Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Informer

THE INFORMER      B+                  
USA  (91 mi)  1935  d:  John Ford

The influence of German filmmaker F.W. Murnau is renowned, who emigrated to Hollywood in 1926, producing SUNRISE (1927), listed at #5 among the greatest films ever made in the recent BFI Sight & Sound poll in 2012 (The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time | British Film Institute), and certainly American filmmaker John Ford was highly impressed by the German Expressionist movement of the 1920’s, featuring dramatically stylized and symbolic films, perhaps best represented in Ford’s murky adaptation of Eugene O’Neill Sea Plays in The Long Voyage Home (1940), almost completely told through light and shadow, where humans are mere shadows on the wall, evocative of Plato’s allegory of the cave.  THE INFORMER has a similar claustrophobic feel of impoverished Dublin streets literally saturated in a constant blanket of fog, where the low budget production uses this technique to cover the cheaply designed sets, creating a gloomy atmosphere of poverty and despair that pervades throughout the entire picture, where the real brilliance of the film shot by cinematographer Joe August is the moody haze of confusion clouding the better judgment of the lead character, Gypo Nolan, played by Ford favorite Victor McLaglen.  The film is based on Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 prize winning novel, winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, adapted by Dudley Nichols, who also adapted O’Neil’s Sea Plays.  The Irish source material defines both films, O’Neill through the broken dreams continually haunting men at sea, while O’Flaherty examines one man’s guilty conscience and his anguished effort to escape the invasive forces of doom, a reference to the war-torn Irish nation that was continually caught up in a bloody confrontation between the Irish Republican Army and the Black and Tan British forces.  Ford had an especially close relationship with his screenwriters, working with Frank Nugent and Dudley Nichols on 24 feature films, personally selecting and training them to develop an instinctive understanding of his style, where Nichols in particular helped elevate the depth of his work that was lacking during the Silent period, heightening the sense of drama.  The film was not an instant success, but received glowing critical reviews afterwards, winning Academy Awards for Ford as Best Director, Nichols for Best Screenplay (but he refused the Oscar due to a Screen Writers Guild strike at the time), McLaglen for Best Actor, and Max Steiner for Best Music, bringing Ford a critical reputation that he would sustain throughout his career, becoming one of the iconic leaders of the industry.  This film has fallen out of favor from the heavily idealized portrait of the IRA as the common man’s alternative to British oppression, but it’s one of the smaller, more psychologically interior films Ford ever made, using expressive visuals to enhance the drama, eventually discarding his interest in expressionism for his love of location shooting, framing his characters against the backdrop of the rugged Western frontier. 

Ford’s personal connection to Ireland was through his parents, both Irish-born, where there’s some reason to believe McLaglen’s robust portrait of a heavy drinker with a volatile temper, but also an affable charm, is based on his own father.  Ironically, McLaglen wasn’t even Irish, but was born in England, becoming a prizefighter who actually fought Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson before becoming an American actor.  The only real Irishman in the film is J.M. Kerrigan, a little man who plays the same despicable freeloader role in The Long Voyage Home (1940), a repugnant, slimy hanger-on to anyone with money in their pocket.  But the film belongs to McLaglen, who became known for playing lovable drunks, who was apparently bullied by the director into giving a great performance, often told by Ford he was off schedule, where McLaglen was prone to drink in his down time, but would then be called back to the set, forcing him to work in a semi-drunken condition, often filming what the actor thought were rehearsals, appearing overly weary, bewildered and confused, searching for his lines, which is exactly what Ford was looking for.  This story may be more of the myth and John Ford lore that seems to accompany his films, but McLaglen’s physically demanding performance dominates the screen, playing the well-intentioned but dim-witted Gypo as a big brute who loves to be the center of attention, a gentle giant with a soft spot for tenderness, whose weakness is he can’t resist flattery.  Outraged to find his best girl Katie (Margot Grahame) reduced to prostitution to pay her bills, he’s equally humiliated by getting thrown out of the IRA for refusing to shoot a traitor, especially someone he’s known from the neighborhood.  But when he sees a poster offering twenty pounds (equivalent to over a thousand dollars today) for the whereabouts of IRA gunman Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), probably Gypo’s best friend, he gets delusions of grandeur, dreaming of marriage and an ocean voyage, especially when the poster is right next to a travel agency advertisement offering voyages to America for only ten pounds, which is one of Katie’s dreams, as she wants a better life.  Making up his mind that he’ll do it for her, Gypo reluctantly turns in his friend, who is killed instantly when the Black and Tans go to pick him up.  Conscience-stricken and ashamed, he curls into the corner of a saloon with a whisky bottle quickly drinking himself into a stupor. 

Gypo descends into a nightmarish delirium of human degradation, goaded on by the irrepressible cynicism of J.M. Kerrigan, the Iago-like voice that purrs niceties in his ear about what a popular guy you are when you buy everyone a drink, and a meal, and then more drinks, getting more plowed and his pockets emptied as the night progresses.  Nonetheless, for a moment at least, he’s King Gypo, the most generous guy in town, which quickly draws the attention of the IRA, who suspect Frankie was killed by an informer and are counting every penny that Gypo spends.  All drink and bluster, the big lout remains sympathetic even as his actions are contemptible, as inside he’s dying of remorse.  Like Fritz Lang’s M (1931), where it’s the criminals themselves who track down a detestable child murderer and force him to stand trial before a jury of his peers, Gypo is brought before an IRA tribunal, where his plan to pin it all on some other pitiful chump falls apart and he’s left to explain the unexplainable, where half mad with fear, McLaglen is at his wits end trying to find any words that make sense to the people standing in that crowded basement room, but only ends up incriminating himself.  The sickening descent into the Hell of one’s conscience is a road paved with guilt and personal torment, where McLaglen is a pitiful sight, pitied by all who are embarrassed by what he stands for, a coward, a bully, an alcoholic, expressing weakness, mistakes, human frailty, where there’s no place for that when fighting stronger, better financed, and better organized forces of tyranny with only political slogans and a few firearms.  Shot in just 17 days, the film was director Sam Fuller’s favorite movie, filled with melodramatic overreach, made during a time when sound cinema had not yet discovered its own identity from the Silent era, as acting was just as exaggerated.  Drenching the toxic atmosphere with such a pervasive feeling of doom, characters seen through the haze choking on their own murderous intentions only enhance the tragic nature of the human condition.  For its time, the film is unmistakably bleak, but the warmth and childlike innocence of McLaglen’s Gypo, played as an everyman, has a heart rendering quality to it that feels authentic and sincere, especially considering the horrible aftermath of the Irish Civil War in the 1920’s which brought no historical resolution, only ruthlessness and brutality, leaving a desolate looking future in a divided nation without any hope of peace or reconciliation. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Movie 43

MOVIE 43                  C+                   
USA   (90 mi)  2013  d:  Bob and Peter Farrelly           Official site       co-directors:  Elizabeth Banks, Steven Brill, Steve Carr, Rusty Cundieff, James Duffy, Griffin Dunne, Patrik Forsberg, James Gunn, Bob Odenkirk, Brett Ratner, Jonathan van Tullekin

America has always had a love affair with stupid comedy, from an assortment of cartoons to The Three Stooges or Laurel & Hardy, slapstick and physical comedy that emerged out of turn of the century burlesque and vaudeville comedy acts, to the hapless shtick of the elaborately choreographed Jerry Lewis movies of the 50’s and 60’s, the star-studded vehicle of IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (1963) where audiences could watch celebrities behave like idiots, to the more fast-paced, visual and sight gag oriented satirical comedy of AIRPLANE! (1980), to the moronic buddy movie of DUMB AND DUMBER (1994) written and directed by the Farrelly brothers, who have never been afraid to use toilet humor.  The Farrelly brothers have their hand all over this project, which began a decade and a half ago with their producer Charlie Wessler, who came up with the idea of several short films using three pairs of directors, South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Airplane’s David and Jerry Zucker, and Peter and Bob Farrelly.  The studios, however, wouldn’t back the idea of R-rated movies targeted to teenagers, where Wessler pitched his idea to various studios, but no one understood what he was trying to do until four years ago when Peter Farrelly and producer John Penotti took their idea, along with the script for about 60 short skits to Relativity Films, which gave them the green light.  Certainly one of the most amazing feats of the film is collecting so many big name actors, from Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman to Halle Berry, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gerard Butler, Greg Kinnear, Johnny Knoxville, Seann William Scott, Liev Schreiber, Uma Thurman, Elizabeth Banks, Kristen Bell, Anna Farris, Chris Pratt, Richard Gere, Terrence Howard, Justin Long, Dennis Quaid, Common, Jason Sudeikis, Kieran Culkin, Emma Stone, Kate Bosworth, Josh Duhamel, and Naomi Watts.  This year’s Academy Award host Seth MacFarlane plays a small part, while both Jackman and Watts are up for Academy Award nominations this year in other films.  As Peter Farrelly appropriately notes about Jackman, “You're not gonna see him at our premiere, he's got things to do.”  Most were attracted to the idea of working outside their comfort zone, also the idea they were only in small sketches, requiring short shooting schedules, also the idea they would not have to promote the film afterwards, something most actors hate to do.   

So working for scale, actors mostly donated their time for this film, knowing only their own scenes, not any of the other scaled down 16 vignettes that comprise the film.  In order to accommodate all the actors, some of whom were having second thoughts, like the South Park team, Colin Farrell, and George Clooney, who reportedly told them to “Fuck Off,” 'Movie 43': Peter Farrelly on His All-Star Cast, and Why Clooney Told Them to 'F**k Off', shooting took place only when actors were available, waiting an entire year for Richard Gere, offering the convenience of moving the entire production team closer to the actor, so the filming of the whole movie took several years.  While this film has tanked at the box office in only the first week, receiving some of the worst reviews of the year, where Richard Roeper in The Chicago Sun-Times wrote There's awful and THEN there's 'Movie 43', while Peter Howell from The Toronto Star is calling it Movie 43 review: The worst film ever gets zero stars.  David Edelstein from New York magazine asks, “Was someone holding Kate Winslet's children hostage?” Edelstein on Movie 43: Were These Actors Blackmailed to Appear in This Raunchy Fiasco?, while finally Peter Farrelly took to Twitter to defend his gross-out comedy dubbed the ‘Citizen Kane of awful’ Movie 43 director tells press to 'lighten up' after his film is savaged ..., suggesting “To the critics: Movie 43 is not the end of the world. It’s just a $6-million movie where we tried to do something different. Now back off,” adding: “To the critics: You always complain that Hollywood never gives you new stuff, and then when you get it, you flip out. Lighten up.”  Hyperbole aside, the jokes range from stupid sight gags to crudely infantile and from extremely risqué to borderline offensive gross-out humor.  Perhaps in its original conception, the movie was prefaced with the idea that several teenagers are fooling a younger kid into believing there’s a banned, black market movie out there somewhere on the Web called Movie 43, so their search to track it down leads to these randomly discovered skits, none having any relation to any others, most shot by different directors, though the Farrelly’s may have shot 3 or 4 sequences.  The opening segment with Jackman and Winslet is a classic and sets the tone for lowbar comedy, as the bar doesn’t get much lower than this—still, it’s hilarious throughout and is easily one of the better sketches, as both are superb in handling the misdirection and perfect timing.  According to Time Out Chicago critic Ben Kenigsberg, Movie 43 | Movie review - Film - Time Out Chicago, “Hugh Jackman garners far more sympathy than he does as Jean Valjean.”

Most of the rest are uneven and hit or miss, with some stronger than others, but many of these ideas are *out there,* pushing the boundaries of bad taste to the point of being off-the-charts unacceptable.  Certainly there is foul humor, profane language, and there is crude violence, but there are also some excellent special effects, especially with Halle Berry and Stephen Merchant in a blind date that veers into the surreal.  With this film along with Cloud Atlas (2012), Berry has become somewhat of a standout star in what are otherwise abysmal movie failures.  One of the few actors willing to comment on the horrible trauma of making this movie, Merchant commented, “I had to spend two days looking at Halle Berry. It was a living hell.”  Most of the sketches are framed with the idea of a desperately insane Dennis Quaid refusing to accept rejection while pitching his zany stories to a studio hack Greg Kinnear at gunpoint, apparently the only way to get his attention, a rather apt metaphor for the picture itself.  While the film is deserving of its R-rating, at its absolute worst, it is fixated on infantile fart jokes and toilet humor, an overly gross genre that in itself has always captured a certain niche in American society, but it likely turns off many, many more.  Gabe Toro of the Playlist The Playlist [Gabe Toro] has interestingly observed “characters begin to react in increasingly inexplicable ways as the narrative falls away, walking in and out of the short without rhyme or reason, until a fourth-wall breakdown in the narrative, a tactic that feels less like a comedy skit, and more like a distant, dopey relative of Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE (1971).”  Still, it’s impressive to see so many familiar faces, even if what they’re up to is foolishly inane, where the haphazard style never feels connected to an overall whole, but thankfully, each skit is short enough that even if it doesn’t work, new faces are sure to show up in the next segment offering a completely different direction.  The film is not timid, nor does it hide its lowbrow intent, where it basically provides exactly what it sets out to accomplish, feeling somewhat experimental without a cohesive narrative, where it instead comes across like a live stand up comedy act, where often, the more outrageous you delve into the world of the bizarre, the better.  The bold tone of experimentation and outrageousness of the film does work, such as the drop dead hilarious use of a sickly perverted, X-rated, animated cat, but overall, it’s so brazenly offensive that it’s often more stupid than funny, still, nowhere near the worst ever, and actually inspired in parts.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Hurricane (1937)

THE HURRICANE                B                     
USA  (110 mi)  1937                      uncredited co-director (listed as associate director):  Stuart Heisler

The South Sea islands, the last hiding place of beauty and adventure.         
—Girl on ship (Inez Courtney)

No jail can hold Terangi very long — if it has a window in it, he’ll fly away! If it has water around it, he’ll swim away!        — Marama (Dorothy Lamour)

I represent a civilization that cannot afford to show confusion or conflict to the people it governs.       — French Governor Eugene De Laage (Raymond Massey)

How can I be your judge? You’ve sinned, but others have sinned more against you. You weren’t meant for evil, you were made to do evil.             
—Father Paul (C. Aubrey Smith)

Other than the most recent Tabu (2012), another filmmaker influenced by F.W. Murnau’s TABU (1931) is none other than American movie icon John Ford who traveled to the South Pacific to make this film, specifically the village of Pago Pago on Tutuila Island in American Samoa, while also constructing an artificial native village on 2 ½ acres on the United Artist back lots where according to Life Magazine, special effects wizard James Basevi was given a budget of $400,000 to create his effects, spending $150,000 to build a native village with a lagoon 200 yards long, and another $250,000 destroying it.  Pre-dating the tornado sequence in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) and the modern era Weather Channel on TV, no one had ever seen such a vivid recreation of a tropical storm, more correctly called a cyclone in the South Pacific (hurricanes are in the Atlantic), where the real thrill is an incredible 15-minute hurricane sequence that was actually directed by Stuart Heisler, perhaps best known for his film noir remake of The Glass Key (1942) starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, but also the rarely seen early performance from Susan Hayward in Among the Living (1941).  Ford usually liked to personally supervise all of the filming on his movies, so Heisler’s ability to simulate a savagely fierce island hurricane is particularly noteworthy, as it’s one of the best uses of special effects in early cinema.  Adapted from the Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall novel, the same duo writing The Mutiny on the Bounty, an Academy Award winning film in 1935, the film is a highly picturesque South Seas island melodrama that borrows liberally from TABU, especially the contrasting views of “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost,” as seen through two marriages, young Polynesian newlyweds Terangi (Jon Hall, an American actor who was actually raised in nearby Tahiti) and Marama (Dorothy Lamour, a former Miss New Orleans who became associated with roles in sarongs) and the more “civilized” European couple of French Governor Eugene De Laage, the ever dour Raymond Massey wearing a white suit with matching pith helmet, and his wife Germaine, Mary Astor.

Set during the colonial era in the South Pacific on the French Polynesian island of Manakoora, with the sweeping musical theme of “Moon of Manakoora”
Alfred Newman - The Moon Of Manakoora - YouTube (3:08) playing throughout the movie, the lushly visualized island village has a sandy shoreline with swaying palm trees where the glimmering seas never looking so romantic, a picture of innocence and hope.  Yet according to Turner Classic Movie’s Robert Osborne, the story resembles Les Misérables “with a relentlessly sadistic villain in constant pursuit of an unfairly hounded victim.”  The same could be said about an earlier Ford movie shot the previous year, THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND (1936), which features another unjustly accused man attempting to escape from prison, where interestingly John Carradine plays the sadistic warden in each film.  Told entirely in flashback, the film is given a near mythical characterization, where the islanders are seen from an outsiders point of view as childishly naïve and overly happy, mostly without a care in the world, yet a cultural divide seems to have been bridged in several examples of perfect harmony, where Terangi is seen as an indispensable first mate on a European vessel traveling back and forth to Tahiti, and in a gorgeously exotic marriage ceremony between Terangi and Marama, where literally hundreds wore gardenia leis around their necks and every woman had flowers in her hair, as they are given the blessing of both the Catholic Church and the tribal chief.  However, viewers may cringe when they hear Terangi proudly announce to his new bride, “In Tahiti, when I sit down in a café with this cap on, I’m just the same as a white man.”  Overall, the natives are seen as docile and obedient to authority, where they submit to the rule of an intractable and extremely narrow minded Governor who sees the law in absolute terms.  It’s unclear why such a small island would even have a French Governor and why people would so easily submit to his authority, especially without any police or militia at his disposal.  Early on we see the tribal chief cooperating with the jailing of a native for theft, when the evidence suggests he was using a canoe to romance his girlfriend under the moonlight.  One wonders how this is considered a crime, especially since all the canoes are owned by native islanders and none were pressing charges.  Most likely the idea of property ownership is strictly a European principle, so a distinction is clearly made between the tyrannical colonizers who make the rules and the submissive natives who must adhere to them, especially when the law is unjustly applied.   

Ford builds a strong case for resistance to imperialist tyranny, as the moral divide only grows larger and more untenable when Terangi is arrested in Tahiti for slugging a drunken white man making racial slurs, where the offended party is politically connected in France, leading to a 6-month prison sentence for what might be considered justifiable assault.  Assigned to back-breaking labor and treated with all manor of abuse by Carradine, Terangi makes multiple escape attempts, seen diving off cliffs into the ocean, only to have more time added to his sentence each time, eventually totalling 16 years.  Ford insisted the violent whippings actor Jon Hall endure be real, wanting no fake acting, but unfortunately the realism was so severe the censors forced the scenes be cut due to their brutality.  Despite the disparity of an excessive sentence for the original crime, the Governor refuses to intervene, making no exceptions, going strictly by the book, despite the pleas of his wife and a sympathetic island doctor, Dr. Kersaint, Thomas Mitchell, seen as a philosophizing lush, a world-weary man who’s been away from civilization for too long, something of a preliminary run-through of his Academy Award winning performance for pretty much the exact same character in Ford’s STAGECOACH (1939).  When Terangi does manage to cleverly escape, making a heroic journey in only a canoe, he is sheltered by the village priest and the natives, who are seen celebrating his escape, which only enrages the Governor, even more maniacally insistent on tracking him down and bringing him to justice.  Nature’s response to man’s feeble attempts at implementing justice is harshly judgmental, showing a force of Biblical proportions, where the entire island comes under siege.  The ferocious devastation is brilliantly realized with a massive hurricane sequence that must have been indescribably intense when initially seen in the theaters, as no one had ever seen anything like it.  To the sound of crashing waves and gushing winds, Ford used the most powerful propeller-driven wind machines ever designed generating winds up to 150 miles per hour and 150,000 gallons of water to lambaste his actors, where no stunt doubles were used.  The force of the wind is astonishing, probably Ford’s best special effects sequence throughout his entire career, where cinema’s promise to create awe and spectacle is actually delivered.  The sequence literally overwhelms the rest of the picture, making everything else seem like an afterthought, but the contrast between the idyllic peaceful tranquility on the island and the monstrous roar of the waves remains utterly spectacular.   

Saturday, January 26, 2013

West of Memphis

(Left to right) Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley and Jason Baldwin speak to the media after being released following an 18-year imprisonment in the murder of three boys in 1993 in West Memphis


WEST OF MEMPHIS             B             
USA  New Zealand  (147 mi)  2012  d:  Amy Berg                   Official site

WEST MEMPHIS THREE is a film that has the luxury of twenty year hindsight and a bankroll of celebrities, that was originally brought to the world’s attention on HBO TV by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in an astonishing film PARADISE LOST:  THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (1996), a film with a limited budget that outlines the details of a gruesome triple murder in 1993 of three 8-year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, including the arrest and subsequent trials of three accused teenagers, best friends Damien Echols (18) and Jason Baldwin (16), along with Jessie Misskelley (17) from the same high school, who were all supposedly involved in a Satanic cult.  Based on the horrific brutality involved, where the boys were sexually mutilated, the region was in an uproar, stirred into a hysteric frenzy vowing blood, demanding the electric chair for whoever did it, eventually convicting all three in an atmosphere resembling a public witch hunt.  Berlinger and Sinofsky went on to make two follow up films, PARADISE LOST 2:  REVELATIONS (2000) and PARADISE LOST 3:  PURGATORY (2011).  It’s impossible to separate this new film from the earlier Trilogy, as they’re all dealing with the same subject matter.  What’s unique about this film is the active involvement of the producers, specifically New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh, where Jackson actually hires a private detective to uncover background evidence that the police overlooked, also hiring a forensic team in 2007 to examine the existing DNA on the case, while Walsh is an unseen narrator heard throughout the film.  In addition, co-defendant Echols and his wife Lorri Davis are co-producers, so there is nothing to suggest this film is remotely impartial.  While the forensic tests reveal there is no DNA evidence whatsoever connecting any of these three defendants to the crime, a motion filed to have the case reconsidered in 2007 was denied, as the state of Arkansas refused to consider new evidence, including one of the primary witnesses, Vicki Hutcheson, who in 2003 recanted her original testimony that a Satanic ritual was involved, claiming she made it up in exchange for local police dropping suspected credit card theft charges against her.   

It was only then that the case drew public attention, not only LORD OF THE RINGS (2001–3) director Jackson, but high profile actor Johnny Depp, the Dixie Chicks, and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, all raising money and drawing public attention.  Questions raised about the original trial reveal the State brought in an expert on the occult to testify the murders were in fact a Satanic ritual, while a knife was brought into evidence as the murder weapon, though the prosecution had prior knowledge that it had been thrown into the river a year before the murders took place.  Perhaps most egregious was the biased testimony of the Medical Examiner, a supposed forensic specialist that in the state of Arkansas works for the office of the prosecution, so no independent inquiries were ever conducted, concluding the knife was responsible for the sexual mutilations and the large quantities of blood on the victims’ bodies.  It was Peter Jackson who hired 7 of the top forensic experts in the nation to examine the evidence, all of whom concluded there was no evidence of a knife at all in the murders, that there was instead inflicted head trauma where the cause of death was drowning, suggesting the mutilations occurred after death, most likely animal bites, specifically snapping turtles that were known to be in the vicinity, leaving various bite wounds on the body consistent with animal bites.  A more considered approach to examining the evidence instead reveals none of the 3 defendants were present at the murder scene, there was no Satanic cult, and there was no sexual mutilation inflicted by human hand, which is certainly a different scenario than what was presented at the trial.  Even the parents of the children were beginning to believe the three convicted kids had nothing to do with the killings, but they continued to languish in prison anyway, as Arkansas refused to grant them a new trial. 

In a highly unorthodox documentary approach, Jackson himself unleashes his own investigation, which uncovers two other potential suspects whose DNA was present at the scene of the crime, including Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the boys killed (Stevie Branch) as well as his alibi witness.  While Hobbs informed police of nothing but marital harmony, the private investigator revealed otherwise, uncovering battery charges against both a former spouse and the murdered child’s mother, who years later divorced Hobbs due to the inflicted beatings.  In fact, he has a trail of uncontrolled violence and possible sex abuse, as he likely abused his stepdaughter from a young age, but she’s so acutely damaged by drugs she can hardly remember if it’s real or all in a dream, currently undergoing treatment, but not altogether off drugs yet which she uses to forget the nightmarish things that happened to her.  Hobbs inflicted plenty of brutally harsh punishments, especially to Stevie, inducing welts from a belt, where he often hid in the closet due to his extreme fear of Hobbs.  Nonetheless, even after this uncovered information, the State of Arkansas has never really brought Hobbs in for serious questioning, as in their eyes, they already convicted the killers.  Raising many of the same questions as The Central Park Five (2012), where convicted teenagers spent as many as thirteen years in prison for crimes they never committed, these three spent 18 years behind bars for crimes they never committed before they reached a deal with Arkansas prosecutors in August of 2011, a somewhat archaic and questionable agreement called Alford pleas, where they have to admit guilt while still pleading innocence, but are immediately released from prison, where the State has a guilty plea on the books and is not liable for subsequent lawsuits.  Perhaps the most devastating revelation is hearing the Arkansas prosecutor Scott Ellington gloat afterwards about their all-important guilty plea, which will be hoisted on a law and order banner of honor come election time, where political ads will run showing a prosecutor who gets tough on crime, where wrongful convictions hardly seem to matter to an uneducated electorate in Arkansas that will be sold a bill of goods.  This kind of win at all costs mentality lacks any moral authority and is a hollow charade parading around as justice.  There wasn’t a hint of remorse or contrition for sending three innocent men to prison for 18 years, so the real crime is he’d do it all over again in a heartbeat, and probably has already several times over, where it’s the State that is a repeat offender.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sansho the Bailiff (Sanshô dayû)

SANSHÔ THE BAILIFF (Sanshô dayû)             A                                         
Japan  (125 mi)  1954  d:  Kenji Mizoguchi
The origin of this legend of Sansho Dayu, the Bailiff, goes back to medieval times when Japan had not yet emerged from the Dark Ages and mankind had yet to awaken as human beings. It has been told by the people for centuries and is treasured today as one of the epic folk tales of our history.
—opening title sequence

A magnificent film, a monumental work of Shakespearean depth, poetic, epic, with unbearably poignant, haunting contrasts at play throughout the entire film, where striking images of grotesque evil and violence are followed almost immediately by serene beauty and peace, revealing a wonderful sense of time and off-camera space, one of the more emotionally wrenching experiences one could ever see.  So much of the film is pure feeling, with visual and aural motifs, the everpresent sound of the flute represents the feeling of the father, a song of anguish represents the presence of the absent mother, while the ballad of Narayama, the subject of Imamura’s 1983 Cannes Palme D’Or winner, is a particularly haunting portrait of death, with skulls and bones, the sounds of carrion birds, and the enormous wooden gates that swing open and closed leading to the graveyard from which the two children make their escape, camera by Kazuo Miyagawa, music by Fumio Hayasaka. 

Set in 11th century Japan, the story reveals a title-bearing noble family torn apart by political upheavals.  The father, who represents the conscience of the family, is a governor exiled by political enemies for refusing to send starving peasant farmers into battle under the military service of the Prime Minister, as every man is needed in the fields, while the mother, the emotional center, is sold into prostitution while the children are sold into slavery.  From this utter devastation, the mother and children struggle not only to survive, but to maintain the father’s mission, to put into action his powerful sense of humanity, where the self-sacrificing women are portrayed as the redeemers of men.  Of interest, the title of the film bears the name of the villain, the ruthless overseer of the slave camp, revealing the director’s tragic vision of virtue tortured, altered, emerging only partially triumphant, suggesting the past is never really past.  In the end, flutes play in an orchestra, the camera follows an isolated cove where the beachcomber cares for seaweed in silent, meticulous motion.  There is a perfect harmony in the endless beauty of the ocean, a final image of affirmation, transcendence, eternity, a small piece of serene harmony in a violent world of disturbance and turmoil.

Known for its fluid camera movement and endlessly beautiful long shots, the film is an essential work and one of the greatest Japanese films ever made, where New Yorker movie critic Anthony Lane acknowledges “I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.”  Winner of the Silver Lion Award at Venice for the third consecutive year, this movie is a special favorite of Terrence Malick, who once adapted it for the stage.  A harrowing work, essentially a heartbreaking Medieval fable with modern political and psychological undertones, it is the picture of a horribly difficult life making its way through an unforgiving world littered with terrible cruelty and human suffering.  With a focus on interior strength, as proclaimed by the father, “Without compassion, a man is no longer human,” this is nothing less than a morality play with sublime camera movements and visually lyrical imagery following each character’s personal journey for family redemption that mirrors Mizoguchi’s own experience, where at age 13 his father sold his sister into prostitution.  What a saga to regain the family honor.