LOST GIRLS (2020)

March 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Long Island serial killer is a famous unsolved case, yet very few filmmakers would take on a true murder mystery that has no ending (The Boston Strangler and Zodiac excepted). Liz Garbus long ago established herself as an expert documentarian, and has earned Oscar nominations (WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? 2015; THE FARM: ANGOLA, USA 1998). My guess is she was initially attracted to this story as a documentary, but transitioned to her first narrative feature out of necessity. Working from the book by Robert Kolker and a screenplay from Michael Werwie (EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE, 2019), Ms. Garbus and her talented cast offer up a different viewpoint of the crimes … the viewpoint of a mother who refuses to give up her daughter a second time.

Amy Ryan (Oscar nominated for GONE BABY GONE, 2007) gives a fierce and compelling performance as Mari Gilbert. Mari is a struggling single mom holding down two jobs – one as a construction worker, and one in a local diner. She is raising two daughters: Sherri (rising star Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT, 2019) and Sarra (Oona Laurence, THE BEGUILED, 2017). Mari takes a phone call from her eldest daughter Shannan, expressing delight that the girl will visit for dinner, and with little hesitation, asks her daughter for some money to fill the gap left by reduced work hours.

Shannan never shows up, and a mysterious phone call the next morning sends Mari and her daughters into investigative mode. Daughter Sherri uncovers the secrets her mom has been keeping from her, while at the same time watching her mom tear into the cops for their apparent lack of interest in finding Shannan. Dean Winters (“Mayhem” from the insurance commercials) plays Detective Bostick, who barely hides his contempt for Mari and her missing ‘prostitute’ daughter. Police Commissioner Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) deals directly with Mari, and bears the brunt of her aggressive fight to keep her daughter’s case from fading.

Mari is wrestling with her own emotions regarding Shannan, and it’s really daughter Sherri (Ms. McKenzie) who becomes the most interesting character in the saga. Other key players are Kevin Corrigan as conspiracy theorist Joe Salise, Reed Birney as creepy Dr. Peter Hackett, and Lola Kirke (daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, and GONE GIRL) as Kim, the sister of one of the missing sex workers. With Mari pushing the cops, four bodies are discovered near a wealthy gated community called Oak Beach. There is a tremendous sequence involving 911 calls, and it plays right into the debate of whether this was incompetent police work or a cover-up. The lack of interest regarding missing girls seems to make it clear that the cops were hardly motivated to find the sex workers, and when Mari reminds them that these are daughters and sisters, it’s a powerful moment.

Director Garbus includes some actual news clips, and at the film’s conclusion we see a 2016 press conference with the real Mari Gilbert. Shannan disappeared in 2010, and 10-16 bodies have since been attributed to the Long Island serial killer – though the cases have never been solved. As a police procedural, the film has far too many gaps and skims over details and evidence. However, as a personal drama and commentary on police attitudes, it succeeds.

The film is now available on Netflix.

watch the trailer:


NOTHING LEFT UNSAID: GLORIA VANDERBILT AND ANDERSON COOPER (2016)

April 9, 2016

nothing left unsaid Greetings again from the darkness. Rather than the usual biographic approach, this is quite a personal and intimate conversation piece as the “poor little rich girl”, Gloria Vanderbilt, recollects her life of fame with her journalist son, Anderson Cooper. Expert documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus (Oscar nominated for What Happened Miss Simone, 2015, and The Farm: Angola, USA, 1999) delivers what amounts to video memoirs as Mr. Cooper guides his 91 year old mother down Memory Lane.

This is an HBO documentary, and it will have a theatrical run in addition to multiple showings on the cable behemoth. Some may view it as an ego piece … two persons of privilege reminiscing about their “tough” lives, but it’s a stark reminder that no amount of money can prevent the heart from breaking, or the lasting effects of grief.

Gloria Vanderbilt turns out to be a relatively pragmatic lady who, with age and experience, has come to accept the unusual path her life has taken … from a basically parentless childhood, to being at the center of custody battle that created a national media frenzy, to four marriages (the first at age 17), to a personal and social life that bears mention of such names as Frank Sinatra, Richard Avedon, Charlie Chaplin, Truman Capote, Sidney Lumet and Errol Flynn. Along the way, she has been constantly involved with art … whether in the form of painting, writing, sculpting, acting – or designing the iconic jeans of the 1970’s that bore her name.

She kicks off the film by quoting Faulkner: “The past isn’t over, it’s not ever over.” It’s the perfect beginning, as the hook here is that her son Anderson Cooper has spent a couple of years going through her storage units, and is now depending on her to fill in the historical life gaps created by her letters, photographs and paintings. Much of the discussion focuses on young Gloria’s beloved nanny, as well as the custody case featuring Aunt Gertrude (who founded the Whitney Museum).

Hers may not be a life that altered the course of mankind, but now 92 year old Gloria Vanderbilt has experienced the highest highs and lowest lows, and is willing to discuss the fascinating specifics … thanks to the coaxing by her little boy.

**This premieres Sunday April 10, 2016 on HBO

watch the trailer:

 

 


WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? (doc, 2015)

January 16, 2016

what happened miss simone Greetings again from the darkness. Classical pianist, extraordinary singer, highly sought after live performer, Civil Rights activist, and inspiration to so many … it’s only fitting that Nina Simone is now the subject of an Oscar nominated documentary. Talented filmmaker Liz Garbus (also Oscar nominated for 1998’s The Farm: Angola, USA) provides a biography that is both a deep-dig and somewhat gentle look at this fascinating and troubled woman.

Born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina during the Jim Crow era, she was the church pianist at age 4, and later studied classical piano with the dream of becoming the first black female classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall. While attending Julliard, she worked at an Atlantic City bar where, in an effort to hide the gig from her parents, she created the stage name Nina Simone (after the popular French actress Simone Signoret). It was also at this bar where she was first forced to sing … a step that changed the course of her life.

The film begins by showing her return to the stage at the1976 Montreaux Festival in Switzerland after a seven year self-imposed exile (most recently in Liberia). We then head back to her humble childhood and follow her progression as she blends her Bach-influenced piano style with an expressive vocal style in jazz, gospel, pop, R&B and soul … resulting in the nickname “High Priestess of Soul”.

What we see is a woman with remarkable talent and ferocious drive who just never is satisfied with society or her place in it … despite the positive impact she had as a musician and activist. Ms. Garbus uses some rare archival performance footage … such as her singing “I Loves You Porgy” while appearing on Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Penthouse” TV show and “Mississippi Goddam” during the march with Martin Luther King. We also hear Nina telling her own story through previously unheard audio recordings, and we have access to diary entries and personal letters. These are combined with insightful interviews from her ex-husband and manager Andrew Stroud, collaborators like Al Shackman (her guitarist) and George Wein (founder of Newport Jazz Festival), and her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly.

What we soon see is a combination of other-worldly talent and a woman filled with rage and depression, and who is isolated inside her own uneasiness. Her later diagnosis and medication for bi-polar syndrome allowed her to better function in those last years. Her lack of attentiveness to her kids is kind of glossed over, but we understand how it made sense for her kids to spend more time at the home of the Shabazz family (Malcolm X) than with their own parents.

It’s a shame that Ms. Simone could never appreciate her achievements, the impact she had in the Civil Rights movement and the inspiration her music brought to so many. Even playing Carnegie Hall was not enough for her as she wasn’t on stage as the classical pianist of her dreams. Her biggest mainstream musical recognition stemmed from her song “My Baby Just Cares for Me” being used for a1987 Chanel No. 5 advertisement, but fortunately the rest of us can understand her place in history as a rare talent and societal influencer. She truly put a spell on us.

watch the trailer: