“The Alienist: Angel of Darkness” (Season Two)–Stranger Things Happen

In this  relatively seamless sequel to “The Alienist”, based on Caleb Carr’s second psychological thriller, season two is a retelling of Carr’s Angel of Darkness.  But this is much more than a sequel.  (For my review of season one, see my April 29, 2018 review:  “The Alienist”–Something Wicked This Way Comes).

The year is 1897, a scant three years before the dawn of the 20th century, in the Gilded Age.  In New York City, a serial killer is kidnapping and murdering babies. Angel of Darkness opens with a grisly scene of Martha Napp, perhaps wrongfully accused of murdering her child, sitting in the electric chair preparing to be the first woman to be executed by that means as well as the first person in the US to be found guilty without finding a murdered body as evidence.

In season two there is a new case to solve. And Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), the “alienist” (the Victorian term for the new profession of psychiatrist), John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans)  now a New York Times journalist and one of high society’s most eligible bachelors, and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning),  the first woman detective with her own agency in New York.  They are determined to find the baby-murderer.

Martha Napp’s baby disappeared from a lying-in hospital, born to an unwed mother. The second baby, taken the same day as the first mother’s execution, was kidnapped from the  Fifth Avenue mansion of the Spanish ambassador.

In this season Sara takes the lead as the forceful investigator who must confront not only the city’s underground gangsters, but sexism, a corrupt police commissioner (the wonderfully quirky Ted Levine from “The Closer”) and the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. This is a major shift from the first season when Dr. Laszlo Kreizler was the compelling but abrasive smartest guy in the room.  Now he plays a secondary, not really titular role, as the alienist who lacks any social skills  and forgets other people in the room have feelings.  It’s Sara Howard who is the mastermind.

Sara Howard [Dakota Fanning} and John Schuyler Moore [Luke Evans]

The “lying-in hospital” is the venue of interest, perhaps the source of the crimes involving newborns.  Libby Hatch (newcomer Rosy McEwen), is a young nurse and would-be whistleblower who befriends Sara and supplies much-needed information. 

Red herrings proliferate throughout the eight episodes.

As with Season 1, Angel of Darkness skewers themes relating to social status, discrimination based on sex and ethnicity, corrupt policing, and crony journalism.  One of the more interesting subplots in this season is the competing newspapers’ need for headline-grabbing: William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal versus the New York Times.

There are also a few clever gender reversals when it comes to who rescues a colleague from a beating, who’s marrying for money, and who has the courage to express their feelings towards the object of their affection.

In one particularly memorable scene, Sara Howard as a laser-focused Sherlock Holmes type, ponders a doll, purchased at a department store catering to the upper-class. Viewers watch a little girl innocently pick up an odd purple babydoll, which turns out to be a dead infant.

Decadence and gentility reside side by side with degradation, cruelty and violence. That this Gilded Age is mere window dressing for a savage  murder mystery should be riveting enough for binge-viewing.

Availability:  TNT channel and TNT.com.  Season Two [The Alienist: Angel of Darkness] can be seen without having to watch Season One first.  Both seasons are excellent.

Note:  Newcomer Rosy McEwen is an actress to watch.  Reminding this viewer of Nicole Kidman both in superb skill and appearance, every scene she is in is unforgettable.

The series loosely ties itself to history. Howard, for instance, is (sort of) based on Isabella Goodwin, New York’s first female detective.

Note: For an interesting interview with the three main actors, see the Hollywood Reporter.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood–A Lackluster Fairy Tale

Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to movie buffs.  And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood continues to feature the themes Tarantino cherishes.  With a fully-loaded cast of A-list actors, especially Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio,  what we witness is more a “buddy film” than the advertised “tribute to the final moments of Hollywood’s Golden Age”. But for the audience who does not know the story of Charles Manson and his grasp on the American collective psyche,  the film needs more backstory to fill in plot holes. On the plus side, Tarantino loves cinematic history and Once Upon a Time’s references to the landscape and artifacts of 1969 Hollywood are thoughtfully and minutely reconstructed.

The world around the aging Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio), along with his loyal body double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is both fictional and not. Both are co-dependent and struggling with declining careers.  The first moon landing a mere three weeks before the Beverly Hills massacre of five people, including the nine-months pregnant Sharon Tate, actress and wife to Roman Polanski, a top movie director of the time, August 1969 was a time of both horror and jubilation.

The viewer who knows about Charles Manson and his notorious bloodbath prepares for the pending violence Tarantino is often criticized for:  gratuitous depictions of violence against women. But no one escapes. Without giving too much away, Once Upon a Time builds upon a  “what if” narrative.  But for viewers who are not  familiar with the Charles Manson saga, there is no “what if,” just a senseless action thriller without the irony and fictionalization of history. 

And, to add to Once Upon a Time‘s reliance on shock value and stomach-churning bloodletting, especially of one woman’s skull, the only depictions of  the two women who have any roles more than a few lines–Sharon Tate (a waste of talented Margot Robbie) and Squeaky, one of Manson’s cult followers (played by the always reliable Dakota Fanning)– are cardboard cutouts in the Tarantino style, posturing with long-legged shots that focus more on their extremities than on what they are saying.    

I am not a fan of most of the films produced by Quentin Tarrantino, but  there is still something to admire about the attention to detail in reconstructing the time and place, and in the chemistry between Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.  And this is  a generous reading of what to like about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Note:  At almost three hours in length, the “saggy middle” of this movie could have been eliminated with less footage of driving, walking, smoking cigarettes, as well as the pointless Bruce Lee scene.

“The Alienist”– Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Alienist series

“The Alienist”, a TNT psychological thriller set in 1896, is based on the novel by Caleb Carr. People with mental illness were once considered “alienated from society,” unfathomable to doctors and laymen alike. Those who thought they could treat them were referred to as alienists, pre-dating the Freudian psychiatric movement by more than a decade. The Alienist foreshadows the Freudian theory of the unconscious, and the incipient emergence of forensics (including the first attempts at fingerprinting). If that is not enough, the series also foreshadows the suffragist movement, through the eyes of a police assistant trying to break through the glass ceiling of the NYPD.

The Alienist opens with a series of haunting, gruesome murders of boy prostitutes, terrorizing New York City . Newly appointed police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) calls upon criminal psychologist/alienist) Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) to conduct a secret investigation. They are joined by Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), a headstrong secretary determined to become the city’s first female police detective and who is the key to solving the crimes. Using the emerging disciplines of psychology and early forensic investigation techniques, this band of outsiders sets out to find and apprehend New York City’s infamous serial killer.

The dark foreboding era of the Gilded Age is impeccably captured, immersing the viewer into a time period when the poor and the uber-rich were seen as two separate species. J.P. Morgan, the Astor family and their rarified social circles are played as the underbelly influencing not only finance and industry but also law enforcement and the news media.

Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt must maneuver his way through the power structure of Morgan and the Astors while the journalist Lincoln Steffens is trying to keep everyone honest. The acting is superb, with wonderful ensemble performances. The ending is a bit weak, an attempt to humanize the unsympathetic anti-hero Dr. Kreizler, and could have been omitted.

Nonetheless, this enthralling portrait of the mean streets of Victorian New York City is a keeper.