Wednesday, May 28, 2014

SOFT IN THE HEAD...



There is a startling scene in Nathan Silver’s Soft In The Head where Natalia, a reckless woman/child who causes trouble wherever she goes, looks at her reflection in a cracked compact mirror.  The effect of the crack distorts her face to where she looks like one of the garish women in a Willem De Kooning painting. It’s jolting, for we’ve suspected Natalia is a monster of sorts, the type of young woman who is destined to be a skid row casualty, but is still young enough to manipulate a few men here and there. In the cracked reflection, we get a glimpse of Natalia’s true self, or at the very least, a peek at her grotesque future.

When we first see Natalia she’s being smacked around by her boyfriend. She leaves him, but intends to go back at some point because she believes the reunion will be passionate. Love and self-destruction seem abutted in her mind.  After showing up drunk at the family home of her friend Hannah, Natalia wanders into the night, oblivious to the catcalls from street people who mock her.  She intends to spend the night on the sidewalk, until she meets Maury, a well-meaning fellow who has turned his home into a sanctuary for derelicts. Maury invites Natalia over for dinner where she sits among men seemingly plucked from a touring production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.  Natalia isn’t intimidated, though. She’s in her element, letting a bunch of homeless men fawn over her.

Even at her lowest, Natalia’s able to work her way into the hearts of vulnerable males, including Hannah’s shy brother Nathan.  He’s so smitten by her that he steals one of his mother’s necklaces for her, which sets off a major row in his very old-fashioned Jewish household. Nathan’s parents seem a bit thick – their son can barely dress himself or hold a conversation (Natalia describes him at one point as “mildly autistic…like a baby…”) but they spend an entire scene badgering him to meet a nice girl and give them some grandchildren.  When he announces that Natalia has won his heart, their shock is off the charts.

Some observers have already compared Soft In The Head to the films of John Cassavetes, but the comparison works at only the most superficial level. Cassavetes’ casts were headed by highly charismatic Hollywood actors – Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, etc. Soft In The Head has no such glossy veneer, being made up of unknown New York actors who often look like they’re reaching, trying to be “real,” but also struggling to be amusing.  Silver, to his credit, allows his actors plenty of room for a kind of realistic give and take, but his scenes can’t match one of Cassavetes’ high-wire acts.  Also, Silver’s not aiming for the kind of philosophical statements that gave Cassavetes’ films an ersatz profundity. Silver’s aiming at smaller targets, but even so, his scenes feel self-conscience, as if he’s a bit too in love with the idea of being a filmmaker.  Silver lets the camera linger on   Natalia while she combs her hair out of her face, or sucks at her crooked teeth; it’s rare in recent movies that a camera has so desperately adored a female subject, as if Silver, too, is under Natalia’s spell.  (Still, even with shots that go on too long, Silver brings the movie in at a tight 75 minutes, something Cassavetes could never do!)

Soft In The Head doesn’t remind me of Cassavetes as much as it reminds me of certain films, novels and plays of the 1960s (i.e. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Dutchman, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon). It was a genre with no name, but the distinctive trait was a melting pot of disparate characters (usually one African-American, a Jew, a war veteran, a hooker, a homosexual, an old man, and a hippie). They’d be thrown together, usually during a power failure or a housing shortage, or they’d be stuck in the same subway car.  Tempers would flair. The stories usually ended with a murder or a suicide, the remaining characters huddling together, waiting for the police.  Soft In The Head goes that way, too, but not in the way you might imagine.  

Silver ignores the usual narrative pattern we’d expect in a film like this one. He’s less interested in developing plots than in throwing some characters together to see what transpires. You can feel his love for these people, but this technique doesn’t allow the characters to take charge of the story. They have altercations that feel like acting class exercises, but nothing moves the plot forward. The sense we get is that the story is fidgeting, chasing its own tail. More, for instance, could have been done with Maury and his band of idiots. Where Silver really dropped the ball was in the storyline involving Natalia and Nathan.

Natalia and Nathan (their names even mirror each other) are two sides of the same person. Both are painfully immature, unable to stake out a spot in the adult world: one is homeless; the other still lives with his parents. Both could be described as soft in the head. Nathan is pure, knowing nothing of the weird games that go on between males and females, while Natalia, dense though she may be, has mastered those games. Nathan is horrified by Natalia’s revelation that she actually enjoys being abused, but just when that part of the story is gaining momentum, Silver lets it trail off…

Perhaps from a youthful flaunting of the rules, Silver shuffles the deck on us and gives us an ending that is unexpected, but also unengaging. He might have been better served if he’d chosen one of his plot strings and followed it to a conclusion, rather than floating from one plot to the next. Silver has some good instincts, though, and I’ll look forward to the day when he acquaints himself with the nuts and bolts of storytelling. As it is, Soft In The Head is a strangely intriguing work. It’s flawed, but unique. No one but Silver could have made it.

Sheila Etxeberría is believable as Natalia, bringing to the role a kind of ratty vulnerability.  There are some good turns by other actors, too, including  Ed Ryan as the enigmatic Maury, and Theodore Bouloukos as David, the most volatile of Maury’s guests. Carl Kranz, bless him, has an almost thankless role as Nathan. Here’s an isolated young guy who decorates his room with Woody Allen posters as if he’s searching for the right nebbish to model himself after, but instead of meeting Diane Keaton he meets Natalia.  Something tells me he’ll soon tear down Sleeper and replace it with The Blue Angel

Monday, May 26, 2014

THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN...



The Angriest Man in Brooklyn is an example of a movie that probably sounded good on paper but wasn't worth the effort.  This is a shame, because Robin Williams and Mila Kunis act their proverbial asses off.

It's directed by Phil Alden Robinson, who has worked only sporadically since he scored a surprise hit many years ago with Field of Dreams. I'm not sure why this particular project dragged him out of what was probably a cozy retirement, unless he felt it was "important" or "meaningful." It's neither. It's one of those "stop and smell the roses" movies, where a dying man tries to mend some old relationships. The gimmick is that this particular dying man has only 90 minutes left. Again, it probably sounded great at pitch meetings.

Williams plays Henry Altmann, a Brooklynite who spends his days in a state of perpetual road rage. When he complains of headaches, his doctor (Mila Kunis) informs him that he's suffered a brain aneurysm. It's a serious situation, but she's in a mood because her life isn't going well, and Altmann keeps yelling at her, demanding to know how much time he has left. She can't take his yelling so she blurts out that he has only 90 minutes. In a panic, Altmann starts racing around Brooklyn, trying to sew up some old problems before he suffers a final seizure. In a short time, he stops at the law firm where he works and has a cryptic conversation with his brother (Peter Dinklage); he speeds home and  learns that his wife is having an affair; he invites 25 old friends to meet him at a local deli for a farewell lunch (only one person shows up); and after making a video for his estranged son, he wanders out to the Brooklyn bridge from where he plans to jump. Meanwhile, Kunis races after him, to apologize, or get him to a hospital, or something.

What I want to know is this: Why, during one of the board meetings where movie ideas are discussed, didn't someone stop and ask, "He does all of this in Brooklyn?" No one gets around quickly in Brooklyn. In this movie, people hail cabs with ease, where in the Brooklyn that I know, it can sometimes take 90 minutes just to hail a cab. The Brooklyn of this movie is also shockingly clean, as if it had been vacuumed before filming began. It's a Brooklyn of opulence, where middle class people live in over-sized sprawling apartments that no one could afford. Even when Altmann stumbles across a group of homeless people, they seem pretty well organized, and not too unhappy. They're even handy with video equipment. And how Kunis' character could make such an irresponsible gesture as to tell a man he has only 90 minutes to live boggles the mind.

Still, the actors try to elevate this movie with shear brio. Williams has always been excellent in serious roles, and he's excellent here. That is, when the script allows him to be excellent. The script occasionally indulges in poor taste, such as when Altmann, pressed for time, runs into a camera store to buy a recorder. James Earl Jones is the proprietor, and in one of the cheapest jokes of the year, Jones stutters, meaning Altmann has to wait a few seconds longer than he wants. The stuttering gag goes on and on  until Altmann starts mocking Jones. Jones, in turn, stutters his way into saying "Fuck you." It's not funny. (Jones, incidentally, is a real life stutterer who has told many touching stories about overcoming his affliction.)

Williams is a whirlwind of profanity as Altmann, but after a half hour the cursing begins to feel empty. Williams is more effective when he reaches the point where words cannot express his feelings, and he can only close his eyes and turn red.  Also, since Williams is playing man of intelligence and wit, the cursing feels forced. Excessive swearing and street talk is for the ignorant and impotent. I can understand Altmann feeling helpless in the face of impending death, but the swearing feels too much like the work of a screenwriter who can think of no other way to express anger.

Even Kunis gets into the act, at one point kicking a cab driver in the stomach and using a common vulgarity. Perhaps actors feel liberated when they receive a script full of cursing, or perhaps they know they'll get a few cheap, unearned laughs. ("Look at little Mila Kunis, swearing up a storm!") There's also a ridiculous scene where Louis C.K., as another doctor, humps Kunis in a hospital storage room. Since Kunis served as one of the movie's executive producers, she must have thought that all the swearing and humping would be a nice break for her. She tries, though, and even though Kunis occasionally turns shrill, she's reasonably successful in her serious scenes.

I wonder how the movie would have played if it had been filmed in a seedier section of town, with the cheap laughs excised. There are also unneeded voice over narrations by Williams and Kunis, describing how their characters felt. Cut those, too. Cut anything that is not in service to the story. Then again, I'm not sure that the makers of this movie knew exactly what they wanted to say. It's allegedly based on another screenplay, something called 'The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum" by Assi Dayan, an actor/writer/director from Israel. It was Americanized by Daniel Taplitz, who has worked almost exclusively in television, which might explain the rampant cursing in the film. Tell a man he's writing for the big screen, and the vulgarities come spewing out. In fact, the last two words of the screenplay are "Fuck you," which I would like to say to Taplitz and Robinson.

The scene that could have been a movie in itself takes place at the deli. Altmann has invited 25 old friends to meet him, but only one arrives, an oafish character played by Richard Kind. The two men sit awkwardly and engage in some small talk. Kind eventually brings up an old hurt from the past, something about Altmann stealing one of is girlfriends in high school. Altmann doesn't even remember it. I could have used 90 minutes of this scene. It played like something from Edward Albee, full of tension and weirdness. Instead, Williams and Kind start swearing at each other, and Williams storms out. Kind stays behind, stuffing his face. Robinson and Taplitz may have wanted to make a movie that said something about life and death, but they think so little of the modern movie audience that they peppered it with vulgar language and fat guys chewing with their mouths open. What a shame.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

COLD IN JULY...




I collected comic books when I was a kid. I remember being thrilled one summer when my aunt Carla returned from a trip to Brazil with an armful of South American comics for me. I  remember them being garish, gaudy things, bursting with vibrant color. Jim Mickle's Cold in July reminded me of those South American comics, for cinematographer Ryan Samul shoots this Texas crime thriller with enough fiery yellows and piss greens that the effect is like stepping into the gaudiest of post cards. It's a masterpiece of photography, with light hitting characters in unexpected ways. A man steps into a shadow, for instance, and rather than going into darkness, he turns a pale blue. Granted, such effects aren't new,  but Samul shoots with such joy and relentless ingenuity that the picture owes its life to him. 

Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, an unimposing frame shop owner who wakes up one night to hear an intruder in his home. Dane wanders into his dark living room with a pistol and kills the burglar, who turns out to be the son of a sinister ex-convict named Russell (Sam Shepard).  From this starting point, the movie turns into a sort of Cape Fear knockoff as Russell stalks the Dane household. Russell is caught by the police, but just when it seems the story is being resolved, Dane visits the police station and sees a wanted poster for the fellow who had broken into his home. To his shock, the man on the poster doesn't resemble the man he killed. Later, Dane happens across an ugly scene on a railroad track where local cops are pummeling Russell and leaving him to die under an approaching train. Dane rescues Russell, and they gradually realize they've been involved in a setup. 

The remainder of the movie, which is based on a story by pulp novelist Joe R. Lansdale,  takes Dane and Russell into a nasty underworld of corrupt officials, the Dixie Mafia, pig farmers, snuff films, and perverts. There's plenty of violence, a lot of macho posturing, and enough blood on the walls to satisfy a certain type of movie lover. It packs a wallop.

It isn't perfect by any means. Mickle has a taste for cliches, everything from the good guys walking in slow motion, their rifles resting on their shoulders, to unfunny banter that would be better suited to a cheap buddy picture.  The world of snuff films, as depicted here, also seems highly unlikely.  Not only are the films ridiculous - we see a clip of one where an unsuspecting woman is beaten to death with a baseball bat - but one of the movie's goons simply travels around with a bunch of snuff tapes in the trunk of his car. Also, the makers of the snuff films run a  video rental store as a front for their activities, which also seems highly unlikely. Maybe all of those now defunct Blockbuster stores used to have a secret room full of snuff titles, but I doubt it.

Lansdale is known for novels that are excessively violent but seasoned with redneck humor and heavy doses of stoic male bonding. I'm not familiar with the novel this movie is based on, but I've read some of Lansdale's other stories. In Lansdale's world, men who kill together bond in ways that us non-killers can't fathom, and your best pal might emphasize a point by sticking a gun barrel in your ear. The villains in a Lansdale book are usually involved in horrid, modern crimes (like snuff movies), but are so cartoonish they may as well wear handlebar mustaches and black stetsons. It can be a bit much, but one accepts it as the world Lansdale creates. 

The movie touches on a lot of Lansdale's fetishes, including bright red Cadillacs with horn racks, Texas kitsch, lonesome roadside diners, and of course, drive-ins. In a scene that feels alarmingly arbitrary, Dane and Russell meet a private eye (Don Johnson) at a drive-in theater that happens to be showing Night of the Living Dead.  As they discuss their plans, they munch popcorn and watch the zombies. Was there a reason for them to meet there, other than Lansdale's passion for drive-ins? Still, Mickle is loyal to Lansdale's vision, and maintains Lansdale's occasionally broad humor without veering too far from the dramatic. I especially liked how a fight between Johnson and a giant Mexican thug started out as slapstick but quickly turned into horrific violence. This is smart because too much comedy wouldn't support the movie's grim climax.

Hall overplays the guilt after killing the intruder, but becomes more watchable as the movie progresses. Johnson is acceptable as the pig farmer turned private eye, playing the sort of lovable dirtbag he's played many times. Lansdale's cult of readers will recognize in Johnson an archetype from his novels, the crusty good ol' boy who complains about being called to action, but is pretty handy when it's time to cut someone's throat.  Still, it's Sam Shepard who walks away with the movie.

Shepard is outstanding as Russell. He's menacing early on, but gradually reveals more depth to his character until he nearly breaks your heart.  He may be the ultimate Lansdale actor, leaking lines of dialog from the corner of his mouth, never breaking a sweat, brutish on the outside but hurting on the inside. Shepard is primarily a writer who only acts as a side gig, which makes his performance here all the more fascinating. As a playwright, Shepard has often written about estranged fathers and sons, which could be what attracted him to the character of Russell, a man who hasn't seen his son in years. Shepard has been one of our most reliable character actors for nearly four decades, but this is his  best work since he played Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.   
 

Friday, May 23, 2014

THE BIG HOUSE...




The cataclysmic prison riot near the end of The Big House (1930) reaches such a fevered pitch that army tanks are called in to combat the inmates.  The tanks roll into the prison yard like armor-plated creatures,   and then, unexpectedly,   start rolling towards the screen, towards the viewer. What did movie audiences think in 1930 as these shiny, black, menacing machines moved towards them?  By the riot's end, a single tank crashes through a wall, its main gun slowly swiveling, as sinister anything in H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.  It’s impressive even now, watching on an Acer laptop in 2014. What was it like in one of the vaunted movie palaces of yesteryear?  Did audiences cheer because the army was going to save the day? Or was there some fear, too, fear that the machines were coming not just for criminals, but for everybody…

The Big House, now available on DVD as part of the Warner Bros Archive Collection, was a spectacular success for MGM, and ushered in the prison movie as a viable genre.  Films had been set in prisons before, but it was The Big House that established the characters and themes that would mark the genre forever (ie. the scared new guy, the crusty lifers, the conniving weasel, the kindly old guard, the dour but ineffectual warden, the inevitable jail break, etc.).  The film was also a marked contrast to the slick films made by MGM at the time, causing Chester B. Bahn of the Syracuse Herald to write that this "stark tragedy" was "so horrible, so devastating, that you don't want to think about it, don't want to talk about it."



Although prison movies weren't churned out the way westerns and horror movies were during the 1930s, the subject undoubtedly had legs.  We still see prison movies today, as well as TV shows (of both the scripted and “non-scripted” variety). But every prison movie or show we see now has something of The Big House in its DNA.  The Big House did it first, and I’m not sure if any modern prison movies have done it any better.  More explicit, perhaps, but not better. 


For one thing, The Big House was unabashedly artsy. Directed by George Hill with photography by Harold Wenstrom, the film is framed by rich, deep blacks that gave the atmosphere a harder edge than most black and white films of the day. A more accurate description of the film would be “black & grey,” for there isn’t much white in it.  Grey is the color of the prison uniform, and grey is the color of the detainees’ pasty complexions. The prison is a murky place, and when a con is being marched into the “dungeon” to serve some time in solitary, it’s as if he’s being marched into the very wings of Hell. 

The opening scene follows a truck filled with new prisoners as it approaches the monolithic, unnamed building. There’s something about the scene that looks like an illustration come to life, especially when the prisoners step out of the truck and appear incredibly tiny as they march into the prison. Kent (Robert Montgomery) is a newbie, sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter after killing a man in a car accident. He’s thrown into a cramped cell with two legitimately bad men, Butch (Wallace Beery) and Morgan (Chester Morris). One of the warden’s aids laments that a young kid doesn’t stand a chance in a cell with such hard cases, to which the warden agrees that overcrowding and idleness are the banes of the prison system. Kent’s journey through prison life, though, is only part of the story. The film's greatness comes from the interplay between Butch and Morgan, for they are two hardened criminals who lean on each other to get through their dreary days.




Butch is downright sadistic, the sort of brute who harasses people only to back off and say, “I was only kidding.” He’s allegedly murdered several people, including a few of his past girlfriends, but one never knows if he’s serious or not. He also lets his temperament get the best of him, even turning on his buddy Morgan more than once during the film. Morgan, meanwhile, falls for Kent’s sister (Leila Hyams) when he spots her during visiting hours.  


The film works best when it focuses on the convict's daily grind. Prisoners amuse themselves with cockroach races, cruel pranks, and reading each other’s letters from home. One exceptional scene involves Butch, who can’t read, asking Morgan to read a recent piece of mail, which turns out to be a note confirming the death of Butch’s mother.  For a moment we see Butch show some emotion, but he’s also resigned to the fact that there’s nothing he can do. Then there’s the disturbing night when Morgan and Butch both end up in solitary. The scene is chilling, for while Butch and Morgan try to have a conversation through their walls, their dialog is drowned out by the increasingly loud screams of other prisoners who have clearly gone insane.  


Art director Cedric Gibbons, an 11-time Oscar winner with such films to his credit as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Singing in the Rain (1952), combined with Hill and Wenstrom to create a prison environment that resembled something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). The prison walls are impossibly high, and the chow hall seems the size of a football stadium; when the cons are lined up for lunch, or marching in lockstep into the yard, there’s a direct echo of Lang’s dystopian, mechanized society.  The tableau of 3,000 or so men, shot from far away to demonstrate how their identities have been stripped, is repeated often in the film and is breathtaking each time.

There’d been some suspicion that MGM was creating a prison film to exploit the attention given to real life prison riots (some sources claim the film was inspired by the botched escape attempt of Albert "Danny" Daniels, a petty criminal who killed several people and then himself during the bloody Canon City Prison riot of Oct. 3, 1929), but Hill, as well as MGM's Irving Thalberg, were intent on making a "message picture" about the imperfect American prison system.  Glenn Frank, President of the University of Wisconsin and a proponent of prison reform, wrote an effusive editorial praising the film as "one of the triumphs of the talking screen." For a time in the 1930s, the film was even shown in urban schools to give city kids an idea of what might lay ahead if they chose a life of crime, a precursor to the infamous ‘Scared Straight!’ documentary that would come decades later.

The Big House also marked turning points for its two leads, Beery and Morris. Beery had been a second banana during the silent era, and his place in the new sound era was uncertain. As the mercurial Butch (a role originally meant for Lon Chaney) Beery provides the film with a crazy pulse, chilling one moment, likable the next.  Growling his lines, pushing his way through crowds like a dinosaur emerging from a tar pit, Beery is absolutely magnetic.  Perhaps he knew his career was at a crossroads and he had to fire on all cylinders for this role. Beery earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Big House, and within a year or two would be one of the highest paid actors in the business.  Morris, too, showed he was better than his past roles may have indicated. Usually cast as a heavy, Morris showed in The Big House that he could also be charming.  

The screenplay was written by MGM's dynamo, Frances Marion, whose work on The Big House would earn her an Academy Award for "Best Writing Achievement." (Martin Flavin and Joe Farnham are credited with "additional dialog," but there was no Oscar for that category!) Marion's effort to bring realism to the film is a story in itself. She visited San Quentin's dankest cell blocks for inspiration and had to withstand the condescending attitude of Warden James Hoolihan, who tried to intimidate her by inviting her to a hanging.

Marion  came away from San Quentin determined to capture the slamming cell doors and shuffling footsteps of the place (which went a long way toward Douglas Shearing’s Oscar for “Best Sound”). She also picked up on the prison vernacular during a tour of the prison kitchen and butcher shop. Marion found herself working closely with George Hill, which resulted in a romance and marriage. Ultimately, though, the marriage didn't stick, and neither did Marion's relationship with Hollywood. After another Oscar win for The Champ (1931), she worked less frequently until leaving the movie business in the early 1940s to write novels and plays. Marion famously complained that writing for film had become like "writing on the sand with the wind blowing."  

The Warner Archive two-disc set includes the Spanish and French language versions of The Big House. Before someone got the bright idea to include foreign language subtitles or dubbing, big studios such as MGM often shot films in multiple languages for overseas distribution.  This was done by filming scenes with an alternate cast simultaneously as the English speaking version, often at night. El Presidio,   the Spanish version of The Big House,   was directed by Ward Wing, an MGM journeyman writer/director who, according to some sources, had an uncredited hand in directing some scenes in The Big House. (For that matter, screenwriter Edgar Neville, who later made a career in Spanish cinema, is sometimes credited with co-directing El Presidio. If you ever needed proof that filmmaking is a collaborative art, just try figuring out the credits for these three movies.) 

The Spanish and French versions follow the same blueprint of The Big House, almost shot for shot (the crowd scenes are the same in each movie) but there are subtle differences.  The cast of El Presidio, for instance, play their roles with a more subdued, realistic style.  I’ll go so far as to say Tito Davison is actually superior to Montgomery as Kent, the youngster.  Montgomery does a little bit of scenery chewing, but Davison underplays his role, which works for the character.  I also liked the Spanish warden (Juan de Homs), who stands by stoically like the captain of a ship as the riot explodes all around him. 

In the key role of Butch, Juan De Landa plays a somewhat buffoonish character, laughing too loudly at his own jokes. When he leads the revolt at the film’s climax, however, we believe his class clown persona hides the dark mind of an ace criminal.  (Incidentally, the makeup department fitted De Landa with a nasty scar across his face, as if something was needed to darken his jolly demeanor.)


Silent film veteran Jaques Feyder was to direct the French version,   but was replaced mid production by Pal Fejos.   Révolte dans la Prison (1931) sees the unlikely casting of Charles Boyer as Morgan. Boyer could never be anything less than charismatic and suave, but he’s still believable as a convict, sauntering through the prison yard like a man with all the answers.  The French version also has a lighter ambience than the English and Spanish features. For instance, there’s a dwarf prisoner that the convicts carry around like a mascot, and the French actors seem to float through prison life with a shrug. The French dialog, as evidenced by the subtitles, is noticeably more verbose. The Spanish version, for example, has Butch say to Morgan during the riot, "Let me see your face so I can put a bullet in it." The French version, from Yves Mirande's interpretation of Marion's original screenplay, reads "Show me your face so I can put a slug between your horns," which probably wasn’t a line picked up by Marion during her tour of San Quentin.

As Butch, Andre Berley is imposing with his enormous belly, but he seems too old for the role (he was 50 at the time).  A scene where Butch has to carry Kent and hoist him up to a top bunk in their cell is shot and edited in a way that we don't actually see Berley do the lifting. I imagine Berley wasn't up to it, or that a dummy was used.  Even in the riot scenes, Berley lacks the sense of danger that makes Butch such a great character.  Then again, it’s unfair to compare him to Wallace Beery, for few could match Beery’s gloriously berserk performance.


Aside from the Spanish and French editions, there are no extras.  Still, this two-disc set from the Warner Archive is a fine tribute to the granddaddy of all prison flicks.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden...


The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden is the sort of hypnotic documentary that will be fun to stumble across on PBS some night in the future, when the wind is blowing outside and you've been left alone for the evening with nothing to do but enjoy a strange tale of love triangles and mysterious disappearances, with a bit of high seas adventure thrown in. 


The movie, directed by Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller, reaches back to 1929 when two misguided souls build a home on Floreana, a small, desolate island in the remote Galápagos archipelago, 575 miles west of Ecuador in the southern Pacific. Friedrich Ritter, a self-possessed follower of Nietzsche who imagined himself a philosopher of equal importance, and his fragile female companion Dore Strauch, left their respective spouses to live together on this island with no company aside from giant turtles and lizards.


Dore is too far into the relationship to see that Friedrich is nothing but a temperamental dilettante with a lot of quack theories about civilization.  He spends most of his time trying to build their home, and fashioning a shower out of a nearby stream -- he's handy for a Nietzche wannabe -- while she's left to play with her pet donkey, struggle with her multiple sclerosis, and write in her journal, which would later provide much of the movie's narrative. The home movie footage we see shows Dore in a steady decline. She's an attractive woman,  but within a few frames she seems dazed and unkempt. The harsh weather and boredom of island life wasn't good to her.


A second couple arrives on the island, the far more plebeian Heinz and Margret Wittmer. The Witmer's are so dull that even Dore, who craves human contact, is disappointed, dismissing Margret as a typical German "hausfrau." If the Witmers are bland, the next visitors to the island more than make up for them.


Eloise von Wagner Bosquet, a self-described baroness accompanied by two young gigolos, Robert and Rudolf,  hits the island like the proverbial hurricane. She introduces her two studs as the architect and engineer of what she imagines will be a grand hotel, perfect for wayward travelers who happen to be  575 miles west of Ecuador. That the trio end up living in filth doesn't seem to bother the giggling, bright-eyed baroness.  Shortly after her arrival, Eloise begins referring to herself as the island’s “empress,” and slaps together a sign written in lipstick welcoming her "friends."


Eloise's arrival sends the small island community into disarray. In time, the other islanders complain of hearing gun shots and loud screams coming from Eloise's place. Rudolph, the more subservient of the two gigolos, is soon exiled from the trio, and begins spending time with the Witmers. Eloise, perhaps the Satan of the title, toys with him, as she toyed with everyone. She even talks a visiting Captain into making a short movie from her own screenplay, with her in the lead role as a vampy pirate. The little film is amazing to watch 80 years later. Rudolph, fitted with a humiliating blond wig, is cast in the film as a woman. The vampish Eloise struts and preens for the camera, getting the male characters to do her bidding. She'd obviously spent some of her time on the mainland watching Theda Bara movies.

The story turns lurid when the baroness and one of her studs disappears from the island with no trace. A pair of  mysterious deaths follow. You'll have your own theories as to who did what to whom and why. I certainly had mine.

“The Galapagos Affair” is beautifully illustrated with photographs and vintage home movies, and enhanced by excerpts from diaries and journals. These islanders documented much of their daily lives, which was a boon for  Goldfine and Geller. (I particularly loved the old magazine and news clippings that made the baroness look like a whip-wielding vixon right out of Depression era pulp fiction.) The narrative, smartly patched together by the directors and screenwriter  Celeste Schaefer Snyder, is read by actors including Cate Blanchett (Dore Strauch), Sebastian Koch (Heinz Wittmer), Thomas Kretschmann (Friedrich Ritter), Diane Kruger (Margret Wittmer), Connie Nielsen (Baroness Eloise von Wagner), Josh Radnor (John Garth) and Gustaf Skarsgard (Rolf Blomberg). They do a marvelous job, particularly Blanchett as the forlorn Dore, and Nielsen as the dippy baroness.

Was Eloise really Satan? Was the island really Eden? I don't think so. Eloise and Friedrich had a lot in common, for he was no more a philosopher than she was an actual baroness. They'd both sought out territory where they could reinvent themselves and live out a fantasy. I think of them both as slightly spoiled, with an oversized sense of entitlement. As we learn from the movie, you can't entirely escape civilization, and you certainly can't escape yourself.

For the most part, the movie works, although it takes a bit too long to get to the cryptic stuff, and the drone of Laura Karpman's music made me feel sleepy. Interviews with surviving family members and island experts don't add much to the story, either. Still, it's a great story and an intriguing piece of history, right down to the curse of the giant tortoise, a strange island creature with the alleged ability to read one's worst thoughts. The turtle can put a curse on you if he thinks you're up to no good. Judging by the number of photos taken with islanders sitting on the poor animal's back, it's no wonder he cursed them.

 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO...




He sits in a barn pointing an old revolver to his head. He mutters a few words to God, wondering why his life has gone downhill this way. His cattle are gone, now his home has been taken over by a bank. He counts...1...2....3...but doesn't squeeze the trigger. Miffed at the difficulty of the task, he takes his hat off, as if that will make suicide easier.  Only a few actors could handle such a delicate scene. Robert Duvall can, and as Red Bovie in A Night In Old Mexico, he has about a dozen or so of these little moments, the sort that all actors crave but few can pull off.

Bovie isn't a nice guy. He has a big mouth and he's unpleasant. He tells his female real estate agent that the hair on her upper lip makes her look like Hitler. He snickers at his own jokes, as if we should know he's only kidding, but his barbs are sharp.  Bovie's wife left him many years ago, and he's never been married since. He hasn't seen his son in 40 years. We know why. Few could take Bovie in large doses.

Yet, we sympathize with him as he drives his red Cadillac to the trailer park where he is supposed to spend the remainder of his days. He sees the people who are to be his neighbors,  old, used up loners watering their patchy lawns and playing cards on metal tables. It's no wonder he peels out as fast as he can, burning rubber all the way to Mexico. "I want a woman," he says to his unbelieving grandson, Galley (Jeremy Irvine) a greenhorn from New York who has decided to come visit just as Red's life is collapsing.

The movie appears ready to become A Trip to Bountiful with Duvall in the Geraldine Page role, with perhaps a little bit of Zorba The Greek thrown in, with the aging wild man showing the insipid youngster how to live. It doesn't quite reach those heights, turning instead into a fairly routine movie about some bad guys who leave a stash of $150,000 in Red's car, and how he plans to use it to avoid the trailer park, only to lose it to another bad guy, and then another. There's probably more gun play than was needed, and some of William D Wittliff's story is a bit far-fetched, particularly when a beautiful young Mexican singer  (Angie Cepeda) appears to fall in love with Red after watching him trash a bar. Still,  director Emilio Aragon manages to make an average movie play better than average, thanks almost entirely to Duvall.

In a career that has featured at least a half dozen roles that could be termed the role of a lifetime, Duvall tackles cantankerous old Red Bovie as if he's still trying to impress somebody. He can still snarl lines of dialogue and make even duds sound funny, like when he mocks his grandson's boots as "dog pecker red." Watch the way he reacts to the news that someone close to him has died.  Watch how he tells the young Mexican girl that it might not be fun to have an old man around. If an actor's currency is honesty, the way he looks at her is a million dollar moment.

It's true that some of the cast around Duvall can't match his performance, but there are some good acting turns at the periphery of the story.  Journeyman character actor Joaquin Cosio, for instance, has some bright moments as a menacing bandit stalking Duvall and his party for the money. What makes Cosio so good here is that he goes from being dangerous to pathetic, all within a few scenes, for once he has the money he finds himself being stalked by Panama, another tough guy, played by the equally menacing Luis Tosar. Out on the street, Cosio had seemed every bit the cold-blooded Mexican killer.  Alone in his motel room with Panama, he's a desperate man clinging to his life. He's a good actor. I also liked James Parrack and James Hebert as a pair of thugs who are also after the money. Observers who have dismissed the film too easily because of what they've deemed a weak supporting cast were not paying attention to the villains.


Duvall served as an executive producer of the movie. He must have liked the character he plays, for at age 83, Duvall is probably very careful about how he invests his time. I can see why he liked Red. He gets to wave a gun around, and say some funny lines. He has a few scenes of high drama, a couple of spellbinding temper tantrums, and he gets to dance with a beautiful senorita. Red Bovie still has some embers burning. So does Duvall.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

GOD'S POCKET...




It would've been nice if Philip Seymour Hoffman had left behind a classic before he died, something to  make us mourn his talent once again. God's Pocket, which is sneaking unnoticed into theaters and various VOD services this month, is among the movies he had "in the can" before his death in February. It's not quite the farewell performance one hoped for, but it's not bad. As he often did, Hoffman rises above a mediocre movie. He also gives an indication of where his future as an actor might have taken him.

The movie, based on a novel by Pete Dexter, takes place in one of those downbeat urban neighborhoods where people are dumb and violent and proud of it. These neighborhoods often exist in movies, particularly in movies about Boston. This one takes place in a section of Philadelphia, but director John Slattery was born in Boston, so maybe that explains something. Hoffman plays Mickey Scarpato, a local mug whose lunatic step-son is killed by a co-worker at his construction job. Since Mickey's step-son was an ass, his co-workers cover up the incident and make it look like an accident.  A drunk journalist (Richard Jenkins) ventures into the neighborhood to write something about the incident, but the locals take offense at what he writes. He thinks he's paying homage to the downtrodden, but dirty drunks never like being described as dirty drunks.  

There are other little plot-lines along the way, but none are worth rehashing here. The characters have names like "Fat Pat" and "Smiling Jack" and they all drink too much and fight too much. Although the movie tries very hard to be tough and streetwise and mean, the overriding feeling is one of gross, misguided sentiment about a bunch of losers who have never strayed beyond their zip code. 

The first time we see Hoffman, he's humping his wife. It's quite a feat of physicality, for Hoffman is fatter than ever in this movie, and his movements look like they could shake the very walls of the city. I'm not sure why we needed this scene, unless it was to juxtapose against a latter scene when the journalist comes up impotent with a teenage news groupie. Slattery probably sees the denizens of this nasty little neighborhood as brimming with vitality, while the outsiders are old and decrepit. What better way to show this than to have Hoffman pawing away at his wife like an angry, half-blind walrus. When he's done, he rolls off of her and mumbles several declarations of love, which she's heard before. The wife is played by Christina Hendricks, a thin actress with a pointy face who is very good at playing the vapid, uneducated neighborhood gal who has never been anywhere or done anything, but thinks she knows more than you. 

Hoffman slouches around the movie, looking heavier and jowlier than usual, sporting a five-dollar haircut to make him look like one of the neighborhood fellows. He speaks in a deeper, slower voice than usual, affecting the kind of tough guy sound that Jack Nicholson used in films like Prizzi's Honor and Hoffa. Hoffman  sounds a little more convincing than Nicholson, but there's no joy in his acting.  In God's Pocket, he approximates a kind of world weariness that is correct for the part, but in doing so he inadvertently erases any signs of life from his character. He's supposed to be from outside the neighborhood, but there's no marked difference between him and the other slugs. Still, he's as watchable as ever, even when working at half-speed.

What Hoffman looked like to me in this movie was an actor  testing the waters, preparing for a future of playing older men. He'd always looked older than his biological age, and it seemed logical that he would start positioning himself to play older types. How, I wonder, did he see his future as an actor?  Did he envision himself playing a series of Archie Bunker type roles, heavyset living room monarchs mumbling bromides about life? His obituaries were full of comments about how acting drained him, and how playing tortured characters did a  number on him emotionally. I can imagine him seeking out lighter fare, which may have started with his turn as Art Howe in Moneyball a few years ago. That was a smallish role where he was in and out of the movie, but left a memorable image as a cranky, veteran baseball coach. I thought he was better there than in The Master, where he played a bloated, L.Ron Hubbard type. He was fine in The Master, but it was an easy role for him, mostly bluster and menace, like a Bond villain. At times he looked like an old prizefighter windmilling for the fans in the cheap seats. 

According to the IMDB, there will be a few more chances to see Hoffman at work. He had a TV pilot called 'Happyish,' under his belt, followed by a thriller based on a John le Carre novel, and a couple of installments of The Hunger Games franchise. After that, he's really gone.


Friday, May 16, 2014

NEW ON DVD: HER...



People once made movies about how computers were to be feared. Now, apparently, they will serve as our lovers, as we're shown in Her, Spike Jonze's critically acclaimed film of last year.

Filmmakers used to be war vets, and European expats on the run from Nazis. Naturally, they were suspicious of technology and how it could be used to possibly harm us. Nowadays, Hollywood is made up mostly of nerdy, effete types, so it's logical that our movie stars will be shown sleeping with their computers, cuddling them, and even getting into silly arguments with them.  Forty-five years ago, Her would have been a comedy starring Don Knotts, or a 'Twilight Zone' episode starring Burgess Meredith. Now it's a melancholy, self-important dirge starring Joaquin Phoenix. That its screenplay won Jonze an Academy Award is a sign that the nerds have gotten their revenge.

Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, whose comical name  seems stolen from an old Rod Serling teleplay  (Jonze may as well have named him Nicolas Nerdface). Twombly is a lonely man who works for a firm that composes "beautiful handwritten" letters for people too lazy or too stupid to write their own. He's very good at his job - his letters are full of love and passion and sentimental yearnings - but he's depressed. He's been separated from his wife for a year and is afraid to sign the divorce papers.  Twombly, who seems stuck in a traditional soon-to-be-divorced man limbo, buys a new operating system for his computer that will supposedly help him answer his email, wake him up on time, and ask how his day went. The OS is named Samantha, and voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Samantha is charming and funny, and it's not long before Twombly is smitten by her husky voice. (Casting Johansson was key to the movie's success. Imagine if Jonze had gone with Gary Busey?)

The story takes place in a rather bland LA of the future. There is a lot of glass, and very little smog, and even a schnook like Twombly lives in a large, lovely apartment (writing those letters must pay well.) There is no overcrowding, there seems to be room for everybody, and the general atmosphere is one of a spacious shopping mall. I saw no one over the age of 40 in Her,  as if the population was made up entirely of interns. There seems to be no television, either. Instead, people are constantly engaged in touch screen technology, so with all of the vacant stares and twitching fingers, everyone looks like a mental patient playing with his food. It's not an attractive future.   I also noticed that women's fashions haven't changed much, but men's pants are high-waisted again. At least Fred Mertz will be happy, and he can trade in Ethel for a computer.  Mustaches are back, too.

Twombly's self-esteem is so shot that he falls in love with Samantha. Although it's never explained to my satisfaction as to how Samantha could feel love, she loves him in return. They have simulated sex. They laugh and cry together. They fight. They make up. Man meets computer. Man loses computer. You know the drill. It's just like Annie Hall, except Annie is a computer.  Just as Annie outgrew Alvy Singer, Samantha outgrows Twombly. 

Maybe it wouldn't all be so hard to digest if it wasn't wrapped up in music and photography geared to make us feel we're watching an emotional epic for the ages. Also, if Samantha was smart enough to memorize 800 of Twombly's emails in a millisecond, she'd probably get tired of Twombly in, say, 20 minutes or so.

The other characters in the movie appear to be going through similar growing pains as Twombly. Some of them, it turns out, are in love with computers, too.  Although some are unhappy, they spout slogans of personal growth that sound like lines plucked from a dog-eared self-help book. They are all quite pleased with themselves for coming to these realizations. Even Samantha, who is probably the most likable character in the story, starts sounding like her dreary human counterparts. "Our past is just a story we keep telling ourselves," she says, sounding like a ditsy housewife whose weekend book club has just finished  The Road Less Traveled.

Phoenix, one of this era's most daring actors, elevates the movie somewhat with his performance.  He's exuberant in his "adventures" with Samantha, taking her to the beach, running through a shopping mall with her in his pocket, even introducing her to his friends.  Phoenix only falters when the movie falters, for not even an actor of Phoenix's caliber can rise above Jonze's claptrap.


Jonze is a heavy-handed director, and he's determined to tell us what to think each step of the way: Twombly feels bad and sits down in front of a giant screen display of a predatory owl coming at him, talons outstretched, as if Twombly is nothing but prey. The image is striking, but so obvious that it defeats itself. In another, Twombly senses something is wrong in his relationship with Samantha, and Jonze immediately cuts to a boiling tea kettle, whistling as if it's about to explode.

Such amateurish images are glaring in a movie that so desperately wants to be intelligent, but none are as bad as the repetitious scenes of Twombly gazing into the sky, his eyes moist, as Owen Pallet's mournful score plays in the background. These scenes take place throughout the movie, with Jonze positioning Twombly as a kind of iconic ubernerd, contemplating the mystery and immensity of life and love.  Director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema bails Jonze out with some beautiful skyscapes, and there's a kind of faded lushness to many of the scenes, but this faux LA never looks or breathes like a real world. It feels as sterile as an operating room, and just about as joyful.

Johansson received great acclaim for her voice work in Her, but her charm as a sexy actress made people forget the most basic flaw in the movie - computers do not feel anything. At various points in the Her I half-expected Samantha to finally tell Twombly "I'm a computer, you know, and I'm just putting on an act because I sensed you needed to be cheered up." But no, Jonze has us believe that Samantha is really feeling all of these emotions, and in much more profound and farreaching ways than us mere bags of blood can ever feel. Jonze, it seems, wants to satisfy the sci-fi geek's eternal mantra that computers are better than humans.

At times, Her reminded me of The Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, another film where a socially awkward dork pined for a ballbreaking woman, and relied on the comforts of new technology. The women in these movies are always hard and unforgiving, while the men are soft and overly sensitive. You can't even say that the gender roles have been reversed, for women in movies have never been as outright goofy and maudlin as the characters played by Phoenix and Jim Carrey. Jonze's screenplay, when not dragged down by soppy bromides and self-help gibberish, also slips in some subtle misogyny, in that women will eventually let you down, even the computerized ones. 

Twombly's ex-wife (Rooney Mara) is the only one who tells him he's a fool for falling in love with a computer, while everyone else thinks it's kind of cool and trendy. She's the voice of reason, but Jonze's story is so frightened of women that the voice of reason has to come from an angry shrew.  Amy Adams plays one of Twombly's female friends, and she's a dork, too. She designs video games, dresses like a slob, and, as we learn, is also in love with a computer. In other words, she's a dorky guy played by Amy Adams.

Twombly and Adams close out the movie by staring at the sky, their hearts having been broken by computers, their eyes moistening. This, I assume, is supposed to be a sign of hope.  Perhaps humans can learn to love each other again. Perhaps Twombly can grow up. Ray Bradbury, the great fantasist of the 20th century, would have made a nice 12 page story out of this. Despite the Oscar, Jonze is to Bradbury what Oprah Winfrey is to Edward R. Murrow.

There was a time when we imagined a future of flying cars. I'm glad that future never came, because our skies would look ridiculous.  I don't think a future where we fall in love with our computers will happen, either. But I'm sure there are thousands of people who have seen Her and can't wait for the day when they, too, can fall asleep beneath the adoring gaze of a computer that loves them. Oh, what the hell, sign me up.  I'll take the version with Catherine Keener's voice.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

THE DOUBLE...


 
The unsung stars of The Double are cinematographer Eric Wilson and art director Denis Schnegg. Wilson shoots the film in such delirious golds and blues and sickly greens that watching it is like wandering through a candy-colored nightmare. Schnegg, who has worked on such films as the 28 Days franchise, Breakfast on Pluto, and Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, gives The Double a look that might be described as futurist squalor. The Gilliam link is appropriate, for while watching The Double I was reminded a bit of Gilliam's Brazil, another movie that looked great but relied too much on style over substance. If The Double had a script and characters that could match the dazzling decorative work of Wilson and Schnegg, it might have been special. As is, it's well-dressed surreal fluff.
 
Jesse Eisenberg is our star here. At one time Eisenberg was hailed as a sort of supercharged version of John Cera, but he's become more like Cera with each role. He reminds me of one of those hairless dogs that is always shivering. Here he plays a hapless employee at a mysterious data processing center. The office, which seems to be in a barely renovated warehouse,  is managed by someone known only as  The Colonel, an Orwellian 'Big brother' figure who is seen only in infomercial clips to promote the company. Wallace Shawn plays Eisenberg's impossible to please supervisor, and Mia Wasikowska plays a co-worker adored by Eisenberg from afar.

The players shuffle through David Crank's relentlessly bleak set - this is one of those movies set in a drab, not too distant future, where our profiles are carefully tracked and organized on strange looking computers (the equipment Eisenberg uses looks like an ice cream cake with a keyboard). Yet, the elevators seem to have been built in the 1920s, and the subways also seem surprisingly rickety. (The subway cars of the future, you might like to know, are usually empty, all the better for Eisenberg to sit alone in them and contemplate his existence.)

Eisenberg's character is the sort who is harassed by security guards who don't believe he works for the company, even though he's been employed there for seven years. He's constantly losing his ID card, which should tip you off to the movie's sophomoric idea that we're all just interchangeable drones in a heartless corporate world,  or something like that. 
 
Into Eisenberg's life comes a lookalike, also played by Eisenberg (There's a running gag, which I liked, where no one else sees the resemblance, or if they do, they think it's only slight). This new Eisenberg is more aggressive and openly hostile. He's mean to waitresses and cheats on work exams. As usually happens in this sort of movie, the gals at the office are soon swooning over him. It seems that no matter how far we look in the future, women are still attracted to jerks.
 
The bad Eisenberg offers some tips to the wimpy Eisenberg, which results in a few mildly funny scenes where bad Eisenberg gives his philosophy of life. "Ice cream is fine, but ice cream cones are gay," he says. The bad Eisenberg seems alarmingly homophobic for someone of the future, where I'd imagined people would be more liberal. He even accuses the wimpy Eisenberg of being a homosexual. This might have been an interesting theme to follow, but like most everything else in the story, it's merely brought up and then discarded.

Eisenberg the actor doesn't do much to show the difference between the two Eisenbergs.  As the bad Eisenberg, he talks faster and smirks a bit, but other than that, we're left with (stuck with?) two Eisenbergs in one movie. Maybe one of them should have been played by John Cera. Anyway, the bad Eisenberg has ulterior motives. Soon, he's maneuvering to take the wimpy Eisenberg's job, and then his girl. But you knew that would happen, didn't you?
 
Director Richard Ayoade adapted the story from a novella by the old Russian champ of bleakness and morbidity, Feydor Dostoesvsky. Sadly, the movie feels more like a high schooler's parody of Franz Kafka.  Ayoade is also guilty of over-directing. For instance, when Eisenberg flips a quarter at someone, we see the quarter flipping through the air in slow motion. Why? What does such an effect achieve? I'm sure Ayoade loved it in the cutting room, but for me it was four wasted seconds. We also get a lot of scenes where Eisenberg is walking down a hallway. These halls are always long, and dark, and I imagine Ayoade sees them as eerie and dreamlike. There are also plenty of scenes where Eisenberg stares at things: mirrors, drains, and at his neighbor through a telescope. His eyebrows are appropriately furrowed, as if he's solving some mildly confusing brain teaser in that day's newspaper. But by the fourth time he gazes at something, you feel like grabbing him by the neck and asking, 'What the hell are you looking at?'
 
Ayoade also gets cute with his doubling imagery, and film school students may have fun counting the number of times we see things doubled. That is, when they aren't arguing over which scene is a rip of Barton Fink, and which is a homage to Being John Malkovich. Personally, I think they should find something better to do. I also think Ayoade felt that the exemplary work of Wilson and Schnegg gave him free reign to run wild. With such protection in the lineup, I can't blame him. Unfortunately, he isn't the equal of his cinematographer and art director;  his ideas are mostly drivel. This doesn't mean the film won't develop an appreciative cult following, for it's just arty enough to fool those who don't know better. Besides, Wilson's photography could make the weeds around a cesspool look interesting.
 
I wonder how many  will recognize Cathy Moriarty in the role of Kiki, a waitress at Eisenberg's favorite coffee shop. The woman once played Jake LaMotta's wife in Raging Bull. Now, 34 years later, she's in this pretentious mess. Now that's Kafkaesque...

Sunday, May 11, 2014

DEVIL'S KNOT...



The story of the 'West Memphis Three' has passed into modern folklore by now.  It's the one about the three Arkansas teenagers - Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley - sentenced to prison for the murder of three much younger boys.  The verdict was so suspect that it became a media sensation, heralding four major documentaries, and drawing the interest of such showbiz gadflies as Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder. The "killers," it seemed, had been sentenced not because of any compelling evidence, but because they listened to heavy metal music and one of them, Echols, wore black and had an interest in Wicca.  Many years later, a DNA sample placed  one of the victims' own fathers at the scene. This discovery played a part in Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley being granted their freedom, but not exonerated.


Devil's Knot, Atom Egoyan's stirring account of the case, hits all of the points familiar to anyone who has followed the story. It's still perplexing, this mess of conflicting testimonies, unfounded reports of satanic rituals, lost blood samples, perjury, bribed witnesses, clumsy cops and incompetent judges. Egoyan doesn't add much of anything new, although he does try to focus on the victims, which the documentary coverage tended to overlook in favor focusing on the gullibility and paranoia of a small town of religious zealots who seriously believed a satanic cult lurked in their woods.

If you feel you've seen enough of the West Memphis Three's story and see no reason to watch the movie, let me impress you with one fact: there are moments in Devil's Knott  so horrific and heartbreaking that you may momentarily forget the documentaries. This is especially true in the early scenes, when the victims' bodies are discovered in a muddy pond, and placed side by side on the bank like a trio of small, dirty mannequins. I liked how the detectives dredging the pond were saddened by their discoveries. It's hard to not be moved by these scenes.

The large cast works well enough. Colin Firth is solid if a bit dour as a well-meaning investigator, and the rest of the company look more or less like the characters they've been hired to portray. What hurts the movie, even more than British Firth attempting an Arkansas accent, is that this epic story is crammed into a two hour slot. The result feels rushed, with the actors unable to develop their characters. The characters seem to race by, just long enough to give us an idea of what the person might have been like. In a way, it feels like a West Memphis pageant, rather than a drama. Kevin Durand, for instance, captures the weird mannerisms that made John Mark Byers one of the most intriguing figures of the HBO documentaries - you may remember him as a victim's dad who practiced shooting at pumpkins while delivering fire and brimstone monologues. Egoyan moves Byers to a minor role here, which is disappointing. For a while, Byers seemed as guilty as anybody (which may have been propaganda cooked up by the documentary makers) but in Devil's Knot, he's just another local eccentric.

It's also disappointing that the West Memphis Three are almost incidental to the movie.  In the documentaries, much was made of Misskelley's hole-filled confession, and how he had likely been coerced by police. Here, the coercion doesn't seem particularly dramatic.  Incidentally, Misskelley and Baldwin served as executive producers on the movie. Echols, the only one of the three who spent time on death row,  kept his distance. He allegedly didn't like the script, or the way he was portrayed. As played by James Hamrick, the Echols of Devil's Knot is cryptic, but not fully formed. None of the West Memphis Three are portrayed with any depth. My guess is that Egoyan is not particularly interested in character studies, but is more intrigued by the reactions of the town, and how the murders cast a long shadow over the community.

Egoyan, working from a script by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson,  sheds a little more light on a local character who drove an ice cream truck and had a fascination with one of the victims. Was this fellow, played with creepy perfection by Dane DeHaan, involved with a mysterious man who wandered into a local restaurant covered in blood on the night of the killing? And were they both linked to the dad with the ubiquitous DNA?

Somehow, maybe because Firth's pensive moments drag it down, or maybe because the story is too familiar to us, the movie loses traction near the end. Compared to the beauty and strangeness of the early scenes, when   Paul Sarossy's cinematography made the woods feel as deep and unfathomable as the story itself, the courtroom scenes are flat and undramatic. The angry mobs outside the courthouse never quite feel angry enough - Egoyan was raised in Western Canada, and I wonder if the ugliness of a small town Arkansas mob guided by religious fervor was just beyond his reach. These scenes needed more frenzy, more hate. The crowd in the movie mills around like cranky customers at the local DMV.  When Hamrick as Echols blows the onlookers a kiss, he looks like a high school punk being lead to detention, not a man on trial for murder.

There is one performance that makes up for any of the movie's shortcomings, and that's Reese Witherspoon as Pam Hobbs. Not much time has passed since Witherspoon was playing snotty schoolgirls and dizzy blonds, but she's entirely believable here as a frumpy, middle-aged mother dealing with a  personal tragedy. Her breakdown when her son's body is discovered is harrowing. Egoyan smartly shoots it from a distance, for being too close to her agony would have been unbearable. The aftermath, as she seems to lose her mind in grief, even bringing an old homework assignment to her son's teacher to be graded, feels painfully realistic. It leads to my favorite moment of the movie, when members of her son's class instinctively rise from their desks and approach her. An instinct tells these kids that this woman is hurting. They gather around her and awkwardly hug her.  It reminded me of scenes in nature, when chimps or elephants show signs of solidarity. Witherspoon stands still, not sure about this display of warmth in a world that had unexpectedly turned so  cold.