Phil Spector: Reasonable Doubt?



Phil Spector (2013)

Directed by David Mamet

HBO, 92 minutes, Not-rated (strong language, murder gore)

★★★ ½


I avoided Phil Spector when it came out in 2013. Like many people, Spector (1939-2021) struck me as a creep, independent of his two trials for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson. I wasn’t alone. In many ways, those who reviled Spector presaged how the public would later regard Harvey Weinstein–right down to the coincidence that Spector’s given first name (which he seldom used) was also Harvey.


A better way of considering Spector is whether he was his generation’s Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. If that fails to ring any bells, Arbuckle was a major movie personality in the silent era until he was accused of the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe. He was acquitted after three trials (1921-23), but Arbuckle’s reputation lay in tatters and he was informally blacklisted. David Mamet, who wrote and directed Phil Spector, asks viewers to consider whether Spector was indeed like Arbuckle–perhaps an innocent man. Sort of. Mamet hedged his bets by prefacing the film with the statement, “This is a work of fiction. It is not ‘based on a true story.’” That disclaimer alone helps explain why Phil Spector got reactions that ranged from okay or tepid to outrage that Mamet would deign to rewrite history.


I’d rate it PG, for Pretty Good. But make no mistake; Phil Spector was not a nice man. He was a bombastic egoist, a foul-mouthed jerk, an autocrat, a gun nut, abusive, a druggie, and as modest as Donald Trump. Though rich as Croesus, Spector quite possibly suffered from for-real delusions of grandeur. Yet, the unassailable fact is that he was a musical genius. From 1962 into the 21st century, Spector produced, played with, and wrote for a veritable who’s who of pop and rock n’ roll luminaries: The Beatles, Cher, Leonard Cohen, Dion, Ben E. King, The Plastic Ono Band, The Ramones, The Righteous Brothers, The Ronettes, Ike and Tina Turner…. The list goes on and on.


Like Arbuckle, though, Spector’s legacy is unlikely to recover fully from what did (or didn’t) happen the night of February 3, 2003, when Clarkson was inside of Spector’s mansion and died from a bullet to her head. Spector infamously remarked that Clarkson “kissed the gun.” The possibilities were an intentional suicide, an unintentional suicide, an intentional murder, or a night of drinking and drug-taking in which the facts were fungible. No wonder it took four years for the case to come to trial.


Mamet wrote a mix of a play, cinéma véritié, and alt-history that focuses on the first trial in 2007. Defense attorney Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) has serious doubts about Spector’s guilt based on the path of the gunshot and blood splatter. He attempts to recruit his high-powered colleague Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren) for his legal team. Two problems. First, she’s sick as a dog and second, she thinks Spector is guilty. That is, until she meets Spector (Al Pacino) and looks at the evidence. She’s not charmed–she knows he’s a sexist megalomaniac–but she’s savvy enough to realize that the case against Spector is riddled with reasonable doubt. Mamet’s script zeroes in on the cat-and-mouse relationship between Spector and Kenney Baden as they play intellectual games–neither of them willing to yield an inch.


Those who felt Mamet ignored prosecutor arguments and tried to whitewash Spector overlook the facts that Mamet based much of the script on actual court records and that Kenney Baden did raise enough reasonable doubt that the first trial ended in a hung jury. She was unavailable for the second trial in 2009 in which Spector was found guilty and sentenced to 19 years to life.


Did Mamet play fast and loose with facts? Check it out for yourself and decide, but do so with the mindset that under American law, a loathsome person is not necessarily a murderer. How would you define reasonable doubt? If you’re not buying it, enjoy cameo roles from Chitwel Ejiofor, Linda Miller (as Ronnie Spector), Rebecca Pidgeon, and Mamet’s daughter Clara. Not to mention riveting and intense lead performances from Mirren and Pacino.


Rob Weir


Mudbound Deserves a Wider Audience



Mudbound (2017)

Directed by Dee Rees

Netflix, 134 minutes, R (violence, brief nudity, language)



Mudbound is a superb, well-reviewed film that was nominated for numerous awards. Too bad almost no one has seen it. It had a budget of over $10 million but earned just $117,000 in limited release. Ouch!


An obvious suspect for this is racism, but a few other factors were at play. In 2017, the only known star power was Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige, though the latter wasn’t known for her acting chops. A second factor is that wider release plans got scuttled when Covid hit. Third, it’s set right after World War II, which is ancient history for younger viewers and its 134-minute length (sadly) runs counter to audience attention spans.


Mudbound is a powerful look at the deep background of modern racial tension and resonates with recent trauma of African Americans being harassed and/or killed by police. The difference is that in the immediate postwar period, a lot of White authority figures wore Ku Klux Klan robes. The film revolves around two families. The McAllans are White. Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) uproots his family–wife Laura (Mulligan), his two daughters, and his father, “Pappy” (Jonathan Banks)–to rural Mississippi. When his first plan goes awry, Henry relocates a second time–to Delta cotton-growing land he claims as his, though a local Black family, the Jacksons, have been working it as theirs. Not that their deed meant a thing versus a White man’s claim.


Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Blige) know better than to push back in Klan-riven Mississippi where Black folks are routinely saddled with the N-word, especially by the bilious Pappy. For the sake of their children at home and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) who is fighting in Europe, they bite their tongues and say “Yes, sir” and “Yes, m’am” to all demands placed on them. Laura is a dutiful wife, though she’s often at odds with her unexciting, commanding, aloof, and racist husband. Yet even she makes demands upon Florence that are polite but unintentionally clueless.


As the McAllan/Jackson dynamic plays out at home, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) is flying B-25 bombers and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) is driving tanks across Europe in advance of General Patton. By the time VE Day rolls around, Jamie shows symptoms of what we now call PTSD, which he proceeds to drown in booze. Ronsel, on the other hand, has taken up with a White German-speaking woman and has been treated well in Europe. He can’t adjust to the reality that his wartime gallantry means nothing in Mississippi, where he’s “boy,” not “Sergeant Jackson.” That immediately lands him into trouble with Pappy and local good ‘ole boys.


Against all odds, Jamie and Ronsel bond. Like many vets, their battle experiences transcend race­. Jamie’s life was saved by a Black pilot; Ronsel had White friendships. Ronsel realizes that theirs is dangerous camaraderie–he has to duck down when riding in Jamie’s truck–but he can talk to Jamie about things he can’t with his folks. Can a hard-drinking, devil-may-care White Southern kid from a racist family be a true friend to an articulate Black man who dreams of going back to Europe? It has long been said that racism damages racists and their targets alike. Both the McAllans and the Jacksons have their crosses to bear. Hubris will visit Henry; sorrows the Jacksons.


Mudbound is an apt title. There is a lot of actual sucking mud in the film, but the title also implies the mudsill theory. Among contractors the mudsill is the load-bearing first layer above a foundation; in society it’s the idea that some groups–people of color, recent immigrants, the poor, women–bear the social weight of all those above them. If you know your history, you recognize a long and ongoing civil rights struggle loomed on the horizon. So too did second-wave feminism. Mulligan foreshadows the latter.


Mudbound is an adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 debut novel, not a real-life tale. Both Jordan and director Dee Rees did, however, have Depression-era photographs from Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein in mind in capturing the look of the Delta. Jordan also drew on a Life Magazine essay by African American photographer Gordon Parks, whose pen was as sharp as his eye. Maybe they, an English woman (Mulligan), and an Aussie (Clarke) can help Americans remove their remaining blinders.


Rob Weir




Godland is Slow, but Masterful


Godland (2022)

Directed by Hlynur Pálmason

Sena/Scanbox Entertainment, 142 minutes, Not rated

In Danish and Icelandic with subtitles



I recently reviewed Ordet, a classic film about religious fanaticism and mental instability in 1920s Denmark. Apparently the Danes are not quite done with the topic. Godland could be seen as a sequel set in Iceland and filmed in color. It’s an amazing film for those with patience.


The film has religious subtexts, but the Danish title Vanskabte land means “malformed land,” an excellent way to approach a film with the externals of religion but with hidden motives at its core. Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), a pious young Lutheran priest, is on a mission to build a church in eastern Iceland where Christianity’s hold is tenuous.


Lucas insists on traveling overland through the sparsely-populated, glacier-filled treacherous middle of Iceland, ostensibly because he wants to get to know the land. In truth, he’s an amateur photographer looking for subject material. His eight plates are used as a ”hook,” often as film transitions. It is the 19th century, a time in which Iceland was still a Danish territory. Many Icelanders distrust the Danes, most of whom are like Lucas and don't bother to learn Icelandic.

Hardship akin to those in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) plague the trek eastward including the loss of Lucas’ translator. This puts him at the mercy of expedition leader Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) who thinks Lucas is a fool to insist on lugging a heavy box camera, glass plate negatives, and chemicals through snowmelt rivers and dangerous terrain. Ragnar also dislikes Danes, claims to speak no Danish, and sees Lucas as arrogant. He senses there’s something a bit off about Lucas.

The intrepid band make their way to their destination, a remote coastal outpost whose rawness is evocative of a frontier settlement. The only form of transportation is on the back of (smaller-framed) Icelandic horses and, of course, Lucas doesn’t know how to ride. The area is jaw-dropping awesome and contrasts with the austerity of the homes, fragile gardens, and close-to-the-vest lifestyles of local inhabitants. Remember that the Danish title refers to malformed land. It is beautiful enough to invoke divine creation, but is also unforgiving–as viewers will see in several stark examples. One could, if one wished, evoke divinity in the contrast between the largeness and power of the land versus the vulnerability of diminutive humans within it.

Lucas is greeted by Carl (Jacob  Lohmann), the father of two lovely daughters, Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne) and younger Ída (Ída Mekkin Hlynsdðttir). (Ída, the real-life offspring of director Hlynur Pálmason, is a spunky, blonde, pig-tailed delight.) Carl is glad to welcome a proper priest, but he too experiences nagging discomfort around him, especially when he realizes there is frisson between Lucas and Anna. Lucas is the very embodiment of presumption of moral and ethnic superiority. He’s a priest, not a minister, in the stern Protestant Lutheran hierarchy of the day. We see him refuse to perform a wedding because the church has not been finished. (No matter, we watch the villagers having a better time reverting to folk customs.) Lucas also tries to remain aloof, as if village life is somehow beneath him.  

On the micro level, Godland is about Lucas’ tortured soul, the gap between his outward beliefs and his not-so-righteous pride, desires, and anger. The film adds a macro perspective in that it is also about culture clash dressed in the garb of Lucas and Ragnar–each in his own way deceitful and stubborn. Observe the old proverb pride goeth before a fall come into play. Iceland was formed by volcanos and is home to active ones. Early on we see an eruption in the distance; it foreshadows the violence that ensues.

The cinematography of Maria Von Hausswolff is so stunning that she rightly won awards for it. What is particularly noteworthy about her work on Godland is that hers is a mix of grandeur–sweeping vistas, angled aerial shots, changes in lighting to evoke weather and moods–and of stillness. I implied that some will find the film slow of pace. In part that’s because Von Hausswolff often allows the camera to dwell on small things, such as vegetation, marshes, or the sea before panning ever so slowly. We wonder what will be revealed and that’s exactly why she did it! Take your time and appreciate this wondrous film.

Rob Weir