Three suburban moms find themselves in financial emergencies for reasons that could be ripped from today's headlines: philandering husbands, divorce, inadequate health insurance, and full-time jobs that don't pay enough to live on. When the pressure gets too great, they team up to bend some rules rather than wind up homeless.
Middle-class folks do not one day decide to be career criminals. Under duress the trio chisels a little here and swipes a little there. When they get away with it they are exhilarated and so are we. When they start to build on their successes, it starts to get scary. This is essentially the first season.
In the second season, it "gets real," as the saying goes. Once they have started to move serious money, serious people show up, both criminals and law enforcement agencies. Season Two could be entitled, "It's all fun and games until . . ."
The third season is available for streaming and the fourth season is underway. I'm looking forward to following this exploration of the open border between middle-class economics and organized crime.
The acting is uniformly excellent. That goes for the leading women and for the men who play their husbands, lovers, bosses, and partners in crime.
I've reviewed several docu-dramas on the Dark Stories Blog including The Social Dilemma (2020), American Animals (2018), Three Identical Strangers (2018). Each offers that delivers that blend of suspense and revulsion at the moral blindness of the characters that is typical of film noir and related genres.
In each of these films, knowing the events actually happened only intensifies the effect. These films are not just "based on a true story," nor are they "inspired by actual events." Everything in the film is fact. Netflix's new, excellent Operation Varsity Blues takes this one step further: the dialogue spoken by actors to dramatize these events is taken verbatim from FBI wiretaps.
Even if you followed news reports of "the College Admissions Scandal" as it unfolded in 2019, this film is worth watching. Especially if you are a student of confidence games (The Big Con by David W. Maurer, The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith), this portrait of Rick Singer (played by Matthew Modine) is compelling and enlightening.
He told wealthy people he could guarantee their children admission to schools like Stanford and University of Southern California for a price. He made no secret of how he would do it: bribery and manipulation of scores on entrance exams. Some of them asked if there was any way this could "come back to bite me." All of them paid, and he delivered. Until he got caught. Then, as they say in the old gangster films, "he sang like a canary."
Promising Young Woman has been described as a rape revenge thriller. But is the hero, Cassie (Carey Milligan), seeking revenge? Or is she seeking justice?
To begin with she is not out to settle a score for harm done to her. Rather, she is settling the score for harm done to someone else. In this, the film resembles Unforgiven, the great western in which William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a bounty hunter, sets out to get justice for someone overlooked by the justice system.
Also, she is not out to demand an eye for an eye from the men who raped her friend. She does no violence, despite the near constant threats she creates. She is not out to punish the men who pick her up in bars, the medical school dean who dismissed her friend's accusation, or any of the others she hoodwinks. Instead, she wants to force them to recognize and admit what they did.
This is a film about a woman seeking justice, not revenge. This is a significant variation on the revenge thriller. And it is thrilling.
QUASI-SPOILER: Much made of having to explain the ending, but it is completely consistent with the film. In one way Cassie loses. She becomes a victim of the clueless guys who treat women as objects. In another way, she succeeds by guaranteeing their cruelty will become known and they will have to face the consequences.
Murphy vows to find out who killed a teenager who was one of the good guys in her tough urban neighborhood. She has to contend with gang members and crooked cops.
And she is blind.
Murphy lost her sight at the age of fourteen due to retinitis pigmentosa. She is now in her twenties. Her disability has not made her a better person. She drinks too much, and smokes, and likes casual sex. When was the last time you saw character with a disability who is not a saint? And who is willing to kick some ass for a just cause.
The title, In the Dark refers to Murphy's blindness, but this is a dark story because of the characters around her. Some of the friendly ones turn out to be wolves. Some of the scary ones turn out to be honest. But there are a few reliable if quirky people around her.
The revelations throughout Season One keep this series lively. The acting is strong throughout the cast.
Season Two is also on Netflix. A third season will be produced this year, and a fourth season has been ordered.
Blood Simple was a revelation for me when I saw it in a theater. It was scary and funny at the same time.
Ray is having an affair with his boss's wife (Abby). The boss (Marty) hires a private detective (Visser), to get proof of the affair. Ray and Abby prepare to run away together. Marty hires Visser to kill them.
Ray, a nice guy, winds up acting like a cold-blooded fiend. Marty, the vengeful husband, loses everything. Visser, a paid killer, ends up looking like a clown. Abby, a dependent woman, becomes the toughest of all.
Since everyone is keeping secrets, they sometimes work at cross-purposes. And accidents happen. Sometimes the surprises are scary, sometimes funny.
The filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Cohn, were certainly not the first to combine suspense and humor. Hitchcock always looked for humor in his stories and sometimes abandoned an idea if there was no humor in it. But the Cohn brothers made the scary parts scarier and the funny parts funnier.
The Undoing is a murder mystery driven by the strangeness of the victim, a young mother, whom we get to know in the first of six episodes. In her scenes with Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman), she seems to call out for understanding, help, and affection.
Jonathan Fraser, (Hugh Grant), is a suspect because he was the oncologist for the victim's child and had an affair with her. He is arrested and held on $2 million bail. The case seems open and shut, but Grace, Jonathan, and Grace's father (Donald Sutherland,) behave in unexpected ways.
As I write this, I've watched four of the six episodes. The suspects are multiplying and I'm eager to find out who done it, but I'm more eager to find out what would explain the things the victim does in those early scenes. The Undoing generates all the suspense of a traditional murder mystery without sticking to the usual formulas. It puts more emphasis on the characters than on the logistics of how the crime was committed.
One week in 2018, I checked the listings of movies, saw there was a new thriller called Searching, found the nearest theater showing it, and went with friends. Back then, we did that.
I was not particularly drawn by the idea that the story played out entirely on electronic screens. The hero (John Cho) searches for his missing daughter on her laptop, and later on a phone and through TV news broadcasts. We never see the characters directly. Mostly I hoped this gimmick would not get in the way.
For me at least, the gimmick adds a little to the suspense. Best of all, it's a good story. I cared about the teenager in distress, I was pulling for her father to find her. The dark twists the story takes in the second half were satisfying.
Writer-director Aneesh Chaganty has a new suspense film about a disabled, home-schooled teenager whose mother may not have her best interests at heart. Since theaters are not up and running, it debuts on Hulu today---Friday, November 20, 2020. The title is Run.
Based on Searching, Chaganty is good with parent-teenager relationships and he tells a good story. You might want to watch both Searching and Run this weekend, in either order.
Like most people, I can't say I have a single favorite movie. But, if I had to make a short list of favorites, this would be on it. Mostly I am awed by the story in the original screenplay by David Peoples.
William Munny (Clint Eastwood) hears of a bounty offered for killing two cowboys who have cut up a prostitute's face. Though he was a thief and a killer in his younger days, Munny reformed and swore to his wife he would never go back to his evil ways.
But his wife has died, he has two children to care for, and his farm is failing. Also, the cause is just: the law (Gene Hackman) has compensated the owner of the brothel but has done nothing for the prostitute. Munny decides to make one last score.
A lot goes wrong. Through it all, Munny and his friend (Morgan Freeman) prove themselves deeply flawed men who behave with honor while carrying out a mission they don't believe in. Sometimes life is like that.
A bright light flashes in the sky. Shortly after, everyone's power goes out, and cars won't start.
When the neighbors on a suburban street compare notes on what might be happening, a teenager says he read a story about aliens who take over earth by first sending spies who look like humans to live among us.
His mother says those are just silly comic books, but people start to speculate whether any of the more eccentric residents on their street could be aliens. Things do not go well after that.
"The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" aired in 1960 as part of the first season of The Twilight Zone. Many episodes are scary. I found this one disturbing because it seems so familiar: unusual events are "explained" by a far-fetched theory and people start hunting monsters. If we re-wrote this to include social media, we would have a story from today's news reports.
Sudden Fear is classic mid-century noir. The men wear hats and suits and ties because men did back then. The women wear silk stockings and have elaborate coiffures because women did back then. People travel cross-country by train and the automobiles are enormous. It's all filmed in glorious black and white.
Joan Crawford and Jack Palance make a quirky romantic couple. She plays an heiress and successful playwright. He plays an aspiring actor. She fires him from her Broadway show. He seduces her and plots to kill her, aided by an old girlfriend played by Gloria Grahame.
Crawford's acting style recalls the silent films in which she started with close-ups that allow her facial expressions to reflect sequences of thought and emotion. Palance's style exemplifies modern realism. Grahame's acting transcends style.
Much of the film recalls Alfred Hitchcock's criticism of what happened initially when sound was added to movies: they became "photographs of people talking." However, in the final quarter of the film, when Crawford and Palance launch their deadly schemes, director David Miller and cinematographer Charles Lang put on a tour de force of visual storytelling that Hitchcock might have envied.
I thought twice about whether to review this movie on the Dark Stories blog because it's a documentary on current events. There are plenty of real dark stories in the news. You don't come here to read about them.
But I've written about another documentary recently, Three Identical Strangers (2018), and a docu-drama, American Animals (2018), because they are as suspenseful as any of the fiction on this blog. The Social Dilemma is too.
On one level, it's about white men around 30 years of age trying to put the genie back in the bottle. These are men who made social media what it is today: ubiquitous, addictive, powerful, and unregulated. They no longer work for companies such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
They know they created the most powerful propaganda tool in history and made it equally available to marketers and dictators. They relate their own struggles with setting aside their phones and explain why they don't let their kids have phones until they're teenagers.
A dramatization is threaded through the documentary. Mom, Dad, and three children all have different attitudes about cell phones. The oldest daughter worries about her younger siblings. The teenage brother is helpless without his phone. The pre-teen daughter knows people only through social media. It's an uncomplicated but effective illustration of the growing problem.
The suspense comes from the way each topic leads to the next as the former titants of tech testify to what they have done and what can be done about it. Tristan Harris, former Google Design Ethicist, is in effect the moderator of this discussion put together from interviews with the others. By the time you've heard what they say about each topic (surveillance capitalism, conspiracy theories, rising teenage suicide rates, etc.) you are desperate to hear them address the next.
Fact-based dark stories feel different from fictional dark-stories, but when well-made can be just as suspenseful and just as scary.
The first three seasons of Search Party reminded my of how Twin Peaks felt when it burst upon the scene in 1990: scary, funny, surreal . . . So I recently watched the two-hour pilot, and sure-enough it feels as innovative as ever.
From the opening credits, which introduce the saw-mill town as a well-oiled machine set in a magnificent landscape, to the introduction of Agent Cooper as a guy who loves cherry pie and is looking for a clean reasonably priced motel, this show puts normalcy under a microscope.
And it finds lots of bacteria. There are the usual small-town diseases, corruption and adultery. And there are bizarre touches: the band at a biker bar plays a euphoric ballad, the local bad boys bark like dogs . . . what does it all mean?
I'm not a binge-watcher, but I think I'll wander through the original two seasons.
Enjoy this thriller as a typical heist movie with plenty of well-choreographed, MIssion-Impossible-style action sequences. The heist is pulled off (pulled off twice, in fact) by a crew of specialists played by A-list stars, headed by Robert Redford. There's plenty of straight-up entertainment value.
It's described as a "comedy caper," and perhaps it was in 1992, but nearly thirty years later some of it is not so funny. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, so the movie contains references to an ambiguous relationship between Russia and the USA. The plot is complicated by conflicts among the FBI, CIA, and NSA.
Most of all, it's chilling how the film sees digital networks controlling the globe. As one character says, wars are no longer fought with bullets and bombs, but rather with ones and zeroes.
The movie was made before graphical user interfaces turned the Internet into the World Wide Web. The technology in the film looks primitive today, but the theme could not be more current. Recent events have turned this romp into a dark story. It has improved with age.
In Hitchcock/Truffaut, the first question Francois Truffaut asks Alfred Hitchcock is whether "the incident at the police station" is true.
Hitchcock: Yes, it is. I must have been about four or five years old. My father sent me to the police station with a note. The chief of police read it and locked me in a cell for five or ten minutes, saying, "This is what we do to naughty boys."
Truffaut: Why were you being punished?
Hitchcock: I haven't the faintest idea.
They begin Chapter Two by discussing The Lodger, which the master himself calls "the first true 'Hitchcock movie.'" It is about a man mistakenly suspected of being Jack the Ripper. Truffaut identifies this as "the theme recurs in almost all of your later works: a man accused of a crime of which he's innocent."
The psychology is obvious. As a boy, Hitchcock was put in jail, a punishment he did not deserve. He spent his career mostly making movies about characters falsely accused, chased and punished.
But he did not seem to be repeating himself. Although this theme is present in The Thirty-Nine Steps, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Frenzy and many more, each film has its own personality. I never noticed how consistent this theme is, until I read about it in the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews.
Season One of Search Party surveys the silliness of creative twenty-somethings in Manhattan and deftly turns the corner from social satire to noir suspense. Season Two turns that development into full-blown noir with our now-not-so-funny (but still entertaining) group of friends living with the horror of what they've done and struggling to keep it secret.
In Season Three, the secret is out and we turn from observing our anti-heroes under a microscope to looking at the world they live in with a wide-angle lens. That world of people who do not have secrets to keep is no less freakish than our heroes. And yet, like our heroes, those people are hilariously unaware of their own monstrous qualities.
This series has a lot in common with Dead to Me with a world view like something imagined by David Lynch.