Conviction


Conviction

What could be stronger than the love of a sister and brother?

(2010) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Clea Duvall, Juliette Lewis, Loren Dean, Peter Gallagher, Bailee Madison, Tobias Campbell, Karen Young, Talia Balsam, Michele Messmer, Ari Graynor, Jennifer Roberts. Directed by Tony Goldwyn

Blood is thicker than water, and in some cases that blood is thick indeed. It is when the chips are down and every sign points to disaster that you need your family most. Sometimes, going the extra mile just isn’t far enough.

Kenny Waters (Rockwell) is a bit of an enigma in the small Massachusetts town of Ayer. He is the life of the party, a jokester, someone who doesn’t seem to take life terribly seriously. He’s a devoted father and a loyal brother to his sister Betty Anne (Swank). He also can be an unholy terror. When drunk, he takes offense easily and gets violent quickly. He has a string of petty crime arrests on his record dating back to his juvenile days when he and his sister grew up in a series of foster homes, his mother (Young) more interested in partying than parenting.

When a woman is brutally murdered in her trailer, Kenny is questioned for the crime but let go. The interrogating officer, Nancy Taylor (Leo) sees red when Kenny ridicules her and blows off the seriousness of her investigation. Two years later, she gets her revenge. A pair of witnesses have come forward, Kenny’s ex-wife (DuVall) and ex-girlfriend (Lewis), both of whom claim Kenny confessed to the crime. There is no physical evidence connecting him other than that Kenny has the same blood type as the murderer, but that’s enough to convict him and send him away.

Betty Anne doesn’t for one minute believe that Kenny is guilty. She visits him regularly and her husband (Dean) doesn’t seem to mind that, but after Kenny attempts suicide, Betty Anne realizes her brother will never make it in prison. No lawyer will take his case because no lawyer believes in him so Betty Anne makes the only decision she can – she has to be his lawyer.

That’s a tall order considering she didn’t even graduate high school but she does it, getting her GED, attending Roger Williams College in Rhode Island and paying for her tuition by tending bar. All this extra work puts strain on her marriage – too much strain, and she winds up a single mom with two rambunctious sons. She makes it work, largely with the help of her friend Abra (Driver) who admires Betty Anne’s ferocious tenacity and her fierce loyalty.

When Betty Anne discovers DNA testing might exonerate her brother, she goes looking for evidence which the police claim was destroyed after ten years (yes, ten years have passed). Undeterred, she goes searching in the courthouse archives for any sort of evidence that might have a residue of the killer’s blood. She enlists the aid of Barry Scheck (Gallagher), an attorney whose Innocence Project works to overturn unjust convictions by introducing new evidence. With his help they not only find the DNA evidence they were looking for, they interview both of the witnesses who admit that their testimony was coerced by Taylor. Even then the Massachusetts Attorney General refuses to exonerate Kenny but that won’t stop Betty Anne.

This true story is brought to life by perfect casting. Nobody does dogged working class women like Swank, and she gives Betty Anne some hard edges (she throws Abra out of the house for even suggesting that Kenny might be guilty in one interesting scene) but an admirable perseverance that allows her to take on almost insurmountable odds in getting her Law Degree, passing the bar, finding the missing evidence and at length getting the ruling reversed and Kenny freed. She even manages to find the time to arrange a reconciliation between Kenny and his now-grown daughter (Graynor).

Rockwell is one of those actors who always seems to be on the edge, like a young Nicolas Cage. He is perfect as Kenny, equal parts lovable loser, life of the party and ticking time bomb. You are left wondering if he is truly capable of murder and having to admit that he just might be. That is one of the crucial strong points of the movie.

Where it is weak is in that at times it comes off as a Lifetime Movie of the Week in some ways. Abra’s devotion to Betty Anne is never thoroughly explained and Betty Anne at times comes off as too much of a martyr. The movie could have used some trimming, compressing events a little.

Still in all, this is an emotionally charged inspirational story that shows the lengths that someone will go to for their brother in this case. It’s about not only the importance of family but also the importance of never giving up hope and believing strongly in your loved ones. The world could use a little more of that in my humble opinion.

WHY RENT THIS: Rockwell and Swank are at the top of their games. The story itself is inspiring.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Runs a bit long and at times comes off as a made-for-TV movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and a few somewhat disturbing crime scene images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie spent ten years in development following a “60 Minutes” story on the subject which led to a bidding frenzy.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a conversation between director Goldwyn and the real Betty Anne Waters which delves into the relationship between Betty Anne and Kenny, and divulges the fate of Kenny (which the film doesn’t do) six months after he was released from prison.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.7M on a $12.5M production budget; the movie was unprofitable in its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness begins.

Crazy, Stupid, Love


Crazy, Stupid, Love

Steve Carell and Julianne Moore are schooled.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Warner Brothers) Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon, John Carroll Lynch, Jonah Bobo, Analeigh Tipton, Josh Groban, Joey King, Liza Lapira, Beth Littleford. Directed by Glen Ficarra and John Requa

Love has a way of pulling a fast one on us. We go along thinking things are fine and suddenly BLAMO they’re not. At other times we are looking for anything other than love and suddenly we discover that it has moved in for a long stay.

Cal Weaver (Carell) is a middle aged man enjoying the fruits of his life. He has children who love him, a steady job that pays the bills and a wife who adores him. Okay, two out of three.

One night at dinner, his wife Emily (Moore) blurts out that she wants a divorce. Not only that, but she’s been sleeping with David Lindhagen (Bacon), a nebbish accountant who works with Emily. Cal is stunned into silence, an awkward vacuum that is filled with even more awkward conversation by Emily until Cal is so unnerved he throws himself out of a moving car.

Somewhat passively, Cal moves out into a bare, sparsely furnished apartment. He takes to hanging out at a local bar where he notices Jacob (Gosling), a handsome younger man who seems to have uncanny success with women in the bar. Jacob in turn notices the sad sack Cal who doesn’t mind acting the pathetic loser, telling all and sundry that he’s been cuckolded by his wife and her lover. Jacob decides to take pity on Cal and help get him back in touch with his manhood.

This of course requires a complete wardrobe change and new haircut, as well as lessons watching Jacob pick up women with lines I could never have pulled off with a straight face in a singles bar, although to be fair if I looked like Ryan Gosling I could spout off excerpts of “Pilgrim’s Progress” and still get lucky.

After some false starts, Cal begins to get successful at picking up women, using a certain amount of honesty on schoolteacher Kate (Tomei) to get her in his clutches.

In the meantime, Cal’s son Robbie (Bobo) has developed quite the crush on his babysitter Jessica (Tipton) who in turn has developed a very unhealthy fixation on Cal, who is close friends with her dad (Lynch) who has spinelessly sided with his bitchy wife (Littleford) in giving Cal the cold shoulder and supporting Emily, who needs it of course after having thrown her husband out because she cheated on him. What an animal he is!

Anyway Jacob finds himself falling for Hannah (Stone) who has just passed the bar, and I don’t mean the one Jacob hangs out in because she walked right into it and…well, if you like comedy in which everybody misinterprets what everyone else says at every possible turn, you don’t need any more cajoling from me.

The co-directors co-wrote the cult classic Bad Santa and this movie has a few of the subversive elements from that film. Unfortunately, those elements don’t really suit this film or this cast. Carell is best when cast as an everyman sort who has a bit of a heart of gold and means well but, well, things happen to him. While he made his bones in “The Office” as the clueless manager, he got some critical flack for this character not being more like Michael Scott which I find incomprehensible. That character would have been patently wrong for this role; part of what the movie is about is taking a mild-mannered, happily married man and attempt to turn him into something he isn’t.

Moore, one of the most respected actresses going today, gets to play a rather unsympathetic role and manages to make her sympathetic. She rises to the occasion and resists the temptation to make Emily bitchy so much as she is confused and desperate. She hooks up with David not so much out of lust or spite but because the safe harbor of her marriage has faded into the mists and she doesn’t know which way to turn to find that security.

Gosling doesn’t do a lot of comedies and this isn’t quite what we’ve come to expect from him at all – for one thing, he seems more comfortable in indie dramas than in big studio rom-coms but he seems to be all right with this one. It isn’t up to his usual standards but the performance is solid enough and if his comic timing isn’t up to the level of Carell’s, perhaps with some practice he’s a good enough actor to pull off comedy as well.

The thing that makes this movie seem a little bit on the unrealistic side is that there is almost no fighting, and no screaming whatsoever between Emily and Cal. This is the most civilized, low-key divorce EVER. Also the singles bar, which is apparently a local lounge is full of more gorgeous women than any other singles bar I’ve ever seen.

There is also a heck of a lot of raunchiness for a movie in which young teens and kids play such a pivotal role. Robbie is caught masturbating in the opening moments of the movie and Jessica takes some provocative picture for the man of her dreams. While there isn’t anything in here that would get the cops called, those who have zero tolerance for anything having to do with statutory rape might want to give this a wide berth.

Love never acts the way you want it to or even the way you predict it will. It’s never easy, never smooth and rarely responds the same way twice, even in the same relationship. There is some sweetness and charm here with an equally large dose of uncomfortable silences. It’s a solid enough comedy that is better than a lot of romantic comedies these days but even so it’s merely good, not great.

REASONS TO GO: Nice ensemble and Carell continues to impress as a leading man. Sweet nature

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be raunchy or family-oriented.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the jokes are a little bit crude, there’s some sexuality and more than it’s fair share of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is singer Josh Groban’s film debut.

HOME OR THEATER: It makes a nice alternative if the big movies are crowded, but also it will work fine at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Solitary Man