The Staircase–A Fall to the Bottom

 

The Staircase tv series

The Staircase, about a cold case murder that is resurrected again and again, is a crime thriller rivaling James Patterson. Filmed by Academy Award-winning French Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, we see a gripping courtroom drama, offering an intimate look at a high-profile murder trial and the family of the accused. Reminiscent of the groundbreaking “reality” series, An American Family, from the seventies, author Michael Peterson is arraigned for the 2001 murder of his second wife, Kathleen, whose body was discovered lying in a pool of blood on the stairway of their Durham, North Carolina home. The Staircase is not only an engrossing look at contemporary American justice that features more twists than a legal bestseller, but also an intimate glimpse into the world of the privileged and entitled, who seem bewildered by the entire justice system. The filmmakers had unusual access to the Peterson family within weeks of Kathleen’s death. We are invited behind the curtain but we don’t know why such total access was given.

The court case generated widespread interest at the time, and continues to do so with a second documentary scheduled for release this year. The Staircase details Peterson’s legal and personal troubles in eight 45-minute episodes edited from more than 600 hours of footage. The trial seems to have centered on varying analyses of blood spatter by both the defense and prosecution. The character of Michael Peterson is also put on trial.

 The Staircase was just re-broadcast by Sundance and Netflix to target today’s audience interested in shows like Making a Murderer and The Keepers  (see my July 1, 2017 review). Truth can be stranger than fiction, and Michael Peterson, the novelist, is purportedly planning to write a book about his experience with the judicial system. See for yourself —The Staircase is almost impossible to believe!

 

Faces Places: A Journey of the Heart

 

[Guest blogger:  Bill Clark,  award-winning Photographer, printmaker, writer, political activist and proud grandfather of four wonderful grandchildren, not to mention their parents, living in Oceanside, North County San Diego, California]

“All beginnings are beautiful,” Agnès Varda, famed French New Wave director (Cléo from 5 to 7), tells JR, a much-admired French photographer, muralist and street artist, who also is her co-director and co-star in the new French documentary, Faces Places (Visages, Villages)

The two artists, although separated by over 50 years of age, take a road trip together through the rural villages of France, including a side trip to the huge port of Le Havre.

Their goal: to make images. Loading JR’s wide-format photos onto his truck, they paste images onto buildings, ship containers, water towers, railroad tank cars—virtually any outdoor space. Guided by Varda’s genius for choosing shooting locations and use of non-professional actors, the two artists memorialize the “ordinary” people they encounter along the way.

Varda and JR discover and celebrate the beautiful in the “ordinary”.For example, the shy young bartender at a local bistro, mother of two, has her full-length portrait pasted on the side of a three-story building, becoming an instant “star” in her village. Her little boy tells her she is beautiful. Similarly, when an elderly woman, the last holdout in a block of row houses scheduled for demolition, sees her face — a proud image of resistance,–covering the entire front of her home, she is moved to tears, speechless.

The genius of Faces Places is the evocative themes of memory and loss, the ephemeral embedded in the permanent. Varda examines the fate of the working class, the meaning of friendship, the impact of mechanization on rural agriculture with a subtle grace and impish directorial hand.

As they travel together, Varda and JR develop a warm caring friendship. She teases him about never taking off his dark glasses (“You see things in the dark”), and he gently helps her with her chronically blurred vision. Faces Places chronicles their visual placements with lyricism and humor, always grounded in the caring portraits of the ordinary people they meet along the way.

The movie ends with a visit to Jean-Luc Godard, the father of the French New Wave cinema, and Varda’s friend (perhaps her lover?) when she was in her 30s, some 50 years earlier. She brings a bag of his favorite brioches.

Faces Places is a true treasure to be seen and cherished.

“The Big Sick”–A Prescription for Love

The Big Sick is a winner. One of my favorite movies this year! It just may be the breakout comedy of 2017 as well.

Romance, cultural conflict, things unsaid–based on a true story, The Big Sick takes on the theme of how family bonds can break when their adult children’s relationships are not what the parents wish for. The Big Sick raises the question: What’s more important– your significant other or your family? Tackling complex issues of family obligation, The Big Sick also infuses humor and grace in much of the witty and well-written dialogue.

The central character is Kumail (played by Kumail Nanjiani of “Silicon Valley”), a Pakistani-born stand-up comedian struggling to become successful as he works part-time as an Uber driver while waiting to be discovered in a Chicago comedy club. In the audience is a psychology grad student, Emily Gardner, who is seemingly “white bread”. They begin a relationship, but seem not to be fully committed.

Will Emily’s parents have as much difficulty accepting Kumail as his parents have difficulty accepting Emily? The twists are surprising and unexpected. Kumail finds himself forced to decide between pleasing his parents who desire to arrange a marriage with a Pakistani girl or accepting his feelings towards Emily. The young couple’s situation spins out of control when Emily becomes extremely ill and Kumail has to deal with her parents.

Kumail is caught in a maelstrom of competing worlds: different cultural backgrounds and traditions, difficulties of interracial relationships and Islamophobia, sometimes unconscious but always hurtful. Kumail’s overbearing, loving family means well and so does Emily’s.   This makes The Big Sick no garden variety rom-com, but a refreshing comedy drama which confronts social and political controversies head on.

The script manages to balance the serious and the comedic without resorting to a hint of sentimentality. Emily (Zoe Kazan), Emily’s mother (Holly Hunter) and her dad (Ray Romano) and Kumail’s parents– Anupam Kher as the father and Zenobia Shroff as the mother– are all lovable, well-intentioned, and deeply flawed. The mothers especially tear up the screen with their fierce performances. The entire ensemble cast–including minor family members and friends–are simply extraodinary.

You will laugh, you will be close to tears and you might engage in own introspection after watching The Big Sick. Brilliantly written and beautifully acted, this one is from the heart. It works so successfully on many different levels and that is a rare achievement, especially for comedy, which in my opinion, is the most difficult to write.

You have to see this one!

Beauty and the Beast – Be Our Guest

Beauty and the Beast movieIn this 2017 live action remake from the 1991 animated film, both by Walt Disney Pictures, we see the familiar and delightful eighteenth-century fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.   Beauty and the Beast grossed over $1.2 billion worldwide, making it the highest grossing film of 2017 and the 10th highest-grossing film of all time.

The cast for this “tale as old as time” is a dream one:  Emma Watson (“Hermione” from the Harry Potter films), Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”), the outstanding veterans Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson and the luminous voice and talent of Audra McDonald.

Of all the new additions to this version of Beauty and the Beast, Emma Watson as Belle gives a winning performance as the intelligent, strong-willed, book-loving beauty, and has a surprisingly charming clear singing voice.  The Beast is so camouflaged, it is a shock when he is revealed as Dan Stevens after the curse is lifted.  (Liam Neeson would have been expected instead.)  And the other animated characters (a singing candelabra, tea pot, clock, clattering armoire, and a harpsichord) are humorous to behold as they appear as Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, Audra McDonald and Stanley Tucci respectively.

Beauty and the Beast is sheer enchantment with exquisite costumes, a few new songs, visuals and cinematography to support the  outstanding ensemble cast. Seeing the “Be Our Guest” musical scene in the large dining room has almost inconceivable CGI effects. How did they produce the details so seamlessly?  They are flat-out amazing and impeccably match the animated version with dancing candelabra, feathers, dishes, and a kaleidoscopic collage of all elements from the dinner table.

For the integration  of animated and live action scenes, this is a must for film buffs.

Note:  The realistic scenes of battle and mob psychology may be too frightening for those under eight years old, depending upon the child.  For adults, the disturbing mob will seem unsettling and unfortunately all too familiar.

Wind River — Chilling and Icy, Drifting in the Snow

Wind River movieA tense police procedural and neo-Western, Wind River opens on an icy, moonlit, Wyoming landscape. Writer, producer and director, Taylor Sheridan (the 2016 Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water as well as Sicario) has created another winner.

A terrified Native American teenage girl is running in the snow, barefoot and bleeding.  She falls face down, gets up, and runs for six miles before dying from blood filling her lungs.  That chilling scene is the opening scene in the true story of Wind River.

On the Wind River Arapaho Reservation we see the main character, Cory (played by Jeremy Renner), barely visible in his white camouflage gear tracking predators in glaring, snow-blinding bright sun. As a US Fish and Wildlife agent on the reservation, the last dead body he expects to find is that of a young woman.  He tracks wolves and mountain lions.   The lethal cold of Wyoming and the barren natural beauty of its landscape stand in stark contrast to each other:  a dangerous and forlorn but beautiful wilderness.

Cory is a man of few words and enormous pain. After losing a teenage daughter himself, he is now estranged from his Native American wife (Julia Jones) but remains devoted to both her and their son, Casey (Teo Briones).

FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olson from “Ingrid Goes West” ) flies in from Las Vegas in a severe snow storm to investigate the suspicious death. Sheriff Ben (the astonishing Graham Greene of “Dances with Wolves” and The Green Mile”) must arrange for Jane to  borrow winter clothes from one of the local Arapaho women. Jane soon becomes a quick-study in the harsh life on the reservation.

Wind River paints a searing picture of life on society’s margins. Renner and Olsen’s characters both realize that the sense of loss due to a young girl’s death is not the only loss.  The cycle of hopelessness and poverty desperately pile up, deep as snow drifts. Outsiders who exploit the natural resources on the reservation and the Arapaho, who feel trapped, reveal a part of society that has long since been forgotten, sometimes willfully so.

Life is tough and the people even tougher.  The characters are flawed but relatable. However, a fuller backstory could have created a  beating heart to Wind River that would have contributed to the whodunit plot.  As a  suspense thriller, the violence, revenge, and clues gear the reader for the inevitable dispensing of a frontier “cowboy” justice. It’s a harrowing movie to watch, especially the flashback to the crime itself, but a number of plot holes keep the ending from being entirely convincing or satisfying.  I still recommend this film for its  exposure to life on a  reservation and the tragedies that remain unreported.

Note:  At the end of Wind River, there is a note that thousands of Native American women go missing with no reporting or statistics maintained:  “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women.”  Other research shows that the murder rate for Native American women is estimated to be as much as ten times the national average.