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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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 Mule: Best Film of 2018?

When 90-year-old Earl Stone loses everything he loves, can he use ill-gotten gains to win it back before the DEA, or the cartel, takes him down?

Written by Nick Schenk and directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, The Mule (2018) was inspired by a New York Times article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick. The Mule uses true events to frame a much more compelling  story. Bucking the current trend of emotionally monochrome dramas, this film is a rich tapestry of triumph and tragedy, humor and sadness, and guilt and forgiveness.

Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) is a successful horticulturalist in Peoria, Illinois but neglectful of his family. He finds himself estranged from his wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood), but is still admired by his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Mary and he divorce, and after failing to embrace the digital age, Stone’s business falls on hard times. He takes a mysterious offer to deliver a package from Mexico to Chicago. With his newfound income, he rebuilds the local VFW after a fire and helps pay for his granddaughter’s cosmetology tuition. Meanwhile, he frustrates his cartel handler, Julio (Ignacio Serricchio) with his unpredictable behavior.

Things get complicated when DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and his partner Trevino (Michael Peña) flip a cartel employee and he tips them off about a successful drug mule known as “Tata”, or grandfather. The unassuming elderly white man with a clean record was able to slip under law enforcement’s radar. At 90 years of age and with the DEA on his tail, Earl Stone is running out of time to reverse his fortunes and reconcile with his family.

The Mule is loosely based on the life of Leo Sharp, a WW2 veteran and Detroit-based horticulturalist and daylily farmer who began working as a drug mule for the Sinaloa cartel after his business fell on hard times. His life of crime made him a millionaire. Sharp was finally caught in 2011 at the age of 87, pled guilty to drug conspiracy, and served one year in prison before being let out due to his declining health. He died in December 2016.

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Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum

Paranormal tourism, or tourism driven by allegedly haunted places and high profile crimes, is a growing cottage industry, with places like the Villisca Ax Murder House raking in the dough for tours, overnight stays, and paranormal investigations. The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum in Fall River, Massachusetts is another prominent example.

At 11:10 a.m. on August 4, 1892, Lizzy Borden, 32, yelled for the family maid, Bridget Sullivan, to quickly come downstairs. She discovered her father, Andrew, slumped over the sofa. His head had been bashed in. Abby, Lizzy’s stepmother, was found on the floor of an upstairs bedroom, her head and face smashed. Lizzy gave police strange and often conflicting information, and she quickly became the chief suspect.

Her New Bedford trial, beginning in June 1893, was a national sensation, widely reported in the newspapers. It took the jury 90 minutes to acquit her, and with her inheritance, she purchased a new home and lived there with her sister Emma.

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I, Tonya: ’90s Nostalgia-Fueled Docudrama

Turns out talent and hard work might not be enough to succeed in this faux-docudrama based on the life of former competitive figure skater Tonya Harding, I, Tonya (2017). Written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya stars Margot Robbie in the titular role. The film re-creates interviews with the principal characters involved in a controversial attack on fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994.

Gillespie is a veteran director with several films and television episodes under his belt, so it comes as no surprise I, Tonya is competently handled. Rogers is mainly known for writing romantic comedies, so this film is quite a departure from his usual repertoire. Like the directing, the writing is solid but the fact it’s based on actual interviews and recordings probably made it easier.

Tonya Maxene Harding (Margot Robbie) grew up in poverty in Portland, Oregon. Her overbearing mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), pressured her into ice skating at a young age, eventually taking her out of school to pursue a career in the sport. In 1991, she became the first woman to successfully execute two triple axels in a single competition. She married Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) as a teen and their relationship quickly became abusive. Meanwhile, Gillooly’s friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), appointed himself as her unofficial body guard.

Harding finished fourth in the 1992 Winter Olympics and went home to be a waitress, where Coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) convinced her to begin training for the 1994 Winter Olympics. Gillooly, now her ex-husband, allegedly concocted a plan with Eckhardt to intimidate Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). Eckhardt hired two hapless thugs to smash Kerrigan’s knee. The event became a media sensation, resulting in Harding being banned from competitive ice skating.

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Lizzie Borden Took an Ax

Christina Ricci stars in this made-for-TV dramatization of the 1893 trial of Lizzie Andrew Borden for the murder of her father and step-mother in Fall River, Massachusetts. The highly-stylized production recounts events immediately surrounding the murders and subsequent trial. Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (2014) was later developed into a TV Mini-Series The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (2015). It blends a modern soundtrack with historic events to create an oddly entertaining take on the controversial case.

At 11:10 a.m. on August 4, 1892, Lizzy Borden (Christina Ricci), 32, yelled for the family maid, Bridget Sullivan (Hannah Anderson), to quickly come downstairs. She discovered her father, Andrew (Stephen McHattie), slumped over the sofa. His head had been bashed in. Abby (Sara Botsford), Lizzy’s stepmother, was found on the floor of an upstairs bedroom, her head and face smashed. Lizzy gave police strange and often conflicting information, and she quickly became the chief suspect.

Her New Bedford trial, beginning in June 1893, was a national sensation, widely reported in the newspapers. It took the jury 90 minutes to acquit her, and with her inheritance, she purchased a new home and lived there with her sister Emma (Clea DuVall). Despite efforts to start a new life, Lizzy Borden was ostracized from Fall River society, since many people believed she was the murderer.

There are several alternative theories about “who done it,” but Lizzie Borden Took an Ax doesn’t entertain any of them. It openly implies Lizzie was the murderer, even going so far as to imagine Lizzie confessing the crime to her sister, causing her to flee their home in disgust. In fact, the two sisters split in an argument over a party in 1905, 12 years after the trial. We’ll never know what the sisters said to each other in private conversation, so this is creative license at work.

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What happened to Maranda Goldman?

This article, about volunteers discovering a second body in two weeks during their search for a missing Kansas City, Missouri woman, reminded me of the Maranda Goldman case. Maranda Goldman, from rural Pine Bluff, Arkansas, disappeared on October 8, 2015. Thirty-two days later, a hiker found her body in the woods on the east side of town.

Maranda Goldman, from www.gofundme.com/d86ht2qk
Maranda Goldman, from gofundme.com

Last I heard, autopsy results were still pending as of December 2015. At the end of February 2016, the Pine Bluff Police Department officially ruled her death a homicide, although, incredibly, the Arkansas State Crime Lab was not able to determine a cause of death. Police say the case has gone cold.

Sandy Goldman, her mother, implied assailants possibly kidnapped and murdered her to keep her quiet about some kind of criminal activity. “[Maranda] had been in with a bad group of people,” she told the Huffington Post. “They thought she had turned as a snitch, so she was really scared for her life.”

“I don’t know if that had anything to do with what happened to her, but she didn’t just end up in a field for no reason,” Goldman later told the Huffington Post.

In 2009, Pine Bluff was ranked by Morgan Quitno Press as the most dangerous metropolitan area in the US and included on the Forbes list of America’s ten most impoverished cities. As of the 2000 census, the city was 75.6 percent African American and 22 percent Caucasian. Since 2014, the crime rate has declined significantly. Over 20 percent of families and 37 percent of children live below the poverty line.

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