Friday, February 29, 2008

Movies watched, February 9-22, 2008

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1996
This haunting documentary chronicles the trial of the West Memphis Three: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelly, three teenagers who were convicted of brutally murdering three 8 year old boys, despite a lack of physical proof. The film suggests that the police hastily pointed the finger at the Three because they were under intense pressure to find the killer(s) and needed suspects. These outcast teenagers listened to Metallica, dressed in black, and one of them expressed interests in Wicca; sensationalized accounts of satanic rituals quickly spread, painting them as depraved devil-worshipping degenerates.

No actual concrete or DNA evidence implicating the Three is ever presented, with the only incriminating information being hearsay from various teenage girls, and a confession from Jessie that Damien and Jason had murdered the boys, while he had merely observed, providing occasional assistance—except that this confession is riddled with errors and inaccuracies. Jessie changes the time of the murders on multiple occasions, gradually shifting towards the time that the police suggest is correct. He says he saw Damien and Jason rape the boys, but medical examinations of their bodies suggest otherwise. And he says they were tied with brown rope, when in fact they were tied up with their own shoelaces. It’s hard to believe that someone would confess to a horrific crime that he didn’t commit—which in the end is the nail in his coffin that he just can’t pull out—but considering his low IQ (which is hearkened back to rather excessively) and high level of susceptibility, his lawyers argued that he may have been coerced into giving a false confession just to get the police off his back, assuming everything could be straightened out later.

As for the hearsay, several teenage girls claimed that they’d overheard Damien say he had killed the children and that he would kill two more whom he’d already picked out. But none could recall the circumstances, or who they were with, or how close within earshot they were standing to Damien, which all sounds a bit fishy to me. Moreover, Damien strikes me as fairly smart, so I find it highly unlikely that he would admit this in public, so loudly that others around him could hear him.

Troublingly, the Three don’t do a very adept job of conveying their innocence in the courtroom, in their fairly cold, detached mannerisms, the way they carry themselves so nonchalantly. Jason seems pretty timid and quiet; he is the one we hear from least in the film. Damien, on the other hand, comes across as intelligent but rather immature and naive (but then, he was still a teenager at the time), and makes various ill-advised comments—such as how he’s to become a kind of West Memphis bogeyman, the stuff of ghost stories and urban legend for years to come—of which most people don’t really grasp the humor. I can understand the inclination towards making these smartass remarks—he feels contempt for these people who blindly typecast him, so he in turn feeds their fears, messing with their heads. But unfortunately this stuff gets taken pretty seriously; his notebooks scribbled with pentagrams and Metallica lyrics, as well as quotes from Shakespeare, are simply the product of an angsty teen, standard fare for any high school outcast—and yet said notebook is produced in court as evidence of his guilt.

As with any documentary, it’s possible that the film is biased, although there is a lot of interview footage of the victims’ families, as well as with the law enforcement officials involved (but one can always conjecture that the filmmakers left things out, or that it was edited a certain way). And yet, I just can’t see any evidence that the West Memphis Three are guilty. The only strike against them is Jessie’s confession, which is full of holes and contradictions. After that, all the plaintiffs have are their prejudices, their hatred, their extreme desire to capture someone, to finally have a person to direct this anger toward. Early on in the film, one of the victim’s mothers is asked if she thinks they’re guilty, to which she replies something along the lines of, “Of course they did it—just look at them!” With remarks such as these, it seems like they never even had a chance.

Paradise Lost II: Revelations, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2000
While I found the original Paradise Lost documentary to be chilling and thought-provoking, I’m not really sure why this sequel exists. Most of the content is fairly pointless, focusing on John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the victims, as he plays up for the camera (as Jason says, “play acting”), ranting and raving about how the West Memphis Three are going to hell, even burning makeshift effigies in the ravine where the children’s bodies were found. Byers is actually implicated in the crime at one point but fiercely denies it, almost to the point of suspicion, so passionate are his proclamations of innocence. He’s undoubtedly a strange character, but I’m not sure I needed to see him raging incoherently for several hours.

What I did find interesting were the examinations of the crime scene photos by a forensic expert contacted by members of Free the WM3, and wish the film’s focus would have fallen more along these lines. It does have its harrowing moments, mainly in interviews with Damien, who’s still on Death Row to this day. Every time I remember this fact, my stomach turns—he’s running out of time, which is pretty depressing.

Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston, 1990
In late 80s and early 90s New York City, there existed (hell, maybe it still exists, I don’t know) a subculture of poor, gay, black people who organized fashion shows (or “balls,” as they like to call them), wherein they could become whoever they wanted, masquerading in relation to themes running the gamut from military to high fashion to business executive to Dynasty. The appeal is simple: in real life you’re nobody, but for one night you can be a star. The styles and music depicted onscreen are fairly dated, but it’s still a fascinating portrait of a bygone time and place, both joyful and sad. The sadness stems from many of the participants’ actual fates: poverty, drugs, prostitution, and in one cited case, murder. And yet, the joy overpowers the melancholy, exuding an ecstatic and vibrant energy.

Bright Leaves, Ross McElwee, 2003
Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee discovers that there’s a 1950 Hollywood movie, Bright Leaf, that may be based on his great-grandfather, once a leading figure in the tobacco industry who lost the family fortune to the Dukes. Thereon McElwee explores the implications of this discovery, that his family may be responsible for years of suffering and addiction at the hands of tobacco—and they aren’t even enjoying any of the benefits (a strange preoccupation, admittedly). The Dukes, for instance, have a huge estate and a university named after them, while his family lives in a modest home in the shadow of the Duke mansion—there is the small, almost nonexistent McElwee Park, which “even has a few benches!”, yet otherwise the McElwees’ legacy goes largely unnoticed in this city.

McElwee becomes obsessed with Bright Leaf’s being about his great-grandfather, and contacts film critic Vlada Petric in hopes of discussing it with him. This results in one of the film’s most memorable scenes—Petric turns out to be quite the eccentric (to say the least), and insists on conducting the interview while wheeling McElwee around in a wheelchair, to create the effect of movement. But Petric proves himself a wise sage when, after McElwee explains the reason for his curiosity about Bright Leaf, he replies, “Who cares?” Seriously—who cares? Even if it truly were based on the story of his great-grandfather, this hokey Hollywood film would not play the role of a surreal home movie, or artifact of his family story, as McElwee asserts. Regardless, Bright Leaves is a humorous exploration of family legacy, the tobacco industry, and what it is to be Southern, not to mention a few other things thrown into the mix. It defies neat categorization—a kind of meandering diary, whose entries circle around a particular preoccupation.

The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris, 1988
Here’s another film that illustrates the faults of our legal system, in which we can convict a man of a crime even though all the facts point toward someone else. Unlike Paradise Lost, however, this film resulted in the innocent party’s exoneration, an amazing achievement that transcends its role of a mere film. Morris is a tireless seeker of truth, and will go to the ends of the earth (most recently, Croatia) to find it. He managed to secure a tape of what is, ostensibly, the real killer’s roundabout confession: “[The police] didn’t blame him. I did. A scared sixteen year old kid who would sure like to get out of it if he can...they didn’t have nothing else until I gave them something, so I guess they get something, they run with it.” Maybe it’s unfair to insinuate that if Morris had directed Paradise Lost, the West Memphis Three would have been acquitted—but who else could have accomplished such a feat by making a film?

Vernon Florida, Errol Morris, 1982
I wrote about Vernon, Florida (aka Nub City) last year. While perhaps not my favorite of Morris' films, it's still a great one.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Movies watched, February 9 to 15, 2008

There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007

I just finished reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and while it’s obviously a different story from this one (not to mention that the film is only loosely based upon Sinclair’s novel Oil!), There Will Be Blood does bear similarity in tone, style, and scope, in that it is a kind of saga that spans many years, chronicling the characters’ various ups and downs, as tragedy continues to befall them, and set against the backdrop of a volatile period in American history.

The film’s first 11 minutes contain not a single word of dialogue, only the soundtrack’s strange, almost avant-garde string instrumentations, amidst the sounds of a pickax hitting stone, of oil bubbling to the surface. This first image of oil is intoxicating—it’s beautiful yet dark, hypnotically drawing one into its slippery blackness. Perhaps this is what lured Daniel Plainview in—more likely, though, was the prospect of money.

Daniel purports to have a heart of stone. He sleeps on a hard floor, not out of necessity, but by choice, as if he can’t allow himself any luxury or comfort, so as to keep his hatred burning. And yet one can detect some instances of empathy behind this veil of misanthropy—he says that he abhors most people, yet seems to have some feelings for his adopted son H.W. But to acknowledge this would be an admission of weakness, so he repeatedly abandons the child, eventually claiming that the only reason he even raised him was because he needed a sweet face to sell his product. (This may in fact have been the case initially, but I’m certain that the boy eventually grew on him.)

With echoes of Citizen Kane, There Will Be Blood is a film of epic proportions, depicting the rise of an oil tycoon who has forsaken his family, past, and anything that ties him to humanity—perhaps not as perfectly or innovatively executed as Welles’ masterpiece, but an admirably strong attempt.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Karl Reisz, 1960

It would seem that in the decades after World War II, England’s young men had little to look forward to besides slaving away in a factory, drinking, and, ultimately, death. In this British drama, Albert Finney (later on of Big Fish, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, etc.) plays Arthur Seaton, a cynical factory worker whose defiant attitude sets him apart as a kind of working class antihero. His antics won’t change the way things are—no protest rallies for this one—but he does manage to disrupt the day-to-day activities of his workplace (though perhaps more to amuse himself than anything else). He lives for the weekend, which he spends drinking and womanizing: “I’m out for a good time. All the rest is propaganda.”

This routine is disrupted when the married woman he’s been having an affair with tells him she’s pregnant, and that the child is his. At this time in history, it’s not so easy to resolve this predicament, so they desperately pursue quick cures, like drinking a pint of gin while soaking in a hot bath, eventually resorting to the quintessential back alley abortion.
Finney’s character is strangely charismatic—he’s a bit of a bastard yet extremely likable. Perhaps we’re drawn to his fighting spirit, though it’s debatable as to whether this will aid him in escaping the dreary monotony of his current lifestyle. More likely, he’s been doomed to live out his days in this manner—working, drinking, and slowly dying.

Look Back in Anger, Tony Richardson, 1958

Another example of the “kitchen sink realism” (as this genre is often characterized) of 1960s British cinema. But unlike Arthur Seaton, there’s nothing to like about the savagely hateful Jimmy Porter, an amateur musician and scholar who’s settled for the bleak existence of a flea market vendor selling candy. Angry at this sorry fate, and perhaps even angrier about his father’s death (which occurred when Jimmy was just a boy), he seems to take it out on the world, psychologically torturing his wife, Alison. Alison has turned her back on the upper middle class world in which she grew up, but it’s clear that Jimmy not only resents her upbringing, but is envious and fearful of her as well.

The film is based on a play, which seems fairly obvious from the unnatural sounding dialogue. The performance is a bit over the top, and distracts from the dismal reality the film is supposed to be portraying.

The Party’s Over, Rebecca Chaiklin and Donovan Leitch, 2001

Philip Seymour Hoffman acts as a journalist in this documentary, covering the 2000 presidential election via interviews with politicians, voters, protesters, fellow Hollywood actors, and so on. Hoffman says he’s doing the film because he feels uninformed, and wants to learn more about the issues, as well as the election process itself, which are both explored here.

It’s strange to watch this now, simply because of how much has happened since then. The people involved have no idea how significant this election really is. It serves as a fairly depressing reminder of how close we came to electing another candidate, leaving one to wonder how different the last eight years could have been (and then again, how they might have turned out disturbingly similar).

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Movies watched, January 27 to February 8, 2008

Death Race 2000, Paul Bartel, 1975
I first became aware of this movie through the video game that it (loosely) provided the basis for, which is available for play at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens—I strongly recommend the trip. One of the first arcade games that inspired a great deal of controversy and parental outcry for its violent content, it was eventually banned, and few units were ever made. The violent content, by the way, is really more in theory, as the graphics are pretty simple—no blood or guts, just stick figures you have to run down, with little gravestones popping up in their places.

Death Race 2000 the movie is a black comedy from Paul Bartel (see Eating Raoul and Rock and Roll High School, in which he co-stars with Warhol actress Mary Woronov, who also appears in this one as driver Calamity Jane) about a transcontinental road race wherein the more pedestrians the drivers mow down, the more points they score. The extremely cheerful announcer (apparently modeled after Howard Cosell), explains that “women are still worth ten points more than men in all age brackets, but teenagers now rack up 40 points, and toddlers under twelve now rate a big 70 points. The big score: anyone, any sex, over 75 years old has been upped to 100 points.” When the first points of the race are scored, he laments, “too bad the guy was only 38; just two years older, and he’d have been worth three times the points!”

While the nation seems to embrace this tradition (safely from their homes, that is), there is a resistance movement forming that is morally opposed to this rampant disregard for human life. Their techniques for sabotaging the race include blowing up the drivers, resembling a Death Race Carrie Nation.

Produced by the legendary Roger Corman, the original treatment was reportedly much more serious in tone, and, as Corman put it, “kind of vile”—which I can certainly imagine. He decided the story would be more appropriate as a comedy, and called for a rewrite—and I’m glad he did, because this is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen recently.

Helvetica, Gary Hustwit, 2007
This documentary opened my eyes to the ubiquitousness of Helvetica, pointing out all the places it appears, from street signs and subway stations, to advertisements, to legal documents. It shows up nearly everywhere, quietly communicating, and one never really notices it—which means it’s doing its job successfully. The other day I drove through a town where the street signs featured an oddly decorative typeface, which, while readable, was immediately noticeable—an issue that was still fresh in my mind after recently viewing this documentary.

I’d always wondered how one creates a new typeface, and so I enjoyed seeing a few of the initial steps one takes in order to do so—starting with certain letters that are representative of the rest of the alphabet’s characters, determining whether or not to use serifs, and so on. It made me want to do a few experiments of my own in this regard.

The film also explores different schools of design—some people embrace Helvetica, viewing it as clean and refreshing (one commentator particularly loves it, gushingly comparing it to an oasis in the desert), while others see it as institutional, inhuman, and boring, rebelling against it by developing unconventional, handwritten typefaces. (Though perhaps impractical in the long run, I love that one of the commentators laid out a magazine article in Zapf Dingbats because he didn’t like the article and felt it wasn’t worth reading.) While Helvetica can certainly serve its purpose, I think it’s nice to experiment with other, more interesting types of lettering—it just depends on the purpose of the text. In all, for a movie about a font, Helvetica is actually pretty fascinating and thought-provoking.

Confessions of a Superhero, Matthew Ogens, 2007

This documentary follows the lives of four superhero impersonators who make their living by hanging out on Hollywood Boulevard and trying to get people to pose for a picture with them for tips. There’s an unwritten code of etiquette for these people that some follow, while some don’t. (Actually, it’s not all that “unwritten,” as the police are watching them to ensure that they follow the rules.) Basically, they can’t harass people—they’re not allowed to solicit photos, nor can they force anyone to pay them if they don’t want to (but boy does “Marilyn Monroe” get upset when people don’t tip.)

This motley cast of characters claims to all be aspiring actors, but the likelihood of their finding real acting work seems unlikely. They come from varied backgrounds, but they’re all pretty desperate—lost souls futilely striving for fame that never comes. Wonder Woman is an impulsive and unrealistic teenage girl who moved to Hollywood on a whim—she decided to move to California and was on a plane the next day, with no work prospects, no contacts, and nowhere to live. In a similarly rash and not-too-well-thought-out decision, she married a guy several weeks after meeting him; when they stop getting along she seems surprised.

The Hulk was homeless for a long time and his teeth are kind of fucked up (this may or may not be a result of his homelessness though), but in the end he does actually get a call to be in a movie (which is indeed listed as a credit in IMDB). Not exactly an Oscar-winning role, but nonetheless not a bad start.

Batman mirrors the character of Batman in that he’s kind of a psychopath. Dark and violent, this Batman has some deep-seated anger issues as well. He claims to have been involved with the mob and to have killed a man, but this seems rather doubtful—I’d peg him as more of a compulsive liar with a temper than a hitman.

Superman is by far the strangest one of the four. A kind of sheriff for the impersonators, he prides himself on following a strong moral code, policing others when they stray from his righteous path. He claims his mother was the actress Sandy Dennis (see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but Dennis’ relatives say she didn’t have a son. And if it were true, couldn’t he simply reach out to some of his mother’s more prominent friends for a helpful contact in the business? Even more suspiciously, he says that when his mother was alive she wanted him to get into acting but he wasn’t interested at the time because he wanted to do professional lawncare (a little bizarre, if you ask me). Not to mention that, unlike the other superheroes, he’s obsessed with his super-identity. He wears the costume when he’s not working, and his apartment is filled with collectibles—he eerily even resembles Christopher Reeve a little bit.

This is ultimately a pretty sad story—none of these people are very likely to score any acting gigs beyond the one they’re already doing. And yet hundreds—maybe thousands, I don’t really know the actual statistics—of people like them flock to Hollywood every year to pursue their acting careers. I guess I just don’t understand their self-assurance and optimism, because the prospects look pretty grim to me. But it makes for a good story, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with following your dreams (ugh that sounds so sappy) despite how impractical they are.

Oddly enough, there’s another documentary on Hollywood Boulevard impersonators in the works from Dave Markey, director of 1991: The Year Punk Broke, Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, and various other gems. Maybe he should have conferred a bit with Ogen—hopefully it won’t be too repetitive, focusing on its own unique content.

The Last Detail, Hal Ashby, 1973
Two surly, self-proclaimed “badass” navy men are assigned the “shit detail” of escorting an 18 year old former Seaman named Larry Meadows from their naval base to a prison in Portsmouth. His crime: stealing $40 from his commanding officer’s wife’s favorite charity box, for which he is sentenced to eight years in jail. At the beginning, Larry (played by a young Randy Quaid in a serious role—I almost can’t stop picturing cousin Eddie from the National Lampoon movies, which I imagine has severely pigeonholed him) is oddly bland and pathetic, almost as though he refuses to allow himself any feelings or opinions. Though he says he’s angered by “injustice,” he doesn’t seem to feel that he has been wronged in this situation (they were just doing their job!). Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) takes pity on him and vows to show him a good time, the last one he’ll have for a long while. Throughout the course of the movie, they begin to teach him how to live, which may do more harm than good, as now he knows what’s at stake. He’s finally tasted the exhilarating freedom of what life can bring, but it’s about to be taken away from him. The pain in his eyes as he stares longingly at the first naked female body he’s ever seen—yes, it’s a prostitute—is intensely palpable. The poor bastard has squandered his youth, and now he actually knows it—pretty heartbreaking stuff.

Persepolis, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007
This film adaptation of the two Persepolis graphic novels looks remarkably like the comic, which I think is much stronger and more visually compelling than a live-action version would have been. I don’t really have too much more to say about this one—it was entertaining but as is so often the case, the books are better.

First Person, Errol Morris, 2000
Technically not a movie, but a criminally short-lived television series from acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris, which basically consists of 18 mini-documentaries in which he interviews a person via a TV monitor with his head on the screen. This is a great format for Morris, an opportunity for him to explore all the subjects he finds fascinating yet nonetheless might not warrant a feature-length film.

These shorts contain all the components of Morris’ films: his distinctive use of music, slow motion reenactments, and clips of old movies, as well as similar themes and subject matter, from crime scenes, to people with strange fixations, to, quite simply, strange and intriguing stories. We meet the guy who fired Thomas McIlvane, the infamous postal worker who returned to murder his co-workers after being let go, the woman who falls in love with serial killers (wittily titled “The Killer Inside Me”), a lawyer for the mob, a former game show contestant who continues to write to the show claiming that his losing question was flawed (this same man is also obsessed with high school and impersonated a high school senior at various schools around the country until he was 27 years old), a bartender who believes he may be the smartest man in the world, and so on. I only wish there were more than 18 episodes.