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My thoughts about movies and TV shows I've been watching

See also my blog on books: Elliot's Reading

Sunday, August 20, 2017

What makes for a good crime documentary?

There have been many great true-crime dox, beginning probably w/ The Thin Blue line and reaching fruition in some of the miniseries such as OJ Made in America and esp Making of a Murderer. Roughly, there are three elements that move a crime doc from good to great: a great and intriguing crime, a narrative that sustains mystery and ambiguity, and use of much original footage. The HBO doc from 2016, Mommy Dead and Dearest by all means has a weird and intriguing crime: a young woman w/ severe illnesses and disabilities is accused of conspiring w/ a young man, possibly her boyfriend, to murder her mother in cold blood. The twist is - and I'm not really giving anything away as you learn the entire essence of the case in the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film - the young woman has succumbed to her mother's perverse and abusive behavior and over the course of her whole lifetime has faked these illnesses and disabilities. Her mother had her, among other things, pretend to be a cancer patient (even shaved her hair) and pretend to be unable to walk w/out a wheelchair. In fact she had her daughter undergo a lifetime of painful and invasive medical procedures - and as a result the mother was lavished with praise and affection as a mom carrying a heavy burden and the were even provided w/ gifts from charities and donors (a Habitat for Humanity house, trips to Disney, etc.). The young woman - actually in her 20s and quite articulate, though she was presented as a myopic teenager with mental retardation - enlisted help of an online boyfriend and had the mother killed, a crime she denied at first and then admitted. OK all very strange, and the film raises a ton of questions about who's responsible for this travesty: where were the social services? where was the school system? what about the doctors and others who administered 24 years of unneeded medical interventions? The problems with this film, though, lies in the other two elements. First of all, there's no sense of mystery; we know the basic facts within a few minutes and then learn that the young woman - Gypsy Rose Blancharde - had been forced to pose as someone with crippling illnesses. My thought is the film would have worked better had we "met" Gypsy earlier in her life and then build toward the crime, the arrest, and the unraveling. Second,  unfortunately for the filmmakers, there isn't a lot of original footage - recordings of the police interviews and and of some courtroom material, for the most part - so the doc consists 80 percent of talking heads. It's almost as if the quality of a documentary is inverse to the % of talking-head interviews. The team did a good job with the material in hand, but it does fall a little short of greatness.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Spoilers: Some thoughts on the conclusion of The Night Of

The HBO 8-part series The Night Of is engaging right to the end. Spoilers here inevitably: i was half-right in foreseeing how this would work out, in that the defense of Naz, accused of murdering a young woman w/ who he'd had a one-night relationship, would focus on establishing the existence of other possible suspects whom the police did not identify or pursue. Some of these were obvious to any careful viewer from the outset - though I also knew that none of these folks would be charged with the crime. As foreseen, the ending is dark, with Naz exonerated (hung jury, and state declines to pursue a 2nd trial) and now a drug addict and a street thug, thanks to his time in Riker's and he changes he made to survive there. I had thought he would be acquitted and then would have memories of actually killing the young woman - but he comes off as still innocent yet a victim of the system, and that's probably a better ending than the one I'd envisioned. (Under cross-examination, he does for the first time say that the doesn't know whether he killed the woman; that's about as close as the story comes to a possible admission of guilt.) I'm a little troubled by the development in the final episode that suggests the woman's financial adviser had been stealing from her and that he had possibly been the killer and that the DA will pursue indicting him; this leaves the door open a crack for a possible sequel - which I doubt will happen - and seems a little too pat an opportunistic. They'd have done better, in my view, to just leave it w/ the possibility of 4 other killers rather than suggest that the financial adviser is definitely the man

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The tragedy of The Night Of - possible exculpation, but a ruined life

The HBO series The Night Of continues to hold our interest through disc 2/episode 6: It's an odd but effective narration in that we know more than the central characters, but over the course of the episodes, particularly 4 through 6, they begin to figure out the alternate potential narrative: If Naz did not kill the young woman, as he insists, then who did? By the end of episode 6 there are (at least) 3 additional suspects, at least in the minds of Naz's attorneys (at least 2 of them had already aroused our suspicions). But while they are making these heroic efforts to create reasonable doubt and exculpate Naz, Naz himself is ever more deeply drawn into the criminal underworld and gang culture of the prison (Riker's Island), so what we're heading toward is a tragic conclusion in which he may get off but his life is ruined - a true expose of the system of criminal justice in the U.S. (and maybe elsewhere, as it's based on a British program).

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The cruel and destructive people in Antonioni's The Red Desert

Antonioni's The Red Desert (1964) is worth watching for the cinematography and design alone - so many great shorts of weirdly colored interiors, of the horrifying nightmare landscape of a vast gas-fired power complex, of the ruination of the earth around the complex through toxic pollution of water and air (this was set far before there were any serious attempts at environmental regulation - progress and industry at all cost), beautiful shots of vast commercial freighters passing through fog-shrouded harbors, and of course about a million close-ups of Monica Vitti playing a severely disturbed young woman who's at the center of this movie. It's Antonioni, however, so the pace is deliberative and he dispenses w/ the usual continuity and transitions; many of the sequences make no sense if taken literally (e.g., Vitti in one of the first scenes is with her young son at the scene of a workers' strike at the power plant; she wanders off into the woods and reeds to eat a sandwich - where did her son go?). Essentially, it's a story of distress and despair - Vitti has been suicidal since a strange auto accident, and none of the people in her life seem able, or even willing, to communicate w/ her about her anxiety and disturbances. In fact, the people around her are horrible: trying to take advantage of her emotional fragility, casually destructive and violent with one another, and equally destructive with their environment, social, political, and physical: many great scenes of air and water pollution, and the casual indifference of the managers of the power plant to safety and health, from small things like tossing away a sandwich wrapper to the vast, like the yellow poison gas spewing from the huge smokestacks. Great scenes include the drinking scene with 4 couples in a little shack on a commercial wharf that they begin tearing apart incinerating, Richard Harris's crude sexual attack on Vitti, the "tour" of the power plant, the visit to the installation of the telescopes, and ships passing by the wharf in the fog as Vitti wrecklessly drives along the wharf.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

A miniseries and a move that expose the horrors of the system of so-called criminal justice

Based on 1st 3 episodes (out of 8) of The Night Of, the 2016 HBO miniseries from Steven Zaillian and the great crime writer Richard Price, this looks like a terrific, and terrifying, examination of the criminal-justice system as seen through one case in which things go horribly wrong for the protagonist: a 23-year-old man (Naz), of Pakistani descent but U.S. born, an excellent student in college, takes his dad's cab, without permission, to drive to a downtown party, but gets waylaid when a girl hops into his cab, takes her home, they engage in some Rx and alcohol consumption, way out of the Naz's league, then violent sex; Naz seems to pass out of black out and when he wakes finds that the young woman has been stabbed to death. Frightened, he runs off but is soon picked up on DWI suspicion, and once the cops connect him to the crime scene he's toast: his blood and DNA are all over the place, he doesn't and can't deny being present, claims he blacked out and has no idea how the woman was killed. Here are my thoughts: Price does a great job providing subtle clues as to who might actually have murdered the woman. We see two black men exchange angry words w/ Naz as he is about to enter the woman's apartment; she leaves a back door open by mistake - so naturally we think one of the men must have killed her. Of course this plays off our racial biases - the Pakistani seems so nice and kind, the black guy so menacing. My guess is that these are red herrings and that we learn later in the series that Naz was guilty, that the Rx caused him to become violent and then to black out. Just my guess. Meanwhile, we see throughout the first 3 episodes at least the failings of the criminal-justice system - the pressure on the kid to plea to a lesser charge, the difficulty in getting good counsel, the terrifying conditions under which he's held (w/out bail) while awaiting trial. I was not surprised to see on IMDB that this drama is based on an English show, Criminal Justice, and I want to remind anyone reading this that friend AW wrote and directed a great HBO movie of the same title that similarly exposes the horrors of the judicial system based on the facts and suppositions of one criminal case.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Who wouldn't want to watch Eight Days a Week, but is it really a great movie?

Of course Ron Howard's Hulu movie, Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, is fun to watch; how can you not like the extensive archival footage of Beatles' live performance, from the early days in Liverpool and Hamburg through the first live concerts in Europe the the U.S. to the stadium concerts of 1965 and 66, and finally to their impromptu rooftop performance - their last performance as a quartet apparently. Great footage, great music, some moments never seen before, and Howard keeps the talking heads to a minimum - just a few contemporary comments from Paul and Ringo and from a few others, including Elvis Costello. That's all good - great as an archival exploration, great for the music, but as a movie? It feels flat and unawakened; I completely agree w/ comment AW made to me that the movie lacks a point of view. Yes, we see the arc of their lives - how fame came at them so suddenly, how it became impossible to do what they loved to do which was simply to perform their music, how the were forced to become studio musicians and were all the better as such, for a time (the movie does not dwell on this, which is fair, as it's about the "touring years"). But we don't really come out of this with any advanced knowledge; there's little or no insight into the struggles of their personal lives, in particular broken marriages and increasingly heavy use of Rx. Obviously, this was the price Howard had to pay to get the cooperation of the reps and families of all 4. But overall it comes off as an old-fashioned PBS masters' show, flourishing amid the abundance of archival material, but not as a thoughtful, original piece of documentary cinema.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A good, informative Einstein biopic though could have used more science and less schmaltz

For better or worse the National Geographic 10-part series on the life of Einstein, Genius, seems to be wrestling w/ its identity throughout: Is it a biopic? Or a Hallmark movie? By the end, it's a little bit of both; personally, I would have liked a more faithful adherence to the facts, details, and most of all ideas (and ideals) of Einstein's life. But I also have to say that the series does a great job in examining Einstein's personality, without undue hagiography: We see his intellectual genius of course and see his thoughts emerging through the early years of disgrace and disappointment (still incredible that he could not get a university job and wrote his breakthrough papers on relativity while he was a clerk in the patent office!), his struggles against anti-Semitism particularly in German but also in the scientific community at large, and mostly his troubled relationships with family, with women, and esp w/ his first wife. Clearly, E was not a genius when it came to relationships, though he does get some good lines when he tries to reconcile with his first wife, Malleva. In the 2nd half of the series, his struggle to get visas to travel to the U.S. is the highlight, as well as his wrestling w/ his lifelong commitment to pacifism v the need to annihilate the Axis powers - and of course his struggle w/ the idea that the atomic bomb is the practical application of his theoretical research. There's some good scenes about the corruption of German science during the war - and about the race between Germany and US to develop the a-bomb. Some things are left unclear, however, in particular the Moe Berg spy episode and the plot to kill Heisenberg (seemed out of "left field," and not really part of the E bio but too good to pass up). I also suspect E's role in persuading an American official to issue thousands of visas to German Jews may have been overstated. Unfortunately, in the final episodes the mood becomes rather sappy as E reconciles to an extent w/ his children and befriends a 10-year-old girl who has lots of questions about science; is this based on any real incidents? Doubtful. I would have liked more on the Russian spy who become his mistress for a time - how much did she learn from the old man? Was her truly never suspicious of her motives? And I'd have liked more explanation of his theories - in other words, more science, less schmaltz - and the series could have given us some updates on the lives of the main characters post 1955 (E's death). All that said, it's an entertaining series and gives a good outline of the contours and detours of E's life.