At The Movies

By Tony Sheppard

Into the Abyss
Directed by Werner Herzog
“Into the Abyss” carries the official description “Conversations with death row inmate Michael Perry and those affected by his crime serve as an examination of why people – and the state – kill.”  Which is an interesting analysis as it seems to do the former far better than it does the latter.  Perhaps this isn’t entirely surprising as Herzog himself (who is heard throughout the film as he interviews his subjects) briefly expresses his distaste for capital punishment.

This is a film that takes a specific case (a triple murder in Texas 10 years ago, committed as part of a car robbery) and interviews both of the men convicted of the crime, as well as assorted family members and friends of those involved, including the victims.  However, it isn’t really as much about this crime as it is about crime in general and the death penalty in particular.  It seems to be an attempt to remind us that every death penalty or incarceration statistic, and every victim of crime that we hear about, is a part of a larger back story – sometimes as tragic as the story at the center of it all.

The family of two of the victims, for example, were no strangers to tragedy on that day, having lost multiple others to harsh causes.  And one of the convicted perpetrators, Jason Burkett, would probably have to attend a family reunion in prison in order to see his immediate relatives.  Indeed, a reunion of sorts occurred at his trial, at which his father and brother both testified while serving their own significant sentences.  And even amongst the descriptions of loss recounted by siblings of the victims, and the perceived futility of victims’ assistance programs, some of the most affecting remarks come from Burkett’s father who describes the highs and lows of a lifetime of incarcerated, absent fatherhood within the context of his own son’s murder trial.

One also wonders about the arbitrariness of dissimilar sentences, decided by different juries, for the same crime – and the impact of penalty phase testimony.  We also hear from one of the team charged with administering executions on Texas’ death row in Huntsville, reminding us of the lasting toll it takes on those who have no connection whatsoever with the original crime or those on either side of it.  

I’m a death penalty opponent myself, for assorted reasons not least of which is that I don’t think we can justly administer an absolute punishment in a system that isn’t absolute itself.  We make mistakes and there are some we can’t correct.  But “Into the Abyss” is more about personalizing the phenomenon than it is about drawing clear conclusions or preaching to the audience – the audience is capable of forming opinions of their own.

New Year’s Eve
Directed by Garry Marshall
Sticking with official synopses, early last year, Garry Marshall’s “Valentine’s Day” was released with the description: “Intertwining couples and singles in Los Angeles break-up and make-up based on the pressures and expectations of Valentine’s Day.”  Now we have his new film about “The lives of several couples and singles in New York intertwine over the course of New Year’s Eve.”  If that sounds like an attempt to strike gold with the same idea, simply moved to another city and another kissing-related holiday, it’s because it obviously is.  A few years from now, we may have reached the point of “Arbor Day” set in Toledo – but my money would be on “Fourth of July” set in Philadelphia/Chicago/Miami/Dallas first (with the city likely chosen by tax incentive programs – so don’t rule out “Thanksgiving” in Detroit either).

The new film even recycles a handful of the cast from last year’s project, as we’re shown how multiple people are preparing for the big night – from a young girl (Abigail Breslin) hoping to ditch her mother for a first kiss in Times Square, to an older man (Robert De Niro) simply hoping to live long enough to see the ball drop one last time.  It’s a film that boasts an extensive cast of well-known actors (add in Ashton Kutcher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Hilary Swank and you’re barely scratching the surface), most of whom probably never saw each other on set as they’re  primarily in very limited vignettes with one or two other recognizable faces.  The only pair with marginally interesting characters that seemed to need any preparation at all, were Pfeiffer and Efron as an under-appreciated music company assistant and a bike courier who attempts to help her through a wishlist of experiences.

I remember “Valentine’s Day” in terms of it happening, but I find it hard to remember anything that actually happened within that movie.  And this seems destined for a similar fate.  It’s a very lightweight collection of stories, none of which offer many (if any) surprises.  It’s fairly pleasant to watch while it lasts, like a montage of previews for multiple romantic comedies, but there’s nothing that’s likely to stick.  Unless of course you’re a big fan of one of the stars, in which case you might remember 10 percent of it.  I watched it last night and I’m glad I didn’t wait longer to write about it or it might have been too late.  

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