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Trial by Fire
Trial by Fire (2019)
8 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

In the movie business, famous quotes are a dime a dozen, or as Yogi might have said but never did, "I never said half the things I said." So a line attributed to Samuel (If it's not broke, fix it) Goldwyn sums up Hollywood's view of polemical movies - "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." And the quote itself shows you how long it's been a movie mantra.

Of course, Hollywood always made movies with messages, it's just that the messages were usually the ones that corporate America wanted you to get. The first big box office hit was D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, a dazzling tour de force that created much of the language of film, but as racist and dispicable a piece of propaganda as was ever given a mass audience. Gone With The Wind was not much better even though Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American Oscar winner.

The problem was not with movies that had messages because most good movies did have a 'message' or strong point of view. The problem was with the message. Simply put, messages that promoted mainstream America's prejudices or were 'patriotic' were OK; messages that promoted change or showed sympathy for the downtrodden were not OK.

As a result, Hollywood rarely took on the fat cats for the simple reason that it was the fat cats who were running the movie studios that were making almost all of the movies. Of course, times have changed, but not much. While the common wisdom is that Hollywood is to the left of Karl Marx, the truth is that Hollywood rarely makes a movie with a populist political message.

Trial By Fire attempts to be an exception. It tells the story of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O'Connell), 'white trash' Texan and his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade). Todd is convicted of murder for torching his own house while his three young children were sleeping. Directed by Edward Zwick, the movie starts with the deadly fire and the rage that is in Todd seems to be mirrored in the fire that consumes his family.

Todd is arrested when the police conclude that the fire was arson. Todd's trial has all the earmarks of a travesty of justice - his attorney can barely stay awake during the trial and puts up no defense. While Stacy, who was not home when the fire started, is convinced of Todd's innocence, she stands alone on his side during the trail, but after Todd is convicted, she abandons him.

The scenes of Todd in a Texas prison are pretty much standard movie issue: brutal guards who are only nominally less violent than Todd's fellow inmates. "Baby killer" is all anyone sees when they look at Todd and his violent behavior seems to justify everyone's prejudices about him.

Then, halfway through the movie, we jump ahead several years to when Elizabeth Gilbert (,Laura Dern), an upper middle class Texas writer, gets involved in Todd's case. While I just saw the movie, I cannot explain to you how that happens - it just does. Elizabeth has her own problems. She is trying to raise two teenage children while their father/her ex-husband is dying of cancer.

Zwick and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher run into problems trying to tell both Elizabeth's story and Todd's. There is not enough time in this 130 minute movie to do both. When Elizabeth's husband dies, we have to make do with a minute or so of her and the children grieving in bed together. In a later scene, her children accuse her of caring more about Todd than her own children, but that 30 second scene is all we get of that issue.

In an interview following the movie, Zwick said that he wanted to make a movie that was all of one piece instead of a 5 or 6 episode TV movie. Sadly, he didn't streamline the story to fit into the movie format. Todd is the story and what happens to him and how he changes is the core of the movie. To fit in Elizabeth, Zwick is forced to jump from out-of-control Todd to Todd as Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption without the time necessary to show the transition.

Having said all that, this is a movie worth seeing. The acting is first class. Jack O'Connell and Emily Meade are incredible as the arguing, fist-fighting, loving couple from the wrong side of the tracks. Dern, as usual, is simply outstanding. And while I think that Zwick took a wrong turn or two, he has made an emotionally gripping movie. While ostensibly this movie's message is that capital punishment is wrong, the real message is that this world is unfair and you had better get used to it or do something about it. Zwick is on the side of those who want to do something about it.

Dunkirk (2017)
23 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

The Call to Dunkirk
By Armen Pandola
Dunkirk by writer/director Chris Nolan is the story of how the British at the beginning of World War II were able to snatch a small victory from the jaws of an enormous defeat.
The Germans had deployed their new military tactic, the Blitzkrieg, to run over the low countries, then conquer France in less than three weeks. In doing so, it defeated the combined French and British armies. The remnants of those armies found themselves on the beaches of Dunkirk, with the Germans on one side and the English Channel on the other. While England was less than fifty miles away, there were almost 400,000 troops on the beaches of Dunkirk and evacuating them would not be easy.
Hitler was convinced by Air Marshall Goering that the task of eliminating the troops on the beach was best left to the Luftwaffe and that the ground attack should be halted. After weeks of non-stop attacks, they could use the rest.
At that time, the British had the largest fleet in Europe, but getting the troops off the Dunkirk beaches was a tactical nightmare. Large ships became easy targets for German bombers, especially the terror-evoking dive bomber, the Stuka.
I saw Dunkirk at the Aero theatre in Santa Monica where the attraction was not only the large screen 70 mm presentation of the movie, but an after-movie talk with the writer-director, himself.
Dunkirk concentrates on three characters: a young British soldier's attempts to avoid getting killed (designated in the movie with the title, The Land), a British pilot's crossing the English Channel in a spitfire (the British fighter plane) to shot down German planes harassing the rescue attempt (The Air) and a 50-ish Englishman, played by Mark Rylance, who crosses the channel in his own small boat, the Moonstone to pitch in (yeah, The Sea).
The movie is all about the special effects and the visuals. There is no attempt to give any of the characters, even the main ones, any kind of back story. Yes, we sympathize with them, but they are fighting Nazis so it isn't that hard to guess where your sympathies will land.
Perhaps no incident portrays the lack of any serious story telling in the movie than what happens to a teenage boy who makes the trip from England to Dunkirk on The Moonstone to lend a hand. Along the way, the Moonstone picks up a British sailor whose boat was sunk. He acts very strange and insists that the small boat turn around and go back to England since there was nothing that it could do at Dunkirk. Rylance ignores him and later tells his son that the man is obviously 'shell-shocked.' When this sailor tries to physically force Rylance to turn around the boat, he pushes the teenage boy down stairs and the boy hots his head which starts to bleed profusely. As they are caring for this young boy who appears to be in extremis, he says that all he ever really wanted is for his name to be in the local newspaper for doing something good. Need I tell you what happens when the boy dies and the Moonstone makes it back to England with a score of rescued soldiers?
And that is how the entire movie moves along, one prodding moment to another. Yes, some of the visuals are very good and so is the sound. You may have noticed that I have not mentioned most of the actors. In fact, in 45 minutes of talking about the making of the movie, neither did Nolan. The actors are irrelevant to his way of making movies. He did go on and on about how he wanted to make a movie to a certain beat or rhythm that would go like a bolero with all crescendos. Yeah, right.
The hook for this movie is that it is 'unlike any other war movie.' Not really. The idea of isolating a few stories in a battlefield of dramas is as old as All's Quiet on the Western Front. Technically, it cannot hold a candle to Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. And as for portraying the reality of warfare, Kubrick's The Paths of Glory is far superior.
So, why all the buzz about Dunkirk? It is fairly short for a 'war epic' coming in at 1hr, 46m. And it does have the kind of appeal that video games have. In fact, there were many moments that made me think that Nolan was more inspired by Call of Duty than Battleground. If that is your kind of thing - and Dunkirk's box office of over $500 million is proof that there are a lot of people (my guess, mostly teenage males) who love this kind of mindless visual house of thrills - then go see it. Believe me, it's a hell of a ride, if not much of a movie.

I, Tonya
I, Tonya (2018)
23 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I, Tonya
By Armen Pandola

I, Tonya (Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers) is a ground-breaking new film about the unstated class system in America.
I, Tonya is that rare movie that puts you, the audience, into the center of what the movie is about.
I, Tonya is about what really happened when a world-class ice skater from the wrong side of the tracks had her main rival whacked, literally.
I, Tonya tries to do for film what Picasso did for art and William Faulkner did for the novel - to capture reality from more than one side, one point of view.
OK, this movie works on so many levels, every time I started to write this review, I kept changing it. So I decided to use all of them because that is what this movie is about: reality in all of its many dimensions.
The story is simple and one that many of you will remember. Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) was a great American ice skating champion who was the first woman to do a triple axel (three and a half rotations) during a competition. Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) was a great American ice skating champion and in direct competition with Harding for the 1994 Olympics. One day, coming from practice, Kerrigan is whacked in the knee by an unknown assailant.

Sebastian Stan and Margo Robbie
as Jeff Gillooly and Tonya Harding

What is not so simple is the world that Harding came from. Her mother (Allison Janney) is one of the great Dearest Mommy mothers ever portrayed in film. And she even hits Nancy with a hair brush. The more success Nancy has, the more her mother insists that it is because she pushed and slammed and even knifed Nancy to be the best.
When Nancy meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), she is only 15 years old, but she desperately needs someone to love her and Jeff is it. Sadly, he, too, cannot keep his slaps and punches to himself and worse, he is not too bright. When Nancy tells her mother that she and Jeff are going to be married, her mother advises, "You fuck dumb, you don't marry dumb."
Jeff has a friend who is even dumber than he is, Sean (Paul Walter Hauser). When Nancy gets a death threat just before the American championships, Sean suggests that they get back at Tonya's biggest competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, by doing the same to her. From such stupid, small ideas comes a scandal that made tabloid news seep into mainstream news so that today, one cannot tell one from the other. In 1994, Tonya became the second most recognized person in the world behind President Bill Clinton.
The story is told by the major characters in interview format that is interspliced with action scenes of what is being described. Director Gillespie keeps switching the format so that we are constantly being thrown from one person's reality to another's. By the time we get to 'the incident' (and Harding tells us, OK, that is what you are all here for), we are not certain who to believe and what really happened. What we are certain about is our complicity in the circus that surrounded the tragedy of Harding's life. As she tells us, she was abused all of her life and (looking straight into the camera) "lastly by you."
The acting is some of the best you will see this year. Robbie is incredible. The makeup, the spectacular skating of Harding and, especially, the parental and spousal violence are so real that they make us understand more than ever that the movies are now at a stage where they can create reality, any reality, that they want to create. What is real becomes just as nebulous as what is true.
I, Tonya is about class, both as in classy and as in class status. Harding was from the wrong side of the tracks and her 'class' is not something she could hide any more than she could hide her ambition. As she continues to be the best female ice skater in America, but is never named the best by judges for the American Ice Skating Association, her frustration mounts until she finally confronts a judge in a parking lot who is visibly scared of her. He admits that her mediocre scores have nothing to do with her skating but rather they are because the Association does not want her to be the face of American Ice Skating.
In the irony to end all ironies, that is exactly what Tonya Harding becomes.