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Capone's Art House Round-Up with WEST OF MEMPHIS and LUV!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

If you don't know at least the basic facts in the case of the West Memphis 3, it's probably because you a) don't live in the United States, or b) actively chose to ignore them. In either event, the first 30 minutes or so of the new documentary about their fight for justice and fairness in the criminal justice system, WEST OF MEMPHIS, does an excellent job summing up this strange-than-fiction tale that began with the horrific murder of three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas about 20 years ago.

Feeling the need to rush to capture someone in connection with these killings, the West Memphis police arrested three young men--Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley--not that much older than the dead boys, and slapped together a case based on false testimony, bad science, and a deeply flawed investigation. The case and trial was the focus of the great documentary trilogy PARADISE LOST, a series that caught the attention of many a celebrity and made the freeing of these three men a cause for many. Echols was something of the focal point of the case, because many believed the reason the men were found guilty was because they listened to heavy-metal music, wore black, and had an interest in alternative religions. Works like "cult" and "devil worship" and "sacrifice" were tossed around by the prosecution, and Echols was sentenced to death.

What separates WEST OF MEMPHIS from the PARADISE LOST films is its focus on an independent investigation--paid for in large part by filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (producers on this film)--that tore apart the prosecution's case and unearthed new evidence that left it clear that a wild miscarriage of justice has taken place. The movie also spends a great deal of time with architect Lorri Davis, who left her job, married Echols, and devoted her life to seeing that he was released from prison. Writer-director Amy Berg (who received an Oscar nomination for 2006's exposé on the Catholic church's treatment of child-molesting priests, DELIVER US FROM EVIL) gets access that the PARADISE LOST team simply didn't get, and as a result the three men who spent 18 years in prison for a crime they didn't commit get the real day in court that the state of Arkansas never afforded them. Not only that, but the investigators turn up evidence as to alternative suspect in the case, and even have his conflicting testimony (on tape) to back it up.

One of many shocking moments in WEST OF MEMPHIS is the original presiding judge refusing to have another trial with all of this new and conflicting evidence, essentially because doing so would make him look like a fool. Berg does a remarkable job laying out the case--placing bad evidence next to good and presenting the efforts to raise money for this new defense thanks to musicians, actors and other artists (such as Eddie Veddar, Natalie Maines, Henry Rollins, and Johnny Depp) holding tribute concerts and simply stumping for the cause.

There's a moment shortly after the original judge makes his ruling that Echols falls into the deepest physical and emotional hole since this ordeal began, since he's now convinced that his road to appealing his death sentence has ended. But when he and his two friends are finally released, the sheer force of relief (mixed with a bit of disbelief) is overwhelming to everyone involved, including the audience. WEST OF MEMPHIS is as skillful a procedural as any work of fiction, and it's slightly shocking that is wasn't nominated for an Academy Award this year (it didn't even make the short list). There's no account for taste, but the film is opening wider now, and it's a perfect closing statement to this harrowing mess of a story. Now if only the cops would arrest the real murderer.

I've written before about that rare experience of watching a film you know absolutely nothing about going in, and that was certainly the case of the director/co-writer Sheldon Candis' new work LUV. All I know about this one going in was that it starred hip-hop artist Common, whose work as an actor has been largely appealing to me in such films as SMOKIN' ACES, STREET KINGS, AMERICAN GANGSTER, WANTED, and even TERMINATOR SALVATION (as well as the AMC series "Hell on Wheels"). But in LUV, he's taking on a lead role so different from what he's done before that you can't help but be impressed. In it he plays a recently released convict named Vincent, who is living in Baltimore with his mother (Lonette McKee) and his sister's 11-year-old kid Woody (played by newcomer Michael Rainey Jr.).

Vincent is ready to put his criminal past behind him, and he's on the verge of getting a small-business loan from the bank to start his own restaurant. And while the bank tells him his papers are in order, it turns out that his mother's house (which he put up for collateral) is behind on its mortgage payments by several thousand dollars. He's given the weekend to come up with the cash or the loan will be rejected, forcing Vincent to turn to his criminal past to come up with the money in a hurry. At the same time, he has been asked by his mother to take care of his nephew for the day, which should mean dropping him off and picking him up from school. Instead, Vincent decides to keep the kid with him for the day to school him in a different sense, and as he goes from drug dealers to killers to older men bordering on organized crime leaders, young Woody learns lessons about how the street works, how to behave, how to be perceived as a threat, and eventually, how to be an actual threat.

Everything Vincent is exposing Woody to is horrible and wrong, but it's also hopelessly mesmerizing. Having a child in the mix adds so much more to the drama than it would have if it were just adults, and the film maintains a level of gripping tension that never lets up. Seasoned actors like Charles S. Dutton, Danny Glover, and Dennis Haysbert show up for key scenes in Woody's street education, but I was particularly impressed with Haysbert's spin as Vincent old boss, who wonders how Vincent was able to turn a 20-year sentence into only a few years. Many assume that Vincent snitched, which makes his a target. But we quickly learn that one of Vincent's primary jobs in the crime world of Baltimore was as a trigger man for Haybert's Mr. Fish character, so he knows how to defend himself. Michael K. Williams (Omar from "The Wire" and Chalky White on "Boardwalk Empire") is also quite good as the detective who is certain Vincent is up to no good and is following him, hoping he'll violate his parole.

There are some that are going to react poorly to seeing Vincent teaching Woody how to shoot a gun (those same people will probably react even worse when Woody puts his newly acquired skills to use later in the film). But in the context of this story, it works; it's supposed to unnerve us to see this. And Rainey is a gifted young actor who knows how to play a vulnerable kid, learning to deal with his junkie absentee mother and the kids at school who make fun of him for it. But he also knows how to turn on the street smarts and attitude, especially in one truly terrifying scene where he and Vincent conduct a drug deal.

LUV is being released as part of the AMC Independent project, in which truly indie films are given a screen in many of the chain's multiplexes, so you don't necessarily have to have an art house theater near you to see this remarkable little movie. However disturbing certain aspects of this story are, it still managed to sweep me away and captivate me completely with its boldness and uncompromising vision from a talented new director.

-- Steve Prokopy
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