Category Archives: True Crime

When All Your Dreams Come True, But Your Heart Is Still Broken: Dearest, the Film

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Child trafficking is a huge problem in China: 20,000 to 200,000 children are sold every year. Sometimes, the biological parents sell their own children because they are unable to pay the fines for having 2 or more children. “Families ill equipped to pay penalties on top of the costs of raising a child—food, school tuition, etc.— sometimes opt to sell their offspring.” More often, however, children are stolen — snatched off the streets — and sold to orphanages or to wealthy childless families for adoption, sometimes for international adoption. The US State Department named China one of the world’s worst in child trafficking in 2017, and while the Chinese government acknowledges the problem, it refuses to release any statistics about its high abduction rates.

When children go missing, government officials often avoid investigating, or, worse, are complicit in aiding kidnappers by giving wealthy families who buy kidnapped children the appropriate legal documentation to explain the presence of multiple children in a country where the government has regulated births since 1980, and though the one-child-per-family law is now defunct, its legacy continues in high child trafficking rates. Worse, parents of kidnapped children are often persecuted as a “nuisance” and a “threat to social stability” for continuing to search for their children and for accusing the government of inaction and complicity in the kidnappings.

You wouldn’t imagine that a film about China’s child trafficking problem would be anything but grim, but director Peter Chan’s Dearest (Qin ai de, 2014), based on a true story of parents who are reunited with their kidnapped child several years later, turns the tables on viewers’ expectations by putting an ostensibly happy ending in the middle of the film. After the parents are reunited with their abducted child, the film becomes more gripping and powerful  as it explores the pain and heartbreak of everyone involved in child trafficking, from the grieving parents and the presumably guilty adoptive parents to the kidnapped children themselves. Though some of its subplot are irrelevant,  Dearest is one of the most scathing and brilliant stories of a painful and horrifying topic.

Huang Bo as Tian, Dearest ©

The first half of the film concentrates its story on the divorced parents. Father Tian (Huang Bo) runs a small internet cafe in Shenzhen and has many arguments with his ex-wife Lu (Hao Lei) over the best way to raise their three-year-old son Pengpeng (played by multiple child actors).

Hao Lei as Lu, Dearest ©

When Tian is distracted by a group of teen boys fighing in this store, he sends his son Pengpeng off to play with some neighboring children. The little boy gets distracted and tries to follow a car he thinks is his mother’s, and he gets snatched off the street (which is apparently a common way for kidnappers to abduct children in China).

Huang Bo as Tian, and Hao Lei as ex-wife Lu, Dearest ©

Somewhat reunited by their guilt and despair, parents Tian and Lu begin an initially fruitless search for their son. Since police and other officials are downright obstructive, the couple joins a support group for parents of missing children. Some of the most frightening scenes in the entire film deal with the way the group handles members’ grief, the violence that erupts in these grieving parents when they confront suspected kidnappers, and the terrifying “group-think” when these hopeless parents follow a truck they believe may carry kidnapped children wrapped in burlap bags in the back.

Zhao Wei as “adoptive” mother Li (kneeling), Dearest ©

About halfway through the film, Tian and Lu are told that their son has been located, and despite the fact that this seems as if it should be a happily-ever-after moment, Tian and Lu literally kidnap the boy, who not only does not recognize them, but who fights to remain with his “mother,” Li (played by renowned Chinese actor Zhao Wei).

Zhao Wei as Li, Dearest ©

From that moment, the film becomes a more morally complex and painful examination of good and evil as it focuses more on the disingenuously naïve adoptive mother Li, who insists to officials that her now-deceased husband only brought home “abandoned children” whom he found, and as the film focuses on the children Li “adopted” and raised as her own.

Zhoa Wei as Li, Dearest ©

Even without my being fluent in Mandarin, it was obvious to me that the most powerful actor in the film was playing the mother who was accused of raising kidnapped children. After Li loses her son (who is, indeed, Tian and Lu’s son Pengpeng) and her daughter, whose parents cannot be identified, Li begins a legal battle to adopt the daughter rather than leave her to be raised in an orphanage with hundreds of other children.

two of the actors playing the kidnapped children in Dearest ©

The few sub-plots, such as that with the lawyer and his dementia-afflicted mother, distract slightly from overall narrative, but the film as a whole is gripping and intense. Knowing that the parents find and “rescue” their kidnapped son does not detract from the power of the film. Instead, the film becomes more gripping the instant it flips its protagonists and antagonists: when biological parents Tian and Lu literally kidnap the boy Pengpeng themselves and run from villagers who are trying to rescue him for his screaming “mother,” Li.

Some of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes involve not the parents but the two young children: neither remembers any mother but their “adoptive” one and neither can understand why they are no longer allowed to live together even though they are “brother” and “sister.”

Compelling and morally disturbing because it deals with both the victims and the offenders of child trafficking, Dearest won awards for Director Peter Chen and for Best Actress Zhao Wei. In Mandarin with English subtitles, Dearest is available to rent ($1.99-2.99 SD/HD, free for Prime members) from Amazon.

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When You Can’t Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain: HBO’s The Wizard of Lies

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Even those of us who aren’t even remotely rich have no doubt heard of Bernie Madoff, perpetrator of one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history, causing investors to lose almost $65 billion. Named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian swindler and con artist operating in the US in the 1920’s, Ponzi schemes always collapse, if only because there are no actual investments made with the monies deposited: earlier investors are paid “dividends” with the cash that newer investors deposit, although most of the monies usually go to the fraudster who sets up the plan. The Wizard of Lies, HBO’s film based on the book of the same name by Diana B. Henriques, who plays herself interviewing inmate-Madoff in the film, concentrates more on the fall of the Madoff Empire rather than on explaining exactly how Madoff managed to dupe so many wealthy investors. The Wizard of Lies is a complex examination of a sociopath who, considering the fact that he’s in prison himself for 150 years, doesn’t believe he’s done anything too terribly dreadful to anyone else, especially not to his family members. De Niro’s performance as Madoff is understated and dazzling, and that alone makes the film worth watching.

Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff, The Wizard of Lies, © HBO

Robert De Niro, departing from his usual mob and gangster roles, plays sociopath Bernie Madoff in The Wizard of Lies. De Niro’s performance is understated and controlled to the point of disturbed-rattlesnake brilliant. De Niro only raises his voice a few times in the entire film — and even then, he’s not actually yelling — yet he manages to terrify. His gaze alone is a match for Medusa’s.

De Niro as Madoff, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

De Niro’s Madoff is so eerie, you wonder how anyone could have fallen for the investment scheme in the first place, but, of course, viewers see this version of the story already knowing about Madoff’s lies and treachery. The family dinner scene, which includes Madoff’s granddaughter, is De Niro at his menacing best: it reminded me of De Niro with a very young Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life. Shivery-scary, my dears.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

Michelle Pfeiffer plays Madoff’s wife Ruth, who, unfortunately, seems rather dim-witted in this version of the story. As a woman who’s supported herself since the age of 14, I realize that I may be judging Ruth Madoff by standards which did not apply to her, but still I wonder how anyone could live in a Manhattan penthouse apartment, get $400 highlights “on demand” from an elite hairdresser, and not know that the “bottomless” income which supports her über-wealthy lifestyle was illegitimate. The Wizard of Lies portrays Ruth as absent-mindedly “innocent.” Whining and perpetually confused, Ruth is rarely seen without a glass of wine in her hand.

Despite the almost cardboard-portrayal of Ruth Madoff herself, Pfeiffer’s acting is classy and powerful. As understated as De Niro, Pfeiffer plays Ruth with a skill that reminds you why Pfeiffer is one of the greatest actors alive, especially in the scene with Ruth, alone, complaining about the Bonnie and Clyde comparisons to her and Bernie, and in the scene where she calmly explains to Bernie that she’s going to commit suicide.

Darrow as Andrew, De Niro as Madoff, Nivola as Mark, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

Madoff’s sons, Mark (Allesandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow), ostensibly work on “another floor” in their father’s business, and so “know nothing at all” about the actual investments, the faux trades, and the impossibility of investments’ never having any losses. Mark and Andrew live in multi-million-dollar Manhattan apartments, like Bernie, and have vacation houses, also like Bernie, but the siblings protest their innocence all the while complaining about and raging against the public’s perception of them as co-conspirators in their father’s fraud. Though it’s difficult to believe that Mark and Andrew could have been as innocent as the film depicts them, the actors do a credible job portraying the Madoff boys’ disillusion with their father and their subsequent anguish.

Hank Azaria, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

In one of his best roles, Hank Azaria plays Madoff employee and co-conspirator Frank Dipascali, the only person in the entire company who admits — in the film, at least — to having known about the faux trades and the investment scam. Dipascali manages the books in an office that resembles a corner behind the furnace in somebody’s basement. Azaria’s Dipascali is crude and vulgar, but he apparently knows how to use a computer efficiently enough to have Madoff’s complete and absolute trust. The Wizard of Lies portrays Dipascali as the only other person even remotely culpable in Madoff’s horrific scam, and Dipascali makes about as many apologies as does Bernie, which is to say, none at all.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff, and Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

The Wizard of Lies is fascinating and scary, intense and sad. Does that mean I feel sympathy for Bernie Madoff? No. Do I feel sorry for Ruth, Mark, and Andrew Madoff, all of whom claim to never have known anything was suspicious about Madoff’s vast financial empire? No. I don’t believe they were as innocent as they claim, and the film didn’t change my opinion of them.

It’s a tribute to the HBO film, however, that I watched it fully expecting to be bored and confused by multitudinous, labyrinthine financial explanations. Instead, I was totally engaged by the film, which is compelling if only due to the principals’ extraordinary and powerful performances.

The Wizard of Lies is available for viewing free to HBO subscribers and through Amazon (with a 7-day HBO trial membership).

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HBO’s Boardwalk Empire & the Titanic

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I am watching in horrified astonishment and disappointment as the final season of HBO’s multi-award-winning historical crime drama Boardwalk Empire flails in the deepest end of the ocean. Originally the story of a New Jersey politician, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi) attempting to keep his businesses afloat during Prohibition by becoming a rum-runner, the show has become detached from its original moorings and is sinking faster than the Titanic. I fear it will leave no survivors.

The first two seasons concentrated on the relationship between Nucky and his protegé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), whom the former considered as a son. Alas, Jimmy considered Nucky as competition and wanted to be just like him. It was a marvelous concept that pitted local Atlantic City rum-runners and wannabe ganstas against the Cosa Nostra, complete with Al Capone (Stephen Graham), Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef). It was riveting writing, brilliant acting, and the show deserved every award it won.

L-R: Darmody, Capone, Torrio

L-R: Darmody, Capone, Torrio

In addition to the illegal activity of smuggling alcohol into his nightclubs and casinos, and making it available to his “clients”, Nucky had several relationships, with many very attractive women. Some were showgirls as well as Nucky’s girlfriends, like Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), who really put on a show, and one of those showgirls was Jimmy Darmody’s mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol). Some were ladies, like Jimmy’s wife Angela (Alleska Palladino), and Irish immigrant widow Margaret (Kelly MacDonald), whom Nucky eventually married. All were important to the story and were much more than window-dressing, as evidenced by their own nominations and wins for their performances.

The original ladies of BE

The original ladies of BE

And then, at the end of season 2, I believe, Nucky killed his belovèd protegé-son Jimmy for betraying him. The next season, Boardwalk Empire began to drift aimlessly and to collapse under its own ponderous weight.

Prohibition agents became gangsters, the women in the show disappeared for so many episodes that they were forgotten, previously minor characters had their stories expanded to the point that Nucky — the protagonist of the series — was often only in an episode for a few minutes at a time. Characters simply vanished without explanation (beyond the obvious one that the actors wanted to work on other projects). It was confusing and sad. A once excellent show sagged, cracked, began to take on water.

Still, I watched. I kept hoping that it would return to its former brilliance.

It didn’t.

Then, this summer, the ads began appearing announcing that this would be the final season of Boardwalk Empire. The final season’s official trailer made it seem exciting, dangerous, and thrilling — like the early seasons had been. Its catch-phrase: No One Goes Quietly.

I expected that Nucky’s illegal activities, betrayals, and “sleeping with the gangsters” would leave him “sleeping with the fishes” as the historical gangsters, mentioned above, took over all the illegal action in the show: booze, drugs, gambling, prostitution.

Imagine my horror and confusion, then, when I couldn’t understand anything that was happening in the final season’s premiere. The scenes cut so quickly — sometimes only a minute or two apart — and included so many people, locales, and different time periods that I couldn’t figure out what was going on in the show. Someone in the show mentioned that six years had supposedly passed — since the end of the last season and the start of this — but why six years had passed was not made clear. Nor was it apparent what had happened to the characters during those years.

When the premiere episode was over, my boyfriend looked over at me and said, “Did you understand any of that?” No, no, I did not. And I still don’t.

images

Boardwalk Empire, once one of the most innovative and daring series on television, has become a hodge-podge collection of characters you thought you knew but don’t recognize any longer, doing things for no apparent reason whatsoever. The historical characters are so jumbled around with their nefarious comings and goings that I’m not sure what nefarious activities they’re performing any longer (except for when Lucky Luciano killed one Capo and later pledged allegiance to another, who’s never been in the show before). Rothstein got killed during the summer break, or just died — I don’t know which; Torrio retired rather than be killed by Capone; Luciano and Lansky are planning something against Nucky, but I’m not sure why, or even what it is besides murder; and Al Capone has been reduced to dancing around in his undershorts while supposedly being fitted for a suit.

Two female characters who basically departed the show a couple seasons ago — Nucky’s wife Margaret (Kelly MacDonald), and his once-formidable nemesis Gillian (Gretchen Mol), Darmody’s mother, who’s in a mental institution for murder — have returned, though I have no idea why. I don’t think anyone else does either, including the actors and the characters themselves. Black mobster and friend of Nucky’s, Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) is on a chain-gang for some reason and does nothing but scowl through every scene, his lower lip pushed out like he’s an unhappy 5-year-old.

The majority of the show during this final season is devoted to — of all things — Nucky’s childhood.

Whaaaa????

Why on earth would I want to see extended scenes of Nucky’s childhood during the final episode of an historical crime drama? Especially when they don’t make any sense whatsoever and are boring in the extreme.

And if Nucky is “remembering” his childhood in preparation for his demise at the end of the season — a metaphorical “life passing before his eyes” sort of thing — that is certainly not being made clear.

Nothing seems connected. Characters ramble and roam aimlessly. They talk about things that make no sense. They kill other characters we don’t recognize and for no apparent reason. Nucky’s trying to make deals to legally sell liquor in anticipation of the day when Prohibition is repealed, but is still dealing with bootleggers, especially a new-money Bostoner named Kennedy.

And Joseph Kennedy, infamous bootlegger, is being presented as Saint Joe, who doesn’t even want to look at showgirls’ legs, let alone drink. And he’s constantly spouting his beliefs that “one should be doing all this investing for one’s family and heritage.” (Is one of the Kennedy family members an intern on the writing staff this season?)

I don’t know if Boardwalk Empire got cancelled, if Buscemi wanted out, if the writers all retired or walked out en masse and gave their notes in hieroglyphics to HBO staffers, or if the show just slammed into an iceberg, cracked in two, and everyone is hopelessly drowning because the  mobsters stole all the lifeboats already.

Unknown

No one is going quietly, that is certainly true.

But this once fine show is now a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, but signifying absolutely nothing.

Except that Boardwalk Empire’s was not really in Atlantic City but on Atlantis or booked on the Titanic, and everybody’s head is already deep underwater.

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