dir. Jessica Sanders
This spare, devastating documentary explores the predicament of a relatively small group of individuals—150 or so Americans—who have been released from long prison sentences after DNA evidence proved their innocence. In doing so, it raises provocative questions about justice and the very purpose of incarceration. It also provides a chilling (but not exactly unfamiliar) depiction of a powerful institution so obsessed with protecting its authority that it refuses to consider evidence that it might have erred.
After Innocence, which won director Jessica Sanders a jury award at SIFF last year, proceeds primarily through sympathetic but nuanced portraits of exonerated men. There's a soft-spoken Massachusetts mechanic who found himself the prize patient in prison-prescribed therapy because none of the psychologists could get him to take responsibility for the crime for which he'd been convicted. Another man, who was held in solitary confinement for 23 years after a rushed trial for rape and murder, talks about buying a Jeep because he constantly craves the feeling of being outdoors. A woman who was raped at 22 now travels the lecture circuit with the man she once misidentified as her attacker; they speak about the problems with using eyewitness identification as the sole evidence at trial. In each instance, the men were given life sentences or sent to death row. Only much later did recovered DNA evidence and constant agitation—by both the inmates and outside advocates—convince the state to set them free. Incredibly, many of the men in the film were given nothing more than their civilian clothes and a bus ticket as compensation for decades of unjust imprisonment.
Wrapped around these stories about the massive challenges of reintegrating into society is a case in Florida in which Wilton Dedge, a demonstrably innocent man, was held for three years after DNA evidence first came to light. Dedge's stuttering progress through the court system provides a narrative arc for the film, and is a stunning illustration of the way procedural hang-ups can strangle the administration of justice. ANNIE WAGNER
A benefit screening for the Innocence Project, with guests Jessica Sanders and Wilton Dedge, takes place at the Varsity, Thurs Feb 9 at 7 pm.
The Pink Panther
dir. Shawn Levy
Is Steve Martin drunk? Are movie producers FedExing him gold bullion wrapped in denial and roofies? Is he involved in some benevolent, harebrained scheme to "pay for Nana's surgery" or "save the rec center?" No? Then someone needs to take the man aside and remind him that he used to be an avant-garde genius. He's hurting us.
Making movie magic once again with director Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen), Martin stars as Inspector Clouseau in this inexplicable resuscitation of the exhausted Pink Panther franchise. But it didn't have to be a disaster. With Martin (an actual funny person) sharing screenwriting duties with Len Blum (late of Meatballs III: Summer Job), The Pink Panther could have fed off its star's knack for the smart, stupid, and weirdly off-kilter. Perhaps an update was necessary to accommodate this century's compromised attention span—maybe we really needed to get rid of the original's convoluted, glacier-slow plot and overabundance of David Niven (that's right, I said it).
No such luck. The Pink Panther isn't awful, exactly, but it's so overwhelmingly blah that there's almost nothing to say. Predictably, the action is composed of a big pile of pratfalls and sight gags—gags upon gags!—with a funny mustache perched on top and Jean Reno's (as straight-man Assistant Inspector Ponton) self-respect slowly suffocating beneath.
Physical comedy's not exactly my bag, but I'll admit that it's funny when people fall down (the first 17 times). And I chuckled heartily at Clouseau's ridiculous accent. Even the conceit that French people speak to each other in English is theoretically amusing. But for the most part, the "jokes" in The Pink Panther are so lazy, so nothing special, that they barely register.
The plot goes something like this: A famous French soccer coach (and owner of the notorious Pink Panther diamond) is murdered via poisoned Chinese blow-dart, and his hefty gem goes missing. France's Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline), hoping to conduct his investigation away from the media circus, assigns short-panted, bereted "village idiot" Clouseau to be the public face of the case. But Clouseau, of course, stumbles, bumbles, falls, scoots, electrocutes, and Viagras into all the right places. Case closed.
There are a handful of moments—tiny, beautiful moments—when Martin's writing talent peeks through, silly and surreal. Like when Beyoncé Knowles (as pop star Xania) tells Clouseau, "Next week I have to do something vague in New York." See, that's funny. And nobody had to fall down. LINDY WEST
Why We Fight
dir. Eugene Jarecki
This agitdoc, from The Trials of Henry Kissinger director Eugene Jarecki, tries to tread the thin line between dry but thorough Frontline documentaries and Michael Moore's gotcha journalism. Both styles of filmmaking are persuasive in their own right, but transferring techniques from one to the other makes the argument start to feel patched together and limp. The first style of documentary asks you to learn something you didn't already know; the second gleefully confirms something you already knew full well. But when a movie gloats over something you haven't quite grasped, it's asking to wreck on its own hubris.
The central contention here is that America is at war because we don't know anything else (a speedy montage demonstrates that every administration in recent memory has presided over some international conflict or other), and also that America is at war because that's what we know (many shots demonstrate that the people who work for Lockheed Martin, etc., really like their jobs). Jarecki also leans heavily on Eisenhower's farewell address warning against the military-industrial complex. I won't deny that it's a lucid concept, if perhaps a little cheapened by being smuggled into a parting shot rather than announced as a policy proposal. But Jarecki's admiration edges close to idolatry—Ike's longhand notes for the speech get a lingering, admiring close-up, more saintly relic than document dredged from the archives.
There's also another film embedded in Why We Fight, a quieter, better movie about the politics of conviction and deceit. The hero of this story is Wilton Sezker, a retired police officer whose son died on 9/11. The interviews with Sezker retrace his grief, his anger, his patriotic enthusiasm for the Iraq War, his request that his son's name be painted on a missile bound for Baghdad, and his stunned discovery that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In perfect, concentrated form, his story shows what it would have looked like if you'd been truly and passionately invested in every phase of the popular response to the war. Sezker is not so much Everyman as President Bush's Everyconstituent. ANNIE WAGNER
Final Destination 3
dir. James Wong
So these kids are supposed to die, right? But they don't because some little girl has a spooky premonition that this rollercoaster she and all her friends are on is totally gonna crash and kill everyone. So she freaks out like a big stupid baby, which causes some of her friends to get off the ride. Then of course, just like in her vision, the hydraulics quit and bodies fall from the sky like acid rain. BANG, BOOM, SQUISH go their skulls against the rollercoaster's metal rails!
Well, now, that opens a huge fucking can of worms! See, Death is pissed because Crybaby's little nightmare fucked up his master plan to kill a bunch of people. Death can be such a pesky SOB. So instead of just letting the lucky bastards get away, Death decides to come after them... with a vengeance.
The first ones to go are these thong-wearin' orange girls. The vapid little hos are just trying to keep up on their tan and then... Mwahahaha! Watching them fry to death in their tanning booths is the raddest thing you've ever seen (they show the skin melting!!). Another death involves the blade from an engine fan and some poor dipshit's head. One by one, they start getting knocked off in the cruelest (and coolest-looking) of ways.
But with a little investigation, Crybaby and her jock friend figure something out! Ohhhh... LIGHTBULB! They realize that Death has given them CLUES via digital photographs taken that night at the amusement park. So now, with photos in hand, they have to chase after everyone who got off the ride in hopes of reaching them before the Reaper does. Then, the little geniuses have to convince the victims-to-be that Death is chasing them and plans to kill them the same way the photo suggests. That's quite a pill to swallow, eh? Yeah, Goth Girl doesn't buy it either. Crybaby gets to her just in time, but since Gothy McBlack-Fingernails is too cynical and way too smart for Death (or so the bitch thinks), she doesn't believe a word Crybaby is saying. Then, all of a sudden, CLICK, SNAP, POW! Nails impale her pretty little face! Ewwwww! Death is such a bully. MEGAN SELING