Sunday, December 23, 2012

Amy Berg's WEST OF MEMPHIS gives us the still-unfolding story of the West Memphis 3

Though I can find no mention of Joe Berlinger and his Paradise Lost trilogy in the press materials for the new and latest film about the now-famous West Memphis Three and one of the most shocking, despicable and deliberate miscarriages of justice this fairly-wallowing-in-them country has seen -- and this takes place in the American South, where that wallowing takes on near-mythical proportions -- I must begin my review of Amy Berg's brilliant new documentary, WEST OF MEMPHIS, by simply acknowledging the debt that I believe she owes -- whether she has seen his films or not -- to Mr. Berlinger's trilogy: the award-winning Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996); Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000); and Paradise Lost: Purgatory (2011).

It was, after all, these three documentaries that helped get national -- hell, worldwide -- attention focused on this case and thus turned the West Memphis Three into a genuine and necessary cause celebre. However, Berlinger's threesome runs a total of 401 minutes -- nearly seven hours -- and also runs, it must be said, a bit downhill overall. Ms Berg's contribution (the filmmaker is shown at right) totals but 146 minutes (or around two and one-half hours) yet packs in just about everything we need to know and is suspenseful, shocking, exciting, frustrating and a whole lot more. That she is the better filmmaker, I have no doubt (see her earlier doc, Deliver Us From Evil, should verification be needed), though Berlinger (who has also made Crude and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) is certainly no piker in the documentary game.

Even though I knew most of the WM3's story from those earlier films, because of Ms Berg's choice of what to show and how to put it together, along with some new evidence gathered, thanks to her producers (see below), I found myself fascinated all over again.

Briefly, the story goes like this: The bodies of three murdered, elementary school-age boys were found in a creek in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. Almost immediately the local police arrested three teenagers (shown below) and started the prosecution of them -- based on "evidence," it turns out, that is not even up to the level of the word "flimsy." Yet the following year the three are convicted of murder, with one boy sentenced to death, another to life imprisonment and a third to a long prison term.

The co-producers (with Ms Berg) of this film may come as a surprise to some viewers: Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson of the Tolkien Ring cycle and the current Hobbit movie, along with many others. Their involvement and participation here is much more than mere movie celebrity stuff. The pair actually funded the WM3's defense investigation anonymously, which led to new evidence being uncovered, and were responsible for bringing Ms Berg aboard to make her movie, once that important evidence was found "not compelling" by the no-account judge who had presided over the original -- and laughable, were not so many innocent lives involved -- WM3 trial.

All this and so much more is laid out and laid bare in this model documentary: the marriage of the former high-schooler who is now a man, Damien Echols (below), who is to be executed for the murders; new suspects cropping us, one of which would appear to be the real murderer and yet is walking around a free man; the involvement of the Arkansas Supreme Court; and a final -- one hopes it is not the final -- twist that should set your teeth on permanent edge.

Nearly 50 real-life characters appear during the course of this docu-mentary, and damned if nearly all of them don't register strongly enough to be memorable in ways either noble or nasty (sometimes both). How you'll feel at the end of it all may produce a heady effect: angry, elated, spent. Ms Berg puts you through some heavy-duty paces that demand your consistent attention. The result is more than worth the effort. How this film was left off the "Oscar" shortlist (along with The Central Park Five -- another excellent film about a grievous injustice here in New York City) is one of those mysteries only the Academy could understand or countenance.

For myself, the gut feeling is dual: one one hand, to appreciate and mimic the motto that sits on the desk of Damien Echols' defense attorney: "Never, never, never give up"; on the other to avoid Arkansas at all costs -- at least until its citizens can do something about the uber-sleazy police, politicians and judges involved here. Work on that project may be underway as I write this - which is one reason, I suspect, that the filmmaker herself calls the film and its shocking tale "unfinished."

According to the press notes, Berg and her crew will continue to work with the defense and will update the film, pending the results of on-going investigative work. (Perhaps this alone makes the movie ineligible for "Oscar" consideration. Well then, fine: Awards are puny compared to the work and the results shown here.) So stay tuned, I guess, but first see this genuinely staggering movie by a very able, activist documentarian.

West of Memphis, from Sony Pictures Classics, opens Christmas Day 2012 in New York (Angelika Film Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center) and the Los Angeles area (Sundance Sunset Cinemas, and Laemmle's Playhouse 7 and Monica Four-plex). Starting in 2013, the film will make its way around the country. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled theaters, cities and dates. If even 1/100th of the audience that made Walsh and Jackson's Tolkein movies such hits turn out for this one, it will have the boffo success it so deserves.

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