Why Does Netflix’s “Do Revenge” Hate Jews?

Netflix’s popular, steamy high school drama Elite is set in a madly upscale Spanish high school where almost everyone is impossibly beautiful or handsome, impeccably dressed in various versions of the school uniform, and engaged in plots and counter-plots to hassle a classmate for one reason or another. It’s total fantasy with almost zero actual classroom scenes.  Wild partying in lavish homes and clubs, heavy drinking, sex and striking attitudes take the place of education. Oh, and there’s a murder in that first season that triggers a police investigation reminiscent of Inside Man.

Watching the new Netflix movie Do Revenge, inspired by Strangers on the Train, you’ll see almost all of that plus hat tips to Clueless, Heathers, Cruel Intentions, and Mean Girls with less wit and a lot more viciousness masked as comedy.  No murder, though.

The two teenage girls at the center of the movie enacting vengeance on each other’s tormentors perform nasty criminal acts which I guess we’re supposed to find funny. And they do it to an upbeat soundtrack wearing colorful outfits when they’re not in uniform.  Even the scholarship girl who’s ashamed because her mother is a nurse and she doesn’t live in a mansion manages to look like a model in one scene after another.  Perfect clothes and jewelry, perfect hair, perfect makeup.

Adding to the overall unreality is the fact that as one Chicago film critic pointed out, most of the leads are in their mid-to-late twenties and they definitely look it. And there are some unbelievable plot twists that seem dreamed up by someone who was stoned at the time. 

But most egregiously, the writers update old anti-Semitic tropes: the movie’s villain is a Jew hater’s fever dream.  He’s vengeful, super-wealthy, politically connected, psychopathic, soulless, manipulative and bent on destruction just because it’s sport to him.  He’s even a sexual predator which is right out of the Nazi playbook.  His identification is teased before the end when he starts going totally off the rails and we now very clearly see that this monster has been wearing a Star of David. In case you missed it early on.  And even though it’s tiny, the camera keeps it central as he’s unmasked as a master manipulator and freaks out.

Oh, and before he does, he perversely uses a Yiddish word, kvell, the verb that expresses pride in something good, when he brags about all the misery he’s caused. 

That’s totally gratuitous, and the bond the two female leads form after having savaged each other profoundly just adds to the generally sour fantasy.  As they drive off at the end, maybe we’re meant to think of Romy and Michelle’s friendship, but they lack the charm and depth of those characters.

Do Revenge can be very funny in spots and has some good crisp dialogue, but as it got nastier by the minute, it felt as if the writers were more interested in indulging their bigotry and mining other people’s work than writing something truly original.   What’s sadder is that not one major film critic has noted the ugliness at the core of this film.

 

 

 

“Zero Fail” is Informative but Flawed

Carol Leonnig has done a good job tracing the roots and the routes of the Secret Service in what’s unfortunately an overly long and very choppy book. 

On the plus side, it’s fascinating to learn that the Secret Service was formed in 1865 in the Treasury Department as a group fighting massive counterfeiting.  It’s also intriguing to see how different presidents and First Ladies over time have placed unique demands and restrictions on the agents protecting them–or treated them in special ways.  Who can forget Barbara Bush giving agents leftovers from White House events or LBJ speaking to his agents while he was on the toilet?  How many of us knew that the Secret Service was so tradition-bound and arrogant that it interfered with their mission to protect the president?

That being said, the book is slow, gossip-filled, and profoundly repetitious as the author explains terms and events way too many times, sometimes even repeating information a few pages apart or less.  The sloppiness is matched by the apparent political bias. Republican presidents (and their wives) seem to get more favorable reporting than the Democratic ones, especially when it comes to the Clintons.  Did Leonnig really need to devote 20+ pages to Monica Lewinsky?  And why is Betty Ford absent and Carter’s presidency barely covered?

Then there’s the way Leonnig shades certain events.  She notes, for example, that when Obama beat Romney he got “slightly more than 51% of the vote” without mentioning the impressive Electoral College vote of 332 to 206.  Or that Obama won 5,000,000 more votes than his opponent.

The drumbeat through this book is bureaucratic infighting, trouble, shocking surprises, scandal, and dramatic, overdue change. The Secret Service is time and time again forced to improve security around the president when there’s an assassination attempt or terror attack. It seems to have been oddly reactive, not very forward-thinking, and often inept in trying to get increased funding from Congress. 

Just as problematic, its leaders worked hard to keep outrageous sexual scandals and problems with racism and sexism under wraps, sometimes lying to Congress.  Chapters where Leonnig describes massive failures by the Security Service and seething intra-agency rivalries have plenty of power and read as if they’re material for a miniseries.

The author has won several Pulitzer Prizes for her reporting in the Washington Post, so perhaps her publisher didn’t think editing and copy editing really mattered: the assumption was that the book would sell no matter how badly it was produced.  That’s too bad, because this could have been a gripping narrative, but at almost 500 pages it feels ponderous and overstuffed. 

As it stands, Zero Fail is undercut by constant repetition, like noting who someone works for twice in two pages, and by annoying descriptions of people that don’t match up: one Secret Service director is six feet four and then six feet three a few pages on.  When an author is that careless about a minor detail, can you really trust her on major ones?

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, The Huffington Post and other publications and several public radio stations in Michigan.  He’s the author of 27 book in many genres, one of which has sold 300,000 copies, and has seen his work appear in fifteen languages.

Sarah Perry’s Debut Novel is Wonderfully Bizarre

 

It’s a blistering summer in London after months of drought. Birds are dying in the street and people are fleeing the city for anyplace cooler. One of them is bookseller John Cole whose business has either collapsed or never been successful from the beginning. 

Unable to bear the heat, Cole leaves London, but he forgets his directions to his brother’s seaside home, has no GPS, gets lost and ends up at a house that is so creepy it might as well be haunted.

That house is dilapidated and inhabited by a motley assortment of people who could be refugees from the drought or former patients of a mental institution–or both.  One of them is obsessed by the possible collapse of a nearby dam and inspects it nude at midnight, another is a pastor who has lost his faith in God–or so he says.  Then there’s the mystery woman whom Cole instantly loathes and someone else who tries corrupting the pastor as if it’s a game.  Everyone there seems to see the world and themselves askew–or have some kind of secret.

The house is filled with strange rooms, strange packages, and these strange people, but the strangest of all is probably the man writing about his experiences among them: Cole.

Wandering from his abandoned car, he’s been cheerfully greeted as if he was expected but soon realizes that everyone’s mistaking him for someone with a similar name. Questions proliferate: What was the peculiar assemblage waiting for? Why does Cole continue to pretend to be someone else? Why not go back to his car and drive home?  What’s causing his crippling migraines? Does he really have a stutter and memory problems? Or is he actually mentally unstable?  Can we believe anything he says or is he hallucinating?  After all, when he comes upon the house that seems hidden in the woods, he says “It seemed to me the most real and solid thing I’d ever seen, and at the same time only a trick of my sight in the heat.”  Cole keeps referencing the heat and his exhaustion as if they’re inimical and malignant forces bent on torturing him.

The author has said she’s delighted that the book raises so many questions and has so many possible interpretations. 

This eerie, hypnotic novel is not as large in scope as Perry’s later books Melmoth and The Essex Serpent, but it’s just as captivating. And she’s as masterful a creepy story teller as Patrica Highsmith and Stephen King, both of whom seem to be just around the corner on every page.  It’s a gripping, haunting puzzle, mixing mystery and surrealism in beautiful proportions.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and three Michigan public radio stations, one of which hosted his author interview show.

“City on Fire” Has Big Aspirations

In my many years as a book reviewer I’ve seen publishers wildly hype their books as if the whole publicity department was on coke, but the jacket copy for Don Winslow’s latest book hits a new high for hyperbole.

His publisher lauds the book as “a towering achievement of storytelling genius” and “a contemporary Iliad.”  I guess they had no choice about the latter label since the author heads each section of the book with an epigraph from that poem.

But City on Fire is not an epic and doesn’t deserve that kind of adulation.  It’s a fairly clichéd story about warring Irish and Italian mobsters that feels as if the author binge-watched The Departed, GoodFellas, The Godfather and The Sopranos (and possibly Casino) before hitting his laptop

Familiarity isn’t the only problem. The characters are pretty one-dimensional and Winslow introduces too many of them too quickly, without enough identifying traits to make them clearly individualized.

One Amazon reviewer tartly observed that too many characters in the book have similar names: “You need a note card to keep track of who is on which side.”  Why didn’t Winslow’s editor suggest more variety?  That would have fixed passages like this one:

“They walk out onto the beach, where Pat’s helping Pasco dig clams out from the pit, and Peter and Paulie and their crew are standing there watching them.”

There’s a seemingly endless series of hits and counter-hits that can make you feel trapped in a violent Groundhog’s Day. And who thought it was a good idea to have several chapters of flashback after the opening chapter?  Or later on, dedicate almost twenty pages to one character’s backstory? 

As for the upper-crust femme fatale Pam who’s the catalyst for escalating violence, she’s way too bland and her Greenwich, Connecticut background too clichéd.  There’s also something comical about her being described as wearing a bikini “that does more to accentuate than conceal” her body.  Aren’t bikinis revealing by definition? Doesn’t the publisher employ copy editors?

When writing about Pam, Winslow can sound like a bad romance novelist.  Describing her transformation from a plain, acne-ridden girl to a beauty, he says this:

“It would be an exaggeration to say that it happened overnight, but it seemed to have happened overnight.  Looking into the mirror to scrub her face, she saw skin that was almost clear, as if some compassionate goddess had come during the night and stripped her of her shame….Over the next few weeks, the sun turned her skin a clear tan, baked her body into fine marble, bleached her ‘mousy’ hair to a golden blond, her eyes an oceanic blue.”

On the plus side, there are intriguing and sometimes humorous details about Rhode Island, a state most Americans don’t know much about.  By far the strongest aspect of City on Fire is the tough guy voice, but it’s not enough to carry the slow-moving and overly talky story for 350+ pages.  The heavy use of the present tense makes the book drag even more. 

In the end, epigraphs from The Iliad do not transmogrify any of the criminals in this book into Greek or Trojan heroes.  They just make everyone seem puny.


Lev Raphael was the longtime crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press before moving to public radio where he had his own interview show.