Streaming on Netflix, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel takes a deep dive into the mysterious case of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian tourist who disappeared at the infamous Los Angeles hotel. True crime buffs are likely familiar with the case, but the documentary offers fascinating interviews with the hotel manager at the time, Amy Price, and key investigators. The documentary series also, however, has questionable ethics and fails to sufficiently interrogate the web sleuths that it centers in its coverage of the case.
The Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles is a travelers’ hotel located off Skid Row with a history of murder, suicide, and mystery. The case of Elisa Lam is especially full of strange coincidences, gruesome details, and an unsatisfying conclusion, which made it fodder for conspiracy theory and online detective work. The documentary spends almost as much time on the YouTubers who tried to solve the case as it does on the real investigation and although it does explore some of the damage the web sleuthing did, it centers the voices of these armchair detectives so much that it would be easy to miss how problematic their behavior was. In a style that seems inspired by HBO’s The Case Against Adnan Sayed, the documentary does a good job of being sympathetic to Elisa Lam, using her own writing as a narrative element. This attention to the victim in the case helps balance out the ethical issues with the web sleuths, but I think it has to be taken with a grain of salt considering that Lam’s family did not support the documentary series.
The series is also badly structured. Jumping back and forth between the history of the hotel, Elisa’s case, and the YouTubers makes the story disjointed. Perhaps the intent was to increase suspense, but instead, it just makes the story drag. I think the whole project would have been better served by cutting down considerably on the conspiracies and pushing them later in the story, bringing the investigation into Elisa’s case more to the forefront instead of framing it in response to internet theories.
All that said, there are some compelling, insightful interviews that made the series worth watching. Frankly, I was surprised that former manager Amy Price agreed to the interview, but her perspective on the hotel and the disappearance are fascinating. Additionally, the story of the tourists who were staying at the hotel when the case broke is harrowing and has a real gross-out factor. Finally, the art direction is over-the-top but very sleek. If you’re a fan of Discovery ID, this series is a great option for you, but otherwise, you might just skip it.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel runs for 3 hours 39 minutes across four episodes and is rated TV-MA.
Also, in the cringe-inducing but fascinating category: Kajillionaire. Available to rent online, this offbeat dramedy follows Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) and her grifter parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) as they run a series of short cons trying to come up with the money to cover their rent. While on a flight, they pick up Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) who ends up more entangled in their lives than any of them counted on.
This odd little movie is supposed to be about con artists, but it is really about family dysfunction, as Old Dolio slowly realizes that her relationship with her parents is unusual in its coldness. She seeks to be treated like a child for the first time at the age of 26 and Melanie, seeing how much Old Dolio craves affection, is willing to step into that maternal role—for a price. That plotline is what kept me going. The rest of the movie is almost unbelievably pretentious. For example, Old Dolio’s parents named her after a homeless man who won the lottery, hoping that he would remember her in his will. Old Dolio. We have to endure that name for the whole movie for one little joke. And it’s not really funny, is it?
Gina Rodriguez makes everything that she’s in better, but aside from her sunny performance, the acting in this film is dull. Evan Rachel Wood’s lowered voice is hard to listen to. Yet, I kept watching. Why? Because the dynamic between her and Rodriguez is just that interesting. It’s a bad movie saved by a fascinating relationship.
Kajillionaire was written and directed by Miranda July. It runs 1 hour 44 minutes and is rated R for some sexual references and language.