Film Friday: Winter blues edition

A doc re-explores the well-tread ground of a famous murder case, aging actors debase themselves in a lame comedy and a Quebec period-piece thriller falls flat.

Damien Echols in West of Memphis. Photo: Jeff Dailey/Sony

West of Memphis

The West Memphis Three, the supremely unfortunate Arkansas natives who were convicted as teenagers in 1994 for killing three young boys on trumped-up evidence seeped in Satanist panic, have had their case documented pretty thoroughly with the Paradise Lost trilogy. For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, the Three were released last year, in a legal face-saving measure by the state of Arkansas, after 18 years behind bars. For those who have, you might wonder about the need for another doc, a question which West of Memphis answers only partly.

Paradise Lost footage is occasionally used in the new doc, but the series itself isn’t mentioned much (except to indicate how its makers might have overplayed their hand with the second film, in which they concentrated on the eventually cold trail of colourful then-suspect Mark Byers). Nor is the trilogy mentioned anywhere on the West of Memphis website.

A hint of the purpose of West of Memphis is found in the identity of its producers, none other than Damien Echols (one of the Three himself) and his wife Lorri Davis (with superstar producer Peter Jackson also lending a hand). It’s as though they wanted to take control of their own story, which is fair enough. (This Guardian interview with Echols has some insights on the two docs and the relations between the filmmakers.) Fairly Echols-centric (the other accused are mentioned only fleetingly), the story is necessarily biased, although the legal officials it implicates are given time to explain their actions, which they don’t do very convincingly.

At any rate, the film itself is a solid overview of the case, as outrageous a miscarriage of justice as our era has seen. If nothing else, it’s a good way for the uninitiated to find out about the still unsolved case in two and a half hours instead of six.


Stand Up Guys

Christopher Walken, Al Pacino and Alan Arkin as aging gangsters. This premise, dicey to begin with, plays out even worse than you might expect in this movie with the form of a comedy, but only the faintest hints of humour. Pacino is a hit man getting out of jail after nearly 30 years; Walken is his best friend, who re-introduces him to society but also secretly has a mob contract to take him out.

Pacino’s credibility capital has been overdrawn for a long time; when your most interesting recent role is as yourself in one of Adam Sandler’s shittiest movies (Jack and Jill), that’s a very bad sign. Walken is still working his personal brand of weirdo cred, but if you look at his filmography, the crap has been outweighing the cream by a wide margin for quite some time now. As for Arkin, he’s always good, but his role in Stand Up Guys is actually, mercifully (for him, if not us), quite brief.

The film is directed by Fisher Stevens, perhaps best known for appearing in the Short Circuit movies, in a brownface comic role that seemed funny at the time (when I was 12) but has aged very, very poorly. I normally find that actors who direct at least have a steady hand with their fellow thespians, but something is clearly amiss here. Pacino, Walken and Arkin’s performances all have a desultory, dispirited quality, as though they didn’t realize what kind of shit show they were getting themselves into until it was too late, and are just grim-facedly getting it over with. With the ludicrous plot twists and dull, uninspired dialogue, you can hardly blame them, although they presumably read the script before signing on.

On a side note, there’s an almost-promising performance as a brothel madam from Lucy Punch. Last seen similarly not-quite-redeeming the execrable Bad Teacher, she’s the most criminally underused comedienne this side of Judy Greer. Now that would be a good buddy comedy.

Rouge Sang

At the dawn of the 19th century in rural Quebec, a young mother (Isabelle Guérard) and her two kids are waiting for the father’s return when a group of English soldiers burst in, demanding to stay the night. As they get drunker and rowdier, the mother is pushed to desperate measures to defend her family.

This being a Quebec film, I feared a retreading of colonial history à la Pierre Falardeau’s 15 février 1839, a leaden political parable with virtuous francophones and villainous anglos. To its credit, Rouge Sang tries its best to be more than that. Unfortunately, it turns out to be even less: a pastiche of period piece, claustrophobic thriller and avenging-angel story that turns out to be neither here nor there.

In the fine Quebec tradition of casting francophone locals in anglo roles, the captain of the English soldiers is played by Lothaire Bluteau, who starred in one of the top Quebec films of all time (Jésus de Montréal) and has also kept a steady stream of Hollywood TV gigs from Miami Vice through Law and Order and 24. His accent is decent — I doubt it would fool an Englishman, but it sounded fine to my ears — and he even pulls off speaking badly accented French.

Director Martin Doepner gets some pretty good suspense and tension going in the cramped setting of the small, isolated cabin. The trouble is, there just isn’t enough to the story or the characters. There’s a dark, fairly clever twist at the end — if there is a political parable here, it’s actually a pretty good one — but by then it’s too late to care. It’s the kind of film that, if you came across it on late-night TV, you might as well finish watching it. But it’s not good enough to go and seek out. ■

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