New on Netflix – “Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer”

On December 2, 1979, New York City firefighters responded to an alarm at the Travel Inn Motor Hotel, located at 515 West 42nd Street. When the firemen entered room 417, they encountered the thick smoke which permeated their surroundings. On the room’s two beds, they saw shapes. When the firemen went to give CPR to what they hoped, were the survivors of the fire, they discovered two dead bodies, each of which had their hands and head cut off. The police secured the scene, and began investigating. The little they learned was that a man had checked into the hotel four days prior. He had registered under a false name, and gave a non-existent address. While at the hotel, he never communicated with any other guests, did not order room service, and he kept the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door for the duration of his stay. The victims were two young women, one of whom was later identified as Deedeh Goodzari, a sex worker. The other victim, has never been identified.

The killings were the depraved work of a serial killer the press would later name ‘The Torso Killer.’ He would kill again five months later. The victim, Jean Reyner, who was discovered strangled at the Seville Hotel, was also a sex worker. Eventually, Richard Cottingham, a married father of three, the man responsible for the murders, would be caught, by sheer luck.

Police were astounded to learn that his crimes weren’t limited to the times square area. Cottingham worked the night shift as a computer operator for Blue Cross Blue Shield. There was almost no supervision, thereby allowing him to manipulate the computers to make it look like he was working. In reality, he was sneaking out for hours at a time. Cottingham immersed himself in the peep booths, live sex shows, adult book stores, and sex workers that inundated the Times Square area of the 1970s and early 1980s.  His crimes, however, didn’t stop there. He would bring victims from the city back to Lodi, New Jersey where he lived, and where he also killed. Although, tried and convicted of the murders of eleven people, from his own confessions, and as DNA evidence has proven, Cottingham began killing in as early as 1967, and claims the total amount of victims he has murdered numbers in the 80s.  

As of the writing of this post the new, limited, Netflix series: “Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer,” centers not only on Cottingham, but the culture of the time period in New York City, as well as the investigation into capturing him. The three episodes that comprise the series feature archival footage, as well as reenactments of Cottingham’s life and crimes, and while certainly the mere thought of what’s taking place is disturbing, nothing shown is overly graphic. Furthermore, there are interviews that include, but are not limited to: Vernon Geberth, retired Lieutenant-Commander of the New York City Police Department, who worked, at the time, as a criminal profiler, and helped bring Cottingham to justice; Dominic Volpe, a co-worker of Cottingham’s at Blue Cross Blue Shield, who was a key witness for the prosecution against Cottingham at his trials; Jennifer Weiss, Deedeh Goodzari’s daughter, who had been adopted, and only learned who her biological mother was, after she had been murdered. Weiss offers insight, and the reason why she befriended Cottingham in prison. Lastly, Richard Cottingham, as he was at the time of filming, talking with Nadia Fezzani, a Canadian author and journalist, who has written extensively about serial killers.

“Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer” was directed by two time Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Joe Berlinger (Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America). Among the executive producers for the series were Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, both of whom won Oscars for the film “A Beautiful Mind.”  The Netflix series was released for streaming on December 29, 2021. Parts documentary, crime, history, and mystery, its runtime is 147 minutes.

Prior to watching, I was unfamiliar with Richard Cottingham and his crimes. From what I’ve now seen and read, while he doesn’t impress me as a dumb man, he wasn’t a genius either. He avoided detection for as long as he did, because he was aided by the time period in which he lived. There was limited surveillance in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, not like today where there are security camera’s everywhere, and if that weren’t enough, everyone has video recording capability on their cell phones. The people Cottingham targeted, sex workers, were more often than not runaways, or people who were living on the fringes of society, not likely to be reported missing. One of the women, who used to work as a sex worker, believes she had a horrible experience with Cottingham. Afraid of being arrested at the time, had she gone to the police, she kept quiet. Who knows how many others, like her, afraid of the authorities, might have seen someone go off with Cottingham, and said nothing. Additionally, Cottingham was helped, because DNA evidence didn’t exist, it was still in its infancy until the 1980s.

In closing, the series provides the website address listed at the bottom. It asks that if anyone knows of someone who went missing in the 1970s or the beginning of 1980, that worked in the Times Square area, and thinks that person could’ve been a victim of Richard Cottingham, contact the police.   

crimestoppers.nypdonline.org

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“The Lure” (2015)

“The Lure” centers on two sisters, Gold (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek), who are anything but ordinary. In fact, they are mermaids. They have enchanting singing voices, and if that weren’t enough, they also have the ability to communicate telepathically. Furthermore, their teeth are fangs, that can easily be used to devour the flesh off of anyone who crosses them. When the film opens, the sisters emerge from the sea, and begin to sing to two men, Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), and Perkusista (Andrzej Konopka). The sisters are asking the men to help them up onto the shore, where they will be able to take human form. The two men are in a band, Mietek plays the bass, and Perkusista is the drummer. When Krysia (Kinga Preis), the front woman of the group, sees that the girls are mermaids, she screams in shock. (As an aside: Approximately 2000 actresses were looked at for the roles of the two sisters, before Mazurek and Olszanska were picked).

The band performs at a nightclub, where they are the headline act. Sensing a real opportunity to make money, Krysia incorporates the sisters into the band, which has taken the new name ‘The Lure.’ The sisters inclusion mesmerizes the crowds, not only their voices, but when they transform on stage. The popularity of the act, and the financial rewards it generates, is something which sits well with Kierownik sali (Zygmunt Malanowicz), the club’s owner. One evening, the sisters come in contact with Tryton (Marcin Kowalczyk), a fellow sea creature. He also enjoys playing music, but he lets the sisters know that creatures such as themselves, can only visit while on land, they shouldn’t attempt to assimilate for the long term.

At first, everything is new and exciting for the sisters. They are experiencing things like drinking and partying, which has always been completely foreign to them. Shopping for new clothes is also something the sisters have never needed to do before. The experience leads to one musical number that bursts forth with vibrant colors. After a while, the fun of behaving like a human starts to wear off on Gold. She begins to get antsy with staying in one place. Gold takes out her frustrations by feeding on unsuspecting men, whom she entices to spend time with her. Silver, however, has fallen in love with Mietek. In fact, she is so taken with him, that she is willing to undergo a surgical procedure to have her tail removed, and have the lower half of her body, be that of a woman.

Even though he likes her, Mietek has told Silver, that he will always view her as a fish. He feels that way, because while the sisters have legs when they take human form, they have no genitals. If Silver goes through with the operation, by giving up that which makes her a mermaid, she will lose her voice. In addition, if Mietek doesn’t reciprocate her love, and Silver fails to kill him, according to mermaid legend, she will be turned into foam, and washed away at sea. Silver’s infatuation with Mietek has caused a rift between the sisters. Gold is horrified that Silver would give up the life they share as mermaids. She wants her to end, what Silver considers, the foolish thoughts of life happily ever after with Mietek, and continue on their journey to America where they were originally set to go. Will Silver go through with the operation? (As an aside: The mermaid tails that were used while filming were six feet long and weighed over fifty pounds).

“The Lure” was directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska (Fugue), in her debut feature-length film. The screenplay was written by Robert Bolesto (A Heart of Love). The story for the film was based, in part, on “The Little Mermaid” written by Hans Christian Andersen. The fairy tale was published by C.A. Reitzel, on April 7, 1837. On December 16, 2015, the film premiered in Warsaw, Poland. Parts drama, fantasy, horror, musical, and thriller, it has a runtime of 92 minutes. The film was made in Poland, its title in its native language is  Córki dancingu, which means ‘Daughters of Dancing.’

                                                                  

The acting, especially by the two leads, is spot on. In the film, Smoczynska demonstrated her competency as a director, and I am interested in seeing where she has taken her work since “The Lure’s” release. The music heard throughout the movie, not only showcases the lead actresses’ talents, but acts as another character, because of its importance to advancing the film’s narrative. The film will not be for everyone. For those of you who do watch “The Lure,” this is the sort of film which will most likely leave you thinking about what you’ve watched, long after the credits are over.    

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“The Watcher in the Woods” (1980)

Paul Curtis, played by three time Emmy nominee David McCallum (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), and his wife Helen, played by Golden Globe winner Carroll Baker (Baby Doll), move into an English mansion in the countryside. Paul is an opera conductor, and Helen writes children’s books. They are not alone, with them are their two daughters: Jan, a teenager, portrayed by Golden Globe nominee Lynn-Holly Johnson (Ice Castles), and her younger sister, Ellie (Kyle Richards). In the adjacent cottage, lives the owner of the mansion, the haggard looking, Mrs. Aylwood, a role acted by two time Oscar winner Bette Davis (Dangerous). Mrs. Aylwood needs money, that is the reason she’s renting out the mansion at an affordable price, but she has no intention of selling the house. Thirty years earlier, a tragedy befell Karen, her daughter, whose presence she thinks she feels on the property. When Mrs. Aylwood first sees Jan, she’s startled at the resemblance she has to Karen. (As an aside: Kyle Richards is perhaps best known to fans of the original Halloween (1978) film. She played the role of Lindsey; a role which she reprised in 2021’s Halloween Kills).    

No sooner does the Curtis family move in, that strange occurrences begin to happen, but oddly, not to the adults, only to the two girls. Flashing blue lights appear, mysterious images of a blindfolded girl inside of the mirrors or glass can be seen by Jan; words are spoken to Jan and Ellie by an unseen presence, and that’s just the beginning. As the film progresses, the girls find themselves, at different times, in situations of danger. Those scenes are unlikely to frighten adults, but might increase the heartbeats of some younger viewers, especially on a first time viewing.  

From the outset, Jan senses a strange presence. She begins to feel that there is more to the story of Mrs. Alywood’s daughter’s disappearance, than what has been told the past three decades. After a harrowing experience, she has an opportunity to talk with Mrs. Alywood about Karen. As it turns out, on the night she disappeared, Karen was at an old church with three friends: Mary (Frances Cuka), Tom (Richard Pasco), and John, portrayed by Oscar nominee Ian Bannen (The Flight of the Phoenix). Karen is blindfolded and is taking part in an initiation ceremony being run by John. A storm seemingly comes out of nowhere, and the building begins to get destroyed, which prompts the friends to run. When the storm is over, everyone is accounted for, including Mrs. Alywood, who went to look for her daughter. The only person missing is Karen. After Jan learns this, and her sensing that someone or something is trying to reach out to her, she attempts to piece the mystery together. Jan begins by talking to those who were involved in the initiation ceremony. She is helped by her boyfriend Mike (Benedict Taylor), who is Mary’s son. (As an aside: The younger version of Mrs. Alywood shown to viewers, in a flashback scene, is played by BAFTA winner Georgina Hale (Mahler), and the younger version of John, is acted by BAFTA winner Dominic Guard (The Go-Between).   

What will Jan discover? Is there a supernatural presence haunting the Aylwood manor? What if anything will happen to her sister Ellie, and the rest of her family? Could Karen still be alive after thirty years? If she is, what are her reasons for remaining in hiding all that time? Do the grown adults, who were involved in the initiation ceremony as teenagers, know more than they’re letting on? All of those questions will be answered by the film’s conclusion.

Trivia buffs take note: There is a 100 minute cut of the film that was originally shown to test audiences, but has never been released to the public. On The Anchor Bay release of the DVD, is included two alternate endings, which gives viewers most of the footage that was kept out of the film. Oscar nominee Diane Lane (Unfaithful) was originally cast in the role of Jan, but dropped out before filming began. The film was going to be a television movie, before the Disney Studio decided to release it in theaters. Oscar nominee Quinn Cummings (The Goodbye Girl) was offered the role of Ellie, but turned it down.

“The Watcher in the Woods” was directed by John Hough (The Legend of Hell House). In addition, Vincent McEveety (Star Trek: The Original Series) contributed toward the directing of the film, but did not receive credit for his work. The screenplay was co-written by Emmy nominee Brian Clemens (The Avengers); Harry Spalding (The Magical World of Disney); Rosemary Anne Sisson (The Black Cauldron); and additional contributions were made by Gerry Day (Dennis the Menace), but he didn’t receive credit for his work.  Florence Engel Randall’s novel “A Watcher in the Woods”  published by Atheneum Books, on March 1, 1976, served as the basis for the screenplay. The music composed by BAFTA winner Stanley Myers (Middlemarch), sets the right tone for what is taking place throughout the film. “The Watcher in the Woods” premiered on April 17, 1980 in New York City, New York. Parts family, horror, mystery, and thriller the film has a runtime of 84 minutes. On October 21, 2017, a  remake of the original was directed by Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina the Teenage Witch). The television movie starred Oscar winner Anjelica Huston (Prizzi’s Honor).                                 

Adults who watched the film as children or teenagers, will probably view the film through a nostalgic lens. Those who are older, who have never seen the film, might find it too tame. “The Watcher in the Woods” is an entertaining children’s film, and for those children, like myself, who wanted to watch scary movies at an inappropriate age, this would make for a good introduction to the genre. There are some moments, as mentioned earlier, that younger viewers might find contain genuine fright, but there are no scenes containing gore or violent death. I would recommend it for children who are interested in scary stories, adults who enjoyed the film in their youth, and Disney aficionados, who have never seen the film.    

                                                                                               

  

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“Black Widow” (2021)

The film “Black Widow” begins in 1995, and focuses on a family of four in Ohio, that are anything, but typical. The father, Alexei, played by Golden Globe nominee David Harbour (Stranger Things), is secretly the Red Guardian, Russia’s answer to Captain America. Melina, the woman pretending to be his wife, is a product of The Red Room, a secret Russian location, where young girls are taken and trained to be assassins in the Black Widow program. In the role of Melina is Oscar winner Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener). Her young daughter Natasha (Ever Anderson) knows what the family’s purpose for being in America is, but her younger sister Yelena (Violet McGraw), does not. She will soon learn, as the family is forced to flee, after Alexi steals secret government information, for Dreykov, the vile head of The Red Room, portrayed by two time BAFTA nominee Ray Winstone (Nil by Mouth). Once the family arrives in Cuba, they are separated. Natasha and Yelena are taken by Dreykov as new recruits for The Red Room. Years later, the strong minded, skilled fighter, Romanoff acted by BAFTA winner and two time Oscar nominee Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation), thinks she has killed Dreykov by detonating a bomb. Was he actually where she thought he was going to be, or is he still alive?

The events in the film center on what took place between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”  Romanoff is keeping busy staying one step ahead of Secretary of State Ross; in the role of Ross is Oscar winner William Hurt (Kiss of the Spiderwoman). He is attempting to bring her to justice, because she, along with the other members of the Avengers, violated the Sokovia Accords; they are a set of legal documents that regulates the powers of those who work for the government, or for groups such as the Avengers.      

In the intervening years, Yelena Belova, portrayed by Oscar nominee Florence Pugh (Little Women), has become a highly skilled assassin. She works as a team leader for the black widows. Belova is in the midst of tracking down Oksana (Michelle Lee), a former widow, who has defected. When Belova catches up with Oksana, during a struggle, Oksana releases a chemical gas, known as red dust, which alters Belova’s mental perception. The gas has awakened her from the mind control she is under, and she no longer is forced to do things that she doesn’t want to. As Oksana lays dying, Belova removes the tracker embedded in her leg, and runs off into hiding with a handful of red dust vials.

 Romanoff’s desire, is to get off the grid and stay there, so she can figure things out. Helping her is Mason played by Emmy nominee O-T Fagbenie (The Handmaid’s Tale). He sets her up with documentation, including multiple new identities, and a place to live, in Norway, that is twenty minutes from the nearest town. Romanoff’s self-imposed isolation, doesn’t go according to plan. One evening, she leaves for the town, to go get gas for a generator that has blown. While in route, she is attacked. She thinks Secretary Ross has caught up with her, but it is not him. Romanoff is confronted by the high tech, armored, Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), who has the ability to mimic anyone’s fighting style. Therefore, no matter what Romanoff tries, the Taskmaster matches it, making victory impossible. The Taskmaster, however, is not after Romanoff. Instead it is the set of red dust vials that Belova mailed to Romanoff, at a safe house in Budapest, that she wants. The vials, along with the rest of her mail, was left by Mason, but Romanoff, having no interest in it, hadn’t even looked at it. Romanoff and Yelena meet up at the safe house. After some fighting and a wild car chase through the streets of Budapest, the siblings come to an understanding. They plan to team up so they can destroy the Red Room, free the other widows from their mind control, and kill Dreykov, once and for all. Will they succeed?  

 Trivia buffs take note: The character of Natasha Romanoff was created by the late, world renowned Stan Lee, scripter Don Rico and artist Don Heck. She first appeared in April 1964, in Marvel Comics Tales of Suspense # 52. This is the ninth time that Scarlett Johansson has portrayed the character of Black Widow / Natasha Romanoff. There were a number of other actresses considered for the role of Yelena Belova, chief among them were BAFTA winner Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower). Two time Oscar winner Chloé Zhao (Nomadland), was approached to direct the film, but she opted to direct “Eternals” instead. “Black Widow” became the first film to be released theatrically and on Disney+ streaming service simultaneously. Olga Kurylenko was among the finalists to portray Wonder Woman, before the role was ultimately given to Gal Gadot. 

“Black Widow” was directed by Cate Shortland (LORE). The screenplay was co-written by Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok), and two time Emmy nominee Jac Schaeffer (WandaVision), based on a story by Ned Benson (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby). The film premiered in Madrid, Spain on June 30, 2021. Parts action, adventure, and Sci-Fi, it has a runtime of a 134 minutes.  

Pugh’s Yelena Belova is one of the highlights of the film, and she has already reprised the character in three episodes of the Disney+ series “Hawkeye,” which stars two time Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner (The Town), and BAFTA nominee Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit). “Black Widow” is a well balanced film; it has its moments of darkness, plenty of fast paced action, but also uses levity to break up the tension when appropriate. The on-screen chemistry between Johansson and Pugh was excellent and helped to elevate the movie. Overall, this should appeal to fans of the “Black Widow” comic books, the previous films featuring Johansson as Romanoff, and those who like action packed films, that also contain a more involved storyline.  

                                           

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

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“A Christmas Carol” (1984)

There have been numerous versions of “A Christmas Carol” that have been performed on stage and screen, but the 1984 television movie, at least from all the productions I’ve seen, remains my favorite. Ebenezer Scrooge, brilliantly embodied by Oscar winner George C. Scott (Patton), is a cantankerous miser. He seemingly views everyone, especially those individuals filled with the Christmas spirit, with disdain. While most people he encounters are consumed with the holidays, his single minded focus is on business. No one, it appears, is able to break through his tough mental veneer of loathing for Christmas. Scrooge’s nephew, Fred Holywell, played by Emmy nominee Roger Rees (The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby), the only son of his deceased sister, Fan (Joanne Whalley), invites his uncle to Christmas dinner. Scrooge not only declines the invitation, but makes biting comments about it. Furthermore, while he reluctantly gives his good natured employee, Bob Cratchit, a role acted by Emmy winner David Warner (Masada), Christmas day off from work, he insists that Cratchit arrive even earlier than usual the following day.

After leaving his financial firm, for the day, Scrooge stops by the commodities exchange. While there, he insists that the men he does business with pay him more money for corn, than the price he had quoted them the previous day. He also scoffs at the idea of giving money to charity. Scrooge not only rebukes the chance to do a good deed, but states to Mr. Hacking (John Quarmby), and Mr. Poole, played by BAFTA winner Michael Gough (The Go-Between), that the taxes he pays should be enough to care for the indigent.

Later that same evening, Scrooge is visited by the startling apparition of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, portrayed by BAFTA winner Frank Finlay (Othello). Marley, who is weighted down by thick, heavy chains, has found no peace in the afterlife. He warns Scrooge that he will suffer the same fate if he doesn’t change his ways. In addition, he informs Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts: The Ghost of Christmas Past, who will arrive at 1:00am. At 2:00am, he will be visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, and at an unknown time, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Throughout the evening, the ghosts stick to the missions of their respective titles, taking Scrooge on a journey, which runs the gamut from his youth to the current day. Unbeknownst at first to the cynical Scrooge, who believes he is suffering from a nightmare brought on by something bad he ate, this is his last chance to alter his own bleak future. (As an aside: The Ghost of Christmas Past is played by Angela Pleasence (Happy Valley). Golden Globe winner Edward Woodward (The Equalizer) portrays The Ghost of Christmas Present). Michael Carter, performs the role of The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come).      

I remember taking a class on the works of Dickens when I was in college. During a discussion pertaining to “A Christmas Carol,” one of my classmates asked the question: Why was Scrooge given a second chance, but not Jacob Marley? The film, while not specifically addressing Marley’s not being offered a chance at redemption, does put forth the reasons why Scrooge was given one last chance to change the course of his life. In the film, a younger version of Scrooge played by Mark Strickson (Dr. Who), is shown to have gone through situations that understandably made him bitter: The withholding of his father’s (Nigel Davenport) love; also, the death of his older sister, the aforementioned Fan, who loved him, and whom he loved; additionally, but perhaps most importantly, when he lost Belle, the love of his life. In the movie the character is portrayed by Golden Globe nominee Lucy Gutteridge (Little Gloria…Happy at Last). From Scrooge’s own admission, he should have gone after her and expressed his feelings. I didn’t answer my classmates question at the time, but if asked again, I would state that Scrooge is worthy of a second chance. The reason, because in his past, he had demonstrated the capacity for love. He had lost his ability to love, as well as show compassion and empathy for others, a number of years prior. If, however, he allowed himself the opportunity to change, he could find it again. In my opinion, the ghosts, while they detest the man Scrooge has become, offer him a second chance, because they know that he has allowed his true self to remain dormant since the emotional pains of his earlier life overwhelmed him.

“A Christmas Carol” was directed by BAFTA nominee Clive Donner (Rogue Male). The screenplay adapted from the Charles Dickens classic was written by Emmy nominee Roger O. Hirson (The Adams Chronicles). The original title of Dickens novel was “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.”  The novel was published by Chapman & Hall on December 19, 1843, and featured illustrations by John Leech. The made for television movie was first released theatrically in the UK on November 23, 1984. Parts drama, family, and fantasy, it has a runtime of 100 minutes. 

Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

Trivia buffs take note: The Ebenezer Scrooge headstone used in the television movie can still be seen at Saint Chad’s Churchyard in Shrewsbury, England. The production crew never removed it after filming commenced. The name ‘Scrooge’ is taken from the verb meaning ‘to squeeze.’ This version of “A Christmas Carol” was not the first that director Clive Donner had worked on. He was the film editor on the 1951 film, which starred BAFTA nominee Alastair Sim. Actor Michael Carter, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, is perhaps best known to Star Wars fans for his portrayal of Bib Fortuna, in “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.”    

If a viewer is particularly jaded, and overlooks the time period in which the television movie was made, that person would consider the special effects lacking, but that, as far as I’m concerned, would be on them. Scott, as mentioned earlier, makes for a phenomenal Scrooge, and the cast members, in general are excellent in their respective roles. The cinematography by BAFTA nominee Toni Imi (Enemy Mine) does a wonderful job of capturing the Dickensian landscape. The music by BAFTA winner Nick Bicât (Carrie’s War) synchs up perfectly with what is transpiring on screen, and especially during some of the darker scenes gives the viewer a real sense of foreboding. If you’re a fan of the story, and haven’t seen this version of it, I would highly recommend you watch it. I don’t believe that you’ll consider it a waste of your time upon completion. 

                                                                    

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“Above Suspicion – Starring Game of Thrones Emilia Clarke”

The film “Above Suspicion” takes place in the Appalachian mountain town of Pikeville, Kentucky. Susan Smith, portrayed by BAFTA winner and four time Emmy nominee, Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones), stars in, and narrates the movie. The film is based on a true story. For those unfamiliar with the real life events, the viewer is immediately made aware that Susan is deceased. The how and the why, is part of what the film explores. (As an aside: Oscar winner Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), starred in “Betrayed by Love,” a 1994 television movie that was based on the same story).  

From the outset, Susan is in a bad situation. Her town, where her sister Jolene, a role acted by Golden Globe nominee, Thora Birch (The Walking Dead), runs a salon, has been in economic despair since the mines closed. Many people are destitute, and addicted to oxy or meth. Susan is divorced, a hard drinker and cocaine user, who likes blasting heavy metal music while driving, and cashes two welfare checks, one check from Kentucky and one from West Virginia, in order to get by. She resides with her two children: her daughter (Lex Kelli), and son (Landon Durrence), in the house of her drug dealing ex-husband, Cash played by Johnny Knoxville (Drunk History). A number of bank robberies in the surrounding area have garnered the attention of the F.B.I.. The bureau sends a young, up and coming agent, Mark Putnam (Jack Huston) to investigate the crimes. He is not alone, having transferred to Pikeville with his wife, Kathy (Sophie Lowe), and the couple’s new baby.

Susan has been looking to leave Pikeville, where, with the exception of living one year in Pittsburgh, she has remained her entire life. Through a drug fueled incident involving her brother Bones (Luke Spencer Roberts), that takes place at a party, she meets Putnam. The F.B.I. agent has been working with local sheriff’s deputy Randy McCoy (Austin Hébert). He is attempting to help Putnam capture the bank robber. After Putnam lets it be known that he wants to put Cash and Bones in prison, Susan offers him a deal. She will be his informant. Putnam is intrigued, especially when she promises him that the people she will bring him, will be a lot more valuable to Putnam than her brother or Cash ever would be.

Putnam agrees, and begins arranging clandestine meetings with Susan. He gives her money, in exchange for finding out, and giving him information. For example, the name of the person who has been robbing the banks, and where he is hiding. Their relationship, however, escalates at a rapid pace from professional to intimate. Susan can’t get enough of Putnam. She dreams of him being her salvation, and taking her away from Pikeville, once his work is concluded. Conversely, Putnam is seemingly infatuated with Susan. He even intimates to her at one point, that he wants to be with her forever. The more information Susan gives him, which leads to arrests, and makes him a hero in the mindset of the bureau, the less time Putnam, an undeniable opportunist,  makes for Susan. This of course, does not sit well with her, and she acts accordingly.  

“Above Suspicion” was directed by Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American). The screenplay was written by two time Emmy nominee Chris Gerolmo (Citizen X). The film is based on the non-fiction book of the same name, written by Joe Sharkey and published by Poseidon Press on November 1, 1993. The movie, after a prolonged delay, due to the pandemic, was released in the United States on May 7, 2021. Parts action, biography, crime, and thriller, it has a runtime of 104 minutes.

The best aspect of the film is Clarke’s credible performance. Unfortunately, the chemistry between her and co-star Jack Huston, is non-existent. He simply doesn’t inject enough passion into anything he does in the film. Even the scenes where the two are intimate would have failed completely if not for Clarke’s acting. Knoxville, to his credit, is also believable in his role, and didn’t seem to utter a false note during his time on screen. The aforementioned supporting cast members also were good in their respective roles, but some of them, for example, like Birch, were given limited screen time. I think the cast did the best they could with what the filmmakers gave them to work with. Overall, the film is passable for at least one time viewing, especially for fans of “Game of Thrones”Khaleesi’ and ‘Mother of Dragons’. Those who were not fans of the HBO mega hit, might want to skip, what basically amounts to a generic thriller.

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“The Queen’s Gambit”

“The Queen’s Gambit” centers on the story of Beth Harmon portrayed in an outstanding manner by Golden Globe winner Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho). Harmon is orphaned, after her mother Alice (Chloe Pirrie), commits suicide. She will turn out, as it is soon learned by the viewer, to be a chess prodigy. As she gets older, she makes it her goal in life to become the world champion of chess. Throughout her journey, as Harmon navigates the largely male dominated world of amateur and professional chess, she deals with alcohol and pill addiction, as well as painful personal loss, none of which is glossed over. Part of what makes the series interesting to watch, was wondering if Harmon was going to squander her gift by succumbing to the destructive elements of her nature.

The series’ first episode, and a portion of its second, deals with Harmon’s life at Methuen, an all female Christian orphanage in Kentucky. She lives there during the late 1950s and the early part of the 1960s, before she is adopted by Allston and Alma Wheatley, played by Patrick Kennedy and Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood).  As the series progresses, Alma will wind up becoming, not so much a traditional maternal figure, but a strong ally in Harmon’s quest for chess greatness.

During Harmon’s scenes in the orphanage, and on the occasions when she’s an adult and has a flashback, the character is played by Isla Johnston (Invasion), and, or Annabeth Kelly. Harmon makes a friend in the orphanage named Jolene, a role acted by Moses Ingram, who received an Emmy nomination for her work on the series. Jolene is, and will be, an important person in Harmon’s life. The most important individual in her life, however, comes in the form of the unlikely, reticent, Mr. Shaibel, Methuen’s janitor. The part is acted by Emmy nominee Bill Camp (The Night Of). Through sheer coincidence, Harmon takes the board erasers down to the basement to clean them off, and discovers Shaibel playing chess. She is curious and wants to learn how to play, but at first he rebukes her by telling her that girls don’t play chess. She keeps going down to the basement, in hopes that he will change his mind, and eventually, thanks to her persistence, he does. This opens up a new world for Harmon, one that she takes to with tremendous enthusiasm. For example, she lays awake at night, imagining that the ceiling is a giant chess board, on which she practices games until she drifts off to sleep. 

After enough games, in which Shaibel has accessed Harmon’s superior skills, he decides it is time for her to branch out. He organizes a game between Harmon and Mr. Ganz (Jonjo O’Neill). Ganz is an excellent chess player and teaches the game at the local high school. After the two play, Ganz invites Harmon to a competition at the school. She will simultaneously play the entire high school chess club. Harmon has no trouble besting all of the players. From there, she moves onto state wide competitions, which will be the catalyst for her competing internationally. In order to achieve the goal that she has set out for herself, Harmon will need to beat the seemingly invincible World Champion, Russian, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski).   

While Harmon experiences sexism from a number of the men she encounters, who are astounded that a woman could play chess at such a phenomenal level, there are those who appreciate her gifts. Throughout her journey, Harmon receives help and mentoring from men, who want to see her succeed. Those individuals include, but are not limited to, Kentucky State Champion, Harry Beltik, a role acted by Harry Melling, who is well known to fans of the Harry Potter films in which he  played the character Dudley Dursley. The conceited, but very talented, Benny Watts, is portrayed by Emmy nominee Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Love Actually). He always sports a full length leather jacket and black hat. In addition, there is D.L. Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who from the outset treated Harmon with respect and as an equal peer.                                                                              

“The Queen’s Gambit” was created by two time Oscar nominee Scott Frank (Logan), and BAFTA nominee Allan Scott (Regeneration). The two creators won Emmys for their work on the series for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series. The drama is based on the novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis, which was published by Random House on October 1, 1983. In addition to Tevis teaching at Ohio University for a number of years, three of Tevis’ novels were made into films: “The Hustler” (1961), “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), and “The Color of Money” (1986). The seven episodes that comprise the “Queen’s Gambit” series was released on Netflix on October 23, 2020.

The cast was uniformly excellent, and the story was both immersive and inspiring. The editing of the scenes, by Emmy winner Michelle Tesoro (House of Cards), especially those pertaining to the playing of chess during the major competitions, was well executed. Tesoro’s editing, combined with the cinematography by Emmy winner Steven Meizler (The OA), helped to transform scenes that might normally have come across as dull, but instead, they captured the right amount of tension and intrigue to keep a viewer interested. Furthermore, the score for the series, composed by two time Emmy winner Carlos Rafael Rivera (Hacks), aided in advancing the narrative, so no one scene ever came across as stagnant.    

I’ve seen Anya Taylor-Joy in a number of performances. She’s already won the Golden Globe, and in addition to other awards of note that she’s either won, or been nominated for, such as the BAFTA and Emmy, I am of the opinion that she has Oscar gold in her future. If I am wrong, and she never receives a golden statute from the academy, so be it, but I feel that she’s too good a talent to not rise to that level one day in the future. In closing, “The Queen’s Gambit” is a binge worthy series that I highly recommend.                                                             

                                                                                                                                                                                              

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“Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman”

I can’t. I simply can’t bring myself to watch another film about Ted Bundy. How many movies can they make about this man? Enough is enough. I’ve seen the 1986 television movie, “The Deliberate Stranger,” which featured an excellent performance by four time Golden Globe nominee Mark Harmon (NCIS). I watched Billy Campbell (Cardinal) give a very competent performance as the serial killer in the television miniseries “Ann Rule Presents: The Stranger Beside Me.”  Those are just two of what seems like twenty movies about him that I’ve seen, and that’s not counting documentaries, like 2020’s “Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer” narrated by his ex-girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendal.  

Do you know who I blame for all this Bundy movie watching? The answer, my seventh grade, history teacher, Mr. Zilm. He’s the individual responsible for stirring my interest in true crime, in general. I am not sure what the lesson of the particular class was, but Mr. Zilm, who was a fantastic story teller, began talking to our class about the Manson family murders. From the first sentence onward, I, along with a number of other attentive, wide-eyed twelve and thirteen year olds, was captivated by everything he was saying. As it turned out, a few weeks after he spoke about the crimes, one of the cable channels was showing the 1976 miniseries, “Helter Skelter.” I sat in my room, and watched it, unbeknownst to my parents. I don’t think they would have been thrilled with me  watching that sort of thing at the time. Ever since the class, and watching the miniseries, I’ve been interested in true crime – Not committing it, just reading about it and watching movies, documentaries and television series’ about it – and there I was, a few nights ago, sitting down to watch yet another film centered on the life and crimes of Bundy. Unlike a number of others I’ve seen, that have offered nothing new on the infamous killer, I wondered: Will this film be worth my time? I wasn’t going to hold my breath.  

“Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” stars Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill). My first thought, not to be unkind, but I asked myself: Does Murray have the acting chops to play Bundy? I knew he could play a convincing charmer based on some of his previous roles, but could he go from charm to a believable maniac in seconds? Would his performance in those scenes be over-the-top? In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that Murray surprised me. His performance was not the best I’ve seen when it comes to Bundy, (that in my opinion is Mark Harmon), but it was by no means the worst.

The film is split into two storylines. One features Bundy as he travels the country, in search of victims to satiate his blood lust. The other focuses on F.B.I agent Robert Ressler (Jake Hays), and Seattle homicide detective, turned F.B.I. agent, Kathleen McChesney played by Holland Roden (Teen Wolf).  McChesney and Ressler are not fictional characters. Ressler was an F.B.I agent and author. He was one of the first people to profile serial killers in the 1970s. Furthermore, he is the person who coined the term ‘serial killer.’  McChesney’s career with the F.B.I spanned over two decades. Among other positions she had within the bureau, she was the special agent in charge of the Chicago Division. In addition, she was the first person to lead the U.S. bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection.

When the film begins, Bundy is pretending to be someone who has been injured in an accident. This was a tactic he used on a regular basis, when attempting to lure victims. Bundy mutters aloud, as he walks on crutches. He has purposely dropped his car keys on the ground, and is waiting for a woman that interests him, to ask if he needs help. One woman who does come along, is only saved from certain death, by the arrival of her boyfriend. The woman’s friend, who she leaves at the restaurant they were eating at, is not so lucky.                          

Following the opening scene, there is more of the same from Bundy as he commits murders in Washington and Utah. Ressler and McChesney are always one step behind the killer, until one of his potential victims, Carol DaRonch (Olivia DeLaurentis), manages to flee his car. While escaping Bundy, he almost incapacitates her with a crowbar that he swings which narrowly misses her head. Later on, DaRonch picks Bundy out of a police lineup, and he is placed in jail pending trial. At the trial, he is found guilty of aggravated kidnapping and sentenced to one-to-15 years in prison. Bundy, however, as documented, escapes from incarceration, not once, but twice.

As I expected, the film didn’t provide any new information on Bundy. Unless, and unfortunately, the bodies of new victims are discovered and can be linked to him through DNA, or someone comes forth with a secret diary he wrote, that can be authenticated, everything about Bundy has been disseminated through various mediums. The addition of several scenes with Lin Shaye (Insidious) portraying Bundy’s mother didn’t enhance the film. The filmmakers took the well documented atrocity that took place on January 15, 1978 at the Chi Omega sorority house, on the Florida State University campus, and re-wrote history. In the film, Bundy has been living in a room on the same grounds as the sorority house, which never happened. His time in the room, however, which is filled with female mannequins, discarded by a failed fashion designer, leads to the only scene in the movie of actual interest. In the scene, the filmmakers attempt to offer a few minutes to the viewer, as to what Bundy’s fantasies might have been like.

“Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” was written and directed by Daniel Farrands (Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy). The film premiered in the U.S. on August 16, 2021. The cast, I believe, did the best they could with the material, but there were no standouts. For those of you, who are interested in true crime, and haven’t yet grown fatigued about movies that focus on Bundy, this might be tolerable for you. For everyone else, this is probably a pass. I intended for the previous sentence to be the end of this review. I just turned on Amazon Prime, however, and as I was going through the new release section, I came across a film called “No Man of God.”  The movie stars Emmy nominee Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), and Emmy winner Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) portraying Ted Bundy. There doesn’t appear to be an end in sight for the Bundy movies. This film, however, I am going to skip.

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“Squid Game – Netflix’s Ratings Juggernaut”

The premise of the South Korean series, “Squid Game,” centers around a grueling and depraved competition that begins with 456 participants. Those who will be competing in the games, are rendered unconscious, and taken to an isolated island at an immense, hidden compound. The games are overseen by uniformed, masked, gun-toting soldiers. They take their orders from a person called ‘The Frontman,’ who is played by Tom Choi and Lee Byung-hun. He takes his orders from someone known as ‘The Host.’  

Childish in their origin, the games that are played, such as ‘red light, green light,’ and ‘tug-of-war,’ are deadly in their execution. The price a participant pays for failure is their life. This is something which those who are playing, don’t learn until after the commencement of the first game, which eliminates more than half of the participants. All of the competitors signed a waiver before they began the game. Included within the waiver was a provision, that at any time, a vote can be taken, and if the majority of the players agree to end the games, the players will be allowed to return home. The accumulated prize money, would then be divided up and sent to the families of those players who had been killed.

The players opt to vote after the first game, and the majority want to end the competition. This action returns all of the competitors back to their lives to deal with the same problems they had in the first place. Many of the players come to the conclusion that facing the challenges of the games, is perhaps better than dealing with the harsh reality of their lives. At least in the games, they have an opportunity to win an inordinate amount of money, which would fix many, if not all, of their problems. When the chance to return to the games presents itself, all who were initially playing, return. 45.6 billion won (KRW) is on the line, which is approximately $38.8 billion in American currency; so despite the risks, the motivation for the participants to return is believable. (As an aside: The series derived its name from a traditional Korean children’s game of the same name. The board used in the game resembles that of a squid). 

The series is told from the perspective of its main protagonist, Seong Gi-hun portrayed by Lee Jung-jae, who completely embodies the role. He is player number 456. Each player is assigned a number, which is featured on the green track suit they are given to wear, all other possession are taken from participants upon their arrival. Seong is a divorced father. He has recently learned that his ex-wife, and her new husband, are planning to move to America. Seong can barely scrape together the money to ride the subway, let alone purchase an airplane ticket to California to visit his daughter (Cho Ah-in).

Complicating matters further, he owes gangsters a tremendous amount of money, which he has primarily squandered on horse racing. If all that weren’t enough to motivate him to participate in the games, his mother is sick and needs an operation.

Seong is surprised to find that his friend from childhood, Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) is also a participant. Cho, Seong thought, was a successful business man, who had been on the right path ever since Cho had attended Seoul National University. What Cho keeps hidden from Seong, is that he has embezzled millions of dollars, and is wanted by law enforcement.

Included, but not limited to, other characters that viewers will get to know throughout the nine episodes that comprise the first season is number 67, Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Hoyeon). She is a North Koran defector who was under the mistaken impression that everything would be wonderful once she made it to South Korea. Firstly, her mother was captured in China and deported back to North Korea. In addition, she’s distraught over her brother Kang Cheol (Si-wan Park) whom she can’t take care of, because of lack of finances. He has been placed in an orphanage. She is quiet and reserved, but demonstrates through her quick wits, that she is not a player to be messed with. Ali Abdul (Anupam Tripathi), a Pakistani immigrant, participates in the games to help his wife and son escape the utter squalor they are living in. He comes across as a good hearted person who cares about others. Additional characters featured are the duplicitous criminal Jang Deok-su (Heo-Sung-tae), and the equally opportunistic and conceited Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-Ryung). The oddest contestant is player number 1, Oh Il-nam (Oh Yeong-su). He is an older man who lets Seong know that he has a brain tumor. Seong, being the good natured person that he is, forms a friendship with, and for the most part takes pity on, Oh Il-nam; helping him when he can.

While the players are competing for the prize money, there is a separate storyline taking place. A North Korean police officer, Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-Joon), has managed to sneak onto the island. He is pretending to be one of the masked soldiers, as he goes about his investigation into what happened to his missing brother. Through clever maneuvering, he learns a great deal about the games, its participants, and those select few who are invited to take pleasure in watching the games for entertainment. Will he survive and be able to return to the mainland? Does he have enough evidence to take down those who are responsible for running the games?

“Squid Game” was created by Hwang Dong-hyuk a decade before it premiered. Media companies, as well as actors, in his native South Korea, who had enough pull to get the project made, passed on the work. Less than a month after it became available for streaming on Netflix, the series had garnered 111 million viewers, making it the most-watched ever Netflix original series, and validating Dong-hyuk’s perseverance. Furthermore, Hwang Dong-hyuk wrote and directed all of the episodes. The series which is parts action, drama, mystery, and thriller was released for worldwide streaming on Netflix on September 17, 2021. The show is offered in three languages: its original Korean, an English dubbed soundtrack, and Urdu. On November 9, 2021, Netflix announced that the international hit, would be receiving a second season.

The acting in the series was excellent and featured compelling characters. Even the secondary characters, however, in my opinion, helped to contribute greatly to the advancing of the narrative. The episodes featured the right amount of tension, and there were surprising twists and turns. For those of you who are squeamish, you should know that for the most part, there is not much that is merely implied, the viewer is shown the violence. This is by far one of the best series I’ve seen in recent years, and I highly recommend it. The only negative I can think of is that there weren’t more episodes, and the wait for season two will most likely be, or at least feel, like a lengthy one. 

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“By Dawn’s Early Light” (1990)

“By Dawn’s Early Light” was the last film, prior to the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, to ask the hypothetical question: What would happen if nuclear war were to take place between the two superpowers? The year is 1991, and rogue members of the Russian military have managed to launch missiles targeting America. The first wave, amongst other locations, is headed toward Washington, D.C. From his command center, General Renning, played by Emmy winner Nicolas Coster (The Bay), is conveying a sense of urgency as he informs the President that the hit is imminent. He not only tells the President that he must retreat to safety, within a time frame of approximately twenty minutes, but that he has to launch a counterattack. The President, portrayed by Oscar winner Martin Landau (Ed Wood), is hesitant. He reminds the general that relations between the two countries have been good. What would be the rationale for the Soviets to launch such an attack? The President wants confirmation that missiles have actually been launched. He is distrusting of the computer system that has set the chain of events in motion. The President wants to communicate with the President of the Soviet Union, if at all possible, and hear directly from him, that such an attack has been authorized. Unfortunately, when the two men speak, the Soviet President confirms that missiles have been detonated, but that it was not because he gave the command to do so. The Soviet President offers several possible outcomes to the American President, none of which are very palatable. 

After the President is evacuated from the White House, his helicopter crashes. Amidst the chaos, there is no way to contact the President, nor Navy Lieutenant Commander Segwick played by Emmy winner Peter MacNicol (Ally McBeal), who was accompanying him. The President is assumed dead. In fact, because of other missile attacks throughout the country, many cabinet members and high ranking officials are deceased. The next in line for the presidency is Condor, the Secretary of the Interior, a role acted by Emmy  nominee Darren McGavin (Kolchak: The Night Stalker).  Once Condor is sworn in aboard Air Force One, certain members of the military suggest calm and to end hostilities between the warring nations. Harpoon, the representative from the Navy, played by Emmy nominee Jeffrey DeMunn (Citizen X), is one such individual. There are, however, others, like the hawkish Colonel Fargo, portrayed by Emmy winner Rip Torn (The Larry Sanders Show).  He is imploring the President to attack the Soviet Union. Fargo is attempting to instill fear in the President, suggesting that striking first is the only viable option. The suggestion is one that Condor is seriously considering.  

The movie has several divergent storylines, one of which begins in a motel room in Spokane, Washington. Major Cassidy, played by Emmy winner Powers Boothe (Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones), and Captain Moreau, a role acted by Rebecca De Mornay (Risky Business), are romantically involved. No one at the air force base they are stationed at are aware of their relationship. After an intimate evening, the two return back to base, and a short time later, an alert is sounded. They, along with the rest of their fellow pilots, are under the mistaken impression that it is just a drill. In fact, for a while, they remain having that mindset, until the situation begins to get all too real for all of the crew aboard the B-52 bomber they’re flying. In addition, there is an Air Force jet named ‘Looking Glass,’ under the command of Alice, portrayed by Oscar winner James Earl Jones (The Lion King).  The job of the jet is to monitor the situation, and wait for orders as to how it should proceed. The problem for Jones’s character is that he’s receiving one set of instructions from Condor, but also is contacted by someone else claiming to be the American President. Did the President survive his helicopter crash?  Which set of orders will ‘Looking Glass’ follow? What about the B-52 helmed by Major Cassidy? The express mission he was given was to drop bombs on Soviet cities. Will anyone survive? 

“By Dawn’s Early Light”  was directed by Jack Sholder (The Hidden). The teleplay, written by Oscar nominee Bruce Gilbert (On Golden Pond), was adapted from the novel “Trinity’s Child” written by William Prochnau. The novel was published on October 1, 1983 by the Putnam Publishing Group. The film aired on HBO on April 24, 1990; it was simultaneously shown at the Houston Film Festival. Parts action, drama, and, thriller, the television movie has a run time of 100 minutes. (As an aside: There are two distinct differences between the novel and the movie. The first, in the novel, the Soviet Union deliberately has launched an attack against the United States. Furthermore, Cassidy and Moreau are not in a romantic relationship).   

The production values for the movie make it appear as if it had a larger budget than it did. In contrast, the special effects are dated, but that should only hamper the enjoyment of the most jaded of viewers. The cast as a whole are uniformly excellent. Throughout the movie, which is well paced, the filmmakers added the right amount of tension to each scene, without going overboard, given the movie’s subject matter. Recommended for fans of the cast, and for those of you who like well executed suspense movies, that deal with what if, Cold War scenarios.                                         

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