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Films I Neglected To Review: What Is It Good For?
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "All Creatures Here Below," "All is True," "The Sun Is Also a Star," "Trial by Fire" and "War and Peace."

Because it co-stars Karen Gillan and David Dastmalchian, two veteran actors whose profiles have been raised in recent years by their appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in the ‘'Guardians of the Galaxy’’ and ‘’Ant-Man’’ franchises, respectively), there is a chance that ’’All Creatures Here Below’’ might wind up attracting more attention from viewers than it might have otherwise engendered. Those viewers will quickly discover that this is not a superhero story but a grim indie drama in which she plays Ruby, an almost childlike young woman with evident mental development issues and he is Gensan, her loving and loyal protector and provider. When both of them lose their menial jobs through no real fault of their own, Gensan is driven by desperation to put virtually all of his money on a cockfight and this eventually leads to a development that requires him to leave town immediately. This is bad enough but when he picks up Ruby and drives off, he discovers that she has brought something unexpected along—the next-door neighbor’s infant daughter. Although Gensan is fully aware of how much additional trouble the kid will bring, he cannot bring himself to break Ruby’s heart by abandoning it and in his attempts to get them as free and clear of their problems as can be, the two find themselves heading towards the place where their unique bond was formed years earlier amidst unspeakable horrors.

In addition to co-starring in the film, Dastmalchian also wrote the screenplay, his first since the critically acclaimed 2014 drama ‘’Animals.’’ That film, which told the story of a young couple struggling with homelessness and heroin addiction, was not exactly a barrel of laughs but compared to this compendium of human misery and suffering, it feels like ‘’Roman Holiday.’’ The difference is that with that earlier film, there was a sense of piercing authenticity running through it that held one’s interest and kept it from devolving into mere exploitation. This one, by comparison, feels like an overly contrived knock-off of ‘’Of Mice and Men’’ in which every grim development is carefully designed for maximum feel-bad impact by Dastmalchian and director Collin Schiffli (who also directed ‘’Animals’’) to such a degree that one longs for the comparative whimsy of ‘’Ironweed.’’ The performances by the two leads are not bad from a technical standpoint but there is no juice to them either—they always feel like one-note characters jerked around by a manipulative screenplay than actual human beings—and the occasional appearances by reasonably well-known faces (including Jennifer Morrison, John Doe and David Koechner) lend a further artificial feel to the proceedings. ‘’All Creatures Here Below’’ may be dark and moody from start to finish but since it doesn’t actually earn any of its moments of despair, it just comes across as a grim but hollow dud that will leave most viewers feeling bored rather than despairing.

Having already brought many of the works of William Shakespeare to life, both on stage and on film, it only stands to reason that Kenneth Branagh would one day get around to actually playing the immortal Bard. That said, ''All is True,'' which Branagh also directed, does not attempt to cover the scope of Shakespeare's entire life. Rather, he and screenwriter Ben Elton have elected to concentrate on the time period ranging from the burning of his beloved Globe Theatre during a performance of ''Henry VIII'' (after which he never wrote another play) to his death a few years later in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon and basing their story around the bits of knowledge that we have of those later years. In it, he has returned home to at long last properly mourn the loss of his young son while surrounded. However, his family--wife Anne (Judi Dench) and daughters Susanna (Lydia Wilson) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder)--has long since moved on from that tragedy and are more resentful of his attempts to rejoin the family unit long past the time when they could have used him. At the same time, Susanna is having troubles with her puritanical husband and rumors that she is having an affair and Judith is still seething over her father's overt preference for her late twin brother, who is still the apple in his father's eye even in death. For an additional diversion, there is a visit from Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen), the third earl of Southampton and, it is rumored, the real subject of his famous romantic sonnets.

''All is True'' is an odd, uneven and occasionally affecting work that is kind of a mess in the broad strokes but which does contain some strong and worthy moments here and there. The screenplay is a little too episodic for its own good and it rushes through its detail-crammed scenes so quickly that those without a keen working knowledge of Shakespeare's life going into it is liable to get lost. Putting the focus on Shakespeare grieving for a son who has been dead for 20 years is effective in the sense that it gives the story a specific arc but it just isn't very interesting. At the same time, the film keeps trying to generate some kind of interest in Susanna's affairs but then shuts them down almost immediately afterwards. At the same time, it is nice to see Branagh doing something a little more ambitious as a director than the likes of ''Thor,'' ''Murder on the Orient Express,'' ''Cinderella'' and that Jack Ryan film that you totally forgot about until I mentioned it just now and there are pleasures to be had in watching pros like him, Dench and McKellen tearing into their parts with just the right degree of ham. (The best performance belongs to Kathryn Wilder, whose turn as the bruised but proud Judith is so strong that it frankly deserves a film of its own.) ''All is True'' is not a great film by any means but Shakespeare fans will presumably get a kick out of it and those who are already tired of summer blockbusters may find it to be a refreshing change of pace as well.

There are a couple of fairly compelling and interesting storylines at the heart of the teen-themed romance ''The Sun Is Also A Star'' but they end up getting buried under a ton of goo that ends up wrecking the good stuff as much as if someone took a delicate prepared filet mignon and then dumped a gallon of marshmallow fluff on it. As the film starts, two impossibly well-scrubbed teenagers--aspiring scientist Natasha (Yara Shahidi) and would-be poet Daniel (Charles Melton)--meet cute on the streets of New York when he saves her from being hit by a car. An irrepressible dreamer, Daniel is convinced that they were fated to meet but the more pragmatic, data-oriented Natasha scoffs at this and claims that she doesn't believe in love or anything that cannot be scientifically proven and further professes that she will never see him again after 24 hours anyway. Daniel decides to prove it by utilizing a New York Times quiz and they wind up spending their time together debating life, love and the like. However, each one has something heavy hanging over their heads while all this is going on. Daniel's parents, for example, are hoping for him to go to Dartmouth and become a doctor while his sneering older brother resents their obvious favoritism towards him. Even more significantly, Natasha's 24-hour time limit is no arbitrary choice--her undocumented immigrant father was caught up in an ICE raid and she and her entire family are returning to Jamaica the next day unless she came come up with some last-second miracle.

See what I mean about the good stuff being weighted down by the bad? The stuff involving Natasha and Daniel's individual issues is reasonably interesting--with Natasha's status as an immigrant being kicked out of the country she has called hime since she was a small child being especially resonant at this particular moment--and the scenes focusing on that material are clearly the ones that screenwriter Tracy Oliver (adapting the YA bestseller by Nicola Yoon) and director Ry Russo-Young are most interested in as they contain the few true moments of life to be had. Unfortunately, the budding romance between the two winds up taking precedence and all but kills the film in the process. Even if you can get around the notion that the basic plot premise is lifted wholesale from the infinitely smarter and better ''Before Sunrise''--and while hard, that is not necessarily impossible--it is much more difficult to ignore that the interactions between the two central characters are not very interesting, that many of the plot developments that are meant to be seen as cosmic twists of fate are just ludicrous (never more so than the appearance of John Leguizamo in a role so bizarre that it almost needs to be seen to be believed) and that Daniel’s hard-press pursuit of Natasha from the outset reads less as ''helplessly romantic'' and more like ''creepy''. (The general lack of any genuine chemistry between the two certainly doesn't help matters much.) At long last, it ends but it simply refuses to stop by going on and on in increasingly silly and unpropulsive directions until you are practically begging for it to finally end, especially when the ''Five Years Later'' subtitle pops up. ''The Star Is Also A Sun'' is a pretty bad movie that could have been a pretty good one with a shift in its focus but I suspect that when it comes out this weekend, it will serve the purpose that it was clearly produced to fulfill--to give underage moviegoers a ticket to purchase at the multiplex so that they can sneak in and see ''John Wick 3'' instead.

With a filmography consisting largely of such overly earnest fare as ''Glory,'' ''Legends of the Fall,'' ''Courage Under Fire,'' ''Blood Diamond'' and ''Defiance,'' it sometimes feels as if Edward Zwick's dream in life as a filmmaker is to one day become this generation's Stanley Kramer. That sensation continues with his latest effort, ''Trial by Fire,'' a true-life tale of criminal injustice that could well be the Zwickiest film of them all. Based on a New Yorker article by David Green, the film tells the story of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), an out-of-work white trash type living in Texas who suffered the ultimate tragedy in 1991 when his three young daughters died in a devastating house fire. Since Willingham was already known around town as a bad sort with a few domestic abuse complaints against him lodged by his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade), the investigation into the fire was based on the assumption that he did it and sure enough, the combination of the arson investigation and an abysmal defense landed him a place on Death Row after an hour of jury deliberation. Several years later, with his execution drawing nearer, he is unexpectedly befriended by playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) and she is taken by his story enough to launch a new investigation in collaboration with the Innocence Project that finds enough inconsistencies to suggest that he might be innocent after all. The big hiccups--will the new evidence be heard by a system that does not want even the slightest hint that they may not be infallible and, more importantly, does Willingham dare to once again hope for freedom after having made peace with the fact that he is going to die for a crime that he continues to insist that he is innocent of perpetrating.

Any film dealing even in part with the death penalty cannot help but linger in the shadow of the award-winning 1995 drama ''Dead Man Walking.'' There were many great things about that movie but perhaps the greatest--the element that gives it such power--is that even though it is a film that is clearly against the death penalty, it took great care to give both sides of the issue equal weight and consideration without demonstrating a slant of any kind. More significantly, it dealt with a prisoner whose guilt was never in question, a notion that kept the focus solely on the death penalty as a whole instead of giving viewers the out of ''Oh, well we certainly shouldn’t execute innocent people. . .'' The trouble with ''Trial by Fire'' is that it violates both of these concepts and the film is poorer for it. Zwick deploys virtually every trick of emotional manipulation in the book to get viewers on Willingham's side ranging from sweeping music cues at key dramatic moments to the incredibly tacky addition of a Bagger Vance-like fellow Death Row inmate (McKinley Belcher III) who deploys his homespun philosophy in ways that help turn Willingham around before getting executed in a scene where the focus ends up on the guy not being killed. Zwick has also elected to dramatize a case in which there was so much cause for reasonable doubt regarding Willingham's alleged guilt that it becomes more about that than the death penalty as a whole. As usual, Laura Dern is pretty much the best thing here thanks to her concerned and empathetic performance but the impact of her turn is somewhat diluted by the fact that she doesn’t turn up on screen until the film is nearly half over. ''Trial by Fire'' tries but it is simply too one-note and manipulative for its own good--so much so that even those who are passionately against the death penalty in all circumstances (and I will throw in with that particular lot) are liable to find it to be little more than a well-meaning bore that might have better served both the cause and the subject at hand if it had been handled as a straightforward documentary.

Now making a tour of the arthouse circuit in a newly restored print before hitting Blu-Ray as part of the Criterion Collection later this summer, Sergei Bondarchuk's epic 1966 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's immortal ''War and Peace'' is back on the big screen where it belongs and can once again be appreciated as one of the maddest and grandest works ever put before a camera. The film runs for more than seven hours (not counting breaks) but unlike a lot of the big epics of its era that now come across today as largely ponderous bores (like pretty much all of ''Ben-Hur'' save for the chariot race sequence), this is a constantly interesting and exciting film to watch that sees Bondarchuk finding an audacious visual approach that uses every trick in the book at that time (as well as a few that would clearly go on to influence films like ''Apocalypse Now'') to keep viewers interested even if they found themselves getting lost in the labyrinth-like narrative, which, although significantly simplified here, can still be confusing to newcomers. Of course, no one film--not even one clocking in at seven hours--could ever even hope to encapsulate every idea, character and emotion that Tolstoy put down in the pages of his mammoth creation. That said, this version of ''War and Peace'' comes pretty damn close to accomplishing that particular goal and if you are a movie buff and this is playing anywhere near you, you owe it to yourself to see it on the big screen in all of its crazed and majestic glory.

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originally posted: 05/16/19 23:14:44
last updated: 05/16/19 23:22:43
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