Dear Zachary: A Letter to His Son About His Father (2008)

11 04 2012

Copyright 2008 MSNBC Films

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Maddie wanted to watch this one on Netflix Instant Watch.  I read the description, and was not at all interested; however, once she started playing it, I found myself straying from the iPad to the television screen within a couple minutes.

Without giving too much of the story away, this film chronicles the journey of documentary filmmaker Kurt Kuenne in compiling video footage of his childhood friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, who was the victim of a suspicious murder.  Bagby’s assailant was thought to be his estranged girlfriend at the time, Dr. Shirley Turner, 12 years his senior.  After the murder, it was found that she was pregnant with Bagby’s child, Zachary, whose name is where the title derives.  Through interviews with family, friends, colleagues, extended family and others, this film tries to piece together the pieces of Bagby’s life for his young son, as well as analyze the crimes of Shirley Turner.

Kuenne borrows heavily from the style of Errol Morris in his presentation of the facts in this film, and it works wonderfully.  I have always felt the Morris style exudes a sort of narrative progression to real life events that keeps the viewer not only informed, but also entertained and engaged in the subject matter.  There are surprises along the way, and the case becomes more and more involved as the film progresses.  Furthermore, being that the filmmaker was a childhood friend of the victim, this movie carries a very personal and heartfelt vision throughout.  Rather than being just a wallflower to the events, as many documentaries are, Kuenne uncovers elements about a man that was like a brother to him, which makes the filmmaker himself an engaged participant in the story.

This is a beautifully done work that advocates a powerful message.  I will warn that it is almost impossible to watch this film without eliciting a strong emotional reaction.  Even the least emotional of people will likely have a hard time keeping dry eyes through this movie.


Reversal of Fortune (1990) Review

21 03 2011

Copyright Warner Brothers

★ ★ ★

Reversal of Fortune, directed by Barbet Schroeder, is based on the true life events of wealthy socialites Martha “Sunny” and Claus von Bülow.  Sunny (portrayed by Glenn Close), who was the heiress to utilities magnate George Crawford’s and her mother’s family International Shoe Company fortunes, slipped into a coma in December of 1979.  Suspicious circumstances on behalf of her husband Claus (Jeremy Irons) were aroused, but she was eventually to come out of the coma a short time following.  Nearly a year later, she was found on the bathroom floor of her stately Newport, R.I. estate, again comatose with a deathly low body temperature and pulse rate.  She would never awaken from this second coma and suspicious activity again on behalf of Claus eventually led to his conviction of attempted murder by result of insulin injection in 1982.

Claus would subsequently hire famed Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz (who wrote the book the film is based on) to represent him in his appeal.  The appeal would be granted and during a second trial Claus was acquitted on all charges.  Sunny went on to stay in a persistent vegetative state until her death 28 years later at the age of 77 in 2008; Claus is still alive and well living in London as a staple of the wealthy social scene.  Due to Sunny’s massive wealth in comparison to his own and the multitude of suspicious circumstances in relation to the case, many still wonder whether or not justice was served (or averted).  Jim Cramer, of Mad Money fame, was one of the law students who helped Dershowitz during the appeal and has been on record saying several times that Claus was “supremely guilty”; either way, the only two entities that can really know the truth are Claus himself and Clarendon Court, the massive Newport estate in which the circumstances occurred.

To me, this film was an instance where the source material itself is much more enticing than the film presented it.  I think the case is extremely interesting and was very excited to look deeper into the circumstances surrounding the trials after watching the film; however, the film itself lost steam about midway through and meandered enough for me to drop it down in rating.  Both Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons did tremendous jobs in their respective roles which, for Irons, resulted in an Academy Award for Best Actor.  Ron Silver portrayed Alan Dershowitz with a certain level or vigor, but the performance sometimes went over the top and became a little melodramatic for my taste.

I thought Schroeder’s direction was handled well, though there was nothing stand out about any of the shot selections; all in all, it was fairly textbook direction for this type of film.  The one unique form to the story telling schema in my opinion was having a voice over narration from Sunny in the coma describing certain parts of the story in the beginning.  I thought this was an interesting and novel way to get the opinion of a character that otherwise had been silenced eternally.  There were also many different interpretations of events based on different character’s alibis and opinions throughout the film that at first was a nice touch, though these became a little drawn out after we saw the same events happen about 15 times.

In conclusion, I enjoyed the film decently and don’t regret watching it, but felt that the material they had to work with could have been presented in a more entertaining manner.  In relation to the actual events, it reminded me of why I decided to drop out of law school after one semester: I don’t want to be a part of any system where the truth can be altered to fit one side over the other on a technicality or fancy presentation.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) Review

17 03 2011

Copyright Paramount Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

The Friends of Eddie Coyle revolves around the low-life underworld of Boston, Mass.  The protagonist, Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum), is a greying gun runner and small-time crook who is currently awaiting an indictment in New Hampshire that might put him away again for several years; time he doesn’t feel he can afford to let go at his age.  In an effort to help save face for his indictment, Eddie strikes up a relationship with a member of the Treasury Department, Dave Foley (Richard Jordan).  Eddie then has to decide whether to rat on accomplices and business partners to save his own or play it cool with Foley, all the while keeping money coming in for himself and his family the only ways he knows how.

The film is a perfect example of the nitty, gritty crime dramas that were becoming popular in the early 1970s.  The atmosphere, cinematography and locations exude a seediness that really makes the perfect setting for the tone of the story.  Directed by Peter Yates, of Bullitt and Breaking Away fame, the pacing and shot selections are impecable.  There are multiple moments in the film that keep you on the edge of your seat and evoke an overwhelming sense of tension.  The cinematography by Victor J. Kemper is equally fitting for the film.  Most shots are dominated by natural lighting as opposed to a stylized approach, and the graininess of the stock mixed with the unmistakable Technicolor  palette make it feel almost documentaryesque (without the “shaky cam”, thank goodness).

The cast all around is excellent, but I think special note should be made about Robert Mitchum’s performance as Eddie.  Mitchum, whom I consider one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood history, has a subtlety to his approach in playing this old time crook that makes his performance extremely natural and believable.  The character of Eddie is a storyteller and there are several drawn out stories he tells throughout the film.  Most of these stories stays on a static shot of Mitchum and the commanding presence during them is amazing.  If you are unfamiliar with Mitchum, make sure to watch this film, Cape Fear, The Yakuza and Night of the Hunter at the very least to experience some of the amazing performances by this grossly underrated actor.

Though the story seems pretty straight forward in a synopsis review, there are multiple mini-plots that are going on throughout the film.  Unlike some films, all of these mini-plots are intertwined and drive the story forward.  For some reviewers, the ending becomes problematic and detracts from their enjoyment of the film and I can understand to a degree and appreciate their opinions.  I don’t want to ruin it, but it’s not your standard Hollywood ending by any means.  You have to keep in mind the tone of the story; for me, the ending fits the type of story that is being told.  This is not the feel good movie of the year, but if you are looking for a deeply introspective look into the seedier circles of urban areas and a wonderful character study, then this is a film you need to see.

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