Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Paula M. Levine

The Alienist – Chasing a Serial Killer in 1896 New York


When I first watched the trailers for The Alienist, I was intrigued. The story, based on the 1994 bestseller of the same name by Caleb Carr, focuses on a series of gruesome murders of young, male prostitutes in 1896 New York City and the team (including the “Alienist” of the title) which sets out to solve them. The short snippets of action kept me on the edge of my seat, with intriguing bits of narration over dark and macabre scenes; and quick cuts of street urchins in rags provided a startling counterpoint to the high-born in ball gowns and tuxes. The stunning sets, the dramatic music, and the creative graphics also added to the atmosphere.

The on-line and social media support given this limited series has been first class, too. The Alienist website contains behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast, features about the Gilded Age, madness, and the new science of forensics. I even noticed “bus shelter” ads with the gripping tagline, “Madness Lies Within.” It has been a clever and targeted buildup to the actual series. 

Dakota Fanning

After watching two episodes, I was even more impressed. Daniel Brühl, as Criminal Psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreisler, strikes just the right tone of brilliant but obsessive; Luke Evans plays the complex newspaper illustrator, John Moore, who is caught between the city’s demons and his own. And Dakota Fanning is the self-possessed and intelligent young woman who was the first female to be hired by the New York Police Department and Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt; and has her sights set on becoming the first female police detective in New York City.

Daniel Brühl (center)

The focus on historical accuracy also elevates this series. Turn of the century New York is grim and grimy – you can practically smell and feel the dirt on the streets. The old street lights cast eerie shadows on everything. Even the sound effects are crisp and compelling, propelling the story forward at breakneck speed. In short, it is a high end, first class production. And you see every dollar of the estimated $5,000,000 price tag per episode on the screen.

Unfortunately, beneath it all, there is little pulse. I was never carried away by the story; I was never hooked. The dialogue feels stiff and forced; and worse yet, predictable. Even the acting feels a bit flat. Or maybe it’s the directing. I’m not sure, but I am sure that I never really connected with it on an emotional level.

That is unfortunate, since high-end mini-series like this one definitely add flavor to the new “TV landscape.” While I applaud TNT’s efforts to go beyond re-runs and begin to compete with Netflix and Amazon, I just wish this one had been more successful. For right now, I’ll stick to Law and Order.

The Alienist premieres January 22, 2018, on TNT.

Photos by Kata Vermes
Top photo: Daniel Brühl and Luke Evans

Vegas Baby – Rolling the Dice to Become Pregnant


One in six couples worldwide are diagnosed with Infertility. For those who try to solve the problem using in-vitro fertilization – IVF – the costs can be astronomical. Just one cycle can cost about $20,000; $12,000 for the service itself, another $5,000 for the medications, plus the time and cost to travel to a fertility center. What’s worse is that there is no guarantee of success. It is an enormous gamble … much like everything else in Vegas.

Vegas Baby is the story of the people who entered a contest at the Sher Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Las Vegas in the hopes of winning a “free baby” – that is, getting a free round of in-vitro services. The contestants were asked to submit a video on social media explaining why they should win; and why viewers should make their dreams come true. One couple dressed up as superheroes; another did an animation; some cried on camera; and most pleaded, “please vote for us.”

For many of them, it was a last chance at parenthood. As one husband put it, “This is the only thing I cannot provide for my wife.” For all of them, trying to get pregnant has been and continues to be a painful process, and one tinged with hope and fear, shame, a sense of failure, and lots of prayer. From a devoutly Catholic Latino couple in Texas to a Lesbian Lady Gaga Impersonator in New York, they are all determined to have a baby against all odds.

Director Amanda Micheli tackles this delicate subject with empathy and tact. She humanizes the clinical aspects, showing the women injecting themselves with hormones (in their stomachs, their thighs, arms, and butts); the process of egg retrieval and embryo transfer; and finally, the waiting game that ensues. Viewers get a close up view of the process, as well as the heartbreak that comes when the outcome doesn’t work in their favor.

Micheli is a bit of an expert on the subject. After years of trying not to have a baby, she and her husband decided to get pregnant. But it proved to be a struggle, during which time her husband was also diagnosed with testicular cancer. Micheli says she was astonished by her ignorance about her own fertility, and “bowled over” by the financial and emotional costs of treatment.

To add insult to injury, her home state, California, like the majority of the United States, does not mandate infertility health care coverage, even for cancer patients. So Micheli and her husband had to “foot” the bill for the entire cost of treatment. As she said, “It felt like the doctor took over our bedroom and our savings account all at once, and it put an incredible strain on our marriage.” Luckily, her husband’s cancer was treatable. Unfortunately, her infertility has not been.

It’s one of the reasons she decided to make this film – to give voice to all those who struggle in isolation with fertility. “By humanizing their stories, my goal is to break the silence around this medical and social issue and ignite a conversation about the flipside of reproductive choice: the choice to have a child.”

This documentary is raw, emotional, and riveting even for those of us who’ve never gone through the pain. It literally had me on the edge of my seat … waiting, hoping, and cheering on all of the would-be parents. When you watch it, make sure to keep a box of tissues by your side.

Vegas Baby will have its U.S. television premiere on Tuesday, June 27, 2017 at 8 p.m. on PBS’s America Reframed and it will be released on Netflix on July 4, 2017.

Hell on Earth – The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS 


This is one of the most terrifying films I’ve ever seen. It is also one of the most eye-opening, important, and memorable.

The documentary chronicles the Syrian civil war and the downfall of its society, which led to the rise of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. But it is so much more layered and so much more complicated than those few words can convey. Pulling from over 1,000 hours of footage from the front, news clips, firsthand accounts, and iPhone footage, filmmakers Sebastian Junger (award-winning journalist, filmmaker, and best-selling author) and Nick Quested (Emmy-winning filmmaker and director) bring viewers the real story from the ground, and from the people living the nightmare.

This is not Junger’s and Quested’s first foray into war-torn areas.  Their films, The Last Patrol, Korengal, the Emmy-nominated Which Way to the Front Line From Here? The Life and time of Tim Hetherington, and the Oscar-nominated Restrepo all delved into conflicts around the world. Their mission was always the same, according to Quested. “We were always looking to find the humanity in the darkest places. There’s no darker place than the Syrian civil war at the moment.”

IRAQ: A young refugee child inside the Debaga Refugee Camp. (Photo credit:Junger Quested Films LLC/Nick Quested)

But explaining the story of this country posed a special set of challenges. There is a long and complex history behind the civil war, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s determination not to go the route of his Arab Spring predecessors like Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak. The calculated and relentless incursion of ISIS into the area on both an economic and ideological level created another story.  And then physically getting access to the people and the front line amidst changing allegiances was another obstacle. It took the filmmakers a year and a half and 39 trips to the area to make it happen. During that time, their network of contacts grew to include other journalists, fixers, activists, human rights workers, politicians, army commanders; and even former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.  They have seamlessly knit together these disparate bits and pieces to create a clear picture of a complicated tale.

TURKEY – The Mohammad family on one of their many attempts to cross over the Mediterranean into Greece. (Photo Credit:  Junger Quested Films LLC/Radwan Mohammad)

But the heart of this film lies with the ordinary citizens caught in the middle.  The scenes of dozens of young children laid out in rows, dead from a gas attack are horrifying; the lone mother in the middle of the town square calling out for her kids after an attack is heart-wrenching; and then there is the story of the Mohammad brothers and their families. They were first robbed of their rights by Assad and then bombed into submission by him. For a brief period, it looked like the “people” might actually be winning this war with the help of the Syrian Free Army.  But then ISIS took over and imposed a new set of rules and a religious fanaticism that included public beheadings in town centers with the dead being left there as a warning.  That is when they decided to leave Syria.

The film tracks the brothers’ frightening journey from Aleppo to Turkey to Greece and back, with the Mohammad’s doing the actual filming. They were given a two-page set of instructions on how and what to shoot, according to Quested.  He coached them, saying, “Try to focus on your feelings and your children’s feelings and try to give us a sense of your environment.” The result is raw, intimate, and emotional … as is the film.

When asked what he wanted people to take away from the film, Junger said, “We wanted to humanize America’s view of people who have to flee violence. This country is a beacon for people who are hopeless and desperate.  We are hoping that our country can continue to be that.”

Hell on Earth will air globally on National Geographic in 171 countries and 45 languages starting Sunday, June 11th at 9 p.m.

Top photo: QAYARRAH, IRAQ – After leaving Qayarrah, ISIS sets oil fires as a parting gift for the villagers. (Photo credit:Junger Quested Films LLC/Nick Quested)

The Keepers – After 47 Years, a Cold Case Heats Up


If this series were a novel, I’d call it a page-turner. That’s how well done it is; how engrossing it is; and how much I didn’t want to stop watching it! In fact, I “gulped” down the seven episodes of this documentary series in one day.

The story revolves around the murder of a beloved nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, who went missing 47 years ago; and whose case is still unsolved. More than a simple homicide, the plot has grown to include abuse by clergy, repressed memories, and a possible cover-up by the church and the police. While the tragedy never made headlines outside of Baltimore, the public in this close-knit town, the nun’s students, friends, family, and journalists continue to ask questions. And many of those involved continue to suffer.

For director Ryan White (The Case Against 8, Good Ol’ Freda, Serena) the story is also a personal one. His mother was raised in Baltimore; and his aunt was a former student of Sister Cathy’s at Archbishop Keough High School. “My family has close ties to not only Catholic Baltimore but the epicenter of this world.”

Abby Schaub and Gemma Hoskins

Part of that world includes Gemma Hoskins and Abby Schaub, two of the Sister’s former students, who have made it their mission to find out “who hurt Sister Cathy.” They are the lynchpins of this terrifying drama. Gemma has been described as a “bulldog.” Abby is the quiet one who does all the research. Together, they are an unstoppable force on an unrelenting search for the truth. As Gemma says, “We are not two ladies playing Clue.”

But they are responsible for helping put together the disparate parts of a puzzling mystery. In fact, Hoskins and Schaub played a large part in creating an online community for the victims of abuse and helping others come forward to share their experiences.

Sister Cathy

In this complex and ever-expanding tale, Director White captures the characters and the drama, jogging back and forth between the present and the past, intercutting interviews, photos, and archival footage. He also creates staged re-enactments that bring his subjects’ memories back to life. Shot on 16mm black-and-white film, the moments are both poignant and illuminating, often making use of just a slow pan or “push in” to enhance the drama. Other times, the scenes are full on, like when Priest Koob does his Mass of Consecration and saves a piece of communion bread for Cathy, hoping against hope she will show up.  Blake Neely’s haunting music adds just the right amount of emotion to each scene, as does John Benam’s beautiful but unobtrusive camera work.

Perhaps the biggest challenge White and Executive Producer Jessica Hargrave faced was gaining the trust of their subjects, many of them abuse victims. Hargrave says, “We spent a lot of time with people without a camera, just getting to know them, showing them that we’re in it, we mean it, we want to be here, we want to support you, we want to do right by you.”

And this series does. But, as Ryan White says, “My hope is it’s not too late. The optimist in me says it isn’t, and there’s still a way to solve this murder.”

Smart and engaging, The Keepers takes us, the viewers, along for the ride and beckons us to be a part of it.  You’ll be hooked from the get-go.

Photos courtesy of Netflix

The Lovers – “Can Romance Survive Love??”


That was the question that writer/director Azazel Jacobs started with when he sat down to write the script for The Lovers.  Ninety-four minutes later, we get the answer.

The Lovers is a film about a long married couple who are cheating on each other; but who end up cheating with each other. It’s a great premise. But for me, what sets this film apart from so many others is that neither the married couple nor their lovers are young. Thank you Mr. Jacobs for recognizing that there are literally millions of people out there who are not Millennials; and that those of us over the age of 50 not only live and love, but also make love.


Debra Winger and Tracy Letts

Tracy Letts (award-winning playwright of August: Osage County, and Tony Award-winning actor) as the disgruntled and harried middle-aged husband, is truly spectacular here. I love the scene where he’s talking on the phone and pretends to be distracted by “Bob.”  It’s so well done and acted that until the frame widens out and you see that he is actually in a parking lot looking at a wall, you’re not quite sure that “Bob” is not really just off camera. I also nearly cried when his girlfriend, Lucy (an hysterical Melora Walters) asks him if he has been cheating on her and he takes a beat and then says, “Yuch; as if.”  Letts’ character is funny, maddening, and yes, even a little bit sexy. But he also shows humanity and heart.

Debra Winger – who has been on the large screen far too infrequently of late – was Jacob’s first choice for the part of the wife, Mary, and whom the director had in mind when he wrote the script. As he explained, “with her skill, I knew she would bring a life and a truth to the role beyond what I could hope for. It challenged me to write with an intimidating candidness that would hopefully be deserving of her.” And it is. With her throaty laugh and just under the surface sensuality, Winger embodies the role and brings it a certain grace. And kudos to the star for allowing not-always flattering close-ups that reveal both her wrinkles and her age.


Tyler Ross, Debra Winger, Jessica Sula, and Tracy Letts

Throughout the film, Letts and Winger spar with each other and their lovers like characters in the screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s. Melora Walters and Aidan Gillen play the “other” lovers with just the right combination of desperation and exasperation. Tyler Ross and Jessica Sula are their son and his girlfriend, both of whom seem utterly surprised that parents are people, too.

In fact, the only thing I didn’t like about this film was the music. When it first comes in, it’s lovely and lyrical. But then it becomes overpowering. It not only telegraphs what we are about to see and hear, but also how we are supposed to feel about it. The adage, “less is more” was never so appropriate.

But that is just a minor bump in the road. Overall, this quirky little film is fun and surprising, i.e., great entertainment. As for Jacob’s question, “Can romance survive love??”  In this film, the answer is an emphatic yes!

Read Paula’s interview with Azazel Jacobs and Tracy Letts

Photos by Robb Rosenfeld courtesy of A24

Azazel Jacobs and Tracy Letts Talk About The Lovers


The Lovers is a romantic comedy about a long-married couple, each of whom is having an affair.  When something re-ignites their passion for each other, they begin to cheat on their lovers.  And then the fun really begins. (Read the review.)

I recently had the chance to sit down with Azazel Jacobs, who wrote and directed The Lovers, and actor, Tracy Letts, who stars with Debra Winger, to talk about the film.

Azalea, how did you hit upon the premise of this film, can romance survive love? And why focus on a middle-aged couple?

One of the things that happened to me when I got into my 40’s was that a bunch of couples I knew were no longer couples. It was hard for me to think about their love not existing any more. In some ways, that was the jumping off point for me. And the question became whether or not they’d get back together again. The possibility that we can get so far away from each other, but that we can meet up again fascinated me.  I also liked the idea that at one point we’re with someone and have an impression of them, but even when we walk away from that relationship, we still carry them with us.


Tracy Letts and Debra Winger

Finding the perfect combination of people for the lead roles was critical. I know you had been in touch with Debra Winger for years and had, in fact, written the role of Mary just for her. But how did you go about finding the perfect husband? How did Tracy Letts fit the bill? 

I was looking for someone on Debra’s level. My long-time casting director suggested Tracy. I first became aware of him through the film, Killer Joe (the 2011 crime thriller whose screenplay Letts had written). I also admired his work in The Big Short. I said, yeh, wow, that’s him. I felt like I could see him in this role, too.

Tracy, this role is a departure from your usual stage work with its serious characters. What appealed to you about it?

It’s about middle aged people who not only love; but there’s also sexuality. Normally, when we see people in middle age in films, they’re settled, they’re done – as if life stops at a certain age. But it’s not true for me or for anyone I know. We keep changing and working, trying to improve ourselves and failing – we keep failing. Showing middle-aged people with that kind of complexity was very compelling to me.

Azazel, is this a film about affairs or about relationships? 

Definitely relationships. That’s something that I really hope comes across. I understand the issues and the hurt and pain. I am interested in how we are ultimately similar and how we connect to one another; and how we are trying to connect to each other and how we can get apart from each other. I think of it as much more of a love story; and I see the connection between all of these characters. And I see the love despite the anger and the real damage.

Tracy, what do you want people to walk away with from this film?  

I hope they walk away seeing something about these people that they can apply to their own lives. It takes a lot of energy to create and maintain a relationship and how one manifests that energy is very individual. But you don’t settle into that. There has to be something that is activated with energy, interest, and curiosity. How do you keep your curiosity about someone else?  I hope that people re-invigorate that energy with their partner. And I think we’ve already seen some of that in the responses to the film. I hope people relate the film to their own lives.  I guess that’s a hifalutin goal, but that’s my goal.

Photo credit: Robb Rosenfeld courtesy of A24
Top: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Tyler Ross and Jessica Sula

Tribeca – Paris Can Wait


When I heard about this film, I couldn’t wait to see it.  I imagined a delightful romp through the French countryside, full of beautiful scenery, great food and wine, and fantastic acting. Unfortunately, very little of that came to fruition in this movie.

The screenplay was full of utterly unoriginal and predictable dialogue. [You know a film is in trouble when the audience can answer a character’s question from the back of the theater, sort of like you do with a bad sitcom]  Worse yet were the stereotypes. I think they used every one in the book: The chain smoking but charming Frenchman with a girl in every port; the pretty but ignored wife who accedes to her husband’s every need, from pairing his socks to finding his pills; the 60’s music playing languorously in the background as their car speeds by lush lavender fields. If this film had been released in the 60’s, it might have had a chance. It might even have evoked a certain “je ne sais quoi.” But as a modern day look at life among the middle-aged bourgeoisie, it fell flat.

The lovely Diane Lane is a waste here as the not quite over-the-hill mother of an 18 year old daughter – with her flat shoes and slept-in hair – who blooms once she puts on a nice dress, drinks a glass of wine, and is smothered in attention by, what the French call, a “mec.”  And really, who would believe that she had flown all over the world in private planes yet did not know a good Chateauneuf du Pap; or that she would be revolted by escargots? And how many times is Alec Baldwin going to play the role of the foppish chubby husband with a “demi-heart.” Even scenes of the glorious countryside and the mouthwatering dinners couldn’t save this film, especially after they were repeated ad nauseum.

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud Eleanor Coppola for having the guts and grit to make her narrative film directing debut at the age of 81.  And I love the fact that the story is based loosely on her own experiences. But having read her 1979 memoir, Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now; and having seen Hearts of Darkness, which she co-directed and for which she won an Emmy, I can only wonder, what went wrong here? And where were the other members of her talented family during the process?

If I sound somewhat annoyed and disappointed, I am. I love France and have been going there since the age of eight. I love snails and smelly cheeses, crunchy French bread, rich red wines, and the endless lavender fields of Provence. This film didn’t do justice to any of those things. It simply felt worn, forced, and utterly out of touch.  And if you don’t believe me, feel free to ask the man sitting next to me at the screening.  Oh yeh, he snored through most of it!!

For more in the Tribeca Film Festival, go to the website.

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Warning:  This Drug May Kill You


Nearly a hundred Americans die every day from opioid overdoses, a number that has quadrupled since 1999.  In fact, more people die from opioid overdoses annually in the U.S. than from car accidents or gun homicides. It is a startling statistic, but it doesn’t begin to tell the story of this public health crisis.

Warning: This Drug May Kill You takes an unflinching look at this little-known epidemic. Over the course of the 58-minute documentary, we meet four families whose loved ones have gone from pills to addiction, relapse, and death. And we share the families’ rollercoaster of emotions – disbelief, shock, anger, guilt, shame, and grief.

Journalist Perri Peltz delves deep into their stories, and masterfully draws from them intimate details of their lives, painful memories, and raw emotions.  These conversations are skillfully and sensitively intercut with home videos and photos of loved ones. Black and white video billboards strategically placed between segments bring home the message through eye-opening statistics.


A mom with her daughter, “hooked” since the age of 16

Among the stories is a mother whose addiction spiraled out of control after she was given meds for a painful C-section; a young man saved from an overdose, only to succumb to another one later that day; and a young woman who got hooked at the age of sixteen and is still desperately trying to kick the habit … over and over again.

The idea for the film started with a question posed by Sheila Nevins, President of HBO Documentary Films, who asked, “Why are so many young Americans losing their lives to drug overdoses?”  Peltz and producer Sascha Weiss soon found out that opioids were to blame; and it wasn’t only the young who were dying. While there is an-going myth that the issue is about “young people abusing drugs”, the truth is that overdoses affect young, old, rich and poor alike. Drug use and abuse does not discriminate. Worse yet, the path to addiction often starts with legally prescribed painkillers, like OxyContin, Vicodin and Percoset, dispensed by doctors with good intentions. As was repeated several times during the film, and keeps echoing in my head, “I trusted the doctor”.

The documentary lays a lot of the blame squarely on the shoulders of big Pharma; and Purdue Pharma in particular, which launched an aggressive campaign in 1996 to promote the use of opioid pain meds, and whose doctors claimed, “Opioids can and should be used long term … less than 1% of users become addicted.”  Twenty years later, that “fact” proved to be a lie; and Purdue was made to pay one of the largest pharmaceutical settlements in U.S. history.

Yet opioids remain a multi-billion dollar industry with more than 250 million prescriptions written every year. But the bigger message that Peltz hopes to spread is that addiction is a brain disease; it is not a moral failing.  There is help out there, and people can recover.

The film will have its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and its National Television debut on HBO on May 1, 2017 at 10 p.m.  A companion website on HBO will offer information on recovery options, including medication-assisted treatment, and on where viewers can find help in their communities.

Photo courtesy of HBO.
Top photo: Parents of a young man who overdosed twice
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