Witch Hunt (Dana Nachman & Don Hardy Jr, 2008, USA)
Where some documentaries attempt an unobjective approach to subject matters, these wishy washy works are far less effective than their unfair and unbalanced brethren. Rather than playing to the illusion of subjective neutrality, far more effective documentaries present all sides of an issue while clearly adopting a viewpoint, one the filmmakers feel is the “right” one.
From its inflammatory title, Witch Hunt pulls no punches in portraying a paranoia present in the Kern County, California of the 1980s where at least a dozen people were unjustly accused and convicted of child molestation. The ten subjects in Dana Nachman and Don Hardy Jr's film were charged with hundreds of counts of molestation and sentenced to over a thousand years in prison. This apparent plague of molestation began after newly elected District Attorney Ed Jagels—running on a “tough on crime” platform—took office.
Rather than spark concern over the repeating patter of railroading these middle/lower class parents, the public—fed by a complacent media—merely roiled with fear. It wasn't until these alleged molesters were behind bars and a fresh wave of accusations, far more heinous than the last, garnered attention from the California Attorney General. As with so many wild tales, the new accusations devolved into fantasies including human sacrifice and dime store Satanism. The CA AG found that Kern County investigation/interrogation techniques were less than ideal, paving the way for overturning the previous spate of convictions. This less easier said than done. While the innocent wasted in prison, their lives ripped apart, the “victims” of their “crimes” began to feel the effects of being instruments of cowboy justice.
Witch Hunt is the film that The Jaundiced Eye and Capturing the Friedmans so desperately wanted to be. Rather than asking open-ended questions, the film provides answers thus painting a vivid portrait of political maneuvering at the price of civil liberty.
JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008, Belgium)
A highly engaging experiment in self-reflexivity, this film continues to prove that “The Muscles from Brussels” has a keen sense of humor about his screen persona. The film opens with any Van Damme fan's wet dream—a one-take scene of total Van Dammage wherein Van Damme destroys an army, rescues a prisoner, and kicks his way through scores of enemy soldiers. This opening also underscores the problems of the action star. Credited as “the man who brought John Woo to America” via Hard Target, Van Damme's subsequent films have been multinational lower-tier efforts with nothing approaching the promise Van Damme expressed in the early '90s.
The film finds Van Damme struggling for artistic credibility, cash, and his daughter. She's embarrassed by her dad and would rather live with her mother. Returning to Brussels, he gets caught in the crossfire of a bank robbery, suddenly plunging him into some all-too-familiar action film territory.
Told via a fractured time structure that continually shatters into smaller pieces, the film works as a cohesive whole. JCVD boasts a washed-out, dirty color palette which helps reflect our hero's drab mood (though does little to keep the English subtitles from disappearing into overexposed areas of the screen). Those surprised by Van Damme's acting chops must not be familiar with Time Cop. Indeed, JCVD allows Van Damme to flex his inner thespian and kick some emotional butt.
Burning Plain (Guillermo Arriaga, 2008, USA)
At the crux of Guillermo Arriaga's Burning Plain is a formidable performance by Charlize Theron. She plays Sylvia / Mariana, a damaged woman bent on self-destruction and filled with self-loathing. She sleeps with any man that crosses her path when she's not working as a sommelier / hostess at a posh oceanside restaurant where the roiling water reflects her inner turmoil.
Told as a series of flashbacks in three different time frames cross-cut with "present day" Portland, the narrative is a puzzle box. Once the box is assembled, however, the game is over and the film becomes just another box into which are placed the kind of performances guaranteed to garner Oscar nominations with themes sure to titillate the Oprah crowd.
Often Burning Plain felt like it was based on a book where the winding timeline would have served the narrative rather than the opposite. As it is, this melodrama could easily have been a Hallmark movie of the week. It's far more plain than burning.