After Jaw-Dropping Testimony, Baltimore Police Corruption Trial Heads To Jury

Jurors are deliberating in the corruption trial of a Baltimore Police Department unit that witnesses say was rife with crime and cover-ups.

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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Jurors are now deliberating in the federal trial of two Baltimore police officers who are charged with rampant corruption, in a case that has brought forth stunning allegations of misconduct in the department.

The case centers on the Gun Trace Task Force, an elite unit that was supposed to be taking illegal guns off the street. Instead, witnesses say its members were reselling the guns and drugs it seized right back onto the streets.

Only one member of the task force wasn’t charged. Of the eight officers who were indicted, six pleaded guilty, and four testified in this case as government witnesses.

Former detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor are on trial in this case, both having pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering and robbery.

Hersl’s attorney did not deny his client took money, The Associated Press reports, but says his actions did not constitute robbery or extortion. Taylor’s attorney said the government went “to the depths of the criminal underworld” to find witnesses for their case, The Baltimore Sunreports.

The Sun has highlights from each day of the trial.

One of the members of the Gun Trace Task Force who had already pleaded guilty, Detective Maurice Ward, testified that officers would use illegal GPS devices to track targets, break into homes to steal money, and keep BB guns in their vehicles “in case we accidentally hit somebody or got into a shootout, so we could plant them.”

Some of the incidents Ward described are mind-boggling, as the Sun reports:

“In one incident, police took a man’s house keys, ran his name through databases to find his address, went into the home without a warrant and found drugs and a safe. The officers cracked open the safe, which had about $200,000 inside. They took $100,000 out, closed the safe back up, then filmed themselves pretending to open it for the first time. ‘Nobody touch anything,’ [The unit’s Sgt. Wayne Jenkins] can be heard saying on the video, which was played for jurors.”

“They were simply put, both cops and robbers,” lead federal prosecutor Leo Wise said in his opening argument, according to The New York Times.

“These men were supposed to be sentinels guarding this city from people that would break the law,” Wise said in his closing rebuttal, the Sun reports. “Instead, these men became hunters.”

The witnesses’ accounts in the trial further strain a city where many already have a deep distrust of the police, especially since Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015. Six officers were charged in his death, but after four trials ended without convictions, prosecutors dropped all remaining charges.

Some residents say that the police have further distanced themselves from the community after the death of Gray. Many Baltimore City police officers don’t live in Baltimore City.

In 2017, Baltimore had 343 homicides – breaking the city’s previous record of killings per capita. Last month, the mayor named a new police commissioner, the city’s third in five years.

The Sun‘s Justin Fenton, who has been covering the trial, spoke to NPR‘s All Things Considered on Wednesday about what the trial was indicating about the Baltimore Police Department at large.

“I think one of the challenges here is that these officers have demonstrated that with great ease they were able to deceive judges,” Fenton said. “They were able to deceive juries. They were able to deceive internal affairs. It doesn’t mean that every officer on the force is lying. It doesn’t mean they’re committing misconduct. But it shows that it’s hard to tell who is.”

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How To Watch The 2018 Winter Olympics

The Olympic rings are pictured on Feb. 8 at the biathlon shooting range ahead of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

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It’s the biggest smorgasbord on TV. NBC and its related platforms are serving up more than 2,400 hours of Olympics coverage through the closing ceremony on Feb. 25 — a record for a Winter Olympics. It’s all there in front of you, but figuring out what you want and when you want it is a challenge. Here are a few ideas on sorting through it all:

How To Watch On TV

In past Olympics, grousing about the time-delayed coverage of big events was almost a sport of its own. NBC has dodged that pothole, aided by a 14-hour time difference between Pyeongchang, South Korea, and North America’s East Coast. That time difference allows the network to broadcast the most popular events live in prime time, hence their tagline, “Most live Winter Olympics ever.” (That said, the opening and closing ceremonies won’t air live.)

If you have a digital TV antenna connected to your set, you can watch NBC’s free broadcast coverage.

If you have a cable or satellite TV subscription, you’ll find events like snowboarding, alpine skiing and figure skating on NBC daytime, prime time and overnight coverage. NBC Sports Network handles short track speed skating, women’s ice hockey and bobsled. CNBC gets the surprisingly popular curling broadcasts, while USA Network has more curling and hockey. (Here’s the complete channel-event breakdown.) There’s also the Olympic Channel on cable, which is mostly news, highlights and feature stories.

How To Watch Through Streaming

NBC is streaming 1,800 hours of coverage on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app, including stuff during prime time that they used to make you watch on the TV network. But there’s a big catch: You need a cable or satellite subscription that includes NBC channels; otherwise, you’ll be limited to 30 minutes of free viewing on your first visit and 5 minutes each day thereafter. Connected TVs with technology from Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and a few other services will also be able to access the NBC Sports app for authenticated viewing.

If you want to watch the opening ceremony live, NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app will live stream it minus commentary.

Other online fare consists of three digital-only programs, including Gold Zone, a two-hour daily show summing up all the results and top moments from that competition day.

Members of the armed services can watch live streaming on U.S. military bases worldwide.

How To Stream The Games If You Don’t Have A Digital Antenna, Or Cable Or Satellite TV Subscription

Accessing Olympics coverage without a cable or satellite TV subscription is a bit trickier. There are some streaming TV services that offer access to NBC stations and would also provide access to Olympics programming.

YouTube TV, for instance, offers access to all the channels featuring NBC’s Olympics coverage and is now available to much of the country; Sling TV, however, doesn’t offer access to live NBC broadcasts in all locations (like the Tampa Bay area of Florida, where I live.) Hulu’s TV service also comes with a DVR option, so you don’t have to watch every event live. Before signing up for a service, make sure it offers the channels and features you desire in your location. The good news for first-timers: Services such as YouTube TV and Sling TV also offer weeklong free trial periods, so you can easily drop or change platforms if they don’t provide what you want.

And if you want help keeping track of results and when the best competitions are coming up, there’s the NBC Sports Scores app, with personalized notifications and an “enthusiasm rating” to identify which events are most popular. Seriously.

How To Watch Through Virtual Reality

VR nerds will be happy to know there’s more than 50 hours of programming available through Intel True VR technology and viewable through the NBC Sports VR app (yeah, you still have to be an authenticated user). The headsets include Windows Mixed Reality, Samsung Gear VR and both Google Cardboard and Google Daydream. Coverage includes the opening and closing ceremonies, along with skiing, snowboarding, figure skating and curling.

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'Atlanta Monster' Podcast Hopes To 'Close The Door' On 1970s Child Murders

Janie Glenn (second from left) is assisted by friends as the coffin of her son, William Barrett, is carried into an Atlanta church on May 16, 1981. Barrett was the 27th young person killed in the Atlanta murders.

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Garry Gardiner/AP

If you lived in Atlanta in the late 1970s or early ’80s, you heard this question every night: “It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?”

The reason that TV news started broadcasting that question every night: Many people didn’t know where their children were. Kids were disappearing. Their bodies would turn up in the woods, strangled.

Between 1979 and 1981, at least 28 black children and young adults were killed in Atlanta. Those murders are the focus of the true-crime podcast Atlanta Monster, created by Payne Lindsey and Donald Albright.

“The police had no idea what was going on,” Lindsey says. “They didn’t know if it was a serial killer or if there was any pattern to this at all. But as the numbers grew, the community in Atlanta became very paranoidand started lobbying for the government to do something about this.”


Interview Highlights

On the racial climate in Atlanta when the child murders began

Donald Albright: I mean, you gotta think it’s 1980 Atlanta. We’re in the South. You know, it’s 15 years removed from civil rights legislation. So there’s already a tension, and the city’s going through a change: first African-American police chief, first African-American mayor. So everything is on high alert when it comes to racial tensions. So then dozens of African-American children start disappearing and then are found being murdered. You know, the first thing people went to is, “This is somehow racially motivated.” They didn’t know who or why, but the first people you would think of in that instance would be, “This has to be some sort of Ku Klux Klan conspiracy.” And there really wasn’t a better answer out there. Especially because of the times.

On how police first handled the missing children reports

Albright: What I see is, they looked at these kids and they said, “OK, well that kid was probably a runaway.” That’s what they say a lot of times when it’s a poor black child that goes missing: “Probably a runaway, probably [will] turn up in a week or two, or went to his friend’s house. No big deal.” And then these kids were gone for long periods of time, and then bodies were being discovered. And then it was the fight to get the deaths noticed. It’s just one of those things where I think people wished that it wasn’t what it was. But the fact that these were victims that you could easily ignore, you know, I think that played a lot into it.

On what suggested there might be a serial killer involved

Payne Lindsey: Well, at first it was just the development of a pattern. They started seeing kids showing up in the same places. They were dying by asphyxiation. And the FBI was able to develop this sort of pattern of similarities in all these killings. And it was kind of a messy operation because it was just so many people involved. But the FBI was able to identify a pattern, and they sort of built this profile of who this killer may be, and they literally staked out bridges in Atlanta waiting for another body to come, to try and catch this person.

In 1981, Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson is flanked by security guards in his office as he poses with $100,000 in reward money offered for clues to the deaths of 17 Atlanta children.

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On how bridge stakeouts near the Chattahoochee River led police to Wayne Williams in May 1981

Lindsey: A police recruit heard a splash down there in the water by the bridge, and that was FBI special agent Mike McComas, and he was in charge of the bridge stakeouts in Atlanta. And there were about 14, 15 bridges they were staking out for 30 days. And this recruit hears a large splash, which he thinks is a body, shines his flashlight on the water but doesn’t see anything — sees ripples. They see a car up there on the bridge. They stop it, and then they find Wayne Williams. And you know, after that they begin to tail Wayne Williams and look into this guy.

Albright: Three days later, the body of Nathaniel Cater was found about 500 yards downriver. So that’s what clued them into that that must be, you know, they theorized that was the body he dropped that night. It wasn’t long after that he was arrested.

On the case that investigators built against Wayne Williams

Wayne Williams leaves jail in Atlanta on Jan. 25, 1982, escorted by Fulton County sheriff’s deputies on his way to court during his trial on charges of killing two young Atlanta men.

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Gary Gardiner/AP

Lindsey: It was carpet fibers and dog hairs they were able to link from Wayne Williams — his car, his home — to some of the victims. Besides that, everything else was mostly circumstantial. And he obviously had failed a couple of polygraph tests, but those were inadmissible in court. Besides that, they didn’t have much against him.

On why Williams wasonly convicted of the murders of two adults

Lindsey: The biggest question that surrounds that case is, “If Wayne Williams is the Atlanta Monster, is the Atlanta child murderer, then why was he only convicted of killing two adults?” And that’s how the families feel, that’s how some people in the community feel. It just doesn’t add up all the way.

On what happened after Williams was arrested

Lindsey: That’s one thing that the FBI kind of hangs their hat on is that the killing stopped. Obviously the killings didn’t stop entirely. Unfortunately, there’s been other kids who have been murdered since 1982. I think what they really mean is that the pattern cases decreased.

Albright: And it was a shaky pattern to begin with. Some of these kids had stab wounds, some of them had genital mutilation, some of them were beaten with objects, some of them were just strangled. They were found in various places, various counties, so there’s not a distinct pattern that you would think of, like when you, you know, people who are accustomed to watching serial killer movies or hearing about this serial killer calling card, there was nothing like that, that definitely tied Wayne Williams to all of these victims.

On whether they’ve discovered more questions than answers

Lindsey: I mean, this case is so complicated. It’s so convoluted. There’s information everywhere, that sometimes … the more you dig, the more questions you have. But in that same process, you’re answering some of the questions too. I think that there’s just so much gray area in this case, it’s time for somebody, something — a project like this — to close the door on this thing. It’s been way too long, and this, for me, is one of the last chances to do it.

Monika Evstatievaproduced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

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Major Psychiatric Disorders Have More In Common Than We Thought, Study Finds

The scientists tested tissue samples from the brains of deceased patients who suffered from autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

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Sebastian Kaulitzki/Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF

Major psychiatric disorders like autism, schizophrenia and bipolar appear to have more in common than we thought they did. A new study finds that they have important similarities at a molecular level.

And understanding the molecular basis of major disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and bipolar is hopeful, because it could help in developing better treatments for them.

These psychiatric disorders are diagnosed by how a patient behaves. There are no clear signs on a brain “that you can see with your eyes or most microscopic techniques,” says Dan Geschwind, a professor of neurogenetics at UCLA. His team’s findings were published in Science this week.

That’s different from brain diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, which physically change the brain. A doctor can look at a brain and say what the patient suffered from.

But recent advances in genetics allowed the scientists to pinpoint the patterns of gene expression in the brain that are linked to these psychiatric disorders.

In a large-scale study, they measured RNA in 700 tissue samples from the brains of people with autism, schizophrenia, bipolar, major depression and alcoholism, and compared them to tissue of people without these disorders. RNA can show which genes are turned on and off in the tissue.

“With these new genomic molecular measurements, we’re actually able to understand what is shared and what is distinct” about these disorders, says Geschwind.

The researchers found that the way genes express themselves in patients with autism, schizophrenia and bipolar actually have a lot in common. Broadly, that includes fewer genes involved in signaling between neurons, and more genes related to neuroinflammatory cells.

There are areas of clear divergence, too – an increase in genes related to a certain kind of neuroinflammatory cell was present in patients with autism, but not those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Major depression was very distinct, he says. “And alcoholism didn’t overlap with any of them at all.”

Geschwind says that understanding the molecular signature of these disorders could help with curing them someday. “It gives us hope that perhaps we can use these signatures or hallmarks of the disorder to screen for drugs that can reverse them,” he says. “And we can test whether those drugs actually work on the symptoms in patients.”

He says that monkeys treated with an antipsychotic medication actually showed signs of reversing the genetic changes linked to autism and schizophrenia.

The causes of these disorders are complicated, involving many different genes and other triggers, such as the patient’s life experiences. Geschwind says that’s part of the reason why this research is so surprising — that they appear to have very different causes and yet display similar patterns on a molecular level in the brain.

“We think that having these patterns is a first step,” he says. A big question is understanding exactly what caused those changes. But Geschwind is hopeful that knowing the molecular basis of these disorders can help develop better treatments.

This research is not going to be immediately helpful in diagnosing patients who may have psychiatric disorders. It was carried out on the brains of deceased patients.

But it could someday be useful in diagnosis. Geschwind says, “It’s possible that some of these changes might eventually show themselves in the blood or we might be able to develop new, noninvasive techniques for measuring gene expression in living patients down the road.”

This study could be a milestone in the field. Kenneth Kendler, a psychiatric geneticist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, tells Science that “This [work] is changing fundamental views about the nature of psychiatric illness.”

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For Black History Month, A Look At New Music With Afro-Latinx Roots

Cuban pianist Omar Sosa is one of the artists featured in this week’s show, in celebration of Black History Month.

Massimo Montavani/Courtesy of the Artist

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Massimo Montavani/Courtesy of the Artist

February is Black History Month. But, just as is the case with that wacky, half-of-September and half-of-October designated as “Hispanic Heritage Month,” we don’t need a special time to celebrate Afro-Latinx culture. We do it all year long.

Regardless, the occasion does give us a cool theme around which to dig into some great new music; songs with a musical or cultural connection to Africa and Latin America — which is not hard to do given the dark historical shadow of the slave trade in the Americas. This week, we pull some tracks aside that reflect the connection in ways that would surprise.

For example: Percussionist and songwriter Hector “Coco” Barez has a track on his great new album that ties Puerto Rican bomba rhythms to the bulerias of flamenco from southern Spain. I bet you’ve never heard that before.

Puerto Rican drummer Fernando Garcia is part of a young vanguard of musicians who are celebrating the island’s folk traditions by studying it faithfully, reproducing it, then combining it with jazz in a sound that sounds familiar yet so-very-new.

Just when you think you’re heard everything, along comes Alt.Latino.

New Music With Afro Latino Roots

laberinto

Courtesy of the Artist

Bombuleria (ft Noemi Maldonado, La Nina del Cabo and Kiani Medina) by Hector Barez

  • Song: Bombuleria
YouTube

los rumberos

Courtesy of the Artist

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Courtesy of the Artist

Lo Que Me Dijo Chango by Los Rumberos de la Bahia

  • Song: Lo Que Me Dijo Chango
YouTube

garcia cover

Courtesy of the Artist

01Audubon

4:24

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Audubon by Fernando Garcia

  • Song: Audubon

kou

Courtesy of the Artist

For Black History Month, A Look At New Music With Afro-Latinx Roots

3:48

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Canto Negro by Kou Keri Kou

  • Song: Canto Negro

kou

Courtesy of the Artist

Cerbatana by Kou Keri Kou

3:54

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Cerbatana by Kou Keri Kou

  • Song: Cerbatana

omar

Courtesy of the Artist

01Cha Cha Du Nord

6:07

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Cha Cha Du Nord by Omar Sosa and the NDR Big Band

  • Song: Cha Cha Du Nord

alfredo cover

Courtesy of the Artist

05The Little Dream

4:54

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The Little Dream by Alfredo Rodriguez

  • Song: The Little Dream

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We Have Met The Anomie, And It Is Us: 'Golden Exits'

Naomi (Emily Browning) plays an assistant living in Brooklyn in Golden Exits, a film exploring the disappointments and desires of both the young and the old.

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Sony Pictures

With films like The Color Wheel, Listen Up, Philip and Queen of Earth, writer-director Alex Ross Perry swiftly established himself as indie-cinema’s premier misanthrope, as if the literate class of Woody Allen movies had been body-snatched by caustic malcontents of John Cassavetes movies. Shot in 16mm, mostly in interiors free of electronic distraction, Perry’s films are defiantly analog in their four-walled intensity, committed to unpacking the restive desires of characters who act on impulse and often look ugly in the process. They have humor, sophistication, and insight, but they don’t cozy themselves up to the audience. (When Perry was hired to script a live-action Winnie-the-Pooh movie for Disney, his fans chuckled at the irony.)

There’s a moment early in Perry’s new ensemble piece, Golden Exits, that winks at the very different film it’s going to be. While Naomi (Emily Browning), a pretty 25-year-old from Australia, is lunching at a deli counter with her new boss, a middle-aged Brooklyn archivist Nick (Adam Horowitz), she idly mentions writing non-fiction about everyday lives. “People never make films about ordinary people who don’t do anything,” she says. As the type of guy who describes the solitary burdens of archiving as “thrilling,” Nick eagerly retorts, “They’re out there. I can take you to some.” If the film were any more self-referential, Nick and Naomi would walk out of the screen, grab a popcorn, and watch themselves.

In its refusal to engage in the conflicts it proposes, Golden Exits is less a drama than a state of mind, like Midlife Crisis in lights. (Though Perry is just 33, his work is precociously fretful enough to suggest someone at least 10 years older.) The young adults in the film are uncertain about their destinies, the older adults are uncertain about whether the paths they’ve chosen are right ones, and together they’re in a holding pattern, co-existing uneasily until they’ve figured out what to do. The enigmatic title hints at the possibility of happiness, but only if they can escape their current predicament. Which Perry doesn’t make easy to do.

Set roughly over springtime in Brooklyn, with titles marking specific dates of rather uneventful days, the film opens with Naomi arriving from Australia and instantly destabilizing two different marriages at once. When Nick introduces her to his wife Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), a psychologist, and her freewheeling sister Gwen (Mary-Louise Parker), the two siblings are unsettled by her beauty, mainly because Nick has a bout with infidelity in their past. Meanwhile, Naomi’s sole connection in New York is Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), a music producer who knew her briefly as a kid and offers to meet her again as a favor to his mother. But Buddy’s wife (Analeigh Tipton), too, wonders about his feelings for Naomi and suspects he’s been seeing her on the sly. The two families don’t know each other, but their lives begin to intersect and parallel in messy and fascinating ways.

By description, Golden Exits sounds like the set-up for a combustible drama, rife with heartbreak and betrayal and consuming passions. But Perry is almost perverse in his unwillingness to follow through on any of these options, because he’s more interested in characters who are tiptoeing right to the edge of the line. Their uncertainty is what Perry is seeking to examine more than the actions we expect them to take. The film may well be about ordinary people who don’t do anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s free from turbulence, however much it’s

Working again with his excellent cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, Perry favors close-ups that attempt to access the characters’ mental state and finds other tools to do it, too, like a scene where Alyssa is so preoccupied by her husband’s behavior that her patient’s words are rendered like the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon. He also links the ensemble through a rigorous series of dissolves and fades, drawing elegant parallels between some characters who never cross paths otherwise.

And yet the steadfast refusal to follow through on the premise condemns the film to a state of dramatic constipation. There’s a limit to how much Golden Exits can be appreciated for the notes it doesn’t play before you start to pine for the friction that gives Perry’s other work such vitality. As the lonely and gossipy Gwen, Parker seems deliciously eager to start trouble for sport, but she’s relegated to the sidelines, more commentator than actor. The Perry of old chooses to sit this one out, too.

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'Fifty Shades Freed' Is Out Of Tricks As It Ties Up Loose Ends

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, who are finally married.

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Doane Gregory/Universal Pictures

“Less plot, more ladders.”

That’s a philosophy espoused by a college friend of mine with a fondness for Jackie Chan movies. Chan is known for incredibly inventive action sequences in which he fights using whatever is handy — including, in First Strike, a ladder. But what my friend does not want from Jackie Chan movies is a lot of time unwinding a boring, byzantine plot. Less plot, he would demand. More ladders.

And this, for a couple of reasons, is what I found myself thinking about at a screening of Fifty Shades Freed. Directed by James Foley from the E.L. James books, it’s the third and final (?) installment in the story of creepy weird billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (really!) (Dakota Johnson), the woman he met when she was a nervous virgin and taught to enjoy light spanking and private jets. The wealth he has accumulated from his business, which appears to be professional suit-wearing, allows them to travel, hire a large and obsequious staff, and maintain a big sex room. (It’s only meant to be a sex room, so when I watched Ana lie down on the couch in the sex room just for a nap, I almost screamed, “Don’t lie down on that!”)

Fifty Shades Freed — and before it, middle installment Fifty Shades Darker — have increasingly relied on more plot and fewer ladders. Here, by “plot” I mean “plot,” and by “ladders” I mean “allegedly adventurous sex that rarely constitutes anything you wouldn’t find at an all-inclusive resort’s Spice Up Your Life workshop for recent divorcees.” The first film, Fifty Shades Of Grey, is all about the development of a (not realistic!) dominant/submissive sexual relationship, and while it’s awful, it’s not without its legitimately interesting moments. How often, after all, do you see a long sequence that’s intended to be sexy in which consent is carefully negotiated, act by act? At least there are lots of ladders in that one.

But as the trilogy progresses, and as Christian and Ana settle into married life, you can’t just keep showing them having fights with the same ladders, if you see my point. Not only that, but these are R-rated movies, and to keep your R-rating, there are limitations on the number of ladders, the height of the ladders, and whether you can show them vertically or only horizontally. Metaphorically speaking. Therefore, there’s only so much you can do with the ladders. That leaves you … with plot.

The plot of Fifty Shades Freed, such as it is — and never has “such as it is” been meant with such a deliberate arch of the eyebrow — relies upon both Christian’s terrible childhood and Ana’s promotion to fiction editor of an independent book publisher that Christian purchased while she was employed there as a jerk’s personal assistant. The jerk — named Jack (Eric Johnson) — then became a menace. Surprisingly enough, Jack’s motive for hating Christian and Ana is not that Ana became a fiction editor at a publisher and her major contributions, as seen in this film, are finding an author named “Boyce Fox” (could’ve sworn my accountant worked at Boyce Fox) and increasing a font size by two points.

[Side note: If this is the Fifty Shades theory of what fiction editors are for, much is explained.]

In this third film, Jack is menacing all over the place, so Christian is his usual “overprotective” self, which for him means ordering Ana around, limiting her movements, surveilling her, yelling at her, and — in perhaps the moment that will provoke the most anger from actual practitioners of the sexual habits Christian and Ana enjoy — using his power in their sexual relationship to punish her for perceived slights elsewhere in their personal life. (Pretty sure that’s a no-no.) But Christian remains the romantic hero at all times. So the film feels a little bit like Sleeping With The Enemy if Julia Roberts eventually decided that her controlling husband was a pretty good guy who just had a hard life and wanted what was best for her.

It’s easy to write off Fifty Shades Freed with the same sneer the books have been subjected to since they appeared, which is to treat it as an inherently hilarious effort to appeal to the prurient interests of square, easily scandalized middle-aged women. (Appealing to the prurient interests of square, easily scandalized middle-aged men is called “premium cable.” Ha ha! Just kidding, it’s also a lot of basic cable.) There’s nothing wrong with erotic literature — or film — for women. There’s nothing wrong or surprising about fantasy material for moms or aunts or whatever you want to call it. It just would be nice if it were … better.

The thing a lot of romance readers know is that this model, in which a virgin meets a worldly, wealthy man who educates her in the ways of her own body, in which she is shocked to find that she enjoys sex, including non-procreative sex, is not new. Fifty Shades is just every story of a roguish duke and a pink-cheeked innocent, translated into a world of hedge-fund managers. It has all the weird traps of that trope, in which sex is treated as the natural territory of men, to which women need introduction. (There’s much more about this in a book called Beyond Heaving Bosomsthat I commend to you.) And those novels, just like novels in genres like science fiction and mystery, share common elements but vary in quality, depending on how well they’re written. Films are the same way.

What’s wrong with this movie, and the other movies, and these books, is not that they’re shameful or that there’s something wrong with or something silly about explicit content. It’s just that they’re not good. They’re not inventively sexy — in fact, the desultory handcuffery early in Fifty Shades Freed feels kind of half-hearted, like the umpteenth time you heard an Olsen twin say “You got it, dude!” on Full House. They tell dumb, half-baked stories about boring people who are lethargically acted. They don’t know how to make Christian seem like a human being, so they settle for having him sing and play “Maybe I’m Amazed” on the piano. (The singing is new; if you’ve seen the other movies, you know he likes to have sex and then play the piano with no shirt on.)

Don’t skip these movies because of what they are. Skip them because they’re bad at being what they are, and when you don’t have plot or ladders? You’re no match for Jackie Chan.

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Reviewed: This Year's 5 Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films

Dear Basketballis an animated ode to Kobe Bryant’s 20-year NBA career. It’s one of five animated shorts up for an Oscar this year.

Believe Entertainment Group

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Believe Entertainment Group

An NBA superstar, a Disney powerhouse and a beloved children’s book author make up some of the Oscar nominees for best animated short this year, and you can watch them all in theaters before the ceremony.

Since 2005, the Oscars have packaged their nominated shorts into theatrical programs for the weeks leading up to the awards, and it’s one of the smartest things the Academy has done in decades. Turns out that people actually love to watch short films, especially when they know there are stakes involved, and we don’t have to treat these categories with contempt when they get televised! The animated shorts theatrical program, especially, gives you a solid bang for your buck: In addition to the five nominees, this year’s also comes with three additional films to snack on.

Let’s break down the five with Oscar on the brain.

Dear Basketball

In 2015, Kobe Bryant announced his retirement from a 20-year NBA career by penning a letter to the game he loves. Now that he’s out of the game for good, that letter has become an Oscar-nominated short (aided, no doubt, by the number of Lakers fans in the Los Angeles voting bloc). Era-defining Disney animator Glen Keane props up Bryant’s own narration with patiently composed watercolor illustrations replicating his signature courtside moves, and none other than John Williams does the score, setting a record for most violins heard near a basketball.

The production values are top-notch on this one (it’s the only hand-drawn short in the group), and the celeb factor is high. Much like Bryant’s career, it’s got technical skill and pastiche for miles. But the actual content is pretty vapid. About the only thing we learn about Bryant is that he used to pretend to make shots with dirty laundry in his room as a kid. There’s no effort to get inside of the athlete’s dilemma: What to do when the spirit is willing but the body isn’t?

By the way, if you were wondering which Oscar nominating committee this year was going to choose to ignore past accusations of sexual assault, surprise: It’s this one.

Garden Party

A plague of frogs descends on an empty mansion in this delightfully demented effort from upstart French animation collective Illogic (originally done as a student film). Expertly paced, the short gives us a bunch of scenes of the amphibians going about their daily business, swimming and scavenging for food, only gradually letting us onto the fact that something in the land of the humans has gone horribly wrong. The animators are clearly lovers of amphibious creatures: Every ribbit and hop is conceived in stunning, realistic detail. To say much more would spoil the fun, but the final gag is a literal knockout.

Lou

You knew Pixar was going to be on this list somewhere. In Lou, a playground’s lost-and-found box is inhabited by a benevolent spirit who tries to return all the kids’ toys. “Lou” does battle with a local bully who looks and acts a lot like Toy Story‘s Sid, but who might secretly have a heart of gold. Everyone’s favorite animation studio might be spinning its wheels a bit on this one, but the bright colors and inventive character design (tennis balls for eyes, a sweatshirt for a body, and a form that morphs depending on whatever the kids happen to lose) still make this a charmer.

Negative Space

The only stop-motion film among the nominees is a touching tribute to a father from Baltimore-based animators Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter, based on the poem by Ron Koertge. A father and son walk us through the finer points of packing a suitcase, which the son has to do frequently for the dad always heading off on business trips. The visual inventiveness is astounding: Socks and underwear fly through the air and a roadway becomes a zipper, as we are sucked into Kuwahata and Porter’s expansive environments and lovingly stitched articles of clothing. The short ends with a gut punch, and wastes no space in doing so.

Revolting Rhymes

Roald Dahl’s 1982 picture book Revolting Rhymes was an early entry in the fractured-fairy-tale genre. Its old-school rhyming structure blended well with Quentin Blake’s arch illustrations to land naughty, pithy jokes about Snow White’s seven dwarves (former jockeys with a gambling problem) and Red Riding Hood (a good shot with a pistol, and a wearer of wolfskin coats). But the BBC’s cheap-looking CGI adaptation gets bogged down in story by intertwining three separate fairy tales into a (lone) wolf’s revenge narrative, Into The Woods-style. The short also has some weird timing issues, and eases up on Dahl’s trademark irreverent, naughty voice by making the characters more sympathetic. Snow White and Red are best friends now, for example.

Originally made for TV, the 29-minute special (the first of two Revolting Rhymes the BBC produced and originally aired back in 2016) is the longest of the nominees by far, and comes with the voice talents of folks like Rob Brydon, Bel Powley, and Dominic West. Some of the jokes still land, and the ending is solid, but the thing has a lot of dead air. It’s a bit too safe for Dahl’s standards.

Andrew Lapin’s Picks

Should Win: Garden Party

Will Win: Lou

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In 'Peter Rabbit,' The Bunny's A Bro

Watership Downer: In this crass, repetitive animated adaptation, Peter Rabbit (James Corden) competes for the affection of a neighbor.

Sony Pictures

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Sony Pictures

If Beatrix Potter were reborn as dean of students at Lake District U., the latest version of Peter Rabbit would represent her worst nightmare. This frat-bunny comedy is a part-CGI Animal House that revels in theft, gluttony, vandalism, and absurdly destructive pranks. All that’s missing is the scene where Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-Tail filch the wrong kind of mushrooms from Mr. McGregor’s garden and hop into a bad trip.

Director Will Gluck’s skillfully animated, indifferently scripted farce even includes sex, albeit of the PG-rated variety. Peter (the voice of the always self-amused James Corden) finds himself in a love triangle whose apex is artist and animal-lover Bea (Rose Byrne). Peter’s romantic rival and new nemesis is Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson, fresh from messing with another furry Brit-lit icon in Goodbye Christopher Robin).

The script (by Rob Lieber and Gluck) is careful to have Peter say he considers Bea a surrogate mother. That might make sense, since Bea is a stand-in for the rabbit’s creator, the subject of 2006’s more historically minded Miss Potter. (Bea even does Potter-style whimsical watercolors of the local critters, which sometimes come to life.) But Peter is clearly a randy adolescent, not an innocent child, and his response to Bea and Thomas’ flirtations is jealous indignation.

The story begins in the vicinity of Potter’s original tale, with Peter at war with Mr. McGregor (an unrecognizable Sam Neill). Cousin Benjamin (Matt Lucas) reluctantly joins in Peter’s garden raids, while the triplets (Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, and narrator Margot Robbie) engage in sisterly squabbles.

McGregor soon pays the ultimate price for defending his veggies, a fate that seems a bit severe for a kiddie flick. (But then he did kill Peter’s dad, a murder shown in a flashback that’s also inappropriately lurid.) The grumpy gardener’s heir is his nephew, Thomas, a prissy Harrod’s manager who’s every bit as theatrical as Hugh Grant’s character in Paddington 2.

Thomas hates the country, and plans to sell his uncle’s surprisingly grand house as soon as he can evict Peter and his pals, a veritable Wind in the Willows casting-call of British pastoral species. Then Thomas meets Bea, and decides to linger. When not pursuing romance, Thomas chases Peter. Ultimately, the newcomer turns to the sort of arsenal that was equally ineffective when deployed by Wile E. Coyote.

Gluck sends the camera swooping up trees and across fields, an action-movie gambit that suits Corden’s characteristically frantic delivery. Yet the tale’s velocity can’t disguise its repetitiveness. Peter Rabbit is sometimes crass, but more often simply dull. Having Peter drop such contemporary phrases as “safe space” and “let’s do this” doesn’t help.

The movie’s opening slyly promises a Disney-style cartoon musical, and while the chirpily sentimental first tune is quickly disrupted, Peter Rabbit is stuffed with song cues. There’s the inevitable rap number, as well as several movie-soundtrack staples that will be more familiar to parents than kids. If Vampire Weekend seems oddly over-represented, that’s because that band’s Ezra Koenig collaborated with Gluck on a few dreary originals.

Ironically, Potter’s mildly naughty rabbit helped inspired such cartoon troublemakers as Bugs Bunny. Both Peter and Bugs’ brands of mischief have shown their enduring appeal. This new CGI Peter has plenty of attitude, but it probably won’t propel him even so far as a sequel.

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