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

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


Box office champions tend to have the last laugh.

(2017) Science Fiction (Disney/Marvel) Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Rob Zombie, Rhoda Griffis, Seth Green (voice), David Hasselhoff, Gregg Henry, Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames, Chris Sullivan, Elizabeth Debicki. Directed by James Gunn

 

Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, Da Queen loves everything Guardians, particularly Rocket Raccoon. If I were to say anything negative about either the franchise or the characters, I am likely to get the cold shoulder for weeks on end at best or a heavy object upside my head at worst. Thus, I waited for her to go out of town on business before publishing my review for this massive hit.

Taking place only four months after the first Guardians (making this 2014), the nascent team continues to bicker like, well, family. They are getting set to take on a CGI alien tentacle thing that is kind of a cross between a squid and the machine ships of the Matrix trilogy. Incongruously, Baby Groot (Diesel) sets up a boombox and dances along to the strains of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while all around him is chaos. That kind of sets things up and sums things up at the same time.

Rocket (Cooper) being a raccoon has a distinctly kleptomaniac kind of attitude and before long their former employers, the genetically perfect (but not too bright) Sovereign are after them and they are saved by a mysterious figure but are forced to crash land on a primitive planet to make repairs. There the mysterious figure reveals himself; his name is Ego (Russell) but more to the point, he’s also Star Lord’s (Pratt) dad and he invites his boy over to his planet for a bit of father-son bonding time. Rocket and Groot stay behind to repair the Merano and guard their prisoner Nebula (Gillan) while Gamora (Saldana) – sister to Nebula – and Drax (Bautista) go along for the ride, joining the ultra-empathetic Mantis (Klementieff) who works as a kind of valet for Ego.

Things being what they are for the Guardians, Ego turns out to be a God-like Celestial and as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely and Ego’s power is as absolute as it gets. The Guardians are once again called into battle but can they overcome the power of a god?

This is everything fans of the first film hoped it would be; there’s a lot of Easter eggs in it for Marvel fans in general (like a cameo appearance of Howard the Duck) and Guardians fans in particular like the appearance of the original Guardians team of Yondu (Rooker), Starhawk (Stallone), Charlie-27 (Rhames) and Aleta Ogord (Yeoh).

The downside of that is that it feels at times like Gunn is trying to cram a bit too much into the movie; not only is he setting up future Guardians movies as well as, indirectly, the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War but he’s also trying to throw in a whole lot of Guardians lore while trying to tell a coherent story of his own. There is also a whole lot of carnage and some impressive battle scenes – a ton of them in fact – and for some it might end up being geek overload.

Gunn also wisely spreads the wealth among his talented cast; we get to learn a whole lot of backstory for all of the characters and while Peter Quill is the ostensible focus, Drax ends up getting almost all of the laughs while Nebula and Yondu are given some scenes of tremendous pathos. And yes, the sci-fi spectacle is all there from the art deco splendor of the Sovereign to Ego’s planet which the most ambitious computer effect is ever created to date with something over a trillion polygons of computer graphics.

The chemistry between the cast continues to be strong and while the story sometimes might be a little hard to follow, there is still some investment and I’m sure that Marvel’s lords and masters over at Disney were smiling at the theme of family which is one of their sweet spots. This year’s summer blockbuster slate has been inconsistent in quality but certainly it has had its share of smart and entertaining successes and this is one of the biggest so far.

REASONS TO GO: One of Kurt Russell’s best performances in years. The song selection is masterful. The special effects are truly special. Baby Groot nearly steals the show.
REASONS TO STAY: Gunn tries to pack in a little bit too much into the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence (of the sci-fi nature), some mild profanity and a little suggestive content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Glenn Close filmed scenes as Nova Prime but they ended up on the cutting room floor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ice Pirates
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale

New Releases for the Week of September 11, 2015


The VisitTHE VISIT

(Universal) Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Patch Darragh. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

A brother and sister go to rural Pennsylvania to visit their grandparents. At first things are pretty much as you might expect; and older couple happy to see their grandkids but the longer they stay, the stranger the behavior of the elderly people begins to seem. Soon they realize that something sinister is going on and their chances of getting home alive are worsening but they can’t get their mom to believe them.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard  (Opens Thursday)
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity and for brief language)

90 Minutes in Heaven

(Goldwyn) Kate Bosworth, Hayden Christensen, Dwight Yoakam, Rhoda Griffis. A man in a car accident is declared dead and left under a tarp before being transported to a hospital. He experiences heaven until a pastor’s prayers bring him back to the living. Now in excruciating pain, he fights to regain some kind of normalcy while pining for what waited for him in heaven. Eventually he wrote a book on his experiences which became a New York Times bestseller.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based Drama
Now Playing: Amstar Lake Mary, AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Epic Theaters of Clermont, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13  (for brief violence)

The Challenger

(Fox Searchlight) Michael Clarke Duncan, S. Epatha Merkerson, Kent Moran, Justin Hartley. An ex-boxer trying to make it as an auto mechanic is simply not making ends meet. When he and his adopted mother are evicted, he is forced back into the one thing that he’s been struggling against – boxing. With the help of a legendary trainer, he will do whatever it takes to keep he and his adopted mom off of the streets. This is the late Michael Clarke Duncan’s last film.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Drama
Now Playing: Regal Waterford Lakes
Rating: PG-13 (for some sports violence)

Cop Car

(Focus World) Kevin Bacon, Camryn Manheim, Shea Whigham, Kyra Sedgwick. Two young boys discover what seems to be an abandoned police vehicle in a secluded glade and decide to take it for a joy ride. This incurs the wrath of a brutal county sheriff and leads to disastrous consequences.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language, violence and brief drug use)

Learning to Drive

(Broad Green) Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Grace Gummer, Jake Weber. A high-powered and self-obsessed New York book editor undergoing a divorce decides to become more self-sufficient. She signs up to take driving lessons so that she can visit her daughter in college in Vermont. Her instructor is Darwan, an extremely conscientious teacher and his patience inspires her to open up with him about her deeper problems. In turn, her volatile feelings about her disintegrating marriage bring out some feelings in him about his own impending nuptials.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language and sexual content)

Meru

(Music Box)  Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jon Krakauer. Among mountain climbers, Conrad Anker is a legend. It is also considered that the Himalayan peak Meru is virtually unclimbable, towering 21,000 feet into the sky with the final portion being a unique shark’s fin formation that is nearly vertical and requires a different set of climbing skills than the first portion of the mountain, requiring an entirely different set of gear, all of which has to be lugged up the mountain. Anker and his team undergo the harshest conditions that mother nature has to offer, heartbreaking defeats and terrible tragedies just to make yet another assault on Meru. But can anyone climb the unclimbable mountain?

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language)

The Perfect Guy

(Screen Gems) Michael Ealy, Sanaa Lathan, Morris Chestnut, Charles S. Dutton. After a painful breakup with her boyfriend, a beautiful young professional woman meets a handsome and charming stranger. At first he seems like a gift from heaven, but when her ex-boyfriend re-enters the picture and tries to win her back, the perfect guy suddenly changes into someone she doesn’t know – and someone completely terrifying.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for violence, menace, sexuality and brief strong language)

Magic Mike XXL


You're welcome, ladies.

You’re welcome, ladies.

(2015) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Kevin Nash, Elizabeth Banks Andie MacDowell, Amber Heard, Michael Strahan, Donald Glover, Stephen Boss, Rhoda Griffis, Jane McNeill, Ann Hamilton, Mary Kraft, Kimberly Drummond, Carrie Anne Hunt. Directed by Gregory Jacobs

Sometimes a movie is only as good as the audience you view it with. I can’t imagine seeing Magic Mike XXL in a room full of dour, jaded critics. They would never get what this movie is about on their own. What I did see this movie with was a room full of screaming, hooting, hollering women who would have thrown dollar bills at the screen had they thought of it.

And that’s just how Magic Mike XXL should be experienced. Channing Tatum returns as the titular male entertainer, now having hung up his G-string with a custom-made furniture business. His girlfriend from Magic Mike has left him and while he is doing what he wanted to do in the first film, he kind of misses the life. When Tarzan (Nash) calls, Mike comes running. The remaining Kings of Tampa – Dallas (Matthew McConaughey’s character from the first film) having absconded to Europe with the Alex Pettyfer character – are ready to close out their careers with a bang, at a male stripper convention in Myrtle Beach over the Fourth of July weekend. So Mike piles in to a fro-yo van owned by Tito (Rodriguez) along with Ken (Bomer), Tobias (Iglesias) and Big Dick Richie (Manganiello) for a road trip for bros.

So this becomes a road trip movie, with a stop in Savannah to visit Rome, a private club run by Rome (Smith)  in which female members get up close and personal with a gaggle of strippers whose members include Augustus (Strahan), Andre (Glover) and Malik (Boss). With Tobias having been injured in a van accident, the Kings are in dire need of an M.C. and ask Rome who declines. She and Mike have a history y’see…

After a stop in house of randy older women including Nancy (MacDowell), the mother of Megan (Hunt) whom they met in a Jacksonville bar and whose buddy Zoe (Heard) is the new romantic interest of Mike, in a kind of non-threatening platonic way they run into Rome who has changed her mind and it’s on to Myrtle Beach, the Redneck Riviera, where the boys will go out with a bang.

This isn’t nearly as serious a movie as the first Magic Mike was. That movie’s director, Steven Soderbergh, is still behind the camera but as a cinematographer this time. What we have here is more of a road movie that doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously. I will give you that the filmmakers understand their target audience as the women in our audience lost their minds nearly every time that the men started dancing or stripping. However, it was surprising to me that most of the women in the audience seemed to be fonder of Manganiello than of Tatum, although after one simulated sex/dance sequence featuring the star, one audience member exclaimed “I think I need a cigarette.”

\I will also say that the movie does look at the bond between men in a way not usual to Hollywood, which tends to view male bonding as a macho thing done over guns, cars and violence. The Kings of Tampa are all pretty sensitive guys who admire and respect women rather than viewing them as objects to be taken to bed as conquests and then cast aside. They view what they do as a kind of therapy, giving their clients something they need – not just a sexual release but adoration as well. I think most women’s fantasies are about guys like these, sensitive but sexy, handsome and hot as well. What woman wouldn’t want to be adored by guys like these?

The plot is kind of threadbare and I was left wondering if I’d seen this in a room full the aforementioned dour and jaded critics would I have liked this movie as much? Probably not. Because the women in the audience were having such a good time, I ended up having as good a time as well and that’s something to consider. The movie is in many ways not nearly as good as its predecessor but in many ways better – it gives its audience exactly what they want and that isn’t such a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: Has heart as well as tush. We end up caring what happens to these guys.
REASONS TO STAY: Extremely lightweight and disposable. More of an experience than a movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Language, male butt nudity, sexual situations and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Holdridge and Saasen not only co-starred and co-directed the film but also co-wrote it based on their own experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Little Miss Sunshine
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Finding Bliss

Pool Boys


George Takei wonders how he got into this movie.

George Takei wonders how he got into this movie.

(2011) Comedy (Cinedigm) Matthew Lillard, Brett Davern, Efren Ramirez, Rachelle Lefevre, Tom Arnold, Robert Davi, Jay Thomas, Rhoda Griffis, Patricia de Leon, Sheena Lee, Simona Fusco, Darla Haun, Janine Habeck, Monica Leigh, Jennifer Walcott, Heather Marsden, Rachel Rogers, A.J. Alexander, George Takei, John Billingsley, Stephanie Honore. Directed by J.B. Rogers

College these days is an expensive proposition and an Ivy League school like Harvard is nearly impossible unless your folks happen to have a spare million or two burning a hole in their pockets. For the rest of us, even if we have the grades and test scores to get in the very prospect of paying for a Harvard education is a daunting task.

That’s what Alex Sperling (Davern) is looking forward to. Fortunately, he has a summer internship set up that will help offset the cost but when that falls through, he looks to his fast-talking cousin Roger (Lillard) for help. Roger has been bragging about his successful aqua engineering business but as it turns out, Roger is a bit of a story teller – his business turns out to be pool maintenance in Los Angeles. As you might expect, Alex isn’t just disappointed – he’s furious.

Roger doesn’t want to let his cuz down however. A chance opportunity to housesit for a wealthy Beverly Hills client gives Roger a hare-brained idea – to turn the mansion into a brothel. He could – ‘scuse the pun – clean up and give Alex more than he needs for his tuition. Roger knows he can’t lose, particularly with Hollywood star Tom Arnold (himself) on his side.

If this kind of thing sounds familiar, it was old hat 30 years ago. Lillard is one of those character actors whose face you probably know well if not the name. He can do goofy but a little of it goes a long way and he’s a bit over-the-top here. So too is Efren Ramirez as an over-sexed gardener. However, they at least have some personality – Davern shows little here.

Like any raunchy sex comedy, there’s plenty of raunch – lots of women in various states of undress, the occasional boob, and I will say that the women in this film are as good looking as any as you’ll find in a single movie of this sort. For those looking for that sort of thing, you can’t go wrong here.

Unfortunately most of the rest of us want some comedy with our sex comedies and there is little of that to be found here. Most of the jokes are tired and/or fall flat. Some of that is performer-driven but much of it is that the jokes weren’t that funny to begin with. That’s not a good sign if you’re looking to laugh.

WHY RENT THIS: Plenty of gorgeous swimsuit-clad (and nude) bodies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t add anything to the raunchy sex comedy genre. Not funny enough.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of raunchy humor, sexual content and nudity, some bad language and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Braille studs on Lillard’s cap read “1969.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a virtual lapdance sequence (I kid you not).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2,269 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Risky Business

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Ender’s Game