NETFLIX: Unbelievable

This Friday, September 13, Netflix begins its eight-episode mini-series Unbelievable based on a fascinating true crime story (trailer). Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on how different police departments handled the uncertainties and ambiguities that arise in rape cases. And, in the book, they go into the long, sorry history of why women are so readily disbelieved.

Created and executive produced by screenwriter Susannah Grant, with novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the series stars Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever.

Miller and Armstrong found they still had more to say about the contrasting investigative approaches—one, involving a case that takes place near Seattle where a young woman’s story was disbelieved, and others, in the Denver suburbs, where police went to extraordinary lengths to tie together their investigations with those of other local departments. The authors report what they learned in the new book Unbelievable, an excellent, real-life police procedural.

Read my full review on CrimeFictionLover.com, see the mini-series, or read the book!

Hollywood Investigates Journalism: 2019 Edition

While a bright line has traditionally separated news and entertainment media, that line is getting a little blurred around the edges. In a presentation this week at the Princeton Public Library, entertaining film historian Max Alvarez showed clips of real newscasters playing their professional selves in television dramas and fictional newscasters appearing on real news shows. You have to wonder whether this is a good idea when the media are under a constant “fake news” assault.

Since the early days of Hollywood, the industry has wanted its products lauded and its stars burnished and its scandals muffled. It loves news coverage that manages that. Likewise, the print media likes movies that portray journalists in a positive light, and it has withheld coverage of movies that didn’t, letting them sink into obscurity.

Fictional news outlets, reporters, and issues are one thing, but what happens when Hollywood tackles reality? Since the 1970’s, stories about real journalists at real newspapers have had extra punch because they were rooted in real events. Top of mind: The Washington Post and Watergate in All the President’s Men (1976), and The Boston Globe and child-abusing priests in Spotlight (2015), two films similar in making the tedium of reporting—the phone calls, the notes, the record checks—dramatic and compelling, Alvarez noted. In them, the journalist is romanticized as a seeker of truth, despite the political pressures of corporate owners, advertisers, and the legal department.

The Post, Meryl Streep

Those pressures are front and center in the biopic, The Post (2017), which focused on a pivotal decision by Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. The 2005 biopic Good Night, and Good Luck. portrays the conflict between veteran broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. In both films, the journalist is the hero.

A film about a real-life journalist that did not put the news media in a good light was the aptly titled Kill the Messenger (2014), which perhaps you’ve never heard of (trailer). In 1996, Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, developed a series about links between the CIA, the Nicaraguan Contras and the crack cocaine flooding the United States. The big papers, perhaps incensed at being scooped, attacked his reporting, then him. His paper withdrew its support. Fed up, Webb quit and wrote the book Dark Alliance. (Note that subsequent revelations have vindicated many of his claims.) Television news people aren’t all heroes either. The Insider (1999) detailed how CBS agonized about whether to air a 60 Minutes segment with tobacco-industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand.

Although the editorial decisions in these films—whether to attack Joe McCarthy or the tobacco industry or whether to publish the Pentagon Papers or continue investigating Watergate or claims of priests’ sexual abuse of children—may seem obvious in retrospect, these films do a service by showing how difficult they really were. You can imagine similar soul-searching under way in newsrooms around the country today faced with the pressures of imperfect information and relentless attack.

See These Inspiring Documentary Biopics: RBG and Mr. Rogers

Ruth Bader GinsburgOverwhelmed by the tsunami of pettiness and downright meanness in the news this summer? These biopics make a refreshing change. RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? properly celebrate two talented individuals who single-mindedly dedicated themselves to making better the lives of others.

RBG

The story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg became an icon for women’s rights began when, as a newly minted law school graduate (Harvard and Columbia), she had trouble getting a job (trailer). Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy Ward are obvious admirers, but then, there’s lots to admire. The film includes plenty of archival footage of Ginsburg as a quite beautiful young woman, as well as audio of her earliest arguments before the Supreme Court supporting “gender blindness.”

This historical footage is supplemented by present-day interviews with legal scholars, journalists, politicians, Ginsburg’s children, and RBG herself. Although she fought fiercely for women’s rights, as a person, she’s shy and unassuming. Her parents taught her that angry displays were “self-defeating,” and she kept her calm demeanor in her court battles, even though she says she felt like a kindergarten teacher, helping judges and even members of earlier Supreme Courts to an understanding of the systematic discrimination women faced and its costs. Of course, the battle isn’t over yet and has opened on a new front with #metoo.

If she never shows anger, she shows plenty of love for her husband Marty, who died in 2010. His support enabled her to achieve much of what she has, which every woman in America benefits from today, whether she knows it or not.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 80%.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers 2When I saw previews of this Morgan Neville documentary about children’s television personality Fred Rogers, I was afraid it might be overly saccharine (trailer). But Rogers himself puts that issue to rest by his absolute sincerity and persuasiveness. Himself a child development expert, convinced by research showing the value of young children knowing they are loved for who they are, he used television to carry that message.

Over the years his slow delivery and habits (putting on his sweater, changing his shoes) have been mocked by numerous comedians—clips of these skits are included. OK, but the relevance of those critiques is completely undermined when the film juxtaposes scenes from his program with the usual pie-in-the-face comedy, the frantic action, the fights and violence more typical of children’s programming. There can be no question which is healthier for small children. Yet his show didn’t duck difficult issues. It took on divorce, death, 9/11, assassination—issues kids hear about, but may not get much help in understanding and processing.

Under Rogers’s gentle exterior beat the heart of a “true radical,” said Odie Henderson for RogerEbert.com. The opening song with which he greeted his audience every day said, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” and that “you” included children of all races, abilities, and religions, wherever they lived, recent immigrants or the scions of old Boston families. He loved them, each and every one, just as they were. And they knew it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 99%; audiences: 98%.

Hooray for Hollywood! – Travel Tips

Walk of Stars

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

A Los Angeles vacation wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Hollywood! We shunned the swarms of shills for “homes of the stars” bus tours and instead took a prearranged walking tour along the few compact blocks of Sunset Boulevard where the movie studios, the radio and television networks, and the recording industry all got their starts. Amazing, really.

Our guide, Philip Mershon, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area and will cheerfully answer any questions once the tour is over. Maybe he’s like the Aztec messengers who memorized their speeches and had to begin from the beginning again if interrupted. He’s personable, and he did a great job. (Philip Mershon’s Felix in Hollywood).

On Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, we trod portions of the “Walk of Fame,” the 2500-some plaques representing leading lights of radio, television, movies, and theater. You can’t help exclaiming over the names you recognize and wondering, who are all these other guys?

Grauman’s Theatres

Grauman's Chinese Theatre

photo: wikimedia, creative commons license

Sid Grauman was an early Hollywood theatrical entrepreneur, and his “Chinese Theatre” is justly famous for its over-the-top orientalist décor. It’s a bit of a mob-scene. Amusingly, it’s a popular stop among Chinese tour groups, though there isn’t a thing authentically Chinese about it. Hey, that’s Hollywood. Many celebrities have left their hand or footprints—or both—in the cement of the forecourt—including Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, under a scrawl of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and local (Paterson and Asbury Park, N.J.) talents Lou Costello and Bud Abbott.

A quieter spot was Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre down the block (I admit never having heard of it), which was the site of Hollywood movie premieres for many years. Its décor turned out to be timely, as the theater opened in 1922, just days before the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, a public relations coup even Grauman couldn’t have engineered.

Grauman's Egyptian Theatre

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The lobby was designed to be small, with the illuminati instead gathering outside in the spacious forecourt, packed with starstruck admirers on both sides of a central aisle. The theater underwent numerous infelicitous renovations over the years, but since the late 1990s, American Cinematheque largely restored the original appearance and brought its technology up-to-date.

Behind-the-scenes tours of the Egyptian are offered only once a month, but it’s worth checking out what is playing there (and at the companion Aero theater in Santa Monica), because actors and directors often participate in these screenings. We missed this, but in November, the two theaters had scheduled in-person visits from Dick Van Dyke, Patrick Stewart, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Lawrence, Judi Dench, and many others, along with screenings of their films past and present.

Why Starve Yourself?

We had lunch next door at the historic Pig ’n Whistle, where Judy Garland had her fifteenth (?) birthday party. The richly decorated eatery was an early favorite of Hollywood stars and tourists alike.

Books to Toss into Your Suitcase:
The Day of the Locust, the classic by Nathanael West
A Better Goodbye by John Schulian, gritty noir about Hollywood’s sex trade (here’s my review)

TV’s Charles III

Charles III

Tim Pigott-Smith in Charles III

Sunday night, PBS’s Masterpiece Theater will present the Tony-nominated play, Charles III (trailer). Mike Bartlett wrote both the blank verse play and the adaptation. I saw it on Broadway—see my review for more details—and if the televersion is as good as the stage one, it will be well worth seeing. “Part political thriller, part family drama, and a timely examination of contemporary Britain,” says PBS.

In a nutshell, the Prince of Wales is finally able to ascend to the throne following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, England’s longest-serving monarch.Then the games begin, pitting the unpopular and lackluster Charles against the lively and ambitious Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton (played by Charlotte Riley). And Charles almost immediately starts making a hash of things by injecting himself in a vital policy debate.

In real life, of course, Charles’s succession is considered a dubious outcome of Elizabeth’s reign. Polls suggest that more than half of Britons actually would prefer he be skipped over entirely, putting William on the throne. William V, that would be.

In a her article “Most Likely to Succeed: Where Prince Charles Went Wrong,” New Yorker writer Zoë Heller talks about his persistent unpopularity. One source of it is that he puts his oar into waters about which he knows little, taking stances that “do not follow predictable political lines but seem perfectly calibrated to annoy everyone.”

An exceedingly promising aspect of the television presentation will be the carryover of West End and Broadway cast-members Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles (“the role of a lifetime,” London critics said), Oliver Chris as Prince William, Richard Goulding as Harry (“the ginger idiot”), and Margot Leicester, practically a body double for the galloping Camilla.

Broadchurch

David Tennant, Olivia Colman, Broadchurch

David Tennant & Olivia Colman

The engaging ITV crime drama Broadchurch (trailer) (available on Netflix) has run for two eight-episode seasons, released in 2013 and 2015, with a third season filming this summer for release in 2017. It follows the investigation of the mysterious death of an 11-year-old boy in his small seaside town. Soon all the residents are looking differently at people they’ve known for decades. Secrets emerge; journalists are sleazy; people want revenge; and the coppers make mistakes.

The action in Broadchurch takes place in Dorset, in Southwest England, and the investigation is led by police detectives Alec Hardy (played by David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman). Colman is all over screens big and small this year (The Night Manager, The Lobster). A prize to you if you can catch everything Tennant says, between his character’s thick accent and habit of swallowing his words.

A Cast That Really Supports

All the acting is first-rate, especially that of the detectives and the dead boy’s parents, played by Jodie Whittaker and Andrew Buchan. The story keeps you guessing as to the culprit, revealed at the end of season one. Season two is the trial and introduces some additional fine acting, notably Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the defense attorney. You may remember her as Viv in the U.S. tv series, Without a Trace. She has a severe new hairstyle that gives her a different look, but the voice is unmistakable. Also in season two is Charlotte Rampling as the prosecuting attorney and James D’Arcy as a possible badguy in a previous case that haunts DI Hardy. I remember him fondly as 1st Lt. Tom Pullings in Master and Commander, way back in 2003.

Special mention should be made of the haunting Broadchurch music from Ólafur Arnalds (soundclip), an Icelandic composer and musician, which adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.

U.S. Version Fails

Fox TV created a U.S. version of the series, set in the Pacific Northwest, in a similar seaside town. Called Gracepoint, the series’s most interesting aspect is that David Tennant crossed the Atlantic and the North American continent to reprise his role as the lead detective. In this version he is called Det. Emmett Carver. I wasted no time finding a clip from the show to hear him speak American. He inhabits the other role so completely, the effect was startling! Nick Nolte also appears, as does Michael Peña (The Martian). Alas, the Fox version didn’t measure up and was cancelled after one season of low ratings.

Awards

Broadchurch won many accolades from critics as well as a number of awards. In series one, Olivia Colman won a Best Actress award from the British Academy of Film & Television Arts (BAFTA) and the program received seven BAFTA nominations altogether, including one for Best Original Television Music.

Broadchurch enjoyed a huge audience in the U.K., but not in the United States when it played on BBC America or via streaming. Chances are then that you haven’t seen it, and if you like a compelling crime drama (minus Hollywood’s excessive gore), you might enjoy it!

Awaiting series 3.

The Night Manager

Tom Hiddleston, The Night ManagerHere at Tom Hiddleston Central this week, we’ve not only seen the Hank Williams biopic, I Saw the Light, but on Tuesday at 10 pm, AMC began its six-part series starring Hiddleston in John Le Carré’s, The Night Manager. The tv show is punctuated by Jaguar ads [DO watch!] starring a Hiddleston who looks awfully like a shoe-in for that rumored James Bond role. (But should he want it? Possibly not.)

Having seen episode 1 of The Night Manager, I eagerly look forward to more. The conceit is that Hiddleston’s character, Jonathan Pine, works as the night manager in upscale hotels—in the updated AMC version, in Cairo during the Arab spring, then in Switzerland—with ample motive to bring down a British arms merchant (Hugh Lorrie), “the worst man in the world,” who tends to stay in such posh places. A delightful surprise is Olivia Colman (she is police detective Ellie Miller in the UK mystery series Broadchurch) as head of an obscure London arms control agency.

Le Carré’s original, published 23 years ago, also began in Cairo in a much less turbulent era, though the double-dealing and “whom can you trust?” elements created excruciating tension in both the book (which I read ages ago) and now in the AMC version, which has a fresh new, LeCarré-approved ending. Says Judith Warner in the New York Times, the new version is “deeply appealing, and in substance and style, for this viewer at least, moved the book forward in a number of fortuitous ways.” For this viewer too. Loved it!

Goodbye to All That

(photo: Alex Proimos, creative commons license)

(photo: Alex Proimos, creative commons license)

It’s a blue Monday for fans of Downton Abbey, or Abbots as we’re called.The soapsuds around Highclere Castle are subsiding, people upstairs are learning to pour their own tea or at least let Mr. Barrow help, and Mr. Carson has been given a dictionary with the word “vicarious” circled in it. And the programmers at PBS responsible for its All Downton All the Time schedule of specials are decidedly nervous.

Downton has been a money-making machine. It’s “the most-viewed drama in PBS’s 45 years,” helping the American broadcaster gain a worldwide audience estimated at some 120 million people, Forbes reports, with global merchandising revenue hitting $250 million in 2014. More satisfying than any of that is that revenues to beautiful Highclere Castle—in need of nearly $20 million in repairs six years ago—have enabled the owners to restore it fully and secure its future.

But Downton has built this mega-empire not because viewers were interested in public television’s resurgence or castle restoration, but because it’s fun! It’s entertaining to see how other people live and the depths of misery in the midst of high posh. You can put your own expertise on the downs of Downton to the test. The New York Times offers a quiz to see how many calamities the characters have endured that you can recognize. I scored 22 out of 39 points. Hint: Thomas pretty much had them all.

I’m not surprised to receive regular Downton-related promotions from Masterpiece sponsor Viking River Cruises. Farther afield is the advertising I received yesterday for ‘Downton Abbey’ roses. I can fill my garden with Anna’s Promise (coral), Violet’s Pride (violet, natch), Lady Edith’s darling (in a shade closest to Marigold), and the Pretty Lady Rose rose (fuchsia). We’re only missing Lady Mary’s Heart, which I suppose is not offered because (after the recent treatment of Edith) roses don’t come in black. Though she’s trying.

In case you think what you’ll miss most are Dowager Countess Violet’s zingers, here’s a whole list of them. One of my favorites: “I don’t dislike him, I just don’t like him. Which is quite different.” Indeed. Or last night’s “Why can’t men ever paint themselves out of a corner?”

If your withdrawal symptoms are too acute, Chanel Cleeton for BookBub has prepared a list of books to help you through it. (I see House of Mirth on the list. I thought that was going to be Julian Fellowes’s next big project—a series about New York in the Gilded Age?) Top of the BookBub list: Wendy Wax’s romantic While We Were Watching Downton Abbey.

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My Jake Epping Experience

James Franco

James Franco as Jake Epping in 11.22.63 from Hulu

I’m excited about Hulu’s eight-part production (trailer) of Stephen King’s complex 2011 time-travel thriller, 11/22/63, which will premiere on President’s Day. I listened to the book several years ago and found it both gripping and fascinating. You may recall that, in King’s novel, high school English teacher Jake Epping goes back in time to try to thwart the assassination of JFK. Unfortunately, everything he does has rippling consequences he cannot foresee. It turns out that “history doesn’t want to change,” and to try to get it right, he has to reenter the past more than once.

There’s a mysterious character—the Yellow Card Man—who Jake finally learns is in charge of tracking the revisions in history he’s made and making sure all those events play out in their own new way. If someone’s life is saved, for example, they need a future, for better or ill—one they wouldn’t have had without Jake—and one that has its own infinite repercussions. I’ll let you see the series or read the book to get the full flavor of how tiny and profound those changes can be.

So here’s my Jake Epping experience. Consultation with the editor on my Rome-based novel led to agreement that several of the characters need to be expanded. Alas, the book was already straining publishers’ preferences at 98,000 words. Adding means subtracting.

Now I’m working on a draft that will eliminate several characters. Like Jake, I’m taking them out of the story and revising the world I have envisioned. (If you’re a writer, too, you know how much time you spend in that alternative universe, filling it with people and objects and snatches of conversation!) All that has to be reimagined. While the roles of these late-lamented were more that of facilitating action, rather than major players, it’s still challenging.

Not only do I have to find plausible ways to get done the things these characters did (e.g., provide my main character with a place to stay; introduce her to the police detective who takes her case). It isn’t just a matter of changing names. In the way that you don’t talk to you best friend from high school the same way to talk to your boss (at least most of us don’t), the dynamics of the remaining characters’ interactions have to be adjusted.

Sometimes the whole point-of-view from which a scene is written must change. For example, a conversation in a cathedral is very different when seen from a priest’s point of view than from a criminal’s. Different speakers have different goals, different gestures and ways of speaking, and notice different things around them.

This isn’t a complaint. This process is energizing. You might say that the characters being eliminated were extra furniture, and I’m cleaning house. It’s sharpening my focus, too. Like Jake, I’m trying to understand a world made new. Though a few darlings have been killed in the process, I’m confident my book will be better for it!

The Man in the High Castle: Guest Post

Man in the High Castle, Philip K. DickGuest-reviewer David Sherr gives 5 stars to this 10-part Amazon Studio Series production, which he binge-watched one recent weekend. Says David:

The Man in the High Castle is a complex story of espionage and betrayal based on a 1963 Hugo Award-winning novel by Philip K. Dick. It’s produced by Ridley Scott, who directed Blade Runner (1982), based on another of Dick’s dystopian tales, and Frank Spotniz (The X-Files). The story provides an alternative history: Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany win World War II, and the United States is under totalitarian rule.

While very few movies are as compelling as the book that inspired them, this one holds true to its source in essential plot and character development. (This Gizmodo review describes some of the differences, for fans of the book.) The series is perfectly paced with tight dialogue and uniformly superior directing and acting. The cinematography is exquisite—lingering shots in muted color settings.

Man in the High Castle

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in Man in the High Castle

Among the production’s leading actors are Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans, Luke KleinTank. One particularly outstanding and subtle performance is that of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as the melancholy but kind US Japanese Trade Minister, Nobusuke Tagomi, in the accompanying photo. (You may remember him as Chang in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Academy Award-winning film, The Last Emperor [1987], or Eddie Sakamura in Rising Sun [1993], based on a book by Michael Crichton.)

The artistic director, costume designer, and set designer all deserve kudos. The film depicts technology, clothing, hair styles, and vehicles that appear to be from at least a decade earlier than 1962, when the story is set, which is consistent with a point in the story-line about how progress is inhibited by the effects of fascism.

The Man in the High Castle became available for Amazon streaming on November 20. It’s billed as “season one,” so there may be more to come.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%.

Guest review by David Scherr. Contact him at dmsherr@gmail.com or on Twitter: @davidsherr