Binge-r #88: Evil Genius + Psychokinesis
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All four episodes now streaming
Paced like a page turner, Evil Genius continues Netflix’s recent run of compelling documentary series, but it does so without the formal innovation of Errol Morris’ Wormwood [full review here] or the momentous scale of Wild Wild Country [full review here]. Barbara Schroeder’s series gets back to the fundamentals of the true crime genre: shocking malfeasance and the morality that underpins it. One interpretation is that it is comparatively bare bones, but the counterpoint is that with a reduced scope of a terrible crime and a handful of subjects the humanity of those involved, and their failings, are fully revealed.
Befitting a narrative where almost everyone and everything has been recorded in some form, it begins with the footage from Erie, Pennsylvania in August 2003 when a local pizza delivery man, Brian Wells, walked into a bank and told staff he had a live bomb wired to him. Subsequently cornered by police, who handcuffed him before backing away when a bulky device was discovered locked around his neck and chest, Wells grew increasingly fearful before the ordinance exploded, killing him. Written instructions he carried had told him to demand $250,000, but he’d only been able to get $8,000.
The investigation that follows focuses on several interlocked cases and possible masterminds, but it keeps returning to Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, who was initially arrested because her long-time boyfriend, James Roden, had also just been murdered. “She got into his psyche and lived there,” says a friend of another possible conspirator, Diehl-Armstrong’s former boyfriend, Bill Rothstein, and her ability to manipulate eventually reaches documentary filmmaker Trey Borzillieri, who serves as the narrator of Evil Genius and its guide. His vast investigatory archive, which includes letters and phone calls with all involved stretching back to 2004, is the lantern that lights the way towards possible answers.
Diehl-Armstrong was intellectually gifted and suffered from mental illness, although the system never seemed to help her – repeatedly she was found sane so she could be tried, but was then exonerated and set free. There’s a push and pull between how Diehl-Armstrong’s actions inspired suspicion and how her position made her vulnerable to official assumptions, which is amplified by the ferocity of her recorded conversations where she constantly charts an advantageous narrative. Running little more than three hours, Evil Genius is contained but fascinating. What transpires – on both sides of the law – is driven by base emotion, and there’s something bitterly ordinary and very recognisable about these sidelined people and what their lives led up to.
>> Other Reading: I wrote about the failings of Foxtel’s ornate, obscured reboot of Picnic at Hanging Rock for The Age [full review here].
Psychokinesis (Netflix, 2018, 101 minutes): A South Korean antidote to the excess of superhero movies, Psychokinesis makes a flawed everyman’s receipt of telekinetic powers into a family redemption tale, a discovery adventure made with Amblin-like wonder, a political warning, and a slapstick physical comedy; it’s everything but an end of the world saga. When dodgy security guard Seok-heon (Seong-ryong Ryu) discovers he can move objects with his mind his first thought is to become a magician, but he becomes caught up in the struggle of his previously abandoned daughter, Ru-mi (Eun-Kyung Shim), against thugs hired by a construction company to clear a community retail precinct. Zombie flick fans were down with director Sang-ho Yeon’s previous feature, Train to Busan, which is also on Netflix, but this is the better genre film. When Seok-heon exerts his mind he grits his teeth and his arms shake like a conductor 11 hours into the Ring Cycle, but the film is not always so obvious. In one scene the construction company’s entitled powerbroker tells Seok-heon that his ability means little in South Korea, where the only true superpower is wealth and political might.
Also New on Netflix: I don’t normally cover Netflix’s vast holdings of stand-up comedy specials, but I made an exception last year for Ali Wong: Baby Cobra and will do so again for Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife (2018, 64 minutes). Pregnant once more – her body language is deliriously communicative – the American comic levels domesticity and motherhood with blisteringly hilarious observations.
New on SBS On Demand: In the Swedish coming of age study She Monkeys (2011, 80 minutes) friendship turns to rivalry for two teenage girls in a film that matches intimate emotion to unexpected genres; Paris, Texas (1984, 139 minutes) is the best of Wim Wenders’ homages to the European vision of America’s landscape and art, with Harry Dean Stanton as the desert wanderer looking for his wife, played by Nastassja Kinski.
New on Stan: One of the best Hollywood teen films of the last decade, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, 103 minutes) gets at the loneliness and consolation of adolescence with empathetic performances from Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, and Logan Lerman; End of Watch (2012, 109 minutes) is one of David Ayer’s better Los Angeles crime films, a found footage shoot-em-up with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena in LAPD uniform.
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