution to the main plot, dragging down the fast pace and momentum.

I’m hopeful that a Season Two will resolve some  unanswered questions and loose threads.  The imaginative twists that happen primarily to Adam Price, the Stranger, and the detective Johanna Griffin who stalwartly attempts to resolve the murders,  are definitely worth watching during this “settle in place” mandate around most of the country!

Knock Down the House—A Remodel is Needed

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.

Because 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 compelling.

Knock Down the House movie

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 politics.  For 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 coal industry.

Except 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 to unseat.

Ocasio-Cortez, 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 for her.

Her 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.

Knock Down the House will knock you down too—with the energy that these women expended to advocate for change.

Note:  Available on Netflix.