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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Girl Flu


Girl, you’ll be a woman soon.

(2017) Dramedy (Free Chicken) Katee Sackhoff, Jeremy Sisto, Jade Pettyjohn, Heather Matarazzo, Judy Reyes, Diego Joseph, Isabella Acres, Max Baroudi, Robert Farrior, Fallon Heaslip, Grace Olsen, Jonah Beres, Arianna Ortiz, Marem Hassler, Golden Bachelder, Amanda Troop, Jovan Armand, Kyle Kittredge, Jackson Royce Laurence, Kelly Straub Hull, Madison Dae Clarion. Directed by Dorie Barton

 

Let’s face it; girls have it much rougher than boys. They generally are taken less seriously, are paid less money for doing similar work, are expected to take care of the house and the kids even when they feel like crap and let’s not even start about menstruation. Or, if you’re director Dorie Barton, let’s do just that.

Robyn (Pettyjohn) who has been called “Baby Bird” by her mother since she was a baby, a nickname that irks her (she grudgingly settles for “Bird” which people seem dead set on referring to her as), is not a happy 12-year-old  Her mother Jenny (Sackhoff) moved her from the (San Fernando) Valley where she was happy into Echo Park (an L.A. neighborhood) where she is not. She is bullied by Rachel (Acres) who isn’t afraid to get physical. And to top it off, at her Middle School Graduation party, she gets her first period – wearing her grandma’s white pants, no less. There is probably nothing on earth that could have mortified her more.

That is, until her mother tries to connect with her daughter. Jenny is actually far less mature than Bird; she basically lives to get high and have sex with her musician boyfriend Arlo (Sisto) while refusing to commit to him even though he’s anxious to take their relationship to the next level. Jenny also has issues with her own mother who is at the moment at an Ashram in India. Jenny wants to be there for her daughter and help her through all the lovely things that goes with one’s first period; the cramps, the mood swings, the tears, the rage – and doesn’t understand when Bird gets livid with her. Jenny really doesn’t do the mothering thing very well.

Barton is a first-time feature film director and I give her props for taking on a subject matter that makes members of both sexes uncomfortable. Rough, tough, macho men can turn into squeamish little children when discussing their wife/girlfriend’s menstrual issues, while I can’t imagine women who have to endure the monthly visit of Auntie Flo (as an ex-girlfriend used to refer to it as) discussing it with much enthusiasm beyond saying “Oh GAWD it sucks!” Still, she brings the subject out in an often humorous and always sensitive way.

The movie is nicely shot, giving the overall effect of a sun-drenched L.A. summer (although some of it takes place on rainy days). There is definitely a feminine point of view here and the fact that those types of films are becoming more and more prevalent is encouraging. We certainly need more women who direct in the film industry and the indie ranks are beginning to develop a nice talent base among the fairer sex. That can only translate to more women directing big Hollywood productions over the next few years. One of the best points of this movie is that it allows men like myself to experience a bit what adolescent girls go through. That kind of thing can lead to more understanding, more empathy and maybe down the line the death of rape culture. One can only dream.

I do have a few issues with the film however and the main one is Precocious Child Syndrome; that’s the one where the child is adultier than the adults. I’ve met a lot of children in my time and some of them have been very intelligent, very precocious and very responsible; invariably kids who are that way have adults as role models to guide them in that direction. Generally you don’t see a single mom who is a mess raising a kid who is as amazing as Bird. I’m not saying there aren’t kids who are like Bird out there; they just generally don’t have to rescue their parents. There’s also the misstep of Arlo pretending to be Bird’s boyfriend on a couple of occasions; that was just a little bit too creepy and I can’t imagine Jeremy Sisto felt good about the pedophile vibe that was in the background there.

Sackhoff shows herself to be a fine comic actress and here she brings out her inner Goldie Hawn. Jenny is a bit of a ditz and a bit self-centered and maybe she is the poster child for unfit mothers (in a fit of rage she leaves her child at a fire station; Jade promptly calls a cab to drive her to Reseda, paying with a wad of cash she took from her mom) but Sackhoff makes Jenny vulnerable and scared which gives the audience something to sympathize with.

Pettyjohn is a capable actress; I would have liked to have seen her character be more of a 12-year-old and less of a prodigy. She handles the emotional histrionics of a young girl encountering her hormones for the very first time and the wicked mood swings that brings with it. Parents of young girls will exchange looks of recognition at some of the things Bird puts Jenny through; parents who don’t have girls in their brood will look heavenward with gratitude that they only had boys.

I think this had the potential of being a really important movie but I just can’t get past the pandering to young adult girls that is done here. I think it sets unrealistic images of how moms and daughters actually get along and may give kids the idea that their parents are unstable idiots and that they are wiser and more responsible than they are. Believe it or not, kids do take those sorts of messages to heart.

REASONS TO GO: The film tackles head-on some taboo women’s issues.
REASONS TO STAY: The film suffers from precocious child syndrome. The subject matter may make some feel a bit awkward.
FAMILY VALUES: There is drug use and smoking, a fair amount of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 20th Century Women
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Holly Kane Experiment