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

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Nerve (2016)


Isn't it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

Isn’t it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

(2016) Thriller (Lionsgate) Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Juliette Lewis, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn, Marc John Jeffreries, Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker, Brian Marc, Ed Squires, Rightor Doyle, Josh Ostrovsky, Eric D’Alessandrio, Samira Wiley, Albert Sidoine, Chris Breslin, Wesley Volcy, Damond McFarland, Deema Aitken, Michael Drayar, Kim Ramirez. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

 

In this age of instant Internet gratification, it seems sometimes that those of a certain generation are fame-obsessed. They document every aspect of their lives, as if they were famous; some achieve a kind of fame on YouTube or Instagram or other websites with videos, music and art. Some even become mainstream media sensations as well.

Vee (Roberts) – short for Venus but nobody calls her that – is a high school senior in Staten Island and if there is a metaphor for boredom that’s better than that, I don’t know what it is. She is a bit of a milk-toast, unwilling to take chances. She’s been accepted at Cal Arts but is too afraid to tell her clingy Mom (Lewis) the news. Instead, she prepares to go to college locally with her mother as her “roommate.” You can imagine how enthusiastic she is at the possibility.

Her best friend Sydney (Meade) is much more of a risk-taker. She introduces Vee to an online game called Nerve in which you sign up either as a player or a watcher. Players are given time-sensitive dares to perform on camera of increasing difficulty and danger with cash awards increasing the more dangerous the dare. Watchers pay $19.99 for 24 hours and can suggest dares to be performed and follow their favorite players; the most popular players end up in a tournament of champions where the players can win big money – and everlasting fame.

Vee impulsively signs up as a player after she is embarrassed in front of the guy she’s crushing on. Despite her nerd friend Tommy’s (Heizer) misgivings (and let us not forget that he is crushing big time on her) she goes on her first dare – to kiss a stranger in a diner for five seconds. That stranger turns out (perhaps non-coincidentally) to be Ian (Franco), another player. Vee and Ian are thrown together in another dare which involves trying on ridiculously expensive clothes in Bergdorf’s before they are forced to leave the store in only their skivvies – although the clothes they were modeling mysteriously turn up for them to wear outside, bought and paid for.

As Vee’s popularity grows, the dares begin to get more and more serious – including riding on a motorcycle at 60 MPH with the driver blindfolded – and her popularity grows, becoming an instant Internet sensation, which infuriates her friend Sydney who has always been the attention-getter in their relationship. Still, as the stakes get higher and higher Vee discovers that leaving the game isn’t an option for her – and what seemed to be harmless fun has become something far more sinister. How far will she go to take the game down?

Let’s get something straight right off the bat; this movie is seriously aimed at an audience that is likely no older than 20. It is aimed at a generation that thinks anyone over that age is hopelessly techno-illiterate, hopelessly uncool and hopelessly clueless. The arrogance of youth is in perfect representation here; the feeling of invincibility that comes with someone who has a 1 or a 2 in front of their age (single digits only, wise-asses).

The look of the film is part of that. It’s cool and slick, almost like live action anime. This is the prettiest B-movie you’re likely to ever see; the lighting is superb. Roberts and Franco are perfectly cast; Roberts the good girl with a bit of a dark side and Franco the wisecracking player who’s kinda cute and kinda sweet. Both actors play what are essentially archetypes (and I don’t know if the characters come off that way in the Jeanne Ryan-penned young adult novel) and sadly, have about zero chemistry together. You never get a sense of attraction between the two of them which is one of the main faults of the movie. Perfectly cast individually yes, but the two actors can’t seem to forge a connection that is perceivable on the screen.

A lot of the stunts that the players are supposed to do don’t really generate a lot of tension; crossing between buildings on a ladder which plays to Sydney’s fear of heights seems almost anti-climactic. You never get a sense of jeopardy The same goes with the motorcycle stunt. By the time the final confrontation comes with the “evil” player TJ (Baker) there doesn’t seem to be any sort of tension whatsoever. Joost and Schulman are excellent directors visually, but this won’t go down as one of their best works. Something tells me that there are better things down the road for these guys. I certainly hope so.

REASONS TO GO: The look of the film is very cool and modern.
REASONS TO STAY: A very shallow look at fame, a very shallow subject. None of the stunts were really all that convincing.
FAMILY VALUES: The film espouses risky and dangerous behavior as entertainment, condones teen drinking, drug use and sex. There is also some brief nudity and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley appeared in Orange is the New Black as a romantic couple.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gamer
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Tallulah

New Releases for the Week of July 29, 2016


Jason BourneJASON BOURNE

(Universal) Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Styles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp. Directed by Paul Greengrass

One of the world’s most dangerous and wanted men, Jason Bourne, had escaped into the shadows. The CIA couldn’t find him and frankly, had stopped looking. But something has drawn him back out again; he can remember his past – all of it. And now, he is searching for something that those who run the covert corners of the CIA can’t figure out, but one thing’s for certain – it will be bad news for anyone who gets in his way.

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

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

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and brief strong language)

Bad Moms

(STX) Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Christina Applegate. Motherhood in the 21st century isn’t what it used to be; women these days not only have to put the needs of their kids and their husbands first, but also have to balance a career and an ever narrowing list of restrictions that make their lives more difficult and complex. It’s quite frankly, exhausting and when one mom rebels and goes on an epic binge, she and her friends will run smack dab into the PTA Stepford Mom who rules the local brood with an iron oven mitt.

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

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

Rating: R (for sexual material, full frontal nudity, language throughout and drug and alcohol content)

Café Society

(Lionsgate/Amazon) Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carell, Kristen Stewart, Parker Posey.  In the Golden Age of Hollywood, a Bronx-born kid with ambitions for a high society life goes to work for his high-powered agent Phil, which his life with his bickering dysfunctional family may or may not have prepared him for. Certainly nothing prepared him for the beautiful assistant that he’s lost his heart to but when things don’t go as planned, he returns to New York to run a nightclub for his gangster brother and settles into a new life – until the love he lost walks into his club one night.

See the trailer, clips and an interview here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking)

Dishoom

(Eros International) Nargis Fakhri, Akshay Kumar, Jacqueline Fernandez, John Abraham. Two men, devoted to the same girl, are devastated when they lose her to a third man. Things go from bad to worse when they discover that her fiance is an evil man with evil plans. They determine to rescue her, even if it might mean their lives.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks

Rating: NR

Life, Animated

(The Orchard) Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, Gilbert Gottfried, Jonathan Freeman. A family whose young son is born with autism is heartbroken when he is unable to communicate coherently with them. However, they find a way using their son’s love for Disney animated movies to communicate, which allows him to function in a relatively normal environment. As he prepares for life on his own, the challenges that face him continue to require the love and support of those around him. Look for the review of this film later today.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, and language including a suggestive reference)

Nerve

(Lionsgate) Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Juliette Lewis, Emily Meade. A high school senior is tired of playing things safe and watching life rather than living it. She decides to take on the popular online game Nerve, a game of escalating dares. At first it seems to be good clean fun but as the dares escalate, she finds herself trapped in a game where the stakes grow higher and higher and the dares grow more and more dangerous. She will definitely never be the same – if she can somehow survive the game.

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

Release Formats: Standard (Opened Wednesday)
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving dangerous and risky behavior, some sexual content, language, drug content, drinking and nudity – all involving teens)

Money Monster


Clooney busts a move.

Clooney busts a move.

(2016) Thriller (Tri-Star) George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Dennis Boutsikaris, Emily Meade, Condola Rashad, Aaron Yoo, Carsey Walker Jr., Grant Rosenmeyer, Jim Warden, Joseph D. Reitman, Olivia Luccardi. Directed by Jodie Foster

The American Experience

There are a lot of ways to get a person under your thumb. Economically is usually the best method and involves the least bloodshed. However, it must be said that people can only be pushed so far before bloodshed becomes inevitable.

Lee Gates (Clooney) is a financial expert who has a popular financial advice program on a cable network. It is somewhat wild and crazy like Lee himself; Lee has a tendency, much to the exasperation of his producer Patty Fenn (Roberts), to go off the reservation. So when a flustered young delivery man, carrying a couple of packages wanders onto the set, Lee is sure it’s his crew playing a practical joke on him while Patty thinks that it’s one of Lee’s improvisations.

It’s neither. It’s Kyle Budwell (O’Connell), a working class schmoe who was crazy enough to follow Lee’s investment advice – except that advice turned out to be tragically wrong. IBIS, the software company that Kyle invested in, had seen $800 million of its assets vanish overnight and its charismatic CEO Walt Camby (West) is nowhere to be seen. He was supposed to be a guest on Lee’s program but instead they were sending Diane Lester (Balfe), a publicity flack (whom Camby is  apparently sleeping with).

Kyle has loaded guns which he demonstrates by firing into the ceiling, getting everyone’s attention. He slaps on a bomb vest that he hid in one of the packages onto Lee and proceeds to demand to talk to the absent CEO. Patty manages to clear the studio, but it seems only a matter of time before Kyle loses complete control of the situation. What neither Patty nor Lee count on is that they too would be swept up in Kyle’s saga and want to find out the answers for their own peace of mind as well.

Given the somewhat negative view most people have regarding the shenanigans on Wall Street over the past few years, this movie plays into those feelings pretty much perfectly – almost to the point of cliché. The villain of this piece is too easily spotted and becomes almost laughable. We don’t get a real sense of depth to that person; it’s just greed, greed, greed and a sense that people deserve to get their life savings defrauded from them because they don’t have the kind of fortune that the villain has. It’s a bit of a cop-out in my opinion.

That said, this is the kind of movie that is going to give you a good idea of why people are angry at Wall Street. The Lee Gates character – who is clearly modeled on Jim Cramer and the show clearly Mad Money on steroids – is a bit buffoonish and certainly a paean to poor investment strategies which is something Cramer is sometimes accused of peddling in real life. Clooney gives the character a bit more depth than we might have otherwise. Would the film have worked better if Lee was the kind of insensitive douchebag that he appears to be at the beginning of the movie? I don’t think so, but at least one critic accused the filmmakers of “star saving” Clooney (i.e. making him appear nicer than he appears to be in order to maintain his likability) which is not something Clooney has indulged in over the years.

Roberts is seen far less frequently onscreen than I would like, but continues to be every inch the star she’s been for the past *mumble, mumble* years – has it really been that long? She has deepened into more of a solid actress over the past decade, not needing to rely quite as much on the wattage of her amazing smile and the glow of her incandescent personality that over the years has made her the ultimate girl next door. Here, she’s a working stiff trying to labor for the unappreciative and has been a little bit beaten down by her star’s lack of empathy. Still, she prides herself on her professionalism and when the rubber hits the road, responds with calm and decisive leadership. This is one of those roles that is slightly subversive without being obvious about it; perhaps Foster, certainly one of the strongest women in Hollywood, has something to do with it as well. To my mind, Patty is the real hero of this piece but not many will get that.

O’Connell is best known for his role in Unbroken but to my mind finally really shows what he’s capable of going back to small but memorable roles in films like Harry Brown. His performance as Kyle shows a man beaten down to the bone by a system that chews up and spits out people like Kyle. With nothing else to lose, he demands answers from those who aren’t willing to give them and this leads him to an act of desperation – and yes, stupidity – that becomes the crux of the film’s emotional center.

Foster has been the kind of director who makes magic even when the scripts she’s given to work with don’t necessarily have a lot of it in it. There’s a good deal that’s way too familiar here but Foster works with it well and gives us a credible film despite the predictability of the plot. There’s some sly satire here about America’s penchant for greed and making money without wanting to put in the work. It is counter to our Puritan heritage in which hard work is valued and indeed, rewarded. In this modern era, we seem to be more inclined to value cutting corners – and rewarding those who do inordinately. And maybe that’s at the center of why Main Street is so pissed off at Wall Street. Perhaps some of the captains of industry need to be reminded of those ethics that made this country great in the first place.

REASONS TO GO: Foster is a masterful director. Clooney and Roberts are always eye-catching. Dials in to the anger that a lot of people are feeling about Wall Street.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretty cliché storyline. The villain of the piece is a little too obvious.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Clooney and Roberts have appeared in a film together.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Short
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Conjuring 2

Gabriel (2014)


Are you looking at me?

Are you looking at me?

(2014) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Rory Culkin, Emily Meade, Lynn Cohen, David Call, Alexia Rasmussen, Louisa Krause, Deirdre O’Connell, Frank De Julio, Julia K. Murney, Desmin Borges, Biago Simon, Sean Cullen, Jee Young Han, Chase Anderson, Samantha Sherman, And Palladino, Shana Kaplan, Chelsea Linder, Adriana Barnett. Directed by Lou Howe

Florida Film Festival 2015

We know so little about the human mind. What makes it tick, how it processes information, what causes it to malfunction, we really only have an inkling of the mysteries of the brain. We try to help those who have issues with their mental faculties, but really it’s all just stabs in the dark.

Gabriel (Culkin) is taking a bus. He seems friendly enough, although there’s something a little off about him; a little jittery perhaps, or a sense that he’s trying too hard to fit in. In any case, when he arrives at a small college in Connecticut looking for his girlfriend, we think that he’s just trying to visit his girl until we realize that the address he has for her is years out of date. When he finally finds her home address, his frustration that she doesn’t answer the door leads to a brief outbreak of violent behavior leads to our sense of unease about the kid.

Then we find that he wasn’t supposed to be there; he was supposed to be heading home to his family – brother Matthew (Call), a straight-arrow sort who is doing his best for his baby brother and is ready to introduce his fiance Kelly (Rasmussen) to him, and his mother Meredith (O’Connell) who is frenetically protective of her son, checking up on whether he has taken his medication as if he were a seven-year-old.

It is no wonder that Gabriel chafes in this environment, so at his first opportunity he runs off, still in search of his girlfriend Alice (Meade) whom he think will solve all his problems and make his life the perfect thing he always imagined it would be. There are obstacles in his way however, most of them of his own making. For one thing, the only one in his family he trusts as all is Nonny (Cohen), his grandmother and she is in the City (New York, for those wondering). For another, he’s not exactly sure where Alice is spending the winter break. One thing is certain; he doesn’t want to go back to the institution where he had just been released from. He very much wants his freedom.

There is a small coterie in Orlando who are in the know about something called the Uncomfortable Brunch. It takes place at a bar called Will’s Pub on a Sunday morning once a month and during the brunch they show a movie, generally one that is difficult to watch or raises feelings of unease. Those familiar with that event will understand when I say that this is the perfect movie for it.

First-time director Howe pulls no punches, basing the movie on his own experiences with a college roommate who was a diagnosed schizophrenic. This isn’t a movie that is so much a journey as it is a descent, for as Gabriel refuses to take his meds and becomes more and more in the grip of his own obsession, we see him become less and less likable and more and more dangerous to himself and others.

Culkin delivers the performance of his career to date and marks himself as a serious actor to be reckoned with. The intensity of his gaze from under the wool cap that his character wears constantly (an inkling of which you get from the photo above) grows more and more focused even as he himself does not. We get the sense that there’s something not quite right about Gabriel and it isn’t just the various tics and mannerisms. It’s the unpleasantness (I wrote in my notes as I watched this that there was nothing wrong with him a good punch in the face wouldn’t cure, although of course that’s far from true and not one of my shiniest moments) of the character, the sense that he is capable of anything and his overall unpredictability that make him feel like a ticking time bomb. One feels watching Gabriel that this movie isn’t going to end well for somebody, and it may be someone besides Gabriel who is the victim.

The movie is bleak looking as well; there aren’t a lot of warm colors in the cinematographer’s palate here; a lot of blues and grays and whites. That it is set during winter is not an accident; that contributes to the overall bleak feel of the movie. There are also a few nagging questions I had about just what was going on; where, for example, did Gabriel get the money for the bus tickets he buys?

This isn’t easy to watch in many ways but to its credit the movie will get a reaction from you, even if it is an unpleasant one. The world needs movies like this one, if only to remind us that the world isn’t the same for everybody and some folks who may not be the most pleasant to be around are grappling with demons that the rest of us can never understand or relate to. Only their families will have some sense of the hells they live through and sometimes, they’re so busy going through their own hells in dealing with theirs that they lose sight of that.

I can’t say that I’d recommend this movie for everyone – not everyone wants or needs a downer of a film when they’re looking for a movie to watch. However, despite my somewhat lukewarm review, this is a movie that has a lot going for it and for those looking for something a little different and a little more challenging, this is definitely one you should consider.

REASONS TO GO: Culkin is scintillating. No punches pulled view of mental illness.
REASONS TO STAY: An hour and a half spent with someone you’d probably rather not spend an hour and a half with. A bit too bleak for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in the Hamptons.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider (2002)
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared