Trial by Fire

Directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker and Oscar-winning producer Edward Zwick best known for 1989’s Glory and 1995’s Legends of the Fall, Trial by Fire is a well-crafted drama with terrific acting performances from the two main characters and a deeply compelling plot about a man on death row for a crime that he probably did not commit. Based on a true story, the film follows Cameron Todd Willingham, played by the talented British actor Jack O’Connell, as he goes through the flawed Texas justice system and eventually meets an unexpected supporter of his case for exoneration. In the beginning of the movie, we witness his trial which leads to his conviction and being sent to death row for the arson and murder of his three young daughters in Corsicana, Texas in December 1991. As a poor and uneducated individual living in rural Texas with tattoos and a love of heavy metal music, he quickly discovers that he has not received the same level of legal representation and thereby is more susceptible to a miscarriage of justice. He spends most of his twelve years on death row learning the judicial system in order for him to try and petition for a retrial or exoneration as a result of several investigative blunders and negligent lawyers. As the years pass, he develops a very close relationship with a single mother of two kids living in Houston who comes to visit him numerous times before deciding to help out on his case. Played by Golden Globe winner Laura Dern, Elizabeth Gilbert becomes a strong advocate for Willingham even as family members question her motivation for trying to free a convicted murderer. Over the course of the film, it becomes readily apparent that he is innocent or at least not deserving of the death penalty and therefore the movie becomes much more of a anti-death penalty film critical of the justice system. Overall, I found it to be a powerful movie by a filmmaker who does an excellent job of showing the emotional rollercoaster that someone like Willingham must go through as he faces certain death by the state while providing a unique perspective from the most unexpected source of Elizabeth Gilbert.

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Tolkien

Directed by critically acclaimed Finnish director Dome Karukoski, Tolkien is a well-intentioned biopic, that is slightly disappointing, about one of the most important 20th century authors J. R. R. Tolkien and tries to explore what possibly inspired him to write the famous fantasy books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series. Living a difficult childhood as an orphan living in impoverished Birmingham, England, Tolkien, played by Nicholas Hoult best known for 2002’s About a Boy and 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, is heavily influenced by a close group of friends he meets while studying at a prestigious school sponsored by the local Catholic Church. Eventually, because of his high marks, he goes on to study at Oxford University where he discovers his love for languages and continues to pursue his love interest Edith Bratt, played by Lily Collins who is the daughter of English musician Phil Collins. The movie is interspersed with flashbacks to his horrific experiences as a soldier in the trenches during World War War I in which some of his best friends are killed in action. The filmmaker makes the case that the creative and idealistic Tolkien was partly inspired by his wartime experiences to craft his later high fantasy books about the struggle between good and evil mixed in with magic and heroism. The movie sometimes goes overboard on focusing on the events and objects in his life that are visually connected to the characters and themes of his published works. Many of the references may go over most audience’s heads, but I could see how it would be a treat for fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings book series. Overall, despite the historical visual aesthetic and commendable acting performances, I found the film to be sometimes too slow and not really geared for general audiences as a result of the constant inundation of reference points in the otherwise fascinating story of Tolkien’s life.

The White Crow

Directed by British actor Ralph Fiennes in his third film as director, The White Crow is a fascinating movie about one of the most famous ballet dancers and focuses on the seminal moment of his life in which he defects from the Soviet Union. Based on his real life, the film follows Rudolf Nureyev, played by Oleg Ivenko, and three distinct phases of his life: his early life in a struggling rural Soviet family, early career at a famous St. Petersburg ballet school, and his defection occurring during his company’s visit to Paris. The stereotypical tortured genius, he often exhibits egotistical behavior in which he does not shy away from berating his instructors, but his brilliant and unique talents are always desired by the Soviet ballet elite. The middle part of his life revolves around his relationship with the famed ballet teacher Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin, played by Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes, and his increasingly personal and strange relationship with Pushkin’s wife. The more contemporary chapter in his life is a rather slow-paced depiction of his falling in love with Western culture and society when his Soviet ballet company has a weeks-long residency at the Paris Opera in 1961 at the height of the Cold War. Nureyev enjoys the nightlife of Paris with his new-found French friends, and he eventually decides that he needs to defect from the Soviet Union in order to pursue a career in the West with much more freedom as an artist and individual. The one major problem area of the film is the often convoluted setup of having the story switch back and forth between three different time periods. Overall, I found it to be a very compelling story about a true genius against the backdrop of the Cold War that, despite the movie’s few flaws, feels like a very authentic portrayal of Rudolf Nureyev as a result of the film’s use of Russian dialogue and several beautiful dance sequences.

Red Joan

Based on the 2013 novel of the same name written by Jennie Rooney that was inspired by the real-life story of the British civil servant and Soviet spy Melita Norwood, Red Joan is a disappointing film that somehow makes the deeply fascinating material rather boring and bland, with the only bright spot being Judi Dench’s performance, albeit with very little screen time. The story starts in modern-day England when a elderly grandmother named Joan Stanley, played by Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench, is arrested on suspicion of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union following World War II. However, most of the film takes place in flashbacks that portray the young and idealistic Cambridge physics student Joan Stanley, played by the beautiful young British actress Sophie Cookson, falling in love with a Soviet sympathizer named Leo, played by Tom Hughes best known for his work on the British TV series Victoria. After graduating, she works for a secret British nuclear weapon program run by the brilliant scientist Professor Max Davis, played by British actor Stephen Campbell Moore, and is eventually recruited by the Soviet KGB through her connections with Leo to become a spy passing highly classified information about the British nuclear program. At times, it is a fairly typical romantic drama in which Joan falls in love with the mysterious and ultimately dangerous Leo while also developing feelings for her boss Professor Davis. The rest of the film explores the intriguing case of Joan becoming a Soviet spy and her struggle between her allegiance to her native Britain and her disdain for her government’s developing nuclear weapons, particularly after learning the horrific details of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To the movie’s detriment, the filmmaker relies on telling the story in a unusually slow and stale pace and does not use the talents of Judi Dench very much as a result of his emphasis on the character’s younger life. Overall, I was hoping for a prestige British historical drama that would better encapsulate one of the more interesting stories in espionage history, but, unfortunately, the execution is extremely lacking for such a terrific filmpremise.

The Best of Enemies

Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Robin Bissell best known for producing 2003’s Seabiscuit and 2012’s The Hunger Games, The Best of Enemies tells a truly unbelievable story of segregation bringing two unlikely people together and is headlined by two critically acclaimed actors, but its desire to discuss racial harmony in appropriate terms is not fully realized. Set in the racially charged atmosphere of Durham, North Carolina in 1971, the plot follows two very different characters on completely opposite sides of desegregation: the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter C. P. Ellis, played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, and the leader of a local black activist organization Ann Atwater, played by Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson. After the elementary school for African-American children is partially destroyed in a fire, a town-wide debate rages over whether to desegregate the school system and allow the black children to attend an all-white school. Eventually, a series of community consensus-building biracial meetings known as a charette is organized by the black activist Bill Riddick, played by Babou Ceesay. Rather unexpectedly, Riddick chooses Ellis and Atwater as co-chairs of the two week-long charette to try and come up with solutions regarding segregation and the Durham school system. In what appears as a more sympathetic portrayal of Ellis who struggles with the ideology of white supremacy, the movie spotlights a lot of attention on Ellis and his wife Mary, played by Emmy nominee Anne Heche, and their life struggles despite the fact that Ellis is a public leader of an avowed racist organization. We do witness some of the racist policies and acts of racism that directly affect Atwater and the black community of Durham, but, rightly or wrongly, the filmmaker makes the decision to focus more attention on showing the effects that Ellis and white sympathizers undergo as a result of working with black people. Despite the questionable handling of such sensitive racial issues by a white filmmaker, the underlying true story of Ellis and Atwater working together and eventually becoming friends is remarkable enough to be explored as a movie. Overall, I found it to be a fascinating historical take on a truly unusual friendship but came away from the film questioning if the issues of race were properly discussed, without sugarcoating the serious problems or becoming a white savior movie.

Fighting with My Family

Written and directed by English comedian and actor Stephen Merchant in his directorial debut, Fighting with My Family is a surprisingly endearing comedy drama based on the true story of a young British woman growing up in a family obsessed with wrestling who successfully makes her way through the tryouts for the WWE. We first meet the protagonist Saraya who later goes by the stage name Paige, terrifically played by Florence Pugh, as a young girl who fights with her brother Zak, played by Jack Lowden, in their parents’ small-time wrestling circuit in Norwich, England. As a result of their wrestling obsession and punk appearance, the family is often made fun of outside of the wrestling world and is led by the unusual yet loving parents Patrick, played by the always funny Nick Frost, and Julia Bevis, played by Lena Headey best known for her role in Game of Thrones. Eventually, the siblings get to participate in the London tryouts for the WWE at the invitation of the WWE trainer Hutch Morgan, played by Vince Vaughn, but Paige is the only one picked to go to Orlando, Florida to train in the NXT development program for the WWE. She has very mixed emotions because her beloved brother who she has always worked with is overlooked by the WWE. In somewhat typical sports movie fashion, we see Paige struggling in a series of training montages, and, at one point, she threatens to quit before she is encouraged by her family to pursue her lifelong dream. For a while, Zak is deeply depressed about not having a chance like his sister in the most popular wrestling circuit and begins to drink even though he has a new wife and a young baby at home. Over the course of the movie, Dwayne Johnson who started his career in the WWE as The Rock appears randomly and gives Paige advice about how to succeed in the wrestling world. Overall, I found it to be a terrific uplifting film that effectively presents another side of the WWE in which it is like any other sport or form of entertainment that helps bring families together. It is much more than a wrestling movie; at its heart, it is a beautiful story of family and the pursuit of dreams even when it is extremely hard to accomplish.

Stan & Ollie

Based on the true story of one of the world’s most famous comedic duos Laurel and Hardy during their late career, Stan & Ollie is a truly wonderful little movie about the heartwarming relationship between Laurel and Hardy despite their occasional disagreements on their very last tour together across the United Kingdom. We first meet the Englishman Stanley “Stan” Laurel, played by the Oscar-nominated British comedian Steve Coogan, and the American Oliver “Ollie” Hardy, brilliantly played by Oscar-nominated American comedian John C. Reilly who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role, toward the end of the height of their career in the 1930s making movies for the famous comedy producer Hal Roach, played by Danny Huston. Almost two decades pass before we meet the two again. Partly for financial reasons, the comedians finally get over their years-long rift over Laurel leaving Hal Roach Studios and Hardy making a movie without his longtime partner Laurel. In the twilight of their careers, they agree to embark on a rather small-time music hall tour of England and Ireland in 1953 comprised of their most famous acts in addition to several new ones that Laurel has written. Over the course of the non-stop traveling schedule, both comic legends are often at each other’s throats as a result of the disappointing crowd turnouts and the acknowledgement that their careers are inevitably ending soon. Through recreations of their bits and the behind-the-scenes rehearsals, the filmmaker is vividly able to portray the comedic genius of the larger-than-life Laurel and Hardy whose diametrically opposed personalities and physical appearances work perfectly for comedic effect. The actors, particularly John C. Reilly who is almost magically transformed into the overweight mustached Oliver Hardy, help to bring the world famous comedians to life even though they have been dead for over half a century. The film also does a terrific job of painting a much more intimate picture of the pair that explores the complicated friendship between both men in which they often argue but, at the end of the day, love one another as if they were family. Overall, I found it to be one of the most emotionally touching movies in recent memory that is only able to work as a result of the outstandingly realistic depictions of the one-and-only Laurel and Hardy given by the excellent actors; it is a much more personal and nuanced exploration of Hollywood comedy luminaries that goes beyond simply reliving their funniest bits.