The Little Hours – Medieval Misfire

An ensemble cast of talented comedians isn’t enough to save this poorly executed dark comedy lampooning scandalous behavior in the Catholic Church.

This isn’t the first time in history the Catholic Church has faced criticism for corruption and sexual impropriety, and The Little Hours (2017), written and directed by Jeff Baena, wants to remind us of that. Inspired by a fourteenth century Italian satire, this film’s poor quality and lackluster performances landed dead on arrival, missing an opportunity to successfully reboot a classic tale for contemporary audiences.

At an Italian convent run by Sister Maria (Molly Shannon), three young nuns, Alessandra (Alison Brie), Ginevra (Kate Micucci), and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), are bored with their daily monotony and harass the elderly gardener into quitting. Meanwhile, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) discovers a servant named Massetto (Dave Franco) is having an affair with his wife. Massetto flees for his life, and runs into Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), who got drunk and lost the convent’s embroidery on his way to the market.

Eager for a friend, Father Tommasso convinces Massetto to return to the convent and work as their new gardener, where he will pretend to be a deaf-mute to avoid being harassed by the sisters. Things get complicated when Alessandra, Ginevra, and Fernanda all scheme for Massetto’s affection. Is Fernanda’s strange behavior just repressed desire bubbling to the surface, or is something more sinister afoot?

The Little Hours is based on stories from The Decameron (c.1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian Renaissance humanist. As English writer Geoffrey Chaucer did for his own country in The Canterbury Tales (c.1400), Decameron satirized life in the Late Medieval Italian states through a series of short stories told by various narrators. The Little Hours takes elements from Day Three, particularly stories one and two.

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PCU: A Timely Send-up to the Modern College Campus

Twenty-eight-year-old Jeremy Piven plays an unconvincing college senior in this irreverent lampoon of political correctness run amok.

Written by Adam Leff and Zak Penn and directed by Hart Bochner, PCU (1994) is Animal House for the 1990s. Though in many ways a boilerplate college comedy, it’s unique in calling out and ridiculing PC culture on college campuses. In retrospect, its writers were downright prophetic.

Pre-frosh Tom Lawrence (Chris Young) is visiting Port Chester University for the weekend, where he meets misfits James ‘Droz’ Andrews (Jeremy Piven), Gutter (Jon Favreau), and Katy (Megan Ward), among others, at a former frat house called “The Pit”. These fun-loving students are out of place among the campus protest culture, nurtured and encouraged by college president Ms. Garcia-Thompson (Jessica Walter).

Ms. Garcia-Thompson allies with snobby Rand McPherson (David Spade), leader of a disbanded fraternity who wants their frat house back, to get “The Pit” crew kicked off campus. Can Droz save his love interest, Samantha (Sarah Trigger), from the clutches of man-hating Womynists, unite the student body, and raise enough money to save his friends from eviction before graduation?

Long before campus speech codes and safe spaces became commonplace, PCU satirized this growing trend in academia. Ms. Garcia-Thompson personifies the new college administrator, a buzzword-spewing enforcer obsessed with sensitivity awareness, diversity, and encouraging student grievances. In one scene, she suggests “Bisexual Asian Studies” should have its own building. “The question is, who goes? The Math Department or the hockey team?” she asks with a straight face.

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Quills: A Poignant Civil Rights Allegory

Though historically inaccurate, this film effectively tackles issues of censorship and the limits of free expression.

Directed by Philip Kaufman, Quills (2000) is based on a play of the same name by Doug Wright. It is a quasi-historical movie about the infamous writer Marquis de Sade and his internment in Charenton asylum in post-revolutionary France. Though not financially successful, its performances, costumes, and sets won praise from critics and audiences alike.

At the Charenton Asylum, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) has been under the care of Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), a liberal clergyman who encourages De Sade to write and produce plays, which are performed by the inmates at the asylum. Unbeknownst to him, De Sade has been sneaking out his manuscripts for publication with the help of laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet). Scandalized, Emperor Napoleon orders Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to take over Charenton and reform its notorious inmate.

A battle of wills ensues between De Sade and Royer-Collard, with Abbe Coulmier and Madeleine caught in the middle. The more Royer-Collard tries to break De Sade, the more defiant and outlandish De Sade becomes. The inmate is determined to expose Royer-Collard’s hypocrisy, centered around his marriage to his much younger wife, Simone (Amelia Warner). Can Abbe Coulmier save De Sade’s soul (and his own) before it’s too late?

Quills is first and foremost an exploration of censorship and free expression. Are De Sade’s provocative stories harmless entertainment, or genuinely subversive and dangerous? Is De Sade a raving lunatic, or a martyr to the cause of free speech? It asks the audience to actively engage with the ethical and moral questions played out on screen.

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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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