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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How Violent was the American Frontier?

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs portrays a world of shocking violence, brutality, and indifference to human life, but does that mirror reality?

I’m a big fan of both Westerns and the Cohen Brothers, so I was eager to see their latest offering on Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), an anthology of six short films set in the Wild West. The stories were filled with interesting characters and scenarios, beautiful cinematography, and of course all the Cohen Brothers’ hallmarks, but something didn’t sit right with me.

Movies about the “Wild West” are almost always violent, focusing on battles with Plains Indians and Comanches, gunfights, bank robberies, and outlaws. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs focuses on a wide variety of Western life. We see traveling showmen, a prospector, a wagon train, and a coach ride. Sudden, brutal violence and indifference to human life ties them all together. At the end, I came away feeling sad, particularly after the wagon train short.

There’s no denying life could be brutally harsh on the nineteenth century American frontier. Disease, high infant mortality, the Indian Wars, lack of advanced medical care, and an austere environment all combined to make survival challenging at best. But hundreds of thousands of people did survive, thrive, and lived out their lives on the frontier, just like any other time.

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Cast of Ghostbusters Reboot Unironically Upset at New Ghostbusters Film

No, this isn’t an Onion headline.

As news broke that Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman, who directed the original Ghostbusters (1984), is moving forward with a continuation of that film franchise, grumbling erupted from supporters of the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. Jason Reitman, you see, plans to continue the story from where Ghostbusters 2 (1989) left off, you know, as fans of the original films have always wanted.

As a kid, I loved the original Ghostbusters, and in my mind, it came as close to a perfect comedy as you can get. When the 2016 gimmicky reboot, which was a gender-swap of the franchise starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and directed by Paul Feig, came under fire for ignoring the original films and being generally terrible and unfunny, its apologists blamed “misogyny” and “toxic fandom.”

It annoys me that I have to say this, but I don’t have a problem with female-led films or with sequels and reboots highlighting diverse stories and characters. I’m also a fan of the Rocky franchise, and I thought Creed (2015) was a solid film in its own right and a good addition to the franchise. It went a different direction while still holding true to all the things that made Rocky great.

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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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