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.

New Releases for the Week of October 29, 2010


October 29, 2010
In Saw 3D the traps just grow more alluring.

SAW 3D

(Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Cary Elwes, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Sean Patrick Flannery, Dean Armstrong, Tanedra Howard, Gabrielle D. West. Directed by Kevin Greutert

With Jigsaw finally laid to rest, a struggle breaks out over his legacy. A group of survivors of his fiendish traps gather to seek the support of a self-help guru who himself is a survivor of Jigsaw’s machinations, only to discover that the therapist has a dark agenda of his own that threatens to bring Jigsaw’s work to a massive culmination. State of the art technology was used to film this, the final film in the series and the first (and apparently, only) one to be featured in 3D.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Horror/Torture Porn

Rating: R (for scenes of grisly bloody violence and torture, and language)

Conviction

(Fox Searchlight) Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo. The amazing true story of Betty Ann Waters, who determined to see her brother freed after being unjustly convicted of murder. Despairing that she could not find a lawyer to adequately represent him, she got her GED, graduated college, got a law degree and passed the bar in order to take on his case and get him the fair trial he never received.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True-Life Drama

Rating: R (for language and some violent images)

Nowhere Boy

(Weinstein) Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Sangster, Anne-Marie Duff. Before he was a Beatle, John Lennon was a troubled kid living on the mean streets of Liverpool, being raised by his aunt. This is an account of his adolescence that would influence the man he would become, a man who would change the world through his music.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biopic

Rating: R (for language and a scene of sexuality)

Amelia


Amelia

Richard Swank and Hilary Swank hope they've found the route to success.

(Fox Searchlight) Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Mia Wasikowska, Cherry Jones, Joe Anderson, Aaron Abrams, William Cuddy, Dylan Roberts, Scott Yaphe, Tom Fairfoot, Ryann Shane. Directed by Mira Nair

One of the more fascinating figures of the 20th century was Amelia Earhart. An aviatrix in a time where the skies were dominated by men, she was unafraid to take bold chances in pursuing her dream. In the process, she empowered women to follow their dreams and became one of the most popular celebrities of her time, yet today she is perhaps more generally remembered for her mysterious disappearance on her final flight.

Young Amelia Earhart (Shane) grew up in Atchison, Kansas on the wide-open plains but even these endless horizons were not endless enough for her. She sees an airplane flying overhead and dreams of chasing the clouds in the sky.

Grown-up Amelia (Swank) is summoned to an interview with publisher and latter-day P.T. Barnum George Putnam (Gere), who is looking for someone to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Several women had made the attempt but none had as yet succeeded. Amelia is eager to fly but Putnam frankly doesn’t think she has the skill. She will be little more than an ornament on the flight, ostensibly given the command of a pilot (Anderson) – who is oddly named Bill in the movie, but whose name was Wilmer Stultz in reality – and navigator Louis “Slim” Gordon (Abrams). They arrive in Scotland in 1928 and Earhart is catapulted into fame and fortune.

She goes out on the lecture circuit, co-authors a book about her experiences and endorses a variety of products from luggage to clothes to cigarettes (which she only reluctantly does as a non-smoker in order to make sure that her fellow aviators from the Trans-Atlantic flight were paid). She is clearly uncomfortable with the circus but realizes that it is necessary for her to jump through these hoops in order to finance the flights she wants to make.

In addition, she and Putnam become romantically involved and although he wants to marry her, she resists. She doesn’t want her freedom to be impinged on, or have her dreams crushed by the weight of being a wife and mother. Eventually, after Putnam promises that they will be “at the dual controls” of their relationship, she relents.

At a high society party, she meets Gene Vidal (McGregor), former Olympic athlete, suave high society member and aeronautics instructor at West Point. The attraction between the two is immediate and palpable. Even Putnam notices it but chooses to ignore it. Amelia recommends to Eleanor Roosevelt (Jones) that Vidal be named the first Director of the Bureau of Air Commerce (the forerunner to the F.A.A.) which surprises the First Lady since she thought Earhart would be more enthusiastic about a woman in the role.

In 1932, she launches her most ambitious flight yet – a solo Trans-Atlantic flight. She would be the first person since Lindbergh to accomplish it (and of course the first woman). Although Putnam has misgivings, he bids her farewell witha “See you.” Amelia, who was supposed to land in Paris, instead touches down in an Irish meadow, greeting an astonished shepherd and his flock with an enthusiastic “Hello, sheep!!!”

Once home the adulation increases and she finds herself even more constrained and feeling trapped. She begins an affair with Vidal whose son Gore (Cuddy) would eventually grow up to become a famous author and essayist. When Putnam finds a love letter she’d written to Vidal and she realizes how much she’s hurt him, she ends her affair with Vidal.

However, now her sights are set on a feat that nobody had been able to accomplish – an around the world flight. Using a bit of chicanery, Putnam arranges for Purdue University to establish a department of aeronautics with Amelia as chair and has them buy her a Lockheed Elektra as a “flying laboratory.”

But a flight around the world isn’t as easy as it sounds. There is one gap in the Pacific where the expanse of ocean is so broad that refueling is nearly impossible. Amelia doesn’t have the skill needed for air refueling so it is decided a refueling stop would be made on Howland Island, a tiny little low-lying spit of sand in the vast blue of the Pacific. A navigator with experience in celestial navigation is needed and Fred Noonan (Eccleston) is hired, although he has a history of drinking.

Their first try ends in disaster. A mechanical failure causes the Elektra to crash on take-off from Honolulu. They repair the plane but the route must be changed; instead of flying east to west, they must now fly west to east in order to avoid inclement weather. That would put the most dangerous leg, from New Guinea to Howland, near the end of the flight, a flight that would end in tragedy but would elevate Earhart into legend.

Director Mira Nair has made movies with a feminist bent in her career, so this would seem to be a good fit. Swank also physically resembles Earhart pretty closely both in body type and face. She has also picked up the cadences of Earhart’s speech which is a bit of distraction at times – it sounds like Swank is in a screwball comedy – but is authentic at least.

Nair has recreated the roaring ‘20s and the Depression-era ‘30s very nicely, from the costuming and set design to the cadences of speech. She also incorporates newsreel footage of the actual Earhart as well as newspaper headlines to further give perspective to Earhart’s fame and accomplishments.

One of the things that I have to remark upon is the aerial photography. Nair delivers some breathtaking imagery of what Earhart must have seen from her vantage point in the sky. You can see the appeal it must have had to aviators to witness the wonders of our world from a height where you can actually make them out.

The last scenes are harrowing, as Eccleston and Swank deliver painful performances displaying the anguish, fear, frustration and despair the two must have felt as their fuel dwindled and Earhart was unable to communicate with the U.S.S. Itasca, a Coast Guard cutter dispatched to assist her in reaching Howland. Even though we know how the story ends, the tension level is very high, rendering these scenes some of the most effective in the film.

The issue I have with the movie is that it doesn’t really give you any more of a sense of who Amelia Earhart was. She loved to fly, check. She took some risks, check. Advocated civil aviation and encouraged women to fly, check and double check. There are some moments where we get a glimpse of who Amelia might have been but the writers don’t really delve deeply into it. What we get is a bit too much reverence and not enough intuition. The movie is like an issue of Vogue – very glossy but ultimately of little substance. However, the subject matter and the photography are enough to make you want to read the magazine anyway.

REASONS TO GO: The movie captures the period very effectively. The aerial shots are not to be missed. Swank gives an energetic performance that is charming in places. The final scenes of Amelia’s last flight are very well handled, keeping the viewer on the edge of their seats even though they know how the story ends.

REASONS TO STAY: I never got a sense that I had gotten to know Earhart any better than I had before I saw the movie. While the story of Amelia Earhart is fascinating, the movie seemed to capture only her essence rather than fleshing her out. I left feeling there was a better film to be made on the subject, never a good thing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality, and plenty of drinking and smoking but otherwise suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mia Wasikowska, who played Elinor Smith here, will next be seen in the title role in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

HOME OR THEATER: The sweeping aerial shots make seeing this in a theater a worthwhile endeavor.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

New Releases for the Week of October 23, 2009


Sadly, despite all the hoopla the Airstream with wings never really took off.

Sadly, despite all the hoopla the Airstream with wings never really took off.

AMELIA

(Fox Searchlight) Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Mia Wasikowska, Joe Anderson. Directed by Mira Nair

One of the most iconic figures of the 20th century was aviatrix Amelia Earhart. She blazed a trail for women back in the Depression for women to follow; she was fearless, confident and just as competent as any man in her chosen field. Sadly, that’s not what she is mostly remembered for today – not how she lived but rather, the mystery around how she (presumably) died. Acclaimed director Mira Nair intends to change that. While there have been biographical films about Earhart in the past, Nair seems to be out to show the human side of the hero and present her many accomplishments, many of which have been overshadowed by her mysterious disappearance during an attempted flight around the globe in 1937. This may very well be the first major entry in the Oscar sweepstakes for 2009.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for some sexuality, language, thematic elements and smoking)

A Serious Man

(Focus) Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Adam Arkin. This is the latest from the Coen Brothers; that should be all you need to know to want to go see it right away. However, if you need a little more to get you into the theater, this is about a very neurotic Jewish professor at a small university in Minnesota during the 1960s who finds his life falling apart. His wife wants to leave him for an overbearing colleague; his feckless brother seems destined to spend the rest of his life on the couch in his living room, his children seem to be deliberately going out of their way to make him miserable and a mysterious letter-writer is trying to undermine his quest for tenure. He has come to realize he is a nebbish and needs advice on how to be a mensch – a serious man. However, the rabbis he consult cloud up the issue even further.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence)

Astro Boy

(Summit) Starring the voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Charlize Theron. Based on one of the very first Japanese animes, this sci-fi animated feature is about a young robot with amazing powers that has been given a more or less human face and form. However, the boy robot is isolated because he is different. He goes on a journey to find acceptance, battling killer robots and aliens on the way.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for some action and peril, and brief mild language)

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

(Universal) John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Chris Massoglia, Salma Hayek. Based on a popular series of young adult fantasy novels, Universal is hoping this will kick off a new franchise for them. A bored young teen, feeling his wife is being mapped out and ultimately wasted in his dreary suburban existence, is drawn to a strange sideshow full of creatures as misunderstood as he feels himself to be. In a moment of clarity, he realizes he belongs with the Cirque and becomes one of the undead. However, his inexperience at being a vampire inadvertently breaks a 200-year-old truce between warring factions and threatens his new found home. Perhaps he should have read the Twilight series first.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

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

Good Hair

(Roadside Attractions) Chris Rock, Maya Angelou, Nia Long, Kerry Washington. Hair is not merely what covers our head; it is our own personal signature. In the African-American community, hair can go even further, as a symbol of individual identity and often a tribute to African heritage. Comedian Chris Rock take an occasionally poignant and often hilarious look at the role of hair in African-American culture and tries to determine, once and for all, just what determines how hair can be “good.”

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for some language including sex and drug references, and brief partial nudity)

Saw VI

(Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Shawnee Smith. The most successful horror franchise of the 21st century returns with more diabolical traps, more gruesome murders, more elaborate games and, well, just more.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, and language)