Greetings again from the darkness. Being wrongly accused of a horrible crime would be a nightmare. Being wrongly convicted would be the worst possible nightmare. Prison life must be a daily nightmare. What could make such nightmares even worse? How about serving 21 years for a crime you didn’t commit, with about 4 years of that in solitary confinement.
Numerous recent projects have focused on a legal and justice system that sometimes seems broken. Some of the best include: HBO’s “The Night Of”, Ana DuVernay’s documentary 13TH, and Jamie Meltzer’s documentary TRUE CONVICTION. Writer/Director Matt Ruskin has adapted this most recent based-on-a-true-story docudrama from a podcast episode of “This American Life”.
While the general topic of “justice” is interesting enough, it’s the individual personal stories of justice denied that add such power, immediacy and emotion. In April 1980, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a young man is arrested on suspicion of murder. Lakeith Stanfeld (SHORT TERM 12) plays Colin Warner, a local petty thief whose family is from Trinidad. The “suspicion of murder” is really not accurate, since the arresting cops knew Colin wasn’t the guy, but were more interested in clearing the case than actually solving it.
What follows is a commentary on crooked cops, a flawed judicial system, and the willingness by the guilty party to let another go to jail if it means they remain free. However, more than any of that, this is a wonderful story of one man’s unrelenting pursuit of justice for his friend. Former NFL star Nnambi Asomugha (married to Kerry Washington) plays Carl “KC” King – Colin’s friend who refuses to give up on him and constantly hunts for someone to ensure justice is served … no matter how much time has passed. KC never stops, even when he realizes this is a system that doesn’t often admit its mistakes. The tenacity of KC is likely to have viewers questioning if they have a friend so loyal … or if they themselves could be such a friend.
Supporting work is provided by Zach Greiner, Josh Pais, Luke Forbes, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Adriane Lenox, Nestor Carbondell, Bill Camp, and Yul Vazquez. Natalie Paul plays Antoinette, the saintly woman who falls in love with Colin and marries him while he is incarcerated.
We watch as the wheels of injustice roll over Colin – even demanding that he admit remorse in order to have his request for probation considered. Being a man of strong conviction, Colin holds firm on his innocence despite being hardened by life behind bars. Director Ruskin has delivered a decent movie, but with its vital story and issue, it’s one probably better suited to a documentary structure. He wisely chooses not to pile on the legalities, and focuses more on the frustrations with a flawed system while also including an anti-death penalty message supported by the statistic of 2.4 million in prison – an estimated 120,000 of which are innocent.
Greetings again from the darkness. The comparisons to Crash, the 2006 Oscar winner for Best Picture, will be numerous and understandable. However, rather than an expose’ on racial tension, writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson turns his pen and lens towards the somewhat less profound, though still fruitful subject matter of suburban angst amidst the educated elite.
An opening featuring a violent mugging on the stoop of a NYC brownstone grabs our attention quickly, and rather than follow the immediate aftermath, we are instead taken back in time to study the characters and events leading to that tragic moment. The tangled web of intertwined stories is made up of no fewer than fifteen different characters, each of whom is impacted by what happens in that opening sequence.
Sam Waterston plays a beloved Columbia University Philosophy Professor who is exceedingly happily married to Glenn Close. Director Tim Blake Nelson plays their son, who is married to Jessica Hecht, and together they have a teenage son and daughter (Ben Konigsberg, Hannah Marks). Michael K Williams plays a big shot attorney who forces his best friend (K Todd Freeman) into drug rehab with a renowned doctor (Yul Vazquez), while Gretchen Mol plays the mother of two daughters and wife of Corey Stoll.
All of the above might seem simple enough, but Mr. Nelson’s script jumbles things up for each character … just like what happens in real life. Waterston discovers that his prized pupil (Kristen Stewart) has psychological issues and needs professional help – just as he decides it’s time to retire from teaching. While their kids are smoking pot and exploring sexual frontiers, Hecht and Nelson are dealing with a medical dilemma. During his rehab, Freeman is quietly confronted by a nurse while being let down by his only friend; and as Ms. Mol turns to the bottle to numb her daily pain, her hubby is making plans with someone else (Mickey Sumner) … and China may or may not play a role. Whew!!
Daily life creates many opportunities. Some of these turn out good, while others seem destined to create pain. It’s that pain … sometimes quite arbitrary … and how we deal with it, which is at the core of these characters and their stories. There is also the always-present quest for truth and search for the meaning of life. We know we are in for a ride when Waterston’s character says “I used to believe in nothing. Now I believe in everything.” Worlds colliding at every turn keep the pace of the film brisk, and the familiar cast of actors allows us to easily accept each of the characters. A bit more polish on the script could have elevated this, but even as is, the film delivers a worthy punch, and has us questioning if we should be “planting cabbages” (Montaigne).
Greetings again from the darkness. “Glory Days, well they’ll pass you by” is a familiar line sung by Bruce Springsteen, and writer/director Noah Buschel brings that New Jersey sentiment to his latest film. We follow the travails of a former boxer struggling with the faded spotlight and his perceived lack of respect, while also seemingly oblivious to the maintenance his personal relationship requires.
Corey Stoll (familiar to “House of Cards” fans) plays Bud “The Saint” Gordon, a retired boxer whose self-named local neighborhood hangout recently closed its doors. Bud is trying to figure out how to reclaim the good life afforded by his boxing winnings, and is opposed to his girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland) taking a waitress job to help out. He agrees to train a young up-and-coming boxer prepare for a fight, while also agreeing to work with a shady shyster named J.J. (Billy Crudup). Bud and J.J. have a history, and it’s soon pretty clear that J.J. is some type of offbeat (he owns a snow leopard) kingpin or mobster, who finds a financial and psychological edge in all dealings.
Yul Vazquez plays J.J.’s lead henchman and has the “flashiest” (his character name is Flash) role in the film, although Crudup’s character could have been even more fun if allotted more screen time. Also making brief appearances are Kelly Lynch, Katherine Waterston, and David Johansen. Of course, Mr. Johansen is a former member of The New York Dolls, and their song “Trash” plays a key role in one of Bud’s earliest scenes working with Flash.
There is an unmistakable class theme – the have’s vs the have-nots. The two sides are clear in Manhattan vs. New Jersey, and J.J. vs. Bud. The most interesting part of the story is with Bud’s attempt to figure out the harsh ways of life, even as we viewers recognize he requires no shades for his future. Although both themes are pretty familiar in the movie world, Mr. Buschel opts to only scratch the surface on both the faded hero and the mob world. Instead, it’s more of a dialogue-driven drama that questions where the line in the morality sand is drawn.