“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.

La Mante–The Praying Mantis

La Mante

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.

First, it may be helpful to understand the biological nature of the praying mantis: the female camouflages herself and often ambushes the males and eats them live.

The levels of tension just increase from the beginning till the end as the viewer watches the stalking and the violent killing. All victims in La Mante are men.  Is the serial killer a woman?

Mom–Jeanne Deber (the beautiful Carole Bouquet)–is serving a life term without parole for the brutal murders of eight men. We do not know the motivation for her heinous killings. She has been serving a prison sentence for twenty-five years as La Mante opens, and we flash back to her abandonment of her young ten-year-old son as the police drag her her sobbing little boy away. The viewer will understand the motivation and unhealed wounds Jeanne suffered by the final episode’s thrilling climax.

Damien, now a senior investigator in Paris, is ordered to investigate a series of killings nicknamed the “Copycat Mantis”. He is deeply wounded by the purported death of his mother (whom, at first, he does not know was the notorious “Mantis”). Desperate to help catch the killer and prevent future murders, Damien reluctantly agrees to be involved in the police investigation at great cost to his personal life and his relationship with his young and incredibly understanding wife.

The twists and turns in each of its six episodes never fail to be compelling. With echoes of “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal” this dark and very bloody thriller never holds back with even the most gruesome shots of corpses. La Mante is certainly not for the weak of heart; if your stomach isn’t the strongest, I’d recommend passing – or watching the more bloody sequences with one hand over your eyes. The suspense and performances at their core, however, make La Mante well worth every hard-to-watch scene. The clever red herrings and false starts at identifying the copycat mantis are tightly woven into the subplot of the mother-son relationship and the son’s own misgivings about ever becoming a parent. Very dark, troublesome, and pathological areas of human relationships are explored–sometimes venomous, toxic and unforgivable.

La Mante is another success in French cinema–especially well-focused on the mother-son relationship, or the possible murder of a relationship from lying to those we leave behind.   As in real life, the criminal mind is traced back to events and backstory in childhood. La Mante is an astonishing opening of ruptured wounds traced back over a quarter of a century ago. Astonishing, provocative and gasp-worthy. Warning: not for all tastes!

 

Note: Available to stream on Netflix.

 

“The Gift”–Nothing is Free

The Gift movie

The Gift is a 2015 American-Australian psychological thriller  written, co-produced, and directed by Joel Edgerton (Academy Award nominated for his role in “Loving”). This is his directorial debut, and it is a winner!

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.

The film stars Jason Bateman (of “Ozark” and “Arrested Development” fame) and Rebecca Hall (“The Town” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) as an affluent couple intimidated by Gordo, a former high school classmate of Simon’s, played by Edgerton.

Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) are a forty-something married couple whose life is going mostly as planned, except for the unfulfilled desire to have a baby. When a chance encounter with Gordo happens in a furniture store, their world devolves into a harrowing tailspin. Simon doesn’t remember Gordo at first, leading the viewer to believe a con may be going on. But after a series of devised encounters and mysterious gifts, Simon begins to remember high school with Gordo. A horrifying secret from the past is uncovered after more than 20 years. As Simon’s wife, Robyn, becomes aware of the relationship between Simon and Gordo, she begins to wonder if she really knows her husband. Simon hopes that bygones will be bygones. But Gordo retorts: “You’re done with the past but the past is not done with you.”

Hitchcockian in its buildup to Simon’s past sins, The Gift raises the question: Is it possible to lay ghosts to rest? This is the territory of karma: what impact one’s actions and words have on another may be obliterated from memory by the agent but not by the recipient. The Gift is both eerie and terrifying, speculating about just what happened in Simon and Gordo’s past. This film is a slow burner, but the theme and writing are superbly executed.

The ambiguity in morals of Simon and Gordo keep shifting the viewer’s loyalties as we see past events from both perspectives. Every plot twist and turn is virtually unpredictable and psychologically compelling. Is it really viable to say winners keep on winning because they deserve it and losers keep on losing because they deserve that too? Everyone –Simon, Robyn, and Gordo–is different from who they seem to be in the opening scenes, and even minor characters are surprising. The Gift should be seen!

 

Note: Available to stream on Netflix.

 

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 Staircase–A Fall to the Bottom

 

The Staircase tv series

The Staircase, about a cold case murder that is resurrected again and again, is a crime thriller rivaling James Patterson. Filmed by Academy Award-winning French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, we see a gripping courtroom drama, offering an intimate look at a high-profile murder trial and the family of the accused. Reminiscent of the groundbreaking “reality” series, An American Family, from the seventies, author Michael Peterson is arraigned for the 2001 murder of his second wife, Kathleen, whose body was discovered lying in a pool of blood on the stairway of their Durham, North Carolina home. The Staircase is not only an engrossing look at contemporary American justice that features more twists than a bestselling crime thriller, but also is an intimate glimpse into the world of the privileged and entitled, who seem bewildered by the entire judicial 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.

The court case generated widespread interest at the time, and continues to do so with a second documentary scheduled for release this year. The Staircase details Peterson’s legal and personal troubles in eight 45-minute episodes edited from more than 600 hours of footage. The trial seems to have centered on varying analyses of blood spatter by both the defense and prosecution. The character of Michael Peterson is also put on trial.

 The Staircase was just re-broadcast by Sundance and Netflix to target today’s audience interested in shows like Making a Murderer and The Keepers  (see my July 1, 2017 review). Truth can be stranger than fiction, and Michael Peterson, the novelist, is purportedly planning to write a book about his experience with the judicial system. See for yourself —The Staircase is almost impossible to believe!

 

“Black Mirror (Season 3): Hacking and Hijacking

 

Episode: "Nosedive"
Episode: “Nosedive”

The third season of “Black Mirror” deftly picks up where Netflix left us at the end of season two (see my December 29, 2014 review of previous seasons) exploring themes of techno-paranoia, the ugly side of social media and its lack of consequences. Technophobia thrives!

Like the prior seasons, this season’s six episodes of “Black Mirror” involve at least one unwitting main character who is controlled by devices or inventions that are supposed either to enhance the quality of life or be a source of entertainment.   Personal freedom is threatened instead. Each episode tackles some form of hacking and hijacking.

The first episode, “Nosedive,” explores the obsession with smartphones. Personal lives become shattered by low star ratings and swiping left, with the ensuing online shaming leading to tragedy.

“Play Test,” reveals what happens to a world traveler who stumbles into a genuinely terrifying video game that is more real than virtual.

In “Shut Up and Dance,” an unseen hacker gains access to a teenager’s webcam and blackmails him. The anonymous hacker blackmails each subsequent victim to engage in criminal acts. Those who saw “Snowden” and now “Shut Up and Dance” will think more seriously about covering their webcam lens with a post-it!

The fourth “Hated in the Nation” is a bit like the classic, “Manchurian Candidate”. An investigator soon sees how murders advocated on Twitter with the hashtag #DeathTo, intersect with the decimation of the bee population.  Use of #DeathTo actually grows rapidly in popularity after users learn that the Twitter “game” is real and actually used to identify people who become public hate figures.

“Men Against Fire” is not your usual mini–war movie. To avoid PTSD after killing enemy combatants, the military embeds electronic implants into soldiers’ brains to dehumanize the enemy and avoid PTSD.

“San Junipero,” is a romantic encounter between two women who time-travel to unexpected places, some real and some virtual. They can choose to live as their younger selves forever, resonating a bit with the movie “Sixth Sense”.

Watching each episode of “Black Mirror” is like falling into a rabbit hole, where the world of the Cheshire Cat is ominous and not only a figment of the imagination. “Black Mirror” poses the question: Do our smart screens prevent us from authentic relationships and a shared reality within a wider community? Or have our moral boundaries been erased by the often tantalizing and addicting worlds our Wi-Fi connections make so real and so easy to pursue?

All six episodes are evocative and open a portal to seeing if our minds can be hacked and hijacked. Choose your own favorite episodes and post your preferences here!

Note: The episode “White Christmas” from the end of last season is quite a somber Christmas to say the least. Starring Jon Hamm (of “Mad Men” fame), I loved this one!

“The Crown”–Glory to Her Highness

the-crownThe anachronistic British aristocracy must sensitively negotiate its relationship with its public. “The Crown”, the November original series released from Netflix, is the story of a conflict between private and public, between the personal feelings of a wife, mother, and sister and the queen (Elizabeth II).

At its core “The Crown” is a character study and a family drama. Do you put personal fulfillment over political duty and obligation? That is the question. “The Crown” is a family saga, particularly between sisters. Conflicts with personal fulfillment and romantic love hide behind a curtain of pomp and circumstance. We are allowed behind palace doors to witness a struggle of personalities.

Elizabeth’s drama begins with the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, which forces his reluctant younger brother George VI to ascend to the throne. His oldest daughter, Elizabeth (in a remarkable performance by Claire Foy from “Wolf Hall”), is a witness to all the regal drama. With the death of King George VI, Elizabeth must suddenly transform from a loving sibling and shy young wife and mother into a queen.

And at the moment of her father’s death, it becomes clear that Elizabeth — unlike her tearful mother and sister — is able to suppress her desires and emotions in order to assume the throne.

Perhaps the most compelling drama in “The Crown”, however, is the conflict between sisters. Her younger and more glamorous sister, Margaret, asks for permission to marry a recently divorced officer whose ex-wife is still living. This love affair, ironically, is similar in circumstances to that of her uncle (King Edward VIII) who was compelled to abdicate the throne for marriage to a divorced woman (Wallace Simpson). At that time remarriage under those circumstances was strictly forbidden by the Anglican Church. First promising to stand by her sister, Elizabeth is compelled by those in power to recant as she chooses duty as queen and defender of the Anglican Church over her love for her sister.

The popularity of “Downton Abbey” reveals an American fascination with the British royal family and aristocracy. Why is the monarchy this crucial to the nation? Queen Mary (played by Eileen Atkins), the grandmother of Elizabeth, reminds her granddaughter: “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth, to give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives.”

A superb family saga with the machinations of politics as its undercurrent!