“Lila & Eve”–Loss Without Justice

Lila & Eve, a 2015 sleeper female vigilante thriller ,  stars Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder”) as Lila and Jennifer Lopez (“Hustlers”) as Eve, The opening scene shows Lila’s 18-year-old son, Stephon (Aml Ameen), in a pool of blood from a drive-by shooting. A grief-fueled fragile mother is determined to fix her life: to bring the murderers of her son to justice so she can move on in nurturing her fourteen-year- old son.

Unsure how to go on with the effort of living, partly numbed by anti-anxiety drugs, Lila joins a  support group for moms who have lost children to gang violence.   Another grieving single mother, Eve, rejects the unbearable powerlessness of being told to move on as the appropriate way to respond to  grief.  And soon Lila admires Eve’s strength and anger at the apathy of the local police assigned to cases like theirs, which remain unsolved.  Their loss has no recourse or consequences for the murderer.  Neither Lila nor Eve wants to request justice like supplicants.  Soon both form a bond to exact justice for their children’s  unnecessary deaths.

It is the cops’ dismissiveness of Stephon’s death as just another casualty in the drug-turf wars that sets the plot into motion..  Lila is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and seeking empathy from  Eve is preferable to being told that she is fortunate to still have another child.  The newly aligned couple go on a rampage, as Eve cajoles Lila to go further to seek revenge.  Lila & Eve moves from hopelessness and despair midstream in this film to rage, and eventually regret, giving the drama its powerful hook that pulls the viewer in. 

Viola Davis never disappoints,  giving another impressive performance alongside  high-caliber acting by Jennifer Lopez. The two actors play perfectly as  counterparts in a dance of doom, danger, and death.

Understated yet gut-wrenching and heart-pumping,  Lila & Eve is a character study of the lacerating effects a tragic death has on the living.  Davis plumbs the depths of  anguish and psychological trauma in an electrifying performance that transforms this story  into something far beyond a typical revenge thriller. 

I was not sure what to expect from Lila & Eve but was pleasantly surprised by this relatively unknown, little-seen indie film.  Lila & Eve offers a powerful   portrait  of a mother’s pain and her need to relieve it.

Note: Available on Netflix Streaming and DVD.

“I’ll Be Gone In the Dark”–Don’t Watch This Alone at Night

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a six-part HBO documentary series based on Michelle McNamara’s  book,  explores the author and  her obsessive investigation into the dark world of the “The Golden State Killer”  who terrorized California in the 1970s and 80s.  It is mostly due to McNamara’s investigative reporting that this cold case was kept alive and solved.  Incredibly,  that didn’t happen until  late 2018 when the perpetrator was identified, charged and convicted of 50 rapes and 12 murders out of more than 100 known rapes.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark paints  an intricate tapestry of a convoluted flawed investigation that challenged police for decades. Bureaucratic dysfunction was rampant.  The lack of interjurisdictional cooperation, unwieldy early phase DNA technology, and a blatant sexist culture enabled the Golden State Killer to roam free for close to 40 years.  Victims were treated as responsible in part for  their rapes by the way they dressed and the way the women freely walked through their own suburban neighborhoods at night.  The  extensive archival footage as well as interviews with detectives, survivors and family members of the killer are riveting.  More than forty years later, the viewer sees the horror of the crime itself as well as the sustained impact  on the victims and their families.  Interviews with the husbands or boyfriends are similarly unsettling as many of them were traumatized or in denial in a culture in which rape is not yet fully viewed for what it is…a violent, heinous crime.

One of the least expected features of  I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the backstory of McNamara. Her sensitive uncovering of the cold cases of the women begins with her True Crime Diaries blog.   She hones her  skills as an amateur sleuth more competent than some of the police she deals with as she crosses the state looking for clues.  The subtext is her obsession with finding the rapist and murderer. She suspects from the beginning that the rapist is a solitary agent personifying “alchemized hate” for the victims.  It turns out that the victims are  stand-ins for a fiancée who broke off the assailant’s engagement.  His violence grows and the viewer sees him trespass, invade a home, violently assault his victims in the middle of the night, and then reach for a beer and food in the kitchen refrigerator.  Chilling indeed.

After more than  ten years of dogged analysis of internet clues, hunting for mementos the killer sold online, and visits to the victims’ homes, her determination to find the killer and rapist eventually exacts a toll on McNamara.   At first,  she feels that she manages the horrors of the crimes at arms-length.  But eventually, McNamara has to take sleeping pills and  anti-anxiety drugs, gets a gun and installs a complicated security system  as she is encouraged to write a book about her research. Tragically Michelle McNamara died of an accidental overdose while in reach of the deadline for her book.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a depiction of the most evil and poisonous of human acts, in scene after scene of crushing helplessness and the courage of the survivor, even when that horror was half a lifetime ago.  I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not for the faint-of-heart–and keep the lights on, if you decide to watch this!

Note: Joseph James DeAngelo, now seventy-four,  was finally identified, partly through McNamara’s detective work, in close collaboration with retired detectives, forensic specialists and geneticists who used a gene/ancestry database to track DeAngelo down.  He pleaded guilty to more than a dozen murders and scores of rapes on June 29 and was sentenced to eleven consecutive life sentences without parole.

Note: Barbara Rae-Venter, a renowned geneticist,  is the main resource for solving the genetic puzzle that  emerged in the Golden State Killer investigation.  She has since inspired others skilled at solving family history puzzles to offer their services to law enforcement. While this has resulted in  arrests, not everyone in genetics database technology is  comfortable with the alliance with law enforcement.  See the August 29, 2018 article on Venter and the June 28, 2020 article on genetics genealogy and its methodology to identify the DNA.

Queen & Slim–Majestic Yet Thin

Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas (“Insecure”) and written by Lena Waithe (“Master of None”),  was influenced by the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.  A story about police brutality and the stress and horror of daily life for a black person in America, Queen & Slim is a gripping fictional film that feels all too real.  

A first Tinder date– mediocre and uneventful–  takes an unexpected turn.  On their way home in a blustery winter night in Cleveland, a young couple are  pulled over for a minor traffic incident. Slim (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith)  are calm and cooperative.  The situation soon escalates. The policeman wounds Queen.  Slim, expecting to be next, grabs the officer’s gun,  shooting him in self-defense. Now targeted as cop-killers, Slim and Queen go  on the run. She is a successful criminal defense lawyer whose legal experience tells her that the court  is unlikely to give them a fair hearing.  Slim is, nevertheless, resistant  in accepting that he is now  a fugitive.

Unaware that the incident is captured on video and that the cop has a history of rogue murders, Queen and Slim unwittingly become a symbol of structural racism, trauma, terror, grief and pain for African Americans across the country. The video goes viral. The couple convince themselves that they should run, even though Queen knows that they are facing a death sentence. Slim is in denial.  But they still hope for a miracle while unable to plan an escape. In this thriller, where  a pair of young soon-to-be lovers are making a mad dash for freedom, the viewer is entangled emotionally with their inept  effort, hoping against odds that they will survive.

Queen & Slim is a difficult movie to review.  The film is deeply interesting, focused on legacy,  the power of memory and the symbols that propel political and social movements.   Queen & Slim  frames the plot on the history of  a nation infected by a racial inequality so virulent that good people are forced to take the law into their own hands. There is anger without apology, one of the most deeply moving themes in this movie.

The story is powerful, both politically charged and psychologically draining. The content of the film, however, is uneven and incompletely constructed.   Slim and Queen’s  characters are only loosely sketched,  particularly their backstory.  How did Queen become so successful in a courtroom often hostile to her clients?  Why is her relationship with her mother so dysfunctional?  How does Slim fall in love with someone so opposed to him?   

Kaluuya’s performance as the reticent and pure-hearted Slim, in deep denial that a crime was committed, is worth watching in itself.  And newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith matches his performance.  Even though the characters often don’t act rationally,  one has to be reminded that they are young, lonely, and want to have the thrill of romance. They suppress the  reality that  the police, at any moment, could overtake them.

More robust  portraits of Queen and Slim–their interior lives– would create scenes more personally compelling as well as more memorable.   Furthermore, the music track often disrupts the tension and momentum of the story.

Queen & Slim is a provocative, sometimes uncomfortable and frequently unsettling movie experience that is still very much worth seeing. It presents to the audience what it is like to have your grip on the world shattered while asking  what use that grip was anyway.

Note: Available on Netflix.

“The Restaurant”–A Banquet of Plots

This Sundance Now series from Sweden begins  in May 1945 in celebration of the end of World War II. Calle Svensson, a young working class aspiring chef, plants an impulsive kiss on a pretty young stranger, Nina Löwander.  Her family owns a traditional, if old-fashioned, restaurant in Stockholm.  Although officially neutral during the war,  Sweden had both Nazi supporters and resisters.  The first of three seasons in The Restaurant grapples with the war’s aftermath.

While peace is proclaimed all over Europe, a family battle begins to rage among Löwander family members: the matriarch, Helga, the widow of the restaurant founder; her eldest son, Gustaf;   his brother Peter; and the daughter Nina. At times a fierce sibling rivalry for control of the restaurant becomes brutal and embittered with betrayal and deceit.  Meanwhile, free-spirited Nina, the youngest, seeks independence.  Unforeseen consequences happen.  Subplots involve Margareta, a waitress struggling to support her three-year-old son,  immigrant employees diabolically abused, and in-fighting among the chef’s staff.

No one in the drama experiences anything but momentary  happiness, intensifying the action and moving the story forward.  Rarely does an episode drag, except with somewhat lengthy music and dancing in the restaurant club that Nina manages. Primarily a richly plotted multigenerational family saga, The Restaurant deals with the world we are born into (including class) and how we react when that world changes. Much of the Lowander’s story focuses on the mother’s treatment of  each sibling and how that impacts  their decisions.

Sometimes called the Swedish “Downton Abbey, with its class hierarchy,  The Restaurant goes beyond that reductionist label. The “Upstairs, Downstairs” restrictive behavior is soon nullified by the family saga within the Lowander family itself. Each main character has to struggle with financial considerations that impact their own families separate from their siblings.

Embracing time-leaps over two decades (1946-1962), The Restaurant,  sustains the drama’s momentum from falling into boredom-creep that plagues so many period dramas. Characters  evolve along with the radical social changes engulfing the conservative Swedish government. Historical footage of Stockholm and exquisite cinematography evokes the changes The Restaurant series touches on: issues including abortion, sexual identity and the political animus towards unionization.

A true gem to discover during this lockdown!