Biography

Red Joan

First Hit: Laborious story of a woman who gave away British state secrets.

My intuition told me this film would be a shot in the dark, not the Peter Sellers kind, and it was.

Although, based on the true story of Melita Norwood, here her name is Joan Stanley (Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson as the young Joan).

This movie begins with an eighty plus-year-old Joan (Dench) sitting at home alone when there’s a knock on the door. It’s a special branch of the police and she’s taken away to be questioned.

It’s an okay opener, but the story rises and falls and eventually peters out at the end.

What happened? Why does an eighty plus-year-old woman get arrested? It’s interesting, in that she’s being detained because she’s accused of giving Britain’s atomic bomb secrets away to the Russians during WWII. Was it true? And if so, why did she do this?

These are the questions we hoped would be answered as the investigators probe her for answers while her lawyer son Nick (Ben Miles) sits shocked next to her in the interrogation room. It’s apparent that he knows nothing about his mother’s past.

To develop the story, the film slips back in time when young Joan (played by Cookson), is entering college to get a physics degree. Back in the late 1930s, this was almost unheard of, and throughout the film, there are numerous scenes where she gets mistaken as a coffee or tea server.

Graduating she gets a job as an assistant for Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) one of Britain’s lead researchers for developing the atomic bomb. He hires her because she’s smart and knows she’ll contribute to Britain’s success. The scenes where she proves him right are lovely.

While in college Joan became friends with Sonya Galich (Tereza Srbova) who happened to be linked with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. While socializing with Sonya, she meets Sonya’s brother Leo (Tom Hughes) who is gregarious, smart, handsome, and very active in the party.

When Leo and Sonya learn that Joan is working for Davis on in a project to figure out how to make an atomic bomb, they begin to pressure Joan to share the secrets with them so that they can pass them on to the Russian government.

What put Joan over the top and start supplying the secrets was either her love for Leo or that she really believed that if Russia has the bomb as well as the United States, there would be peace, a stalemate in warlike aggression in the world.

This is where the film falls apart. Neither story was convincing. It wasn’t that these arguments weren’t or couldn’t be valid, I just didn’t believe Joan’s attraction to Leo, and I didn’t think she was credible about the case about a stalemate. I wasn’t convinced.

Dench was OK as the slightly surprised and shaken older Joan for being arrested for a crime some fifty years earlier. Being discovered that she was the person who leaked these secrets and why she leaked them could have been more exciting. Cookson was good as young Joan, but it was either her acting ability, the script or direction that didn’t have me believe Joan was really in love with Leo. Nor, did I think she was anxious about the destruction and death of war. Yes, there were shots of results of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but I didn’t get an impassioned sense from Cookson. Moore was beautiful as Britain’s lead researcher on their own atomic bomb project. I believed he really loved Joan. Srbova was strong as one of Russia’s conduits to obtain secrets. She was alluring and stealthy. I didn’t like Hughes’ character Leo, and that was purposeful. He was a user, and Hughes was excellent as that. Miles was okay as Joan’s son who didn’t seem shocked enough that he knew so little about his mom and dad. Lindsay Shapero wrote an uninspired screenplay. Trevor Nunn didn’t get a lot out of this story and his actors.

Overall: This is a great story that lacked inspiration on the screen.

Trial by Fire

First Hit: A very well acted and somewhat manipulative film about a premeditated rush to judgement.

There is no faulting the acting in this film. In fact, Jack O’Connell as Cameron Todd Willingham was outstanding, and thus far maybe the best performance of the year by a male. Here he plays a father wrongly accused of intentionally lighting a fire in his home that burned up his three daughters.

Having done prison outreach work with prisoners in both Folsom and San Quentin prisons, along with letter writing to prisoners in other states, I’ve learned a little about the prison system. One such prisoner I spent time with during visits to San Quentin, was in for two life terms. He gave me a perspective of his life and the life of people who are sentenced to die in prison. This film does a great job of sharing some of the intensity of being faced with how one dies in prison.

The film begins with dark black smoke billowing out of a home. Flames following Cameron as he stumbles and falls out the front door. He’s shirtless, afraid, and panicked as he tries to break a window to get back in the home.

We learn that his three daughters are inside and are lost. The firemen come, extinguish the blaze and then fire investigators show up and as we follow them through the burnt wreckage of a home, they lay out what they believe happened. This fire, they indicate, was set by using an accelerator, probably gasoline, in the children’s room.

Cameron and his wife Stacy (Emily Meade) are questioned by the police and immediately after they bury their daughters, Cameron is arrested for murder.

Part of the set-up is that Cameron is known around the small town as a bullying punk, doesn’t work, and is supported by Stacy. He’s also been previously arrested and has spent time in jail. The police know him, as do some town residents who have had run-ins with him, and he’s made no friends. However, despite his meanness towards Stacy in the early scenes, there is a hint he loves her and he appears to really care about his girls as the film shows past scenes of him attending to his daughters.

The trial is an overt travesty (part of the manipulativeness), with his defense attorney not asking questions and not seemingly having much desire to find out the truth - he just wants the trial to end. Of course, Cameron doesn’t help his case any by being both belligerent and argumentative in the courtroom and to the attorney.  

As the trial proceeds, evidence is presented that paints pictures that overwhelmingly show Cameron to be guilty. Scenes are presented that show contrasting stories, and the audience, as well as the jury, are supposed to believe to be the truth. His only supporter is Stacy who knows Cameron loved his girls.

After the guilty verdict, he’s sentenced to death as allowed by the State of Texas. His first few days in prison are difficult because being a convicted baby killer, he’s persona non-grata by either the other inmates or the guards and they show their disdain for him by taunting and beating him.

In another part of Texas Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) is in a hospital tending to her dying ex-husband. The dialogue here is primarily focused on showing us what an open hearted, steadfast, caring woman Elizabeth is.

Getting involved in a prison outreach program by writing prisoners, she writes a letter to Cameron who is starving for outside attention. Being locked up on death row, his wife refuses to visit him, he’s got no friends, and his family can’t visit; he’d like contact with the world.

Over time he’s mellowed, gained some perspective and has become self-educated by reading law books and other books of literature. By the time Elizabeth visits him for the first time, he’s nothing like the character he was prior to his conviction. In fact one guard who beat him at the beginning has become empathetic towards him.

Elizabeth becomes convinced Cameron is not guilty and begins work on his behalf to get a stay and appeal because as she digs deeper she finds evidence of the fraudulent case brought against Cameron.

The film painstakingly builds this case and at times, just like the earlier segments, was overdone and manipulative. However, I found it interesting that the film overtly shows how then Governor Perry neglected and discarded the evidence presented to him that showed that witnesses were bribed, and the physical evidence was flawed.

The ending is somewhat of a shock. Then we get a quick look, as the credits role, of Governor Perry, during the presidential debates, pronouncing how fair and just the Texas system of law is.

This film makes several good points, and because the injustices that were projected onto Cameron are still going on today, it identifies just how bad our system is when uncaring and unjust people are left to run it.

O’Connell was fantastic. I felt him fully engaged and embody this role. Dern was very strong as her eyes really showed empathy for Cameron. Meade was oddly interesting as Cameron’s wife. I didn’t quite get or buy her character and I’m not sure if it was her, the script, or direction. Jade Pettyjohn (playing Elizabeth’s daughter Julie) was very strong and her compassion for her mother towards the end of the film was congruent with how she was being raised. Jeff Perry, as Hurst (the premiere fire investigator), was utterly fantastic. His quirky way of explaining real and the not real of fire investigation was wonderfully engaging. Geoffrey Fletcher wrote the strong screenplay. Edward Zwick directed this film and he got some very powerful strong performances from this cast.

Overall: I deeply appreciated the story, even though it was somewhat manipulative in the way it cast some of the roles and scenes.

The White Crow

First Hit: I enjoyed the journey of learning more about this focused and driven dancer.

Rudolf Nureyev is a legend in men’s ballet. I saw him once eating at Star’s restaurant after I’d seen Mikhail Baryshnikov dance with the American Ballet Theater (ABT) at the SF War Memorial Opera House. Nureyev was dining with Mikhail at Star’s center table, and they appeared to be in an in-depth discussion about dance, with arms moving exquisitely through the air while they talked.

I was seeing two of the best Russian dancers ever, together. It was a magical moment for me.

I love ballet. I love seeing the magical movements of men and women tell stories of adventure, love, loss, tragedy, hope, and beauty.

These were the thoughts I had walking into seeing this film. Because Rudolf (Oleg Ivenko) was before my time of learning to love the ballet, I only had heard of the legend. Supposedly he was demanding, unyielding, and focused on his craft.

This story is presented through flashbacks of him as a young boy, youngest of four, and the only boy. As a Tatar Muslim minority and poor, the opening scene of him being born on a train is something he refers to a couple of times in this film’s story. His father was a soldier in the Soviet Army and rarely home. But in one sequence where Rudolf and his father take a hike together, the impression left by the director and this story is that it was an important and decisive event in Rudolf’s life. I was horrified by his father’s actions.

I loved the dance sequences and the scenes of him relentlessly practicing because we see how he drove himself to be the best.

The faith that Rudolf’s teacher Alexander Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes) had in him was sublime. Pushkin’s passive demeanor was laced with subtle, focused clarity of intention.

Nureyev was an artist through and through. He loved architecture and art. The movie shows this by following Rudolf into museums to dissect paintings, sculptures, and statues. The way he gazed at buildings and the landscapes of cities clearly shows his inner muse drinking in the beauty of form.

Meeting Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos) helped to change his life. During a trip of the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet to Paris to perform in 1961, Nureyev mingled with Parisians which worried the KGB. They monitored all his actions throughout the engagement and followed him wherever he went. One of the people he met, during an outing was Saint who took him to gay bars and had him meet numerous interesting creative people.

Nureyev’s reputation towards being harsh towards people is shown several times during the film, none more powerfully than during a dinner with Saint.

The culmination of this story, of course, would be his ultimate defection from the Soviet Union to the west at the Paris airport in June of 1961. The way this unfolds in the film was done very well and was a highlight of the story.

Although the story meandered, highlights of him as a young boy, were captivating and grounded the film and provided the gist for his driven behavior.

Two sections worth pointing out were; the scene where we see him dance as a young boy – it is incredibly sweet. And in the end, artistic black and white footage presenting the real Nureyev dancing.

Ivenko was excellent as this famous dancer. His looks, movement, and driven arrogance reflected the stories about Nureyev. Fiennes was sublime as Pushkin the renowned teacher. The scene where Nureyev asks him why he’s not getting compliments, Pushkin’s response was perfect. The follow-up of offering food showed that actions speak louder than words. Exarchopoulos was fantastic as Rudolf’s friend Saint. Her toleration and forgiveness of Nureyev’s behavior were challenging, yet filled with understanding. David Hare and Julie Kavanagh wrote an exciting screenplay and covered the buildup to Rudolf’s defection in an effective way. Fiennes directed this film with love for the subject. This came across multiple times.

Overall: It is not a great film, but for anyone who wants to know more or is curious about one of the most excellent dancers of the 20th Century, go see this.

Tolkien

First Hit: Given the previews I watched, I liked the story and sections of this film far more than I thought I would.

In full disclosure, I’m not a fan of Tolkien’s writings. I didn’t like “The Hobbit,” and I did my best to sit through the Peter Jackson films based on his books.

However, given my previous view, I did like the story behind J. R. R. Tolkien’s (Harry Gilby as the young Tolkien and Nicholas Hoult as the elder) emergence as a person and writer of these stories.

I was pulled in by how he did his best to support his mother and brother before she died. How he was able to not be bitter in his becoming an orphan and living in a home with his brother and Edith Bratt (Mimi Keene as the young and Lily Collins as the elder) as guided by Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney).

Father Morgan (Colm Meaney) was given charge of Tolkien and his brother after their mother’s death. Father Morgan placed Tolkien and his brother at the home of Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris) and ensured them placement in a good school. Although they had no money and were placed in a school full of privileged students, through trials as shown in this movie, both boys found friends.

J. R. R. founded a group of four boys that met daily to discuss the ways of the world, share dreams of changing the world, and create dares to push each other to be leaders. These flashbacks made this film come alive with poignancy and adventure.

 When watching J. R. R. slowly develop his relationship with Edith, I was totally captured. The strength emanating from Edith (both actresses did this extraordinary well) was perfect for J. R. R. Together they challenged each other, but it was her pointed darts at his mind, heart, and soul that brought out the best in him.

All of this was very well done. However, what didn’t work for me, and I’m not sure why, is that most of the past scenes of this life - before his becoming a professor, were based on his flashbacks while slogging through the trenches in WWI. The darkness, hopelessness, and drive within himself to find his friend put a damper on this film and story. It appeared to be the point of many of the war visuals is that they contributed to the visualizations Tolkien eventually used in his later stories of battles.

For me, it took away from the story in ways that hurt the overall film.

The highlights were Tolkien’s meeting with his friend’s mother and sharing where the young men use to meet and discuss the world while convincing her to publish his friend’s poems — a lovely moment. All the scenes Tolkien has with Edith were outstanding and influential. The group of young men committing their love of their friendship with each other was a beautiful scene. Tolkien’s interaction with Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) was both funny and quirky. And I enjoyed Father Morgan’s confession that he was wrong about Edith.

Harry Gilby as the young Tolkien and Nicholas Hoult as the older Tolkien were outstanding. How each portrayed the thoughtful, inquisitive, Tolkien was perfect. They made this man come alive. Mimi Keene as the young and Lily Collins as the elder Edith, for me, were the highlight of the film, acting-wise. The power behind her character showed through with elegant integrity. When they were on the screen, I was totally engaged. The moment she shares with Tolkien what her life is like, playing songs for the homeowner, I felt her struggle to live. That scene was perfect. Jacobi was terrific as the quirky professor of languages. Meaney was excellent as Father Morgan. He was both strong and contrite. David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford wrote the script. Although I didn’t like the drudgery in the trenches, the other scenes were wonderfully drawn, and the dialogue between Tolkien and Bratt were sublime. Dome Karukoski directed this film. Again, the only dislike for me was using the WWI segments as a place for him to reflect on his life.

Overall: I was clearly struck by the power of Tolkien and Bratt’s relationship as written and portrayed in this story.

The Best of Enemies

First Hit: I loved the story and the concept behind the story, but at times, the movie languished with its 133-minute running time.

Civil rights, the rights of all people, are a continuing subject in our country. This is shameful, shocking, and sadly mind-numbing to me. As Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) said in the film, “when any of us get cut, we all bleed the same red blood.” Or, at another time she says, “same God made you, made me.” This is the whole point of the film.

Atwater is an activist in her community of Durham, North Carolina. She fights city hall to help the causes of black people in her community. She’s brave and outspoken.

At the beginning of the film, she’s fighting for the rights of people who are renting from a landlord that wants to raise rents or kick people out of his buildings because they are black and want him fix the problems in his units. Some of the issues are no hot water, toilets that don’t work, and electrical issues which mean his renters are struggling to survive in their homes. She’s fighting the slumlord and the whole white part of town that seems to support him to fix the issues in the the homes.

When the black only school burns down, the black community wants her to take the lead to fix the problem of educating their children, and she’s up for it. She and the black community want the children of that school, including her daughter, to go to a white only school – in other words – she wants, what the US government says she’s entitled to, school integration.

To fight against this move, the white city council asks their local KKK President and Exalted Cyclops, C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), to lead the charge against the integration.

The film spends time with both characters learning more about who they are and what they believe. We learn that Atwater clearly has a belief of what is right and she fights for what she thinks. She does this with angry outbursts, persistence, and fortitude. She also has a soft tender side which the film shows as well.

Ellis is shown leading his KKK Chapter at meetings and at the gun target practice range promising to uphold the charter of the KKK. He is married to Mary (Anne Heche) and has four children. One of the boys lives in a psychiatric hospital because of, what appears to be, autism. C.P.’s scenes of tenderness towards this son are lovely, and it shows that he does have a heart. Mary, however, does not hold C.P.’s racial views, but they somehow are able to make their marriage work, and I think it is because she knows the deeper C.P.

As the battle of whether the black children will attend the white schools grows, the city of Durham decides to bring in Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) to lead a two-week charrette mediation program to appease the court-ordered school desegregation decree and to come up with a community answer about school integration.

Much of the film and at times, too much, is spent wading through the two weeks of the charrette in a high-level glossy way. Occasionally there is pointed discussion between Riddick, Ellis, and Atwater and we can see how they are slowly beginning to listen to each other.

The worst aspect of the community is when the film shows radicals from the KKK attempting to influence the outcome of the vote through intimidation.

Of course, this film wouldn’t have been made if the vote wasn’t favorable for integration, and the suspense is good enough to wait for. But the part that sickened me was the back stories of how the city council led by Carvie Oldham (Bruce McGill) believe that bending the rules and breaking the law, it is for the betterment of the whole.

Besides the beautiful gas station scene at the end of the film, it was such a nice touch to have short clips of the real Atwater, Riddick, and Ellis during the credits – make sure you see this part.

Henson was excellent as Atwater. She clearly provided the kind of intent and sense needed for the role. Some of her looks at Ellis were slightly overdone, but nothing that came across detrimental to the part. Rockwell is making a name for himself as being the guy on the wrong side of right and easing his character to the right side of freedom. As in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing. Missouri,” he faces and is the opposition to a tough woman but ends up becoming friends with them. Ceesay is terrific as the mediator for the charette. McGill was perfectly southern and arrogant to the plight of anyone but himself. Heche has a small but powerful role in this film as Ellis’ wife. Her clarity of purpose and her visit with Atwater was perfect. Robin Bissell wrote and directed this film. The best part was making this story come alive, but it felt long, and some judicious snipping would have helped.

Overall: The lesson is still alive today, we need to stop seeing people as different, we are one.