A timely story for the #MeToo era, Beauty Mark (2017) explores the ramifications of sexual abuse and how the cycle affects multiple generations. Written and directed by Harrison Doran and inspired by a true story, Beauty Mark follows Angie (Auden Thornton), a down-on-her-luck single mom as she struggles to make ends meet. She’s the primary caretaker of her Autistic son Trey (Jameson Fowler) and has to deal with the prejudice that comes with raising a mixed race child. She’s also taking care of her addict mother Ruth Ann (Catherine Curtin) who refuses to work and can barely stay sober enough to take care of her grandson. When their home is condemned by the local authorities, Angie must secure the funds for a down payment for an apartment. Haunted by the memory of former pastor Bruce (Jeff Kober) who sexually molested her when she was 5 years old, she fights back hoping that suing him help her get the money she needs to keep her family off the streets. She reaches out to other victims but when faced with a system that protects abusers and driven by the urgency of her situation, she gets help from her stripper friend Lorraine (Laura Bell Bundy). Can Angie fight back or will she have to give in?
“It’s not about sex. It’s about power.”
Star Auden Thornton delivers in her performance of the sympathetic and complex Angie. There are two distinct phases in Angie’s story line. There is one of an overworked mom at her wits end, searching for a way to fight back. Thornton’s physical appearance contrasts greatly to the second phase when she breaks down from sheer exasperation and finds a job as a stripper. There are several heartbreaking scenes throughout the film that linger long enough to give viewers a sense of the desperate circumstances Angie is dealing with. I was particularly impressed with Catherine Curtin as the strung out grandmother who is both a pathetic and repulsive figure. I enjoyed her performance in Victoria Negri’s film Gold Star. Curtin is a modern-day Shelley Winters and one to watch.
Beauty Mark is an engrossing movie with a poignant message. It’s a warning, a call-to-action but most importantly a candid look about a serious problem that’s been swept under the rug for far too long.
Station: 19th Century Political Biopic Time Travel Destination: 1843-1848, Cologne, London, Manchester, Paris, Brussels, Ostend, etc. Conductor: Raoul Peck
“In early 1843, Europe, ruled by absolute monarchs, wracked by crises, famine and recession, is on the verge of profound change.”
On the heels of his critically acclaimed documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016), director Raoul Peck brings audiences something vastly different but still as potent in its political message. The Young Karl Marx (2017) tells the story of two German philosophers: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, their friendship, trials and tribulations and the birth of Communism and Marx’s Communist Manifesto. August Diehl stars as Karl Marx, the headstrong and arrogant writer who is constantly getting in trouble for his radical ideas. Struggling to make ends meet for his growing family, Marx is battling the internal struggle of his passion for social justice and making a decent living. His partner is his equally headstrong wife, former socialite Jenny von Westphalen-Marx (Vicky Krieps), who gave up her comfortable life for the love of Marx and his ideas. They try to make a go of it in Paris but are soon exiled from France. In the meantime, another young philosopher Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), lives a conflicted life in Manchester, England. He works for his father, a successful mill owner and tyrant to his workers, and is constantly butting heads with him. Inspired by outspoken worker Mary Burns (Hannah Steele)’s protest of his father’s treatment of the mill workers, Engels seeks out justice. Marx and Engels meet and become fast friends. Over the next few years they fight for the proletariat and against the bourgeoisie. They know something big is about to happen and won’t let anything or anyone get in their way.
Peck’s biopic could have easily been called The Young Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels because it focuses almost equally on both historic figures. However, it would have been a convoluted title and Marx is the one whom is best known to contemporary audiences. While you don’t have to be pro-communism to appreciate the political message of this film you do have to have some interest in liberal philosophy, political history and social justice. Even Peck within the confines of the movie, leaves room for doubt. In one scene Arnold Ruge (Hans-Uwe Bauer) warns Marx to not follow in Martin Luther’s footsteps, when Luther broke down Catholic dogma only to help usher in an equally intolerant religion. I thought this to be quite powerful.
I consider myself very liberal so I was fascinated by the story of these two important 19th century figures. If you enjoyed Elizabeth Gaskell’s social justice novel North & South (or its mini-series adaptation), about the working poor of mill town Manchester, England around the same time of Engels and Marx, you’ll want to see The Young Karl Marx. Especially if you have an interest in the political message of that story and want to explore it more deeply.
Written by Pascal Bonitzer and Raoul Peck, the original screenplay really hones in on a dark time in European history. I was especially impressed in the character portrayals of Marx and Engels. These are two figures caught in conflicting worlds. Marx is torn between stability and his passion. Engels is caught between his bourgeoisie upbringing and his desire to help the proletariat. Both Diehl as Marx and Konarske as Engels play their parts with great tenacity and attention to detail. I was particularly impressed how the filmmakers incorporated two strong female characters in what could have solely been a movie about two men. Actress Vicky Krieps, best known for her stand out performance in the Academy Award nominated Phantom Thread (2017), is a delight as Marx’s wife Jenny. Even when she hangs out in the background she makes her voice heard and everyone, especially Marx, respects her for it. Mary Burns, played by Hannah Steele, is feisty, brash and outspoken and Engels falls head over heels for her and rightly so. In the movie they marry but in real life Engels felt marriage was repressive construct of culture and they were lifelong romantic partners instead. In the film though you still get a sense that their union is anything but ordinary.
The Young Karl Marx felt as real as a biopic set in different parts of Europe could possibly be. Lots of on location shooting helps. Peck and his team filmed in France, Belgium and Germany. There is a keen attention to period detail and I always felt like I was thrust into the world of 1840s Europe and not a movie about 1840s Europe. But one thing that stands out about this film is that it’s trilingual. German, French and English are spoken interchangeably throughout the film depending on the location, circumstances and characters in the scene. This is truly European. I myself am trilingual (English, Spanish and Portuguese) with many family members in Europe who all speak more than one language. I love that Peck’s film embraces multiple languages instead of having one language pretend to be all three. The end result is an exercise in attention and comfort with subtitles that is truly worth the effort.
The film ends a month before Revolutions of 1848. It’s a time capsule of just a few years in Marx and Engels’ lives but an important one that helps us begin to understand what is to follow.
Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx is a powerful, multi-lingual biopic that explores inequality and class struggles within the context of the lives of two influential philosophers. Highly recommended.
The Young Karl Marx debuted in New York and LA last week and a national roll out is to follow.
Station: Historical Crime Drama
Destination: 1896, New York City
In December of 1994, Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist hit bookstores and would spend six months on The New York Times bestseller list. In my bookstore days circa 1998-2002, I remember selling many paperback copies of Carr’s novel to eager readers. The book was so popular Carr went on to write a sequel The Angel of Darkness and a third book is in the works.
“In the 19th Century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures. Experts who studied them were therefore know as alienists.”
Despite its popularity with readers, The Alienist faced a long road to adaptation. In 1993, the year before the book’s publication, Paramount Studios optioned the rights for the novel. It languished over the next couple of decades and went through various scripts and possible directors. Paramount was concerned about the budget and it seemed destined to never become a movie. Fast forward to 2015, when Paramount Studios revived an old branch of its business, Paramount Television. Looking for properties already at hand, they picked out The Alienist. Working with the production company Anonymous Content, they started on adapting Carr’s novel into a mini-series for TV.
Carr’s story, set in the Gilded Age in 1890s New York City, is a mixture of forensic science and psychology. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) is an alienist. In other words, he’s a psychologist who helps his clients with various emotional or mental problems. He mets New York Times illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) who was on scene to sketch a murder victim. The young boy, dressed in girl’s clothes, was brutally dismembered. His mystery behind his death reveals the seedy underbelly of New York City where young boys dress as girls at underground brothels to serve male clientele. And there is a serial killer on the loose targeting these young boys. Kreizler and Moore enlist the help of Miss Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), the assistant to police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. The headstrong young woman is the key to connect Kreizler and Moore to police records that are just out of reach.
Episode 1: The Boy on the Bridge – Kreizler meets Moore to discuss the murder of the boy on the bridge. Moore introduced Kreizler to Howard. Not satisfied with Moore’s illustrations, Kreizler orders the murder victim exhumed. They meet with forensic experts the Isaacson twins, Lucius (Matthew Shear) and Marcus (Douglas Smith) to discover what they can about how the
Episode 2: A Fruitful Partnership – The Isaacson brothers discover the type of knife used by the killer and Kreizler and Moore learn of a new victim. Howard proves to be a powerful ally for Kreziler and Moore giving them access to Roosevelt’s office and his records. The main players meet to discuss findings and Moore dives into the dangerous world of these boy brothels.
For the most part The Alienist is very true to the era. I love the attention to setting and costume. I did have some reservations with the dialogue, especially a line uttered by Fanning “Are you out of your mind? I mean, honestly” which smacks of modern speak.
I was pleased to see such a strong female protagonist in Dakota Fanning’s Sara Howard. In what could have been a very male dominated story, her character brings a lot of balance to the story. Bruhl and Evans balance each other out with their adept performances.
The Alienist is a gripping psychological thriller that will shake viewers to their core. It blends crime, sexuality, psychology and mystery into a powerful drama. Some viewers, myself included, will be deeply disturbed by the sexualization of children and murder of young boys. If viewers could stomach Carr’s novel, they will find much in the TV adaptation.
The Alienist premieres tonight at 9PM EST on TNT. The limited series will go on for a total of 10 episodes.