The Most Hated Woman in America


Madalyn Murray O’Hair does her thing.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Melissa Leo, Josh Lucas, Juno Temple, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, Michael Chernus, Alex Frost, Vincent Kartheiser, Jose Zuniga, Brandon Mychal Smith, Sally Kirkland, Anna Camp, Ryan Cutrona, Andy Walken, Devin Freeman, Peter Fonda, Anthony Vitale, Ward Roberts, David Gueriera, Danya LaBelle. Directed by Tommy O’Haver

 

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a polarizing figure. Notoriously profiled by Life Magazine as the Most Hated Woman in America, her lawsuit against the Baltimore School System – which eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court – marked essentially the end of mandatory Bible passage reading in schools after mandatory school prayer had been abolished a few years earlier. She founded American Atheists and was a gadfly arguing for complete separation of church and state.

Her disappearance from her Austin, Texas home along with her son and granddaughter in 1995 raised nary an eyebrow. She was notorious for her publicity stunts and was known to take off mysteriously for weeks at a time. However, there was something about this particular occasion that just didn’t sit right. A San Antonio reporter, enlisted by concerned friends of O’Hair, looked into the affair and eventually came up with a former employee with an axe to grind.

It’s hard to believe but there have been no cinematic biographies of the notorious O’Hair until now. Melissa Leo, one of the more versatile and underrated actresses of our generation, takes on the role and does a bang-up job of it. O’Hair was an acerbic and abrasive personality who had a tendency to alienate those around her, not the least of which was her own family – her son William, played here by Vincent Kartheiser, was completely estranged from his mother by the time of her disappearance and these days spends his time trying to undo the achievements his mother made in the name of secularism.

The movie is mostly centered on her disappearance, kidnapped by former employee David Waters (Lucas), an ex-convict who discovered that American Atheists had off-shore accounts worth millions that could make him a very nice severance package. With thug Gary Kerr (Cochrane) and his friend Danny Fry (Frost), he kidnapped O’Hair and her family and stowed them in a seedy hotel until the end.

The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks covering the highlights of O’Hair’s life and career. The story flow is often disturbed by these flashbacks; I think the filmmakers might have been better served with a more linear narrative here. There are re-creations of her frequent talk show appearances (she was a favorite of Carson and Donahue for her combative nature and acid sense of humor) as well as essentially fictional accounts of what went on during the days she was kidnapped.

There are really several stories being covered here; the life story of O’Hair, the story of her bumbling kidnappers which is handled in something of a Coen Brothers style, and the reporter’s story which is more of an All the President’s Men kind of tale. The three styles kind of jostle up against each other; any of the three would have made a fine movie but all three stories tend to elbow each other out of the way and make the movie somewhat unsatisfactory overall.

The kidnapping scenes have a certain dark humor to them that actually is quite welcome. There’s no doubt that the kidnapping was a botched affair that didn’t go anything close to how the kidnappers hoped. I also appreciated the history lesson about O’Hair’s life; in many ways today the details of what she accomplished have been essentially overshadowed by emotional reactions to her perceived anti-religious views. Most of her detractors don’t understand that O’Hair wasn’t after abolishing religion altogether; she just didn’t want it forced on her kids in school, or on herself by her government (she also led an unsuccessful charge to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance). In that sense I can understand and even appreciate her vigilance but it seems fairly certain that her personality alienated people and in many ways overshadowed her message. You do win people over more with honey than vinegar.

REASONS TO GO: Melissa Leo channels Madalyn Murray O’Hair, warts and all. An interesting mix of historical and hysterical.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence, when it comes, is shocking and tone-changing. The movie kind of jumps around all over the place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some shocking violence and a scene in which rape is implied.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film depicts David being hired on as an office manager, in reality he was hired as a typesetter and later promoted.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bernie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Lazar

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Nuts!


Does this man look completely nuts to you?

Does this man look completely nuts to you?

(2016) Documentary (mTuckman) Gene Tognacci, Andy Boswell, John Causby, Kelly Mizell, Jeff Pillars, Thom Stylinski, Fran Taylor, Pope Brok, Gene Fowler, Dr. James Reardon, Megan Seaholm, Dr. John R. Brinkley, John R. Brinkley, Jr. Directed by Penny Lane

 

Our need to believe can sometimes push us beyond the bounds of reason. We often feed our own belief systems with that which makes no logical sense, but because it jives with what we want to believe, we accept it as fact. That’s nothing new, as the story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley will attest.

John R. Brinkley arose from the tiny town of Milford, Kansas (a town which ironically no longer exists as it sits at the bottom of a reservoir today) when a local farmer complained that his sexuality was something of a “flat tire.” Brinkley suggested that he, as the town’s local doctor, transplant goat testicles into the farmer and voila! Nine months later the formerly flat tire was, as they say, fully inflated and no longer shooting blanks.

The good doctor quickly became a wealthy man as people from all over the country began to flock to his Milford hospital for the transplantation of their own. Results were, to say the least, startling. Dr. Brinkley also became one of the first to use mass media to his advantage, establishing a 5,000 watt radio station in Milford which not only broadcast the doctor’s health-related screeds but also became the first station in the country to broadcast country music.

Brinkley had it all back then, in the 1910s and 1920s; wealth, a wife who adored him, a bright-eyed son he called Johnny-Boy, a palatial manor, private airplanes and yachts and as the 1930s rolled in, the attention of a crusading journalist for the Journal of the American Medical Association. Morris Fishbein went after Brinkley with a vengeance, claiming that the good doctor was a quack. He would see to it that Brinkley’s license to practice medicine was revoked as well as his license to operate a radio station.

Undeterred, the gadfly of a doctor ran for the governor of Kansas and might have won but for ballots that had been voided under shady circumstances. Eventually, Dr. Brinkley discovered a pharmaceutical solution to impotence and men were once again lining up to recapture the virility they once had. It was Viagra before Viagra was Viagra. And not content with reaching a portion of the country, Dr. Brinkley constructed a million watt radio station in Mexico that would beam his message to the entire country. Once again, Dr. Brinkley was riding high…and we all know what happens to people who ride high.

Director Penny Lane, who previously gave us Our Nixon, a look at the former president through the home videos of those around him, has done a masterful job here. In a short 79 minutes she deftly weaves the tale of Dr. Brinkley through archival footage, animated recreations and a very limited use of talking heads. However, she makes the most of the interview footage as she uses historians with specific specialties – James Reardon for the history of Kansas, Megan Seaholm for the history of medicine and the AMA and Gene Fowler for the history of radio. All contribute important background for the story.

The animation is done by several different studios and starts out in black and white as the early days of Brinkley’s rise are illustrated and gradually shifts to color as we enter the 1930s and beyond. The graphics are generally simple and sometimes crudely drawn but they suit the subject nicely and are a welcome addition to the narrative, although some of the animations are occasionally not as powerful in illustrating the story as they might be.

The interesting thing here is that Lane credits the self-aggrandizing biography of Brinkley written by Clement Wood in 1934 and commissioned by Brinkley himself. In that sense, we see Brinkley through Brinkley’s own eyes and there’s a peculiar fascination there; it really is in car wreck territory in a lot of ways. And we eventually learn that we are not hearing the absolute truth from Brinkley and as the story unravels, our perceptions are forced to change radically, showing Lane to be a masterful storyteller and illustrating vividly that the need to believe rests in us as well.

The tone of the film has a bit of a cornpone edge to it and those documentary purists who want their true stories set to a serious tone, this might be a bit vulgar. Believers in alternative medicine may shudder at some of the things that are illustrated here and might take offense if they choose to believe that the film is an indictment of alternative medicine in general (it’s not).

This is a story as American as apple pie and while it was big news back in the day, it is barely a blip on our historical radar. Few today remember Brinkley and if they do, it’s more for his pioneering use of radio than for his various treatments of impotence. His is also a cautionary tale; as the narrative changes and we realize what is really going on, we are given graphic evidence of how easily manipulated we all are. In an age where anyone can say anything on the Internet and present it as fact and be believed by millions, we are far more vulnerable to the John R. Brinkleys of the world than we were even back then and that’s a frightening thought.

REASONS TO GO: An American tale in every sense of the word. A pervasive sense of humor that is almost subversive. The change in tone near the end is unexpected and welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little too goofy for purists. Alternative medicine practitioners may cringe a little. Some of the images are ineffective.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual dialogue and suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the special jury award at Sundance for documentary editing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Informant (2012)
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: X-Men: Apocalypse

Sleepy Hollow


Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

(1999) Supernatural Horror (Paramount) Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, Steven Waddington, Claire Skinner, Christopher Lee, Alun Armstrong, Mark Spalding, Jessica Oyelowo. Directed by Tim Burton

Whenever Tim Burton concocts a new movie, critics everywhere go into a lather coming up with new hosannas in praise of his stuff. Generally, they’re right. By the time his interpretation of the Washington Irving classic came out the paroxysms of praise had become almost scary in their effusiveness. Which was – and is – fine by me.

Sleepy Hollow, after all, is supposed to be scary. However, those bookish moviegoers who have actually read the Washington Irving story and still remember it may find the liberties taken here with the source material a bit off-putting.

Ichabod Crane (Crane) is a foppish New York City constable who has been a bit of a gadfly in the NYPD of 1799. While the judges of the period are content with brute force and intimidation to solve their crimes, Crane is all for using scientific method and deductive reasoning to come to the truth. For his troubles, he is exiled to a small Dutch community in the Hudson Valley called Sleepy Hollow to solve a trio of ghoulish murders.

It seems that several prominent citizens of the Hollow have lost their heads. The trouble is their quite dead torsos are rather upsetting to those townspeople who stumble upon them. When Crane arrives, he encounters the plucky young daughter (Ricci) of a local farmer (Gambon), who imparts the story of the Headless Horseman: A somewhat rabid, bloodthirsty Hessian mercenary (Walken in essentially a cameo but still perfectly cast role) meets a bitter end in the woods near Sleepy Hollow, betrayed by a pair of wood-gathering little girls. The townspeople, who include a self-righteous priest (Jones), a timid notary (Gough), a lusty doctor (McDiarmid), a brave and burly farmer (Van Dien) and a corpulent burgomaster (Griffith) are all of the belief that the Horseman is responsible for the unspeakable crimes. Crane, of course, believes that the murderer is flesh and blood.

The game changes when Crane personally witnesses a murder, sending his faith in science and reason spinning into doubt. Unfortunately for the movie, he resolves this rather quickly; I thought it would have made for an interesting subplot to see Crane struggling between the evidence of his senses and his own rationality. Instead,  Crane and the plucky young farmer’s daughter go on a ghoul hunt, with all the violence, gore and spookiness that goes with it.

There are a lot of fairly impressive names behind the camera including Francis Ford Coppola, Larry Franco, Scott Rudin and Kevin Yagher, with Danny Elfman producing a suitably spooky score. While many of Burton’s key personnel are also in place, this seems less of a typical Tim Burton movie and more of a mainstream action/horror flick. There are a lot of missed opportunities here to bring some credible subplots into play that wouldn’t burden the plot as much as the ones that writers Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker decided to leave in.

Burton is wise enough to leave enough atmosphere in to make for some genuinely creepy moments, but his leitmotif of announcing the Horseman’s presence with lightning and thunder effects is a bit over-the-top. Depp makes an interesting Crane, retaining much of the bumbling fright of Irving’s Crane while giving him a heroic bent for the modern moviegoing audience to identify with. Ricci is lustrous in her ingénue role.

There’s some great work in Sleepy Hollow, enough that you’ll be talking about it well after the final credits have concluded. However, with a bit more of Burton and a bit less of Hollywood, this would have been a much more hellacious ride.

WHY RENT THIS: Tim Burton loveliness. Deep and Ricci make a fine couple. Genuinely spooky.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit more mainstream than we’re used to with Burton. Over-the-top in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: The horror, gore and violence is fairly graphic. There’s some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was one of the last two films released on Laser Disc (the other was Bringing Out the Dead).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $206.1M on a $100M production budget; the movie broke even during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: World War Z