CHARLIE SAYS (2019)

May 9, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Author Joan Didion wrote “the 1960’s ended abruptly on August 9, 1969”, and as we approach the 50th anniversary of that tragic night … actually two tragic nights (August 8 and 9) … there is no shortage of recollections and reenactments through both print and visual media. For anyone who was alive at the time or has read the story since, the grisly murders and cult commune lorded over by Charles Manson remains nearly beyond belief. Unfortunately, it’s all too real.

Director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner previously collaborated on AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000) and THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2015), and here, “inspired by” books from Karlene Faith (“The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult”, 2001) and Ed Sanders (“The Family”, 1972, also one of the film’s producers), we get a glimpse of the Manson cult through the eyes of the women, especially Leslie Van Houten. And let’s be honest, that’s where the real mystery is. A domineering, arrogant, white supremacist is not nearly as interesting as the story of how these women became so enchanted by him that they were willing (even anxious) to murder innocent people on his behalf.

Hannah Murray (“Game of Thrones”) stars as Leslie Van Houten, nicknamed “LuLu” by Manson not long after they meet for the first time. We see Van Houten, Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Marianne Rendon) and Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) in an isolated cell block of a California Women’s Prison five years after the murders. They are going through therapy sessions with Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver, “Godless”) whose goal is to remind them of who they were before meeting Manson.

During the prison therapy sessions, we get flashbacks to the Spahn Ranch where Manson ruled over his followers which also included Mary Brunner (Suki Waterhouse), Squeaky Fromme (Kayli Carter), Linda Kasabian (India Ennenga), and of course, Tex Watson (Chace Crawford), who initially comes off as quite aloof, but eventually buys in totally – in a most violent manner. It’s these flashbacks that are meant to help us understand the brainwashing which stuck with these women through the crimes, through their trial, and through years of incarceration. We hear the “garbage dump” song. We hear about money and ego. We learn that ‘the new rules are no rules’. We see Manson’s dream of becoming a rock star shattered by music producer Terry Melcher (the son of Doris Day) after his introduction from Dennis Wilson (The Beach Boys drummer), who hung around the ranch sometimes. And we hear Manson’s rantings about the correlations between The Beatles’ White Album and the Bible, and about how a race war is coming (and it’s named Helter Skelter).

Matt Smith plays Charles Manson, and oddly enough, this comes on the heels of his playing artist Robert Mapplethorpe in MAPPLETHORPE (2018). Smith seems to have fun with the role, but it’s these segments that feel underwritten. We want more of an explanation of how this could happen. On the other hand, the therapy sessions in the prison actually provide more insight to the lasting effects of the man and the cult that brainwashed them right into committing cold-blooded murder and a life behind bars. The thankless job of a prison therapist becomes clear as Ms. Faith realizes that if she breaks the Manson spell, these women will be forced to live with the unimaginable atrocities they committed. For a different perspective, track down the 1976 TV movie HELTER SKELTER that was based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book. It starred Steve Railsback as a terrifying Charles Manson.

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ALL ABOUT NINA (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are dark comedies and then there is the first feature film from director Eva Vives (although she wrote the screenplay for RAISING VICTOR VARGAS). It’s really a dark drama with both feet in the stand-up comedy world, so we find ourselves laughing at the (profane) jokes, despite a lead character that is in desperate need of emotional salvation.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is dynamite as Nina Geld. And dynamite is meant to have two definitions here. She is terrific in the role, and she (her character) explodes with little notice. Nina Geld is definitely provocative. She is definitely a feminist. She is definitely funny, and she is most definitely messed up. We learn all of this in the first 5 minutes, and spend the rest of the movie waiting to see whether she self-destructs or is somehow saved.

We first see Nina as she delivers a set on stage at a comedy club. Her act is mostly about sex and the misery of relationships. We soon learn why she seems to have little happiness in life. The abusive married cop (Chace Crawford, Tony Romo’s brother-in-law) she has been seeing interrupts the one-night stand she was looking forward to. It’s quite unsettling to watch this unfold, and it seems to be the final straw needed to push Nina to relocate from New York City to Los Angeles. It’s southern California where her agent (Angelique Cabral) has arranged for to audition for “Comedy Prime” – a one hour comedy special produced by Larry Michaels (played by Beau Bridges).

In L.A., Nina rooms with a stereotypical southern California “New Age” type (Cate del Castillo) who senses energy fields and remains quite civil in her arguments with her partner (played by Clea DuVall). Mostly we see what a damaged soul that Nina is, and bearing an unfair brunt are her mother (Camryn Manheim), her mom’s friend (Mindy Sterling, AUSTIN POWERS), and a fellow comic (Jay Mohr).

When Nina meets Rafe (Common, in a rare leading man role), she begins to show her first signs of actual human connection. And of course she is confused by this, and her self-destructive being rears up. The big reveal as to the cause of Nina’s constantly confused state (I don’t believe the therapy sessions are working) is held back until late in the final act … and it’s a doozy that leads to a painfully honest on stage meltdown.

Ms. Winstead is really terrific here, and she is absolutely believable in her stand-up bits. In fact, the montage of impressions and her constant fine-tuning of the act are almost as good as the heavy drama pieces she excels at. The film itself is kind of a mash-up of stories, but it’s her performance that keeps us onboard … even as we question her character’s stability (and incessant hair tussling).

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