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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Don’t Kill It


Dolph Lundgren casually gets ready for some non-lethal shooting.

Dolph Lundgren casually gets ready for some non-lethal shooting.

(2016) Horror Comedy (Archstone) Dolph Lundgren, Kristina Klebe, Michael Alan Milligan, Billy Slaughter, Aaron McPherson, Miles Doleac, Elissa Dowling, Sam Furman, Jasi Cotton Lanier, Tony Bentley, James Chalke, Michelle West, Tony Messenger, Toby Bronson, Randy Austin, Chaton Anderson, Milorad Djomlija, Thomas Owen, Kristin Samuelson. Directed by Mike Mendez

 

Demons are notoriously hard to kill. Oftentimes people don’t even believe they exist until it’s much too late and then the demon hunting shmoe sent out to kill the thing gets to say “I told you so.” Among the hardest demons to kill are those that jump from body to body however.

A small, picturesque town in Mississippi is battered by three triple homicides in less than a week. This kind of violent crime spike gets the attention of the FBI who sends Agent Evelyn Pierce (Klebe) who is from the area and was known locally as “Evil-Lyn” which is not a term she’s particularly fond of.

But also attracted to the carnage is Jebediah Woodley (Lundgren) who is – ahem – a demon hunter. Of course, announcing a profession like that meets with a lot of sniggers and of course a lot of incredulity but as the demon continues to pile up the body count, those who are possessed display pitch black eyes and a demonic scream that is unmistakably supernatural. Soon Pierce and the local police Chief Dunham (Bentley) are believers but Pastor Erikson (Chalke) thinks that the only thing demonic are the out-of-towners Woodley and Evelyn, who he has always distrusted.

As it turns out, the demon has a special attraction to Evelyn and the stakes get just a little bit higher but the FBI comes in at just the wrong moment and even worse, the vengeful and decidedly un-Christian Pastor has plans for Woodley and Evelyn that have nothing to do with charity.

This is actually not a bad little horror comedy. The sense of humor here is actually not so broad or over the top as to be cloying. Instead, it is almost subversive and while there is a whole lot of gore and not a whole lot of restraint, there is enough humor to lighten the mood without making the movie silly.

Now pushing 60, Lundgren has come a long way since Ivan Drago. He rarely gets a lot of dialogue (and he even quipped that he has more dialogue in this film than he has spoken over the past five years) and this is a performance that should change that perception that directors have of the man; I’ve actually begun to look forward to his appearances which I never would have thought would be a sentence that I’d actually utter considering some of the truly excruciating performances he’s given in some truly excruciating movies back in the 90s.

I mentioned gore and there’s plenty of it – none of it really groundbreaking but all of it perfectly placed to serve the story. Some might find some of it to be excessive but when you put it up against the horror films of the 70s and 80s it might even be considered a little tame. Sometimes it’s used for humorous effect but for the most part as I said it serves the story.

The story follows a fairly clichéd path but the conceit in which how the demon travels from body to body is clever and makes for a good story so you can overlook the clichés. Lundgren is engaging and funny and while the supporting cast is largely unknown, the performances are at least solid and never detract from the movie. I can understand why some might be reluctant to see this – horror comedies have a tendency to be too much one or the other and rarely are appealing as a complete film. This one is.

REASONS TO GO: The film possesses a subversive sense of humor. Dolph Lundgren has become a welcome addition to a film and whoever thought that would ever be a sentence? There are some nifty gore effects.
REASONS TO STAY: The story follows a cliché kind of path. The ending is a bit over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, profanity, some fairly gruesome gore, sexuality and a bit of nudity. There is also excessive vaping.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Once the production got the final green light, there were only 12 days of prep time before shooting started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shocker
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Love and Taxes

Devil’s Knot


Colin Firth looks to untie the devil's knot.

Colin Firth looks to untie the devil’s knot.

(2013) True Life Drama (RLJ/Image/TWC) Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Alessandro Nivola, Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Amy Ryan, Bruce Greenwood, Dane DeHaan, Elias Koteas, Rex Linn, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kristopher Higgins, Stephen Moyer, Robert Baker, Kollette Wolfe, Jack Coghlan, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Matt Letscher, Lori Beth Edgeman. Directed by Atom Egoyan

The case of the West Memphis Three has gotten about as much notoriety as any criminal case since the OJ Simpson trial and with good reason – it is considered one of the most egregious cases of wrongful conviction in the history of our judicial system.

Stevie Branch (Jurgensmeyer) pedaled off from his house after school one beautiful spring day, admonished by his hard-working mom Pam Dobbs (Witherspoon) to be home by 4:30pm or face being grounded. When he didn’t show by the time he was given, his mom got angry. When he wasn’t home by the time she came home from work, she was worried. When he still wasn’t home the next morning, she was terrified.

Her worst fears would be confirmed. Detectives of the West Memphis, Arkansas Police Department discovered a shoe floating in a nearby drainage ditch in the Robin Hood woods where Stevie and two of his friends had last been seen riding their bikes. It didn’t take long before the nude bodies of the boys, hogtied with their own shoelaces, were found – in Stevie’s case, horribly mutilated.

The attention of the police turned to Damian Echols (Hamrick), an 18-year-old misfit who loved heavy metal, had at least a passing interest in the occult and was thought to be a Satanist. His friends Jason Baldwin (Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley (Higgins) also fall under scrutiny. Misskelley is interrogated by the cops for 12 hours and eventually admits to being present at the crime. Misskelley is also severely challenged intellectually, only a few IQ points above the level generally assigned to mental retardation.

When Aaron Hutcheson (Coghlan), a classmate of the dead boys, comes forward with a harrowing story of the ritual murder of the three youngsters and implicates all three of he accused, it looks fairly open and shut. Ron Lax (Firth), a private investigator, isn’t so sure though and with moral objections to the death penalty (which was being sought), he decides to offer his services pro bono to the harried defense attorneys who gratefully accept.

It doesn’t take long for Lax to find inconsistencies and disturbing trends in the police reports and evidence. The cops never were disposed to look at any other suspects besides the three young men, despite a lack of physical evidence that connects any of them to the crime scene. Nichols’ interest in Satanic rituals was enough to convict him in the eyes of this deeply religious community. The stakes are very high – can Lax get justice for the West Memphis Three – and in so doing, bring justice at long last for Stevie and his friends?

The first question one has to ask themselves about this movie is whether or not it is needed. After all, there are two documentaries that have been made on the case – the multi-part Paradise Lost that first aired on HBO and brought the case to the attention of a national audience, and the more recent West Memphis Three. Will a dramatized account bring anything else to the discussion?

Well, no, not really. The filmmakers painstakingly researched the case and wherever possible, used dialogue directly from court transcripts as well as from interviews by the police and media. That gives the film a certain amount of credibility. However, that turns out to be a double-edged sword in that much of this material has already been made available in the documentaries.

It should be noted that in a kind of strange twist, the dramatized version seems more balanced than the documentaries, both of which seemed to indicate that the documentarians believed that Terry Hobbs (Nivola), Stevie’s stepdad and Pam’s husband at the time of the murders (they have since divorced), was the real culprit. Certainly a case is presented for him, but also for Christopher Morgan (DeHaan), another teen whose behavior was certainly peculiar and who also confessed to the crime. There’s also the blood and mud-caked African-American man who came into a local Bojangles chicken restaurant the night of the murder and whose bizarre actions certainly warranted investigation – but the blood samples taken by police were never analyzed and were eventually lost.

What you watch this movie for then is the performances and with Firth and Witherspoon, both Oscar winners, leading the way, those performances are powerful indeed. Witherspoon in particular delivers some of the best work of her career which is saying something. She has to play a gamut of emotions from incomprehensible grief to doubt to fear to determination and strength. Witherspoon is gifted enough to let all of Pam Dobbs’ personality shine through no matter which emotion is dominant at the time. Firth similarly plays Lax with bulldog-like determination as he becomes enmeshed in the horrible injustice being perpetrated in plain sight.

Some reviewers have criticized this movie for being manipulative. Holy God, if your emotions aren’t being manipulated by the brutal murders of three children and the anguish of the community that followed, I’m not quite sure what else is going to do it. The subject matter itself is manipulative. Yes you’re going to have an emotional reaction to what happens in the film. That’s not a bad thing.

The murders of Stevie Branch, Mike Morris and Christopher Byers remain unsolved. The three accused who would be convicted on the crime, would eventually be released after serving 18 years of prison time, although the State of Arkansas still lists them as convicted felons despite the DNA evidence that has exonerated them. At this point it seems extremely unlikely that the murders will ever be solved, even though the real life Lax, Pam Hobbs and in a bit of irony, Damian Echols, remain focused on finding out the truth behind this terrible crime.

It is quite discouraging that it seems that the three teenage boys who were convicted of these crimes were railroaded essentially because they were outsiders, square pegs in the very round hole of West Memphis.  The movie captures with at least a relative amount of objectivity the events of this case which have been so divisive in so many ways. While I can’t really recommend these over the documentaries (particularly the three-part HBO set), I can recommend the performances here as worth the trouble to go and find this movie on VOD or in local theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Firth, Witherspoon and much of the supporting cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Non-illuminating. If you are familiar with the case or have seen one of the documentaries about it, you won’t learn anything new.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity and some extremely disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed primarily in Georgia, and made its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Time to Kill

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Cheatin’

The Devil Inside


The Devil Inside

Static electricity can be murder!

(2012) Supernatural Horror (InSurge/Paramount) Fernanda Andrade, Evan Helmuth, Simon Quarterman, Ionut Grama, Suzan Crowley, Bonnie Morgan, Brian Johnson, Preston James Hiller, D.T. Carney, Maude Boranni, Marvin Duerkholz. Directed by William Brent Bell

 

Ah, Blair Witch Project, what hath thou wrought? Here is yet another in the long line of recent found footage films (i.e. Cloverdale, Apollo18) which to be honest are becoming rather gimmicky. While the Paranormal Activity series has been well-received both by critics and audiences alike, it is quickly becoming an excuse for sloppy camera work and poorly constructed plots.

Studios like these kinds of movies because they are extremely inexpensive to produce and when they hit it big, they can really upgrade the studio’s tax bracket. Even when they don’t hit it big, it doesn’t take much for them to make a profit and when they don’t, it’s not much of a write-off so it’s a win-win situation for the studio.

For audiences, however, it can be another matter. Maria Rossi (Crowley) was a Connecticut housewife who in 1989 killed two priests and a nun during an exorcism ceremony. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and later moved from an asylum in Connecticut to one in Rome. Her daughter Isabella (Andrade) who was a little girl when her momma went all medieval is ready to visit her mom for the first time since then and in the fine tradition of reunions everywhere wants to film it, taking with her Michael, a somewhat slimy cameraman (Grama).

In Rome she is given permission by the Holy See to film an exorcism class where she meets Fr. Ben Rawlings (Quarterman) and Fr. David Keane (Helmuth), a couple of young exorcists-in-training who chafe under the Church bureaucracy and are eager to go off and perform exorcisms on  those who as they put it “have fallen through the cracks of the Church.” Naturally they become interested in Isabella’s case but they want to show her a real exorcism first, so they take her to visit Rosa (Morgan), a cruelly possessed teenager. After that, the two renegade priests visit Maria in the asylum and, as you can imagine, all Hell breaks loose.

I will grant you that the movie as much as I’m ripping on it does do a good job basically from the time Isabella gets to Rome and through the exorcism attempt of Maria in setting up the right mood. There are a few startle-scares (big dogs parking, loud crashes) but for the most part this is more atmosphere than gorefest. Those looking for demons and beasties best look elsewhere.

The acting, as it is in many of these sorts of films is just competent at best. Maintaining the illusion of reality means hiring unknowns and that is always a bit of a crap shoot. But then again, who goes to these sorts of movies for the acting?

A movie like this has to keep the viewer interested in what’s going to happen next and elicit a sense of dread from the audience (after all, the footage had to be “lost” before it was found and there’s usually a reason for that) but part of the problem is that you kind of know before the movie even starts that bad things are going to happen to the people in the film and it’s not going to end well for them. In a sense, their own genre works against them. For that reason, we need to care about the characters and quite frankly, the writers of the movie didn’t even care enough to make them anything more than cookie cutter characters.

Much of the audience anger (it has gotten very poor word of mouth) at the movie stems from the ending. I won’t spoil it other than to say it’s abrupt enough to give you whiplash, then refers you to a website for further information – which I did and while it gives you additional background information on the main characters and some of the other elements within the movie. I think the attention was to be innovative and turn the movie into a film/internet hybrid. While I think that’s a peachy concept, quite frankly it didn’t work well here and served only the make people really angry. The ending basically ruins the movie.

While some publications thought that Paramount was hoping for a Paranormal Activity-type franchise out of this film, I’m not so sure. I can’t see how this lends itself to a sequel, although I suppose it’s possible to have some other investigators investigate the happenings in the movie. I don’t think the found footage-style would work for that so much though.

The middle part of the movie was pretty good which is what makes this so sad. There is obviously potential here for a good movie, but then the horrible ending blows that to smithereens. It made pretty decent box office its first weekend (which I’m sure is what the studio was hoping for) but with the bad word-of-mouth and negative reviews I don’t foresee much staying power and I don’t think people are going to want to see a The Devil Inside 2. You can’t trample the goodwill of an audience and expect them to come back for more.

REASONS TO GO: Very creepy in places.

REASONS TO STAY: An ending that just about kills the movie. Makes you wonder if found footage movies have outstayed their welcome.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly disturbing scenes and a couple of grisly images. The language is rough and as with most possession movies a lot of it is sexually based.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first release of Paramount’s low-budget InSurge brand.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 6% positive reviews. Metacritic: 18/100. The reviews are scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism

DEMONIC PSYCHOBABBLE LOVERS: While the exorcisms are conducted in English rather than Latin, there are references to demons and demonic lore.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: GalaxyQuest