October 19, 2019

The Last Czars on Netflix

The Last Czars, a six episode series which premiered on Netflix July 3, 2019, uses dramatic re-enactment scenes interspersed with very animated scholars weighing in on documentary-style questions.

We continue to be fascinated by royal families, as the popularity of the shows Victoria and The Crown would attest. One hundred years have elapsed since the murder of the last Imperial Russian royal family so this seems a propitious time to re-examine the downfall of this storied monarchy.

Robert Jack portrays Tsar Nicholas, the final royal ruler of Russia, as a man who was incapable of changing with the times, which were turbulent indeed with starvation, strikes, riots, a disastrous war with Japan and the run-up to World War I being some of the problems during his reign. On a personal level, he was madly in love with his wife, Empress Alexandra (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and father to four daughters who were ineligible to rule. Joy at the eventual birth of his son and heir, Alexei turned to sorrow when it was discovered that he suffered from an inherited family illness, hemophilia.

We see Alexandra, played by Susanna Herbert, fall under the spell of mystic and possible madman, Grigori Rasputin, mesmerizingly embodied by British actor, Ben Cartwright. Both Nicholas and Alexandra came to believe that only Rasputin could keep the young Tsarevitch in good health.

The series delves into how the family was executed and the possibility of survivors, most notably that of daughter, Anastasia.

If you are a fan of European history, the Imperial Russian family in particular, this docu-drama has good enough acting, cinematography, costume and production values. Some of the dialogue in The Last Czars may annoy you as stating the obvious however.

DNA testing has taken away some of the mystery surrounding the final chapter of the Emperor and his family, but historical interest remains high. I may just go google the current price of a Fabergé egg and take a virtual tour of the Hermitage Art Museum.

Studio 54 documentary on Netflix

If you are intrigued by New York night life of the late 1970s, check out Studio 54 on Netflix. Half buddy flick and half documentary, the film portrays the business and personal relationship between Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager.

The pair opened the famous mid-town Manhattan dance club in 1977 and attracted celebrities such as David Bowie, Bianca and Mick Jagger, Calvin Klein, Michael Jackson, Bette Midler, Elton John and Liza Minnelli, among many others. It was the place to go for disco dancing and liquor, and for those so inclined, drugs and public sex.

The house of cards came tumbling down in 1980 as Rubell and Schrager were sentenced to jail for tax evasion. Rubell subsequently died of AIDS, but Schrager continues to this day to be an entrepreneur, hotelier and real estate developer. Interviews with Schrager are the heart of the film as he talks about this storied time decades ago.

The documentary features archival footage of the interior decor, the extravagant production effects and the array of revelers disco-dancing the night away.
Ah, for a time machine to take me back one night to Studio 54. The documentary is the next best thing.

Wild Wild Country doc on Netflix

Fasten your seat belts for Wild Wild Country, a six-part documentary about the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, his deputy Ma Anand Sheela and the community they created in Wasco County, Oregon. I had to keep reminding myself that this saga was not fiction, but a true life story of the 1980s with the Bhagwan and his sannyasins or followers.

Wild Wild Country

The Rashneeshis were noted for wearing burgundy, red, and orange clothing, sitting enrapt in the presence of the Bhagwan and at other times bouncing around in physical abandonment. The conservative Oregonian locals felt fear and bewilderment at this group of seeming interlopers.

Brother film-makers Chapman and MacIain Way depict the mounting tension between the “cult” and the local and federal government. A fantastic scriptwriter could not have fabricated some of the surprising turns the story takes. I defy you not to become engrossed in this strange tale.

If you want an interesting follow-up to the series, you might consider reading the Vanity Fair magazine article that talks about where some of the principals are now and ponders some of the issues not resolved in the documentary.

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/04/wild-wild-country-netflix-cult-documentary-interview-bhagwan-shree-rajneesh-antelope-oregon-sheela-rajneeshpuram

The Staircase crime documentary on Netflix

If true crime is one of your interests, Netflix is currently streaming The Staircase, a documentary series on the legal travails of Michael Petersen accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen in 2001.

Originally ten episodes filmed by Frenchman Jean-Xavier de Lestrade which premiered in 2004, there are now three new programs updating the public on the curious story of the man whose wife was found bleeding and dead at the bottom of a staircase in their North Carolina residence.

Each episode provides new information about the case. Without giving too much away, let me say that the viewer will hear about a similar death in Germany, more sexual information about the accused and proof of professional misconduct on the side of the prosecution.

The Peterson Family in happier times

For me, the most interesting aspect of the series is the up close viewing of a trial with both sides vying for the trust and good judgement of the jury. We also get to know Michael Peterson, his extended family and his hard-working defense lawyer, David Rudolf. This is true crime at its best showing the human element as well as the nuts and bolts of our judicial system.

Peterson’s defense attorney, David Rudolf

If you watch all 13 episodes, please let me know your reaction to the outcome. Did he? Didn’t he?

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story on Netflix

My mother was movie-mad and one of her favorite actresses was the beautiful Hedy Lamarr. Hedy had an accent but I knew virtually nothing about her background.

A documentary on Netflix, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story will surprise and enlighten you about this Hollywood star’s vertiginous journey.

Like German-born Marlene Dietrich, Hedy, an Austrian Jew left her Nazi-leaning country for California to pursue a movie career. She became an ardent supporter of the U. S. cause selling millions of dollars worth of war bonds.

Her scientific interest and natural talent at devising inventions was the real shocker. This gorgeous dame was also smart. She shared a patent for frequency hopping with composer George Antheil, a concept that is used in both civilian and military applications in current day. Unfortunately, she earned not one penny from this brilliant invention.

Her beauty was also her curse. Six failed marriages were perhaps a result of men falling in love with the Hollywood image but not the actual woman. As she aged, she became one of the first devotees of plastic surgery in an attempt to hang on to her storied face.
Her last years were spent in seclusion, much like Garbo and Dietrich. Were these beauties unwilling to let the public see them as older versions of their movie images?

If Hedy Lamarr had been born with average looks, would a scientific career have resulted in a more stable life and even more successful inventions?
The documentary allows the viewer to ponder the remarkable life of Hedy Lamarr and draw their own conclusions.

A trusted friend recommended the documentary and pointed out these words quoted by Lamar towards the end of the movie. An internet search indicates that the quote was erroneously attributed to Mother Teresa. The full quote was actually written by college student Kent M. Keith in 1968. Here are all ten of the inspiring ideas:

1: People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
2: If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
3: If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
4: The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
5: Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
6: The biggest men with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
7: People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
8: What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
9: People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
10: Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in Bright Lights Doc on HBO

If you love Hollywood lore, the documentary Bright Lights featuring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds will touch you deeply.
Originally scheduled to be released in March 2017 on HBO, the project directed by Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom was sped up and released on Jan. 7, 2017 to coincide with the day-apart deaths of the famous mother and daughter.
In the footage, Reynolds appears to be a celebrity mother who was aware of the effect of her career on that of her children. Her relationship with daughter Carrie is warm and caring as you see them living next to one another in the same compound. Fisher demonstrates her incisive wit, her eclectic decorating taste and surprisingly good vocal skills. Her brother Todd also comes off as a good guy and proud of his mother. You just may laugh, cry and smile while watching this gentle slice of life program about two ladies who are part of cinema history.