Sometimes people know more about what they are told than what they actually know. It's kind of scary when you think about it, particularly in 2013. So many people engrossed in the day to day of just getting by, sheltered by ideology or walled-off by certainty, don't have the resources or time to be right about something that they steadfastly think is true. Lots of them.
Look at the statistics. Creationism as science: 46 percent; Saddam was behind 9/11: 23 percent; "Play it again, Sam" was a line in Casablanca: 83 percent (okay, I made that one up). More often than not, they've been misled by people they believe know better.
Such is the nature of the tragedy behind the case of the West Memphis Three and told in the shocking new documentary, West of Memphis.
In 1994, fed by a froth of Satanic sensationalism, three West Memphis, Ark. teens, 16-year-old Jason Baldwin, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelly, and 18-year-old Damien Echols were convicted of the brutal murders of three 8-year-old boys: Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore.
The murders were shocking enough for the residents. In a sleepy town where the neighbors know each other and a pious, work-a-day life seems rational, none could conceive of what kind of human could perpetrate such an inhuman crime. The local police and prosecutors vigorously sought for an answer.
The answer came in the form of Baldwin, Misskelly, and most importantly, Echols who was ultimately sentenced to death. Shiftless metalhead teenagers, raised poor, and already looking for solace outside of the lives afforded them.
Working from the confession of Misskelly, a juvenile with a reported IQ of 72, the subsequent case against the trio was made -- though they had to be tried separately (Misskelly's confession couldn't be used, as he was a minor). Agreeing with his interrogators, dead set on making a case, Misskelly received 40 years to life for first degree murder.
Setting the stage for the trial of Baldwin and Echols (who receive life in prison and death, respectively) the entire prosecution essentially makes up the story, coercing witnesses, calling incompetent experts to the stand, and basically hanging three innocent teens on an entirely circumstantial case. All the while, the town folk offer tearful approval -- and the real killer walks free.
As Ridiculous as the Costumes. With lousy writing and mostly mediocre performances, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is anything but.
Beginning with the 1996 HBO documentary, Paradise Lost, doubt has always been cast on the nature of the investigation and the guilt of the convicted. What couldn't have been foreseen was the attention of celebrities. As word spread of the inconsistences in the case and the generally haphazard trial, the WM3 became a sort of cause célèbre amonst musicians and filmmakers from Henry Rollins to Peter Jackson to Johnny Depp. In fact, Jackson along with wife Fran Walsh (also producers of the film) were integral, working with Echols' wife (who fell in love with him in prison) to find ways to re-open the investigation that didn't involve the obstinate authorities who do everything they can to block any new evidence in the crime they incompetently -- and maybe fraudulently -- prosecuted.
Directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil), West of Memphis is a devastating portrait of a story told in grippingly lucid terms. Berg gets pretty much everyone involved to talk, from the prosecution and the victims to the lawyers and activists that shine the light on a miscarriage of justice, borne by the ignorance of the witnesses and the malfeasance of law enforcement.
Chronicling the murders, the trial and the decades-long search for some semblance of a functioning legal system in Arkansas, West of Memphis is an exhaustively researched, beautifully composed film. Compelling beyond measure not only in how it tells its story but in how it brings us closer to the truth, West of Memphis is an indictment not just of the legal system in rural America, our cultural fears, political opportunism, and the death penalty itself, but also the idea that conventional wisdom -- when you're only told what you know from the authorities you trust -- can finally break down in the light of facts.
You won't see a better film in theatres right now. West of Memphis is maddening, sad, triumphant and an expertly crafted window into the imperfections of our blind legal system -- and a celebration of the perseverance of those who fought to right its unintended wrongs.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
The only thing more frustrating than an unfunny comedy -- trying as hard as it can to fish for laughs -- is a comedy that could have been something more. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone shouldn't have really been about its namesake because he's not the most interesting character.
Burt (Steve Carell, The 40 Year-Old Virgin) starts out as a nerdy kid in 1982, bullied by his classmates and left to fend for himself by his single, working mom. On his 10th birthday she leaves him the ingredients to bake his own cake and one gift: a magic kit produced by uber-magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin, Argo). Armed with magic skills that ostracize him even more completely from his schoolmates, Burt is befriended by an even bigger misfit, Anton (Steve Buscemi, Reservoir Dogs). The two decide to become a magical duo and best friends.
Fast forward to the now and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton have been headlining at Bally's Las Vegas for almost a decade. Their act consists of the same gags they've been peddling since the beginning and Burt, awash in money, has gone from a sweet-hearted magician to arrogant, passionless narcissist, living the high life while never finding love -- he has his conquests sign a binding non-disclosure agreement before he'll have sex with them.
His relationship with Anton, already faltering, falls on hard times when ticket sales begin to dwindle and their boss, Doug Munny (James Gandolfini, The Sopranos) gives the pair an ultimatum. Update your act or be replaced by Steve Gray (Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), an extreme magician, whose self-mutilating tricks and mean-spirited act attract a more sensationalistic crowd -- and a younger demographic. The enigmatic, traditionalist slight-of-hand, practiced by the bored Burt and his misfit colleagues can't compete with the quasi-Zen shock tactics of the legitimately insane Gray.
When Burt and Anton attempt to misguidedly jump on the Steve Gray bandwagon -- abandoning their safe act -- the results sunder the lifelong friends. Burt finds that his arrogance, misogyny, and general aloofness to everything he used to care about isn't enough protect him when he truly hits rock bottom.
But when Burt has a run in with his old mentor, Rance Holloway, he rediscovers the spark that got him into the magic game to begin with. And when he meets Jane (Olivia Wilde, TRON: Legacy), he's taught a lesson about reconnecting with the nice guy he used to be.
Directed by television vet Don Scardino (The Mindy Project), The Incredible Burt Wonderstone takes what could be a different and unique story and slathers it in telegraphed plot points, buried under laboriously clumsy pacing and frustratingly unfunny satire. The product of a small team of writers, the story feels as watered down as Bud Light while Carell, though I love the guy, never gets past the artifice of his own affectations as Burt.
It's Carrey and Arkin who really shine here. Their characters are not only interesting but are more deeply portrayed. I wanted to see more of them, and frankly the idea of a twisted comedy based on the sociopathic, neo-magician Gray and the old, smartass, retired legend Rance battling it out for the soul of their craft would have made for a more organic and exciting story than the paint-by-numbers arc provided to Burt and Anton. Carrey takes Steve Gray beyond Carell's shallow mugging, supplying a genuinely twisted believability to his role, while Arkin is a delight bringing all the depth Holloway needs and making it look effortless.
But they provide the only moments that feel funny or inspired in a slog of a film that is little more than a glorified ad for Bally's and made with about as much finesse.
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