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

Teen Spirit (2018)


Who said pop stardom isn’t easy?

(2018) Musical (Bleecker Street/LD Entertainment) Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe, Millie Brady, Vivian Oparah, Marius de Vries, Elizabeth Berrington, Olive Gray, Andrew Ellis, Ruairi O’Connor, Jordan Stephens, Tamara Luz Ronchese, Clara Rugaard, Daisy Lowe, Ursula Holliday. Directed by Max Minghella

 

I think it’s fair to say (and I think that most teens and millennials would agree) that the world is constructed to kill dreams. Those that want to be creative, expressive or otherwise different are discouraged; laboring at some soul-killing task over and over again is what’s expected. Nobody in their right mind wants to do that for the rest of their lives; some really don’t have much of a choice. Those that have talent though, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discouraging it.

Violet (Fanning) lives on the bucolic Isle of Wight off the coast of England, a place forever immortalized by the Beatles in ”When I’m Sixty-Four” thusly: “Every summer we could rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight (if it’s not too dear)” as well as a famous pop festival that took place there. Musically, that’s pretty much it for the Isle of Wight. It does possess a large Polish population of which Violet and her mother (Grochowska) are members of. Violet goes to school (she’s 17 years old), takes care of the horse that she rides whenever she can, works as a waitress in a pub after school and occasionally sings in a different pub; it is the last of these that mum disapproves of as being impractical so Violet has to do it on the sly. However, she does meet an alcoholic ex-opera singer who offers to be her manager so there’s that.

The family is in pretty dire financial straits; the horse gets repossessed because they can’t afford to pay for it any longer. Violet’s life is going exactly nowhere and she is frustrated as anyone would be. Then, a bit of excitement; the American Idol-like pop music competition show Teen Spirit is holding auditions in her town for the very first time and nearly everyone in school is trying out. Shy Violet decides to try out and to nobody’s surprise, she is selected for the local competition. To nobody else’s surprise, she ends up going to the finals in London which are televised. However, she needs a parent or guardian to sign off on her participation which her mother will never do so Violet remembers Vlad (Buric), the alcoholic ex-opera singer and puts him to work as her manager/instant guardian.

The rest of the movie you can pretty much figure out for yourself. There are a couple of swerves that aren’t particularly hard to see coming as well as some predictable moments of fame going to Violet’s head and a few heart-warming moments in between all the gaudily shot music videos of her performances, all bathed in pink and blue neon and looking like a New York art installation from the early 90s. That’s not bad in and of itself but it does kind of scream “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”  in an unnecessarily loud cinematic voice.

Fanning is a talented performer as an actress and not a half-bad singer to boot but her character, who is supposed to be terribly shy and innocent (except when she’s not) is so passive and bland that it’s hard to figure out why she would want to stand up in front of a television audience and pour her heart out onstage. We never get a sense as to why Violet is motivated to become a singer other than she likes doing it.

The songs that Violet and her competition perform are mainly covers of iconic pop songs over the last 20 years, many of which have to do with female empowerment which is part of the ostensible thrust of the film, although one has to consider the fact that Violet and her mother struggle mightily on their own but once a man comes in to the picture for guidance success is theirs. It seems quite at odds with the musical message the film seems hell-bent on sending.

But even though Violet is more vanilla, the relationship between her and Vlad is at least genuine and comprises the heart and soul of the film. Even though Vlad is a polar opposite to Violet, his gruff exterior masks a teddy bear interior that genuinely cares for Violet and wants her to succeed not for his own aggrandizement but for hers.

The performance footage is mainly over-produced; it’s telling that the most genuine and affecting performance is when Violet dances and sings No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” in the privacy of her own bedroom; it’s raw and feels more authentic. That seems to be one of the few moments when we get a glimpse of who Violet truly is. We could have used more of them.

At the end of the day, this movie comes down to whether or not you like American Idol. If fresh-faced young people performing covers of familiar songs for the right to become a pop star in their own right is something that thrills you, chances are you’re going to love this film. If you find American Idol to be a cynical means of keeping potential pop stars as disposable product rather than genuine artists, you probably won’t care much for this film. Me, I tend to lean towards the latter but that doesn’t mean you won’t find something in the film to like.

REASONS TO SEE: The relationship between Violet and Vlad is believable and at the center of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story needs more fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive content as well as depictions of teen drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are parallels to the film Flashdance and the theme from that film is even used in this one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Dreamz
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Marching Forward

Ben is Back


Julia Roberts shows quiet resolve in a powerful scene from “Ben is Back.”

(2018) Drama (LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions) Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar, Alexandra Park, Michael Esper, Tim Guinee, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Kristin Griffith, Jack Davidson, Mia Fowler, Jakari Fraser, Cameron Roberts, Jeff Auer, Henry Stram, Bill Buell, Sandra Caldwell, Nathalie Carvalho. Directed by Peter Hedges

 

A mother’s love is a beautiful thing. It crosses all boundaries, it transcends time. A mother loves her child with a fierce devotion that is unmatched. It doesn’t matter whether her child is a saint or a sinner, a success or a failure – that mother loves that child unconditionally and without measure.

Holly (Roberts) returns home with her three young children on Christmas Eve to their comfortable home in a New England town to find an unexpected surprise – her eldest son Ben (Hedges) from a previous relationship. Ben has been in rehab for heroin addiction but he informs his over-the-moon mom that he’s doing so well that his sponsor has agreed to sign him out for a holiday pass to come home.

The youngest siblings Liam (Fraser) and Lacey (Fowler) are overjoyed to see their big brother but eldest daughter Ivy (Newton) is less enthusiastic. She remembers previous Christmas holidays ruined by Ben and worried sick, she calls stepfather Neal (Vance) to let him know what’s going on. Holly is a little more pragmatic though; while Ben plays outside with Liam and Lacey she hides all her jewelry and prescription medicine. Neal comes home and is absolutely pissed, demanding that Ben return to the treatment facility. Holly reluctantly prepares to drive him back but Neal, seeing Holly’s dejection, relents and gives Ben a day – a day in which Ben will be drug tested and watched like a hawk.

Needless to say things fall apart quickly. Former drug associates of Ben show up and vandalize the house, among other things. Holly is dragged into Ben’s world as he desperately tries to make things right. Over all the specter looms – can Ben stay clean or will he regress and use again and maybe spiral down to an early grave?

The movie is a harrowing and often heartbreaking look at how addiction affects not just the addict but all those around him or her – him in this case. At least, it does for the first part of the film; the second part becomes something more of a thriller as Holly pursues Ben into the underworld of her community, desperately trying to rescue him from himself. It is less effective than the first part of the film.

Despite the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the film, it still works mainly due to phenomenal performances by Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges. For Roberts, this is one of the Oscar-winning actress’ finest performances of her career. It is telling that this has been such a phenomenal year for performances by women in the movies that Roberts won’t likely be part of the conversation for the short list. In most any other year, she would be. She brings a wide emotional range, from desperate to nurturing to angry to terrified, making us feel all of them without a false note in the bunch. At the end of the day this is a performance we can believe without hesitation. I can imagine any mom going through the gamut, wanting so much to find hope that her son will return to her yet knowing deep down that as an addict he will lie and cheat and steal and dash all her hopes more likely than not.

Hedges, himself nominated for an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, gives a terrific performance in the title role. Ben is charming and smart but he is also full of demons. You end  up rooting for him but deep down as the movie progresses you know he can’t be trusted. Hedges doesn’t make Ben too likable to be realistic but neither does he turn Ben into a monster. Ben’s just a kid who went down the wrong path and now doesn’t have an inkling of how to right himself.

This is a flawed film but nonetheless an effective one. It is raw and gritty in the places that it needs to be, underscoring it with the idyllic family life that Holly has without Ben. There are some really magnificent moments, such as when during a visit to a mall Holly confronts the doctor who was responsible for getting Ben hooked on opioids in the first place. There’s also a moment when during church services Ben realizes that the family of a girl he helped hook on heroin but who passed away is in the congregation with him.

Any good doctor will tell you that addiction doesn’t just change the life of the addict but of everyone who cares about them. That is the gist of the message here and it is prevented in a powerful way. The Christmas setting only serves to further make the message more poignant. This may be too much of a downer for some at this time of year but it is a movie that earns the praise it is getting.

REASONS TO GO: Heartrending dramatic moments starkly illustrate the effects of drug abuse on families. Roberts gives one of her finest performances ever. Hedges is nearly as brilliant as Roberts. The message is firmly underscored by the Christmas eve setting.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is a bit fractured, devolving into a standard thriller during the final third. Some may find it too depressing for this time of year.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, some brief violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lucas Hedges is the son of director Peter Hedges
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Boy
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Bob Lazar: Flying Saucers and Area 51