Experience’s Billy the Kid

DATELINE: Westworld for Real

when billy

When PBS tackles Billy the Kid (a moniker if ever there was), you have something tantamount to Fox News covering Donald Trump. Yes, Americans have a thing for serial killers and serial idiots.

You probably can find a gulf of differences between Trump and Bonney, but they are under the skin self-styled self-important American icons. One was rich and one was poor, but both saw themselves as Robin Hood. They took what they wanted.

For the second season premiere of American Experience, the show decided to do a one-hour special on the Kid. This is a distinct disadvantage in a visual age when there is but one recognized photo of Billy. We see it ad nauseum.

Don’t look for clips from your favorite Billy movie because this is a real history documentary. They eschew Audie Murphy, Emilio Estevez, and Robert Taylor, all of whom epitomized what the experts talk about in movies made a generation or two ago.

And, the show trots out the usual so-called experts on the West, all of whom now see Billy as a kindred spirit to the mistreated Mexicans and Navaho. Yes, he is a civil rights champion.

Billy picked up Spanish language quickly. He had a good ear, but the rest of his face was wanting. However, these experts show us the face of an ugly adolescent and call him “handsome.” You know you are not in Kansas, but in Lincoln County.

The episode also sets the Range War as a version of the War of the Roses: you have Irish immigrants versus British aristocrats with a hired army of mercenaries, including Billy fighting against his own Irish roots.

The legend escaped, but the boy was gunned down in a notorious bedroom shooting. No one mentions whether he was sleeping with a girlfriend, or boyfriend. He was a cop killer with bad press. Like Trump, he decided what law enforcement he approved and called his media following biased.

The short bio dismisses much in an effort to stay on target. Their target was out of range before this so-called documentary started.

Dr. William Russo is author of the historical fiction, When Billy the Kid Met Ben Hur, which examines the Kid’s relationship to Governor Lew Wallace.

 

 

 

 

We’ll Be Hanged Hangman

DATELINE:  Pacino & Shahi

 Hangman stars

Al Pacino is at an age when Robert DeNiro plays comedy roles, but Pacino is still looking at detective action thrillers.

He is a bit long in the tooth, and we worry when he falls down that he may break a hip. He looks great actually.

In Hangman, he has chosen the role of a detective who retired a year ago (at 77) and is back on special assignment with his young partner (Karl Urban) when a serial killer calls out their badge numbers.

There is some initial interest in seeing this movie because of the cast, and Sarah Shahi (Person of Interest) as the young, tough woman captain of the force in some small city.

For some reason inexplicable to anyone, Pacino plays his detective with an Andy Griffith, aw shucks, Mayberry accent. He’s the only one with such a speech impediment among the New York actors.

If that were not weird enough, the serial killer wants to play Hangman, literally, hanging his victims with a letter carved into their bodies.

Well, if koo-koo descends into ridiculous, we do not find it sublime. We’ve had our fill of brilliantly smart serial killers. We are challenged to stay with this film, mainly because of the actors.

The plot does not thicken: it curdles. We discover both detectives have a personal connection to victims, but this does not disqualify them from the case.

And, to make matters worse, there is a Lois Lane type tagging along to all the crime scenes. When told not to obstruct justice, she enters the case and compounds trouble. Call her the plot hole.

It’s enough to throw in the noose and call it a hang dog day afternoon. Just terrible, and what a waste of talented actors.

Death Wish 45 Years Later

DATELINE: Willis Versus Bronson

 death 3

Bruce Willis is every bit as good as Charles Bronson in the remake of the classic Brian Garfield story. But, the movie is less about vigilantes this time and more about revenge.

A new version of Death Wish, 2018, seems like yesterday’s headlines.

If you want to match up Willis versus Bronson, you may be making the wrong comparison. Both are brilliant in the role of Paul Kersey, though Bronson always seemed more dangerous than smarmy.

Taking the law into his own hands, Paul Kersey is back for a new generation, armed with smartphones, video surveillance, and automatic weapons on every city block.

The more things change, the worse it becomes in American society. Indeed, the media chorus in the movie keeps telling us that Chicago is a murderous city. The senseless cruelty seems on a par with fifty years ago.

Gun control is a joke in 1974 and is a punchline now.

The 1970s might seem like a placid time next to today’s weekly shoot’em ups. However, the movie stays with the split-screen approach to story-telling that was the rage in the 1970s. We have a definite throwback movie here.

This time Bruce Willis has a brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) as a foil, but the police exasperation is partly admiration for the Grim Reaper’s work. You know the police will never convict, nor apprehend Paul Kersey, though the 1970s movies better explained why they let him get away.

When Willis shoots the bad guys, you still have the urge to commend the vigilante killer and excuse gun control as a bad idea. This time Kersey is a top-notch big city surgeon, obviously dedicated to life-saving. Bronson’s Kersey was a big business architect.

He has his eyes opened even with his father-in-law (Len Cariou in a delightful cameo) and with the commissioner of police (Stephen McHattie, a long-ago familiar face).

The shoot out is a stand off.

Serpent’s Time in the Pup Tent

 DATELINE:  Best Actor for Mamba

serpent

The Serpent is an effort under 90-minutes that tries to rejuvenate an old Hitchcock claustrophobic situation.

Two people are stuck in a small tent with a black mamba.

Well, okay, we are ready to give it a go: it seems a shorthand for giving us the creeps. Since most people have a great disdain for snakes, you immediately build in a horrid, bone chilling concept.

Like all movies of this sort like Snakes on a Plane, the first 30 minutes is exposition on what is the set up. Director Amanda Evans has her snake and cake too. From the get-go, you have role reversals. The husband is at home making dinner, and the philandering wife is now being pursued by her stalking boyfriend.

Oh, yes, the husband happens to be an etymologist with creeping insects at his research heart. He plans to go out on a highly important trip somewhere to the outback of South Africa (well, you don’t find black mambas in upstate New York).

The wife is American, and the husband is one of those bland scientists who looks like a boy scout. He dumps his co-scientist and takes his wife to the Edenic wilderness. Big mistake and rather unprofessional.

By now you realize the husband is named Adam, and the wife is named Gwynn. The serpent is named mamba. He warns her that a little birdie will go crazy if there are snakes around, but she never notices—and leaves the tent flap open during a bush visit.

Suffice it to say, the best performer here is the snake. With his open mouth and smiling visage, he seems to coil around the naked bodies with all the perversity of Jack the Ripper. He’s the star.

While using his wife’s phone for a nightlight, hubby Adam finds texts from her boyfriend. Talk about a night killer.

There’s a biblical story in here somewhere.

 

 

 

 

Remember: Unforgettable Movie!

DATELINE: Kosher Death Wish

Remember Two Old Pros!

Atom Egoyan’s film Remember is a geriatric thriller. That’s no put-down. We like films with a twist, and this one is so twisted that it is frightful. This is not your grandfather’s Boys from Brazil.

Christopher Plummer plays Zev, a man suffering from dementia in a nursing home with another man named Max who is played by Martin Landau.

As if the ironies were not enough, Landau (once Rollie Hand on the old Mission Impossible) gives Plummer an impossible mission.  He is to hunt down and assassinate an escaped Nazi war criminal.  What can a 90-year old with memory problems do in his spare time? Two survivors of Auschwitz find their fates in a nursing home.

You might say this is balderdash, but the old man is hell-bent on his mission of vengeance, with his memories programmed by a retired Simon Weisenthal Nazi hunter.

There is no stopping Plummer’s man on a mission. He must bring justice to a Nazi guard who killed thousands, and there are a handful of suspects.

We are in awe that Landau and Plummer have their great roles in advanced old age.

Plummer’s character must have constant reminders of who he is and what his goal is: through written instructions from Max and coaching phone calls. Otherwise, he will simply forget who he is and what he must accomplish.

Some unkind critics dismissed the shocking ending as Death Wish put into concentration camp form. It is compelling and suspenseful, a walk into the abyss of Alzheimer’s Disease and decrepitude.

Clues abound as to what is truly happening to the old man named Zev. We found ours when he sat down at the piano and played a Hollywood favorite in dozens of movies, the Death Theme from Wagner’s grand Tristan & Iseulte.

The final minutes of the film will stun you.

Fincher’s Movie Zodiac in Contrast to History TV

DATELINE:  Docudrama Versus Reality TV

 Fincher style Gyllenhaal & Downey Play Detectives

The new series on History inspired us to go back to 2007 and see what David Fincher did in his big budget, all-star movie called Zodiac.

Suffice it to say, there is some overlap: and the series claims to have discovered an earlier killing by Zodiac at UCLA that was shown ten years earlier in the Fincher film version.

Of course, Fincher uses poetic license to personalize victims and their final conversations; we have no idea what was really said, but his version is fairly likely.

The movie uses big stars in rotating coverage: the newspaper cynical reporter is Robert Downey, Jr., who calls Zodiac a latent homosexual—and then fears for his life that he will be a target.

Mark Ruffalo is the San Francisco detective in full 1960s fashion mode, and quite amusing. Brian Cox steals every scene playing flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli.

The most important character is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Chronicle cartoonist who is an amateur sleuth and is equal to the trivia that Zodiac was fond of using. He notes that Richard Connell story, “Most Dangerous Game” that Zodiac admires—but the movie never did its homework. The story was a short story, not a book.

You may well wonder at the enormous stupidity of everyone at the newspaper, passing around evidence and ruining fingerprints, etc., with nary a thought. And you may wonder why a cartoonist is at the high-level meetings. Described as a “retard” and “Boy Scout,” throughout the film, Gyllenhaal looks like he is auditioning for his next role as a gay cowboy.

If you haven’t had your fill of demented serial killers (called mass murderer in the movie), then you might want to annotate the TV series with a first-rate movie.

Hunting for Zodiac Killer: History (s1) for Openers

DATELINE: Armchair Detectives

 zodiac killer Purported Zodiac Killer

Whether you’re hunting for Hitler or cursing Oak Island, you know you must have clicked onto the streaming History channel.

Their first season of Hunt for the Zodiac Killer delivers exactly what you come to expect from the cable TV’s pop history purveyors. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you like your reality stars always self-congratulating each other for their brilliant detective skills.

If The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer sounds like one of those fake news documentaries, you probably would be right. Yet, it is a cold case and being insoluable should not mean it is not ripe for re-examination.

Fifty years after the legendary1960s serial murderer unofficially killed 37 innocent people and left a calling card of cryptological taunts with a unbreakable code, the network has assembled a reality show with a formula that can’t miss entertaining fans of psycho monsters running amok.

These researchers give Zodiac his due—and find even more victims to offer History Channel and history buffs.

When you put two retired homicide detectives in the field doing legwork like Sam spade and Philip Marlowe, then match them with a couple of cryptographical scientists and nerds with computers, you stir deliberately.

You have suddenly a fascinating show.

The gum shoes and the nerds play ping-pong with the clues. We keep telling ourselves that a supercomputer that has been programmed to think and act like a serial killer is not a good idea.

We keep wondering when the computer will turn into the Forbin Project supercomputer  or HAL from 2001. Then again, the Zodiac maniac seems even brighter than Carmel, the computerized serial killer finder.

Before you know it, you may be hooked on the revelations. Several police departments refused to cooperate, at their own peril. They look like impediments to the crime solving.

By turning the zodiac killer into a mad genius, the show has a winning formula – and a frightening one.

 

Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders with Suchet’s Poirot

DATELINE:  A Worthy Series

ABC

Suchet as the inimitable Hercule

David Suchet’s bravissimo performance over two decades as Hercule Poirot might be appreciated many times. This week we took in The ABC Murders again.

The climactic murder scene takes place in a cinema where Hitchcock’s Number Seventeen is on the screen as a backdrop for the serial killer. We suspect the Master of Suspense would approve.

The Agatha Christie story became the first full-length movie episode from the delightful TV series. For that reason alone, the plot is clever and intriguing. Christie uses a device that brings together the grieving family of the serial ABC serial killer as Poirot’s band of intrepid sleuths.

The notion that the victims’ family would want to take an active role in catching their beloved one’s killer is compelling, even if Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) is exasperated by his friendly nemesis with the mincing steps, and obsessive neatness.

Poirot’s demeanor as a private investigator remains firm in its resolve, but already we begin to see in the nuances of Suchet’s performance that Poirot is beginning to become jaded and horrified by the endless murders he deals with.

Indeed, this serial killer sends Poirot a series of letters, challenging him to stop the carnage. It becomes so personal that the Belgian detective is more distracted by his moral repugnance.

As his aide-de-camp Captain Hastings, Hugh Fraser matches Suchet as the obtuse man of action—as they both seem weary from four seasons of sadistic killers. Pauline Moran’s Miss Lemon, Poirot’s dedicated secretary, is absent from this episode.

Christie had such brilliant creativity in finding ways to develop characters and contrive plots that are truly mysteries to entertain an audience.

Over the length of the Poirot series, bringing all the stories to film (something the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series could not do), is a monumental achievement, matching the flavor of the literature of the Christie stories with film plays. A large debt is owed to Suchet, the driving force behind the detective.

 

 

Rupert Everett as Sherlock Holmes

DATELINE:  No Deerstalker Here

Everett Holmes 

with Ian Hart as Watson.

We wondered back in 2004 why Rupert Everett’s fascinating take on Sherlock Holmes did not lead to a series. It was around the time that Jeremy Brett had passed on—and a new Holmes was certainly ripe for the picking.

Granada TV and PBS passed on Everett’s interpretation, much to our regret.

Instead, we had the dreadful Robert Downey movie version—and the marvelous updated Cumberbatch TV Sherlock.

Yet, for our money, the classic look and demeanor of Everett was delicious enough. In the Case of the Silk Stocking, not part of the canon, we had a story that was part of the problem. It dealt with sexual problems in the multiple murderer—and Holmes was brought up to date by Watson’s fiancée who now is an American psychologist.

The other problems with the story-line featured cruel mistreatment of women, largely teenage girls brutally killed in a fetish demeanor. Holmes does not help much with his misogynist attitudes that may be accurate, however off-putting. Indeed, when he intrudes on the bedroom one a teenage girl, it seems almost creepy.

On Rupert Everett these foibles work to the flaws of Sherlock.

Ian Hart’s Watson is a tad too smug, and Helen McCrory as his American spouse-to-be is too much a concession to political correctness.

We were delighted to see Michael Fassbender in an early, important role. But, the film belongs to Everett who makes Sherlock’s tired, drug-addled character quite intriguing. There is a sharp undercurrent of sexual malaise in this Holmes, played by the openly gay Everett.

What a shame he played the role only here. It’s a worthy effort in the history of Sherlock performances.

Unsolved History: Death in Dealey Plaza

DATELINE:  Photos at Kennedy Assassination

Dealey

Once again, the 2004 TV series Unsolved History provides a definitive look at mysterious events in history, this time at the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

This time the old standby streams some of the juiciest and most impressive technical analysis of your standard conspiracy theories.

This time they look at the 30 camera angles from 30 known photographers that covered the 45 seconds leading to the murder of President Kennedy. There could be other, lost, withheld photos, heretofore unknown.

From the opening moments when they show their models in orange coats standing on location where the actual cameras were located as a limo drives past, you will be hooked.

Interviewing a few surviving photographers, but mostly their children who now as old adults pass on what their parents saw at Dealey Plaza as they took pictures.

As historical record, this 45 minute show about a 45 second moment in history is compelling and fascinating.

If there is any complaint, it is that the images move by too quickly to see the truly odd details. We kept wondering about the odd men who slowly walk in the opposite direction of the panicking crowds.

This insightful episode brings and merges all 30 still photos and color movie pictures together into a montage for 45 seconds that is not for the squeamish. It does show a graphic, hideous murder.

To the show’s credit, it recognizes that amateur photographers had no idea they were about to enter the annals of history—and their amateur mistakes prevent any resolution of the crime.

Culminating in the Zapruder film, the ultimate montage is staggering, given warnings that the subject matter would be upsetting to viewers. Indeed, so.