American Murder: The Family Next Door


The smiling faces of the brutally murdered.

(2020) True Crime Documentary (NetflixShanann Watts, Chris Watts, Sandi Rzucek, Frank Rzucek, Celeste Watts, Bella Watts, Mark Jamieson, Ronnie Watts, Cindy Watts, Frankie Rzucek, Nickole Atkinson, Nichol Kessinger, Michael Rourke, Luke Epple, Jim Benemann, Marcelo Kopcow, Tom Mustin, Theresa Marchetta, Karen Leigh. Directed by Jenny Popplewell

 

The Watts family of Frederick, Colorado seemed to be as normal as they come. Chris Watts worked for an oil company; his wife Shanann – 15 weeks pregnant – worked for a marketing company. She had arrived home from a business trip early at nearly 2am on August 13, 2018, dropped off by her friend and colleague Nickole Atkinson. Later that day, when Shanann missed an OB-GYN appointment and after Nickole texted her friend without getting a response, Atkinson called Chris to let her know she was worried about Shanann.

At the Watts residence, it turned out that Shanann and both of their daughters – four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste – were all missing. The police were called. Chris addressed the media and pleaded for the safe return of his family, but as the investigation continued, the picture of a perfect family began to unravel and it turns out that the couple was having intimacy issues, despite the fact that Shanann was pregnant.

Eventually, the truth came out and it would send shock waves throughout the community that the family lived in, but also through the families of both Chris and Shanann. Those who have any sort of interest in true crime can guess where the investigation led.

British filmmaker Popplewell takes a unique spin on the events of a case that was fairly well-known at the tail end of 2018 (he would be convicted in November of that year, a mere four months after the crimes were committed which is lightning fast by judicial standards). Rather than using tried-and-true true crime tropes like dramatic recreations, talking-head interviews with the family and friends of those involved as well as the investigators, and expert testimony, she tells the story entirely through social media posts by the victim, text messages from the victim to her husband and to Atkinson, and police surveillance footage of both the polygraph, the confession as well as body-cam footage of the initial response to the victim’s home.

I give Popplewell full marks on this unique spin on the true crime documentary. You won’t see another film quite like it, and you get a bit of a sense of who the victim was as well as her husband. This serves to give the story an immediacy that sometimes lacks from other true crime documentaries, but it also lacks the emotional impact. We see things from a distance; for the most part, the family was depicted as happy and normal but when the computer was turned off, reality was a different story. For those who routinely watch true crime shows like Dateline: NBC and 48 Hours, this will feel familiar; it will also feel like you know what happened even before the police get their confession, even if you aren’t familiar with the details of the case as Da Queen was not, yet she accurately predicted who the killer would be, basically from the moment that they were reported missing.

Fredrick is the kind of suburban neighborhood that is movie-perfect; manicured lawns and beautiful homes, kids playing in the streets, everybody knows everybody else. Spielberg couldn’t have painted a more comforting picture, but yet a brutal crime took place here nevertheless which should give the viewer pause. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique presentation of a true crime documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really very surprising for even casual followers of true crime.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime was also depicted in a 20/20 episode as well as on episodes of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. The murder was also the subject of Lifetime movie Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer which the family of Shanann Watts was not consulted about and spoke out against
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Any number of shows on the Discovery ID channel.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Herb Alpert Is…

Do It Yourself


A silent suicide.

(2017) Crime Dramedy (Artsploitation) Konstadinos Aspiotis, Makis Papadimitriou, Mirto Alikaki, Christos Loulis, Argyris Xafis, Panos Koronis, Themis Panou, Aris Antonopoulos, Stephanos Mwange. Directed by Dimitris Tsilifonis

 

When you are trapped in a working porn studio, having made what’s intended to be a viral video confession exonerating a crime boss who is in jail for murder, and you are surrounded by gun-toting killers employed by said crime boss, escaping with your life may require a little do-it-yourself inventiveness.

That’s exactly the situation that small-time criminal Alkis Vidalis (Aspiotis) finds himself, conveniently enough for this review. He is no criminal mastermind nor is he much of a fighter. He’s more of a run away and hide sort of guy. With the building crawling with armed guards who are, fortunately for Alkis, they are not nearly as bright as he is. Using whatever he can find which includes some porn film accouterments, he will have to figure out a way to get out alive and with time ticking down until the film is loaded to the Internet, the prospect of a life extending more than an hour or two are looking mighty bleak.

This Greek action-packed dramedy owes a lot to both Tarantino and Scorsese in equal measures. If that sounds like a great combination to you, then this is your jam. Tsilifonis takes great care not to make anyone too awful or too likable. Everyone in the movie is a criminal in some way shape or form – even the crime boss’ lawyer (Alikaki) is fully aware that once the video goes live Alkis will have outlived his usefulness. This is a film with no clear bad guys (Loulis as jailed crime boss Daniel Bezerianos comes closest) and while we have a rooting interest in Alkis, no clear good guys either.

There are some genuinely funny moments that lighten the frenetic mood, as well as some ingenious Rube Goldberg-like inventions that Alkis creates. The cinematography is slick and crisp which give a sense of realism to the film. However, the thing that keeps this from being an unreserved recommendation is that Tsilifonis has a tendency to get a bit cute, using Go-Pro-like shots on moving objects (such as a wheelchair) more than he needed to. Once is fine; twice is okay; more than that is repetitive and annoying.

The performances are solid, with Aspiotis in the lead being particularly satisfying. He gives Alkis a kind of hangdog air that makes him appealing, but as he promises in the voice-over narration, he does things that aren’t cricket. Papadimitriou as the killer tasked with whacking Alkis once the word comes down also gives a nice balance of menace and moronic.

Movies like this don’t come on down the pike very often and while the film is certainly flawed, the entertainment value is pretty high all things considered. It is subtitled and during the initial sequence in which the circumstances are essentially explained through the use of newspaper headlines, a bit hard to read so you might find yourself rewinding and pausing so you can actually read the entire subtitle. Speed reading can come in handy here. Anyway, devotees of movies full of hoods who can’t shoot straight will find this one right in their sweet spot.

REASONS TO SEE: Overall, very entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times, Tsilifonis gets a little too cute for his own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, brief drug use, some sexual content and a fair amount of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tsilifonis’ 2012 short The Way of Styx is also included on the Blu-Ray edition.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Raid: Redemption
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Terror 5

A Murder in Mansfield


Some father-son chats are more intense than others.

(2017) Documentary (Cabin Creek) Collier Landry, Dr. John Boyle, Rusty Cates, Matt Trammel, Annie Trammel, Mark Caudill, Susan Messmore, Dave Messmore, George Ziegler, Susan Ziegler, Dr. Dennis Marikis, Bryan Neff, Sylvia Neff, Michelle Barth. Directed by Barbara Kopple

On December 30, 1989, Noreen Boyle – wife of a popular and charismatic doctor in Mansfield, Ohio – disappeared. 26 days later, she was found wrapped in a green plastic tarp below a concrete basement in a home in Erie, Pennsylvania that her husband had bought for his pregnant mistress, intending to move in. Noreen had asked for a divorce prior to her disappearance.

The good doctor was accused of the crime and put on trial. Certainly there was evidence – he had purchased a jackhammer two days before his wife disappeared, for example – but the most damning testimony was that of his then 12-year-old son Collier whose composed, almost eerily adult demeanor won a lot of people over. He became something of a local hero and was instrumental in getting the conviction of his dad.

More than a quarter century later, Collier – now using the surname Landry – is an L.A.-based filmmaker who is returning home to Mansfield to get some closure. He had undergone an ordeal that was simply unimaginable, losing his mother and father and adopted sister all within days. He was completely and utterly alone. The detective on the case, David Messmore and his wife Susan, were eager to adopt the young boy and young Collier wanted to live with them but a judge ruled that the Ziegler family instead would raise Collier. The young man was devastated at first but eventually accepted the situation and became close to his adopted family which enabled him to remain in Mansfield and keep his friends close.

Collier wants to reconnect with the people important to him but also get closure from his dad who continued to maintain his innocence from prison for 26 years. After his first parole hearing, John Boyle changed his tune somewhat to claim that Noreen had fallen accidentally and hit her head and that he was only guilty of trying to cover it up. Collier doesn’t believe it. Neither do we.

It’s hard not to be inspired by Collier Landry. If you spoke to him on the street, you’d never know he has such an awful tragedy in his past. He seems pretty well-adjusted and grounded and as we get details about his father’s neglect and abusive behavior, it’s a wonder he didn’t indulge in a violent lifestyle himself. Landry is certainly the star of the show, from the video of his testimony from the 1990 trial of his father (at the age of 12, sounding and acting more like an adult than most adults in similar circumstances would) to the jailhouse interview with his dad in which he asks him point blank “What happened that night?” followed by “Are you a sociopath?” Landry and Kopple clearly think that he is and you can’t really disagree.

This isn’t a true crime documentary in the strictest sense, although there are elements of it. This isn’t like anything you routinely see on Investigation Discovery or 48 Hours. This is rather more about the journey of Collier Landry, how he overcame the demons of his childhood to lead a productive and satisfying life. One has to admire his resilience and even now, 26 years after the crime, the town of Mansfield clearly still holds him dear to their hearts as a radio interview early on in the movie illustrates.

And yet Landry is still haunting by the crime, as well he should be. He spends time talking to a psychiatrist and to his adopted parents, asking them for their advice on meeting up with his dad. The confrontation, which takes place in prison, is not really the emotional payoff you’d think. As with most things in life, it doesn’t go exactly as we might hope and while Collier professes that he got the closure that he needed, it wasn’t the closure that he wanted. Life is funny like that sometimes.

This isn’t among Koppel’s best work (last year’s Miss Sharon Jones! was) but it still approaches true crime from the point of view of those left behind to deal with the loss of loved ones, something we rarely get with any detail from documentaries. The finished product here feels a bit unfinished, if you get my drift – there’s a lot of the story that feels unexplored and perhaps too much emphasis was placed on Collier’s confrontation with his dad which while packing a dramatic punch conceptually doesn’t really deliver it in reality. The real attraction here is Collier Landry himself and more time should have been spent on his journey than on his father’s. Either way, this is compelling drama and for those who like both character studies or true crime documentaries there is something  there for both camps.

The film made it’s world premiere earlier this evening (as it was published) at the prestigious DOC NYC festival, the largest film festival in the world devoted to documentaries. It should be playing the film festival circuit in the upcoming months with possible a limited release afterwards; if what you read here sounds interesting to you, keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO GO: Landry is an inspiring subject. The interviews are less talking heads and more friends catching up. This is a home movie in the best possible sense.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie would have been better without the soap opera elements.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, adult themes and some gruesome images of a murder victim.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kopple has been making documentaries for more than 40 years, winning an Oscar for Harlan County USA.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into the Abyss
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Sky and Ground

Goya’s Ghost


Goya's Ghosts

Francisco Goya stands before one of his completed works.

(Goldwyn) Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgaard, Randy Quaid, Michael Lonsdale, Jose Luis Gomez, Blanca Portillo, Mabel Rivera. Directed by Milos Forman

These days the Spanish Inquisition is a punch line, but back in the day the name would induce fear for the suffering it caused. Being summoned by the Inquisition was in no way a joke, and those who received such a summons usually had reason to regret it later.

Francisco Goya (Skarsgaard) is perhaps the most renowned painter in all of Spain. He has the eye of the royal court, including King Carlos (Quaid) and the clergy, including the Inquisitor General (Lonsdale) and more to the point, an ambitious clergyman named Lorenzo (Bardem) who is having his own portrait painted by Goya. Lorenzo has recently lobbied the Inquisitor General to be given charge of the Inquisition so that he might return it to stricter standards.

Noticing a painting of a young girl in Goya’s studio, Lorenzo finds out that her name is Ines (Portman) and she is the daughter of a prosperous merchant (Gomez). When Ines is picked up by Inquisition spies for refusing to eat pork in a tavern (since those of the Jewish faith didn’t eat pork, this is construed as a sign of Judaism and not of someone just not liking the taste of pork; this particular policy was bad news for those who didn’t like pork and worse news for pigs), her parents beg Goya to intercede with the Inquisition. He goes to Lorenzo, who visits the torture-ravaged girl who has already confessed for her crime of not eating pork and therefore being a Jew (horrors!) and rather than helping her, he rapes her instead. Nice guy, that Lorenzo.

As the days and weeks begin to pile up, the merchant decides to take matters into his own hands. He invites Lorenzo and Goya for dinner and pleads directly to Lorenzo. When Lorenzo placidly says that the whole concept of the Inquisition is that those who speak the truth will receive strength from God to weather the torture, the merchant goes ballistic. He feels, quite rightly, that people will admit to anything under torture and to prove it, he strings up Lorenzo (over Goya’s strenuous objections) and gets him to sign an affidavit that Lorenzo is, in fact, a monkey who consorts with other monkeys. Such a document would be blasphemy and Lorenzo would be disgraced and defrocked and quite probably feel the ministrations of the Inquisition himself. The merchant threatens Lorenzo with the document if he doesn’t release Ines; Lorenzo being a stubborn sort rapes her again.

Thus the merchant makes the document public and Lorenzo is predictably defrocked, fleeing Spain in disgrace. 15 years later, King Carlos is dead and Napoleon has conquered Spain, abolishing the Inquisition and installing a new prosecutor – that’s right, Lorenzo. He has wholeheartedly embraced the doctrine of the French revolution and enthusiastically applies it to Spain with mixed results.

Goya in the meantime has gone deaf and is embittered, although he is still a great painter (and would be for several decades). Ines has lost most of her mind during her long incarceration; when the French empty the jails, she wanders to her family home only to find all of her family dead, killed by rampaging soldiers during the invasion. With nowhere left to go, she seeks out Goya, begging him to help her find the baby she’d had in prison who Lorenzo had fathered but had been taken away from Ines shortly after birth.

Forman, best known for Amadeus has again presented a place and time in all its glory and sordidness, warts and halos combined. This is a place of disease and putrefaction, but one where great works of art were created.

Forman took many of his visual cues from Goya himself, and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe does a magnificent job of making the movie look not unlike a Goya painting; often dark and mysterious but always full of life.

Skarsgaard makes a formidable Goya, charming and driven at once, his talent protecting him from the worst offenses of the time. The surprising thing is that he is not the central character of the movie that bears his name.

In fact, nobody has that distinction. Ostensibly, it’s Lorenzo’s story but it really isn’t about him, not altogether anyway. Nor is it about Ines, who spends much of the film rotting away in prison offscreen.  It’s not because of the performances of Bardem and Portman who do solid work here – no, it really is because there is no focus on any one specific character, leaving us to focus on the environment, which might be a good thing because Foreman does such a great job at creating it.

This isn’t a trip to the Prado by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the next best thing. Admirers of Goya may cringe at the liberties taken with the painter’s life and the history of Spain but even the most stringent of those will surely be pleased by the overall look of the film, which captures the spirit and intensity of the great artist’s work.

WHY RENT THIS: Skarsgaard, Bardem and Portman deliver solid performances. The film depicts a time in history rarely seen in films.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is a little confusing and the plot a bit brutal from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s rape, violence, murder, nudity, torture, sexuality, foul language and all manner of mayhem. Just another day at the office for me, but you might want to consider hard before letting your kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Natalie Portman was cast as Ines after Forman noticed her resemblance to the Goya painting “Milkmaid of Bordeaux.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Escapist