Trial by Fire


The despair of a father or the guilt of a murderer?

(2018) True Crime Drama (Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment) Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Jeff Perry, Jade Pettyjohn, Chris Coy, Joshua Mikel, Jason Douglas, Carlos Gómez, William Tokarsky, Wayne Pėre, Darren Pettie, Blair Bomar, Rhoda Griffis, Katie McClellan, Noah Lomax, Catherine Carlen, Michael H. Cole, Carlos Aviles, Elle Graham, McKinley Belcher III, Bryan Adrian, Mary Rachel Quinn. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

The death penalty remains a controversial subject, igniting passionate responses on both sides. Some consider it cruel and inhumane; others see it as righteous justice. Some say it is a deterrent to criminals, others point out that there’s no evidence that suggests that’s true. Some say that it at least keeps those who have committed heinous crime out of commission for good; others point to the possibilities that those who are innocent might be put to death wrongfully.

A young girl in the small Texas town of Corsicana was playing in her yard when she saw smoke billowing out of the house across the street. A shirtless man came out of the house, coughing and screaming that his kids were still in the house. The little girl’s mommy called 911 but it was all for naught – the three little girls inside the house were gone. Their father, Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell) would eventually be charged with their murder.

On paper, it seems like a slam dunk. Willingham was a notorious local troublemaker with a violent streak who had on several occasions physically abused his wife Stacy (Meade) who was away from the house when the fire occurred. Arson investigators for the county pronounced that it was absolutely a case of arson. Willingham was given a public defender who didn’t see much point in putting up any kind of defense. He never challenged the testimony of witnesses who changed their stories on the stand, nor checked on the veracity of a convicted criminal who testified that Willingham had confessed the crime to him in jail. Willingham was quickly convicted and sentenced to death, despite his protestations of innocence and his wife’s insistence that he would never hurt his own kids.

Willingham was put on Death Row where he was taunted as a baby killer and abused by guards and fellow inmates alike. His mandatory appeals are going nowhere and he can’t afford decent representation. Then, along comes playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Dern), a kindhearted do-gooder who reluctantly contacts him through a prison outreach program. Far from the thuggish brute she expected, he seems charming, gentlemanly and kind but absolutely unwavering in his cries that he’s an innocent man about to be executed for something he didn’t do.

Gilbert becomes drawn in to his story and starts to do research into his case and what she finds is shocking. The investigation was conducted in a shoddy and haphazard fashion with no other option other than Willingham ever considered for the crime. When she engages world famous arson investigator Dr. Hurst (Perry) who states unequivocally that that the initial investigation was botched and the culprit was likely a faulty space heater, Gilbert tries to find someone in authority to listen.

This case actually happened and despite overwhelming evidence that he didn’t do what he was accused of doing, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004, more than twelve years after his daughters died in that terrible blaze. Zwick, an Oscar nominated director for Glory, puts together a searing indictment of our current justice system in which the law has become a commodity; only the very wealthy can afford good representation and that means often those who are poor are without any sort of recourse to get an adequate defense. It is the reason programs like The Innocence Project exist.

O’Connell, a fine actor who has been sort of just on the cusp of something brilliant, delivers it here with an absolutely stellar turn as Willingham. While I don’t think Zwick did O’Connell any favors by inserting imaginary one-sided conversations with his deceased oldest daughter, we get a sense of his despair, his outrage and yes his anger. The role likely won’t win him very many awards but might be the stepping stone to roles that will.

Zwick enlisted Alex Belcher to compose the music and he delivers with a haunting mood-inducing score that is absolutely unforgettable. Unfortunately, Zwick doesn’t give this film the kind of passion that he managed in Glory; I’ve read other critics describe his direction as workman-like and that is unfortunately right on the money. This is the kind of movie that should leave you with your blood boiling but oddly, it doesn’t and considering how tailor made it is to eliciting that kind of reaction, it’s almost criminal in and of itself.

Still, this is an important movie on the subject of our legal system, especially implying that then-Texas governor Rick Perry refused to even read Hurst’s report that should have exonerated Willingham, preferring that the execution go on as scheduled to preserve the reputation of the State as kick-ass against crime. This is one that got by them and quite frankly, some of those whose shameful behavior sent an innocent man to jail and execution should have had criminal charges filed against them.

REASONS TO SEE: O’Connell does a sterling job. The score is absolutely haunting. An important film on the issue of capital punishment.
REASONS TO AVOID: Should leave you with your blood boiling but it doesn’t.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, brief nudity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a New Yorker article written by David Grann which opined that Texas had knowingly and willfully executed an innocent man.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Man Walking
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Violent Separation

New Releases for the Week of October 20, 2016


Jack Reacher: Never Go BackJACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK

(Paramount) Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Robert Knepper, Danika Yarosh, Aldis Hodge, Holt McCallany, Billy Slaughter, Madalyn Horcher. Directed by Edward Zwick

Former military investigator Jack Reacher returns as his close friend, now heading up his old unit, is arrested for treason. Knowing she’s innocent but unable to prove it, he breaks her out of prison and goes on the run, dead set on finding that proof. What he uncovers instead is a sinister conspiracy that reaches into the very heart of our government, and a secret from Reacher’s past that might have some implications in his current predicament.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action, some bloody images, language and thematic elements)

A Man Called Ove

(Music Box) Rolf Lassgärd, Bahar Pars, Tobias Almborg, Ida Engvoll. A poignant and delightful film about a lonely widower whose face to the world is of a grumpy curmudgeon, but whose tender heart is broken following the death of his beloved wife. Determined to join her in the hereafter, his attempts at suicide are thwarted by the unknowing interventions of a new neighbor who brings Ove back to life and give him new reasons to live. The review for this will be up tomorrow.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content, some disturbing images, and language)

Boo! A Madea Halloween

(Lionsgate) Tyler Perry, Cassi Davis, Bella Thorne, Patrice Lovely. The first Madea movie in three years finds America’s favorite granny fighting off psychos, poltergeists and all manner of ghouls and goblins while keeping a watchful eye on three rambunctious teens. The inspiration is said to come from a scene in Chris Rock’s Top Five in which the Rock character sees a line of people waiting to get in to a movie featuring Madea entitled Boo! In which she plays a badass ghost hunter.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for drug use and references, suggestive content, language, some horror images and thematic material)

I’m Not Ashamed

(Pure Flix) Masey McLain, Ben Davies, Cameron McKendry, Terri Minton. This is the story of Rachel Joy Scott, the first student to die at the hands of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The movie is taken from her journal entries, the recollections of her mother and surviving classmates.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Oviedo Mall, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, teen drinking and smoking, disturbing violent content and some suggestive situations)

Keeping Up With the Joneses

(20th Century Fox) Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot, Jon Hamm. An ordinary suburban couple find their lives being changed when a chic and sophisticated couple – the Joneses – move into their neighborhood. Well, it’s not so much that a chic and sophisticated couple moved into the neighborhood but that the Joneses happen to be covert operatives. Won’t that make the next block party fun!

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Spy Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, action/violence and brief strong language)

Miss Hokusai

(GKIDS) Starring the voices of Erica Lindbeck, Richard Epcar, Ezra Weisz, Robbie Daymond. One of the greatest artists Japan ever produced is Katsushika Hokusai. His life and art is seen through the eyes of his daughter O-Ei, whose needs were always secondary to his painting.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Anime
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material including sexual situations and images)

Ouija: Origin of Evil

(Universal) Annalise Basso, Elizabeth Reaser, Lin Shaye, Doug Jones. In 1965, a widow and her two daughters who run a séance scam decide to add a Ouija board to help bolster their business. Instead, they find that it is a portal to evil that takes over the youngest daughter. Now in a desperate situation with their lives and souls at stake, the eldest daughter and mother must find a way to send the possessing spirit back to the other side and save the girl who’s possessed.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing images, terror and thematic elements)

The Pickle Recipe

(Adopt) Jon Dore, Lynn Cohen, Miriam Lee, David Paymer. After a disaster wipes out a party MC’s sound equipment, he reluctantly turns to his shady uncle for help. The uncle agrees to help him out – on the condition that the young man steals his grandmother’s prized pickle recipe which she has vowed to take with her to the grave.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Regal Oviedo Mall, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for brief suggestive humor and drug references)

Love and Other Drugs


Love and Other Drugs

Jake Gyllenhaal and Oliver Platt practice their Blues Brothers routine.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt, Josh Gad, Hank Azaria, Gabriel Macht, Judy Geer, George Segal, Jill Clayburgh, Katheryn Winnick, Kate Jennings Grant, Kimberly Scott, Nikki Deloach, Peter Friedman, Natalie Gold. Directed by Edward Zwick

We’re obsessed by love and its close physical cousin, sex. We write songs about it, make movies about it, write reams of poems and self-help books about it, and pray for it in our most fervent nights of loneliness. We’ve even tried to make drugs that will improve it, but in the end the human heart cannot be saved by any pills or salve.

Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) is the kind of guy that can sell anything. He is suave, sure of himself, charming and handsome. He can sell stereo equipment – or himself as a bed partner, and does both with equal success. Well, one more than the other to be sure.

After being fired from his latest job for sleeping with the manager’s girlfriend (in the storage room in the back to make things worse), he has to face his parents (Segal and the late Jill Clayburgh). His dad is a successful doctor in Chicago as is his sister (Gold). His brother Josh (Gad) is a software geek whose IPO has made him wealthy and whose trophy wife has made him crazy. Jamie, a chronic underachiever who dropped out of med school, is a disappointment.

Josh gets him an interview at Pfizer and Jamie does well enough to get a job in the heartland (I hear Ohio although the movie is filmed mostly in Pittsburgh and environs) pimping Zoloft for Bruce Winston (Platt), who dreams of a promotion to Chicago where he may spend more time with his family. He recognizes that Jamie might just be the guy to get him there.

The tough nut to crack here is Dr. Stan Knight (Azaria), a dedicated Prozac guy who is tight with Trey (Macht), the matinee idol ex-Marine rep who sells it. After being rebuffed time and time again about placing free samples in the doctor’s pharmacy, he at last wins Dr. Knight with a thousand dollar check that allows Jamie to “shadow” Dr. Knight for a day. It is then that he meets Maggie Murdoch (Hathaway), a 26-year-old Parkinson’s patient who needs her meds replaced. She also has a blotch on her breast, which she shows to the good doctor – and Jamie, who is introduced to her as an intern. When she later finds out he is a pharmaceutical rep, she hits the roof. However, the charming Jamie is taken by her and manages to sooth her enough to get an invite for coffee. This leads to frenzied sex on her living room floor.

Thus begins a strange courtship that both agree will be strictly physical. Jamie is perfectly all right with that – Maggie is a tiger in the bedroom (or any other place the urge to fornicate takes them) and a no strings attached situation is perfect for him. Maggie has her own reasons – she doesn’t want to get close to someone only to have them leave once they figure out how exactly what being in love with a Parkinson’s patient entails. It’s happened to her before, after all.

Jamie is struggling as a rep until Pfizer comes out with a new wonder drug – a little blue pill called Viagra. Once that comes out, Jamie’s career is blazing. He is writing more prescriptions than the company can keep up with, which is just fine with them. He is certainly on the fast track for Chicago, and he has an in with Dr. Knight who is a wannabe ladies man which Jamie can certainly relate to – and assist with.

In the meantime, his relationship with Maggie has taken a strange turn – he’s fallen in love with her. It’s never happened to him before, a man who has committed to nothing or nobody before in his life. Now that he has, he doesn’t know what to do. For Maggie’s part, every instinct in her is screaming to get out of this relationship but against her better judgment she is falling for him too. She has to wonder what is going to get in between them first – her illness or Jamie’s career.

This has all the elements of a Hollywood romantic comedy; boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, things go great until either a misunderstanding, a pre-arranged event or a lie get in between them, boy wins back girl in the final reel. However, this isn’t a romantic comedy per se. What it really is about dealing with obstacles.

Director Zwick has some pretty big canvas films on his resume (Glory, The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall) all of which are among my favorite films of the past two decades. He is also one of the creators of the TV series “Thirtysomething” which I think is closer in tone to this movie which is kind of odd because I really didn’t like “Thirtysomething” – I found it whiny. So why did I like this movie?

There are a number of reasons. First and foremost are the performances of the leads. Gyllenhaal has made a number of really good movies (Brokeback Mountain, Donnie Darko, October Sky) but really hasn’t gotten a multi-layered role that he can truly sink his teeth into until now and he does very well with it. Jamie is basically a good guy wrapped up in layers of self-loathing and oversexed frat boy marked by an ambition to prove his father wrong and a willingness to go through people instead of around them to get what he wants.

As marvelous as Gyllenhaal is, he takes a backseat to Hathaway here. This is her coming out party as a serious actress after years of Disney Channel-esque roles. The potential she hints at in Rachel Getting Married is realized here. She is a scared and lonely woman who desperately wants to reach out and be held but realizes that nobody will want the baggage that comes with her. The pain is palpable and so is the compassion, and at every turn you are simply taken by her. It’s easy to see why Jamie falls in love with her; half the men in the audience would be too.

There is a good deal of sexuality in this movie; in that sense it is honest and true to its own convictions. While the kind of nudity and sex that is shown in this movie was common in the 70s, it is relatively unusual in 21st century Hollywood. Of particular note is that the sex and nudity are germane to the story and the characters, not merely inserted for titillation purposes (forgive the pun). I admire Zwick for having the courage to stick to his guns for the movie; it couldn’t have been easy to convince the studio to allow it and it certainly must have been difficult to get it past the MPAA who are notoriously rough on sex scenes as opposed to violence lately.

Ambition and tenderness can be opposing forces, but one can be a great motivator for the other as well. This is a movie about a real relationship, one that doesn’t go smoothly but could be the salvation of both parties involved. Yes, there is a bit of Hollywood in the mix – too good to be true syndrome – but nonetheless the relationship at the heart of the movie rings true. That’s more than I can say for the great majority of movie romances today, so when you find a good one, you mark it as precious. This isn’t mindless entertainment by any means – a wrenching scene when Jamie meets the husband (Friedman) of a Parkinson’s patient in the advanced stages will cure you of that notion. He details to Jamie what he can expect and tells him in no uncertain terms that his advice to him is to get out of the relationship while he still can. It’s the best scene in the film that doesn’t involve Hathaway.  This is a very good movie that is a little bit flawed to be great but nonetheless it has an Oscar-worthy performance by Hathaway that is worth seeing on its own. You might miss this one among the more hyped films like Burlesque and Little Fockers but this one might be the one you should see.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Hathaway and Gyllenhaal, as well as fine supporting performances by Platt, Gad and Azaria. Takes a good hard look at the cost of loving someone with a degenerative illness.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really the hard-hitting look at the pharmaceutical industry that the book is. Swings wildly between the romantic elements, the drama and the comedy and never really takes a stab at any of them.

FAMILY VALUES: You will see a lot of female breasts and most of them are Anne Hathaway’s. There is also Jake Gyllenhaal’s tush for those keeping track of celebrity flesh. There are also a whole lot of bad words as well as plenty of sexual innuendo not to mention actual sex. In short, probably okay for raging teen hormones but not for those who might not understand the ramifications of sex quite yet.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman” by Jamie Reidy. His book is a non-fiction account of his time as a pharmaceutical salesman for Pfizer. After the book came out, Reidy – who was then working as a salesman for a different pharmaceutical firm – was fired from his job.

HOME OR THEATER: This is the kind of intimate movie that might make for a peculiar date night, but it also could be enjoyed just as easily at home.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

Defiance


Daniel Craig decides to go looking for a few critics.

Daniel Craig decides to go looking for a few critics.

(Paramount Vantage) Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein, Tomas Arana, George MacKay, Iben Hjejle, Jodhi May, Sam Spruell, Mia Wasikowski. Directed by Edward Zwick.

More than 60 years after the events of World War II, the events of that conflict still resonate with all of us. It was a time when ordinary people were forced to confront true evil, rise up and make a stand for their very survival, as well as everything they hold most dear. Some of those stories, particularly those that took place in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, are only now coming to light in the West.

It is 1941 in Belarus, and the Germans are systematically capturing, murdering and imprisoning Jews in ghettos. In a small Belarusian town, smuggler Zus Bielski (Schreiber) and his young brother Asael (Bell) hide out in the woods as the Germans decimate their town. They return to the family farm to find their parents murdered and their younger brother Aron (MacKay) traumatized by what he has seen.

Knowing that the Germans are not yet done with their pogrom, and that the local police are co-operating with the Nazis, they flee to the nearby forest where they are joined by their older brother Tuvia (Craig). Experienced at hiding from the police in the woods, they are confident they can hide from the Germans indefinitely. However, Aron soon discovers several other refugees who have fled to the safety of the forest. They are joined by still others from surrounding towns and villages. The number soon swells beyond the ability of the brothers to feed and shelter. There are many elderly and sick, some children and most truly unable to fend for themselves. The brothers give them unity and protection. The brothers give them hope.

After Tuvia confronts the police captain responsible for the murder of his parents and executes him, he forswears from further violence and reprisals, which creates a rift with his brother Zus, who wants nothing more than to get justice, or more to the point, revenge against those oppressing his people. After a food raid leads to the death of some of their number, and leniency with a collaborator brings armed police to their camp, the rift is broadened to the point where Zus leaves to join a Russian partisan group made up of Red Army.

In the meantime, winter comes, food is scarce and they are hunted by a determined and better-armed German army. Tuvia’s determination to adhere to non-violent standards begins to erode in the face of starvation, disease and fear. With the overwhelming odds against them, it would take a miracle for this starving group of refugees to survive.

Zwick, whose resume includes such big-budget fare as Glory, The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond, crafts a movie that has a big-budget look but an intimate feel. Gorgeous vistas of forest, bog and meadow are accentuated within the context of the nuances of the relationships between the brothers. Craig and Schreiber bring a quiet power to their roles as sibling rivals. These are men, proud and wounded, frustrated and helpless in the face of events they cannot control.

The supporting cast, for the most part made up of character actors and Eastern Europeans, does a solid job of portraying starving refugees, terrified townies, arrogant communists and/or occasional Germans, who for the most part remain an enemy without a face, other than the opening sequence, and one later on in the movie in which a terrified soldier is captured and brought before the camp to face a mob of angry Jews.

As for historical accuracy, well, the movie is probably about as accurate as any Hollywood film is (for example, a battle with a Nazi tank near the film’s climax never occurred). There has been some grousing that the film portrays much of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe as being passive in the face of mounting evidence of their own extermination, but I disagree. Certainly, there are scenes like the one where Tuvia pleads with the council of a ghetto to flee to the forest while the elders point out that the Germans kill 20 for every one that flees. However, the fact is that there are instances in which Jews were passive about what was happening to them, whether out of a desire to appease the Germans, or out of an unwillingness to believe the rumors of death camps or that the Germans would annihilate their own slave labor workforce, something that had never happened in the history of the world to that point.

This movie hasn’t received a lot of critical love. Some have called it heavy-handed, which I admit it is in places. Some have called it emotionally manipulative, but then again it is a story which incites strong emotions. Some have compared it unfavorably to Schindler’s List but honestly, that’s like comparing Gods and Generals to Gone With the Wind. Schindler’s List is a classic and most films about the Holocaust are going to come off unfavorably next to it.

I’ll cop to being a bit of a history buff, and I especially enjoy movies that inspire me to find out more about the era or episode that inspired them, and I certainly was hitting the Internet after I got home from the multiplex. The war in Eastern Europe is certainly a bit of a mystery to us in the West; while we are aware that there was a particular ferocity and savagery that took place there, we are for the most part unacquainted with the particulars. I, for one, am always grateful for the opportunity to learn more.

However, at the heart of this movie is the relationship between Tuvia and Zus. It is their strength that sets them apart and their pride that splits them apart, but ultimately it is their love and fierce loyalty that unites them. At the end of the day, that’s what makes the movie worth seeing.

WHY RENT THIS: Lovely Lithuanian vistas. Oscar-nominated musical score. A compelling, believable fraternal relationship.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasional heavy-handed storytelling. Some unnecessary historical inaccuracies to make the movie more “salable.”

FAMILY VALUES: Some intense battle scenes and language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Much of the movie was filmed within 100 miles of where the actual Bielski camp was located.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A criminally brief interview segment with descendents of the Bielski brothers, and a photo gallery of camp survivors in 2008 give faces to the real participants in the drama.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Secret Life of Bees