mother! (2017)

Back when mother! was released, critics had a seemingly impossible task of classifying the movie.  Was it a drama? (maybe)  A comedy? (certainly no)  A mystery (yes, but not in a good way)  Horror? (yes)  Romance? (yes, but not in the traditional sense)  Art-house? (certainly yes)

With the relatively simple task of categorization dashed against the rocks, critics then had to describe the plot.  With most pieces of abstract art, interpretation is (mostly) left to the viewer.  I’ll do my best to describe what happens below.  The fact that mother! is open to many interpretations is not by itself a virtue.  Art by definition and movies in particular invite audience interpretation.  Some movies are more “open” than others, but all can be interpreted however the moviegoer wishes.

Lastly, critics needed to state whether mother! was “good” or not.  Opinions on Rotten Tomatoes range from “like nothing you’ve ever seen before“ to “pretentious mess” to “worst movie of the century” to “brilliant” to “a wild, memorable ride” to “raw and compelling” to “squirm-inducing fun”.

Given the wide spectrum of opinions on mother!, what did I make of it?  On the question of how to classify or categorize the movie, I’d put it in the religious allegory category, decidedly Christian.  While other Christian allegorical films simply have a character stand in for Jesus (ex: The Shawshank Redemption, The Chronicles of Narnia, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest), mother! is a riff on the Bible, Old and New Testament.

You’ll have to forgive my excessive use of personal pronouns in the analysis below.  The credits list Jennifer Lawrence as Mother and Javier Bardem as Him.

The first half of the movie borrows heavily from the Old Testament.  Him and Mother create a world out of nothingness.  He is a writer struggling from writer’s block.  She is helping Him rebuild his childhood home that was devastated by fire, providing Him with a safe and comfortable place to write.  At one point Mother remarks that she wants to create a “paradise”.  Soon, Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) intrude on their quiet home, and He is inexplicably more than happy to let them move on in.  While the movie doesn’t explicitly state that He created them, the movie implies that He created them as a source of adoration.  They appear to be stand-ins for Adam and Eve, albeit decades into their union.  That Man has an open wound on his side makes the Adam analogy apropos.

Mother is appalled that He would let Man and Woman into their world, but He assures her that everything will be fine.  In one of the more blatantly misogynistic pieces of dialog in the movie, Woman crudely tells Her that Mother needs to put out in order to keep Him interested.  Like many other elements of the movie, that scene is a very gross oversimplification of the dynamic between men and women, but it’s Aronofsky’s movie, and he’s entitled to his opinions.

Mother inspects Man’s duffel bag and finds a picture of Him in it.  But it’s not a normal picture.  To me, it looked like a prayer card, which would make sense given the level of adoration Man has for Him.  Aronofsky apparently is using Him as a stand-in for God, which is understandable, given that both poets and God are creators, albeit on a vastly different scale.

Shortly afterwards, Man and Woman’s two son’s come by, with one arguing about Man’s will (in the legal sense).  The brothers fight, ala Cain and Abel, with one brother dying off-screen.  In the wake that follows, a group of hanger’s-on come into the house and seemingly take over.  The people are annoying to varying degrees. A couple attempt to have sex in Him and Mother’s bedroom.  Another try to help by painting the house.  In another gross example of misogyny, one man calls Mother the c-word after She rebuffed his crude advances.  The scene seems to symbolize how mankind increasingly dominated the world, and while some people may have good intentions, most are selfish and destructive and disrespectful.

Eventually, the group (mankind) are sent out of the home.  Mother confronts Him about His lack of interest in her, and the two make passionate love.  She realizes she is pregnant the following morning, and this realization forces Him out of his writer’s block.  

Him lets Mother read his poetry, and she admits she likes it. Mother is shocked when He reveals to her that he had already sent his work to his publicist.  Him’s work sells extremely well, and Mother creates an immense feast for the two of them.  Almost instantly, people show up at their home, at first they are well wishers, wanting only photographs and autographs from Him.  The crowd then turns destructive, taking souvenirs from the home.  Moses and the Ten Commandments seemed to be the main influence in this section.  Again, Him is perfectly fine with the horrible behavior of his admirers.

Eventually the home delves into chaos.  Some of the well-wishers begin performing religious rituals.  A group of military personnel confront a group of protestors.  Him’s publicist executes people for reasons unknown.  The violence displayed on both sides apparently symbolizes those who perform violent acts in God’s name.  The stress forces Mother into premature labor.  Each of Mother’s contractions shakes the Earth.

Mother quickly gives birth.  He wants to show his son to the crowd, to which Mother says no.  Having witnessed the crowd’s abhorrent behavior first-hand, she doesn’t feel the child would be safe with the people.  Eventually, He waits until Mother falls asleep and gives the baby over to the crowd.  At first, all violence stops as the crows pass the baby along overhead.  Then the baby is killed.  Whether this was accidental or otherwise is unknown.  All we hear is a snapping sound and the baby stops crying.  When He insists that they need to forgive the people for their transgression, the parallels to the New Testament are clear.  Understandably, Mother does not want to forgive anyone for killing her baby.  She lashes out, killing some of the people nearby.  The crowd attacks her and punches her, several times in the face. Him finally steps in to protect Mother, and She finds the people eating her baby’s flesh.  Those familiar with the holy sacraments of the Eucharist will understand what is going on here. 

Seeing her baby devoured by those that killed it, Mother reaches her breaking point.  She heads to the basement and sets the oil from the furnace on fire.  The home and all of the people are destroyed, and She suffers serious injuries.  He uses Mother’s love for Him to recreate the world again.  The end.

Several critics have picked up on how Aranofsky uses Him as a surrogate for an artist.  Certainly Him would not be the first artist to be inspired by nature.  I think that’s a narrow, secular view of the material though.  If we follow along with the Christian mythology being utilized here, Him certainly serves as a stand-in for God, the original artist.  But while the Christian trinity is God, His Son and the Holy Spirit, mother! has a slightly different trinity of God, Earth, and their newborn child.

Aranofsky is certainly well-versed in Christian mythology. He previously did a lot of research on the story of Noah and the flood to fashion a two-hour and eighteen minute movie around a relatively smaller part of the Old Testament.  With mother!, Aranofsky appears to be using the belief system espoused in the Bible as a reason for the state of the world we live in today.  Mankind’s violent and selfish behavior has brought the world (a.k.a. Mother Earth) to the brink of destruction.  Aranofsky see’s God as complicit in mankind’s behavior, though, since all God seemingly wants from mankind is their devotion.  So long as he receives adoration from his creation, he could care less about what happens to the world they live in.

Several critics have pointed out that Jennifer Lawrence is miscast in this movie.  For me, her best performances are those where she plays a character who acts, instead of one who reacts to events around her (Hunger Games, Silver Lining Playbook, American Hustle).  Seeing her be put-upon for over two hours proved to be a rough movie watching experience.

Regardless of the film’s underlying conceits, mother! is also a feat of movie-making skill.  Aranofsky is an extremely skilled director.  His subtle use of special effects and sound design prove that he is an expert filmmaker.  The staging of the protests and resulting military action from inside the house is something to behold.
Recommending mother! is not easy.  For those versed in Christian mythology, watching the movie and pointing out the biblical parallels can be a sort of parlor game.  I’m not sure what viewers with a basis in other religious belief systems would get out of it though.

American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)

American Murder: The Family Next Door, was released on September 30.  Certainly Netflix could have waited to release it one day later, so it could appear alongside other movies and television programs typically scheduled for October.  Maybe they made the decision out of respect for the families involved.  Maybe the algorithm that Netflix utilizes to determine when to release its content decided on the last day of September for reasons only it knows deep down in its code.  We will probably never know why Netflix releases its content on particular days, but American Murder definitely could have been released during the month Halloween, alongside other horror films.  Because while American Murder is many things, in the end it is a horror story.

Commentary I’ve read on American Murder discusses how it serves as a rumination on the superficial nature of social media.  Shanann Watts frequently posted photos and videos of her family on Facebook.  She would upload happy scenes from birthday parties and family gatherings which, when taken at face value, would lead you to believe that nothing bad ever happened in the Watts family’s everyday life.  You would think that the Watts family experienced no arguments, no temper tantrums, no money problems, no disagreements of any kind.  Of course, we all know that social media platforms like Facebook only serve as personal advertisements for our lives, proof that we are enjoying life to its fullest, and that all is well.  Knowing the outcome of Shanann Watts and her children, American Murder provides damning evidence of how manipulative social media is, in how we use it to deliver a completely subjective view of our own lives to people we know, and to ourselves.

American Murder also provides an intimate portrait on the breakdown of a modern marriage.  Through text messages Shanann exchanged her closest friends and her husband, we come to the same realization that she over two months: that her husband was no longer in love with her, and was probably having an affair.  They were together for eight years and married for nearly six, and Shanann could tell something was wrong when he neglected to call her when she was on vacation with the kids, how he neglected to kiss her when they eventually were together on vacation, how he would avoid being intimate when the opportunity presented itself.

The omnipresent nature of digital surveillance is also a subtext of American Murder.  When a friend of Shanaan’s calls the police for a welfare check when Shanaan does not show up for a scheduled doctor’s appointment, police body cameras capture Chris coming home and every interaction he has with police.  A neighbor’s home security system blankly records the moment when Chris Watts loaded his deceased wife and his two sleeping children into his truck early in the morning.  Chris explains to the police investigating his family’s disappearance that he typically loads his tools into his truck early in the morning by backing his truck up to the garage.  When Chris leaves his neighbor’s house, the neighbor immediately states that he never saw Chris load his tools that way.

American Murder is also a rare documentary that relies only on recorded footage to tell its story.  Other documentaries have utilized this approach to great affect.  Apollo 11 (2019), for example, managed to tell us about an event that we are all extremely familiar with as it unfolded in real time, sans interviews or commentary.  The result was breathtaking.  By avoiding the standard documentary tropes, American Murder is also extremely involving.  There are no interviews with the participants, no reenactments of key events, or various talking heads commenting on what happened.  All we are shown is footage of the participants before and after the murders, and the end result is devastating.

While the death of Shanaan and her children were tragic, American Murder also depicts them as a horror story.  Shanaan and Chris were together for eight years, and up to the moment Chris strangled her to death, she never realized she was living with a sociopath.  In the footage we see with Chris, his emotions never are out of balance.  When Shanaan tells Chris she is pregnant, he reacts with the fake emotions of someone who just received a $25 gift card.  He routinely diminished the strife between his family and his wife.  Like other sociopaths, he passed as a normal person for years, hiding his lack of empathy behind a friendly smile.  Then, after having an affair for a month while his wife was out of town, he decided he didn’t want his family around anymore and planned when and how to kill his family, and where to hide their bodies.

Shanaan had no indication that her husband was a family annihilator.  To quote Richard Linklater:

no one really knows anyone. That’s the thing about relationships – people are always saying, “I want to know you, I want to know who you are.” But it is so hard for anyone to even know themselves. Who I am is always changing, so how can anyone else share in that?

Richard Linklater, Before Sunrise & Before Sunset: Two Screenplays

Up until she breathed her last breath, Shanaan probably had no idea that the man she married, had two children with and was pregnant with a third would kill her or her children.  If there is anything more horrifying than that, I don’t know what is.

The Little Hours (2017)

In the beginning of this movie, two Sisters chat in modern voices about a donkey that wandered away from their convent and needed to be retrieved again this morning.  The convent’s handyman walks by and gazes a bit to longly at the Sisters.  They then proceed to drop F-bombs on him until he finally walks away bewildered.  As the credits rolled, I wondered to myself, how would I describe this movie in my review?

Historical sex comedies are few and far between, anachronistic ones even more so.  I would say that Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part 1 would be a prime antecedent, and probably also Year One (from 2009, starting Jack Black and Michael Cera).  The movie also reminds me of something that would have played on Cinemax or Showtime after Dark back in the nineties, albeit with better acting, funnier jokes and more believable sex scenes.  (Idle hands and cable TV truely are the Devil’s playthings.)

The credits state that this movie is based on Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a book I have never read, so I’ll take director and screenwriter Jeff Baena’s word for that.  A quick Google on The Decameron states that it’s a collection of bawdy tales set in 14th Century Italy, and the set design certainly appears accurate.  The actors all appear to be dressed appropriately for the period as well.  All of the dialog is delivered in modern, 21st Century vernacular, which, while a bit distracting, does yield the movie’s biggest laughs.

After the verbal thrashing of the opening scene, we meet the players the main setting for the story.  Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation) and Ginevra (Kate Micucci, The Big Bang Theory, Garfunkel and Oates) apparently are long-term residents of the convent, run by Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) and Sister Maria (Molly Shannon).  Fernanda and Ginevera are the “Mean Sisters” of the convent, and are extremely curious about newcomer Alessandra.  Alessandra’s father (Paul Reiser) has jettisoned her to a convent because “there’s a lot of money going out and not a lot coming in.”  It’s cheaper for Alessandra to stay at the convent than pay a dowry, so her father tells her that even though she wants to get married, “maybe that’s not your calling.”  Later, when the mean Sisters and Alessandra meet up with the beleaguered handyman again, she takes her anger over her situation out on the handyman and pelts him with f-bombs and subgrade turnips.

When Father Tommasso heads to town to sell the embroidery the Sisters have created, we are introduced to the second setting for the story.  In a castle, we are introduced to Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) and his wife Francesca at dinner.   Lord Bruno may be a man of means, but he is dull and uninteresting.  Francesca has not-so-secretly been shagging servant Massetto (Dave Franco) under her husband’s oblivious nose.  Finally, Lord Bruno figures out what is going on and asks the two most inept guards of all time to retrieve Masseto for punishment, which they fail at miserably.

Masseto meets a shit-faced drunk Father Tomasso on the road out of town.  Later that evening over drinks, Tomasso askes Masseto to stay on as the convent’s handyman.  Masseto agrees, only to find that he must pretend to be a deaf mute, so as not to rile the Sister’s .  Massetto being hunky Dave Franco, it doesn’t take long for loins to be stirred.  Before the dams break, Masseto hilariously does his best to ward off the advances of the Sisters until he caves to their charms.

Until about half way through, the movie is primarily a ribald verbal comedy, with Massetto’s confession to Father Tommasso as a highlight.  Then the movie delivers on its sexy premise with two intense sex scenes that made me forgot I was watching a comedy.  This is an R-rated movie, by the way.

As the three Sisters, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci and Allison Brie mostly play to their strengths as comedic actresses.  Plaza is the sharp-tongued seducer, Micucci is the neurotic dormant and Brie is the goofy romantic.  Their interplay is very funny, and the movie’s ensemble cast is used to its advantage.

Micucci provides some risque physical comedy when she overhears some romantic advice from a distance.  She clearly doesn’t hear everything said very well and winds up dancing naked with a coven of witches.

Fans of celebrity couples will be interested in seeing Franco and Brie share medieval coupling time in this movie.  Trivia alert: they were married in 2017, around the same time this movie came out.

Nick Offerman’s performance achieves the seemingly impossible, being terrifyingly boring and boringly terrifying at the same time.  His monologue to Masseto on how he’s going to keep him alive but slowly torture him to death is probably how most managers sound to their office worker drones.

Fred Armisen shows up in the third act as Bishop Bartolome.  He plays his role as a regional manager stopping by to review the books and is shocked, shocked to see what a slipshod operation Father Tomasso and Sister Maria are running (“Have you seen these numbers?”)  The tribunal scene where the Bishop confronts each of the Sisters with their sins (“Eating blood.  Do you think I’ve ever written down ‘eating blood’ before?  Where am I?”) is hilarious.

Ultimately, Massetto has to choose between staying at Lord Bruno’s castle and being tortured to death, or run off with the three Sisters and be shagged to death.  (the escape plan the Sisters devise features the best use of a turtle and a candle that I can think of.)  Ultimately, he chooses death by pleasure, which the movie shows is better than a death of old age, preceded only by piety and misery.  The movie ends on a happy note with Father Tomasso and Sister Maria joining each other outside the convent and professing their love for each other.

The Little Hours has a definitive cast, which is noteworthy for a movie of its ilk.  Fans of any of the actors I’ve mentioned above should definitely check it out, since they all have a great moment or two in this movie.  The movie is funny and sexy, a breezy ninety minute distraction.  Recommended.

Enola Holmes (Netflix)

I admit that I am not an avid follower of Sherlock Holmes.  While I have seen From Hell and both of the Robert Downey Jr. movies, I’ve only watched a few episodes of PBS’s Sherlock.  I have not watched any episodes of Elementary.  Even with my limited exposure to the character, I understand him well enough to be able to follow along with the plot of Enola Holmes.

Enola Holmes (played by Millie Bobby Brown) expands the Sherlock universe by adding a heretofore unknown younger sister.  When Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and his brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin) leave home, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), their mother raises Enola on her own in their country estate.  Eudoria teaches Enloa everything but how to be a proper lady in society, including archery, tennis, jujitsu, chemistry and so on.  Enola is an avid reader, and reads all of the books in the estate’s library.

One morning, Enola wakes up to find her mother has left home.  In her wake, Eudoria leaves Enola a gift package, and Enola quickly discerns clues she can use to find her mother.  Since Mycroft is the elder brother, Enola is his ward, and must abide by his wishes.  He sizes her up as a wild animal and wants to send her to a harsh finishing school for young girls.  Sherlock does not agree with his brother’s plan, but goes along with it anyway.

Since Enola is only fourteen, she trades clothes with a young boy so that she can travel to London without being harassed.  On the train, she befriends and ultimately saves Lord Tewkesbury.  She likes him, but once they reach London she leaves him behind.  (Her mother warned her not to be taken with boys, since they are essentially a handsome distraction.)

Once in London, Enola first sets out to find her mother, but when she realizes how much danger Lord Tewkesbury is in, changes course and helps him out instead.  In the end, Lord Tewkesbury is saved, Enola is briefly reunited with her mother, and becomes Sherlock’s ward instead.  All’s well that ends well, in other words.

Enola Holmes is definitely a young adult take on the Sherlock Holmes mythology.  Enola shares Sherlock’s keen attention to detail and perfect recall of past events.  Unlike Sherlock, she is a person of action, fighting Tewkesbury’s assassin, confronting Tewksbury’s family over why he ran away from home.  Sherlock is portrayed as pleasant and charming, but essentially a passive  puzzle-solver.  

Generally, the men around Enola do not come off well.  The story has a decidedly feminist bent that was a bit heavy-handed at times.  Enola initially writes off Tewkesbury as a dreamy doofus.  Sherlock, while a well regarded member of society, is completely oblivious to the societal issues of his time.  Mycroft is portrayed as a harsh control freak, insisting that Enola’s will be broken so that she can ultimately be married off.  I don’t understand why he is so surprised that Enola has a mind of her own.  As a man of means and education, surely he’d be familiar with the works of Jane Austin or the Bronte sisters.

Unlike other Holmes incarnations, Enola is more than willing to get her hands dirty, figuratively and literally.  The movie shows her with dirt on her face and her clothes many times to emphasize that Enola is a different kind of Holmes.  To emphasize her tomboyishness, she disguises herself as a boy.

Interestingly enough, Enola Holmes shares a few thematic elements with the preceding Robert Downey Jr. movies.  She can hold her own in a fistfight, and wears different clothes to throw others off her trail and while detecting.  Both are outsiders who, while comfortable in their own skin and profess to not caring about fitting into society, still attempt to do so.

Unlike the Downey Jr. films, which seemed to revel in grit, grime and general ugliness, Enola Holmes is practically a love letter to the English countryside and London.  The scenes outside the Holmes and Tewkesbury estates are breathtaking.  Even London is shown to be an exciting theme park of a city, filled with colorful and mostly non-threatening characters.

I’m not sure if the movie was influenced by the “Millennials versus Boomers” arguments being made in the media over the past several years, but the villain behind the plot to kill young Lord Tewkesbury, as well as his father, turns out to be the Dowager of the Tewkesbury family.  Viewed today, it’s another indictment of those dastardly Boomers, always thwarting reform at every turn.

Henry Cavill is very good as Sherlock, in what is just a supporting role.  If there ever is a sequel, I’d hope he gets more to do than he did in this movie.  With his work here and in Mission:Impossible – Fallout and The Witcher, I’m surprised his take on Superman was so ineffectual.

Helena Bonham Carter has been doing excellent work in supporting roles for a long time now.  Her evolution from saucy vamp (or crazy vamp) to characters of substance is a welcome one.

Ultimately, Enola Holmes is very charming and engaging, but not consequential.  The reform bill that is eventually passed is never discussed in detail.  The reason why Enola’s mother left home is never really explained.  I suspected that Eudoria and her band of ladies were plotting to blow up Parliament if the reform bill was not passed, in a nod to Guy Fawkes, but that’s just a guess.  Enola Holmes is one of the better Netflix movies released over the last several years, but Masterpiece Theatre it is not.  Lightly recommended.

Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

Phi Vu as Ryan in “Happy Death Day 2U,” written and directed by Christopher Landon.

I believe that it’s easy to explain why a great movie is great.  Explaining why a bad movie is bad or doesn’t work requires much more effort.  

If I were to ever have a film studies class, I would have my students watch Happy Death Day (2017) and its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U (HDD2U), and explain why the first one works while the second one does not.  The original cast is back, along with some enjoyable supporting characters. The acting is good for the most part. The special effects are good.  The concept of stopping a murderer using physics is relatively novel.  Something is missing though in this sequel.  For me, figuring that out is more interesting than the movie itself.

The movie starts out promisingly, with Ryan Phan (Phi Vu) a minor character from the first movie finding himself caught into the same loop as the Tree. He gets killed by the baby mask killer, only to wake up wondering, WTF?. Most horror movies feature young, pretty white girls in the lead, so having a young Asian male as the lead for an American horror movie would definitely be a unique approach.

But shortly after establishing what I thought was a neat twist on the premise of the original movie, HDD2U comes up with a convoluted way to put Tree back into the same loop she was trapped in in the original movie.  The first horror movie I can remember that retconned itself in its first sequel.

In HDD2U, college coed Tree is returned to the Groundhogs Day existence that tormented her in HDD.  Because she can remember what happens from each previous day, she remembers that Ryan told her about a physics experiment that went awry the previous night.  Tree demises that the device Ryan and his friends (the nerd squad) are working on is the cause of Tree’s time loop.  This time around, though, things are different.  Tree and Carter are no longer an item, with Carter actually dating her sorority rival Danielle, and her roommate Lori no longer the secret villain.

Ryan and the nerd squad explain to Tree that she is not only stuck in a time loop, but that she has been placed into a different version of her life in the multiverse.  To get back to her reality, every day, she needs to convince the nerd squad of her predicament and help them program the device to both end her time loop and send her back to her reality.  Heady stuff for a horror movie.

While the HDD borrowed the narrative construct of Groundhogs Day, HDD2U borrows directly from the plot. To avoid being killed by the baby mask killer at the end of the day, Tree chooses to kill herself, often in very funny ways.  (The “suicide montage” is the funniest part of this movie by far.)  In between suicides, Tree must memorize complex formulas devised by the nerd squad, so that she can repeat them back to the nerd squad when the day repeats.  Like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhogs Day, Tree’s character grows in some interesting ways in this movie, but to what end?

Jessica Rothe comes off a bit more shrill in HDD2U than in HDD. I guess if I was stuck living the same day over and over, I probably would become a bit manic myself.  Most of her best scenes are with her mom, who is alive in the alternate reality Tree finds herself in. That the dramatic scenes play the best in a horror movie is problematic.

When Tree realizes that the reason she was stuck in a time loop in the first movie (and now this one) is due to a physics experiment gone awry, not bad karma, she states how disappointing that revelation is.  I agreed.  By removing the supernatural element from the plot, the movie has neutered itself. What was a clever turn on the horror genre is now essentially a dramedy. 

As HDD2U played out, I figured that the nerd squad would eventually figure out the calculations and program the device to send Tree back to her reality, and they did.  A dramatic choice would have been to kill Tree off and have one of the supporting characters figure out what’s going on, but that appears to have been too risky a choice for the filmmakers involved.  All of the choices in the movie feel safe.  HDD2U primarily doesn’t work as a horror movie because there are no stakes. Because there are no stakes, there is no tension.  Because there is no tension, I never felt for a moment that any of the characters were in any real danger.  Without danger, you don’t have a horror movie.

For some reason, I laughed every time the world’s most annoying ringtone played on Tree’s phone.  Maybe if they do another sequel, the baby mask killer could stalk the ringtone’s creator.

HDD2U actually has a credit cookie. After the killer has been stopped and the multiverse made right again, the group is whisked off to a government lab and asked to explain how the device works. I was really hoping that The Avengers would show up but alas, it was not to be.

While I don’t recommend watching HDD2U, HDD is worth a look.

Gemini Man (2019)

Will Smith is one of the most likeable actors I know.  He’s confident, but not cocky.  

Assured, but not full of himself.  Funny, but not comical.  Serious, but not intense.  When he flashes his sly grin, you feel like he just filled you in on a crazy secret.  As an action star, he’s a natural, going all the way back to Independence Day in 1996.  Who can forget him punching an alien invader in the face and then taunting by saying, “Welcome to Earth!”  In a way, his career is similar to that of Tom Cruise.  Smith doesn’t approach his roles with Cruise’s jittery energy or maniacal sense of desperation, but like Cruise, he clearly is having fun.

Even when his acting choices are questionable, Smith is always watchable.  This includes a thoroughly ridiculous movie like Seven Pounds, where he atones for his sins by killing himself with a jellyfish.  Or when he makes a concerned choice to drain himself of all of his charisma and deliver an intimate portrait of a scientist, like in Concussion.  I admit that I haven’t seen most of his films from the past five years, steering clear of Suicide Squad, Collateral Beauty, After Earth and Bright due to overwhelming negative reviews.  After seeing Gemini Man, I may give some of those a look.

I’d read the bad reviews of commentary about Gemini Man last year when it came out.  The main criticisms were that the plot is convoluted and the de-aging special effects used are not convincing.  When the opportunity to watch the movie came up I thought, how bad could this movie really be?  In other words, my bar for being entertained by this movie was pretty low.

In all honesty, I found the movie to be very good.  Not as great as Enemy of the State or Men in Black, but in the same category as Hancock and Legend.  The de-aging of Will Smith did not come off well.  Having watched Will Smith in movies since he was in his twenties, the younger, CGI enabled Will Smith on display here looked strange.  It was as if someone took Will Smith’s current face, de-aged it, and pasted it onto the face of someone with a smaller head.  A much better choice would have been to find a younger actor who looks and sounds similar to Will Smith.  But de-aging older actors has been trending for several years now, so there’s no sense in raging against the wind on this topic.

While the unsuccessful de-aged Will Smith was a distraction, it did not affect my enjoyment of Gemini Man at all.  Will Smith plays Henry Brogan, an assassin for hire that works for the Defense Intelligence Agency (or DIA).  (There should be signs up in the DIA hallways exclaiming “We’re not the CIA!”)  Brogan isn’t just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill super assassin, though.  At the outset, he completes a seemingly impossible assignment that involves shooting a purported Russian bio-terrorist on a train moving at 200 miles-per-hour from a distance of at least a football field.  When one character later describes Brogan as the best assassin the world has ever known, we believe it.  This assignment troubles Brogan because if his shot was off by just six inches, he would have killed an innocent bystander.  He tells his handler that he’s retiring to a life of fishing by the lake, we know that decision won’t last long.

While Will Smith could make fishing in a rowboat immensely entertaining, the plot of Gemini Man follows a familiar pattern:

  1. After a troubling job (or a job gone wrong), the secret agent/ex-special forces/covert spy decides to leave their job.
  2. The government agency/clandestine organization who employed said agent decides to kill their former employee to tie up loose ends.
  3. A close friend of the agent is killed.
  4. The former agent kills those sent to kill him in dramatic fashion.
  5. The former agent makes an unlikely ally, who will help him seek down and kill those in the agency.
  6. The agency sends someone who used to be close to the former agent to kill him.
  7. As the former agent gets closer to the head of the agency bent on killing him, another close friend will be killed.
  8. The head of the agency eventually is killed after delivering an extensive monologue explaining how what the agency is doing is for the good of mankind.
  9. The former agent heads off into the sunset.

As you can tell, the plot of Gemini Man is far from convoluted.  It’s not original, but I don’t believe that all movies must be original to be entertaining.  What makes Gemini Man entertaining is the elements it uses to flesh out those plot points.

As I said earlier, Will Smith has proven that he can make pretty much any movie he stars in entertaining.  He’s in classic form here, charismatic and believable as the super assassin.  

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Fargo) plays Danny Zakarewski, his unlikely ally.  As the agent assigned to watch Brogan in his retirement, she manages to be quirky and sultry at the same time.  The movie has Brogan recognize her as a potential love interest, but also mention that he is too old for her.  (She would have been 34 to Smith’s 51, at the time this movie was released.)  As Danny, Winstead has some good scenes in the movie, including one where she serves as bait for Brogan’s clone.

The action sequences in the movie are top notch.  The best one is where Brogan and his clone have an extended chase on the streets of Colombia is done exceptionally well.  It’s some of the best stunt work I’ve seen since the Jason Bourne movies.

Benedict Wong (Dr. Strange) also has several funny lines as Baron, another former member of the DIA.  I was actually sad when he was killed off near the end, but appreciated that he had a significant role in the movie as a pilot who really loves getting to fly a G6.

Clive Owen plays bad guy Clay Verris as more thug than evil mastermind.  I thought he was way too intense for the part.  If you are an evil genius, and a good one at that, there’s no need to play every interaction with a clenched jaw and shooting lasers out of your eyes.  Owen’s acting is the one bad note in a film that is solidly acted all around.

The coda at the end of Gemini Man is also very good, serving as a meta commentary on how the experience can’t teach youth anything.  Brogan’s clone wants the chance to make his own mistakes and learn from them.  

I don’t know if director Ang Lee intended this, but I also read the movie as a commentary on how actors could be completely replaced by their CGI counterparts in the future.  In that future, we would always have a CGI-version of the young Will Smith, and CGI Will Smith would always be in great shape, do amazing physical stunts that defy gravity and never be at risk for getting injured.  While that indeed may be the (distant) future of acting, I hope the real-life Will Smith continues appearing in movies for many years to come.

Les Misérables (2019)

A man reaps what he sows.

Watching Les Misérables is like watching a prophecy filmed a year ago about the social unrest in America today.  The only difference is that the movie is located in France.  The film’s no-frills direction, realistic acting and white-knuckle pacing made me feel like I was watching a documentary.  The film won the 2019 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize, and was nominated for Best International Feature for the 2019 Academy Awards.

The film opens with a sequence showing the shared jubilation in France winning the 2018 FIFA World Cup.  Everyone from all walks of life, rich and poor, black and white, Muslim and Christian celebrated the game and France’s victory.  Unfortunately, the shared sense of national pride and togetherness doesn’t last beyond that one day, however.

The movie focuses on a trio of police officers in the SCM (street crime unit, which they nickname the “smack combat unit”), an anti-crime brigade that focuses on the largely minority commune of Montfermeil, ten miles outside of Paris.  Over the course of a day, racial tensions simmer over a crime committed by a child.  The police struggle to maintain their power over the predominantly minority citizens through intimidation and fear, while the adult residents fight among themselves to keep their criminal enterprises running.

In a riff on Training Day, Corporal Stéphane Ruiz, a newcomer to the team, serves as our surrogate.  What he sees on his first day on the job leaves him completely gobsmacked.  As the day goes on, his outrage gradually rises to the surface, leading him to confront Chris (the unit sergeant) on how he abuses the citizens.

The film depicts an uneasy alliance between various adult leaders of the community and the police.  Criminal elements are tacitly allowed to persist by the police so long as drugs and violence are kept in check.  As the film shows us throughout the day, the children and teenagers in the community reap nothing out of the arrangement.  Their lives are spent largely in poverty, playing in worn-down playgrounds and trash-strewn streets.

Issa, one of the children in the neighborhood of African descent, steals a tiger cub from a nearby circus run by Gypsies.  (The movie only identifies them as Gypsies.)  This situation leads to a confrontation between the Gypsies and the Africans that the police are barely able to contain.  Later, the police determine who stole the cub and attempt to apprehend the child for questioning.  A struggle ensues where the local children attack the officers, throwing objects at them.  Issa gets hit in the face at close range by a flash ball.  When the squad sees that the incident has been filmed by a drone, the squad leader seeks out the owner by leveraging his criminal contacts in the city.

Eventually, the squad recovers the memory card and go their separate ways.  We see each member of the squad at home with their family.  The way Chris treated the citizens–and children in particular, horribly, he isn’t a complete monster.  He has a wife and two young daughters.  Gwada, the officer who hit Issa with a flash ball, grew up in the neighborhood, cries in front of his mother moments after he arrives at their apartment.  The emotional toll the job takes on him and the others on the team is immense.

Later in the evening, Gwada meets Ruiz at a local bar.  Ruiz confronts Gwada about the incident with Issa, and Gwada confesses that in that moment, when they were trying to apprehend Issa, he lost it and shot the kid.  With the constant stress the job entails, Gwada’s emotions got the better of him.  Earlier in the morning, Ruiz’s Captain told him that team solidarity is everything.  Having been on the job only one day, Ruiz does not want to cause trouble and becomes complicit in covering up a partner’s criminal act, a decision that quickly has severe repercussions.

The final act of the movie sees the squad lured into a trap by a large group of children and teenagers, where they are pinned down in an apartment hallway and pelted with debris and homemade projectiles made from fireworks.  But the children don’t just lash out at the police; they also attack the other adults who attempt to stop the violence: the neighborhood criminal bosses.  As the movie depicted throughout the previous day, the bosses allowed and enabled the behavior of the police, so they deserve retribution as well.

The movie makes an argument that when the children and teenagers in the neighborhood resort to violence after one of their own has been mistreated, that revenge is their only option.  While the various adult leaders have maintained their grip on the community, the vast majority of the people living in the community have no way of escaping an endless cycle of poverty.  They have no future to speak of.  The only thing they have is anger and numbers.

The movie shows how a relationship between Ruiz and Salah, a local Islamic leader and owner of a restaurant, helps to resolve conflict because it is based on mutual trust and respect.  Ruiz also went out of his way to show Issa kindness by tending to his wounds and helping to get Issa out of a bad confrontation with the Gypsies after the tiger cub is returned.  In the end, Ruiz’s actions may save his life and that of his squad, but the movie leaves things open-ended.  

The movie is named after Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, which was written in the same town where the events take place.  It ends with a quote from his novel that all of us would do well to keep in mind while we go through our lives in this crazy world:  “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”  Highly recommended.

Fighting with My Family (2019)

Florence Pugh had what many actors would consider to be a career year in 2019.  She starred in Midsommar and Little Women, earning an Oscar nomination for the latter.  Her first movie out in 2019 was actually Fighting with My Family, and if I had seen that movie before the other two, I still would have been convinced she was a star in the making.  Together, the three films  showcase not just how nimbly she adapts to different genres (horror, period piece and comedy), but how convincingly she acted in each of them.  If it weren’t for COVID, I’m sure we would all be talking about her role in Black Widow, but we’ll have to wait until November (at the earliest).

Fighting with My Family tells the story of the Knight family, a family of wrestlers in Norwich, England.  The family consists of Ricky (Nick Frost), Julia (Lena Headey), Zak (Jack Lowden), Saraya (Florence Pugh), They support themselves by entertaining smaller crowds in town, even passing out flyers during the day to their own shows later in the evening.  Saraya, the daughter, attempts to convince a well-off trio of girls to come, but they resist.  Saraya asks them, “How do you know if you’ve never been?”  One girl replies, “I’ve never had rectal bleeding but I’m pretty sure I‘m not a fan of that either.”  To which Saraya retorts, “Why don’t I stick her head up your arse, and you can find out?”  Saraya has a lot to learn about salesmanship.

While the WWE is in London for Smackdown, Zak and Saraya are invited to try out for NXT, the WWE’s development division.  Out of about fourteen who perform during the tryout, only Saraya is chosen.  While Saraya gets to fly to Florida and pursue her dream, Zak’s dream is over.  He can continue wrestling locally, but he will never get another tryout with WWE again.  The rest of the movie will deal with the after effects of this turn of fate, where Saraya must gain the confidence and will power to pursue her dream, while Zak has to learn to accept his lot in life, which will be as a husband and a father, but not a professional wrestler.

Like most of the great movies about sports, there is a coach who serves as tormentor, motivator, confessor and mentor.  Vince Vaughn plays Hutch, the coach in this movie, and he is in his element here, throwing out sarcasm like it’s nobody’s business.  He also reminds us that he can be an effective dramatic actor as well.  In a very effective scene, Hutch explains to Saraya that Zak is a journeyman.  He only exists to make the star look good.  And while Zak can spend years chasing that dream of being a featured wrestler, that dream will never come for him.  While Saraya and her older brother Zak have wrestled since they were early teens, it is Saraya who has the ability to wrestle and is naturally charismatic.  The audience is immediately drawn to her.  Zak is an excellent wrestler, but has no charisma.  

The movie addresses the nature of wrestling several times.  While it may be scripted, it’s not fake.  The athleticism and coordination necessary to ensure the two (or more) combatants don’t seriously injure each other, or themselves, is considerable.  Even the off-the-beaten-path matches that Saraya and her wrestling family put on for local crowds have the skill necessary to be both entertaining and injury-free.  Watching the combatants run around the ring at each other, jump off ropes and flip each other around, I was reminded of the level of professionalism necessary to be a good wrestler, as well as someone that tens of thousands of fans in an arena will like and get behind.

This movie includes a fair share of sports movie cliches.  Saraya is an outsider that must learn to be a team player in order to get ahead.  She has to dig deep down to survive the rigorous physical training required to be a professional wrestler, which includes flipping semi-truck tires on the beach.  She has to learn how to combat hecklers, who can sense fear like sharks.  (Evidently, wrestling hecklers are nasty as hell.  Who knew?)  She also must stop doubting herself and seize the opportunity in front of her.  Sure, she isn’t tall and blond and pretty as the other women wrestlers she is training with.  But none of them have the spark Hutch says is necessary to become a top-line name in the WWE.

Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) is practically unrecognizable as Saraya’s mother Julia.  She was a drug user bent on her own self destruction until she and Ricky (Nick Frost) decide to go into wrestling.  Nick Frost is hilarious as the family patriarch, with every line seemingly peppered by a string of English curse words.

Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) makes several appearances in the movie, and he is dynamite in all of them.  He produced this movie, which is based on a true story.  He has about three scenes in the movie, and steals all of them.  I’ve probably said this before, but his megawatt smile definitely ranks near the top of the list of performers who can light up a room, a short list which would include Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise and Dennis Quaid.

In the end, Saraya fights through her fear and seizes her moment, becoming the youngest Diva title holder in WWE history.  Zak accepts his role as family man and local wrestling coach, and all live happily ever after.  While the movie is definitely a feel good story, it is also a true story, one where the underdogs come out on top.  Who doesn’t root for the underdog?

I’ve only seen two movies about wrestling, The Wrestler and now this one.  Both have been moving and featured top-notch acting.  Barton Fink would be proud.

The Hunt (2020)

“The most controversial movie of the year!”

The “controversy” surrounding this movie was manufactured by the president himself, who dissed the movie in an angry tweet.  I doubt he watched this movie himself, and instead relied on his handlers to confirm how awfully it treats his beloved red-staters.  Those evil Hollywood liberal elites!  Damn them!  Damn them all to hell!

Sure, the movie pokes fun at red-staters, in all of their sweatpants-wearing, southern drawl-speaking glory.  But the liberal elites in the movie came off much worse.  Honestly, (most) of the dialog is so clumsy and the characters are so one-dimensional, it’s difficult to determine what side the movie is actually on.  (One, and only one character has decent dialog and shines above the rest.  I’ll reveal who that is shortly.)  I wonder though, if the president knew that the movie would end with a bare-knuckle brawl between a rising star and a two-time Oscar winner, include a discussion of one of George Orwell’s most famous novels and have a slam-bang ending, would it change his opinion of this move?  (Doubtful, I know.)

For the most part, The Hunt is a clumsy retelling of The Most Dangerous Game.  Here, the hunters are liberal elites, while the hunted are various caricatures of red-staters and conservatives.  The movie aims for satire, but is much too heavy handed to be effective.  If the writers thought they were doing something comparable to Dr. Strangelove, they are sorely mistaken.  (Kubrick can rest easy in his grave, knowing that he still reigns supreme as the master of political satire.)

All of the recognizable stars in this movie are killed early, except one, and her appearance in the third act is an honest-to-goodness surprise.  This review is full of spoilers, so stop reading here if you want to watch this movie and be surprised.

After a gory opening sequence where a man in a ball cap, backwoods jacket and jeans gets killed on an airplane, we are introduced to the targets of this movie’s dangerous game.  They are quickly and gruesomely killed to provide shock value.  For example:

  • Emma Stone gets her head blown off a few minutes in.  She’s lucky that maybe no one will remember her for being in this.
  • Ike Barinholtz (funny in Neighbors and Blockers) makes a modest impression as a member of the hunted from Staten Island, whose reason for being included in the hunt was because he believes in gun ownership
  • Justin Hartley (This is Us) is quickly killed (he is a big game hunter).
  • One lady killed is from Wyoming.  She steals sunglasses.  She is clearly a rube and is unironically killed by a poisoned doughnut.
  • One is a follower of conspiracy theories, hates immigrants and has a podcast.  He obviously must die.

After two elderly elitists (Amy Madigan and Reed Birney) kill three red-staters at a fake gas station, the couple exchange simplistic banter about climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement and sugary beverages of all things.  We aren’t given any real reasons to care about who they are, just generic liberal-speak tossed around as justifications (climate change is real!).  This is a recurring thread throughout the movie, where the actors speak provocative statements, but those statements are superficial at best.  Leaden dialog makes the initial eighty minutes or so of the movie a struggle to watch.  

I previously mentioned that all characters are one-dimensional except one.  The lone holdout is Crystal, played by Betty Gilpin (Glow on Netflix–highly recommended).  She makes an impression as a worker from a car rental agency from Mississippi who is handier than anyone expects.  She is the only one who speaks even remotely like a real person.  With the attention given to her character, maybe, deep down, this movie actually has a soft-spot for the country bumpkins it ridicules.  (I suspect the script was punched up to specifically improve her dialog.)

At the midpoint of the movie, a bunch of the liberals are shown in their secure bunker.  Again, what is presented as dialog is just actors reading general liberal talking points.  They name drop Ava DuVernay, mention AIDS, the ongoing crisis in Haitian, gender norms, and so on.  Somehow Bruce Willis is mentioned in this exchange, probably because he’s a conservative.  He probably had a good snort when someone mentioned he is mentioned in this movie.  I’m sure if he ever sees The Hunt, he would yell at the screen, “C’mon, is that the best you can do?”  Later on, Jennifer Beals (one of the liberals) calls Gilpin’s character a hick before she is killed off.  Really?  That charming bit of dialog is why you agreed to this project, and not Flashdance 2?

Two-thirds of the way though, I figure that the movie has only thirty minutes left, so I can get through to the end.  Gilpin has been the only actor who has made a positive impression throughout the movie.  (She has a short but effective monolog with a national guardsman who was responsible for training the elites that includes the funniest use of “thank you for your service” I can think of.)  The movie has been cagey in not revealing who the mastermind is behind the elites.  Then Hillary Swank shows up.

The movie then flashes back to a year prior, and the plot starts making a smarmy case against those who believed and spread the conspiracy theories against Hillary Clinton, and subsequently denied her the presidency by voting for the Conspiracy Theorist in Chief.  It’s obviously a ham-fisted analogy to Servergate.  All of the points the movie has been trying to make against both liberal elites and red-staters have been so ham-fisted, the movie reflexively has a pig show up and wander through scenes.  (The movie explains the reason for the pig in the end, but it honestly makes no sense.)  

Back to Hilary Swank.  As Athena, she leads the effort against the rubes because she lost her business over a text message that was made public.  She had the nerve to call folks deplorables, so she was shown the door.  It turns out that the idea of “the hunt” discussed in the text message exchange was just imaginary, but red-staters wouldn’t let it go.  As revenge, Swank starts a real-live hunt of those namesake deplorables who did her wrong.  It’s a cute twist, but not that cute.

The confrontation between Crystal and Athena starts out as a bizarre conversation set to Beethoven, where Athena lectures Crystal about the correct knife to use when slicing a tomato and the best cheese to use in a grilled cheese.  Crystal, a character who knows a monologuing villain when she hears one, asks if they can just get down to it, and the two ladies proceed to beat the snot out of each other for a solid ten minutes.

Previously, Crystal revealed she had served in Afghanistan as a member of special forces (or something like that).  We also learned that Swank’s Athena was trained by a national guardsman for  eight months.  With those differences in mind, I didn’t figure the fight to be a fair one.  To her credit, Swank holds her own against Gilpin.  (Not very credible, I know, since Gilpin has at least fifty pounds on Swank, who is a twig.)  That doesn’t mean the beat down each gives the other isn’t riveting, because it is.  (Guilty pleasures are still pleasures.)

While watching Swank and Gilpin duke it, I thought, why couldn’t this sequence be in a better and completely different movie, maybe where they play two super-assassins who are sworn enemies?  There are several bits of dialog interspersed throughout the punches, kicks and knivings that made me laugh.  The preceding eighty minutes were nowhere near as entertaining as the last ten, but at least there was entertainment before all was said and done.  I also must admit, the movie does have a very satisfying ending.  I have a feeling the movie was pitched on vague notions of the hunt, but the finale is what caused money to exchange hands.  Then the writers padded out eighty minutes of clumsy action leading up to that final confrontation.  Damon Lindelof is credited as a writer of this movie, somehow.  I wonder if he is responsible for the good parts or the bad parts of this movie.  I’m sure if I search the internet has already discussed this movie at length, and the guilty party has been exposed.

Ultimately, you will be rewarded if you can make it through to the end of this movie.  I was pleasantly surprised how the movie changed itself from being a sow’s ear into a silk purse.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)  For her work on Glow and in this movie, count me on #TeamGilpin from here on out!

I’ll Be Gone in The Dark

Not all murders are created equal, or equally entertaining.

This series primarily serves as an examination of the life of Michelle McNamara, a true crime blogger who spent years investigating and chronicling the crimes of a man known under many names, including the East Area Rapist, the Oakland Night Stalker and the Visalia Ransacker.  Between 1973 and 1986, the man she would eventually name The Golden State Killer would commit at least thirteen murders, fifty rapes, and 120 burglaries across California (thank you, Wikipedia).

Born in Illinois, McNamara became fascinated with an unsolved murder in her neighborhood. As an adult, her fascination with true crime grew into a full-time obsession.  She created a popular true crime blog named True Crime Diary and appeared on the My Favorite Murder podcast.  The Golden State Killer (GSK) proved to be her greatest obsession, the source of her biggest professional achievements and ultimately led to her unexpected death at 46.

Like the book she was writing before her death, the series splits time detailing the crimes of the Golden State Killer and examining Michelle McNamara’s personal life.  The concept that sold publishers on her book was that of a dueling narrative, one that would contrast McNamara’s life as an amateur detective who happens to be the wife of Patton Oswalt and mother of a young daughter, with that of a serial rapist and murderer, was the hook that her book publishers thought would make her book stand out in the crowded field of true crime non-fiction.  

There were several red flags about the project that McNamara was undertaking that (as always) seem obvious in hindsight.  McNamara had only two previously published investigative articles in Los Angeles magazine.  She had never undertaken a project the size of a novel before, with its requisite deadlines, high expectations and substantial monetary enticements.  What began for her as a personal hobby, writing articles on her blog at night while her young daughter slept, suddenly became a professional obligation, requiring daily dedication and commitment.

While she was researching and writing her book, the case of the Golden State Killer was unsolved.  As the series points out, McNamara was writing a novel about a case (or cases) where evidence was still coming together decades after the crimes abruptly stopped (in 1986).  McNamara, in effect, was personally invested in a case that would not yield a satisfying ending for her novel.  She placed herself under a lot of pressure writing a narrative built on the historical evidence of the cases, while also attempting to resolve the case.  McNamara’s publisher should have assigned a ghost writer or an assistant to the project, to help ease the pressure on her.  This is just one area where the blame for McNamara’s demise could easily be placed, but not the only one.

The series makes liberal use of video and audio interviews McNamara gave in the years before her death.  In them, she describes several elements of her life that armchair psychologists could say lead to her obsession with the Golden State Killer.  McNamara had a strained relationship with her mother.  Her mother needled McNamara as a child and a young adult.  McNamara thought this was because she was essentially a change-of-life baby, the youngest of six children.  Did her mom take her frustration at having to raise yet another child out on Michelle?  Michelle McNamara describes at length at how her mom’s constant cutting remarks negatively affected her self esteem.  At one point, McNamara’s mom rhetorically questions a friend at Michelle’s wedding, isn’t she a bit old to start writing a book?  In hindsight, her mom may have been right.

McNamara spent the last two-and-a-half years of her life writing her novel.  When she passed away, her daughter was seven.  While the series mentions that Michelle and Patton had a nanny to care for their daughter while they spent time on their careers, I suspect that Michelle harbored some guilt at not spending much time with her daughter.  Years ago, one of my English professors mentioned during class that most successful writers do their best work when they are young, before they get married and have a family.  Being a writer, an activity that requires solitude and quiet, while having a family and children around you, can be extremely difficult.  For myself, maintaining a hobby of writing reviews like these, while taking care of a son with special needs, is definitely a challenge.  So I can relate to the pressure McNamara put on herself to be productive whenever she had the time, whether it was at night while her child slept, or when she deliberately secluded herself in her home office.

Another aspect of McNamara’s life that may have fueled her obsession with the Golden State Killer involved the time she spent in Ireland working as an intern.  While there, she had an affair with her supervisor.  In notes found on her computer after her death, she writes how the affair was the result of a night spent drinking with her supervisor.  After the encounter, she returns home and tells no one about what happened.  Years later, she agonized on whether the encounter was consensual, or was she raped.  She herself conjectures that this event could have led to her obsession with uncovering the East Area Rapist; bringing him to justice could somehow bring closure to a troubling event in her past that she could never come to terms with.

In terms of the structure of the series itself, I was impressed with the volume of personal information revealed.  McNamara had been deceased for four years before this series aired, but she is effectively brought to life through her digital footprint.  We hear her on podcasts, read her emails and text messages, and see her speak at home during an interview, while her daughter looks to grab the spotlight.  Ultimately, I did not like the actor Amy Ryan’s voice narration for McNamara’s work.  It came off as false to me, too mannered and not conversational.

Another issue I had with the series is its over-reliance on visual metaphors.  To signify the Golden State Killer stalking and claiming another female victim, the series shows scenes from The Creature from The Black Lagoon.  To represent the turbulent relationship between McNamara and her mother, we see the crashing waves from the family’s summer house on Lake Michigan.  To represent McNamara’s underlying depression and anxiety, we see computer-generated shadows enveloping suburban houses where the Golden State Killer claimed another victim.  For each of these, one time was effective.  Twice, I get the point.  By the sixth time I saw the Creature from the Black Lagoon, I had enough.  As Ginsburgh said, the directors needed to “kill their darlings”.

As for the Golden State Killer himself, he is definitely terrifying.  McNamara laments how a serial rapist and killer like GSK, who had more victims over a longer period of time than Zodiac or the Son of Sam, gets no attention.  While that statement seems glib on the surface, it is accurate.  The segments where several of the victims relate what happened to them are riveting.  At one point GSK hears via the media how he never attacks women who are living with a boyfriend or husband.  When subsequent victims described how GSK attacked them while a man was in the house, I admit, it scared me.  There were several nights where I found myself lying awake in the dark wondering what the source of the creaking noise in the house was, and how soon I should get motion sensing lights installed in the backyard.

When confronted with the volume of crimes committed by GSK, the obvious question is, how was he able to get away with it for so long?  He was a member of the Navy and a former police officer, both of which helped him to stalk his victims undetected and likely use nearby rivers to leave the crime scenes undetected.  One unwitting accomplice was the booming real estate market in California in the late seventies and early eighties.  Concerned that media publicity over GSK would deter young couples from moving into new subdivisions, the media heeded the advice of local government leaders and real estate agents to downplay the crimes.  If you ever wondered which is more important to your local government, your lives or the taxes you pay, well, here is an answer that will disgust you.

The series does a narrative sleight-of-hand.  The series doesn’t fully acknowledge that McNamara is deceased until the fifth episode.  Since I was familiar with McNamara’s story prior to watching the series, I knew that she had died several years before her book was published.  But I think the producers are guilty of some deliberate deception in not dealing with that fact openly at the outset.

The series does delve into McNamara’s drug abuse, which likely did contribute to her death.  She also had heart disease, but the autopsy states that she died of an accidental overdose. She had a mix of Adderall, Xanax and Fentanyl in her system.  Review of the 200+ boxes of evidence was causing her sleepless nights, so she took Xanax to fall asleep.  To fully wake up in the morning, she took Adderall.  I can’t remember why she was taking painkillers.  On the one hand, it is easy to lay the blame of her overdose on Patton Oswalt.  He was aware of her prescriptions, the dual stresses of writing a book while concurrently trying to solve the case her book is based on.  Certainly he should have noticed she was becoming an addict, that he should have intervened somehow.  To that I would state that in 2016 alone, there were 42,000 deaths linked to opioids, 40% involving a synthetic opioid.  Heath Ledger and Prince died due to opioid overdoses.  Certainly that didn’t intend to kill themselves.  Many are still grieving family  members who died due to drug addictions nobody knew they had.  In the end, GSK had unknowingly claimed another victim.

Several of GSK’s surviving victims appear on camera, describing their attacks in detail.  Curiously, when they all get together to toast GSK’s apprehension, they refer to each other by the chronological number of their attack, as in “I’m 10”, or “I’m 22”.  The stories they recount throughout the series are devastating.  One couple who weren’t married when they were attacked stayed together, got married and had four children.  The attack always affected them; they just didn’t let it define the rest of their lives.  They were the only couple that stayed together.  That is one element about true crime that is typically overlooked or downplayed, but not in this series: the long-term devastating effects felt by the victims and their families.

While the series does spend time explaining how genealogy site GEDMatch was used to track down the Golden State Killer, it does not dive into the backlash this use of data caused the DNA research industry.  Over public outcry, GEDMatch modified their public use policy so that people whose DNA is in their repository must explicitly opt-in to make their DNA available to law enforcement.  This has severely reduced GEDMatch’s effectiveness by law enforcement.  McNamara was a proponent of using DNA data to locate GSK, and predicted that it may ultimately reveal GSK’s identity.  It is a cruel irony that in using DNA data to locate, apprehend and ultimately send GSK to jail, GSK may end up being the last high-profile case solved by DNA and genetic matching technology.