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Movie Review: West of Memphis (12/27/12)

Movie Poster: West of Memphis

West of Memphis

Directed by Amy Berg
Writers: Billy McMillin, Amy Berg

Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin

How long is West of Memphis? 147 minutes.
What is West of Memphis rated? R for disturbing violent content and some language.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie still: West of Memphis

Photo: Olivia Fougeirol

In May of 1994, in West Memphis, Arkansas, three 8-year-old boys were brutally murdered and dumped in a river. Their tiny bodies were hog-tied with shoelaces and apparently sexually mutilated. It was a vicious, unspeakable crime, and one that called for action. Indeed, the citizens of West Memphis, the parents of the murdered children, and most devastatingly, the Arkansas law enforcement and judicial system took action. Eighteen-year-old Damien Echols, sixteen-year-old Jason Baldwin, and seventeen-year-old Jessie Misskelley were convicted of the crimes based on Misskelley’s confession. Echols, the only one over eighteen, was sentenced to death. Our essential, human urge to compartmentalize, to make sense of the insensible, resulted in a disastrous witch hunt.

Damien Echols was a “strange” young man. His long hair was dyed jet black, contrasting with his pallid skin and piercing eyes. He wore black and scribbled childish graffiti under overpasses, some of it punctuated with pentagrams. Echols considered himself Pagan. He and Baldwin kept journals, wrote obscure poetry, sketched grotesque imagery across the blue lines. They listened to Metallica. They didn’t have many friends. These things made them odd, pegged them as weirdoes. In the eyes of the public, it also made them murderers.

In 1995, an episode of “The X-Files” (“Die Hand die Verletzt”) tackled the zeitgeist of that time: regression therapy, devil worship, and murderous Satanic cults. Cautionary literature and videos circulated to law enforcement across the country, decrying a pandemic of Satanism. Outside Mulder and Scully’s exploits, though, there is virtually no evidence of any rash of Satanic cults; not a thing to indicate that teenagers across America were engaging in ritual sex and murder. But the West Memphis Three’s gothic affectation and lack of love for Jesus Christ made them simple scapegoats. Weird clothes and the depressive journaling of a miserable teen allowed a flawed justice system to pin the horrific crimes on three innocent kids.

In 1996, HBO aired a documentary based on the case, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Filmmakers revealed vital truths in the 2000 and 2011 follow-up films, truths the Arkansas justice system refused to examine. The first kicker of many was that the boy who confessed to the crime, Jessie Misskelley, was (and is) borderline mentally handicapped. When his confession leaked, it became clear his interrogation was leading and coercive. As more persons of interest came out of the woodwork, mugging for the cameras and putting on a show, the case drew national attention. In particular, John Mark Byers, the adoptive father of victim Chris Byers, staged effigies of the convicted and stated his baby had been sacrificed to Satan. For the first few years after the conviction, it appeared Byers, a theatrical, dramatically vengeful man, had committed the crime and elaborately exaggerated his intense grief and rage for the sake of the cameras. The films garnered a response from some very important people. Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Metallica (whose music is featured in all of the movies, though they’re notoriously prickly about music rights and have prosecuted fans for illegal downloading), Patti Smith, The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, Henry Rollins, Peter Jackson, and Jackson’s wife Fran Walsh took up the cause.

In 2011, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were released from prison after spending half their lives behind bars. This year, Jackson’s Wingnut Films released West of Memphis, which will probably be the final film about the case. I’ve been putting off writing the review for West of Memphis, which I saw at the Virginia Film Festival in early November, because the subject matter surrounding the West Memphis Three case and trial is harrowing. Frankly, in the wake of recent events, I’d rather not spend too much time thinking about little dead kids and strange teenage murderers.

West of Memphis reflects Jackson’s involvement in the case; he and Fran Walsh wrote to Echols in prison beginning in 2005 and contributed heavily to legal costs. Jackson also claims he helped to obtain the services of the FBI’s most famed profiler, John Douglas, upon whom The Silence of the Lambs’ character Jack Crawford was based. (It was Douglas whose encyclopedic knowledge of criminal minds eventually exonerated John Mark Byers in the eyes of the public. Byers, who in the years between 2000 and 2011 changed his tune completely about the identity of the killers, wasn’t interviewed by the crew for West of Memphis.) Jackson, a savvy and well-rounded filmmaker, also recognized the inherent value in the first docs. What happened, over the course of seventeen years, is basically a crowd-sourced criminal investigation. The Paradise Lost films are a beacon, a concrete example of the way film interacts with the world around it and vice-versa. Had it not been for the filmmakers’ concise depiction of the case’s mishandling, Echols would be dead and the other two still in prison. The WM3 case is extremely important for both justice (organizations like The Innocence Project have thrived – the WM3 prove it isn’t always criminals behind bars) and film culture (film as art, film as tool, film as message – the four movies about WM3 are all of the above). Most important, it is one way in which We the People have made a tangible difference; one way, with the help of the filmic medium, we’ve helped to stage a small revolt against an inherently flawed system.

West of Memphis is strident and defamatory (which isn’t a bad thing). Director Amy Berg (whose brilliant Deliver Us From Evil was nominated for an Oscar in 2010) sat a variety of people from all across the spectrum in front of her camera. Charismatic musicians like Rollins stare straight out of the screen, telling you matter-of-factly that the handling of this case was total bullshit. Jackson himself shows up in a number of scenes, in one of which he speaks earnestly about people in power crapping on those who don’t have any. Echols, whose countenance in the Paradise Lost movies was nearly saintly, is finally allowed to say, with a hint of vicious anger in his voice, that lead West Memphis investigator Gary Gitchell put them in prison as a political power move.

The film doesn’t offer a lot of new evidence – Paradise Lost 3 covers most of the basics: the police never really interviewed Michael Moore’s stepfather Terry Hobbs, a man who was known to beat his stepson and his wife; they failed to interview multiple neighbors who had seen Hobbs with the boys shortly before they died; they failed to account for the fact that his alibis on the night of the murder just plain don’t stand up. Pam Hobbs, Moore’s mother, was interviewed exclusively for West of Memphis, bringing forth terrifying stories of her husband’s rages. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, investigators mention while practically rolling their eyes that the wounds found on the bodies were made post-mortem, almost surely by turtles. A snapping turtle wrangler allows a turtle to bite him onscreen, and the wound leaves a mark identical to those found on the boys. (This scene is jarring and sensational, but probably the best way to make the point.) Amanda Hobbs, Terry Hobbs’s daughter and Michael Moore’s sister, appears in a series of uncomfortable therapy visits. She’s still a teenager, she no longer has custody of her kids, and she has a very obvious drug problem. It’s discouraging, to say the least, to imagine that the filmmakers probably paid her to vent her issues (sexual abuse at the hands of her father, a fear of him that caused her to start doing drugs) on camera.

The filmmakers clashed with HBO and the crew behind Paradise Lost 3 – according to a New York Times piece, Wingnut decreed that Pam Hobbs was not legally permitted to talk to the PL3 crew. Some money changed hands for the sake of a good movie – and the credits of Paradise Lost 3 also note that some participants were offered honoraria for their involvement. The people of West Memphis are what Echols refers to repeatedly over the course of the movies as “poor white trash.” Many of them have criminal records, some of them have nearly indecipherable accents, and most of them are extremely poor. Of course the participants would accept honoraria. It’s par for the course – but unfortunate and sadly sketchy nonetheless.

The West Memphis 3 were released in 2011 because the state accepted the Alford Plea, which is an official admission of guilt while maintaining innocence. (What? You ask. Here’s the Wikipedia.) Basically, the state of Arkansas refuses to admit it convicted innocent boys of horrendous crimes, but deigned, after seventeen years, to let the supposed killers out to roam the streets. (The real killer, by all accounts, is also free.) Echols and his wife Lorri Davis (they were married in a Buddhist ceremony at the prison in 1999 while Echols was still on death row) lived in New York City at the time of filming and “never plan to return to Arkansas.”

West of Memphis is a clamorous, sometimes upbeat (at least, as upbeat as you can be about this case) finale. Jackson’s Hollywood connections make for a different, crisper, bigger-budget film experience than the previous films. Berg is a great director, totally unafraid to stick her nose in uncomfortable spaces and probe at open wounds (her works aren’t as prickly as documentarian Michael Moore’s, but I imagine the two of them would get along well). The end result is pleasing, sad, horrifying, and ultimately satisfying.

We’re living in strange times (she wrote, knowing we’re always living in strange times). A few weeks ago, a 20-year old man, a well-to-do, intelligent, “odd” kid walked into an elementary school and shot 20 children and 6 adults before taking his own life. He was, by all accounts, troubled and overlooked. His style of dress and interactions ran toward the other end of the high school spectrum from Damien Echols – he wore a pocket protector, carried a briefcase, and attended LAN parties. Since he also murdered his mother – from all accounts the only person in close contact with him recently – we’ll never know why he committed this inhuman, unspeakable act. And in the end it doesn’t matter.

Shortly after the shootings, a mother of a child with mental issues posted a heartbreaking blog entry about dealing with her violent son. After Gawker picked it up, the story went viral and people began avidly demonizing the previously unknown mother’s parenting skills, disparaging our society’s disinterest in dealing with mental health problems, and calling for immediate alteration of gun laws. Had Adam Lanza lived, had he not murdered his mother, had he been able to make a statement about why, would we be satisfied by his incarceration? Would we feel more restful knowing his ostensible reasons for committing this act of evil? Would we be able to look at the face of a murderer in a courtroom, as we did with the Aurora shooter, and take heart that he’s completely insane? Could we rest easier knowing the system was now responsible for him? Watching the judicial system at work, knowing we have ways to deal with those who commit crimes against humanity, is powerfully alluring.

In the aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy, we struggled to make sense of it as immediately as possible – and many media outlets pegged the wrong kid as the murderer on the afternoon of the shootings. As the police and the media revealed more evidence, people popped out of the woodwork, sneering that Lanza had been a “weird kid” for as long as his classmates could remember; that this wasn’t his first rodeo with “odd behavior.” Most damning, I think, was the notion, whether explicit or implicit, that Lanza was autistic, had Aspberger’s, or was afflicted with a personality disorder. It’s one more set of stigma to apply to that weird kid in the hallway, the one scuttling anxiously or striding defiantly between classes, avoiding or provoking peers’ wrath.

The West Memphis 3 case and its subsequent documentaries offer a powerful message to us in the aftermath of a massive tragedy that aches like a national wound. Hysteria, rage, and grief are a poisonous combination. Our legal system and political system are inextricably linked, and change can only come from the ground up. The Paradise Lost movies crowd sourced a criminal investigation against the wishes of the federal government. Likewise, a change to our flawed system, the one that financially connects the NRA to corrupt politicians, the one that offers a staggering 20 beds in mental wards to every 100,000 Americans, is in our hands. Jackson, Berg, and the HBO filmmakers have a single message for us, and it feels particularly significant as we look back on 2012: don’t just sit there and watch, don’t stew in your fear and anger. We all have the power to change lives, and to save them. Three innocent men are free because of it – and as we mourn the victims of Newtown (and we are still mourning, albeit loudly and angrily), we can take heart in the fact that we’re capable of fashioning a sea change in a faulty system, and perhaps preventing another heart-rending crime like this. (Just how best to do so, though, is a topic for another article.)

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook (11/21/12)

Movie Poster: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook

Directed by David O. Russell
Screenplay by David O. Russell

Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Anupam Kher, Julia Stiles, Chris Tucker

How long is Silver Linings Playbook? 122 minutes.
What is Silver Linings Playbook rated? R for language and some sexual content/nudity.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie still: Silver Linings Playbook

Photo: JoJo Whilden/©Weinstein Company

The Virginia Film Festival added Silver Linings Playbook to the lineup as its Centerpiece Film at the last minute. David O. Russell’s dramedy had been gently building buzz as it toured the major festivals, attracting the attention of critics with each screening. The VFF is a small festival even after twenty-five years, mainly due to the fact that Virginia, well, isn’t a movie state (though the organizers would have you know, parts of Lincoln were filmed here in the Commonwealth, so there). People travel from all across the state to attend the Festival, and often enough, they have no idea what they’re in for. (This year, a lady in line for Silver Linings Playbook thought she was seeing The Merchant of Venice for some reason. “My husband and I just noticed there were movies playing all weekend!” she said dreamily, “and I love the theater!” I traded glances with the people behind me in line, holding up my ticket to make sure I was in the right place. Silver Linings Playbook had been sold out for weeks. When I saw Black Swan a few years ago under stringent security, most of the older audience was pretty sure it was seeing a movie about the artistry of ballet. That was an entertaining screening.)

Aside from the clueless lady in line, the audience for Silver Linings Playbook is aware. There’s chatter about Russell’s directorial style: he is known to be prickly; there is a series of YouTube videos floating around of the director and actress Lily Tomlin shouting profanities at each other on the set of I Heart Huckabees while a weary and distraught Jason Schwartzman and Dustin Hoffman wander around in the background. There are excited murmurings about the next Hunger Games movie: these, more than Jennifer Lawrence’s heart-rending turn in Winter’s Bone, will now be her claim to fame. People are excited for Silver Linings Playbook, really thrilled to be in the Paramount (which, by the way, is one of the most beautiful theaters I’ve ever seen).

I went in knowing next to nothing about the plot, which is for the better. The plot of Silver Linings Playbook is kind of inane. Matthew Quick’s book, one guesses, is able to neatly tie up loose ends without going overboard. Narrative style is more fluid in a novel, and authors pad trite plot devices with character development and lively prose (see also: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi). Much of the time, a movie just can’t offer the sort of character depth and development a book does. It’s totally implausible that a man recently released from a psychiatric hospital would find himself with the weight of his family’s livelihood on his shoulders as he performs in a dance competition with a recently widowed, slightly nymphomaniac young woman. These characters, from the superstitious, obsessive-compulsive father figure, to the Eagles-loving Indian psychiatrist, are not your average Philadelphians. They’re larger than life. What’s really interesting about Silver Linings Playbook is that Russell adapted a silly plot and over-the-top characters into a movie that absolutely does offer the kind of character development you want, and does, somehow or other, create a totally plausible, mostly enjoyable yarn.

Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) allows his long-suffering mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) to pull him out of inpatient psychiatric care the moment the courts allow (and against doctors’ recommendations). At home, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) isn’t sure how to accept his son again – he can’t quit repositioning the remote controls during football games on which he bets, and he can’t look Pat in the eye. Pat Jr. goes on morning runs wrapped in a trash bag so he can win back his ex-wife Nikki with a sexy new body. Unfortunately, Nikki has a restraining order against him. As the whole story comes into view piece by piece, it becomes clear that Pat needs all the help he can get to rebuild his life. His best friend’s deplorable wife (Julia Stiles) sets him up on an ill-fated date with her younger sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany lost her husband recently and uses sex to dull the pain. The two of them make a deal: if Tiffany communicates Pat’s undying love to Nikki, he’ll perform in a dance competition with her. Somewhere along the line, Pat Sr. decides to bet the family’s business on the dance competition. (Like I said, it’s a wee bit farfetched.)

Russell translated Quick’s small-time yet exaggerated story into a believable, smart, and sweet film, certainly, but what makes Silver Linings Playbook a work of genius is its brilliant performances. Russell, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his alleged asshole tendencies behind the scenes, squeezes every last drop out of his actors. Cooper, previously known almost entirely in comedies (though he was good in Limitless), somehow imbues a troubled, violent person with gentle kindness veiled by abrasive potshots. De Niro doles out one of his best performances in years; the man looks nothing short of elderly these days, and his fragility is gorgeously vivid. Lawrence puts a hard, ugly face on pain. She’s a woman who hurts so badly she tortures herself and everyone around her to make it easier. Two very broken people swirl around each other, each basking in the other’s palpable anguish, and eventually realize their respective hurts can combine to put them back together again.live streaming movie Power Rangers

Watching Lawrence verbally spar against Robert De Niro, you remember that she’s a force to be reckoned with. Her chemistry with Cooper is odd and off-putting, but beneath the antagonism, both characters recognize foils of themselves. Russell took utmost care to give all the characters dynamic personalities; from Dr. Cliff Patel (Anupam Kher) to the police officer in charge of Pat’s restraining order (Dash Mihok), no one is two-dimensional. Nikki, who in some ways is the catalyst behind the entire series of events, is more of a mythical figure than anything else; though it would have been simple to make her an evil, conniving witch, Russell refused. The film’s cinematography and color scheme are pleasantly low-key, reflecting the chill of autumn and winter in Pennsylvania in a muted palette. These blue-collar people live unglamorous lives, and they’re proud of them.

The story isn’t particularly a happy one, and it’s uncomfortable to the point of cringing at times – but quite frankly, what love story goes according to plan? What profoundly broken person doesn’t make you want to laugh and cry at the same time? All you can ever hope for, according to that quote attributed to Dr. Seuss, is to fall in mutual weirdness with someone. Watching these two do just that is totally gratifying.

Silver Linings Playbook is generating Oscar buzz already, and its three leads deserve their nods. Russell, whose films are hit-or-miss, has himself a hit. It isn’t exactly a feel-good holiday romp, but for people like me, suckers for quirk and angst, it’s the perfect antidote to the usual rom-com. If you ever get enough of turkey and beer and football, do yourself a favor and check it out this season. You won’t regret a minute.

Movie Review: Albert Nobbs (1/28/12)

Movie Poster: Albert Nobbs

Albert Nobbs

Directed by Rodrigo García
Screenplay by Glenn Close and John Banville

Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Janet McTeer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Brendan Gleeson, Maria Doyle Kennedy

How long is Albert Nobbs? 113 minutes.
What is Albert Nobbs rated? R for some sexuality, brief nudity and language.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Albert Nobbs

Glenn Close stars in Albert Nobbs

A vignette designed to tweak your heartstrings,
featuring brilliant performances from Close and McTeer.

In the screening of Albert Nobbs, the Centerpiece film at the Virginia Film Festival, producer Julie Lynn noted in the opening minutes of the panel that Glenn Close had been angling to make this movie for nearly two decades. Close mostly gravitates toward two types of roles: women as oversexed as they are neurotic (Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons), and repressed housewives (the 2004 version of The Stepford Wives, The Chumscrubber). The character of Albert Nobbs, a nineteenth century British butler, fits with absolutely none of Close’s earlier work, and that is its greatness – and possibly Close’s saving grace with the Academy (this is her sixth nomination).

Although the Occupy movement has largely fallen out of public view in favor of the upcoming presidential election, the chasm between the haves and the have-nots currently looms large in the American psyche. We and the Brits have a long-standing affection for upstairs-downstairs tales, those that chronicle the rich and their servants in equal measure (the BBC’s Downton Abbey is a current, and brilliant, example). Albert Nobbs is one of these upstairs-downstairs fables, with a serious, subversive twist.

Albert is a butler at Morrison’s Hotel in nineteenth century Ireland; he caters silently to those who indulge in elegance and decadence. Albert is “such a kind little man,” a tireless worker whose professional manner is unparalleled. He stands with impeccable posture and makes no eye contact with guests; he remains on the fringes, refilling drinks and wrangling naughty maids. What no one has yet realized is that Albert is a woman. Big, masculine Mr. Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a painter assigned to redo the hotel’s interiors, changes Albert’s life when it is revealed that Mr. Page is also passing: he’s a lady in drag, and a lady in love with another lady for that matter. (This reveal involves the best reaction to being flashed I’ve seen in years, and possibly ever.)

When Albert learns of Mr. Page’s lifestyle, he begins to change in ways both subtle and blatant. He openly pursues lovely young maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) despite her involvement with drunken handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson). Joe pimps out Helen to squeeze a few expensive chocolates and bottles of booze out of Albert, and Albert is none the wiser. He’s too busy zeroing in on a property across town, a building in which to open a tobacco shop with a parlor for Helen, the prototype of the beautiful young wife. Albert strives for connections and suddenly finds himself completely inept. When the typhoid epidemic ravages Ireland, the Morrison Hotel finds itself in a bad way, and Helen discovers she’s pregnant. When Joe gets violent, Albert, having found his voice, his purpose, strives to intervene – and the consequences are dire.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (whose role is nearly a cameo, and who is apparently a friend of Glenn Close) and Brendan Gleeson (who saw a Golden Globe nomination for The Guard this year) play wealthy drunks frequenting the hotel, while The Tudors’s Maria Doyle Kennedy has a small role as Mary. The cast is small, the dialogue is tight, and the locations largely confined: Albert Nobbs is based on a play that is based on a short story, and that’s its biggest failing. Despite two brilliant performances and a timeless, heart-wrenching tale of oppression and fear, the movie lacks depth. It’s a vignette, one designed to punch patrons in the face and leave them reeling (the end of the film in particular seems designed for this).

Close surely deserves her Oscar nomination (I wrote in my notes “total Oscar bait”); Albert begins the film with affect as flat as a board, but as the plot progresses, Close inhabits the role with a reserved, confused, aching sadness that will seize your heart. Janet McTeer, who was nominated for Best Actress in 2000 for Tumbleweeds, turns in a gorgeous, unflinching performance worthy of her 2012 Supporting Actress nomination. Wasikowska, whose roles in last year’s Jane Eyre and previously Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, is a very serious young woman (she’s obviously uncomfortable with fashion and wary of microphones, as evidenced at the panel), and it’s delightful to see her joke and laugh as Helen. (She also noted charmingly, “I was so terrified of [Close] in 101 Dalmations.”)

Director Rodrigo García, the sole man onstage with a panel of women (including Wasikowska, Julie Lynn, and co-producer Bonnie Curtis) mentioned that he’s been called “a champion of women’s stories.” Garcia, who has mostly worked on well-loved TV shows, says women’s stories are simply more interesting to him than men’s. Thus Albert Nobbs, the tale of a woman who for all intents and purposes becomes a man, was a beacon for him. Further, he said, he felt it was both a timeless and timely story, one that is less about homosexuality than about a person striving for connections he just can’t grasp. One might even say it’s about a person struggling to meet the status quo – to be what he’s supposed to be – and failing. With the economy in a slump and the American Dream crumbling for working Joes across the country, this is a version of the tale with which we can identify. Albert, says Garcia, is “beyond the closet.” It doesn’t matter what his sexual orientation is (or isn’t), nor does it even particularly matter his gender. In the end, he’s just a human being striving to be happy, and we can identify with that.