“Top of the Lake”–A Top Notch Thriller

While some cable and television distributors fund their own productions (note the excellence of  “House of Cards”, the final season of “Damages”, and the forthcoming “Arrested Development”), Sundance is in the enviable position of previewing thousands of entries for their annual Sundance Festival. “Top of the Lake“is an exciting option from the Sundance Channel, created by Gerard Lee and Jane Campion (who produced and directed the Academy Award winner “The Piano”).

The first episode opens with the disappearance of a 12-year old pregnant girl, Tui, in a remote backwater town in southern New Zealand named Laketop.  The hamlet of Laketop is as much a character in the series as are the main actors.  Laketop seethes with brutal violence, fear and bigoted townspeople, with a history of brutal rapes and missing young girls.  And the plot takes the viewer down slowly as it sinks into this corner of the world which has no place for outsiders, even residents who have moved away and returned.

Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss of  Peggy Olsen fame in “Mad Men”) is  one such former resident.  A furloughed investigator, home to visit her dying mother, Robin  does not want to be in Laketop.   No one else, including her mother, wants her there either.

The incestuous pathology of the townspeople and their dangerous secrets are slowly revealed through seven episodes. Magnificent scenery obscures a cesspool of corruption and brutality. Tui is always the undercurrent that keeps you on the edge of your seat, shocked by her heartbreaking situation.  Brilliant acting with raw emotional nakedness at every turn results in some explosive surprises throughout.

“Top of the Lake” is a remarkable thriller, in some ways similar to the excellent “The Killing”, set in the northwest.  While there is an original storyline in the pre-teen who is at the center of the investigation, “Top of the Lake” has two stories which do not always integrate as well as they could have.  The Paradise commune–a recovery group of middle-aged women with their hippie guru GJ (Holly Hunter)–offers comic relief and some insightful observations that could not have been presented easily in another way.  However, GJ seems wasted in the last episodes and could have been a catalyst for the solving of the crime.  Consequently, there isn’t the dramatic liftoff the narrative should give us.

Nonetheless, I really recommend this as a binge-viewing weekend excursion (available through Netflix).  Enter a dark, sinister world full of menace and deception. The bravery of the women is inspirational and the dramatic energy of a Campion production is a wonder to behold.

“Central Park Five”–Today’s Scottsboro Boys?

In 1989 the “Central Park Jogger” trial had the country’s attention and a media frenzy fed the heightened fear of New Yorkers who saw their beloved Central Park and the city as a whole becoming a dangerous environment simmering with crime and mayhem. The Central Park Five”, a new documentary from award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, retells the story of the five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of brutally raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park on April 22, 1989. The film chronicles The Central Park Jogger case from the perspective of the five teenagers whose youth was not only stolen from them as a result of a heinous miscarriage of justice but were also subjected to the brutality of adult prison.

Running through Central Park, harassing, assaulting, and robbing people was not uncommon in the 80’s and some of the five teenagers who were brought into the police station that night for questioning had, in fact, been bullying passersby or standing by and watching. The Central Park Five were said to be “wilding” that night, a term that newspapers coined for the savagery of the brutal attack.

Then the narrative becomes more and more heartbreaking at the same time it becomes more familiar with every turn. This is our generation’s Scottsboro Boys. These were 14-to-16 year old boys who had never been indicted for any crime. The police department filmed their confessions,  allowing the viewer to experience how each suspect incriminated himself.  Each teenager was interrogated individually for 14-30 hours, mostly without their parents and with no legal counsel present.  “Central Park Five” leaves the viewer wondering how these five young people had no legal counsel when they were questioned.  Told by law enforcement that, if they signed confessions, they would be able to go home afterwards–even then, they were reluctant until worn down by lack of food, sleep, or adult supporters. Police are not encumbered by the truth in order to get a confession.  Could anyone, let alone a frightened 14-year-old, stand up to that sort of  psychological manipulation? I don’t think so. These boys were not going home.

In 1990 there was a trial. Any open-minded detective or journalist could see that none of their stories matched up, even when fed the facts by aggressive interrogators but it was easier not to ask questions in order to get a story out to the public quickly.  One juror noted how the videotaped confessions were inconsistent in reporting details, that none of the accused had the victim’s blood on his clothing, and there was no DNA evidence linking any of them to the crime scene. But the lone juror was pressured by other jury members to find the Central Park Five guilty so everyone could go home. So he did. (Think “12 Angry Men”.) The partially recovered victim of the rape appeared in court, although she had no memory of the attack or events leading up to the attack, to ensure that public attention would not wane. The coerced confessions were the only “evidence” used, as well as  being the powerfully persuasive–seemingly irrefutable– tools crucial to obtaining long sentences  and mandatory registration as sex offenders. The boys were sentenced to between six and thirteen years imprisonment for attempted murder, rape, and sexual assault.

In a dramatic upheaval of the case, the New York Supreme Court finally vacated all five convictions in 2002 when Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer, accidentally met one of the youths serving his sentence for the crime Reyes had committed.  Reyes confessed to committing the crime alone and DNA evidence confirmed he was the rapist.  In 2002 the Central Park Five filed a civil lawsuit for reparations for wrongful conviction.   The city of New York, however, has been stonewalling the case in order to protect the prosecutors and police,  prompting Ken Burns to make this documentary.

“The Central Park Five”, a societal and cultural flashpoint for the times we live in, reminds us that we all must question our certitude when the media gives “facts” about crimes and their perpetrators, and we must entertain at least the possibility that the suspects were set up due to their race, class, lack of knowledge about their legal rights, and public outrage.  What if the rape victim had been black and attacked in Harlem, one minister asks in the film.  Like “Scottsboro Boys”, this documentary is a sober testament to the damage inflicted by a corrupt legal system, sloppy media coverage, and a court of public opinion. (Netflix plans to release the film on April 22 to commemorate the 24th anniversary of this horrendous miscarriage of justice.)  There is no doubt that this could and will happen again.

 

“Leonie”–The Lioness and the Sculptor

“Don’t bore me by being ordinary” –These are words Leonie Gilmour (exquisitely acted by Emily Mortimer) admonishes her college friend, Catherine (Christina Hendricks) at Bryn Mawr. After graduation, she departs on an astonishingly unconventional life at the turn of the 20th century.

Based on the true story of an American intellectual, “Leonie” introduces the story of Leonie Gilmour, mother of the renowned American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.  Filmed in lush period detail in the US and Japan, “Leonie” is a biopic of a woman who straddles two morally rigid cultures with no room for an independent woman.  She defies convention and law:  interracial marriage, premarital sex, and unwed mother. As the lover of the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi (Shido Nakamura, one of the stars of  “Letters from Iwo Jima”), Leonie is employed as Noguchi’s editor for a novel for the American market.  With implied racism on the part of the US editor, Gilmour cleverly pitches the novel for the editor’s acceptance.  Noguchi responds to her pregnancy by abandoning her to marry according to Japanese customs, but Leonie defiantly moves to Japan to raise their son without the father’s support.

She is a pioneer, a  feminist who loves whom she chooses and lives as she wants. Her best friend, Catherine (Hendricks) illustrates the conventional role forced upon an upper class college woman: a conventional marriage of boredom in a gilded cage.  The film narrative hints at the source for Leonie’s heroic defiance of her generation’s moral code: her single mother (Mary Kay Place), a hippie before the 60’s,  homesteads a dusty patch of Pasadena ranchland.

Understanding nothing of the language or culture, Leonie tenaciously supports her young child by teaching English to young soldiers. The stoicism in her own daily routine, however,  never overcomes her joy in her son’s awakening to the art and culture of life in Japan.

With no formal schooling, her son Isamu designs and builds their first home at the age of 10, learning on the job from skilled artisans and craftsmen.  After the birth of his baby sister (father unknown), Isamu discovers his passion for art.  Encouraged by his mother, Isamu moves to New York  to eventually become one of the world’s most famous sculptors and architects.

The reedited version opened its American theatrical run in New York on March 22 this year after having been first released for the Japanese market in 2011.  Under very limited distribution, it is a shame that more potential viewers will not know of this extraordinary movie about a remarkable and eccentric woman.  Make sure you watch the credits to understand the range of sculpture and architecture Isamu Noguchi created!