Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hysterical Peace of Purgatory

     In this round of reviews we will cover a family dramedy with a groovy vibe, the story of the most popular gag gift in history, and a documentary about injustice and vindication.  We shall begin with...

Hysteria - You would think that the story of the invention of the first vibrator as a medical tool would be an outrageous comedy.  Unfortunately, director Tanya Wexler's third feature film turns out to be more of a predictable and run of the mill romcom.  The quality of the cast (Maggie Gyllenhall, Hugh Dancy, Jonathen Pryce, Felicity Jones) does elevate the film slightly, but the script by Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer contains few surprises (or even laughs) for them to work with.  If the film has one saving grace, it is Rupert Everett's performance as Edmund St. John-Smythe which often threatens to steal the film.  Of course, its not the first time we've seen Mr. Everett play the slightly buttoned up gay man.  If you liked him in My Best Friend's Wedding, then you'll like him here, but don't expect it to be anything new.  2 1/2 of 5 stars.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory - I really wish that I had seen the first two installments in this trilogy.  I feel as if I would be better suited to judge how effectively this one wraps things up.  Still, judging it on its own merit (and it does stand well on its own as an individual piece), it is actually a pretty excellent documentary that works on a number of different levels. 
     First off, it works as an interestingly structured relation of a straight news and history piece.  I'm sure that elements of the story and investigation were covered in much greater detail in the previous installments, but I felt like I was given a complete understanding of the story.  However, it was edited together so skillfully that it felt more like a narrative tale than a newscast.
     Secondly, it works as a heartfelt human drama.  So many of the characters involved experienced great change and growth over the twenty plus years during which this saga played out.  We watch the three boys grow up.  Damien Wayne Echols starts out as a bitter, dark teen, who gives off an air that suggests he could possibly be guilty, but evolves into an eloquent and polished young man, humbled by decades of imprisonment.  Early on in his efforts to free himself, he points the finger of blame at one of the victim's fathers, who himself evolves from a grieving parent furious with the three into an activist for justice, desperate to see them released.
     Finally, it works as a thematic exploration of injustice inside and outside of the U.S. criminal justice system.  On this level it ends ominously indeed, as the boys are forced to plead guilty in order to gain their freedom, suggesting that the system is only interested in dispensing real justice when it can cover its own ass in the process.
     Documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky should be proud of themselves, not only for crafting a masterful documentary (which they did), but for the role they played in getting the West Memphis Three released.  There can be no clearer example of art's ability to help change the world for the better and to show society a mirror to judge itself by.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding - Director Bruce Beresford has been making feature films for forty years and the only time he's approached A-list status was with Driving Miss Daisy back in 1989.  While this fairly formulaic romantic family dramedy is unlikely to elevate him to those heights again, it did provide some very entertaining and touching moments, owing to its very talented trio of leading ladies, representing three generations of American actresses.
     The film centers on a stuffy, conservative, newly divorcing mom who takes her two mostly grown children to meet the hippy grandmother they have never known in (of all places) Woodstock, New York.  The plot proceeds about like you'd expect, not even bothering to walk us through the romantic comedy conventions so much as give us an early glance of the obligatory love interests and jump right into the family drama.
     This turns out to be a blessing because it is with the cast, particularly Olsen, Keener, and Fonda, that this movie shines.  Olsen has burst onto the scene barely out of childhood and in two years proven herself a force to be reckoned with.  Keener really came into her own in her thirties and forties.  Both women shine here, but the real jewel in the movie's crown is Fonda.
     I always found Fonda's performances during her early hey-day to be largely overrated, but have found her work in recent years much more impressive.  This is perhaps my favorite turn of hers yet.  The rest of the cast does the best they can with what they have been given, but Fonda's energy and total surrender to her character transcend the limitations of the somewhat stilted script, making a real person out of what was written as a caricature.  It is mostly due to her work that I recommend this film.  3 1/2 of 5 stars.

     And that's it for this round of DVD reviews.  Join me next time for my first "All Foreign Film" installment in a while.

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