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

New Releases for the Week of May 17, 2019


JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM

(Summit/Lionsgate) Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Marc Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Asia Kate Dillon. Directed by Chad Stahelski

Wick, the world’s most ruthless hitman, has been excommunicated from the society of assassins and has a $14 million bounty on his head. There is no safe place for him anywhere as he tries to fend off a veritable legion of killers out to collect the reward.

See the trailer, video featurettes, clips, interviews and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for pervasive strong violence and some language)

A Dog’s Journey

(Universal) Dennis Quaid, Josh Gad (voice), Marg Helgenberger, Kathryn Prescott. Bailey, the loyal dog who had watched over Ethan from boyhood, makes a promise to keep an eye on Ethan’s granddaughter CJ who is being taken out of his life by his estranged daughter.

]See the trailer, clips and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Family
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for thematic content, some peril and rude humor)

The Biggest Little Farm

(Neon) John Chester, Molly Chester, Beauden Chester, Alan York. Apricot Lane Farms is the hard work of John and Molly Chester, two farming neophytes. John – a documentary director – and Molly – a chef, food blogger and cookbook author – decide to take on the country life when their landlord asks them to get rid of their dog. This starts them on a journey in which they make a farm in the philosophy of biodiversity where all the flora and fauna work together in harmony. You can read my review of this Florida Film Festival hit by clicking on the link below under “Scheduled for Review.”

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements)

De De Pyaar De

(Yash Raj) Ajay Devgan, Alok Nath Dixit, Jimmy Shergill, Rakul Preet Singh. A middle age divorced man meets a woman 26 years his junior and the two fall in love. However, they will have to contend with his ex, their children (who are his new lady love’s age) and Indian conventions about age difference.

See the trailer and a clip here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks
Rating: NR

The Sun is Also a Star

(Warner Brothers) Yara Shahidi, Charles Melton, John Leguizamo, Jake Choi. A Jamaican-born young woman is fighting for the right to stay in the United States with the clock ticking down on her family’s deportation. On what might be their last day in New York, she meets a young Asian man who falls in love with her, despite her reluctance to commit to anything permanent. Based on the Young Person bestseller.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Teen Romance
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and language)

Trial by Fire

(Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment) Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Jeff Perry. An uneducated heavy metal devotee with a criminal record in Texas is tried and convicted of murdering his own daughters by setting their house on fire. Despite his protestations, he’s sentenced to death. A Houston-based writer believes his story even when nobody else does and makes a heroic effort to prove his innocence in a system that doesn’t care. Based on a true story.

See the trailer, clips and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: True Crime Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language throughout, some violence, disturbing images, sexual material and brief nudity)

The White Crow

(Sony Classics) Oleg Ivenko, Adėle Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Sergei Polunin. The story of Rudolf Nureyev, the legendary Soviet ballet dancer who defected to the West in 1961 despite the best efforts of the KGB to stop him. This is directed by Fiennes.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square
Rating: R (for some sexuality, graphic nudity, and language

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

General Magic
Mr. Local
Red Joan
We Have Always Lived in the Castle

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

ABCD
Journey to a Mother’s Room
Mr. Local
Slaughterhouse Rulez

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

99
ABCD
Ayoga
Monster
Mr. Local
Slaughterhouse Rulez
This is Personal
We Have Always Lived in the Castle

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

ABCD
Mr. Local

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

A Dog’s Journey
The Biggest Little Farm
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Journey to a Mother’s Room
Red Joan
Trial by Fire

Pick of the Litter – May 2019


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Godzilla: King of Monsters

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Trial by Fire

(Roadside Attractions) Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Jason Douglas. Cameron Todd Willingham is accused of the most heinous crime imaginable; of deliberately setting his house on fire and burning his three daughters alive inside of it. He proclaims his innocence but the forensic evidence points to his guilt, so he’s convicted and sentenced to death. Nobody believes his protestations until he befriends a writer who begins to suspect that the evidence might not be pointing in the right direction. May 17

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