Category Archives: 2012 Movies

Ex Machina (2015)

wBUWcOKAlex Garland is a screenwriting staple in Hollywood. He’s a science fiction specialist, adapting everything from Kazuo Ishiguro’s wrenching Never Let Me Go to the Halo movie. He’s worked with Danny Boyle, adapting his novel The Beach, and then on 28 Days Later and Sunshine. If you’ve noticed a theme with the titles, Garland tends to subscribe to a pessimistic view of human nature. And yet each film is grounded by the humanity of its characters no matter the extreme circumstances. Garland’s gift is making the fantastic grounded on a recognizable human level. Ex Machina is his latest and his directorial debut but you’d never have guessed it with how controlled and polished the film comes across. It’s a cerebral sci-fi film that haunts, enchants, and consistently engaged the imagination.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a corporate contest to spend a week’s vacation in the home of a reclusive Google-esque tech billionaire, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is here to test out Nathan’s newest invention – artificial intelligence. He’s built an android woman named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and he wants Caleb to interview her.

Ex Machina throws you right into the hook within minutes, and it was mere minutes for me to get hooked. Garland does a glorious job of teasing an audience with his story and unlocking further mysteries that develop intrigue. At the start, knowing the Turing test, we’re just as interested in Ava as Caleb is, trying to figure her out and how lifelike she may be. But then the conversations start to linger and, during a brief power outage that cuts the feed to the omnipresent cameras, Ava warns Caleb that his host is not whom he thinks. As soon as the power is back and running, it’s as if the comment never happened. The pristine underground quarters have an eerie tranquility to them, almost as if Apple is designing high-end prisons. Garland’s movie becomes consumed in paranoia. Is Ava being honest? Is Nathan being honest or underhanded? What’s in some of those “off limits” rooms? What is the true test at hand? Who is the silent Asian assistant? At one point, Caleb slices open his own arm to search for circuitry, and you completely understand his reasoning. This mounting sense of paranoia and dread, tagged with Garland’s mysterious and well-developed storyline, are enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen and rapidly second-guessing and triple-guessing your shifting loyalties.

Ex-Machina-Download-WallpapersGarland also smartly doesn’t dance around the obvious plot device of having a beautiful robotic woman, namely the inevitability of romance to bloom. What is it about android women that science fiction seems to love so much? From Blade Runner to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the genre loves the concept of robotic women. Perhaps this is merely a byproduct of a genre written by a majority of men, or perhaps it taps into something more unconscious about the desire to control women, or a fear of women, but that’s a conversation for another day. Ava is certainly a stunning creature, thanks to Vikander, but also from the sleek production design that makes her feel like the world’s most gorgeous Mr. Potato Head with her lycra-like skin for easy detachment. Her exposed stomach of bolts and bulbs is also a constant reminder of her “other-ness.” There’s an obviously sexual dynamic to the character, and while she’s technically nude for most of the film, watching her slip out of stockings and a dress has a strange erotic quality. Thankfully, the percolating would-be romance between man and machine actually plays a vital part throughout the script and especially with the end. There’s even a darkly comic yet disconcerting reveal about why Ava looks as she does. Is Ava capable of feelings? Is she falling for Caleb, or does she merely view him as a means to an end?

It’s essentially a sci-fi play with limited locations and three primary actors. The power is on Garland’s effortlessly engaging script, which is far more cerebral and philosophical and nuanced than you might expect from its premise. This is a film that allows its characters to breathe, to organically develop relationships and doubts. The concept of A.I. has been explored in many sci-fi stories before but Garland finds fresh resonance by paring down his story to a manageable trio. Nathan’s reclusive home is like a twenty-first century version of the haunted house and full of fun detours begging to be explored. Garland’s cinematography and production design are reminiscent of the cool artifice of David Fincher’s films. The world feels like a small step into the future but constantly unsettling. Garland’s story always has another mystery to unlock, always driving the story further as Caleb’s weeklong stay is coming to a close. Garland has a natural eye for images and composes several startling sequences that can equally evoke beauty as well as disquiet. There’s a moment where Ava passes a wall of faces as if they were simply a row of hats. Simple moments like Ava “dressing up” are given a gentle poignancy that isn’t overplayed for effect. Garland’s film is what I wanted 2014’s Under the Skin to be. Both of them are unsettling, moody, and atmospheric with striking Kubrickian imagery, but Garland’s film is less purposely oblique.

The trio of actors provides strong work, especially Swedish actress Vikander (Seventh Son, A Royal Affair). As the film is told from Caleb’s perspective, she has to find a very exact balance with her performance with elements of innocence, uncertainty, and ethereal curiosity. She’s rather placid but you always feel like there’s more just under the surface, whether it’s the ache of sentient realization or something more sinister. She’s a test subject, a captive, and a possible romantic interest. Vikander hits every right note to remain mystifying and beguiling. Gleeson (Unbroken) is becoming a go-to young actor for Hollywood. His awkwardness and enthusiasm to be part of history is an easy channel for the audience, but as Garland’s script spins along, Gleeson’s enthusiasm ebbs to concern, for Ava and then himself. The source of Ex Machina’s surprising font of humor is Isaac (A Most Violent Year) as a too cavalier tech genius. He’s so nonchalant and chummy, usually soused, that you start distrusting his amiable nature.

ex-machina-film-imageIt’s a shame then that the film couldn’t quite hold onto these ambiguities to the end. Garland has had third act missteps in many of his films, some tone-altering and simply losing momentum like 28 Days Later, and some as disastrous as Sunshine’s blurry slasher killer, which ruins a perfectly good-to-great sci-fi thriller. Ex Machina too exhibits its own share of third act issues, namely a confluence of contrivances with the characters. There are certain revelations you should already be suspecting giving the nature of the film, and if you’ve watched other movies before. Those reveals work in relation to Garland’s plot; however, the climax feels a bit too forced and obvious for a movie that has been, up to that point, expertly keeping the audience on its toes. Nathan spilling the beans on all the different levels of the experiment comes across not as an outlet of his character’s blasé narcissism and more a need for the script to force a confrontation. The different levels of intrigue fade away to what is a rather conventional climax that feels poorly developed and woefully inadequate for the story being told. I will credit Garland with the courage of his resolution, though, which provides deliberate decisions that cast the rest of the film in another dimension. It also feels completely right, while still allowing for Garland to work his Kubrick fetish fully to its eerie erotic ends.

Ex Machina is a hard movie to pin down because it balances various genres with delicacy, providing a little something for every sci-fi fan. It’s a well-developed mystery that constantly unravels new layers that only hooked me further, but then I was hooked from the immediacy. The relationship between the main three characters is enough to hold an entire film thanks to Garland’s scripting. I started doubting my own senses and that is a testament to Garland’s artistic vision. It’s a nice antidote to the louder bombast of Hollywood, especially with science fiction films that confuse shrill and busy with appealing and satisfying. Here is a film that doesn’t forget to entertain but respects an audience enough to take its time to properly develop its mysteries, tension, and characters. Ex Machina is a stellar debut for Garland as a director and I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts shifting more of his attention to getting back into the director’s chair. It’s not a perfect film, as it too suffers from Garland’s streak of third act troubles, but it’s a remarkably assured, sleek, and absorbing movie that gets under your skin.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Pitch Perfect (2012)

11167512_detTake the plot of Bring it On, add remixes and mash-ups of popular music thrown through the Glee grinder, Rebel Wilson’s adlibbed one-liners, and shake, and you have Pitch Perfect, an a cappella singing comedy that was a sleeper hit last fall. My female friends raved about it. It’s from a 30 Rock writer. It’s from the director of the irreverent musical Avenue Q. I like Wilson and the movie’s star, Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air). I wanted to like it, and while I found most of it passably cute, I could not get too attached and the chief reason was Kendrick’s character. She’s so surly and standoffish and just plain bratty, and for no good reason. It gets really annoying. Her rote romance with a bland hunky guy is made even more incredulous because Kendrick, get this, hates movies. Not certain kinds of movies or movies with certain actors, just the entire medium. Who is like this? That’s like disliking all of music entirely. The overall comedic spirit of the movie is amiable with a few oddball touches that keep things interesting, notably one girl who talks very quietly and says outrageous confessions. Listen well. The performance segments are impressive in their own right enough so that I wish there were more of them. There’s also a level of reality to projectile vomit that I was not prepared for. Overall, Pitch Perfect is a fitfully amusing comedy that never really settles down a functional tone, and Kendrick’s bratty character drags the movie down. It’s far from perfect but depending upon your love of a cappella, it could be good enough.

Nate’s Grade: B-

House at the End of the Street (2012)

house-at-the-end-of-the-street-poster-jennifer-lawrenceAs readers will attest, I am a fan of actress Jennifer Lawrence. Some of my pals might say limiting the word to “fan” is being too modest on my part, but I don’t want to alarm anyone. I think she’s a terrifically talented actress and her Best Actress Oscar was well deserved for a film I unabashedly adore. With all of this being said, good actors can still make really bad movies, and that’s what we have with the stillborn horror flick, House at the End of the Street, referred to by marketing by the Twitter-friendly acronym HATES. That seemed like a tip-off, didn’t it? The problem is that for a good hour this movie is more of a drama than a horror movie, and everyone in town seems to be jerks to this guy in town whose sister murdered his family. Apparently him still residing in town lowers their property values… for some reason. I think it wants to be a psychological thriller, but even giving it that much credit assumes there’s some degree of competent execution. It’s not scary, the twists should be easily telegraphed to anyone with a modicum of sense, and Lawrence’s presence is just downright questionable. Why did she agree to do this? What about this clunky script, with its obvious padding to its “shocking” revelation, appealed to this woman?  And at PG-13, there are not really any optimal exploitation elements to recommend. I suppose with her fast ascent to the top of Hollywood, Lawrence now has the clout to never again star in something as drecky as this would-be thriller. Then again, if she does, it’ll be by choice. Or a fat paycheck.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Fist of the Reich (2012)

936full-fist-of-the-reich-artworkIt’s been too long since I’ve last had the pleasure of viewing a Uwe Boll movie. The man is downright prolific when it comes to spitting out multitudes of projects every year sometimes three or four. And yet there’s no guarantee I’ll have a speedy and easily accessible avenue to watch the man’s finished products. Take for instance his biopic on Max Schmeling, finished almost three years ago, and undergone a title change for American audiences to Fist of the Reich. Americans might not know who Max Schmeling was but by God do we know ourselves some Nazis. I can understand why this one was put on the shelf for as long as it was. There’s the fact that it’s entirely in German, Boll’s first completely foreign-language film since 1997. There’s also the fact that it’s still a pretty dull and uninvolving movie, and given the figure and subject matter, that may be enough to make Fist of the Reich the most disappointing film of Boll’s career.

600full-fist-of-the-reich-screenshotFrom 1930-1948, Max Schmeling (Henry Maske) was Germany’s most prolific athlete. He boxed overseas in America quite often, earning the world title in a controversial bout where his opponent was disqualified after a below the belt punch. Schmeling romances a movie star, Anny Ondra (Susanne Wuest), and proposes to her the day their courtship hits the gossip pages. Schmeling also has to fight the growing nationalistic influence of Hitler’s Nazi party, which looks at him as a powerful propaganda opportunity. After a high-profile loss to Joe Louis, in a rematch no less, Schmeling loses value to the Nazi machine and he’s drafted into the oncoming war.

When I say “most disappointing” I know that’s going to strike a chord given Boll’s oeuvre of craptacularcinema, but I really mean it. The biggest failing of the two-plus hours of Fist of the Reich is that it does not provide adequate evidence why Schmeling is a compelling figure of history. It’s a biopic that doesn’t have enough juice to justify why its central hero should even earn a biopic. I don’t think I’ve seen too many movies based upon real people where I left thinking, “Well that person didn’t deserve a movie.” And the ridiculous thing is that Schmeling of course deserves his own movie. The man was an international superstar, the pride of a nation during a tumultuous time, one of only three men to beat Joe Louis in his career, and then became a propaganda pawn for the Nazis. The man was even forced into service in the war and was one of only two survivors during a hellish battle. His manager was Jewish, his wife a Czech movie star, and they had to flee their country home to escape from the advancing Russians. That is some compelling stuff even before you get into the psychological depth at play with a man being pushed as a tool of Nazi propaganda and how that constrictive, humiliating, and infuriating chapter would have taken its toll on Schmeling’s soul. There is a wealth of material there to stage a rousing and engrossing biopic, and the fact that Boll and screenwriter Timo Berndt cannot is just inexcusable.

There’s very little depth given to Schmeling as a character; all the edges are sanded off and we’re left with a rather bland do-gooder that really just wants to box. He’s sort of this nondescript, milquetoast nice guy who trudges from scene to scene, doing bland but nice things. You won’t dislike the lug but you’ll find it hard to explain why he’s interesting. This shallowness just compounds as the movie continues, going further into the war as well as the downturns in Schmeling’s boxing career. His relationship with Anny is also pretty bland. They’re nice together and loving in appearance but also mundane. It’s like the movie is progressing scene-by-scene establishing facts and plot points rather than exploring the relationships of characters. Max gets married. Max gets a big bout. Max wants to give Joe Louis a rematch. The film seems so devoid of passion, bled dry by going through the checklist of what audiences desire in their biopics. The movie even attaches a weak framing device where Schmeling and a war prisoner are walking to a border and Schmeling recounts his life. Except this framing device ends with thirty minutes left to go. Can it be termed a framing device if it doesn’t frame a quarter of the movie? It’s not even necessary except to throw in a bit of war violence at the opening to hook an audience. It feels like nobody knows what to do with Schmeling so they’ll just breeze through his life’s big events, make him seem like a charitable fella, and then pray the audience understands the man’s historical significance.

Another reason for the stilted drama is quite possibly the noticeable acting limitations of our lead, Maske. The man is a former champion boxer in Germany who reportedly underwent eight months of acting training to prepare for this movie. Well, apparently eight was not enough (did I just backend into a pun?). He may be a great boxer but he is a very poor actor. His monotone, caveman-like warble reminds me of the speaking tones of early Arnold Schwarzenegger. I don’t think the guy has more than two sentences at a time. Again, I’d rather have my actors learn how to do something rather than teach a non-actor how to act. Actors can fake singing or boxing, plus there’s editing. Was it really substantial to have an actual boxer in the role? I know Schmeling himself actually wanted Maske to play him in a would-be movie, so there’s some passing approval, but there’s a reason that Maske hasn’t acted in a movie since this one. Maske’s pained acting, limited emotional range, and overall stiffness, combined with the thin characterization, makes for a void at the center of the movie.

MS-ImageI also assumed given Boll’s own background in boxing (he famously boxed a group of critics several years ago in a publicity stunt) that the onscreen bouts would be thrilling to watch. The excitable German ringside announcer seems to be watching different fights than I am. The fighters just don’t have any fight in them, carefully going through the motions, but when they hit they do so like they’re timid, afraid to put any force behind it. The camerawork and editing also fail to mask this feeling. Boxing is such a ferocious sport and we need to feel the danger and ferocity within the ring, but all too often it just feels like another ho-hum occasion for Schmeling, one where he’s rarely put to the test. Even the boxing matches that go to 15 rounds show us two fighters without any blood on them or bruises or any sign, beyond a glistening coat of faux sweat, that these two men have spent over an hour beating the crap out of each other. This limited sense of realism handicaps the movie as well as drawing out the accomplishments of Schmeling.

Boll’s direction also seems rather remote on this movie, curiously so. He relies almost entirely on bobbling handheld camerawork that can get a bit tiresome when it feels like the camera rarely settles. The movie is almost entirely comprised of a series of medium shots, which further adds to the overall blandness of the movie. The cinematography by longtime collaborator Mathias Neumann is entirely lackluster and downright incompetent. The visual compositions are supremely lacking; I don’t think Boll and Neumann even stumble into one engaging visual shot. And we’re talking about a boxer’s career here. The colors of the movie feel so drab and restrained but not in any sort of elegant artistic manner. It just looks like a drab movie, which suits a drab script with a drab lead actor.  I’m also fairly certain that Boll’s longtime musical collaborator Jessica de Rooij borrows liberally, if not outright lifts, the musical themes of John Williams’ score for Saving Private Ryan. Has anyone else caught this?

It may seem foolish of me to admit, especially after twenty movies reviewed, but I actually had some semblance of hope that Fist of the Reich was going to be Boll’s first actual good movie. As it stands, Tunnel Rats is still the best Boll film, relatively speaking. I really thought that Boll’s background and boxing experience would carry over and we’d get a handsomely made, reverent, and absorbing look into the life of Max Schmeling, but time after time, the movie settles for bland. There’s a lot of meat to this guy but it feels about as in depth as a child’s book report, skimming over the drama to cover the significant signposts of the man’s life. As a result, we get an overview of the guy’s life but lack the evidence why we even took the journey. Saying a guy’s a great boxer, or a great humanitarian is one thing, but we need to see this, we need to feel it, and that’s the saddest failure of Fist of the Reich, that it takes an important historical figure and squeezes out all the lingering resonance.

Nate’s Grade: C

Magic Mike (2012)

magic-mike-posterAfter all the hype and the derision from my friends, I finally saw Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper opus Magic Mike, and it does not pain me to say, as a red-blooded heterosexual male, that I found it mostly enjoyable. I understand the detractors, many of whom were let down by the relentless, frothing hype generating the film’s box-office success. The characters are fairly shallow, and almost all of the supporting players are one-dimensional; many of the male strippers only have their abs and a name to work with as far as characterization. There’s also the general absurd nature of the world of male stripping, where women are whipped into a frenzy and men almost comically gyrate atop them, or in some instances, literally pick them in the air to swing their junk into. The last act also rushes all sorts of storylines: the rookie’s fall from grace, Mike (Channing Tatum) coming to the realization to leave the business, a hastily thrown together romance. With all that said, I was always interested in just watching the ins and outs of this profession put on screen. And when the plot falters, there are always the impossible charms of Tatum to bring me back. Matthew McConaughey is also fascinating to watch as a mixture of showman, zen artist, and sexual being. I even found the dance/stripping sequences to be worthwhile as few insights into the various characters. While being less than magical, Magic Mike’s shortcomings don’t take away from what it has to offer. That may be the most unintended inuenduous statement I’ve ever written for a film review.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Cosmopolis (2012)

CosmopolisDavid Cronenberg is a director that’s full of surprises. The biggest surprise about Cosmopolis, his new film based on the Don DeLillo novella, is how shockingly terrible it is. This may be Cronenberg’s worst film. It’s certainly one of the worst films of 2012.

Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is a mega-millionaire currency trader. He’s got so much money he wants to outrightly buy a church just because. We travel with Eric over the course of one day as he travels through New York City in his stretch limo. Along the way, he hosts a colorful array of characters and fears that his high-stakes wagers will be adding up. He becomes more and more self-destructive and looks for new and exciting ways to waste money, talent, and time.

I hesitate to even use the term “film” with Cosmopolis because it’s truly more of an endurance test in didactic, pretentious art house masturbation. The script is really a collection of self-indulgent scenes with very little to connect anything together. Each new scene feels like the movie is starting over. Worse, the dialogue is painfully elliptical, stilted, and monotone, reeking of pseudo intellectual intent, lingering in ambiguity like it’s poetic. It’s not, it’s irritating and obtuse and characters talk in circles without ever really saying anything. It’s the kind of dialogue that reminds me of a pompous student play, something where the particulars involved think they’re making Artistically Daring Statements about Things That Matter. It’s such a mannered way of speaking, so labored in its affectations and superficially drawn to the mistaken belief that obtuse and redundant equals philosophical and thought provoking. The only thoughts I was thinking were of the murderous variety. I felt so pained that I had to check the time and only eleven minutes had passed. It felt like I had spent three times that. I stuck it out for you, dear reader, but otherwise I would have bailed. Here are a handful of dialogue samples to give you an idea:

84058_gal“Why do they call them airports?”
“I have an asymmetrical prostate. What does that mean?”
“Try putting a stick of gum in your mouth and not chew it.”
“Where do limos go to spend the night?”

I feel like I’m even doing a disservice to calling the people onscreen characters. They’re really more just talking heads, mouthpieces for cluttered ideology.  The plot introduces new characters but they only last for a scene and then it’s time for someone new. This would be acceptable if it ever appeared that these interactions had any effect, positive or negative, on our protagonist. As it stands, it’s just a gloomy guy running into one meaningless encounter after another. Oh, and if that was the point of the whole exercise, then shoot me now. I literally cheered when the movie was over. Well, right after incredulously barking, “That’s it?”

Plot is another term, much like characters, that has next to no meaning for Cosmopolis. The plot is a wealthy guy who wants to get a haircut. Yes, that is the inciting incident. He stays in his limo as it slowly drifts down the bumper-to-bumper New York City traffic. He has encounters with people, sure, but mostly it’s the story of one man in his pursuit of a haircut. And you know what dear reader, spoilers be damned, but he gets that haircut too. The final half hour of the movie, almost a third of the whole running time, is spent with Paul Giamatti, an intense and angry man who wants to kill Eric. At least Giamatti’s performance kept me awake. The plot, much like the characters, is really a vehicle for the script’s ideas, so it becomes exasperating when the movie tries to pretend, at points, like now all of a sudden we should care about Eric and his journey. The ideas, as presented, are either on-the-nose or impenetrable. For every confusing conversation about death, you’ll get a leaden capitalism = rats metaphor.

92248_galPattinson (Breaking Dawn Part 2) seems like an apt choice as well as a craven marketing ploy for Cronenberg to get his weird arty movie greater exposure and financing. Pattinson gives a rather cold and detached performance, which I’m sure is also the point but it’s not exactly an outlet to showcase any potential range. I’m sure Pattinson leaped at the chance to work with Cronenberg, but he should have checked out his emotionally vacant character first. Oh I get it that Eric is a guy who seemingly has it all but now feels empty, and I get how it’s meant to be an analogue for the Wall Street set that’s hijacked our capitalism markets (rats!). I get it. It’s just lousy, and Pattinson could have been replaced with just about any young Hollywood hunk. The only enjoyable aspect of this whole movie, and this is simply a theoretical extension, is that plenty of diehard Twilight fans are going to watch this movie and be very very confused.

Cronenberg keeps us locked in that limo, at least for the first half of the film. We get to watch Eric host an array of guests. He gets serviced by a middle-aged woman (Juliette Binoche). He gets a prostate exam while conducting a meeting. He gets up-to-the-minute reports on the millions of dollars he’s hemorrhaging, and he doesn’t care. Money has lost all known value when everything is given to you. Look, I can make vague, self-important statements too. I’ll credit Cronenberg with finding creative ways to play around within the confined space of the limo, making the film less hermetic than it by all means should be. However, bad green screen effect work really proves distracting, so that you’re given another reason to check out when characters drone on as they do.

Strictly put, this was not a story that needed to be turned into a movie. I’m sure DeLillo’s novella has its own weight and power, but the big-screen adaptation of Cosmopolis is all flaccid pontification, empty verbal masturbation, and crushing dead weight. It was a Herculean effort for me to watch this meandering movie to the end and I know I can’t be alone in this regard. If only the characters were really characters, or the plot had any minute sense of momentum, or that the dialogue was less purposely obtuse, or if the movie felt like it was at least going somewhere or had some small recognizable shred of purpose. I won’t go as far to say that you should be worried if any of your friends gushes to you about how great this movie is, but you should probably keep an eye on them or see if they bumped their head. This movie is more like an insufferable lecture by the most boring people who confuse cerebral with impenetrable. If you’re not going to supply me any significant means of entry to engage with your art, then I’ll just go play with somebody else. Cosmopolis feels like the worst and most pretentious student film you’ll ever see. The rub is that a great director like Cronenberg made it.

Nate’s Grade: D

West of Memphis (2012)

west-of-memphis-posterThe West Memphis Three murder case gained substantial notoriety thanks to an HBO documentary team, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who were on hand in 1993 to document the trial in their film, Paradise Lost. Three eight-year-old boys (Michael Moore, Christopher Byers, Steven Branch) went missing one day in May in West Memphis, Arkansas. Their bodies were found the next day in a nearby creek. The boys had been hogtied and bore plenty of vicious marks, one of them having a severed penis. The horror shocked the small town and the blame landed on a trio of local teens (Jessie Miskelley, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols). Miskelley had confessed under police interrogation and so was tried separately, but all three were found guilty. Miskelley and Baldwin were given life in jail and Echols, the supposed ringleader, a teen who disliked authority and read about magic and demons, was given the death penalty.

In the years that followed, thanks to the exposure of the Paradise Lost films (a second was released in 2000 and a third in 2011), advocates flocked to the cause, belied by the overwhelming belief that the three convicted had been unfairly railroaded. Celebrities spoke out and got involved, chief among them Lord of the Rings filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. They began communicating with Echols and his wife, Lori, and personally bankrolled a new team of forensic experts to amass new evidence that could allow for a potential appeal. Jackson even hired Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) to helm her own documentary, West of Memphis.

11979797-largeDenied at most turns by the same flat-footed officials, the West Memphis Three struck a deal with the Arkansas attorney general in August 2011. The three would be granted freedom if they agreed to an Alford Plea, a rare legal circumstance where a defendant can plead guilty while still maintain their innocence. Eighteen years later the West Memphis Three are free but there are still many questions that need to be answered, mostly involving the conduct of officials involved in the case and the identity of the real killer.

As an ardent follower of the case, as well as the three previous documentaries by Berlinger and Sinofsky, I was concerned that West of Memphis would be more or less a rehash of what has already been covered in earlier, better movies, and to some degree it is. When you’re the fourth documentary to the table, there’s going to be some repetition. Berg’s film serves as a nice introduction to the case for newcomers and provides a diligent overview of the main facets of the murder case. There are a few finer points that Berg’s film spends more time illuminating that I think are worth mentioning. The first is extensively laying out why Miskelley’s confession was coerced. The teen, whose mental faculties are low, was locked away in police custody, without a parent or lawyer, for most of a day, with only a scant portion recorded. On these recordings, Berg clearly points out, with the assistance from some expert talking heads, how police officials guided Miskelley into the statement they wanted to hear. It’s pretty damming stuff to hear and a clear-cut case of a coerced confession.

What West of Memphis does best is narrow its focus to police and prosecutorial misconduct, picking apart the evidence that put two men away for life and one on death row. The fact that the prosecution used Damien’s own teenage poetry against him, evidence that might simultaneously doom and embarrass us all, should speak volumes. This was a case where the only thing tying the defendants to the crime scene was Miskelley’s false confession and the flimsy idea that the crime scene was a satanic ritual. Berg finds several of the prosecution witnesses who testified on the stand about how the three were involved in satanic practices, and in those new interviews each witness comes clean, admitting they were pressured by police or offered attractive deals to link the defendants to the satanic motive. Their recantations are satisfying to hear and, in journalistic lingo, a true get for Berg and her crew.

We expect our law enforcement officials to be just but mistakes will happen; however, in the event of those mistakes, we expect officials to try and correct them, to make things right. What West of Memphis shows is that the West Memphis officials dug down deeper in the face of compelling evidence, refusing to admit when they were so clearly wrong. In the years after the case and following the Berlinger and Sinofsky films, there have been renewed efforts to revisit the physical evidence of the case. To a fault, every professional profiler, including one guy who was there at the founding of the FBI, concluded that the crime had nothing to do with Satanism or the occult. They also concluded that most of the wounds, argued by prosecutors to be responsible by a serrated knife found in a lake behind Baldwin’s family mobile home (a knife the prosecution expressly knew Baldwin’s mother admitted to hurling in that lake a year prior to the case), were in fact made post-mortem by local scavenging animals, mainly large turtles with snapping jaws. There’s a reason that the wounds aren’t bloodier. It’s because the victims were already dead.

1682107-poster-1280-west-of-memphis-aims-to-give-a-hearing-for-justice-that-never-wasBut the most enlightening piece of evidence is what was found thanks to DNA, namely nothing. On not one single piece of evidence or anything relating to the victims was one scrap of DNA linked to Baldwin, Misskelley, or Echols. Seems rather open and shut, doesn’t it? Except Judge David Burnett, the same judge who presided over the original case, dismissed the reams of new physical evidence and rejected the motion for an appeal. It got to the point where, at the Arkansas Supreme Court, the state was arguing that the only new evidence that should be considered when granting appeals is evidence that points to guilt. The state argued, to the disbelief of the court justices, that new evidence that could overturn (wrongful) convictions should be disallowed. Fortunately, the Arkansas Supreme Court rejected this motion unanimously. It’s quite clear that law enforcement officials sought to save face rather than enact justice.

Another aspect that Berg’s film does better is illuminating another suspect the police have ignored for 18 years, Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Steven Branch. The movie devotes a solid 45 minutes on the subject, painting a convincing portrait of a suspect with long ties to abuse, anger, lies, and manipulation. A hair of Hobbs, matching his DNA exactly, was found tied into the knot of one of the bound boys. Weirdly enough, Terry Hobbs sued Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines for defamation, which fortuitously provided an opportunity to question Hobbs with the full penalty of the law behind them. Under oath, his story crumbles and his alibi at the time proves to have a sizable a gap, a period where the boys were killed according to medical reports.

Clearly Terry Hobbs is a compelling suspect though I wish the movie didn’t feel the need to resort to superficial assertions concerning how he “behaves guilty,” like his lack of emotion concerned the case. Questioning why he waited over two hours to tell his wife that their son was missing is a fair line of inquiry. Questioning his history of spousal abuse and violent run-ins is fair. Questioning why he isn’t more outwardly bereaved is not. It’s the same prejudicial judgments made against Damien when he was being tried, the idea that he just wasn’t acting like an innocent man (to be fair, Damien was also a moody teen at the time). Berlinger and Sinofsky are guilty of this as well, devoting a disproportionate amount of Paradise Lost 2 to pointing a suspicious eye toward John Mark Byers, stepfather of Christopher Byers, and a theatrical, larger-than-life figure. At least with Paradise Lost 3, the filmmakers make amends, and there’s a nice scene where Byers apologizes to Echols. This guilt-by-superficial-judgment is a dubious line of accusation that Berg and her film should rise above (just the facts, ma’am).

From there, though, I started feeling like West of Memphis is best served as a complimentary film to be paired with the altogether superior Paradise Lost documentaries. There is something to be said for Berlinger and Sinofsky being on the ground from the get-go, having unprecedented access to the victims’ families, the families of the accused, the attorneys on both sides, and the accused themselves. Naturally over three films you get a much stronger sense of the nuances of the case, but Berlinger and Sinofsky also gave you a much stronger sense of the community and the full context of the crimes. I was bothered at how often Berg’s film eschews direct on-camera interviews with Miskelley and Baldwin. Late in the film, as the movie explores Baldwin’s hesitancy to admit guilt for a chance at freedom, a friend recounts her phone conversations with Baldwin on the tricky subject. Why isn’t Baldwin himself on camera talking about this rather than a friend relaying her conversations with the man? Throughout the film, when it concerns the accused, the movie feels oddly removed from the source (Damien and his wife are credited as producers for the doc). It’s got plenty of talking heads and famous celebrities on camera but I’d rather hear from those directly involved. It’s just another reminder of the access and relationships that were formed through the Paradise Lost films. You’ll get a good overview of the fascinating and horrifying case with this movie, but to get a better understanding of the people involved, reference the meatier Berlinger and Sinofsky films.

west-of-memphis-3-movie-2012-damien-echols-jason-baldwinBy the end, even after 18 years in prison, it’s remarkable and inspiring how free of bitterness the three men are. They still have to live with the guilty verdicts but they are free, and rather than dwell on what was taken from them, the men are thankful for their freedoms and thankful for the diligence of the people who believed in their innocence, who fought long and hard so the day would come when they three of them would be set free. Berg’s film even dedicates its last moments to those advocates and their efforts, saying that their involvement made all the difference. This is an example where a movie literally saved somebody’s life. Without the exposure of the Paradise Lost, it’s very likely Echols would have remained on death row and been executed. On a personal note, this was the final moment that got me to cry (there were a couple others that made me teary). It’s because of the shared happiness and accomplishments of helping, in whatever small way, three innocent men get their long overdue freedom. I won’t overstate my involvement, but I was there, writing letters, sending in donations, advocating, since 1999. I have never been happier to retire a T-shirt than with my “Free the West Memphis Three” shirt (I wore it one last time to watch this movie). The forward-thinking, gracious attitudes of Baldwin, Miskelley, and Echols are inspiring, and it even inspired me to seize the moment myself rather than remain passive in a personal relationship.

Coming in after a trilogy of other extensive documentaries, West of Memphis can’t help but feel a little late to the party. Its strengths lie in deconstructing the prosecution’s case and assembling new interviews where key witnesses have an opportunity to come clean and recant. Otherwise, it’s like listening to another singer perform a song you’re already familiar with. The case is so deeply troubling and morbidly fascinating that there’s definitely room for four movies on the topic and then some; Atom Egoyan has filmed a movie based upon journalist Mara Leveritt’s book on the case, Devil’s Knot (starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth too). It’s easy to become immersed in this case; I know I have over the years. It all came down to a police force pressured to find a killer and three teens that were different in a small town. There are many tragedies tied to this case. The three boys who were gruesomely murdered. The three men who were wrongly convicted and lost 18 years of their lives. And since the West Memphis Three plead guilty, it means that the police can officially close the case, allowing the real killer to continue to walk free and unpunished. That should trouble every single person. West of Memphis is a gripping and thought-provoking documentary, though I think it’s best viewed as a supplement or introduction to the superior Berlinger and Sinofsky films.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Amour (2012)

1940No other foreign film in 2012 racked up as many awards as Amour, a.k.a. Love, by Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke. It’s a love story but it shows the end of that love story, the part where the happily ever after meets the uncomfortable reality we must all eventually face. So, essentially, Haneke has crafted a horror film about getting old (this can happen to you, youngsters!). It’s a hard film to watch, though for me not just because of the subject matter but also because of the maddening ways that Haneke chooses to tell his art-house tales of woe.

Anne (Emannuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) are an 80-year-old married couple living in Paris. They are both retired musical teachers, they go about their days together, enjoying one another’s companionship. Then Anne suffers a stroke and starts slipping into senility. Her condition worsens and Georges tries to care for her increasing needs himself, buoyed by her fleeting moments where it seems like her normal self returns. But there’s only one way this story can end, and George must come to terms with letting go of his life’s love.

96128_galI will probably come across like a heartless bastard but that is the risk I’m willing to take; I found this movie to be rather boring and was, after an hour, just waiting for Anne to die so that the movie would likewise be at a merciful end. I’m just not a Haneke fan. I didn’t like Cache, I didn’t like (both) Funny Games, and I didn’t like The White Ribbon. In fact, while watching Amour I was reminded of all the reasons I dislike Haneke’s style. There was a sequence where a character leaves a room, but rather than follow that character or cut, the camera holds on the scene for an extended period of time, like 40 seconds, until the actor returns. I said, “Oh, I just remember he did the same thing in The White Ribbon, and I hated it then and I hate it now.” Want to watch an old man chase after a pigeon for five minutes? Oh, I get it, the pigeon is a metaphor, but did I need five minutes of it? I find Haneke’s sense of storytelling to be so glacial and, mostly, a spiral of kamikaze nihilism that’s usually distasteful. He’s such a cold filmmaker and the idea of him handling a “love story” seems dubious. It’s hard to watch a Haneke film and feel good about it. And that’s fine, the world needs downer filmmakers who will tackle serious subjects, but this guy is just not for me. With that said, take everything I recount in my review and analysis with a measure of consideration.

I know my power of empathy is alive and well, so I have to stop and run a diagnostic examination as to why I found it hard to really engage with this movie. I’m sure part of it is my relative youth in comparison to the onscreen couple. Death is still a mostly abstract concept I choose to be blissfully ignorant over. But that can’t be fully it. I went through a similar experience helping to care for my 91-year-old grandmother when she died (she lived with my parents for years before her eventual passing). It’s not the same as losing a spouse, naturally, but I do have a relatable entry point. Maybe it was the acting, which was free of any sort of showy actorly tricks we may expect from people reaching the big end. Death scenes have long been a staple of overacting, but underplaying it can also rob the movie of worthy emotional opportunities, and with an artist like Haneke, you may not get many more opportunities to soak up. While I had heard raves about Riva, and make no mistake she is quite good, I cannot help but think, “Yeah… but….” She’s quite convincing at showing the frailty of aging but she’s also practically comatose for half of the movie (I know I’m a Jennifer Lawrence homer, but glad she won the Oscar). And then Haneke tries to get clever with his ending, especially since he had been so straightforward for the previous two hours. The ending, a possible point of confusion, doesn’t feel like it fits the exacting, grounded reality I just barely stayed awake for.

96131_galAmour is really less about Anne, the one slowly dying, as it is Georges coming to terms with his own selfishness, prolonging his love’s life after the point of dignity and mercy. It’s about how he comes to terms with the reality that he cannot care for his beloved, that she is too much of a burden, and that she ultimately wants to die and will fight her husband to achieve this wish. Again, this is an extremely dramatic storyline that could have developed some monstrously powerful examinations about end-of-life care. Sadly, I just didn’t, well, care too much. The relationship between Anne and Georges is very thinly realized onscreen. I’m sorry but I hate it when a character is afflicted so early in a story and that affliction becomes the stand-in for what should be proper characterization. All I know about Anne is her deteriorating condition. I don’t know about her life, her personality, her relationship with her husband before senility sets in. I’m just supposed to automatically feel for her because she’s old and suffered a stroke and her husband really cares a lot. Haneke’s storytelling has not done an adequate job to involve me. The actors, both quite good, can only do so much. There’s a reason that Hollywood has its heroines start the Cough That Symbolizes Terminal Illness when we hit the third act because by that time we’ve gotten to know them and care about their ultimate plight.

Now, Amour goes about its death business in a very sensitive but unsentimental way, which has and will likely emotionally devastate many a viewer. There are serious and hard discussions the movie gives adequate attention to, like how far can one spouse cope with care, when does holding on serve as a detriment, breaking the news to heartsick family members that your loved one isn’t getting any better, coming to terms with the inevitable, the tricky debate about what comes next as far as inheritances, and whether the person who is suffering should have a say in their care or lack thereof. It’s refreshing that serious decisions are given serious consideration, but like everything else, Haneke drags these out to great lengths that I stopped caring.

I find Haneke to be an outrageously overrated filmmaker of clinical coldness and occasional contempt. Just watch Funny Games to see what the man’s opinion is for most movie audiences lapping up your rote thrillers. Better yet, if you’re like me, don’t see Funny Games, and don’t see The White Ribbon, and don’t see Amour. I fully acknowledge I’m out on a critical limb here, cherishing my minority status, but I found this Oscar-winning film to be painfully ponderous and emotionally closed off. I’m happy people can watch Amour and see a great, tragic, affecting love story, because I don’t see it. The actors do fine jobs but the characterization is weak, relying upon circumstance and affliction in place of characterization. Maybe, and this is just a harebrained theory, but maybe Haneke dragged his movie out so long to symbolize Georges’ journey, so that we too, the audience, felt like when the end came it was a relief. I know for me, it did. Whatever Haneke does next, you can count me out. I’m done with the guy. After all, life’s too short to endure more plodding Haneke films.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Watch (2012)

1811If scientists could take time away from, you know, curing diseases, and craft the perfect blend of “meh” in a lab, it would be The Watch. It’s not particularly offensive or terrible but it’s certainly not good. The humor of boys misbehaving and talking tough doesn’t ever seem to get further than the initial concept. The movie ends up becoming a more crass version of Ghostbusters, with a special fascination for the male member. This is a very penis-obsessive movie. Usually guy-centric sex raunchy comedies will definitely feature strong discussion/comedy revolving around male genitalia, but this is one of the few movies where complete storylines hinge upon penises (weird imagery, I’ll admit). Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill are more annoying than anything else. Poor Rosemarie DeWitt as the underwritten wife role in what is essentially a boys-behaving-badly movie (also her second 2012 movie where she’s trying to get pregnant). When the movie goes full-force into action mode, it loses just about any semblance of comedy. I laughed about three times, and that was thanks to Richard Ayoade (TV’s The IT Crowd) and, believe it or not, Will Forte (MacGruber). Sitting through 105 minutes with little laughs, irritating characters, and poorly conceived action in place of genuine comedic payoffs, well it’s not exactly a recipe for a successful summer comedy. And yet, with all its obvious faults, I couldn’t hate the movie as others have. It’s certainly not likeable but it does go about its business with a certain swagger, albeit misguided. Cocky loudmouths failing at entertainment are still marginally better than artists who don’t even try. It sounds like I’m reaching, and I am, but The Watch, certainly a bad comedy, may eventually be worth a watch when, you know, it’s on TV and you can half-heartedly pay attention to it while you go about your day.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Pirates: Band of Misfits (2012)

1776Delightful from beginning to end, Aardman’s stop-motion animated caper Pirates: Band of Misfits is hands down the best animated film of the year. Its wry British humor is mixed with inspired slapstick and a child-like sense of folly as the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) and his motley crew try to prove themselves to their pirate peers. Then they run into Charles Darwin, discover their parrot is really the last remaining dodo, and have to face off against a double sword-wielding Queen Victoria. The imagination on display is remarkable. Even the puns are funny.  The pacing is swift, with gags flying so fast you’ll likely want a second viewing to catch them. The voice acting is spot-on and Grant anchors the film with his gleeful impulsivity. The story is simple but well executed and fun. I absolutely loved this movie. Its action sequences are well orchestrated, its comedic sensibilities are silly but often satisfying (a monkey butler who speaks in pre-written cards, a member of the crew that is merely a fish with a pirate hate on), it’s self-aware without being too self-conscious, and the animation is wonderful. There’s something about stop-motion that other animations cannot replicate, a physicality to its world that can make it so rich and immersive in the right hands. Kids will miss the references to, among others, Darwin, Jane Austen, and John Merrick, but adults will appreciate the nods.  Pirates: Band of Misfits is a wildly entertaining family-friendly animated adventure that has it all.

Nate’s Grade: A

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