Category Archives: True Crime

Get the papers, get the papers: The Irishman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 30, 2019)

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If I didn’t know better, I’d wager Martin Scorsese’s new crime drama, The Irishman was partially intended to be a black comedy. That’s because I thought a lot of it was so …funny.

Funny how?

It’s funny, y’know, the …the story. It’s funny. OK, the story isn’t “ha-ha” funny; there’s all these mob guys, and there’s a lot of stealing and extorting and shooting and garroting. It’s just, y’know, it’s … the way Scorsese tells the story and everything. Like my cousin.

True story. I have this cousin. Technically 2nd cousin, I think (my dear late mother’s 1st cousin…however the math works). Due to our age spread he’s always seemed more like an uncle to me. He’s a character. A funny guy …always with the jokes. A modne mensch.

At any rate, he’s Brooklyn born-and-raised (as was my mother). Earlier this week he and I had a little exchange going on Facebook regarding The Irishman. I had posted about how excited I was that the film had finally dropped on Netflix following its limited 2-month theatrical run.

I know what you’re thinking: “Bad movie critic! Shame!” But why schlep to the theater, with the parking and the ticket prices and the overpriced stale popcorn…and besides I’m already paying extra for Netflix on top of my $200 Comcast bill so dammit I will have my own private screening, on my couch thank you very much.

Anyway, my cousin commented that The Irishman was great, and that “the 3½ hours went by very quickly”. Knowing that portions of the film’s narrative (which is steeped in mob history) take place in NYC, I half-teasingly replied to him:

“I’m guessing that a lot of Scorsese’s period mob films are kind of like a stroll down memory lane for anyone who grew up in NYC back in the day?”

To which he wrote back:

“The Gambinos were one block up on Carroll Street about six blocks from us …and we learned at an early age to stay away from any men wearing suits with a newspaper folded underneath their arm.”

That cracked me up. I thought it was, y’know …funny. But then he followed up with this:

“These men in suits usually had a schlom [sic] rolled up in the newspaper and were on the way to bust up somebody who was a slow payer. If they had to come back the 2nd or 3rd time they usually beat up the man’s wife, now we had two things to worry about.”

The uh, “scholm”? He must have been reading my mind, adding:

“The schlom was a piece of pipe or a heavy piece of cable-when you saw these guys you just walked the other way.”

Oh. That’s not so funny. It’s just, y’know, the way my cuz tells the story and everything.

One thing’s for sure-after 50 years of film-making Martin Scorsese knows how to tell a story and everything. And while it is not the only subject he makes films about, nor is the subject his exclusive domain, few living filmmakers have his particular flair for telling stories about the Mob; specifically for the way he pulls the viewer inside the heads of people who feel perfectly at home living in the shadows of a completely amoral universe.

Despite the consistently visceral, in-your-face nature of his crime dramas, Scorsese once commented “…there is no such thing as pointless violence” on-screen. “Deep down you want to think that people are really good—but the reality outweighs that.” C’est la vie.

I know this sounds weird, but there’s something oddly reassuring about tucking into a Scorsese film that features some of the most seasoned veterans of his “mob movie repertory” like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel; akin to putting on your most well-worn pair of comfy slippers. And with the addition of Al Pacino …fuhgeddaboudit!

Slipping into place from the get-go like the natural bookend to a triptych that began with Scorsese’s 1990 “true-crime”-inspired New York mob drama Goodfellas and continued with Casino, his 1995 film set in the mob underworld of 1970s Vegas, The Irishman ambitiously paints an even broader historical canvas of underworld chronology; from Albert Anastasia to Sam Giancana to “Crazy Joe” Gallo and Joe Columbo. And that’s just a warm-up. Maybe you find out who ordered the Jimmy Hoffa hit. And possibly JFK (such elements of the narrative reminded me of James Ellroy’s novel American Tabloid).

At the center of this swirling, blood-spattered history is “the Irishman”-Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Mafia hitman who, if his real-life counterpart’s “confessions” are to be believed (as documented in Charles Brandt’s non-fiction source book I Heard You Paint Houses, adapted here by Steve Zaillian) is like the Forrest Gump of the mob underworld.

“Painting houses” is mob slang for carrying out hit jobs. As the retired geriatric iteration of Sheeran pointedly assures us (breaking the fourth wall Goodfellas style throughout the film), he was a very good “painter” back in the day. He knew some guys. We meet them via flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Sheeran’s key cohort is Russell Bufalino (brilliantly played by Joe Pesci, who reportedly had to be brow-beaten out of semi-retirement by Scorsese and co-producer De Niro to get the gang back together for just one final heist). In younger days, when he is working as a truck driver for a meat packing firm, Sheeran has a (friendly) chance encounter with Bufalino, the head of a Pennsylvania mob family.

The pair’s professional association does not begin at that time, but Sheeran is later “officially” introduced to Russell by his cousin Bill (Ray Romano), a union lawyer who gets Sheeran off the hook for skimming meat shipments and selling them to a Philly mob.

This is Sheeran’s entree into the mob underworld, and the ensuing tale, which spans the 1950s through the 1970s, is nothing short of a grand Mafia epic (whether it’s 100% factual or not). The story begins in Philadelphia but shifts locales to cover events that went down in New York City, Detroit and Miami (Scorsese’s use of Jackie Gleason’s “Melancholy Serenade” for his establishing shot of Miami is so money I nearly plotzed).

A significant portion of the film involves Sheeran’s association with Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). It’s a treat to savor De Niro and Pacino sharing so much screen time; a long-overdue pairing of acting titans that was comparatively teased at in Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat.

I’m on the fence regarding Pacino’s take on Hoffa. It’s quite…demonstrative. Then again, Jimmy Hoffa was a larger-than-life character. Also, De Niro’s performance is relatively low-key, so perhaps it’s just their contrasting styles.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent…and populous. Stephen Graham (as “Tony Pro” Provenzano) is a standout (the always intense UK actor had a memorable recurring role as Al Capone in the Scorsese-produced HBO series Boardwalk Empire).

The cast also includes Bobby Cannavale (another Boardwalk Empire alum) and Anna Paquin (as Sheeran’s eldest daughter). I didn’t recognize comedian Jim Norton (as Don Rickles) or musician (and Sopranos veteran) Steven Van Zandt as singer Jerry Vale until the credits!

Ultimately, the film belongs to (and hinges on) De Niro and his performance; and he does not disappoint. He and Scorsese have collaborated so closely for so many decades that it is hard to distinguish when one or the other’s aesthetic begins and the other one’s ends. Not that this collaboration signals the “the end” of either artist’s creative journey; if anything, it serves to remind movie audiences what real classical filmmaking is all about.

Trial and error: When They See Us (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 8, 2019)

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We all want justice, but you got to have the money to buy it
You’d have to be a fool to close your eyes and deny it
There’s a lot of poor people who are walking the streets of my town
Too blind to see that justice is used to do them right down

All life from beginning to end
You pay your monthly installments
Next to health is wealth
And only wealth will buy you justice

— Alan Price, “Justice” (from the soundtrack for the film O Lucky Man!)

ANTRON McCRAY: [played by Caleel Harris] I lied on you, too.

RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: [played by Marquis Rodriguez] Yeah. Me, too. I’m sorry, man.

YUSEF SALAAM: [played by Ethan Herisse] They made us lie. Right?

KEVIN RICHARDSON: [played by Asante Blackk] Why are they doing us like this?

RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: What other way they ever do us?

— From a scene in the Netflix miniseries When They See Us

The wheels of justice sometimes move in mysterious ways. Via NBC earlier this week:

Former Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein resigned from Vassar College’s board of trustees Tuesday amid a new wave of backlash over her role in the infamous Central Park Five case.

Fairstein’s role in the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of five teenagers of color in 1990, after a white woman was attacked in Central Park, has come under new scrutiny after director Ava DuVernay released a Netflix miniseries about the case, “When They See Us.”

The so-called Central Park Five — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam — were vindicated 13 years after the crime when a serial rapist confessed to the attack.

[Fairstein]…ran the district attorney’s sex crimes unit at the time of the case. The Netflix series prompted the #CancelLindaFairstein hashtag on social media and calls for her prior cases to be re-examined. […]

“The events of the last few days have underscored how the history of racial and ethnic tensions in this country continue to deeply influence us today, and in ways that change over time,” Bradley said.

Unfortunately for those five young men (ages from 14 to 16 when they were arrested and charged), the extant “social media” platforms throughout the course of their controversial high-profile trials back in 1990 were still relatively old school: phone calls, telegrams, post cards, letters to the editor, graffiti, flyers, rallies, demonstrations, etc.

Those with the biggest bullhorns tended to have the biggest wallets (and the most dubious agendas). For example, if you had $85,000 handy you could place full-page ads in four NYC dailies:

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From the Guardian:

On the evening of 19 April [1989], as 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili, who was white, jogged across the northern, dilapidated section of Central Park, she was attacked – bludgeoned with a rock, gagged, tied and raped. She was left for dead but discovered hours later, unconscious and suffering from hypothermia and severe brain damage.

The New York police department believed they already had the culprits in custody. […]

[The five young men] would all later deny any involvement in criminality that night, but as they were rounded up and interrogated by the police at length, they said, they were forced into confessing to the rape. […]

Four of the boys signed confessions and appeared on video without a lawyer, each arguing that while they had not been the individual to commit the rape, they had witnessed one of the others do it, thereby implicating the entire group. […]

Just two weeks after the Central Park attack, before any of the boys had faced trial and while Meili remained critically ill in a coma, Donald Trump, whose office on Fifth Avenue commanded an exquisite view of the park’s opulent southern frontier, intervened.

He paid a reported $85,000 to take out advertising space in four of the city’s newspapers, including the New York Times. Under the headline “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” and above his signature, Trump wrote: “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”

But I don’t want to make this about Donald Trump…even if he is an unavoidable part of the story. Fortunately, neither does director/co-writer Ava Duvernay. That said, Duvernay does not avoid him altogether in her 5-hour Netflix miniseries When They See Us, a dramatization of the events. Trump has several “cameos”, in the form of archival TV interview footage (no actor in a bad toupee is required; she wisely lets him hang himself).

In fact Duvernay and co-writers Julian Breece, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke, and Michael Starrbury forgo focusing on the racist demagoguery and media sensationalism that fueled the rush to judgement in the court of public opinion prior to the trials; opting to explore the deeply personal tribulations of the five accused young men and their families.

The result is a shattering, sobering look at the case and its aftermath; from the inside out, as it were. The story opens the night of the incident; you see how fate and circumstance swept Yusef (Ethan Hiresse and Chris Chalk), Kevin (Assante Blackk and Justin Cunningham), Anton (Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo), Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares) and Korey (Jharrel Jerome) into the wrong place at the wrong time.

The quintet’s Kafkaesque nightmare begins once the scene shifts to the police station. They’ve been singled out from 30-odd young males alleged to have been roaming Central Park en masse, harassing bikers, runners, and passers-by at random (only two of the five knew each other prior to that night).

They’re taken into separate interrogation rooms for questioning. Pressured by sex crimes unit D.A. Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) to squeeze out confessions ASAP (“Every black male who was in the park last night is a suspect” she declares), the detectives proceed to pull out every old dirty trick in the book.

It’s painful to watch the lopsided match of seasoned interrogators exploiting the boys’ fear and confusion in such a cold and calculated manner. Duvernay reveals every iota of the deepening panic and despair on the young actors’ faces by holding them in long, tight closeups. Inevitably, they all break under the pressure of verbal intimidation and strong-arm tactics.

As we follow the boys’ hellish trajectory through the system-interrogation, detention, trials, sentencing and incarceration, you not only get a palpable sense of what each of them was going through, but how their families suffered as well. You also get a sense of a criminal justice system that does not always follow its provisos-like that part regarding “equal justice under the law” (especially when it comes to people of color…needs work).

While the story of the Central Park 5 does have a “happy ending” (bittersweet), Duvernay does not pull any punches regarding that what befell these kids should never, ever have happened in the first place (especially in an allegedly “free society”).

It was a perfect storm of overzealous law enforcement, socioeconomic inequity, systemic racism, and media-fueled public hysteria that put those innocent young men behind bars. I should warn you-watching this miniseries will break your heart and make you mad. As it should.

Screen capture: Stockholm (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 27, 2019)

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I’m sure you have heard the term “Stockholm syndrome”? In the event you’re a hypochondriac who may lay awake tonight worrying you’ve “caught” it, let me put your mind at ease…unless you are currently a hostage, exhibiting all the following indications:

1. A development of positive feelings towards your captor.

2. There has been no previous relationship between you and your captor.

3. You’re refusing to cooperate with police forces and other government authorities.

4. You no longer feel threatened, as you’ve adapted your captor’s world view.

Granted, if you ticked all those boxes it could also indicate you’re a Trump supporter; but that discussion is for another time. This is (purportedly) a “movie review”, which I assume is what you came here for (and you’re free to leave…I’m not forcing you to stay).

Like the phrase “drinking the Kool-aid” (now routinely applied to any behavior felt to be analogous to the mass suicide of Jim Jones’ followers at the People’s Temple compound in Jonestown) “Stockholm syndrome” has an etymology that was torn from the headlines.

In 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson, a Swedish convict on leave from prison (Sweden’s penal system is a bit different from ours) held up a bank in Stockholm. What began as a run-of-the-mill “take the money and run” operation escalated once Olsson impulsively took hostages following a shoot-out with cops, who arrived before he could make his getaway.

Olsson’s behavior was eccentric; after wounding one of the two officers who made their way into the bank, he ordered the other to sit in a chair and “sing something” (the officer promptly launched into “Lonesome Cowboy”). Olsson himself was reportedly a tuneful fellow; frequently warbling Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” throughout the incident.

His first demand was that his friend Clark Olofsson be released from prison and brought in to join him at the bank. The authorities agreed; hoping to utilize Olofsson as a liaison for negotiation with police. That plan went nowhere fast; resulting in the two cohorts retreating into the bank’s vault with the four hostages and barricading themselves there.

Any leverage that the authorities may have had at the outset was compromised when the incident became a media circus; it was covered on live television, marking the first time that Swedish viewers had been offered a ringside seat to an unfolding crime-in-progress.

In the course of the 6-day incident, something unique occurred regarding the relationship between the hostages and their captors. After a phone call Olsson made to Prime Minister Olaf Palme threatening to kill a hostage if his demands to be given safe passage from the bank were not met by a deadline failed to yield results, hostage Kristin Enmark placed her own follow-up call to express her disapproval; she chastised Palme for his “attitude”. This bonding between captors and captives led to the coining of “Stockholm syndrome.”

You couldn’t make this shit up, right? Sounds like perfect fodder for a slam-bang seriocomic heist-gone-awry true-crime thriller a la Dog Day Afternoon. Unfortunately, writer-director Robert Budreau’s Stockholm is not that film. Which is a real shame when you’ve got excellent actors like Ethan Hawke, Noomi Rapace and Mark Strong on board.

As in the aforementioned Dog Day Afternoon, principal character’s names have been changed to protect the guilty; Jan-Erik Olsson is “Lars Nystrom” (Hawke), Clark Olofsson is “Gunnar Sorensson” (Strong) and Kristin Enmark is “Bianca Lind” (Rapace).

Hawke’s costuming makes him a ringer for Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider (now that I think about it, I could swear he was consciously channeling Hopper’s idiosyncratic tics and mannerisms). His performance dances on the edge of hammy, as if he wasn’t quite sure whether to play it for comedic or dramatic effect; although that may attributable to the bathos in Budreau’s script (which I feel fails to reveal the humanity of the characters).

The most glaring hole in the script is the writer’s apparent lack of interest in the biggest question: “why” did the hostages side with their captors? What turned them? There is nothing in the actions of the characters themselves that suggests exactly when this pivotal moment has occurred; we only know that this has “happened” when the head police negotiator wonders aloud why the hostages have allied themselves with their captors.

Good question, as we in the audience would kind of like to know why this happened too.

Broken wing: Birds of Passage (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 9, 2019)

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There have been myriad articles, books, series, documentaries and films recounting the tumultuous history of the Colombian drug trade, but nothing I have previously read or seen on the subject prepared me for Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage.

Spanning 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the film (based on true events) is equal parts crime family saga and National Geographic special; The Godfather meets The Emerald Forest. On paper, this may seem like a familiar “rise and fall of a drug lord” story- but the filmmakers tell it through the unique cultural lens of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu tribe.

The Wayuu people have dwelt in the desolate La Guajira Desert (which overlaps Colombia and Venezuela) for nearly 2,000 years. They have managed to keep many of their cultural traditions remarkably intact…considering. In other words, I’m not saying that they haven’t gotten their hair mussed once or twice throughout the millennia; from 18th-Century invasions and persecution by the Spanish, to a veritable laundry list of discriminatory and exclusionary edicts by the Colombian and Venezuelan governments.

Considering all the limitations historically placed on them (which includes having little control over and restricted access to raw materials on their own land) it is not surprising that the Wayuu have relied heavily on farming and trading as the chief means of survival.

Birds of Passage begins in 1960, right around the time the Wayuu discovered there was some easily cultivated local flora becoming quite popular with the alijunas (their word for “foreigners”) and ripe for commodification. From a 2018 Global Americas article:

It was the 1960’s in La Guajira, the northernmost tip of Colombia and Venezuela, and the indigenous Wayuu were used to trading as a way of life.  It has long been part of their survival in this harsh desert environment.

They were first courted by the new Peace Corps volunteers that President Kennedy had set up to fight communism in the region.  As they spread pamphlets and advised the indigenous people to “say no to communism,” they also asked to buy marijuana. Soon, the young Americans introduced the Wayuu to their North American connections, who opened up small drug runs in propeller planes between Colombia and the United States.  At the time, marijuana was a controlled but legal substance in the United States. However, the Wayuu quickly discovered that it was much more profitable than coffee, whiskey and the other commodities they usually traded to eke out a living in this remote area.

The film’s opening passage is an intoxicating immersion in Wayuu culture; a beautiful young woman named Zaida (Natalia Reyes) has “come of age” and is commanded by her rather stern mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez) to don a resplendent red outfit and perform what appears to be a “mating dance” at a village gathering (the first of the film’s numerous avian metaphors). Several eligible suitors cut in to display their wares; ultimately one is left standing. His name is Rapayet (Jose Acosta) and vows to marry her.

However, there is the matter of a dowry (cows, goats, a few other sundries) that Rapayet is required to deliver within a specified time. Like most Wayuu, he’s a little short that week and needs to scare up some coin pronto if he wants to win his bride.

He turns to his best friend Moises (Jhon Narvaez) a non-tribal Colombian and free-spirited hustler who tells Rapayet he knows some American Peace Corps volunteers who happen to be in the market for some fine Colombian. This relatively benign, small-time dope deal plants the seeds (so to speak) for what eventually evolves into a Wayuu drug empire, with Rapayet at the helm.

As inevitably ensues in such tales, it is greed, corruption and avarice that sends the protagonist hurtling toward self-destruction, but Maria Camila Arias’ screenplay sidesteps usual clichés by introducing the complexities of cultural identity into the mix. What results is a parable that’s at once overly familiar, yet somehow…wholly unfamiliar.

Born with the safety off: The Ted Bundy Tapes (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 26, 2019)

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“Take care of yourself, young man. I say that to you sincerely; take care of yourself, please. It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity as I’ve experienced in this courtroom. You’re a bright young man. You would have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I just want you to know that. Once again, take care of yourself.”

— Judge Edward Cowart to Ted Bundy after sentencing him to the electric chair for the Chi Omega murders.

“For everything he did to the girls–the bludgeoning, the strangulation, humiliating their bodies, torturing them–I feel that the electric chair is too good for him.”

— Eleanor Rose, mother of victim Denise Naslund.

I have avoided pasting a photo of serial killer Theodore “Ted” Bundy at the top of my review of the Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes for a couple of reasons. Foremost, in such sensationalized killing sprees there’s a tendency to bury the victims in a figurative sense; i.e. regardless how many they number (Bundy confessed to snuffing out the lives of 36 young women), they are lumped together and enshrined as “the victims”, which is dehumanizing (no one aspires to be a “victim”). The women he murdered had names. They had people who cared about them. They had lives.

Secondly, the late Mr. Bundy requires no help from me to assure that his cult of celebrity remain steadfast. I admit being a “true crime” buff, but I wouldn’t call myself a “fan” of his. Or Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgway, David Berkowitz, or Richard Ramirez for that matter. The fact remains that many such monsters do have a fan base—for reasons yet to be adequately explained to me via logic or science.

This likely explains the interest surrounding Joe Berlinger’s 4-hour documentary (which premiered on Netflix this past Thursday) as well as festival buzz regarding Berlinger’s upcoming companion piece, the narrative film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (starring Zac Efron as Bundy). 2019 also marks the 30th anniversary of his execution.

The fitful sleep I suffered after binge-watching all 4 episodes the other night confirmed my suspicions going in that Mr. Bundy’s grave will never be cold enough for those of us “of a certain age” who couldn’t escape ubiquitous media coverage of his 1978 Miami murder trial (which holds distinction as the first nationally televised court proceedings).

His 1978 arrest (initially on a completely unrelated charge) signaled the end to a horrific orgy of violence that began in Seattle in 1974 (possibly earlier) and ended with the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach in Lake City, Florida.

Bundy had already been on the radar of investigators in Washington State, Utah, and Colorado for a few years but was so wily and slippery that no single law enforcement agency had enough evidence to directly connect him with any specific missing person or murder case (it wasn’t as common then for police departments in different states to share information).

Berlinger had a trove of archival interview footage at his disposal; Bundy (a classic narcissist) not only loved to parade in front of cameras at every opportunity afforded him but also left behind 100 hours of audio interviews, granted exclusively by the condemned killer to journalists Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth as he sat on Death Row.

In Bundy’s twisted, egocentric view, the interviews were for his “biography”, but what co-authors Michaud and Aynesworth were after was a peek inside the psyche of a serial killer. Keep in mind that Bundy had only been legally proven responsible for the deaths of two Florida coeds and Kimberly Leach; at the time he’d yet to confess to any criminal acts, period (and he still held firm to his “not guilty” plea regarding the Florida murders).

It didn’t take long for it to dawn on the journalists that they were being played by Bundy, who was doing a lot of talking about sunny childhood memories and such but really saying nothing regarding culpability in any of the crimes he had been convicted and/or suspected of committing. Confronting him directly that this obfuscation nullified their original deal only made Bundy dig his heels in deeper, threatening to clam up altogether.

The impasse was broken by a brainstorm. What if they stroked Bundy’s ego, asking him to lend his third person “insight” on helping them build a psychological profile of this “person” who did commit all these heinous crimes (they knew Bundy had taken psychology courses in college and fancied himself quite the expert). It worked like a charm-Bundy was more than happy to put his two cents in (and a couple of extra nickels).

Berlinger’s strategic interjections of Bundy’s “observations” adds an extra degree of creepiness to the proceedings. While this is a clever device, it does beg a question: was it necessary to double down on the already creepy nature of Bundy’s deeds (which are of a particularly repellent and diabolical nature, even when judged by serial killer standards)?

The overall vibe is more horror show than historical documentation. Otherwise, it’s engrossing enough to hold the interest of true crime aficionados, although it doesn’t offer any new insights or revelations that haven’t already been parsed through the decades. As for the Big Questions like “Why?” or “Nature or Nurture”? don’t hold your breath. Perhaps it’s as one interviewee says; some humans are simply “born with the safety off.”  

The sundown kid: The Old Man and the Gun (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 20, 2018)

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I have no idea what kind of box office The Old Man and the Gun will do its opening weekend, but if my unscientific head count of approximately 10 fellow patrons at the Friday matinee I attended is any indicator, I’d say Venom is in scant danger of usurpation.

Not that you asked, but there were more indicators of lowered expectations. For one, I noted I was the youngest person in the auditorium (I’m 62). Granted, the star of the film just blew out 82 candles this summer. And of course, a film with “old man” in the title is obviously not targeting a young demographic. It’s no secret Hollywood is all about the youth audience. This may be why the film’s leading man Robert Redford has intuited it’s better to burn out than to fade away; insisting that this role is his “farewell” performance.

This informs the elegiac tone throughout writer-director David Lowery’s leisurely-paced character study, based on the true story of career criminal Forrest Tucker (Redford). Tucker was a slippery devil; during his “career” he escaped from prison “18 times successfully, 12 times unsuccessfully” (his words). Like Redford himself, Tucker pursued his chosen profession well into his golden years, earning a reputation as a “gentleman bandit” (he committed armed robberies, but was courteous to all his victims).

Truth be told, Tucker’s relatively benign bio (well, for a felon) doesn’t have the inherent makings of a riveting crime thriller; but luckily Lowery is smart enough to know that. This is mostly about Bob Redford playing…well, Bob Redford. For one last time. So Lowery doesn’t go for film school flash; utilizing mostly close-ups and two shots, he lets his camera linger on his star, while he exudes that effortless Redford charm and charisma. Both the subject matter and Redford’s naturalistic, low-key portrayal recalls Phillip Borsos’ wonderful 1982 sleeper The Grey Fox, which starred Richard Farnsworth as turn-of-the-century “gentleman bandit” Bill Miner (which is also based on a true story).

Redford is supported by some ace players. Danny Glover and Tom Waits play Tucker’s partners-in-crime (who were dubbed “The Over-the-Hill Gang” by law enforcement). Waits’ character has a great monolog explaining why he hates Christmas that makes you wish he’d been given some more screen time. Sissy Spacek is a welcome presence as a widow Tucker romances (I swear she gets more radiant as she ages). Casey Affleck is effective as a rumpled police detective who plays cat and mouse with Tucker for a spell.

While this is may not be the most memorable film Redford has done over a long, illustrious career, there are worse ways to go. And Bob? We’ll keep the light on for you.

Who is America? – BlacKkKlansman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 18, 2018)

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“I-I am going to be a storm-a flame-
I need to fight whole armies alone;
I have ten hearts; I have a hundred arms;
I feel too strong to war with mortals-
BRING ME GIANTS!”

-Edmond Rostand, from Cyrano de Bergerac

[To two members of the KKK, while pretending to capture Bart]

Jim: Oh, boys! Lookee what I got heyuh.

Bart: Hey, where are the white women at?

-from Blazing Saddles; screenplay by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, and Alan Uger

To bring in something, such as a fish, by winding up the line on a reel.

-from The Free Dictionary definition of the phrase “reel something in”

So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s new joint, Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. It does contain laughs, but there is nothing funny about some of the reaction it has sparked after only a week. From an Indie Wire article:

[Actor] Topher Grace contacted police after receiving a threatening phone call reacting to his role as former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke in Spike Lee’s “Black KkKlansman”. According to reports (via TMZ) Grace told police that someone called him over the phone and referred to him using a gay slur. The mystery caller also warned Grace that his role as Duke would “ruin race relations in America.” […] Grace reportedly described the caller as “aggressive” and “angry.”

Speaking of “race relations in America”, here’s something even less amusing. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 917 hate groups currently operating in the U.S. And (to paraphrase Gimli the dwarf) it gets even better! If you go to the SPLC website and click the “100 Days in Trump’s America” report, there’s lots of fun facts:

As he spoke to the nation on Jan.20 [2016], President Donald Trump reminded white nationalists why they had invested so much hope in him as their champion and redeemer. He painted a bleak picture of America: a nation of crumbling, third-world infrastructure, “rusted-out factories,” leaky borders, inner cities wallowing in poverty, a depleted military and a feckless political class that prospered as the country fell into ruin. He promised an “America First” policy that would turn it all around. […]

Despite his failure to achieve any major legislative victories, Trump has not disappointed his alt-right followers. His actions suggest that – unlike the economic populism of his campaign – Trump’s appeals to the radical right did indeed presage his White House agenda. On Jan. 31 [2016], former Klan leader David Duke tweeted: “everything I’ve been talking about for decades is coming true and the ideas I’ve fought for have won.”

Well fuck me. There’s that fine fellow David Duke popping up again! When Mr. Wizard Tweeted he’d been “talking about” certain ideas “for decades” …he wasn’t exaggerating. The “David Duke” depicted in Lee’s film is the David Duke of the 1970s, right around the time he became the public face of the “National Association for the Advancement of White People”. This was also when he dropped the hood and robes for a suit-and-tie look.

True story. This window-dressing may have fooled some people, but it didn’t wash with Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate…and become a card-carrying member (!) of the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s. To address the obvious question, he didn’t crash a Klan rally and ask where all the white women were at, because 1) that would’ve gone over like a lead balloon with the goys in the hoods, and 2) again, Lee’s film is not a comedy (per se).

Stallworth ingratiated himself with the organization Cyrano style. He made them fall in love with him by proxy. The “Ron Stallworth” who wooed his local Klan by whispering sweet racist nothings over the phone was not the same “Ron Stallworth” who attended the meetings. That was Stallworth’s white surrogate, his Jewish undercover partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). In other words, this was old school “catfishing”-if you will.

What ensues is the kind of story that frankly strains credulity…if it weren’t for the fact that this really happened (allowing for some creative license, naturally). Even Lee was skeptical at first, admitting in an interview that he did with Seth Meyers earlier this week:

“…when [co-producer] Jordan Peele pitched it to me, it was one of those very high-concept pitches. Six words: ‘Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.’ […] I thought of [comedy sketches done by] Dave Chappelle, but [Peele] said ‘no’ and he sent me the book. I was very intrigued by it…it was in my wheelhouse.”

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense. The cast is uniformly excellent. Washington (son of Denzel) and Driver have great chemistry, and Grace captures Duke’s smarminess to a tee. Other standouts include Robert Lee Burke, Laura Harrier, Ryan Eggold and a genuinely scary Jasper Paakkonen.

Lee is aware he’s preaching to the choir and will never reach a certain percentage of the “fine people” in America…sadly, the very ones who would benefit most from his counsel. And if someone were to call Lee’s approach heavy-handed, I wouldn’t disagree.

He opens with the iconic crane shot from Gone with the Wind that pans over hundreds of dead and wounded Confederate soldiers and resolves with the tattered stars and bars. He cross-cuts a solemn Klan initiation rite with a monologue by revered civil rights icon Harry Belafonte, playing a man sharing a horrifying eyewitness account of a particularly gruesome 1916 lynching. In case you’re still unable to connect the dots between the Stallworth story with Black Lives Matter and Charlottesville, he tacks on a timely denouement that jams to a screeching halt just inches away from slamming into “ta-da!”.

Yes, he ladles in on with a trowel. But you know what? The voices of reason in America are drowned out daily by the relentless clatter and din of Trump-fueled polarization and misdirection. He who shouts loudest wins (apparently). The hoods are off? Fine. I say more power to artists like Lee with something substantive to add to the conversation who feel they must (figuratively) bonk you over the head first to get your undivided attention.

Subtlety is prologue. Resist. Or get riled by seeing this film, immediately. Bring a friend.

Peace, love and AK-47s: Wild Wild Country (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 24, 2018)

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“If people stand in a circle long enough, they’ll eventually begin to dance.”

– George Carlin

In my 2012 review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, I wrote:

What [Anderson] has crafted is a thought-provoking and original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes. Is it a spiritual need? Is it an emotional need? Or is it a lizard brain response, deep in our DNA?

As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, The Master is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers).

You could say the same about the mind-blowing, binge-worthy Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, which premiered March 16th. On one level, it is a two-character study about a leader and a follower; namely the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his head disciple/chief of staff/lieutenant (take your choice) Ma Anand Sheela. In this case, the one-on-one relationship is not a metaphor; because the India-born philosophy professor-turned-guru did (and still does) have scores of faithful followers from all over the world.

Actually, the Bhagwan is dead, but his legacy lives on. The exact nature of that legacy, however, is still open to debate…depending on whom you talk to. Obviously, those who continue to buy his books (and related “Osho” merch like T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, etc.), attend seminars, join communes, and/or live by his philosophy and consider themselves “Rashneejees” tend to think and speak of him in nothing less than glowing terms. Others, not so much. Both “sides” are given a fairly even shake in the 6-part series.

In the early 80s, fed up with harassment from authorities in his native India (who were readying to drop the hammer on him on suspicions of smuggling and tax fraud), the Bhagwan closed his ashram and, like the persecuted Pilgrims before him, set sail (more likely, booked a flight) for the land of the free. Opting to resettle a bit farther West than Plymouth Rock, he scooped up 100 square miles of cheap range land adjacent to a sleepy cow town in Wasco County, Oregon. Eventually, a veritable New Age city was created.

Who, you may ask, would have a problem with this soft-spoken, beatific gentleman who encouraged people to let go of hang-ups, realize their full potential, be as spontaneous and joyous and free and giving and loving toward one another as humanly possible (i.e. fuck like bunnies) while insisting he himself not be deified in any way, shape, or form?

What do you mean, “What’s the catch?” Must there always be a catch? Why so cynical?

What tipped you off that something may have been amiss…was it his fleet of Rolls-Royces? Was it his affinity for collecting shiny things, like expensive watches and jewelry? Can he be faulted if (as he claimed) his admirers insisted on festooning him with baubles? Oh, I bet I know what it was…it was the henchmen, armed with AK-47s—right?

Here’s a refresher, from a 2017 revision of a piece published in The Oregonian in 2011:

The Rajneeshees had been making headlines in Oregon for four years. Thousands dressed in red, worked without pay and idolized a wispy-haired man who sat silent before them. They had taken over a worn-out cattle ranch to build a religious utopia. They formed a city, and took over another. They bought one Rolls-Royce after another for the guru — 93 in all.

Along the way, they made plenty of enemies, often deliberately. Rajneeshee leaders were less than gracious in demanding government and community favors. Usually tolerant Oregonians pushed back, sometimes in threatening ways. Both sides stewed, often publicly, before matters escalated far beyond verbal taunts and nasty press releases.[…]

Hand-picked teams of Rajneeshees had executed the largest biological terrorism attack in U.S. history, poisoning at least 700 people. They ran the largest illegal wiretapping operation ever uncovered. And their immigration fraud to harbor foreigners remains unrivaled in scope. The revelations brought criminal charges, defections, global manhunts and prison time. […]

It’s long been known they had marked Oregon’s chief federal prosecutor for murder, but now it’s clear the Rajneeshees also stalked the state attorney general, lining him up for death.

They contaminated salad bars at numerous restaurants, but The Oregonian’s examination reveals for the first time that they just as eagerly spread dangerous bacteria at a grocery store, a public building, and a political rally.

To strike at government authority, Rajneeshee leaders considered flying a bomb-laden plane into the county courthouse in The Dalles — 16 years before al-Qaida used planes as weapons.

And power struggles within Rajneeshee leadership spawned plans to murder even some of their own. The guru’s caretaker was to be killed in her bed, spared only by a simple mistake.

Strangely, most of these stunning crimes were in rebellion against that most mundane of government regulations, land-use law. The Rajneeshees turned the yawner of comprehensive plans into a page-turning thriller of brazen crimes.

Meditate on that (om, om, on the range). And that’s just the Cliff’s Notes version. This tale is so multi-layered crazy pants as to boggle the mind. It’s like Dostoevsky meets Carl Hiaasen by way of Thomas McGuane and Ken Kesey…except none of it is made up.

It’s almost shocking that no one thought to tackle this juicy subject as fodder for an epic documentary until now (eat your genteel heart out, Ken Burns). Co-directors Chapman and Maclain Way mix in present-day recollections from various participants with a wealth of archival news footage. Oddly, with its proliferation of jumpy videotape, big hair and skinny ties, the series serves double duty as a wistful wallow in 1980s nostalgia.

SIFF 2017: The Force ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling (my review). It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides.

SIFF 2016: The Night Stalker ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths’ speculative chiller is based on serial killer Richard Ramirez. A lawyer (Bellamy Young) is hired to exonerate a Texas death row inmate by extracting a confession from California death row inmate Ramirez (Lou Diamond Phillips), whom the interested parties believe to be the real perp. One complication: When she was a teenager, the lawyer was unhealthily obsessed with the “Night Stalker” murders. A psychological cat-and-mouse game ensues (think Starling vs. Lecter in Silence of the Lambs). Philips delivers an intense, truly unnerving performance.