Thursday, December 24, 2015

Love & Mercy: That's what you need tonight

Love & Mercy concerns Brian Wilson, musical genius and major creative force behind the Beach Boys.  The film weaves together two crucial time periods in his life: the 1960s when Wilson and the Beach Boys were at the height of their popularity, and the 1980s when a broken Wilson was under the strict supervision of his live in therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.  1960s' Wilson is portrayed by Paul Dano and 1980s' Wilson by John Cusack in a haunting dual performance.

The film moves fluidly back and forth between the two time periods, with the young Wilson creating the 'Pet Sounds' and 'Smile' albums even as cracks in his psyche begin to show, intimating that the very mental vulnerabilities that would overwhelm him were also instrumental in his musical talent, while the old Wilson finds romance with Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks, as she struggles to free him from the exploitative care of Dr. Landy, played by Paul Giamatti, who is only interested in capitalizing on Wilson's fame.

The film inevitably wades through familiar territory (child abuse, drug abuse, mental illness, the misunderstood artist, etc.) in this kind of story, however Love & Mercy manages to make all this feel fresh due to the uniquely structured and expertly implicit script by Oren Moverman and a pair of inspired performances by Paul Dano and John Cusack.  (Side note: It's nice to see Cusack in a good film for a change).  I came to this story with no knowledge of Wilson's life or the making of the Beach Boys' music and the story of this frighteningly sensitive and sweet musician broke my heart.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the newest addition to the Star Wars Universe and the first entry in the series created without the input of George Lucas.  And thank god for that!  This film represents a return to form for the series, even if it is quite derivative of the original film.  The story picks up years after the events of Return of the Jedi.  Luke Skywalker has gone missing and members of The First Order, a group picking up where the Empire left off, are eager to get their hands on BB-8, a droid who has a map of Skywalker's whereabouts.  BB-8 belongs to Poe Dameron, an ace fighter pilot for the Rebellion.  Kylo Renn, leader of the First Order, captures Poe, but BB-8 escapes and ends up with a young scavenger girl named Rey who lives on a desert planet called Jakku and there the adventure begins.

Sound familiar?  Of course, it does.  The plot of this film does tend to mirror that of the original Star Wars film, but I think that's part of the fun of it.  If you find no magic in seeing Harrison Ford in his Han Solo garb flying the Millenium Falcon through the galaxy, then you probably won't enjoy this film and it wasn't made for you, anyways.  The original characters, with the exception of Princess Leia who is underutilized, return in fitting ways and mesh well with the new characters.  J.J. Abrams steers the effects toward the practical side of things enough to keep the feel of the original without turning this into a 2 hour CGI cartoon.  While it has some minor flaws, the updated humor ("Droid, please!") doesn't always fit with the timeless universe in which the story takes place, luckily it is used sparingly and doesn't become too distracting, and the events unfold perhaps too conveniently at times, it is still a satisfying film and ends on a magical note that has me excited for the next film in the series. 

Making a Murderer: "You have a constitutional right to be proven guilty"

The Netflix true crime docuseries, Making a Murderer, delves into the life of Steven Avery, a man who in 1985 was wrongfully convicted of the sexual assault of Penny Beernsten, a prominent local businesswoman in the insular community of Manitowoc, Wisconsin and who would spend the next 18 years of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.  From the outset, the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Department's investigation into the Beernsten sexual assault seems to have been directed towards Steven Avery though no physical evidence linked him to the crime, his appearance directly conflicted the victim's own description of the perpetrator, and he had over a dozen alibis accounting for his whereabouts during the time that the crime was committed.  The accusation and dogged pursuit of Avery came as a result of local prejudice against the Avery family who were characterized in the community as no good, troublesome outsiders and these prejudices permeated the area's law enforcement and government officials swaying their opinions long before the court system assigned guilt or innocence.

In 2003, after 18 years behind bars, Steven Avery was exonerated when DNA evidence from the crime scene was re-examined with scientific technology developed during the time of his imprisonment.  This evidence not only conclusively ruled out Avery as the perpetrator, but the DNA came back with an exact match: Gregory Allen, a convicted sexual offender, then serving a 60-year sentence for a violent sexual assault committed in 1995 (which had he been convicted of the Beernsten assault in 1985 of which he was guilty, Allen would not have been free to commit).  On several occassions during the original investigation of the Beernsten case and in the years following Avery's conviction, a detective from the Manitowoc City Police as well as several clerks in the office of District Attorney Dennis Vogel, who prosecuted the Avery case, pointed to Gregory Allen has a suspect.  Allen had a violent criminal history which was sexual in nature and the city police had him under surveillance at the time, but the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Department and the District Attorney insisted that they had their man, Steven Avery.

After Avery's release however, even with the overwhelming evidence proving his innocence and pointing to the negligent and downright unjust conduct of the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Department's handling of this case, they still refused to acknowledge Avery's innocence let alone to admit any wrongdoing on their part, chocking it up to an honest mistake.  The Avery case was then cited by the Governor of Wisconsin, Jim Doyle, as a prime example of the failings of the state's criminal justice system and became the foundation for legislation, (originally known as the Avery Bill, now renamed the criminal justice reform bill), which was created in an effort to reform police practices.  Following his release, Avery sued Manitowoc County for $36 million dollars in damages, an amount that if Avery won the suit the County would be at a loss to pay.

On October 31, 2005, the day that the Avery Bill was passed in the state legislature, 2 years after Steven Avery's release from prison, a young woman by the name of Teresa Halbach went missing, her last known whereabouts being the Avery residence.  Halbach was a photographer for Auto Trader magazine and one of her appointments that day was to stop by Steven Avery's residence to photograph a van that his sister was selling.  This was the last time she was seen alive.  Days later her Toyota Rav4 would be discovered in Avery's auto salvage yard and from there on the scales of injustice tipped out of Steven Avery's favor once again.  The twists and turns of this case, manipulation of the media by law enforcement, numerous inexplicable circumstances surrounding the discovery and handling of evidence, and an alleged confession from Avery's 16-year old nephew, Brendan Dassey, are the meat and potatoes of this docuseries and they must be seen to be believed, but even then most will find it unbelievable.

At this point, I must confess that I have spent the majority of this review presenting the facts of the case as opposed to examining the quality of the storytelling.  This is a result of the exemplary filmmaking of Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, the directing duo behind Making a Murderer, presenting this story with objectivity and in such overwhelming detail as to eclipse their presence behind the camera.  Unlike The Jinx's Andrew Jarecki, whose relationship with subject Robert Durst became an integral part of the story and rightfully so, seeing as Durst's fondness for Jarecki seemed to be the primary motivation for his willingness to participate in the documentary, Demos and Ricciardi share this story not through the filter of their own personalities, but by allowing direct access to those involved.  They take their time to flesh out all the characters surrounding the Beernsten and Halbach cases and by the end we feel that we really know the defense, the prosecution and the friends and families on both sides.  It is a triumph of documentary filmmaking, a shocking assembly of interviews, newscasts, recorded telephone conversations, photographs, home movies, videotaped interrogations, court footage, case files and depositions that all serve to expose the flaws of the criminal justice system in the small community of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin and by implication those of the United States Criminal Justice System which is far more eager to assign blame and secure a conviction under the misguided belief that the police and prosecutors are somehow infallible, and thereby to uphold convictions for fear of admitting any wrongdoing, than to discover the truth and mete out justice.  The prosecution lays the burden of proof at the feet of the defense and assumes the accused is guilty until proven innocent, or as a prosecutor says during the film, "You have a constitutional right to be proven guilty", a misconstruing of the U.S. Constitution which unfortunately illuminates the reality of our legal system.