Laura Dern

Trial by Fire

08/03/21

Netflix

Trial by Fire belongs in what’s fast becoming a familiar category in cinema – a based-on-a-true-story account of a person’s lamentable dealings with the American judicial system. Inspired by David Grann’s article in the New Yorker in 2009, Edward Zwick’s movie adaptation had its premiere in May 2018 and thereafter got somewhat lost in the shuffle. Now it’s getting a second chance on Netflix, and it’ thoroughly deserves to be seen, even if the story is unremittingly bleak and feels uncomfortably similar to recent releases like Just Mercy and Clemency. The overriding message, however, is crystal clear: capital punishment is a bad idea, especially in a system where the poor and under-privileged have the odds so heavily stacked against them.

Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’ Connell) is a mouthy young man with a predilection for heavy metal and infidelity. He’s maintaining a stormy relationship with his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade), and struggling to care for his three young kids. He’s not particularly likeable, is constantly quarrelling with Stacy (generally over his affairs with other women), and has a history of violence. But everyone who knows him agrees on one thing: he loves his kids. When a devastating house fire takes their lives and he manages to survive the conflagration, the investigating officers have no doubt in their minds that he set the fire deliberately – and, in the absence of any proof, they’re perfectly happy to fabricate some.

So Cameron winds up on Death Row, sitting in a cell and waiting for his turn for the lethal injection…

Years drift by. Cameron mellows a little, he learns how to maintain friendships with fellow prisoners and acquires an education. A chance meeting between playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) and a prison reformer affords him the first real visitor he’s had in years. Elizabeth is surprised to find him a compelling and likeable character, so she decides to visit him on a regular basis. As the two of them grow closer, she is encouraged to start looking into the flimsy case that sent him to prison in the first place. It doesn’t take her long to discover some shocking irregularities in the prosecution’s account of what went on.

But she is to discover that finding proof of a man’s innocence – and getting the powers-that-be to reopen his case – are two very different things.

In fiction, of course, this story would be depicted as a desperate race against time, with a phone call offering a pardon coming through at the last possible moment, but Geoffrey S. Fletcher’s screenplay sticks doggedly to the facts of the case. Consequently, the final stretches of this film are an angry howl of protest, a cogent plea for sanity to prevail. Sadly, it’s unlikely to change anything, but you’ll be hard-put to sit through this without feeling a mounting sense of resentment simmering within you. Both O’ Connell and Dern offer compelling performances, and Chris Coy does excellent work in the role of a prison guard, who starts off as an arrogant bully but is gradually redeemed.

But, like I said – this is grim stuff, not for the faint-hearted. On this evidence, can the USA really continue to claim that it has anything resembling a functioning system of justice?

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Little Women

15/12/19

Here, at last, are screen versions of the Little Women I’ve had in my head since I read the book when I was eight. Headstrong, unconventional Jo, born to write and desperate for a bigger life; romantic Meg, yearning for riches but choosing (relative) impoverishment with her one true love; shy, saintly, not-long-for-this-world Beth; and Amy, little Amy, all drive and ambition, always trying to impress (or beat) Jo.

I grew up with these girls, and every adaptation I’ve seen has failed to realise them convincingly. Except Jo, of course; there are lots of lovely screen-Jos (Katherine Hepburn, June Allyson, Winona Ryder). She’s the most captivating character, the Lizzie Bennett: it’s easy for a good actor to capture her spirit. But her movie sisters have always been a disappointment to me, even when played by talented performers. They’ve never felt right. Until now.

Saoirse Ronan makes a marvellous Jo (of course she does); Emma Watson perfectly embodies Meg’s earnest longing; Eliza Scanlen imbues Beth with strength as well as a sweet nature. But it’s Florence Pugh’s pugnacious, jealous Amy that has me almost exclaiming with delight. Here she is: a proud and lively girl, both friend and rival to her big sister Jo. She’s bloody brilliant.

Writer-director Greta Gerwig shows us once again how talented she is: this is Little Women writ large, barely deviating from the source material, but bringing contemporary resonances to the fore. There’s less piety and sermonising here than there is in Alcott’s novel, and the chronology is disrupted, so that we first meet Jo as an already published, ambitious woman, negotiating the terms for her latest stories while working in New York. The girls’ childhood is shown through a series of flashbacks, and we flit back and forth in time, never confused, even though the same actors perform throughout, ageing ten years through hairstyles, clothing, poise and gait. This structure gives prominence to the women the girls become, contrasting their childhood aspirations with what they actually achieve.

There’s such vivacity and energy here, it’s impossible not to be charmed; Gerwig has captured the very heart of Alcott’s fictionalised autobiography. The story arc actually works better in the film, and the audacious ending is a genuine master-stroke.

Timothée Chalamet is an inspired choice for Laurie, depicting with ease the neighbour’s loneliness and need for love, as well as his playful decadence. Laura Dern makes an excellent Marmee, and who else but Meryl Streep could have played Aunt March to Ronan’s Jo?

I have a couple of quibbles. I don’t know why middle-aged, paunchy, German Professor Bhaer is replaced with a young, handsome Frenchman (Louis Garrel);  why shouldn’t Jo establish a less conventional friendship? And I would like to see more of Meg: her character is well-established, but her storylines are too truncated, I think.

But honestly, these are just tiny niggles. This movie makes me really happy; indeed, the last ten minutes have me grinning so widely I actually hurt my face. Bravo! A fabulous film to end the year.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Certain Women

08/03/17

Certain Women seems like an appropriate choice for International Women’s Day. Our expectations are buoyed by the stellar cast (and yes, I’m including Kristen Stewart in that; we can’t hold Twilight against her forever), and we are not disappointed. This quiet little film is a lovely, lovely thing.

There are three (largely) unrelated stories here, all set in the same Montana town. First up is Laura (Laura Dern), a stressed-out lawyer with an unhappy client. The hyper-realism of the film means that even the most dramatic moments are beautifully understated: there is no sensationalism, only humanity and warmth. There is nothing so simple as a baddy, just flawed people, doing the best they can – and carrying on when things go wrong. Dern excels as the overworked, harassed professional, berating herself for her failings, and always striving to do more. It’s compelling stuff.

The second tale is Gina’s. Michelle Williams plays the role with customary skill, imbuing the ambitious businesswoman with vulnerability as well as zeal. We know her solid-seeming relationship is flawed, because we’ve already seen her husband (James Le Gros) in the first story, leaving Laura’s bed, but again writer-director Kelly Reichardt eschews the cliched route, and nothing much is made of this. There’s no discovery, no showdown, no climactic denouement. Instead, we are shown the minutiae of their house-building project, the moral compromises they make to source some local stone. It sounds dull, but it isn’t. It’s a real slice of life, a perfect example of a (sandstone) fourth wall being gently lifted so that we can peek inside.

The third story is the best of the bunch, utterly heartbreaking in its simplicity. Kristen Stewart plays Beth, a newly qualified lawyer, who works for the same firm as Laura. In need of extra money, she’s conned into taking an evening job teaching school law in a town that’s a four-hour drive away – an unsustainable arrangement that leaves her exhausted. A lonely rancher (Lily Gladstone) chances on the class – “I just saw the people going in” – and begins to rely on her weekly trips to the diner with her teacher. Gladstone’s beatific smile when Beth rides with her on her horse is so touching it hurts. Her neediness is naked, and her disappointment inevitable. It’s all the more devastating because of the way the narrative confounds our expectations: we are movie literate; we know there’s supposed to be a last-minute knock-on-the-door or change of heart. But there isn’t, of course. Just sorrow for what might have been, and the resumption of routine.

This is a wonderful film, full of sympathy and heart.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

The Founder

20/02/17

The Founder may well be the perfect film for the era of Donald Trump – it’s all about crass commercialism, overarching ambition and a multi-billion dollar empire that was founded upon so-called ‘alternative facts’ – or ‘lies’, as we might more accurately call them. Michael Keaton’s triumphantly reptilian performance personifies the very essence of the current state of America, even if this true-life tale happened more than sixty years ago.

When we first meet Ray Kroc (Keaton) in 1954, he’s a down-at-heel travelling salesman, riding the highways and byways of Illinois, trying to sell multi-milkshake makers to the managers of drive-in diners and meeting with total indifference from everyone he approaches; so when he hears that a new burger joint has just ordered six of his machines, his interest is piqued, even though it means driving all the way to San Bernadino, California, for a closer look. There he meets the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), two likeable entrepreneurs who have devised a new and speedier method of feeding burgers and fries to their appreciative customers.

Sensing that the brothers have unwittingly stumbled upon something that could be absolutely huge, Kroc persuades them to go into business with him, offering out the McDonald model as a franchise. But he soon discovers that the brothers have some annoying traits:  a genuine pride in their product, for instance; and a stubborn refusal to cut corners in the manufacture of any food that has their name on it. What’s more, the tiny percentage that Ray is able to rake off from each new franchise he sets up is barely enough to keep him solvent… it soon becomes clear there will have to be some changes.

John Lee Hancock’s film is a sobering story of the triumph of corporate greed over common decency. Kroc emerges as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, obsessed with furthering his own ends, horribly dismissive of his long-suffering wife, Ethel (Laura Dern) and transparently greedy when it comes to the acquisition of somebody to take her place – that dubious honour going to  Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), a woman clearly every bit as corrupt as Kroc. It’s to Keaton’s credit that despite it all, he manages to keep us interested in the man, as we witness his callous treatment of the poor suckers whose idea he stole and made his own.

It’s hardly what you’d call pleasant viewing, but as a demonstration of what’s gone wrong with the American Dream, it succeeds on just about every level. Keaton’s classy performance is simply the icing on the cake or, if you prefer, the pickle on the burger.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Wild

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21/02/15

I’d pretty much given up on the idea of ever seeing this one on the big screen, because of its all too brief appearance at the local multiplexes – but if ever a subject was designed for cinema viewing, Wild, with its magnificent vistas of mountains and prairies, is surely the one. So thank goodness for the FilmHouse, Edinburgh, a superb little independent that shows smaller ‘art house’ movies long after they’ve moved on from bigger venues. (If you’re ever in Edinburgh, do seek it out. It’s an object lesson in how to run an indie cinema.)

Wild is based on the autobiography of Cheryl Strayed (not so much a name as a job description) who after the  death of her beloved mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern) has slipped into a life of heroin addiction and infidelity. Newly divorced from her long-suffering husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski) she decides she needs to spend a little time on her own and rashly sets out to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, a distance of over one thousand miles. (It should perhaps be pointed out that Strayed had no previous experience of hiking, just a burning desire to complete the self-imposed task.) What follows is an account of her travels and the people she meets en route, cleverly intercut with flashbacks to earlier memories. Ably directed by Jean Marc Valleé, this is an engaging story with some fine location photography and a solid performance from Reece Witherpoon, who manages to convincingly play Strayed at all stages of her life (including, annoyingly, her college years.) If the overall effect is less powerful than say Into The Wild, a film with which it will inevitably be compared, it’s nonetheless very watchable and its only slightly marred by an ending that wanders rather too deeply into fridge magnet territory.

In what has becomes a popular trope amongst film makers, a sequence of photographs over the end credits show the real Cheryl Strayed and demonstrate how accurately Valleé and his crew reconstructed events.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney