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West of Memphis (2012)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 8/6/2013
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 8/9/2013
In my recent review forMy Amityville Horror, I wrote about how documentaries can be categorized by the amount of information which we seek from them, and that one such category are topics on which you are already informed and you want to see if the documentary can provide you with any new material. In the late 90s, a co-worker of my wife recommended the documentary Paradise Lost. We watched it and were fascinated by it and it's 2000 sequel Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Twelve years later, a third film, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, arrived. All three of these films were made by the same team and contained a wealth of information, so I was surprised to hear that another documentarian was going to tackle the story in West of Memphis, and thus, I couldn't wait to see if the piece held any information of which I wasn't already aware.
On May 6, 1993, the bodies of three 8-year old boys were discovered in a creek in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas. After an investigation, local law enforcement officials charged three teenagers -- Damien Wayne Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley -- were arrested and charged with the crimes. All three were found guilty. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison, while Echols received the death penalty. The case may have gone unnoticed outside of Arkansas had documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky not covered the case in a film which was broadcast on HBO. The piece called much of the evidence and the trials into question and it lead many to wonder if justice had truly been served. As noted above, over the years two more documentaries were made and the third one showed the defendants, now grown men, being released from prison due to a bizarre plea deal. The popularity of the films lead to an internet campaign, commonly known "Free the West Memphis Three", which captured the attention of celebrities like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder.
Two other public figures who were fascinated by the case were Oscar-winning director of The Lord of the Rings films Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh. They began corresponding with Echols' wife, Lorri Davis, and started to contribute to the cause. This lead to the recruiting of documentary filmmaker Amy Berg to make a new movie about the case, entitled West of Memphis. The film, which runs 2 1/2 hours, gives an overview of the initial case and runs through the subsequent appeals. It also focuses on activity outside of the courtroom, such as the publicity the case had gotten, the grassroots movement to set the men free, and the examination of other possible suspects.
When West of Memphis was initially announced, my immediate reaction was "Why?". When you have three very well-made, award-winning, Oscar-nominated documentaries on a subject, why is there a need to make another one. Having seen the film, that question has not been answered. It's true that this movie has the power and money of Peter Jackson behind it, and he is interviewed in the movie, and it is interesting to hear his views on the case and why he got involved. The film offers e-mail conversations between Lorri Davis and Fran Walsh and David and Damien Wayne Echols are credited as producers. This could imply that Berg had greater access to Echols, but due to the fact that he's on death row, she clearly didn't and there's no more jailhouse footage of him here than there was in the Paradise Lost films. As West of Memphis came out after Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, I was hoping that it would have more footage with the men following their release, but we don't get much of that here.
If you've never seen any of the Paradise Lost films and are unfamiliar with the case, then West of Memphis is a perfectly fine substitute. However, if you're knowledgeable about the West Memphis Three, then your feelings towards West of Memphis may be the same as mine. I found that it was like watching the Director's Cut of a familiar film and waiting for the new footage to arrive. Is there some new footage here? Yes, there is. Obviously, the movie isn't identical to the Paradise Lost entries and it does contain some alternate local news coverage, as well as more information on Terry Hobbs, who many believe to be a suspect. In addition there are interviews with some witnesses who have recounted their testimony, as well as interviews with people with some new information on the case. However, this new information only makes up about 30 minutes of the movie, otherwise, it's things we've seen before. West of Memphis is a valiant effort and it's great that things are being done to keep this case in the public eye, but one can't shake the feeling that it's riding coat-tails. Of course, we still have to brace ourselves for the "based on a true story" film which is currently being shot.
West of Memphis makes for a good companion piece on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 23 Mbps. The film is made up of several different types of footage. The new material shot for the film is very sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source materials. The archive footage varies in quality and I'm sure that those behind West of Memphis did their best with it. It's never unwatchable, but video footage from 1993 obviously pales in comparison with HD shots from the present. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 2.2 Mbps. Save for some rare moments in the older footage, those who are speaking come through clear. Some crowd noises and musical cues provide isolated examples of stereo and surround effects, but otherwise, the concentration is on the center channel.
The West of Memphis Blu-ray Disc contains a handful of extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Amy Berg and Damien Echols and Lorri Davis. The Disc contains seven DELETED SCENES which run about 87 minutes. The bulk of this is taken up by a panel discussion, including experts and journalists, which was held following the release of the men. This contains some of the information which I felt was missing from the movie. The other scenes offers some interesting moments, but they stray from the scope of the main story. "Toronto International Film Festival Red Carpet Q&A" (23 minutes) has comments from the principles involved in the movie, including Johnny Depp...who mentions tater tots. This also has an introduction from Peter Jackson and a post-screening discussion. We get more coverage from that event with the "Toronto International Film Festival Press Conference" (39 minutes). "Damien's Past (Re-creations)" (6 minutes) offers four examples of dramatizations which were created for the film which are accompanied by Echols' recollections. These have a Unsolved Mysteries feel. The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film.
Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.