LOST GIRLS (2020) – Story of Serial Killer Victims Not As Powerful As Book On Which It Is Based

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Amy Ryan and Thomasin McKenzie in LOST GIRLS (2020).

LOST GIRLS (2020) is a Netflix-original movie based on the nonfiction book Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker, which chronicled the still unsolved murders committed by the Long Island Serial Killer. I read this book when it first came out, and it remains one of the best books I’ve read this past decade.

Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery is a meticulously researched and compelling read that tells the story of the victims and their families, a fascinating narrative made more so by the fact that the killer remains at large.

Now comes the movie LOST GIRLS, and since I had been so impressed with the book, I was eager to see this one.

In LOST GIRLS (2020) it’s 2010, and Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) is a single mom who works two jobs to support her two daughters, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) a senior in high school who is hoping to be able to afford community college, and Sarra (Oona Lawrence) who’s in middle school and struggling with mental health issues. When Mari’s oldest daughter Shannan, who doesn’t live with them but does send money to them regularly, fails to show up for a promised dinner date with the family, Mari shrugs it off, but when Shannan’s boyfriend calls Sherre, something he has never done before, looking for her, and when she doesn’t respond to her messages on her phone, Mari begins to worry.

Getting no help from the police, Mari investigates on her own and learns the shocking truth that Shannan worked as a prostitute and was last seen in Oak Beach, New York, a private community on Long Island. She also learns some very disturbing facts, like her daughter made a 911 call screaming for help, and the police didn’t arrive on the scene until nearly an hour later. Shannan reportedly ran screaming down the streets of Oak Beach, and no one claimed to have seen or heard anything. Also, the security camera footage on those very streets from that night was erased, a camera controlled by the man who would later become a person of interest.

Mari makes her presence known to the local police and eventually is able to engage in face to face dialogue with Police Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) who pleads with her to remain patient, but she has no intention of doing so. Eventually, the remains of several bodies are found in the woods around Oak Beach, and it’s determined that a serial killer has been at work.

The victims’ families get together and form a support group and eventually hold a vigil on the streets of Oak Beach, all in an effort to memorialize their daughters’ lives. Mari makes the point that she wants them remembered as daughters, sisters, and women, not as prostitutes.

While the police do step up their investigation, Mari is there every step of the way, prodding them, and pointing out their shortcomings, like calling them out for refusing to search the densely wooded swamp area behind the main suspect’s house.

I wish I could say LOST GIRLS the movie was as hard-hitting and as moving as the book, but it’s not. It makes its points, but it does so briefly and without much depth. The film is short, clocking in at 95 minutes, and as such never really gives the subject its due.

I was able to fill in the blanks because I had read the book, but I wonder if folks who haven’t read the book would be able to do the same. The book was exhaustively researched. The reader really felt the scope and magnitude of what these families were going through, what it must have felt like to have daughters murdered and the police doing little about it. The book also chronicled in detail the police investigation and the problems it faced, mostly due to ineptitude. The movie focuses more on Mari and her one on one meetings with Commissioner Dormer. The scope just isn’t the same.

The book was haunting. For the longest time afterwards, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The movie is much more superficial. It has its moments, but there are far too few of them.

Amy Ryan is excellent as Mari Gilbert. She gives a powerful performance, and as we learn that Mari is driven by the guilt of her past, how she couldn’t handle Shannan as a child and gave her up to a foster family, Ryan shows us the scars of the character and how she uses them to find the strength to be the mother she wanted to be when her daughter was still alive. When Dormer says that Shannan’s fate is not on her, she replies tellingly “I’m her mother. It’s all on me.” It’s one of the film’s more powerful moments. I wish there had been more of these.

This is one of Ryan’s strongest performances to date, adding to the quality work she has already done in such films as THE INFILTRATOR (2016) and BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015).

Thomasin McKenzie is one of my favorite young actresses working today, as she has delivered some powerhouse performances in films like JOJO RABBIT (2019) and LEAVE NO TRACE (2018). Her role here as middle daughter Sherre is much more limited than her roles in the aforementioned movies, and as such she doesn’t have a whole lot to do in this movie, which is too bad, because she’s a great talent.

Gabriel Byrne is perfect as the tired and weary Police Commissioner Richard Dormer. While he wishes Mari would just go away, he never really tells her to do so, and in the movie anyway, seems sympathetic to her requests. We also learn immediately what kind of predicament he’s in, because at the outset, we are privy to a phone conversation in which he’s told point-blank that if he doesn’t downplay the serial killer angle he will lose his job.

I enjoyed Lola Kirke’s performance as Kim, a sister to one of the victims and a fellow prostitute. Her conversations with Mari are some of the better ones in the movie, and you almost get the sense that Mari feels like she’s talking to Shannan when she’s giving advice to Kim.

Dean Winters plays a smug and uncaring police detective and sort of stands in as the face of police incompetence here. And Reed Birney does a wonderfully creepy job as the outwardly “oh so helpful” Dr. Peter Hackett who for a long time was a major person of interest and suspect in the case. The scene where he puts his hands on Mari’s shoulders will give you chills. We just saw Birney in THE HUNT (2020), and he’s been in a ton of movies and TV shows.

The screenplay by Michael Werwie based on Robert Kolker’s book is not really a strength of this movie. It tells the story it has to tell, in that it gets in and gets out without any fluff, but it also doesn’t dig deep. It’s all very superficial, and without having read the book, it would be easy to dismiss it as just another serial killer story, albeit one based on true events. But it’s so much more than that. It’s the story of the victims and their families, and while the movie goes through the motions to say as much, there are few moments where it really tugs at your heart and makes you feel their plight and pain.

In the book these families go through hell. In the movie, scenes cut away and finish long before they should. Sharper dialogue would have gone a long way towards bringing these families’ stories to life.

Liz Garbus directed LOST GIRLS, and the result is an efficient production, and it’s all competently handled. I didn’t, however, get a strong sense of place. Oak Beach should have been a setting so disturbing I could smell the death there, but the camera never gets anywhere that close to make me feel that way.

And there simply are not a lot of heightened emotional moments here, which is surprising considering the subject matter.

Still, I recommend LOST GIRLS. It tells a disturbing story, one that needs to be told, but it does it in a way that may leave you with more questions than answers. As such, if you see this movie and feel you want to learn more, I highly recommend the book  Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

Unlike the movie, the book is thoroughly comprehensive and as such is an incredibly moving and tragic read.

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Best Movies of 2019

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 Movies from 2019. Now, while I see a lot of movies each year, I obviously don’t see every release, and so it’s possible that some of your favorites are not on this list. But here are mine:

10. READY OR NOT

I loved this gory campy thriller in which Samara Weaving plays a bride who finds herself married into a peculiar family: they love games, and on her wedding night, the game of choice is a variation of kill the bride, and they mean it. They’re playing for keeps. But Weaving’s character is no victim. She fights back and then some! Although it sounds like a downer, this one is saved by its lively humor where you’ll find yourself laughing at things you have no business laughing at. Samara Weaving, who was so good in the horror flick THE BABYSITTER (2017) is excellent here once again.

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9. DARK WATERS

This riveting drama about one attorney’s fight against the powerful Dupont chemical company which was not only polluting one town’s water but an entire nation with its no-stick cookware features top-notch performances by Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. The most disturbing part of this film, which was based on a true story, is that the issue was never satisfactorily resolved and continues to this day. A must-see drama.

 

8. JOKER

The lone superhero movie to make my Top 10 list, and that’s a stretch, because it’s not really a superhero movie. It’s a moving and often disturbing drama that chronicles one man’s descent into one of the most iconic superhero villains of all time.  Joaquin Phoenix knocks it out of the park as Arthur Fleck, the man who eventually becomes the Joker. While I still slightly prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) because of the way he dominated that movie, Phoenix’ performance here is very different but equally as satisfying. The strength of JOKER is it makes the story of the Joker completely plausible. You’ll understand and believe how an ordinary person could become the Joker.

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7. THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

This heartwarming tale of a young man with Down syndrome Zak (Zach Gottsagen) who runs away from his state-run home to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler features outstanding performances by Zach Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome in real life, Shia LaBeouf as the drifter who decides to help Zach fulfill his dream, and Dakota Johnson as the concerned social worker hot on their trail. Also features fine supporting performances by Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church. Superior script by writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. LaBeouf’s best performance to date.

 

6. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

The only horror movie to make my Top 10 List, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is all the more impressive because it’s rated PG-13 and still manages to be scary, and that’s because it takes its business of scaring people seriously. Based on the popular book series by Alvin Schwartz, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK succeeds at what a lot of other horror movies fail with, and that is, building suspense. This one gets more exciting as it goes along. It tells separate horror stories that are all connected by one compelling wraparound story. The whole thing works, making for the most solid and effective horror movie of the year.

 

5. THE CURRENT WAR (2017)

Filmed in 2017, THE CURRENT WAR was re-released in 2019 with a new director’s cut, and so I feel comfortable including it on my Top 10 List for 2019. This winner of a movie tells the fascinating tale of the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to be the first to provide electricity for the United States. This period piece which takes place in the late 1880s-1890s is beautifully photographed and handsome to look at. Features two powerhouse performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, both of which drive this movie along, as well as a notable performance by Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Testa.

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4. ROCKETMAN

Outstanding biography of music legend Elton John features perhaps my favorite acting performance of the year, Taron Egerton’s spot-on depiction of the flamboyant and troubled John. Innovative in its approach, mixing the music of Elton John into key moments of the story, this film succeeds as much as a musical as it does as a biography. The sequence where John performs at the Troubadoor club in Los Angeles is one of the more electrifying sequences in any movie this year.

 

3. HOTEL MUMBAI

Not really shown a lot of love by critics, HOTEL MUMBAI nonetheless was one of the more intense movie experiences of the year. Based on the true story of the terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai,  HOTEL MUMBAI tells the compelling story of how— with authorities hours away from reaching the hotel— the hotel staff decided it was up to them to protect the guests from the terrorists who had overtaken the hotel. Thanks to some taut and tight direction by Anthony Maras, and notable performances by Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Anupam Kker,  and Nazanin Boniadi, this one is a nail-biter from start to finish.

 

2. JO JO RABBIT

For me, JO JO RABBIT was the biggest surprise of the year. It came out of nowhere and was a film that I went to see not knowing what to expect, especially considering it tells a tale of a young German boy JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) living in World War II Germany who adores the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, so much so that his imaginary playmate is Hitler himself, played here with hilarious effectiveness by writer/director Taika Waititi. At times wildly comedic a la Monty Python, this one is also a moving drama as JoJo’s mother Rosie (Scarlet Johansson) is anti-Nazi and is secretly housing a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). When JoJo discovers her, he is at first outraged, but as he gets to know her, he begins to learn the truth about what Nazism is all about. JO JO RABBIT is an amazing movie that works on all levels. Thanks to the writing, directing and acting talents of Waititi, and the rest of his talented cast which also includes Sam Rockwell as a Nazi captain with a conscience of his own, JO JO RABBIT is both a deeply moving drama and wild zany comedy, which provided for me the most and the best laughs from a movie all year. This was my pick for the Best Movie of the Year, until the final week of 2019.

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1. LITTLE WOMEN

And that’s because the last week of 2019 I saw LITTLE WOMEN, a perfect gem of a movie by writer/director Greta Gerwig, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers working today. Gerwig makes the bold decision to tell this story out of sequence, and the result is a fresh moving take on a literary classic, one that effectively speaks to modern audiences here in 2019. Features outstanding performances by two of the most talented young actresses working today, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, as well as a superior supporting cast which includes Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep. While I’m not really a big fan of the novel by Louisa May Alcott, I am an instant fan of this movie, thanks to Gerwig’s innovative directing and writing, the message about what life was like for women when they had so few rights, and the powerhouse performances by Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, two actresses to keep our eyes on in the years ahead. Without doubt, LITTLE WOMEN is clearly my pick for the Best Movie of 2019.

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And there you have it, my picks for the Top 10 Best Movies of 2019.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JO JO RABBIT (2019) – Unlikely Comedy of Boy Who Idolized Hitler One of Year’s Best

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If I were to tell you that one of the best comedies of the year would feature Adolf Hitler as a main character, you probably wouldn’t believe me.

But believe! Because not only is JO JO RABBIT (2019) one of the best comedies of the year, it’s also one of my favorite movies of the year.

JO JO RABBIT is the story of a young boy named Jo Jo (Roman Griffin Davis) who during the waning days of World War II not only wants to be in Hitler’s army but also idolizes the Nazi leader, so much so that his imaginary friend is none other than Hitler (Taika Waititi) himself. He gets the nickname Jo Jo Rabbit when during his youth soldier training he refuses to kill a rabbit, and the officers make fun of him, calling him first a coward and then “Jo Jo Rabbit.”

When Jo Jo discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house, he is at first outraged, but then as he gets to know her through their subsequent conversations, his feelings change, so much so that he finds himself questioning the Nazi doctrine.

JO JO RABBIT is an unusual movie. It’s also a terrifically fun and comedic one. The scenes between Jo Jo and his imaginary Adolf are flat-out hilarious. Writer/director Taika Waititi has a field day with the role, making this one of the most unlikely characterizations of Hitler on-screen ever. Waititi channels equal parts Mike Myers and Michael Palin, and even some Tom Hanks in his completely inane and hysterical take on the character. When asked why he would ever consider playing Hitler, Waititi, who is Jewish, answered, “What better way to say f*ck you to the guy?” And he’s right.

Young Roman Griffin Davis is astounding as Jo Jo. He pretty much carries this movie, and that’s saying a lot for a film that features a strong veteran cast.

Equally as good as Davis is Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the young Jewish girl hiding inside Jo Jo’s home. She is responsible for teaching Jo Jo some truths about life, including that he’s just a kid and not a Nazi. McKenzie stood out in last year’s LEAVE NO TRACE (2018) in which she co-starred with Ben Foster. I may have enjoyed her more here in JO JO RABBIT.

Scarlett Johansson delivers a spirited performance as Jo Jo’s mother Rosie. The two share some of the movie’s best scenes, certainly its most poignant ones, as the film speaks on what it’s like to be a single parent, but don’t expect strife and pain. Johansson’s Rosie is a strong character who is more than up to the task of raising her son on her own, even as she secretly works to take on the Nazis.

Likewise, Sam Rockwell— as he always is— is excellent as quirky Nazi officer Captain Klenzendorf who at times seems as if he walked off the set of the old HOGAN’S HEROES TV show. But there’s also a sincerity to Klenzendorf in his relationship with young Jo Jo that transcends comedic caricature.

And if Klenzendorf hearkens from HOGANS HEROES, Rebel Wilson’s Nazi Fraulein Rahm could easily have walked off the set of a Mel Brooks movie.

And young Archie Yates is exceptional as Yorki, Jo Jo’s second best friend— after Adolf. Yates and Davis share some tender scenes and some hilarious ones.

The screenplay by Taika Waititi, based on a novel by Christine Leunens, is nonstop hilarious. The film works not only as an energetic comedy and satire, but also as a moving drama that looks at the human condition and explores the relationship between Jo Jo and his mother, and more importantly, between Jo Jo and Elsa.

Some may argue that a movie like this may promote pro-Nazi views, and that some folks may not get the joke that these people are being made fun of, but the film combats that notion on two fronts. One, the Nazis here are portrayed as over-the-top buffoons, and two, the love of the Nazis is seen through the innocent eyes of a young boy, who with the experience of getting to know a young Jewish girl realizes how backwards and false those views are. In essence, as the story goes along, Jo Jo falls out of love with Adolf and in love with Elsa.

The film is clear in its repudiation of the Nazi agenda, as not only is Elsa a voice against Nazism, but so is Jo Jo’s mother Rosie, and to a lesser extent Captain Klenzendorf.

Taika Waititi, who also directed THOR: RAGNORAK (2017), and is known more for films like BOY (2010) and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014) has hit a home run here with JO JO RABBIT. Everything about this one works, from its sharp satire, to its frequent laugh out loud moments, to its touching message on the human condition, which is simply put, that love conquers all, and that we are here to love each other, not kill each other.

The film is also shot in bright vibrant colors, giving Nazi Germany a celebratory feel, which goes against the many gray newsreels from history, the point being that ordinary German citizens thought everything was going great. They believed they were living the dream, while others who secretly fought back, realized their government was misguided and working against human rights and decency. So Nazi Germany in JO JO RABBIT is shown as a happy place, where the Nazi agenda operated in the shadows.

It’s not every day that you come across a comedy that satirizes Nazism successfully, but JO JO RABBIT makes it look easy.

As such, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year.

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