“Tell Me Your Secrets”–Tell Me Your Lies

In this Amazon Prime mini-series of ten episodes, Tell Me Your Secrets has  three plots:  1) The main plot involves a woman named Karen Miller (Lily Rabe), who was arrested seven years ago as a presumed accomplice to her boyfriend, Kit (Xavier Samuel) for the brutal murders of nine women. She claims not to remember anything, due to trauma. 2) Mary Barlow (Amy Brenneman), a wealthy woman who has established a foundation to help find missing children,  believes her own daughter, Theresa,  was kidnapped by Karen Miller and Kit and is still alive.  3) John Tyler, (Hamish Linklater), a serial rapist, is now on parole and claims to have suppressed his urges and wishes to atone for his past crimes.  Additional missing teenage girls provide subplots, contributing to a complex mix of characters.

Karen Miller,  now in witness protection as Emma Hall,  has moved to a small town, St. James, Louisiana, hoping to leave her past in Minneapolis.    Mary Barlow,  a mother who  adamantly refuses to grieve or acknowledge her daughter may be  dead, becomes an avenger.  John soon becomes intertwined with both Karen/Emma and Mary. All three have pasts which haunt them and each other.  As their damaged psyches unravel their secrets to each other, more questions arise:  Is Karen/Emma being truthful when she claims she doesn’t know about the murders? Is there a natural tendency to gaslight and condemn women whose lovers are criminals, guilty by association? Can a brutal serial killer actually be capable of redemption?  And when does a mother’s obsessive quest for a missing child become pathological?

The cast is superb.  Lily Rabe, as the traumatized Karen Miller hiding behind the identity of Emma Hall, emotes a believable amnesia, and also an openness to trusting others that seems at times naive.  Her torment is palpable.   Amy Brenneman, in one of her most substantial roles to date, is scheming, manipulative, and self-destructive to the point of madness. Hamish Linklater, as the unsettling, affectless serial rapist, goes beyond onscreen serial killers with  a chilling brilliance to his understanding of his targeted victims’ core vulnerabilities (similar, in some respects, to Hannibal Lecter). His desperation and loneliness for a relationship not defined by his crimes is harrowing.

There are multiple plots with so many characters the viewer has to make an effort to keep them straight.  Their relationships are intertwined but also independent, so that the few plot holes do not become confusing. Tell Me Your Secrets is packed with storylines, character arcs, and sometimes ghoulish intensity.  A Season Two is planned, and some of the drama left hanging has been set up for resolution or expansion next year.

Note:  This is definitely not for everyone.  In some sense, it is cross-genre, a psychological thriller bordering on horror, analogous to the mini-series Bates Motel, or its precursor, the classic Hitchcock movie,  Psycho.  Violence is presented both visually and indirectly, but is not dwelled upon at length.  Nonetheless, this potboiler is heart-pounding.

Availability:  Amazon Prime

“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution”

Oscar-nominated for 2020 Best Documentary Feature, Crip Camp is  directed and produced by Jim Lebrech, who uses a wheelchair and is partly financed by Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company, Higher Ground. 

Released by Netflix in March 2020, this little-known story portrays a group of young disabled teenagers  at  Camp Jened, their experience serving as a catalyst for the disability rights movement in the United States.  After becoming empowered at camp in upstate New York in 1971, several key campers became activists. Masterminding a month-long sit-in at the HEW branch office in San Francisco, blocking traffic with their wheelchairs and bodies lying on the street, these young activists embarrassed Carter administration secretary James Califano to enact major disability rights legislation (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act)  which evolved into the eventual passage of the American Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).    Crip Camp is perhaps best comprehended as an extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

This powerful and moving documentary reveals archival footage at Camp Jened, at the San Francisco sit-in, and in the post-ADA lives of the former teenagers, now past middle-age.  Footage of campers who had to sit-in for over a month in the branch office of HEW, without their assistants who were relied upon for bathroom and mobility assistance,  without necessary catheters, food and drink withheld by federal officials, is unconscionable and shocking to watch.  So are film clips of Willowbrook, an institution for disabled children, visually an Abu Ghraib warehouse of unimaginable cruelty.

Crip Camp is, first and foremost,  primarily Judy Heumann’s story.  A young fifteen-year old camper, she  awakens to  the demand of  their civil rights, after hearing fellow campers discuss their fear of institutionalization.  Heumann becomes a charismatic,  determined, and commanding leader.  Organizing and demanding a hearing before Congress, after Bay Area coverage of their protest and sit-in is reported by only one local television channel, Heumann orders her young cohort– without access to ramps or elevators,– to crawl on their stomachs up the steps of the federal building, hauling their paraplegic bodies after them.   This footage of people with polio, cerebral palsy, and other disabilities is gut-wrenching.

Crip Camp    is essential to understanding what is unknown territory for many viewers.  Campers give unexpected responses about privacy, sexuality, and solitude.  Unconventional trajectories of local Black Panthers’ support are juxtaposed next to the cowardice of local and national politicians on both sides of the aisle.  Still, in spite of the odds, this documentary highlights human resilience in the face of the nation’s heart of darkness. People with disabilities want acceptance just like everyone else.  Merely achieving the result of being seen and heard, the disabled achieve a psychological as well as legal revolution, still in the early stages. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990  continues to have a huge impact in raising awareness about inclusion of all people globally and removing obstacles to personhood.  Groundbreaking and unforgettable.

Note: This is a recent USA Today article byJudy Heumann, who remains   very active on disability rights.  https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/voices/2021/04/23/why-oscar-nominated-crip-camp-victory-disability-rights-column/7333682002/

Availability: Netflix streaming

Concrete Cowboy

Concrete Cowboy movie review

Guest Reviewer:  Jerry Ludwig, retired Hollywood screenwriter and author of The Black List

         Concrete Cowboy:  Two words that don’t go together.  But an apt title for this new movie streaming on Netflix.  The words collide because it’s about two wildly different worlds.  A classic Western tale of father-son redemption told in the shadow of the mean streets of a contemporary Big City.  Happens to be a real story.

         Cole (Caleb McLaughlin from “Stranger Things”) is a troubled teenager whose mother sees him going down the tubes in crime-wrecked  Detroit.  So she ships him off for the summer to her ex-husband Harp (Idris Elba, “The Wire,” “Luther”) in Philadelphia.  Problem is Cole doesn’t know his father.  His parents divorced when he was an infant.  And this isn’t Ben Franklin’s Liberty Bell Philadelphia – this is a little known backwater where a small group known as the Fletcher Street Riders live, mostly in the past,  but hoping for a future. Constantly threatened, once these rented stables surrounding a meadow were considered the Boonies, but now land developers covet the area for condos.

         Cole feels trapped in a tiny house where his father’s horse is stabled in the living room.  And Harp’s friends all seem just as weird.  A culture that breeds and trains horses for racing and riding and to keep alive a tradition?  Gradually the mystique of the old ways envelops him, evenings spent sitting around the fire barrel, swapping lies and legends. Learning new skills.  But there’s also the counter-pull of his young friend Smursh (Jharel Jerome) who used to be one of the Riders but now is peddling street-corner drugs as a ticket to the big bucks.

         There are many reasons a movie gets made.  I suspect the additional credit of Idris Elba as not only star but also producer propelled Concrete Cowboy into existence.  Also the presence of Lee Daniels (“Empire,” The U.S. vs. Billie Holiday) does much to recommend the movie, which was co-written and directed by Ricky Staub.  Like the recent Nomadland, many of the characters are played by their real-life counterparts.  Together they tell a truthful but not bloody story.  It’s not simple, but it manages to find a somewhat positive ending.  It’s worth watching. 

Availability:  Netflix streaming                                                          

“The Morning Show”–Wake Up America

The Morning Show, an award-winning AppleTV+ mini-series, is inspired by Brian Stelter’s book about Matt Lauer and the Today Show. Dominant themes and subplots focus on the vile, abject humiliation involved in corporate politics, gender roles, and sexual predation.

In the opening scene, co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) has just been fired for sexual harassment and possible assault, leaving his co-host Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) without her onscreen partner of the past fifteen years.  Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a West Virginian small-town reporter, is covering a coal mine protest. When a protester knocks down her cameraman, Bradley furiously grabs him by the collar, challenging him on his ignorance of the coal mine industry. The altercation is filmed on a  cell phone and goes viral.   Invited on The Morning Show by  producer Corey Ellison (Billy Crudup), Bradley gives a stunning defense against an irritated and jealous Alex.

Alex is aware of the constant need to be “entertaining”.  She knows the network’s politics– a competing network’s nipping at The Morning Show’s ratings–and that she may have a “sell-by” date fast approaching.  In a precarious position to renew her contract, Alex impulsively names Bradley as her new on-air co-anchor.   But will the addition of Bradley as her co-anchor improve the show’s ratings as America’s favorite morning show or will Bradley endanger Alex’s position and power?

Maggie Brener, a journalist at New York magazine (Marcia Gay Harden), suspects a  behind-the-scenes coverup of Mitch Kessler’s sexual predation, the darker side of the network’s public image. Powerful but vulnerable men at every level are desperate to hang on to their jobs: the smarmy and frightened producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass), the Macchiavellian  Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) in charge of the news department, and the CEO Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin).   The entire C-suite is in intense survival mode to  prevent their house of cards from collapsing. 

All episodes have nuanced character arcs. For example,  some of Mitch’s male co-workers, in a state of disbelief at the accusations against Mitch,  find him  funny and simply flirtatious.   Women claim unregretted sexual encounters with him–or so they publicly tell their associates. We see Mitch in  excruciating self-pity,  unreflective and egomaniacal,  thinking he’s just unlucky to be a powerful man held accountable for using his “seductive” powers. He cannot comprehend  how he is cruel and brutal,  defying any true communication with women.  As one survivor– Hannah Shoenfeld (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)–tries to explain: “I remember what happened differently from you.”

This high-stakes drama is dialed up in almost every scene in every episode,  undoubtedly influenced by the  controversies of the #MeToo wake-up calls alarming the nation.It’s like a tightrope act where you think they’re going to fall.”   Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. 

The entire cast  exceeds expectations, an ensemble that, at times, seems like a therapy session, particularly for the two main actors,  Jennifer Anniston and Reese Witherspoon.  Aniston has a difficult road to navigate:  Her character Alex is both sympathetic and complicated. She may have enabled Mitch and looked the other way, partly out of fear and denial. Alex is not always a great ally to other women, either, because she has come to feel she has no allies herself. In a state of constant high alert, Alex is determined to remain in control of her own life.  Bradley –in a role made for Reese Witherspoon–also has to express both her character’s inward and outward struggles, coming from a highly dysfunctional and damaging family.  Her fiery ambition and courage to make the world a better place are her only escape.

Steve Carell continues to stretch his dramatic range as he traverses the unenviable terrain of mining the psyche of  a sexual predator, who validates  his actions as “extracurricular sex” instead of traumatizing.   In a pivotal scene  Mitch is flustered for the first time when a filmmaker (played by Martin Short), facing similar allegations, justifies his actions by saying: “There’s nothing sexy about consent.” The close-up on Carell’s face is classic. 

As both the main actors and executive producers, Anniston and Witherspoon are playing against type:  their ingrained images as America’s Sweethearts.  In The Morning Show  they are stand-ins for women everyone thinks they know, but don’t. As Alex says, “Sometimes women can’t ask for control. So they have to take it” — and the show works best when they do. 

The Morning Show is a  cultural reckoning of #MeToo.  Current events have marked a radical shift in our cultural outlook regarding sexual harassment, the abuse of power, and the silencing of women’s voices.  All are bravely tackled in The Morning Show.

Availability:  AppleTV+–available for a 7-day free trial.

Note:  Brian Stelter, Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV

Note 2:  Warnings about sexual violence are given for Episode 8 and the F-word is used throughout the series.