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 filmmaker 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 bestselling crime thriller, but also is an intimate glimpse into the world of the privileged and entitled, who seem bewildered by the entire judicial 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!

 

“Shake Hands with the Devil”–The Backstory to “Hotel Rwanda”

Shake Hands 2005

A Sundance award-winning documentary, this film  takes the viewer to the  hell experienced by General Romeo Dallaire, who was assigned to lead UN peace-keeping forces in Rwanda in the spring of 1994. In 100 days approximately  800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered, most of them Tutsis at the hands of the Hutus.  The images of heaps of dead bodies, and rooms filled with  skulls, are more harrowing than anything I’ve seen in cinema.

General Dallaire returns to Rwanda ten years after the massacres in  2004, with his wife protectively guiding him through the landscape of his traumatic past like treacherous land mines waiting to explode. Told through this remarkable Canadian general’s eyes in a series of horrific flashbacks and post-traumatic memories, we witness his powerlessness and frustration, and his terrible remorse. Interviews with some of his UN colleagues and BBC reporters support Dallaire accounts: his horror, profound regret, and his shaken belief in human values.   Despite the general’s repeated alerts to the impending bloodbath, UN officials in New York—with European and American disinterest— did nothing. While Dallaire was promised 5,000 soldiers for a scheduled election of a new president,  the soldiers were never supplied, leaving his peacekeeping mission impotent. Refusing to leave the country during the reign of terror, this unsung warrior tried to save as many lives as possible.  And all hell broke out.

Both heroic and philosophical, this Canadian commander remembers “the most evil imaginable” with a heartbreaking vulnerability that is only a thin membrane away from what seems uncomfortably close to  a nervous breakdown.  The anniversary trip was likely  a necessary step in his recovery from post-traumatic stress, in the healing of horrific psychic wounds, which left him depressed and suicidal after his return to Canada.  Some semblance of order and stability returned to Rwanda by the time of his visit in retirement and he is given a hero’s welcome.  Participating in the commemorative ceremonies of the 2004 bloodbath, Dallaire delivers a quiet but searing and devastating speech.

Many reasons are given for the West’s indifference, most conspicuously, there was nothing anybody wanted from Rwanda.   It was convenient to dismiss the civil war as African tribal feuding, with an implied racism.   “Shake Hands with the Devil” is a reminder of the cost of indifference.

[Available on Netflix;  Note–Not to be confused with the low-quality drama by the same name, produced in 2007, the documentary “Shake Hands with the Devil” is dated 2005 .]

Shake Hands with the Devil
Shake Hands with the Devil

 

Napa Valley Film Festival–Is this the next Sundance?

Last week (November 9-13) I attended the inaugural Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF) with a friend who lives in Calistoga and has volunteered in the festival’s planning.  Over 100 films were presented, many for the first time at any film festival, in 12 screening locations from Napa to Calistoga.  Along with viewing films we had the  pleasure of tasting fine wines from local wineries and delicious food at the welcome party (for holders of Pass Plus and patrons).  In the next two or three posts, I will be reviewing several of my favorite movies from NVFF.

While this year marks the 30th anniversary of Sundance,  walking through the Napa Valley circuit of theaters I kept imagining that Sundance was probably a lot like this in 1981, except for subzero temperatures and a smaller geographical area to maneuver.  Since my friend Caroline and I had been to Sundance several times, we had the experience to compare both festivals.  First of all, for those who prefer the autumn splendor of colored leaves, hills, and vines, Napa Valley is incomparable.  The rugged beauty of Park City, Utah definitely has its merits–especially for skiers–but the subzero weather makes long outdoor lines a form of human torture.

Second, the novelty of the film festival in the Napa area resulted in great flexibility among the friendly volunteers in greeting attendees, guiding them to the complimentary wine tables, and allowing the two of us into the theater after the first minutes of the movie’s showing.  Sundance would never let us do that!  We were quiet and moved stealthily to seats in the back near an exit.  Never an option at Sundance.

The films were overall of high quality with some first runs–“J. Edgar”, “The Descendants”, “Butter”, and “Hideaway”–all produced by major production studios.  Several of the indies were charming and original–“Becoming Santa”, about the history of Santa Claus and the training of Santas at a special school, “Jiro Makes Sushi”, about an 85-year old master chef in Tokyo’s only 3-star Michelin restaurant, and “Mamitas”, a coming-of-age film about two Mexican-American teenagers in Los Angeles.  The editing, sometimes a lack of subtitles, and infrequently amateurish cinematography in a scene or two marred some of the indie films we saw. As word gets out, however, there should be a broader selection of fine films to choose from.

There were perhaps two major indicators that the NVFF is just beginning its journey to being a major player in the long list of film festivals across the country.  One is the lack of adequate signage for finding some venues (Elementary School and Gliderport in Calistoga, for example), where anyone but locals would not be able to find the location.  Even my friend hesitated in finding the driveway for the Gliderport venue.  The second indicator was the absence of a shuttle bus system to transport attendees from one theater to another, and some were at least 45-minutes apart from point-to-point (Calistoga to Napa).  While over half of the attendees were locals this year, that will definitely change as the word gets out that this film festival means business about being ranked in the top ten nationally.  With the food (Zuzu, Market, Azzurro, Oxbow Market, Jole) and the wine (unique in comparison with Sundance), the Napa Valley Film Festival is definitely a contender for being a knockout star among film festivals going forward!  Check out their excellent website at: www.napavalleyfilmfest.org. (Sundance could learn some lessons in this department from Napa!)