Devil’s Knot


Colin Firth looks to untie the devil's knot.

Colin Firth looks to untie the devil’s knot.

(2013) True Life Drama (RLJ/Image/TWC) Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Alessandro Nivola, Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Amy Ryan, Bruce Greenwood, Dane DeHaan, Elias Koteas, Rex Linn, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kristopher Higgins, Stephen Moyer, Robert Baker, Kollette Wolfe, Jack Coghlan, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Matt Letscher, Lori Beth Edgeman. Directed by Atom Egoyan

The case of the West Memphis Three has gotten about as much notoriety as any criminal case since the OJ Simpson trial and with good reason – it is considered one of the most egregious cases of wrongful conviction in the history of our judicial system.

Stevie Branch (Jurgensmeyer) pedaled off from his house after school one beautiful spring day, admonished by his hard-working mom Pam Dobbs (Witherspoon) to be home by 4:30pm or face being grounded. When he didn’t show by the time he was given, his mom got angry. When he wasn’t home by the time she came home from work, she was worried. When he still wasn’t home the next morning, she was terrified.

Her worst fears would be confirmed. Detectives of the West Memphis, Arkansas Police Department discovered a shoe floating in a nearby drainage ditch in the Robin Hood woods where Stevie and two of his friends had last been seen riding their bikes. It didn’t take long before the nude bodies of the boys, hogtied with their own shoelaces, were found – in Stevie’s case, horribly mutilated.

The attention of the police turned to Damian Echols (Hamrick), an 18-year-old misfit who loved heavy metal, had at least a passing interest in the occult and was thought to be a Satanist. His friends Jason Baldwin (Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley (Higgins) also fall under scrutiny. Misskelley is interrogated by the cops for 12 hours and eventually admits to being present at the crime. Misskelley is also severely challenged intellectually, only a few IQ points above the level generally assigned to mental retardation.

When Aaron Hutcheson (Coghlan), a classmate of the dead boys, comes forward with a harrowing story of the ritual murder of the three youngsters and implicates all three of he accused, it looks fairly open and shut. Ron Lax (Firth), a private investigator, isn’t so sure though and with moral objections to the death penalty (which was being sought), he decides to offer his services pro bono to the harried defense attorneys who gratefully accept.

It doesn’t take long for Lax to find inconsistencies and disturbing trends in the police reports and evidence. The cops never were disposed to look at any other suspects besides the three young men, despite a lack of physical evidence that connects any of them to the crime scene. Nichols’ interest in Satanic rituals was enough to convict him in the eyes of this deeply religious community. The stakes are very high – can Lax get justice for the West Memphis Three – and in so doing, bring justice at long last for Stevie and his friends?

The first question one has to ask themselves about this movie is whether or not it is needed. After all, there are two documentaries that have been made on the case – the multi-part Paradise Lost that first aired on HBO and brought the case to the attention of a national audience, and the more recent West Memphis Three. Will a dramatized account bring anything else to the discussion?

Well, no, not really. The filmmakers painstakingly researched the case and wherever possible, used dialogue directly from court transcripts as well as from interviews by the police and media. That gives the film a certain amount of credibility. However, that turns out to be a double-edged sword in that much of this material has already been made available in the documentaries.

It should be noted that in a kind of strange twist, the dramatized version seems more balanced than the documentaries, both of which seemed to indicate that the documentarians believed that Terry Hobbs (Nivola), Stevie’s stepdad and Pam’s husband at the time of the murders (they have since divorced), was the real culprit. Certainly a case is presented for him, but also for Christopher Morgan (DeHaan), another teen whose behavior was certainly peculiar and who also confessed to the crime. There’s also the blood and mud-caked African-American man who came into a local Bojangles chicken restaurant the night of the murder and whose bizarre actions certainly warranted investigation – but the blood samples taken by police were never analyzed and were eventually lost.

What you watch this movie for then is the performances and with Firth and Witherspoon, both Oscar winners, leading the way, those performances are powerful indeed. Witherspoon in particular delivers some of the best work of her career which is saying something. She has to play a gamut of emotions from incomprehensible grief to doubt to fear to determination and strength. Witherspoon is gifted enough to let all of Pam Dobbs’ personality shine through no matter which emotion is dominant at the time. Firth similarly plays Lax with bulldog-like determination as he becomes enmeshed in the horrible injustice being perpetrated in plain sight.

Some reviewers have criticized this movie for being manipulative. Holy God, if your emotions aren’t being manipulated by the brutal murders of three children and the anguish of the community that followed, I’m not quite sure what else is going to do it. The subject matter itself is manipulative. Yes you’re going to have an emotional reaction to what happens in the film. That’s not a bad thing.

The murders of Stevie Branch, Mike Morris and Christopher Byers remain unsolved. The three accused who would be convicted on the crime, would eventually be released after serving 18 years of prison time, although the State of Arkansas still lists them as convicted felons despite the DNA evidence that has exonerated them. At this point it seems extremely unlikely that the murders will ever be solved, even though the real life Lax, Pam Hobbs and in a bit of irony, Damian Echols, remain focused on finding out the truth behind this terrible crime.

It is quite discouraging that it seems that the three teenage boys who were convicted of these crimes were railroaded essentially because they were outsiders, square pegs in the very round hole of West Memphis.  The movie captures with at least a relative amount of objectivity the events of this case which have been so divisive in so many ways. While I can’t really recommend these over the documentaries (particularly the three-part HBO set), I can recommend the performances here as worth the trouble to go and find this movie on VOD or in local theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Firth, Witherspoon and much of the supporting cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Non-illuminating. If you are familiar with the case or have seen one of the documentaries about it, you won’t learn anything new.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity and some extremely disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed primarily in Georgia, and made its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Time to Kill

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Cheatin’

Chloe


Chloe

The garden isn't the only thing that's growing in this greenhouse.

(2009) Thriller (Sony Classics) Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Max Theriot, R.H. Thomson, Nina Dobrev, Mishu Vellani, Julie Khaner, Laura de Carteret, Natalie Lisinska, Tiffany Knight, Meghan Heffern, Tamsen McDonough, Kathryn Kriitmaa. Directed by Atom Egoyan

 

Sexuality is one of mankind’s preoccupations, and it occupies a good deal of our time and energy. We ascribe to it wonders and magic, but in truth it is just a physiological function. For a physiological function we sure give it a whole lot of our thought.

Catherine Stewart (Moore) is a gynecologist who knows more about the physical aspects of sex than most. She knows about it more professionally than personally however; her marriage to academic David Stewart (Neeson) has become more platonic over time. She chalks it up to familiarity and age, but there are signs that her good husband may be cheating on her.

Being a smart, capable professional lady rather than confront her husband or hire a detective, she hires Chloe (Seyfried), a prostitute she meets to attempt to seduce her husband and then report back to Catherine as to whether he takes the bait.

Soon, we discover that Chloe may have an agenda of her own and that Catherine is having a crisis of sexuality of her own. When Chloe takes Catherine and David’s son Michael (Theriot) under her wing, that agenda may be turning sinister.

Canadian director Egoyan is one of those cinematic soldiers who is better known to art-house lurkers and professional critics than the general public.  He is a talent who looks at sex in a more straight-forward way than his neighbors to the south tend to; he neither romanticizes it nor demonizes it, simply recognizes that it is a part of life.

Here there is a certain kinky side to things and Egoyan doesn’t shy away from that either. I’m not necessarily talking about fetishes so much as exploring darker aspects of our sexuality, and using sex to get what we want. Chloe is not above such things.

Although Neeson is the marquee name, Moore is the star of this show. Her Catherine is a complex, multi-layered creature who doesn’t always act the way you’d expect her to. I get that they’re trying to show her insecurities just beneath her professional demeanor, but c’mon, for someone as smart and accomplished as she is she sure does some dumb things (as mentioned above).

Seyfried, the sweet waif from Mamma Mia has become one of the more reliable young actresses out there. Here, she does the femme fatale for the first time that I’m aware of and she pulls it off very nicely. Her Chloe is obviously disturbed and has some pretty sick issues, but you still wind up feeling a little sorry for her, even after…well, let’s not get into that. Don’t want to spoil things for you.

Egoyan and writer Erin Cressida Wilson are not entirely to blame for this; Chloe is based on a French film by Anne Fontaine called Nathalie which I have not seen but I am assured by SF Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle is a pretentions and overbearing load of twaddle. I found that a bit surprising since Fontaine is normally a very good writer and director.

Still, everyone makes a misstep once in awhile. The premise is a bit ponderous, I grant you that. I mean, why would any woman in her right mind ask someone she doesn’t know to seduce her husband to prove that he’s faithful? Sounds a lot like entrapment to me. And just because you have a beautiful, sexy young woman throw herself at a middle-aged married man doesn’t mean he’s cheating. It just means he can be tempted – who’s to know that he would have ever strayed if not for the machinations of his wife.

Chloe is an Atom Egoyan film, so that means it won’t be completely without any merit whatsoever. There are certainly elements that are recommendation-worthy. However the cohesive whole doesn’t quite make the cut for me.

WHY RENT THIS: Good work by Moore and Seyfried, with Neeson in more of a supporting part. Extremely sexual which immediately casts it as non-American in origin.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The erotica is kind of Skinemax-worthy. Catherine doesn’t always act according to character.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual dialogue in the movie, some nudity and other foul language., not to mention a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming this movie, Liam Neeson’s wife Natascha Richardson passed away as a result of injuries sustained in a skiing accident. The schedule was rearranged so that Neeson only needed a further days of shooting after returning to the set.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.7M on a $14M production budget; the movie was not profitable at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Woman in Black

New Releases for the Week of March 26, 2010


March 26, 2010

Hiccup finds surfing the net is a whole 'nother ballgame when you're a Viking.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON

(DreamWorks) Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kirsten Wiig. Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean deBlois

Hiccup is a Viking…or rather, he lives in a Viking village and aspires to Viking-ness. However, these Vikings are all about killing the dragons that plague their village and steal their livestock. It has been a war without winner for generations until Hiccup actually meets a dragon and finds that they aren’t the monsters he was raised to believe they were. With the two sides locked in a death match, Hiccup has to find a way to get both sides to learn to see the world differently than they have been bred to in order to avoid the extermination of one or both of them.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, 3D IMAX

Rating: PG (for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language)

Chloe

(Sony Classics) Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Max Theriot. A married woman, suspecting her husband is cheating on her, hires a prostitute to test the loyalty of her man. But when the prostitute is untruthful about the nature of his fidelity, the family is embroiled in a situation that puts them all at risk. Acclaimed Canadian director Atom Egoyan has remade this from the French thriller Nathalie.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue, nudity and language)

Greenberg

(Focus) Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Greenberg is a forty-ish L.A. resident who finds himself adrift at a crossroads in his life. Single, unemployed and house-sitting for his more successful brother, he has nothing to show for his existence on this Earth. Trying to reconnect with old friends in an effort to find the qualities he valued in himself that are lost, he finds instead something unexpected. From director Noah Baumbach of The Squid and The Whale fame.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for some strong sexuality, drug use, and language)

Hot Tub Time Machine

(MGM) John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Chevy Chase. A group of four guys who have been friends for 25 years get together at a ski lodge to drink and muse about how dissatisfied they are with how their lives turned out. The four of them get into the hot tub and pass out there; when they wake up, its 1986 and they have the opportunity of a lifetime – to change their lives for the better. Trouble is, they can also change them for the much worse.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for strong crude and sexual content, nudity, drug use and pervasive language)