CONVICTION: The Film Babble Blog Review

CONVICTION (Dir. Tony Goldwyn, 2010)

It’s that time of year – time for a piece of Hilary Swank Oscar bait.

Last year Swank’s performance as Amelia Earhart failed to get a nomination so she’s back playing another real person – Betty Anne Waters – a working class mother fighting the legal system in this earnest yet fiercely mediocre melodrama.

Full of the kind of spunk that Lou Grant would definitely hate, Waters put herself through law school just so she could represent her brother, who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Massacusetts.

Sam Rockwell plays the brother, spending the bulk of his role in prison scenes with Swank. The film flashes back to the early ’80s when the crime was committed with Rockwell being arrested by Melissa Leo as an obviously corrupt cop.

In a courtroom sequence Rockwell’s ex-wife (Clea DuVall) and ex-girlfriend (Juliette Lewis) testify against the accused while Swank steams on the sidelines.

Over the next 16 years Swank struggles to earn her GED, a college diploma and a law degree while working as a bartender all the while investigating her brother’s case.

Swank befriends a sassy Minnie Driver as a fellow student and spurned on by the prospect of new DNA evidence hooks up with the Innocence Project – an organization that overturns wrongful convictions led by Barry Scheck (a sauve but wooden Peter Galagher).

With a bad Boston accent and a strained expression for most of the movie, Swank sure doesn’t deserve a nomination for this one. Rockwell fares better, but there’s not really much to his character.

We see that he’s a white trash ruffian always in trouble with the law – the kind who will start a barfight one minute then do a cheered-on semi-striptease to a redneck anthem on the jukebox the next.

We’re supposed to be seduced by his wildness and in turn admire Swank’s plucky determination to clear her brother’s name, because, well, she’s wild inside too.

Driver’s accent isn’t much better than Swank’s, but as a Devil’s advocate best friend she has a likable presence. Juliette Lewis makes the most of her short but sweet part – she’s completely believable as tawdry trailer-trash with bad teeth.

As it was based on a true story this film is not without merit; it’s competently constructed, but its bland TV movie mechanisms and treacly score kept it from getting anywhere near my heart.

Try as it might, CONVICTION isn’t very convincing.

More later…

EVERYBODY’S FINE: The Film Babble Blog Review

EVERYBODY’S FINE (Dir. Kirk Jones, 2009)

A few months ago when I first saw the trailer there was a brief instance that I thought that this could be Robert De Niro’s ABOUT SCHMIDT – a powerful portrait of an iconic actor in his autumn years. That instance was incredibly brief mind you, because as the preview played out the glossy schmaltz it began to look more like De Niro’s LAST CHANCE HARVEY – a cute though vapid vehicle for a once vital actor in his autumn years. Well, sadly the latter is what we have here.

The opening shots show De Niro vacuuming his carpet, mowing his lawn, getting his grill out of the garage, etc. Watching this I was struck but the question: who wants to go to the movies to see Robert De Niro doing household chores? We even follow him to the grocery store to see him ask a clueless clerk about wine. He’s getting ready for Thanksgiving with his kids he explains, awkwardly clarifying that they’re all grown up and that he’s not actually serving children wine.

That’s the type of detail that’s meant to endear De Niro to us. His Franke Goode is a recently widowed and retired and without a doubt entering into a very needy zone of existence so when he learns that none of his family is going to make it home for the holiday there’s no other course of action but for him to hop aboard buses and trains and go to them. His doctor warns him against the trip, because that’s what most movie doctors do, but there’s no stopping this strained father Frank.

We learn from his chatting up a fellow passenger on the train to see his son in New York that De Niro had a career in coating telephone wire from coast to coast. This gives the film the excuse to have many shots of telephone polls and cables as we hear the voices of his offspring (Drew Barrymore, Katie Beckinsale, and Sam Rockwell) making calls to one another. They discuss in hushed tones a fourth sibling who is in some unspecified trouble and how they should keep it from Dad.

Since that’s the son that De Niro first goes to visit he comes up short in NYC, so then he’s off to Chicago to see his advertising exec daughter (Beckinsale). One gimmick the film has is that when he first sees his kids, he sees them as that – kids – so children actors stand in for their older counterparts for a few shots before they embrace. This is certainly making the point that he never dealt with them as grown-ups before but it still comes off as an artsy gimmick.

After an tense dinner with Beckinsale, her husband and son, De Niro heads off to Denver to see his classical musician son (a very reserved Rockwell) who turns out not to be the conductor he told his father he was, but a percussionist. Rockwell doesn’t appear to want to spend much time with his father so then we’re off to Las Vegas to visit with his dancer daughter (Barrymore) who may not be who she’s claimed to be either.

EVERYBODY’S FINE was based on an 1990 Italian film (STANNO TUTTI BENE) which I haven’t seen but I bet has a lot more emotional weight than this well meaning but drab adaptation. None of the characters or situations take hold so there’s nothing to truly care about. A 3rd act dream sequence involving De Niro confronting his offspring – the children actors mentioned above – tries its damndest to pull on the heart strings but the strings don’t seem to be attached to anything. An all too happy ending feels like it was tagged on so the film would match its misguided marketing as a holiday film.

It’s been a long time since the New Hollywood era in which De Niro ruled as an electric engaging entity in such landmarks as MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, and RAGING BULL (among others). Of course the man has long mellowed into the mainstream in commercial comedies and forgettable cop dramas but I think most film folks believe he could still bring it if given the right material. Until that happens though I guess we’ll have to deal with watching De Niro do the dishes and take out the trash, instead of stalking the streets thanking God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk.

More later…

Son Of Space Oddity

MOON (Dir. Duncan Jones, 2009)

The directorial debut of the British born Duncan Jones takes place almost entirely on the surface of the moon with the sparest of casts and the eeriest of vibes. It makes a certain sci-fi sense for Jones since he’s the son (originally named “Zowie Bowie”) of pop superstar David Bowie and grew up with heavy up close and personal exposure to his father’s otherworldly output such as the classic albums “Space Oddity” and “Ziggy Stardust”, along with his films THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and LABYRINTH. So, with that unique upbringing in mind, we are given Sam Rockwell as a Lunar Industries employee, alone and very lonely, on a 3 year assignment to extract Helium-3. His only companion at the lunar base Sarang is a robot named Gerty – voiced by Kevin Spacey.

Except for a few blurry video messages on the monitors of his wife back home (Dominique McElligott) and a couple of corporate guys calling the shots, it’s the Sam Rockwell show. He’s burnt out as Hell; schlepping around the base in a daze donning shades to shield from the blinding glare around him as he counts down the days to when he can go home. He sees odd flickers of images of himself on the monitors and the fleeting vision of a woman in a yellow dress, but brushes these off as weary hallucinations until crashing his rover. When he awakes he finds there is another man on the base – another Sam Rockwell to be exact.

Because there are only so many pieces that make up MOON, it would be wrong to give any more away than that – from just that simple description I bet one could imagine story threads involving clones and delusion; dammit I’m still giving things away. It must be noted that while the Bowie background can’t be ignored, this is more spiritually rooted to the seminal sci fi of the 70’s and 80’s – Jones cites SILENT RUNNING, ALIEN, OUTLAND, and, of course, the obvious connection: 2001 as major influences. These were the antithesis of the commerciality of STAR WARS; films that were about probing the depths of character’s alienation instead of space laser fights and cute robots.

MOON can be a slow dry ride, but it’s one that lingers darkly though thoughtfully. Rockwell’s performance never falters especially in scenes when he’s interacting with himself; he’s as on as any time in his career. Rockwell’s no stranger to sci fi either from his roles in GALAXY QUEST and HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY so he is at home here. It was nice to see models and matte paintings instead of CGI, though I bet that choice was budgetary rather than artistic. There’s a low key yet absorbingly spooky mood to MOON that is still with me the next day, while the parts that didn’t quite add up (like the unsatisfying ending) are fading. As it still processes, right now I can only concede that it’s a fine film debut as well as a promising chip off the Bowie block.

More later…