Movie Reviews - 2012 postsThursday August 29, 2013
Movie Review: West of Memphis (2012)
I’d heard good things about “West of Memphis,” the documentary by Amy Berg detailing the arrest, trial, and conviction of three young men, Damien Wayne Echols, 18, Jason Baldwin, 16, and Jessie Misskelley, 17, in the 1993 deaths of three young boys, who were found naked, bound and mutilated in a shallow pond in the Robin Hood Hills section of West Memphis, Ark. Two of the young men were sentenced to life in prison; one (Echols) was sentenced to death.
The evidence against them? The confession of one, Misskelley, who was questioned for 12 hours by the police, and who later recanted. Some eyewitness testimony from others, later recanted. Direct evidence? Nothing. DNA evidence? No. Hysteria over the crime helped. The focus of the investigation became Echols after more than month because the crime was perceived to be a Satanic crime and Echols was perceived to be a Satanist, even though he was probably just a Goth kid.
Although we don’t really know much about him, do we? Instead, the doc strings us along for two and a half hours with various guesses about the crime and wringings of hand over the miscarriage of justice and footage of Lorri Davis, who married Echols when he was in prison, reading love letters from him. And, yes, you read that right: two and a half hours. I know the story of the West Memphis Three is a tragedy twice over, but it took Steven Spielberg only a half-hour longer to present the entirety of the Holocaust. Can’t a brother get a film editor in here?
At first “West of Memphis” is a horrific crime story (which it is), then it’s a story of a horrific miscarriage of justice (which it seems to be), then it becomes a kind of detective story—if these kids didn’t do it, who did?—and different people become involved in the investigation and the attempt to right the crime after the crime. San Francisco’s Dennis Riordan becomes the most prominent of the lawyers, but even he winds up with a backseat in the doc to all of the celebrities who made the case of the West Memphis Three their cause: Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, and Peter Jackson. But how did they all get involved? Did Rollins start it? And did he bring the others along? It feels like that’s the case but we don’t know for sure. Here’s the question I have that the documentarians don’t seem interested in answering: Of all the miscarriages of justice in the world, how did so many work so long on this one?
That’s the oddity. We have a two-and-a-half-hour doc that still leaves us with fundamental questions. When did doubts about the boys’ guilt first arise? Immediately? What were the West Memphis Three thinking back in 1994 as they were on trial? Did they think they would get off? Did they realize the gravity of the situation? Instead, they’re silent, background figures in their own story. They’re virtually unknowable. But the doc churns over (and over) some of the same material. It draws out the drama and thus draws out the doc. You feel it happening. You feel the manipulation.
“West of Memphis” ultimately disappoints for not being more concise, for not seeing the wider picture, for not answering fundamental questions despite its length. Who doesn’t disappoint? Eddie Vedder. A talking head, he comes off here as sober, intelligent and thoughtful.
Movie Review: The Gatekeepers (2012)
Has Dick Cheney seen this documentary? He should. Have you? You should, too.
“The Gatekeepers” documents the nearly 50 years of struggle, tension, and terrorism between Israel and Palestine since the Six Day War, as seen through the eyes of the six surviving directors of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency, whose motto is “Defender that shall not be seen.” Here, they are seen. Here, they talk.
Near the end, when documentarian Dror Moreh asks his subjects if they support speaking to the enemy, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the like, they all say yes. Every one of them. Even Avraham Shalom, who looks like your favorite Jewish uncle (checked shirt, red suspenders) but has something deeper and darker in him, even he says yes. “Anyone we can, even if they answer rudely,” Shalom says, adding, “It’s a trait of a professional intelligence operative to talk to everyone. Things get clarified.”
Things get clarified in “The Gatekeepers,” too, even if that clarification leads to no easy answers, or, really, any answers. But it clarifies in demonstrating a path that hasn’t worked. Which just happens to be the path we’re on.
What do you do?
It’s tough to imagine the work it took to get these guys to speak, but they do, and they do it with intelligence, thoughtfulness, and a surprising lack of bullshit. These men have seen things and done things and made decisions and taken lives. They’ve lived the dilemma most of us merely debate over.
The doc begins with one such dilemma, presented rhetorically by Yuval Diskin (director of Shin Bet, 2005-11), even as it becomes a real-world situation later in the film. A known terrorist is with two other people, and you don’t know whether they’re part of it, but you can’t take him out without taking them out, too. “What do you do?” Diskin asks Moreh, just off-camera. “Do you fire or not?” He says not doing anything seems easier but it’s actually harder. Then he says something fairly remarkable for the head of a national security agency. It’s a worldview we don’t get much in the U.S., where absolutism, if not outright chest-thumping, is the norm. It’s a measured response; it resides in the gray areas:
We all have our moments. On vacation, you say, “Okay, I made a decision and X number of people were killed. They were definitely about to launch a big attack. No one near them was hurt. It was as sterile as possible.” Yet you still say, “There’s something unnatural about it.” What’s unnatural is the power you have to take three people, terrorists, and take their lives in an instant.
Israel is more besieged than the U.S.—tiny rather than huge, surrounded on all sides by enemies rather than oceans—yet its heads of security present a more human face than ours. They seem smarter. “We took intensive courses in spoken and literary Arabic,” says Yaakov Peri (1988-94). “Anyone who took the Shin Bet’s Arabic program seriously, knows Arabic.” They have a sense of humor about dark matters. Avi Dichter (2000-2005), who looks like he could be Mel Brooks’ younger brother, talks about the dangers of bad Arabic as officials go door-to-door in occupied territories. Adding an accent to the H? It’s the difference between “We came to count you” and “We came to castrate you.”
What’s the dilemma? It’s occupation—of the West Bank and Gaza. How do you control what can’t be controlled? How do you sort the innocent from the dangerous without creating more of the dangerous? How much surveillance is enough to keep your group safe, and when is it OK to shoot to kill, and in the process what do we become? More: How do you fight an enemy whose notion of victory, as one Palestinian tells Ami Ayalon (1995-2000), is “seeing you suffer”? An enemy who thinks you don’t even have the right to exist?
One solution is an open hand—giving up the occupied territories, West Bank and Gaza—but of course the Oslo Accords were meant to do that and it led to fierce reaction and outcry from within Israel and to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the subsequent resignation of Shin Bet director Carmi Gillon (1994-96).
Another solution is the closed fist. But in 1984 that led to the Bus 300 Affair, in which two Palestinian hijackers were executed summarily by Shin Bet, which led to outcry, investigation, coverup. Yahya Ayyash, chief bombmaker for Hamas, was assassinated in 1996, but there was collateral damage, and outcry, and when a larger group could have been targeted, lesser bombs were used and terrorists survived. For which there was outcry.
Good and safe
We want to be safe but we want to be good. That’s the dilemma. Yet the more practical question is this: Is our method for making ourselves safe in the short-term making ourselves safe in the long-term? Are our methods sustainable? For these six men, whose positions and presence carry considerable weight, the answer is no, no, no, no, no and no.
Of all things, I kept being reminded of “The Wire,” David Simon’s superlative series about cops and drug dealers (and politicians and teachers and the media) in Baltimore. Tactically, it’s about tracking guys too smart to use cellphones. Politically, it’s about the numbers game. Here’s Shalom:
Peri kept showing us this chart. How many people were caught? How many informers were there? How many attacks were prevented? How many weren’t? The picture was always rosy but it was point-specific. There was no strategy, just tactics.
Moreh doesn’t get into the differences between the six Shin Bet directors/talking heads. Is Shalom, for example, talking about Yaakov Peri here? I assume so. Did he object to him? Does he blame him for the all tactics/no strategy policy? But wasn’t Shalom director of Shin Bet then? Could he do nothing?
Moreh doesn’t give us much on the history of Shin Bet, either: when it was formed, by whom, for what; how it differs from Mossad. We don’t get the background for people like me who know very little of the history of Israel. We have to search that out. Which isn’t a bad thing, just a thing.
Finally, beyond what they did with Shin Bet, we don’t learn much about these men. Who went on to politics and the Knesset? Who was born where and when? Shalom, it turns out, was born in Vienna in 1930. He was eight during the Anschluss. Apparently he barely knew he was Jewish, or what that meant, until the day after Kristallnacht when he was beaten up at school. None of that is in the doc, but it lends even more power to one of the doc’s more shocking moments: when Shalom, the former director of Shin Bet, the man with a darkness in his eyes, compares the Israeli army, his army, to the German army of World War II:
The future is bleak. It’s dark, the future. Where does it lead? To a change in the people’s character. Because if you put most of our young people in the army, they’ll see a paradox. They’ll see that it strives to be a people’s army, like the Nahal unit, involved in building up the country. On the other hand, it’s a brutal occupation force, similar to the Germans in World War II. [Pause] Similar, not identical. And I’m not talking about their behavior toward the Jews—that was exceptional, with its own particular characteristics. I mean how they acted to the Poles, the Belgians, the Dutch. To all of them. The Czechs. It’s a very negative trait that we acquired, to be ... I’m afraid to say it, so I won’t. [Longer pause] We’ve become cruel, to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population, using the excuse of the war against terror.
Moreh was inspired to do “The Gatekeepers” by Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” and he was able to get his first subject here, Ami Ayalon, who opened the gates as it were, because of “The Fog of War.” He told Ayalon he wanted to do something in that manner, and Ayalon nodded and said that Morris’ documentary should be required viewing in war school.
So should “The Gatekeepers.” Forget the modifier.
Movie Review: Not Fade Away (2012)
There’s an early scene in “Not Fade Away,” written and directed by David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” which encapsulates much of what we are about to see.
It begins with three teenagers on a summer night in 1964 hanging behind a curbside sewer grating and bemoaning their existence in general and lack of girls in particular. The smallest one, Douglas (John Magaro), says the following:
Nothing has ever worked for me. I got this skinny physique. I got this skuzzy complexion.
CUT TO: The Rolling Stones singing “I Just Want to Make Love to You” on Hollywood Palace.
Great transition. The Stones provide Doug with an answer not only on how to get girls, with his skinny physique and skuzzy complexion, but what to do with his life. He can become a musician. He can join a band. He can become … a rock star.
More, Chase keeps the camera rolling, as it were, so we see the cultural divide the music and the hair engender. Doug’s father, Pat (James Gandolfini), watching the show with his bowl of ice cream after a day of work, looks positively disgusted by the Stones, and his reaction is echoed by, of all people, the host of Hollywood Palace, Dean Martin, who says, “Rolling Stones! Aren’t they great?” and then rolls his eyes to laughter from the crowd. He adds:
They’re going to leave right after the show for London. They’re going to challenge the Beatles to a hair pulling contest.
More laughter from the crowd and a conspiratorial smile from Pat. But their world is about to change.
“Not Fade Away,” which became the Stones’ first hit stateside, is about a band, Doug’s, that not only faded away but barely formed in the first place. It’s a slice of life about the haphazard path life can take. It’s universal in this regard, but, because it’s culled from Chase’s past, it’s specific to place (New Jersey) and time: that moment when everything the greatest generation strived for was upended by their children, the boomer generation, for whom it was striven, and who had in them an unreal idealism and an overwhelming sense of privilege.
It starts out about a girl, Grace Dietz (Bella Heathcote, looking very Heather Graham circa 1998), who is always in Doug’s sites but out of his reach, not to mention out of his league. But time is on his side. Doug is asked to join the band of his friend, Gene (Jack Huston), who has a bit of a following, as its drummer; then he has to take over lead vocals when Gene, smoking pot, swallows a roach. Doug does well. In fact, he does better than Gene. A source of future conflict. His hair grows out and frizzes, he starts wearing Cuban-heel boots, he begins to look more and more like “Don’t Look Back”-era Bob Dylan. And he gets Grace.
Then he blows it, of course. She has a past? She sucked whose what? He gets into fights with his father, while his mother, Antoinette (Molly Price), an early version of Livia Soprano, is forever crossing herself. The Vietnam War is brought up, and each side takes the most inane position. It’s ill-informed pragmatism vs. lofty idealism. Is that part of the problem with the movie? We get inanity from both sides of the generation gap. Meanwhile, the best version of both sides is represented by the same family: Doug and his father. Everyone else can go to hell.
Pat is a sympathetic figure here: hair-trigger temper, sure, but hard-working, suffering cancer in silence, and sticking by his crazy wife. Doug takes the best of his father, his work ethic, and tries to push the band toward success; but his mates already have an idea of what they are and what they will be. Gene keeps wanting to do covers because that’s what “his fans” like, but he says it at his day job doing itinerant construction. Meanwhile, Wells (Will Brill) has the stages of the band’s success already worked out in his mind. He reminds me of members of the band Visiting Day from a first-season episode of “The Sopranos,” who talk about which of their lousy songs will be their first hit and which will be the second. They, and he, are about to go nowhere but in their minds.
As a slice of life, a slice of culture, and as cinematic memoir, “Not Fade Away” reminds me of a not-quite-as-resonant version of Olivier Assayas’ “Apres Mai.” Assayas’ counterpart, Gilles (ClémentMétayer), goes from would-be revolutionary and into film production, while Chase’s pursues rock ‘n’ roll dreams until he cuts out for California and film school. The movie is about why the first dream doesn’t happen from the perspective of the second dream, which happened.
It’s a good movie, evocative, with great music and production values. Why doesn’t it quite work? Do we get too much of Grace’s crazy sister, Joy, and their central-casting square and conservative parents (Christopher McDonald in plaid golf pants)? The bookending narration, provided by Doug’s sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu), feels unnecessary, too, and her final ‘60s-era dance, in the middle of the Sunset Strip, while fun, doesn’t exactly illuminate. Maybe we needed a greater focus on Doug and Pat. There are moments when Pat looks at his son, sprouting hair like a chia pet, and has no idea who he is. We feel the same.
Movie Review: Go Grandriders (2012)
The most interesting aspect of “Go Grandriders” for me is less the tour of the coast of Taiwan—as 17 geriatrics, averaging 81 years old, ride motorbikes from Taichung, south along the west coast, and north along the east coast—than the stories they tell. Particularly the World War II-era stories.
Taiwan has a fascinating history in this regard. From 1895 to 1945, it was a Japanese colony, and during the war many Taiwanese actually fought for the Japanese, whose rule on the island was less problematic (read: genocidal) than it was on the mainland. Many Taiwanese actually liked Japanese rule. But the war ended, Taiwan reverted back to Chinese rule, and two years later Communist forces pushed Nationalist forces, the Kuomintang (KMT) led by Chiang Kai-shek, off the mainland and onto Taiwan, where the KMT stayed in power for decades. Thus, on this small island, you had native folks who spoke mostly Taiwanese and didn’t mind the Japanese, rubbing elbows with mainland folks who spoke mostly Mandarin and hated the Japanese. The 228 Incident, in which the KMT massacred Taiwanese citizens protesting government policies, didn’t help.
So I’m glad Hua Tien-hao made his documentary now rather than 10 years from now. In 10 years, most of these stories will be gone, but here, in “Go Grandriders,” a not-bad, mostly cute, sometimes too cute portrayal of 80-year-olds and their dreams, which became the highest-grossing documentary in Taiwan’s history, we have, among the 17, a man who trained Kamikaze pilots for the Japanese, as well as a former Nationalist soldier who came over in ’48. At one point, this is discussed: how, during World War II, one might have tried to kill the other. But quickly, too quickly, it’s swept aside, amid effusive smiles and declaration and handshakes. Inwei, shr bu hao yisi.
Too bad it wasn’t delved into deeper. That history won’t be around much longer.
The trip is not without its comedy. “If you are currently on medication,” the riders are told at the beginning, “please bring it with you.” One man shakes his head because his wife packs 17 suits for him. Another injures himself because he falls asleep during the first leg.
The gung-ho, ja-yo captain of the trip, 87 years old, a former policeman, can’t make it past the first leg. He has a stomach ulcer, and the shaking of the motorbike causes internal bleeding. He’s hospitalized, then meets up with the participants a few days later. But he’s hospitalized again, and feels shame as they all visit him in his room. Even though he recovers in time to greet the riders at the finish line, the whole enterprise must have been bittersweet for him at best.
Another man, on the perilous eastern leg of the trip, with the highway reduced to two lanes, winds up hospitalized after what we assume is a collision with a truck. (I thought: Right, Taiwan traffic. Maybe two minutes on that phenomenon would’ve been good for international audiences.) Others are greeted as heroes at a local nursing home.
You get ordinary scenes. One man hides from the others with an ice-cream cone, another checks out how his stocks are doing in the local paper. You get touching scenes: One man makes the journey with a framed portrait of his deceased wife in his wire basket. Whenever they arrive in a new town and are greeted with flowers (wrapped in plastic, of course), he puts the flowers in the basket for his wife.
Is it all too ordinary? There’s some talk of death. “If no one died,” one man says, “it would be a crowded world.” I like that. But it’s as deep as the documentary gets.
Movie Review: Kapringen (A Hijacking) (2012)
Tobias Lindholm’s “Kapringen” (“A Hijacking”) is such a straightforward, tense, felt rendition of the contemporary hijacking of a Danish cargo ship by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean that afterwards you feel as if you’ve been held hostage, too. In a way you have. For two hours. Which makes you wonder whether or not you actually liked the movie. Is it as good as you think? Or is your reaction some cinematic version of the Stockholm Syndrome?
Named best Danish film at the 2013 Bodil Awards, “Kapringen” opens with the three-beep sound of a ship-to-shore phone, as Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk), the cook of the MV Rozen, talks to his wife. He’s got some bad news. Instead of being home on the 15th he won’t arrive until the 17th. She’s upset until he sweet-talks her, charms her. Then he charms us by talking with his daughter. Afterwards we see Mikkel making food for, and joking around with, the men. He’s gregarious but has his solitary moments, too. There’s a nice scene of him on deck, watching the ocean during magic hour with coffee and cigarette.
Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, we see the CEO of the company, Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling), do his thing. A subordinate, Lars Vestergaard (Dar Salim), is having trouble negotiating with the Japanese. They won’t bring down their price. Stuck at $19 million, Ludvigsen wants them under $15, and when he begins negotiations he offers $10. They look shocked, laugh. They reiterate 19. He thanks them and stands to leave. At the door, they say 17. Progress. He turns around. In the end, he gets what he wants.
Both men, by the end, will irrevocably changed.
Mikkel and Peter
We never see the Somalis board the ship. They’re just there, making demands, sticking their semi-automatics in the faces of the men. The captain goes down quickly with a sickness (ulcer), so it’s up to Mikkel—who, as cook, still has to work—to negotiate with the pirates for, say, bathroom privileges. Three of the seven men are holed up in a small cabin. They are forced to pee on the floor. They talk of the stink. We smell it. It’s that kind of movie. Eventually they get a bucket. After weeks, they are allowed bathroom privileges.
The chief negotiator for the pirates is a man named Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), who claims not to be a pirate, who takes umbrage at the suggestion. He’s a businessman, same as Peter. The pirates wants $15 million, Peter initially offers $250K, and the rest of the movie, and the hostage crisis, revolves around which side will move, and who will live and who will die.
It would be easy to make Peter the villain in all this. He’s a businessman, a CEO, a negotiator with little apparent emotion in his face. Malling’s eyes are so wide-spread he almost looks reptilian. Plus he never gives in. He keeps negotiating. One could say it’s not in his nature. But he too is held hostage. Throughout the movie, throughout the various negotiations, we never see him leave his temperature-controlled gray offices of Copenhagen. He’s stuck.
An Irish expert in hostage situations, Connor Julian (Gary Skjoldmose Porter), gives him advice, including hiring an actual negotiator to deal with the pirates. But Peter says it’s his company; he will negotiate. Connor is wary of this—emotions don’t help—but he allows it. And the days pass. Day 7, Day 25, Day 39. Each number seems impossibly large. How long could it go on? Where’s Ted Koppel? Where’s the Danish government? Where’s Interpol? We’re also waiting for Peter to either rise to the situation or for his hubris to get the better of him.
To be fair, the situation gets the better of him. Months in, Omar allows Mikkel what he’s always wanted—to talk to his wife—then betrays and uses him. The barrel of a gun is put to his head and his head is forced onto the table and he’s ordered to say the following: “You call the company and tell them to pay or they are going to kill us all!” She does this. She talks to Peter. At which point Peter stops taking Connor’s advice. He gets emotional. He raises his offer even though the Somalis haven’t countered yet. He gets angry and shouts. Omar shouts back. Then gunshots are heard. Then nothing.
In the shock afterwards, director Lindholm does a very smart thing: he keeps us in the room with Peter. He keeps us in the building with Peter. Everything’s silent. Peter’s thinking, brooding, wearing the heaviness of the situation on his face and in his posture. Has he caused the death of a man? He stays in his office through the night, and in the morning his wife arrives, buoyant, with coffee, and pastry, and a smile. He lashes out at her. The truly brilliant thing is we want to do the same. Her buoyancy in that moment is repugnant. She’s from another world. Her presence in the midst of this excruciating, slow-drip horror is an insult. We know what he does is wrong but it’s our impulse, too.
On the cargo ship, a few of the men get closer to a few of the pirates. It’s an unequal relationship, of course. One side is always this close to being humiliated, or this close to being killed. They run out of food, catch a fish, sing “Happy Birthday.” The one song everyone knows. But as the days grind on things get bad. Mikkel isn’t shot but he is psychologically abused. A skinny pirate follows him around, keeps placing the barrel of a gun on his neck, keeps pulling the trigger. Click. Remember the “Mao mao” guy from “The Deer Hunter”? Like that. We want to kill the guy. Mikkel goes the other way. He breaks. Pilou Asbæk gives a stunning performance. In the beginning, in his gregarious stage, he reminded me of a scruffy, bearded Joshua Jackson. By the end, with his thousand-yard stare, I kept thinking of Michael Shannon. Either nobody’s home or the person that’s home is curled up in a corner in the basement. And be careful about ringing the doorbell.
Celebrating a robbery
It ends well and not. There’s a payment ($3.3 million) and a death. The deal is only struck because Lars, the subordinate, offers the solution that Peter, the CEO, can’t think of. The student has become the master. But at least Peter is not responsible for a death. In a way, Mikkel is.
When the cheers go up that the deal is made, I thought, “They just paid $.3.3 million to not have men killed.” That’s part of the point, I’m sure. By the end, we’re celebrating a robbery. We don’t even need that final death to make it awful. It’s already awful.
You can’t help but compare the movie to the Hollywood version. Since Mikkel is a cook, I thought of “Under Siege,” the wish-fulfillment fantasy in which terrorists take control of a US Navy battleship, but the cook (Steven Seagal), a former SEAL, takes it back. I also thought of “Captain Phillips,” the true-life, Tom Hanks Somali-pirate movie, which will be released this October. Directed by Paul Greengrass, it looks to have some verisimilitude—it’s not superhero stuff—but it’s still wish fulfillment. It still has its happy ending.
From “A Hijacking”’s IMDb message board, American version:
Hard to believe the Dane's [sic] didn't prep/train for pirates. They were Vikings, at one time. The take away [sic] seems to be, hope for best, prep for worst, keep a Seal Team on retainer.
All Americans are cowboys in their heads but the world is brutal in ways we can’t imagine. It’s also poignant in ways we don’t portray. The faces of Hollywood heroes hide everything but amidst the inhumanity of “Kapringen” there is great humanity.
Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), near the end.