Kicking the Tweets

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)


Hicks and Hexes

The saying goes that the best way to criticize a bad movie is to make a good one. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinfofsky have taken that idea a step further by applying it to a murder trial. Their documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, is a damning critique of two trials that saw the (apparent) wrongful conviction of three teenage boys for murder in West Memphis, Arkansas. These filmmakers have taken their case to the court of public opinion, and have made a compelling argument for their subjects’ innocence.

The film opens with grisly footage of the crime scene: the naked, mutilated bodies of three eight-year-old boys are dragged from a river embankment. Watching the police video, it was startling to think that I was seeing real human beings and not dummies from some slasher film; the reality didn’t hit me until the cut to the family interviews and local news coverage. It’s a hell of a way to open a movie, and the directors wisely went with the most shocking images right off the bat; they would be the tent pole on which the rest of the story—and the trial—would come to rest.

We learn that on May 5, 1993, the three second-graders were allegedly attacked in the woods of Robin Hood Hills by Jessie Misskelly, Damien Wayne Echols, and Jason Baldwin. The teen outcasts—who wore all-black and listened to Metallica—brutally raped, killed, and disfigured the kids as part of a Satanic ritual, or so the story goes. Paradise Lost spends a lot of time on the front end with the victims’ families, all working-class upstanding citizens whose grief has quickly morphed into anger: they gleefully hypothesize about what will happen to the killers when inmates/God/Satan get hold of them; one mother even promises to mail one of the jailed teens a skirt. The outrage is understandable—though very unsettling—and it’s easy to side with the relatives; that is, until the facts of the case begin to unravel.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Paradise Lost became the most fascinating court drama I’ve ever seen. During two trials, we see the legal teams of all three defendants paint a picture of small-town prejudices that made them the only possible suspects in the murder—even though each teen had an alibi and none had motive. Despite the fact that one of the victims’ own fathers is eventually eyed as a viable suspect, the defense teams face an up-hill battle that has less to do with the facts of the case than with the fear and suspicion of people who want to upend their beliefs (a couple of the expert witnesses are derided by the prosecution for being “big-city” folk whose fancy college educations and high rates of pay negate anything they might have to contribute). Unfortunately, I was somewhat familiar with the fate of the “West Memphis Three” (this documentary did come out almost fourteen years ago), so I lost out on the drama of the verdict; but Berlinger and Sinofsky so effectively involved me in the story that I almost forgot.

In addition to the courtroom material, the interviews with both the victims’ families and the families of the accused are just fascinating. No one in West Memphis comes across as particularly educated, attractive, or even nice; it’s easy to see where the caricatures of Southern ignorance come from. But there are surprises everywhere, as in a scene where one of the dead boys’ family is sitting around cursing the murderers and plotting violent revenge in the event that the alleged killers are set free; the grandfather pipes up and says that he’s a Christian, and that as mad and hurt as he is, he won’t engage in the Devil’s work. When we meet Damien Echols’ girlfriend, we see a sweet teenage mother who never doubts the innocence of the boy she loves, and her testimony ultimately causes us to re-evaluate some of what we believe about Damien. You could edit out the trial altogether and still have a solid movie about human pettiness and compassion.

Ultimately, Paradise Lost makes a strong case for the teens’ innocence, though it also paints them as being not bright enough to be able to look innocent. Of the three, Damien Echols is the most educated, but also the cockiest, and it’s not difficult to see how a jury could go against him, even in the face of evidence that he was nowhere near the crime scene. I came away from the movie angry at the proud ignorance of the town and embarrassed for the justice system—I know that it works in many cases, but when it doesn’t, well, you get things like redneck justice and an unsolved murder.

Note: I haven’t seen the sequel, Paradise Lost: Revelations, which follows up on the case with, I guess, new evidence. I plan to check it out soon, to see if it answers some questions that I have about the original trials (such as how the prosecution thought the teenagers lured three second-graders into the woods in the first place).


Videodrome, 1983 (Home Video Review)

Boo Tube

When I pulled up the Videodrome IMDB page—as I often do for quick reference when writing reviews—I noticed two entries for the film. The first was for the original 1983 movie, directed by David Cronenberg; the other was an “in development” notice for what I can only guess is a remake, slated for 2011. From a brand recognition standpoint, I totally understand; while Videodrome isn’t at the forefront of the public’s conscience, it is certainly known enough that it could reasonably attract enough viewers to have a decent opening weekend—with none of that pesky originality that studios seem to dread these days. From a creative standpoint, however, there’s absolutely no reason for Videodrome to be “re-imagined”. Cronenberg had a bleak vision of the future twenty-six years ago, and we are still moving towards it.

As a sidebar, I’d like to thank God, Buddha, Allah, and Gaia for Netflix. Not only has it saved me from cabin fever during this nightmare illness, but I no longer have an excuse for not having seen classic movies.

Videodrome is the story of Max Renn (James Woods), a small-time cable channel executive whose carved a niche in the market by airing risqué programming (soft-core porn, violence, etc.). He’s constantly on the lookout for the next big thing in edge-creeping entertainment; when one of his friends, Harlan, pirates a broadcast called Videodrome—which depicts the torture and rape of faceless women—Max becomes obsessed with finding out who or what has created it. As you might imagine, his quest leads to no good, and Max soon discovers that the Videodrome signal acts as a drug on anyone who sees it; one that induces severe hallucinations that blur the line between reality and television.

Videodrome is a cult classic for a reason: David Cronenberg created a prophetic anti-TV movie that is just as notable for its philosophical musings as it is for its gore, sex, and graphic instances of Debbie Harry trying to act (she plays Max’s girlfriend, Nicki, and from the outset she comes across as having fallen victim to the signal—or perhaps a handful of Quaaludes). The most remarkable thing about Videodrome is that its message about the effects of too much television are still relevant, and can easily be applied to today’s obsession with constant, easy access to information, via Twitter, 24-hour cable news, and even the iPhone (hell, there are people at my day job who have a second computer monitor at their desks, solely to stream television shows all day).

Looking at the film now, it’s easy to see Videodrome’s influence on other movies of the last quarter century, from UHF to The Matrix to The Ring to Surrogates, and at least twenty others (the film's spiritual predecessor is Sidney Lumet's Network). What Videodrome has over many of them is the boldness of its ideas, and a string of instantly quotable lines. When Max encounters a mysterious doctor who appears to hold the secret to Videodrome, he is cautioned that, “Television is reality, and reality is less than television” (the doctor, incidentally, says this on a TV talk show in which he appears on-stage as an image broadcast through a television on a stand). Movies like this question the effect of media on the mind; the better ones ask us to evaluate how we allow the images and messages that we take in to shape our worldviews and even our identities.

By the time Max has disappeared down the rabbit hole, he has become a confused, mass-murdering acolyte of a new world media order. His need to see things he should not have seen and to know things no one should know are dramatized with eerie images like a gun fusing to his hand and an eager vagina sprouting on his torso (which receives videotapes, naturally). But, psychologically, does this differ from our need to be involved in the private lives of celebrities or to watch footage of wartime beheadings?

Fortunately, Videodrome has aged pretty well (aside from the aforementioned Debbie Harry problem), and might even appeal to modern audiences—that’s always an iffy proposition: one generations groundbreaking special effects is the next generation’s drinking game cheese-fest. This is an important movie that should be seen by anyone who is interested in making smart, effective entertainment.

Somehow I doubt the remake will qualify.

Note: This movie has something that I haven’t seen a lot of, but that I think could absolutely help a lot of “near-future” films: Cronenberg introduces ideas that were futuristic—for 1983—by integrating them into the natural rhythms of what audiences of the time would consider modern-day living. For example, the opening image is that of a video wakeup call by Max Renn’s secretary—the equivalent of a clock-radio alarm. It’s a weird idea, but one that is not mentioned or pointed out as being special; rather, it’s just part of the fabric of Cronenberg’s 1983.


A Serious Man (2009)

Chickenshit for the Soul

Note: It’s been almost two months since I saw A Serious Man. I’ve been struggling to put my thoughts on it into words the whole time. The only upside to being laid up in bed with a drippy, sleepless, chest-bursting cold is that I finally have no excuse to put off this review any longer. I still don’t think I’ve captured everything I want to say, but at least I can blame the meds...

It’s hard to believe that the Joel and Ethan Coen who wrote and directed A Serious Man are the same brothers who brought us Burn After Reading. The former is a masterpiece of cinematic indulgence; the latter is sloppy dog shit.

Harsh? Maybe. But I thought a lot about Burn After Reading in the days after I saw A Serious Man. The dark frustration over that quarter-baked, unfunny political satire almost eroded my glowing enthusiasm for their latest picture, a breezy portrait of a heavyhearted suburbanite. Burn After Reading was clearly a rebound picture, a bit of fun behind the camera after the hard work and passionate investment that was No Country for Old Men. With A Serious Man, the Coens remind us (and possibly themselves) that great, smart comedy is not easy; it does not emerge from cheap, ninety-minute running jokes about Brad Pitt being a ditzy personal trainer (a CW sitcom pitch if I’ve ever heard one).

The film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, a Minnesota physics professor in 1967. He’s got a wife and two kids, and his biggest problem is that he’s up for tenure at the same time a student is trying to bribe him for a better grade. Out of the blue, his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces that she’s leaving him for a widower named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Larry’s shocked at the news. Very quickly, the other elements of his life that he thought were fine—or at least manageable—begin to unravel.
All of the characters Larry encounters are quirky in some way, but realistic enough to be plausible foils; because Larry is painted as a sympathetic character, we alternately root for him to prevail while at the same time wishing that he’d stop being such a timid mess.

A Serious Man is full of story elements (“plot” is the wrong word in this case) that I wouldn’t dare spoil for you. This is a movie that walks the fine line of farce and dramedy and succeeds in the most surprising, fulfilling ways. Much like American Beauty, this is a story about the collapse of a suburban family, but because A Serious Man is rooted in Jewish tradition, it operates a few levels higher than the former film. Many of Larry’s predicaments would have been easily shrugged off by a man who was not so concerned with always doing the right thing (even “the right thing” in some cases, is open to interpretation). That’s not to say that the movie is pro-religion; in fact, the red tape of rules, customs, and the reverent formalities of dealing with Rabbis act as obstacles to Larry’s happiness. This makes for a miserable protagonist and a positively giddy audience—I loved just about every minute of this picture (there’s a story thread involving Richard Kind as Larry’s disabled brother that stuck out like a dog-eared corner on a lithograph).

I even loved the ending.

In case you haven’t heard, the Coens gave this movie the same kind of ending as that of No Country for Old Men—only far more jarring. This movie literally stops in the middle of what looks to be a very important scene. For about twenty minutes after I left the theatre, I felt like I’d just witnessed a car accident; my mind went into shock (call it pathetic if you will—I really get into movies). Thinking back on the film’s message, though, the ending makes perfect sense. In fact, I still have a harder time reconciling the opening of A Serious Man than the final moments (I think I understand what the filmmakers were going for, but I’d have to see it again to be sure). I hope I haven’t ruined anything by mentioning the abrupt finale; I won’t tell you what to watch out for, but just know that you’ll have to fill in a lot of blanks on your own.

This is on my short list of films of the year, and I would be as shocked as Larry Gopnik if this movie didn’t at least get nominated for every major award (save for special effects). Joel and Ethan Coen have made the ultimate movie for people who love movies, cramming it with textures, ideas, and performances that make every sub-par, un-ambitious movie (even ones they’ve made) seem like an insult to mankind’s creative instincts. It’s that good.


The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)

Interlude with Some Glam-pires

If you’re considering going to see The Twilight Saga: New Moon because you’ve heard it’s better than the first film, I’d like to propose a brief, rather vulgar, mental exercise.

Consider the last time you were constipated. It was excruciating, wasn’t it? Lots of effort and groaning, perhaps some tears of agony—all followed by a result that probably wasn’t worth the effort.

That’s the first Twilight movie.

Now recall your last bout of diarrhea: likely a much smoother experience, with better pacing and far more colors.

That’s New Moon.

The lesson? No matter how drawn out or mercifully short the process, shit is shit, and shit stinks.

It’s hard to believe that, when this film franchise is complete, we will have four—maybe five—movies devoted to such a simple, bland story. After having endured the first two, I’m convinced they could have been condensed into one hour-and-a-half movie (much like the bloated Harry Potter series). Of course, this would mean taking out all of the extended pouting and longing shots, not to mention the gratuitous shirtless preening. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Taking place shortly after the events of Twilight, New Moon opens with Bella Swan’s (Kristen Stewart) 18th birthday party, which she celebrates with the Cullen family. They’re a tight-knit clan of undercover vampires who includes Edward (Robert Pattinson), Bella’s boyfriend and James Dean idolater. Bella slices her finger open on some wrapping paper and is attacked by one of the “younger” vampires, who hasn’t learned to control his blood lust. The Cullens leave town for Bella’s safety and she spends three months staring out her bedroom window; her policeman father allows her to do this because he apparently believes prolonged waking catatonia and violent, screaming nightmares to be acceptable teenage behavior.

Enter Jacob (Taylor Lautner), Bella’s platonic best friend. When Bella finally drags herself out of bed, he helps her restore a busted motorcycle. You see, she’s developed the ability to see a ghostly, Jedi-like vision of Edward whenever she is endangered, and figures that if she can get close enough to death she’ll be able to communicate with her beloved. Did I mention that the Twilight films are packed with great messages for teenage girls?

Over several weeks, Bella and Jacob bond over break fluid and she helps keep him out of trouble with the other kids from his Indian reservation high school: a pack of buff dudes who spend their free time roaming the woods, wrestling and diving off cliffs—wearing only cut-off shorts and eager smiles (I’ll leave the “recruiting” subtext to the scholars). Bella kind of falls for Jacob, but she can’t shake Edward, so she leaves him in the “friend zone”. Cut to several more weeks and a dozen un-returned phone calls later, and we find Bella driving out to Jacob’s house. He’s cut his long hair and forsaken the “shirt-and-pants” look for—you guessed it—cut-offs. He warns Bella to stay away from him and his new band of secretive, well-waxed friends; she ignores him and is attacked by the bronzed brotherhood who are—gasp!—werewolves.

I’ll fast-forward through the next hour of will-they/won’t-they drama (they won’t) and get to the semi-interesting stuff. We learn of an ancient vampire council called the Volturi. They live in Italy and maintain the laws of their culture; one of which is that vampires cannot reveal themselves to mankind—under penalty of death (never mind that Edward and Bella’s relationship has been going on for quite awhile and that a good number of vampires know their “secret”). Edward goes before the Volturi and asks to be killed (don’t ask); they deny his wish, so he decides to step out into the sunlight during an Italian festival; Bella shows up (seriously, don’t ask) and stops him. The vampire police are miffed and demand to see the lovesick teenagers; during this encounter, it is discovered that Bella is immune to the Volturi’s powers: they try to psychically inflict pain and it doesn’t work; they try to read her mind and find only a void (which I’ve known about Kristen Stewart ever since Adventureland). Several boring fight scenes later, Bella and Edward are released and head back to Forks, Washington, where they rekindle their relationship.

This leaves Jacob out in the cold, moping shirtlessly and rambling about some treaty between vampires and werewolves. I had serious deja vu during the last twenty minutes and realized that I was watching a re-run of the first film’s climax—though New Moon’s sets are cooler.

That’s a lot of summary, huh? I’m sad to say that I’ve left out several sub-plots because A) I don’t care and chances are, neither will you, and B) they are filler that serve only to pad out this weak story and give it the illusion of depth. New Moon is not without its charms, but every two- or three-minute scene of nice character touches is cut short by poorly choreographed action or drastic personality shifts that come off as bad rehearsal footage. These movies have a rabid fan base and it’s cute that the screenwriter and director attempt to stuff as much of the books into the film to give it an air of legitimacy, but the real reason these pictures are so popular is because of the goddamned beefcake. Pattinson and Lautner strike so many poses in this movie that a number of times I swear they were replaced by cardboard standees. If—as the Twi-hards claim—the books are amazing, great literature, then the filmmakers have utterly failed to bear this out. Watching these movies, I’m not at all compelled to read the source material; if anything, I’m inspired to start some Fight-Club-style book-burning franchises.

New Moon is actually very entertaining, if you’re up for a good laugh. The actors are forced to recite lines that one can picure scribbled inside squiggly hearts on the back of Stephenie Meyer's sophomore English Lit notebook; but they can't even do it convincingly. Kristen Stewart once again demonstrates that she has some kind of respiratory disorder (she huffs before, during and after almost every line, and occasionally launches into these weird limb-flailing spasms). Robert Pattinson continues to perfect Method Sulking. Only Taylor Lautner fares well here; his unforced sincerity suggests that he may have squeezed an acting class into his rigorous workout routine. But all of the leads are upstaged by Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning (you read that right) as members of the Volturi. Their fifteen minutes of screen time almost make up for the other hundred-plus, and they (briefly) turn New Moon into something interesting, something adult. Unfortunately, they come and go, and leave us with a love triangle that is destined to become this generation’s guilty, dated embarrassment (like the original 90210 or a prom night abortion).

Note: I’m not the audience for this movie, as I’ve neither read the books nor had a period (sorry, if there’s a definition of a “chick flick”, New Moon is it; the irony-free gender cross-over potential for this franchise is zero). I do appreciate entertainment aimed at different audiences, but I’ve seen more honest storylines about love, loss, and longing on Gossip Girl. For all the cheesy glamour and stigma of it being a network teen drama, it does well with archetypes and features actors who at least have life to breathe into the material.


2012 (2009)

(In)Credibility Gap

When I first saw the trailer for 2012 a few months ago, it profoundly depressed me. Through spectacular displays of global catastrophe and urban destruction, the previews promised two hours of unapologetic disaster porn. I watched as buildings tumbled and exploded; cars and people were sucked up into hellish cracks in the earth; and all the while, John Cusack tried to outrun mother nature via limo, camper and small plane—succeeding every time. Nothing about these scenes made me want to see 2012, but I’m essentially a film whore so there was little doubt that I’d catch it on the big screen.

Guess what? I thought it was great. Not a great film, mind you, but a great disaster movie. And since it comes from Roland “Independence Day” Emmerich, there was a forty percent chance of it being at least watchable (those odds would’ve been higher had he not also made The Day After Tomorrow). In a lot of ways, 2012 plays like the greatest hits of Independence Day, TDAT, and The Core—with a dash of dueling asteroid epics Armageddon and Deep Impact thrown in. What sets this new film apart is that—much like a frustrated artist sketching and sketching and sketching, Emmerich has finally gotten just about everything right.

Look, I know some of you are rolling your eyes right now; others have probably stopped reading. But bear with me for a few more moments, please.

I think the reason 2012 didn’t come out in the summer was not because it would have clashed with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but because it is a much smarter, more compelling kind of blockbuster. This is Oscar season, after all; and while I don’t expect this movie to take home anything other than awards for sound and special effects, the fact remains that a good amount of its 158-minute run-time is devoted to solid actors giving solid performances. There’s no slumming here, no overt mugging from the main players; the careers of John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oliver Platt, and Thandie Newton are all very much intact (Amanda Peet may be in trouble, but I think her part was just under-written), and I love that everyone treated the material as A-level stuff.

It just occurred to me that I’ve devoted not a single word to 2012’s plot. That’s probably for the best. This is a movie that needs to be experienced on the big screen, so I urge you to go check it out (even if you wait to see it on the $5 or $1 circuit). I will say that there are several elements that surprised me, which was itself a grand revelation. Unlike most action spectacles, you can’t tell right off the bat who will live and who will die in 2012; characters you’re certain will be cute one-offs become very important; characters you assume will follow their archetype into stereotype take roads less traveled (except for Woody Harrelson, whose doom-and-gloom survivalist character’s only surprise was not speaking in a hick drawl—which I found very distracting). The movie’s biggest twist involves the massive ships that have been constructed to save mankind from extinction—it’s not an out-of-the-blue contrivance, but rather a cool way of playing with audience expectations.

Regarding my earlier reservations about the glorification of death, carnage and mayhem, I was relieved to find that those elements—while certainly evident—did not overpower the movie. In fact, 45 minutes into 2012, I began to wonder if I’d even see a catastrophic event. All of the tragedy unfolds naturally, and we’re given a chance to experience it as the main characters do: both in flashes and in rubbernecking horror, depending on how close to the danger they happen to be at a given point. The whole three-steps-ahead-of-the-fireball/crumbling earth thing did become ridiculous after awhile, but by then, I really wanted the characters to escape so I could find out where they were headed.

I can only assume that at least some of the people who’ve read this far are snickering at my poor taste and naiveté. If you’re one of them, let me assure you that I walked into 2012 sure that I would leave an angry, tired mess. But I didn’t. And I didn’t have to “turn off my brain” to enjoy it, either. Some of the movie is silly; some parts are too drawn out; and, yes, a lot of the plot is awfully convenient. Then again, it is a movie. If all you want out of this kind of entertainment are plausible disaster scenarios and moments of genuine emotional tragedy, type “Afghan war footage” into the YouTube search field and have a great afternoon.