Amanda Knox


This is what a thousand yard stare looks like.

This is what a thousand yard stare looks like.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito, Giuliano Mignini, Meredith Kercher, Nick Pisa, Stephanie Kercher, Valter Biscotti, Dr. Stefano Conti, Dr. Carla Vecchiotti, Rudy Dengue, Curt Knox, Arline Kercher. Directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn

 

Most of us have a certain amount of faith in our legal system. We believe that we are protected by the laws that require that preserve the rights of the accused. In other words, if we are innocent, the law should protect us. However, recent history has taught us that it isn’t always the case.

On November 1, 2007, British exchange student Meredith Kercher was raped and murdered in her apartment in Perugia, Italy, an apartment she shared with American student Amanda Knox and two Italian students. Knox, who claimed to have spent the night with her new boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, became the focus of the investigation largely because of her behavior which in the eyes of the Italian police and prosecutors seemed to show a lack of grief over her roommate’s brutal murder.

What followed was a nightmare. The media caught hold of the case and the tabloids, particularly in the UK, had a field day. Knox was characterized as a sex-crazed lunatic and was accused of  murdering her roommate in a sex party gone bad. When the bloody fingerprints of a known burglar named Rudy Guede were found on some of the victim’s things, he was added to the accused along with Raffaele who was considered an accessory. DNA evidence seemed to confirm this and Knox and the two men were convicted.

Except that questions began to rise about the veracity of the DNA evidence and the behavior of the prosecutor Giuliano Mignini who fancied himself a modern-day Columbo and of the Italian police in general. An appeal process was begun and soon suspicions began to circulate that Knox and Sollecito might well be as innocent as they claimed to be. In the meantime the media circus continued.

Equal parts documentary and cautionary tale, the filmmakers show a clear reverence for Errol Morris and his style, incorporating it somewhat. Modern documentaries have become parades of talking heads offset by archival footage and animated re-creations but while those elements are all present here, Amanda Knox comes off as a scripted mystery (albeit one most of us know how it ends) more than a typical doc. In fact, this is as entertaining a documentary as you’re likely to find without sacrificing any of its mandate to educate.

Nick Pisa, a tabloid reporter who supplied the Daily Mirror with much of its headline copy, represents the media here and does he ever have a warped view as what the responsibilities of journalism entail. In an era where the media’s coverage of president-elect Donald Trump has brought a focus onto that very subject, we can see where the “If it bleeds it leads” ethos has taken us and how the media, rather than being a public advocate, is now a lapdog in search of ratings and advertising dollars. It no longer is important to get things right but to get things first. As a former journalist myself, it makes me want to puke.

Mignini also doesn’t come off looking good. An aficionado of detective fiction, after his DNA evidence is debunked he still maintains that Knox is guilty because as he puts it he can see it in her eyes. While Mignini seems a congenial man he certainly doesn’t seem capable of being a prosecutor – at least not a competent one. Of course, it should also be taken with a grain of salt that we are seeing things entirely from the point of view from the Knox camp which also has it’s downside.

Knox has not talked about her ordeal since it ended until now, and she makes a striking presence. I’m not sure if her commentary was scripted or off the cuff but she does come off as an intelligent young woman. Now pushing 30, she is far from the flighty 20-year-old she was when these events occurred. Certainly she made some mistakes in judgment but come on, she was 20. What 20 year old gets every life decision right? Her thousand yard stare, pretty much captured above, is the most haunting image I’ll take from this film. While it should be remembered that Meredith Kercher was ultimately the victim here (and to the filmmaker’s discredit she is little more than a supporting character here as was her family which continues to assert that Knox was the killer) she wasn’t the only one and it seems to me that we are all partially to blame. If we didn’t eat up these lurid and gruesome news stories like Halloween candy the media wouldn’t lose their minds around stories like this – and maybe justice might be more than a possibility.

REASONS TO GO: Less documentary style so much as a whodunit style. It’s very much an indictment of modern mass media as well as the Italian police. We get to hear from Knox herself.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some profanity along with some disturbing crime scene photos and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This marks the 25th original documentary to be distributed by Netflix.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thin Blue Line
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Look of Silence

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Crude


Don't say anything crude.

Don’t say anything crude.

(2009) Documentary (First Run) Pablo Fajardo, Sting, Judge German Yanez, Kent Robertson, Dr. Adolfo Callejas, Steve Donziger, Ebergeldo Criollo, Alossa Soltani, Joseph Kohn, Maria Garafolo, Sara McMillen, Ricardo Reis Veiga, Diego Larrea, Alejandro Ponce, Rosa Moreno, Amy Goodman, Rafael Correa, Hugo Chavez, Lupita de Heredia, Trudie Styler. Directed by Joe Berlinger

In 1993, lawyers in Ecuador filed a class action lawsuit against Chevron on behalf of 30,000 indigenous dwellers of the Ecuadorian rain forest for damages done by Texaco’s (who were acquired by Chevron in 2001) Lago Agrio oilfield operations. The lawsuit alleged that poorly maintained pipelines and waste disposal pits had infiltrated the water supply, leading to a variety of cancers and other diseases that afflict the people of the region, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island.

The lawsuit dragged on for 18 years, following a change of venue from New York to Ecuador after American courts dismissed the case because they didn’t have proper jurisdiction. This documentary, helmed by Joe Berlinger who has been Oscar nominated and also won Emmy and Peabody awards for his work, followed the case during 2006 and 2007 as the lawsuit drew international attention.

Berlinger admirably allows both sides of the story to air their opinions; certainly his sympathies lie with the plaintiffs as he tends to present more of their point of view, but certainly Chevron cannot complain that he didn’t give them if not equal time at least enough time to present their case. It’s hard to argue with the images that we see of scandalously polluted holes in the ground, children with heartbreaking rashes and illnesses, and the evidence of the cultural destruction of a people who had inhabited the area safely for centuries until the oil companies came along.

Chevron’s argument that Texaco had cleaned up the area that they were involved in before turning over the oilfield to the state-run Petroecuador corporation who, according to Chevron, were responsible for the lion’s share of the environmental destruction is hard to ignore. Berlinger was given access to Chevron executives as well as their legal team and quite frankly they don’t come off as profit-mad monsters. However, the plaintiffs do argue that Texaco wouldn’t have done any cleaning had they not been compelled to after an earlier lawsuit and their argument that Texaco didn’t uphold their share of the agreement is also hard to ignore.

The status of the people affected by the extraction of oil is truly heartbreaking; nobody should have to live in those conditions, particularly considering the biodiversity of the region which has likely been irreparably damaged by the somewhat cavalier safety precautions of all of the oil companies involved. While the documentary does spend some time with the natives, more emphasis is given on the legal teams of both sides which in a sense is justified because as a legal drama this case is compelling, but like most real-life legal dramas, can be kind of boring to watch.

The Ecuadorian courts rendered a decision in 2011, ordering Chevron to pay just under $10 billion in reparations and clean-up costs, a decision upheld by the Ecuadorian supreme court. In turn, Chevron litigated in the United States, alleging that improprieties by the American and Ecuadorian lawyers of the plaintiffs and corruption in the Ecuadorian judicial system had led to a decision that was unjustified. An American court found in favor of Chevron in 2014, a decision that the original plaintiffs are appealing. To date, none of the people affected by the drilling for oil have received a penny in compensation.

Watching Donziger, the lead American lawyer who is somewhat arrogant, it is easy to believe that he behaved improperly, which has been borne out by documentary footage not included in the feature as well as through his own journal entries and internal memos. Sadly, while the cause was just, those who fought for the cause didn’t behave in a manner that reflected the justness of that cause. And to their detriment, Chevron has launched an aggressive course of punitive litigation against the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and their lawyers. It is somewhat ironic that a company that complained that they were being sued because of their deep pockets are now using those deep pockets to go after those who sued them, who are now suing Chevron once again, this time for $113 billion, claiming that Chevron has failed to comply with the original decision.

Chances are the case will continue to churn in the American and international legal systems for years to come, maybe even decades. My gut feeling is that if Chevron ends up paying anything out, it will be much less than what they were initially ordered to pay and if they do pay anything out, most of it will likely go to the lawyers and little will make its way to the Ecuadorian Amazon where people continue to live and die. This is the human cost of our insatiable need for oil and the insatiable greed of those who supply that oil. It’s the kind of tragedy that would have delighted Shakespeare – and turned his stomach.

WHY RENT THIS: Reasonably balanced, allowing both sides to present their points of view. Beautifully shot. Fascinating interviews.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those who love the law may be disgusted by the behavior of lawyers on both sides. The struggle between the lawyers overshadows the plight of the natives.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Following the release of the film, Chevron had the case tried in an American court, claiming fraud and corruption; raw footage from the film, not included in the final cut, was submitted as evidence in the case.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Interviews with director Joe Berlinger and activist Trudie Styler, festival and premiere coverage and a resource guide.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $185,881 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You’ve Been Trumped
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Transit

Edge of Darkness


Edge of Darkness

Mel Gibson doesn't react too well to getting a speeding ticket from Officer Goldberg.

(2010) Suspense Thriller (Warner Brothers) Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Shawn Roberts, Bojana Novakovic, Frank Grillo, Jay O. Sanders, Denis O’Hare, David Aaron Baker, Damian Young, Caterina Scorsone. Directed by Martin Campbell

The somewhat bizarre story of Mel Gibson of late has been public knowledge almost to the point of overkill. I’m not going to comment one way or another oh the things he’s done or said – that is for others to do. I will say I have always admired him as an actor.

It’s been eight years since Gibson last assayed a leading role in a film. In this one, he plays Boston Police Detective Craven, who doesn’t have a whole lot in this life, but he does have a daughter, Emma (Novakovic) who is his whole existence. She works for a big corporation called Northmoor that is one of those companies that nobody seems to know what they do, only that they have big government contracts. Emma seems a bit unwell, with frequent nosebleeds and overall fatigue.

However, her condition gets a whole lot worse when a masked figure shouts “Craven” as the two of them are walking out of his house, then lets loose with a shotgun blast that kills her right in front of his eyes. With her death his life is completely shattered in an instant.

It is assumed that the shooter had meant to target the police detective instead of the girl, but it becomes evident that there is more going on than meets the eye and the detective in Craven knows something smells rotten. He decides to ask a few questions, shake a few trees, see what falls out. He starts with her boyfriend (Roberts) who seems terrified but points Craven in the direction of Northmoor. The detective talks with the unctuous corporate president Jack Bennett (Huston) and while that sets his cop instincts into overdrive, he’s still flailing around in the dark. That is, until he gets a visit from Jedburgh (Winstone), a mysterious sort who is one of those clandestine guys who knows more than anybody else.

Soon Craven is knee deep on eco-terrorists, government hitmen, corrupt politicians and attempts on his life. There is no subtlety going on here; he is a man with nothing to lose because he’s already lost everything. There is indeed no more dangerous a man than that.

This is a more than competent thriller. Director Martin Campbell has done Bond movies (the very respectable Casino Royale) as well as high-profile franchise pics (the upcoming Green Lantern) and has shown that he knows what he’s doing. He handles action scenes deftly, and spends enough time on character development without slowing the pacing down for it. That’s a pretty difficult balance to achieve, and Campbell makes it look effortless.

His star has a whole lot of baggage and I don’t just mean onscreen. Gibson’s popularity isn’t what it once was when he was the World’s Sexiest Man, whose smile made him a “right here, right now” choice for many a woman. His anti-Semitic and misogynistic tirades have landed him on tabloid news shows and brought him unwanted publicity. His career has suffered as a result – this high-profile film was far from a hit.

That’s a shame because it isn’t half-bad. It’s based on a BBC mini-series of the same name. While this one has been transplanted to American shores, it retains much of the suspense of the original. Helping out is a stellar support cast. Winstone is one of the best in the business, and he sinks his teeth into this role. His scenes with Gibson are some of the film’s best moments.

Huston plays the smooth Bennett like a cobra, mesmerizing us before he strikes to inject a lethal dose of venom. Huston excels at these sorts of roles and he could have easily phoned this one in, but he doesn’t. He makes Bennett more than the standard corporate cliché, and that helps elevate the movie somewhat.

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of clichés here and the movie gets bogged down in its own plot intricacies from time to time. Be that as it may, this is a good thriller that has enough entertainment value that if you can look beyond Gibson’s off-screen troubles, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

WHY RENT THIS: Gibson is still very much a star, although a tarnished one. A very respectable cast; scenes between Winstone and Gibson are top-notch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The concept has been done to death and the movie doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the table. While there are a few good scares, mostly it’s just gruesome.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of violence, some of it gruesome. There’s also plenty of good Irish Catholic Boston cop-style foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Martin Campbell also directed the mini-series on which this is based.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the British mini-series giving viewers a good frame of reference.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $81.1M on a $80M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Obsessed