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Knight at the Movies: Conviction; Red; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2010-10-13

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With Conviction, the fact-based story of a working mother who becomes a lawyer to free her brother from a murder charge, Hilary Swank gives the kind of performance that has won her two Oscars and might get her a third. Much of that has to do with Swank's innate ability to connect with underdog characters. There's something in these sad-eyed women who grin through adversity that audiences respond to, big-time. And Betty Anne Waters—tough as a bar of iron, taciturn and determined to a fault—is every bit as memorable as Swank's Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry and Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby, the two other characters that netted Swank Oscar gold. These underdogs share the silent resolve to rise above the horrible hand that life has dealt them, and something in Swank instinctively knows how to put these battle-scarred characters across.

In Conviction, only the third feature from actor-director Tony Goldwyn ( who doesn't appear in the film, but should ) , Swank shines in a David-vs.-Goliath legal drama that is a great human-interest story a la Erin Brockovich or Flash of Genius. The film moves back and forth between the hardscrabble childhood of Betty Anne and her brother, Kenny, and their lives as adults just before and during Kenny's arrest and conviction for murder. Set in working-class Massachusetts, the film has the added bonus of listening to actors relish spouting out their dialogue with a "Bass-ton" accent.

Goldwyn, working from a script by Pamela Gray, knows that he's got a good, meaty story, and sensibly keeps things focused on his star and her supporting players. Sam Rockwell, who matches up nicely with Swank, crackles with energy playing the wildcat brother whose time in jail begins to grind him down emotionally. Clea DuVall plays the trashy mother of his child; Juliette Lewis is marvelous as his even trashier girlfriend; and Minnie Driver is Swank's funny, no-nonsense, sexpot best friend. Other marvelous actors—Melissa Leo, Karen Young, Peter Gallagher, Loren Dean, etc.—make impressions in small but key roles.

In its way, Conviction is every bit as old-fashioned as Swank's last starring picture, Amelia, the flop biopic of the sunny but doomed aviatrix Amelia Earhart. But where that misguided production mistakenly reduced Earhart's thrilling career and life as a feminist pioneer ( and lesbian icon ) down to a soggy romance, Goldwyn's film makes sure to provide Swank with a winning character arc that she rides for all its worth. As Betty Anne, Swank soars back to the acting heights audiences have loved her for and her commitment to the character gives the title of the movie a double meaning.

Helen Mirren, another gay audience fave, is back in theatres this week in the action thriller Red, the first foray into the genre by Summit Entertainment—the production company responsible for the mega-successful Twilight franchise. Bruce Willis stars in the Grand Hotel-sized conspiracy thriller in which a group of former black ops CIA assassins ( Willis, Mirren and Morgan Freeman ) is forced to come out of retirement when the members' identities are compromised ( hence the title, which stands for Retired-Extremely-Dangerous ) . The movie, based on a series of graphic novels by Warren Ellis, is typical action-blockbuster stuff—entertaining and mindless—that is elevated by the high-wattage cast ( which also includes Mary-Louise Parker, Richard Dreyfuss and Ernest Borgnine, who gets a meaty little part ) and the sight of a no-nonsense Mirren toting an automatic weapon and taking out enemy minions left and right with obvious gusto. The movie's biggest misstep is having the character played by the ageless, shamelessly sensual Mirren punished by ending up with crusty old Brian Cox ( perhaps the least sexy man in movies ) , who is cast as her old flame, a former Russian agent. Overlook that error in judgment by director Robert Schwentke ( The Time Traveler's Wife, Flightplan ) , and Red makes for great Saturday night date fare.

Film notes:

—Women Labor Activists in the Movies: Nine Depictions of Workplace Organizers, 1954-2005 is a new book of film essays by University of New Hampshire associate professor Jennifer Borda. The book reflects attitudes about the labor and women's movements through assorted films of the period including Salt of the Earth, Pajama Game, Union Maids, Norma Rae, Silkwood, and Live Nude Girls Unite. Borda's book examines the difference between the real story and Hollywood's version of the true events. See http://www.unh.edu/news/cj_nr/20Oct.sep/lw28book.cfm.

—Celebrity photographer and WCT contributor Steve Starr has released a new coffee table book called Starrlight: Glamorous Latin Movie Stars of Early Hollywood that combines photographs of the stars and period memorabilia, with bios of Maria Montez, Rita Hayworth, Lupe Velez, Carmen Miranda, Delores Del Rio and others. See http://www.stevestarrstudios.com/buy_book/book.html.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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