Tag Archives: real-life

Trail by Fire

17 May

‘Trial by Fire’: On death row after arson trial, but he finds a new hope (if not a new story)

 

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Anti-death penalty films tend to land far and wide. There are hits (“Dead Man Walking,” “The Green Mile”) and misses (“The Life of David Gale”), much of it hinging on degree of subtlety vs. preachy, manipulative overtones. Sure, the talent involved matters, but so do tenor and posture. “Trial by Fire,” from Edward Zwick (“Glory” and “The Last Samurai”) lands closer to the “Dead Man Walking” side of the field than sermonic foul territory. It’s something of a nifty crime drama too.

Adapted from David Grann’s haunting 2009 “New Yorker” article of the same name, “Trial by Fire” plays us for our stereotypes the way a courtroom might. Two days before Christmas 1991, in a poor Texas ’burb, Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a man with a bedraggled mullet, pentagram tattoos, no job, no education and several run-ins with the law on his record, watches his house go up in flames with his three baby girls inside. Later that night he’s drinking at the bar and playing darts, reveling in all the donations that have rolled in. 

It’s not pretty, and next comes sordid details of his marriage (wife Stacy, played by Emily Meade, was at work at the time of the fire). It all comes out in the courtroom after investigators examining the remains of the charred house – one expert articulating, “Fire doesn’t destroy evidence. Fire creates evidence” – deem it an arson-engineered death trap and charge Willingham with the crime. 

As the film sets it (or us) up, Willingham’s guilty as hell – and just like that, off to death row he goes. The script by Geoffrey Fletcher plays with time and our sensibilities as it goes along. Willingham’s trial lawyer seems competent during the initial defense, but not so in a rewind, and then there are the shifting accounts from eyewitnesses (we saw what they saw, and they tell it differently on the stand). It’s enough to cast doubt but not enough for a retrial. Willingham and the film get a big boost when Laura Dern’s Elizabeth Gilbert (not the “Eat, Pray, Love” author), a compassionate single mother with two teens, embarks on a letter-writing relationship with Willingham and jumps in on his defense. 

O’Connell, a British actor (“Unbroken”) whose stock should rise in the wake of “Trial by Fire,”  does an affectingly palpable job of selling us on his transformation into a more educated and balanced person behind bars. Meade and Dern are likewise commendable. It’s a heavy film with a heavy agenda that lets us know that Texas executes five times as many death row inmates as the next death penalty state, and Project Innocence gets rolled in too. It’s not overtly (and unnecessarily) manipulative until late in the game. Its points about the weaknesses of the justice system are provocative and real considerations to deliberate. 

Little Pink House

11 May

‘Little Pink House’: After finding her home, she has to fight to keep it from Big Pharma

 

The title alone will have many thinking of the the seminal John Cougar Mellencamp song that 35 years ago was so ubiquitous and infectious. This similarly named film (“House,” though, not “Houses”) won’t have the same lingering resonance – and rightfully so, as the reedy true-life saga never quite finds its pulse and purpose. Events unfold during a time Y2K concerns soared and 9/11 rocked the nation. Neither of those history-defining moments makes it into the film to detract from the slow-building drama taking place in the sleepy seaside town of New London, Connecticut, not too far from historic Mystic, the anchor port for the taut little comedy, “Mystic Pizza” that in the late 1980s launched the career of Julia Roberts.

If you’re wondering if any of this seeming free associations has a payoff, it does – sort of – as “Little Pink House” shares the trappings of “Erin Brockovich,” another true-life tale about an iron-willed woman who fights the good fight, taking on bureaucracy and big money against all odds. That 2000 film garnered Roberts a Best Actor Oscar.  Continue reading

A lump of coal and a fruitcake

25 Dec

‘Unbroken’ and ‘The Gambler’: Directors, cast don’t quite sell two true-to-life tales

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Few probably gave much heed to the actual words of Sony execs in emails unearthed by the now notorious cyberattack launched (purportedly) by North Korea. Just the spectacle of smug Tinseltown backbiting itself was enough, as big-ticket stars such as Adam Sandler were debased along with Angelina Jolie, who was tagged as “talentless.”

122414i UnbrokenThe Jolie slam gave me pause. She’s always conducted herself in ways that have invited ridicule (her blood vial marriage to Billy Bob Thornton, the incestuous podium posing with her brother and the weird, estranged relationship with dad, actor Jon Voight). But how could the woman who won an Academy Award (for “Girl Interrupted”) and made an impressive directorial debut with “Blood and Honey” – a provocative, Bosnian-Serbian updating of “Romeo and Juliet” – be “talentless”? Continue reading