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If you are not familiar with the case of the West Memphis Three, Amy Berg’s thorough documentary, West of Memphis (produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh), will get you up to speed.

Three young boys, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, were found dead in a ditch in West Memphis, Ark., in May 1993. The circumstances of their deaths seemed to suggest some sort of satanic ritual—or so authorities thought. They arrested three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., and eventually put them behind bars for more than 18 years.

The film presents much of the information shared in the three prior Paradise Lost documentaries, with a new emphasis on another stepfather and his possible involvement in the murders. If I have a bone to pick with these documentaries, it’s that they point fingers at other suspects, yet present little to no evidence to back their claims. (John Mark Byers, a stepfather of one of the murdered boys, was accused in the second Paradise Lost film; Terry Hobbs, another stepfather, is accused in this film.)

The three prisoners have been released—after accepting a deal in which they pleaded guilty while still proclaiming their innocence. Doing so not only got them out of jail; it saved Echols’ life. (He was the only one on death row.) As part of the deal, they can’t sue the state for putting them behind bars. Meanwhile, the real killer walks free. What these three went through is a travesty, and the state of Arkansas should be ashamed of itself.

In the end, the dude who directed The Lord of the Rings (and co-produced this film) had a lot to do with the West Memphis Three finally walking free. His generosity helped fund their law team.

Special Features: The package includes deleted scenes, film-festival interviews and, most notably, a commentary featuring Berg and Echols, a Blu-ray exclusive.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

I was certain that How to Survive a Plague was going to take home the big documentary Oscar prize this year. Alas, Searching for Sugar Man (a very good movie) took home the award.

There were other great documentaries last year, including West of Memphis, about the West Memphis Three, and Paul Williams Still Alive (the title says it all). However, this one packed the biggest wallop. It chronicles the struggles AIDS activists went through to get the condition into the public conversation, and push for medications to keep themselves alive.

Viewing this movie promotes a parade of emotions, from pure heartbreak, to anger, and ultimately to jubilation. It starts in the ’80s, with a band of activists including Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Mark Harrington, Ray Navarro and Bob Rafsky. Rafsky famously challenged Bill Clinton during a campaign speech, resulting in Clinton’s “I feel your pain!” retort.

Bill … I seriously doubt you felt that man’s pain.

If you have never seen footage of Larry Kramer popping off at fellow ACT UP activists during a pivotal gathering with his “plague” speech, you will see something amazing when you watch this movie. You will also see things as horrid as Kramer’s speech is amazing—for example, when George Bush No. 1 complains that AIDS is a disease resulting from behavior during a televised debate, and every single time a word comes out of the mouth of Jesse Helms.

Many of the people you see in this movie did not survive—but a good group of them did. It’s a powerful thing to see men like Staley and Kramer sitting for modern-day interviews, celebrating their victories and mourning their losses.

You more than likely missed this one in theaters. Do yourself and your families a favor, and take the time to watch it at home.

Special Features: A director’s commentary featuring ACT UP activists and some deleted scenes.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing