Lizzie: A Lackluster Revisionist Thriller

Just four years after Lizzie Borden Took an Ax and the campy TV mini series it spawned, were audiences really clamoring for another Lizzie Borden film?

An uninspiring cast sleepwalks its way through this speculative take on an all-too-familiar story in Lizzie (2018), written by Bryce Kass and directed by Craig William Macneill. The film pits Lizzie Borden and the family’s live-in maid, Bridget Sullivan, against her tyrannical father and unsympathetic step mother in what co-producer and lead actress Chloë Sevigny described as an overtly feminist take.

The film opens in the aftermath of Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and Abby (Fiona Shaw) Borden’s murder. An investigator asks their 32-year-old daughter, Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny), whether her father had any enemies. From there, the film rewinds to the family’s employment of a 25-year-old Irish maid named Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart). According to the filmmakers, that was the catalyst for the eventual double homicide, and the answer to the investigator’s question. There is never a question about Lizzie Borden’s involvement in her parent’s death. The obvious foil, and rival for Lizzie’s inheritance, her uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare), serves as a flimsy red herring.

Lizzie’s central conflict is between Lizzie, Bridget, and her domineering father, who seeks to control all the women living under his roof. While Lizzie’s sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), fades into the background, Lizzie and Bridget find themselves in a compromising position, one that leads to her parents’ gruesome murder. Sevigny herself characterized this as a literal “smash the patriarchy” moment.

In real life, Andrew and Sarah Borden were found murdered in their Fall River, Massachusetts home on August 4, 1892. Their middle aged daughters, Lizzie and Emma, lived with them, along with their maid, Bridget Sullivan. There had been significant tension in the family leading up to the murders, and Lizzie gave conflicting alibis. Lizzie was arrested and put on trial. After 90 minutes of deliberation, the all-male jury acquitted her. Her trial was a national media sensation, but to this day, there are many competing theories about “whodunnit.”

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God Knows Where I Am

A homeless woman’s last months are recounted in this deeply personal exploration of mental illness.

Directed by brothers Jedd and Todd Wider, God Knows Where I Am (2016) tells the story of Linda Bishop, whose tragic life ended quietly in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. This powerful and captivating documentary uses Linda’s own words, left behind in a notebook, and interviews with friends, family, and social workers to piece together her last weeks on earth. The result is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

The documentary tells the story of Linda Bishop, who in 1999 abandoned her 13-year-old daughter and began wandering, convinced the Chinese mafia, or some other unknown agency, was after her. Her travels even brought her to Ground Zero in New York City after the September 11 terrorist attacks, where she handed out American flags and gave tours. While working at a Chinese restaurant, she briefly met a man named Steve, who she became convinced wanted to marry her. In real life, the man once called a jail to ask them to block her letters.

For years, she checked in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Doctors diagnosed her with schizoaffective disorder and bipolar disorder with psychosis, but she denied there was anything wrong. Finally, in October 2007, Linda was released from New Hampshire Hospital in Concord and squatted in a vacant home, where she survived by eating apples until winter. She then slowly starved to death, writing diligently in a notebook, with neighbors a short distance away.

There were many tragedies about Linda’s life, but when the New Hampshire Hospital simply released her into the streets without contacting her closest relatives, that was the beginning of the end. Linda refused to acknowledge her illness, and no one could force help on her. This failure of the mental health system forms the central debate in this film. Was there anything that could’ve been done differently to save her life?

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An American Crime

A talented cast delivers a boilerplate recitation of horrific events in this movie of the week focusing on the 1965 Sylvia Likens case.

Written and directed by Tommy O’Haver, An American Crime (2007) was based on a case of horrific abuse inflicted on a teenage girl at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski in her Indiana home during the 1960s. Though released on Showtime and given an R rating by the MPAA, and despite a talented cast, An American Crime never rose above the level of a made-for-TV drama.

Sylvia (Ellen Page) and Jenny (Hayley McFarland) Likens are daughters of carney folk who must go on the road. They leave Sylvia and Jenny in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), a single mother with six children of her own. Baniszewski agrees to care for the girls for $20 a week. She becomes abusive when the payment arrives late, but by then the girls have nowhere to turn. Their attempt to contact their parents backfires when Gertrude finds out and punishes them further.

The abuse escalates when Gertrude’s eldest daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor), becomes pregnant and Sylvia tells the man with whom Paula’s been having an affair, to shield her from his abuse. Paula complains that Sylvia is spreading rumors about her, and Gertrude beats and locks Sylvia in the basement as punishment. In the basement, Gertrude invites her own children to participate in Sylvia’s torture. Can Sylvia and Jenny escape before it’s too late?

When faced with a crime of this magnitude, it’s natural to ask why it happened. What kind of person would do such a thing, and why? Why were the children complicit in the abuse, and what does this say about the nature of evil? Like many true crime dramas, An American Crime takes viewers through a succession of events without getting inside the minds of its characters to address these deeper questions.

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The Other Boleyn Girl

An all-star cast weaves a sixteenth-century soap opera in this colorful attempt to breathe new life into a familiar story.

Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Justin Chadwick, The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) was based on a novel of the same name by Philippa Gregory. Billed as a scandalous portrayal of King Henry VIII’s courtship and eventual marriage to Anne Boleyn, this film seems quaint by today’s standards. Its release was timed to capitalize on Showtime’s The Tudors (2007-2010), but lacked that show’s outstanding performances.

The film opens in Tudor England during the reign of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana). Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) and his brother-in-law Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) learn the King is unhappy with his wife, Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), who has not yet produced a male heir. They sense an opportunity to advance their social standing by installing one of Boleyn’s daughters as the King’s mistress. His daughter Mary (Scarlett Johansson) has already wed William Carey (Benedict Cumberbatch), so they turn to Anne (Natalie Portman).

Over the objections of his wife, Elizabeth Boleyn (Kristin Scott Thomas), Thomas invites the King to his estate to introduce him to Anne. Things get complicated when the King is injured in a hunting accident and he falls in love with Mary when she tends to his injury. Mary becomes the King’s mistress, and Anne is exiled to France for trying to marry an earl without the King’s knowledge.

Anne returns from France a transformed woman, and despite Mary giving birth to a baby boy, she sets her sights on winning the King’s affection and becoming Queen. It’s an all-too-familiar story, which ends in an all-too-familiar way. Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose to continue the story past its logical conclusion, when Anne wins the rivalry with Mary for the King’s affection.

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Mary Queen of Scots

Historic authenticity is cast to the wind in this revisionist costume drama that feels like it was written by a freshman Women’s Studies major.

Directed by Josie Rourke with a screenplay by Beau Willimon, Mary Queen of Scots (2018) was based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy. Like many films released this year, it has strong female leads, a diverse cast, and progressive social messaging, but checking all the right boxes on the SJW playlist wasn’t enough to save this film from mediocrity.

The year is 1560, and the young and beautiful Mary Tudor (Saoirse Ronan) returns home, where she is out of place in a dreary Scottish castle. Her half-brother, James, Earl of Moray (James McArdle), has been ruling as regent, alongside a bevy of colorless and perpetually-angry Protestant men. Her appearance in Scotland alarms her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie). Elizabeth, a Protestant, is not seen as a legitimate ruler by her Catholic subjects. She seeks to gain influence over Mary by arranging a marriage with Elizabeth’s own lover, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn).

Instead, Mary marries the charming and charismatic Lord Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden), who pulls a Jeckyll-and-Hyde routine and becomes a drunken lecher on their wedding night. Things get complicated for the childless Queen Elizabeth when Mary becomes pregnant, producing an heir for her dynasty and strengthening her claim to the English throne. Can Mary fend off attacks from her domestic critics and convince Elizabeth to acknowledge her as England’s rightful ruler?

Mary Queen of Scots couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a film about the rivalry between two queens or a revisionist biopic of its titular character, so it does neither particularly well. This ill-conceived and poorly executed film also missed a chance to let its leading ladies shine. As Queen Elizabeth, the talented Margot Robbie goes to waste as a costumed mannequin who practically disappears for the middle third of the film.

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The Favourite: Sensationalism at the Expense of History

The beautiful cinematography and wonderful acting in this over-the-top period piece barely makes up for its historical inaccuracy and a grueling 2-hour run time.

Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite is artistically filmed, the acting is wonderful, and cinematography top notch. If you’re looking for a realistic account of Queen Anne’s 18th Century British court, however, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The Favourite chooses to enshrine gossip and rumor as historic fact, while delivering a film that is as tedious as it is tantalizing.

As the film opens, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is deciding whether to continue a war with France after an English victory, or sue for peace. Her natural inclination, and that of opposition leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), is for peace, but her influential friend and Keeper of the Privy Purse Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), wife of Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), wants to prosecute the war to the bitter end. During negotiations, a dirty but charming Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives seeking employment in Lady Sarah’s household.

Things get complicated when Abigail discovers Queen Anne and Lady Sarah’s dirty little secret, and uses it to her advantage to get closer to the Queen. Abigail and Lady Sarah engage in a private war for the Queen’s affection, while Robert Harley and Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) conspire to use Abigail to get closer to the Queen, wh0 only has time for one friend, I guess. Who will become the Queen’s favourite?

Using extreme wide-angles (shot with Panavision lenses) to achieve a sense of expanse even in a small room, the filmmakers capture a delightfully Baroque portrayal of an outlandish and amoral British aristocracy. The acting is top-notch, with Emma Stone giving one of the best performances of her career. Olivia Colman should receive an Oscar nod for her portrayal of Queen Anne. The film, however, could’ve been improved by cutting at least 20 minutes of silence, screeching violins, and arthouse chapter titles.

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“W.”: History Written by the Losers

Oliver Stone’s two hour lampoon of President George W. Bush failed to leave a lasting legacy.

Written by Stanly Weiser and directed by Oliver Stone, W. (2008) was meant as a final middle-finger to the outgoing Bush Administration; an attempt in film to solidify negative public perceptions surrounding President George W. Bush and the Iraq War. But years later, W. looks more like a relic of its time; a forgettable albeit slightly humorous political drama by filmmakers who accidentally made their subject a sympathetic figure.

W. intercuts between George W. Bush’s ne’er-do-well youth and his presidency, particularly the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003. Events surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are glaringly absent. How can you make a film about George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House without mentioning September 11? Probably because he received the highest recorded presidential approval rating in history after the 9/11 attacks, and the filmmakers didn’t want to remind the audience about the tremendous crisis his administration had to face.

The film opens with a young-ish George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) getting hazed in a Yale fraternity. He jumps from job to job, to the great disappointment of his stern father, President George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell), until he meets his future wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks). With the help of political strategist Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Bush becomes Governor of Texas, and later, President of the United States, where he uses his office to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, something his father never achieved.

The filmmakers use real quotes and incidents to portray George W. Bush as a comedic figure, including one incident in which he almost died choking on a pretzel. In hindsight this comes across as mean spirited, since Josh Brolin’s Bush is sincere in his religious convictions, appears to genuinely believe Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and wanted the public to be on board with the war, and is constantly frustrated by his disapproving father. As National Review’s Tom Hoopes pointed out, this had the unintended consequence of making Bush relatable and sympathetic to the audience.

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