‘Trial By Fire’

Through the telling of a single story, director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Love & Other Drugs) looks to the enactment of the death penalty in Texas and the many resulting miscarriages of justice.

Having spent 12 years in prison for the murder of his three young daughters, Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Donnell – ’71, Money Monster) was executed in spite of scientific evidence and expert testimony supporting his claims of innocence. Tried and sentenced in his home town, the philandering, wife-beating Willingham was deeply unpopular, reflected in the travesty of a trial. It’s only years later when writer Laura Dern (Marriage Story, Wild) starts to visit him does the truth start to come out.

A film of two halves, Trial By Fire at its best is a well-paced family tragedy/courtroom drama but which loses impetus as the narrative settles into a (predictable) determination by Dern to see justice – even at the expense of alienating her own teenage children. O’Donnell is excellent as the wronged inmate but the film ultimately settles into an unsubtle crusade against the death penalty.

Rating: 50%

‘Inherit the Wind’

Full of banter and meaningful discussions, a dialogue-heavy courtroom drama sees the teachings of Darwinism put on trial in 1920s Bible-belt Tennessee.

Political heavyweights are brought in by both sides as a young teacher (Dick York – My Sister Eileen, TV’s Bewitched) is charged by the State for his satanic teachings. Former presidential candidate, the bilious Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March – The Best Years of Our Lives, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) represents the State as renowned lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy – Captains Courageous, The Old Man & the Sea) is brought in to defend the teacher.

Small town religion and family drama form the backdrop but the main focus is the courtroom as the two heavyweights sound off against each other. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds with lots of soapboxing and bluster – and news reporter Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain, Anchors Aweigh) on fine form with his many asides. Based on a true story and adapted from a stage play, there’s no surprises as to the outcome with the jury made up of local white males but victory ultimately sides with science and common sense.

Nominated for 4 Oscars in 1961 including best actor (Spencer Tracy), editing and adapted screenplay.

Rating: 64%

‘The Children Act’

A solid, straight-forward telling of its character-centric narrative, the no-frills approach from director Richard Eyre (former director of the Royal National Theatre) results in a thoughtful, sensitive adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel.

As her marriage struggles to survive, state judge Fiona May (Emma Thompson – Saving Mr Banks, Howards End) becomes involved in the case of a teenage Jehovah’s Witness (Fionn Whitehead – Dunkirk, The Duke) refusing a life-saving blood transfusion.

Calm, upright yet emotionally simmering, Thompson is heartrending as a woman used to being in control – whether in her courtroom, her office or at home. Husband Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones, Spotlight) struggles as she’s forced to confront her own failings.

Rating: 64%

‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Stirring it may be as justice fights law, the little man fights the State behemoth, but what’s staggering about a wholly engaging The Trial of the Chicago 7 is that, aside from a little tweeking from writer/director Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game, The Social Network), so much of it is closely linked to to the truth.

Chicago 1968. The Democratic Convention in the lead up to the elections that sees Richard Nixon elected as President. But it’s a country in strife – Martin Luther King had been assassinated only months earlier, more and more American youth are being drafted into the unpopular Vietnam War. It’s a tinderbox. 10,000 protestors, 12,000 police clashed. Months later, seven men mostly unconnected prior to the demonstrations are charged with inciting the riots.

It’s a court case to end court cases – an unquestionably biased judge (Frank Langella) that saw the defence lawyers and their clients collectively convicted of more than 150 counts of contempt. An overtly political prosecution as the new Attorney General looked to wield power. Two hippy defendents who commentated out aloud throughout the months of the trial. A Black Panther member denied legal representation. And so much more.

Sorkin’s dialogue soars, his wry humour is ever present and there’s a cast to die for (Langella, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Michael Keaton, a standout Sacha Baron Cohen to name but a few). That The Trial of the Chicago 7 doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of a classic is more to do with it’s formulaic structure, sketchy characterisation of less central figures and obvious emotive manipulation. But that doesn’t prevent it being an enjoyable and, at times, even fun two hours.

(Update – nominated for 6 Oscars in 2021 including best film, supporting actor – Baron Cohen – and original screenplay).

Rating: 72%

‘Dirty John: Betty’

Dirty John is an anthology series focussing on a different true story each season and where love has gone drastically wrong. Dirty John: Betty is the second season, subtitled The Betty Broderick Story.

Set in the 1980s, the wealthy Brodericks are the toast of San Diego with husband Dan (Christian Slater – The Public, Bobby) the much feared yet hugely successful medical malpractice lawyer. Told over several parallel timelines interwoven around the present-day narrative, however, theirs is a marriage of subtle manipulation and control, subversive behaviour of an arrogant narcissist.

Having supported him financially in the early days of their marriage with a series of menial jobs and rearing their two daughters, housewife Betty believes no limit credit cards and a shop-to-you-drop lifestyle is a just reward. Particularly as there are now two young sons under the age of ten. But Betty (Amanda Peet – Identity Thief, 2012) could not be further from the truth.

Financially reliant, emotionally dependent, divorce proceedings are the last things on Betty’s mind. But with the old boys’ network, the law and the money behind him, Dan plots and plans, maximising his returns, minimising Betty’s gains. And then there’s the future second Mrs Broderick – the young legal secretary, Rachel Keller (In the Shadow of the Moon, TV’s Fargo) – to consider.

As Betty’s life, hopes and dreams crumble around her, we watch her fall apart. Deprived of her kids, living alone in a rat-infested ‘pull down’ second property, she slowly goes to hell and back. Obsessed by Dan, money and the whore, she loses friends, she loses her ability to cope.

Peet is stunning as Betty – but a repetitive narrative can drag. Like those superficial lunch friends in their 1980s Chanel and Versace (the fashions are a hoot), it can all get a little too much, a little boring. How many times can we watch a destructive Betty rampage through her former home or pick at a salad whilst regaling friends of the latest Dan did this…. episode? It’s a real caveat – this melodrama stretched over eight episodes is ostensibly overstretching. But this is Betty’s story, a woman who had her value, her intelligence, her ability as a mother, even her sanity questioned. And the law not only allowed it – it facilitated it.

Rating: 66%

’12 Angry Men’

12_Angry_MenThe hottest day of the year and the air conditioning is not working. But at least it’ll be a unanimous twelve guilties for the kid killing his father – plenty of time to get to the ball game.

Wrong, of course. With the boy’s life at stake, architect Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath, On Golden Pond) believes the case deserves discussion. Tempers fray, temperatures rise, convictions sway as, slowly, 11-1 becomes 10-2, 9-3 until only Lee J Cobb (On the Waterfront, Exodus) holds to the view the kid is guilty.

A compelling, claustrophobic powerhouse of a film from director Sidney Lumet (Network, Dog Day Afternoon), 12 Angry Men reaches beyond the 1950s New York courtroom as twelve white males discuss the future of a 16 year-old Latino boy.

Nominated for 3 Oscars, 1958 (including best film and best director).

Rating: 85%

‘Just Mercy’

Just Mercy: a conventionally told story based on truth, with director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) appealing more to emotional melodrama than hard-hitting outrage.

At the beginnings of his career, civil rights defence attorney, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan – Creed, Black Panther) set up his office in Alabama to look at prisoners on death row. His first case was that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx – Ray, Baby Driver) – sentenced to death for the killing of an 18 year-old white girl. Convicted on the evidence of one (white) ex-con, evidence of 12 (black) witnesses are not even presented in court.

It’s not quite the open and shut case expected as Stevenson battles against overt and institutionalised racism and indifference. Just Mercy certainly appeals to the heart and as such is a well-made feature. But it all becomes a little too predictable, too cleansed and, surprisingly, not as compelling as it should be, lacking the edge that should be as sharp as a razor.

Rating: 64%

‘In the Fade’

imagesThis year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar was presented to the more political Chilean feature A Fantastic Woman. But the same category at the Golden Globes was won by the more accessible German film, In the Fade.

The grief and pain is palpable in Diane Kruger’s (Inglorious Basterds, Farewell My Queen) mesmerising performance as a mother coming to terms with the murder of her Turkish husband and six year-old son. But the grief is replaced by anger as the courts look to dismiss the murder charges against a Neo-nazi couple.

Tension rides high as director Fateh Akin’s (Soul Kitchen, The Edge of Heaven) feature vacillates between social consciousness and old-fashioned justice. It may ultimately morph into something all a little too predictable, but the less-than-innocent Kruger’s award-winning performance (best actress, Cannes) more than carries the day.

Rating: 73%

‘Janet King’ (Series 1)

janetkings1A mix of courtroom thrills, suspense and melodrama ensures the Sydney-set Janet King is an entertaining and engaging eight-episode TV series.

A feisty, no-holes-barred Janet King (Marta Dusseldorp – Jack Irish, A Place to Call Home) returns from maternity leave to find herself thrown in the deep end from the off. The NSW Assistant Police Commissioner has been charged with assisting in the premature death of his wife, dying from cancer.

Whilst King is dealing with in-house politics at the Department of Public Prosecutions (and a new, ambitious prosecutor in particular), the assistant commissioner disappears. She finds herself thrust into the limelight as the search for the high-ranking official becomes intertwined with an investigation into a child pornography ring. It soon becomes apparent it involves politicians along with senior members of the legal and public services.

Political pressure from the very top for results – and fast – result in mistakes being made. And King and her family are forced into safe-house protection as she receives threats to her life.

More than a hint of soap-opera with plenty of melodrama – and glossing over legal detail – make Janet King a light, readily-accessible drama. But it’s Janet King herself who adds a degree of depth – frosty, aloof, highly intelligent. It’s only at home with her two young children and partner Ashleigh we see a vulnerable side.

‘Don’t Tell’

Don't Tell Movie Poster 1Don’t Tell is based on the true story of the court case of Lyndal who, as an 11 year-old, was sexually abused by a teacher at a prestigious Queensland school. The outcome resulted in the change in laws in the way civil cases are tried.

Now a surly, rebellious 22 year old, Lyndal (an empathic Sara West – The Daughter, One-Eyed Girl) sues the Anglican church in 2001 for damages. Lawyer Stephen Roche (Aden Young – Killer Elite, Mao’s Last Dancer) and barrister Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant, Australia) support her through her court hearing.

Director Tori Garrett makes his feature film debut in this well told, authentic courtroom drama, focusing on the story rather than any cinematic gymnastics.

Rating: 62%