Drama

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 Intruder

First Hit: A day after watching this movie, I’ve forgotten almost everything about it.

A good film has you remember something about it, the next day, next week, next month, and next year. This film barely made it to the next day. A movie like “Wait Until Dark,” which might be categorized as the same genre, is still is with me today, and I saw it in 1967.

The idea of this film is; a couple decides to buy a country home in Napa Valley, fix it up, and hopefully raise a family in their new home. The house they fall in love with is owned by a man who claims his wife died about two years ago from cancer and it’s time for him to move on and live in Florida with his daughter. But, with any good horror mystery, there is a wrinkle in the idyllic story.

Here we have Annie and Scott Russell (Megan Good and Michael Ealy respectively), having had success, wanting to move from a condo in San Francisco to a home in Napa Valley. The home Annie falls in love with is owned by Charlie Peck (Dennis Quaid).

The faults started early for me. The looks and quick switches in attitude by Peck made him a creepy suspect too soon. He didn’t sell the story of his wife dying of cancer well enough. That is what disappointed me about this film. It telegraphed too loud and too early the player's positions in this film.

Annie, on her part, was too trusting too early and in apparent situations where caution would be the by-word, she wasn’t. Scott was on edge too early as well. His mistrust and skittishness seemed a little too fabricated.

Anyway, after buying the house, Peck keeps showing up at Russell’s home, mowing the lawn, yelling at people installing a security system, and trying to be helpful. He isn’t, and the creepiness oozes from his eyes and a fake smile.

The story unfolds as one might imagine, but the over crafting from the beginning led to an apparent predictable ending. Additionally, I live in the San Francisco Bay area I’m surprised that Scott, as a high-level advertising executive, would consider making a daily commute from Napa to San Francisco. It might have been better if they had moved to Mill Valley, Fairfax, or other Marin County areas, than Napa. I couldn’t get around the commute as being something viable.

Ealy was OK as Scott. However, his suspicions were telegraphed too early in the film. Good was acceptable as Annie. Her naivety towards Peck by not seeing his obvious behavior flaws was not believable. As a for instance, note the scene when she invites him in to share the pizza he delivers to her, dumb. Quaid overacted the part, but I did think his evil grin was well done. He sort of had a “Chuckie” look to him. Joseph Sikora as Scott’s close friend Mike was reasonable in his role as up and coming young, robust and rich guy. Alvina August was acceptable as Mike’s girlfriend who put up with Mike’s posturing. David Loughery wrote a good script, but it was the direction by Deon Taylor that failed to make the story memorable. He didn’t get much out of his actors and sided on overacting to make this film.

Overall: This film is totally forgettable and not worth seeing.

Woman at War

First Hit: A quirky and compelling story about one woman’s fight against the destruction of her homeland, Iceland.

Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir) is a music choir teacher, and she conducts her choir group in singing native Icelandic songs of joy. However, she’s also a deeply committed activist who is willing to put her life on the line to stop Rio Tinto aluminum plant from producing products that harm the environment.

This plant is located in the rugged highlands of her native country and to stop its production Halla finds ways of shorting out the electric power grid used to run the plant.

This is how the film opens: Halla using a bow and arrow to short the high voltage electrical lines feeding the plant. Then we follow her escape and evade the government’s helicopters which are searching for the person or group of people destroying the factory’s electrical power source.

Then she shows up, well-dressed and out of her rugged clothing, to teach her choir students light-hearted songs. One of the choir member’s Baldvin (Jorundur Ragnarsson) is a member of the government, and he is working closely with Halla to fight the intrusion of this Chinese company into their Icelandic culture. They are cautious when they speak together, as noted by how they put their cell phones in the refrigerator each time they meet to talk strategy of Hella’s next actions.

During an escape from the government helicopters, Hella finds herself on the farm of Sveinbjorn (Johann Siguroarson). He lives alone and calls his dog “Woman.” Sizing up Hella, he decides to help her escape the agents that are looking for her.

Sveinbjorn and Hella develop a trust and friendship which is developed throughout the remaining part of the film. This is a lovely part of the story. Hella also has a sister, Asa (also played by Geirharosdottir), who teaches meditation and yoga.

Four years earlier, both Asa and Hella had applied to become adoptive parents. And just when Hella’s activist events are becoming more involved, she gets a letter and telephone call that there is a young Ukrainian girl ready for her to adopt.

The rest of the film takes us on the conflicted ride of Hella the activist versus Hella the soon to be a mother and letting us see how she attempts to reconcile the difficulties of doing both. It is a wonderful ride, as all the players have an active influence in her next steps.

The quirkiness of the story is added to by a three-piece band that arrives and is staged prominently in particular scenes to add an odd emphasis to each scene. Additionally, there is a three-girl chorus dressed in traditional clothing, that pop-up in scenes to give flavor to the scene’s importance. However, it is the odd interjection of Juan Camillo (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) a Spanish man traveling through Iceland on his bicycle that brings both unusual enjoyment and how it doesn’t always pay to be in a particular place at a specific time.

I loved seeing the stark ruggedness of the Icelandic countryside, and it was beautifully shot by the cinematographer. The story was wonderfully paced, and the point of one person having an impact was clearly made.

Geirharosdottir was fantastic as both Hella and Asa. She embodied the strength and determination of Hella’s character and the more subtle spiritual aspect of Asa. Ragnarsson was excellent of the partially paranoid government operative who wanted to support Hella’s war against the aluminum company. Siguroarson was amazing. I loved his character and presence in the film. He embodied the single well-entrenched farmer who loved the land he worked as well as the compassion for Hella’s mission. Estrada was wonderful in his role as a sort of an accidental tourist. Olafur Egilsson and Benedikt Erlingsson wrote a very original screenplay. Erlingsson directed this quirky film with aplomb, and the ending was perfect to the cause.

Overall: This film will stay with me as it was both enjoyable and pointedly purposeful.