FS, Contributing Writer
Austrian director Michael Haneke’s films are always challenging, but usually also shocking, even brutal. Amour (Magnolia), however, is painful precisely because of its honesty in dealing, straightforwardly and without mawkishness, with the end-of-life issues that most pictures on similar subjects turn into matters of bathetic melodrama.
The focus is on a well-off octogenarian couple living out a comfortable old age in their Paris apartment. Their pleasant existence is shattered when the wife (Emmanuelle Riva) suffers a series of strokes that leave her first partially paralyzed and then an invalid. Her husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) devotes himself to her care, even though he’s frail and often the victim of her anger at being incapacitated.
Quiet, patient, but acutely observed, Amour is poignant, but doesn’t strain to tug at the heartstrings. Its simple purity puts Hollywood movies dealing with similarly wrenching material to shame.
“West of Memphis”
End-of-life issues of a different sort are handled with thoughtfulness and passion in Amy Berg’s documentary West of Memphis (Angelika).
The film is a record of the trial, imprisonment and eventual release of a trio of Arkansas teens who were convicted of the 1993 murder of three young boys as part of what was termed a Satanic ritual. A 1996 HBO film, Paradise Lost, and a 2000 sequel created serious doubt about their guilt and initiated a public campaign for an appeal. This culminated in a curious agreement in 2011: The three would be released, but only after they pled guilty while simultaneously asserting their innocence.
The Paradise Lost films – which became a trilogy with the release of a third in 2012 – were instrumental in disclosing a miscarriage of justice and creating an outcry for it to be rectified. West of Memphis rehearses the case from beginning to end, and in addition points a finger at the man who might actually have been the perpetrator (the stepfather of one of the victims). It also condemns the state for maneuvering to keep the truth from coming out by claiming that the released men are still legally guilty.
It’s a searing indictment of the American system of justice, especially potent because one of the accused, Damien Echols, was on death row and might easily have been executed except for the intervention of filmmakers who – like Errol Morris with The Thin Blue Line twenty years earlier – saved a wrongly convicted man.
“Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”
In the tradition of the terrible Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (wide release) debases an old fairytale by turning it into a silly adventure, loaded down with crummy special effects in murky 3-D, designed to appeal to the adolescent audience.
The siblings who escaped the gingerbread house are now thirty-something heroes (stolid Jeremy Renner and leather-clad Gemma Arterton) who go about the countryside ridding it of witches. In Augsburg they come up against a powerful one who intends to use a dozen abducted children, as well as Gretel’s heart, in a gruesome ritual that will enhance her power. Much mayhem ensues as the duo battle her and her minions.
Messy, repetitive and filled with puerile attempts at humor, Hansel and Gretel almost makes you wish the witch had succeeded in eating the children to begin with.
Russell Crowe seems to be having a good time playing a glad-handing, manipulative NYC mayor in Broken City (wide release). But his energy isn’t enough to keep the turgid neo-noir from collapsing under the weight of its own pretensions.
The man who ultimately brings down hizzoner is an ex-cop (Mark Wahlberg) tossed off the force after being acquitted of shooting a suspect without cause and now eking out a living as a PI. The mayor hires him to investigate whether his wife is having an affair, but the case soon evolves into something more complex, involving personal secrets, financial corruption and political skullduggery.
The picture has the feel of a 1940s Warner Brothers programmer, but apart from Crowe, nobody in the cast seems energized, and the direction is sluggish, even in a torpid car chase. A subplot about the PI’s difficult relationship with his live-in actress girlfriend is a bore, and a final twist is a damp squib.