Culture: Film Reviews

Just Mercy

In 1988, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), an African American, was convicted of murdering an 18-year-old white woman. After a trial that lasted only a day and a half, he was sentenced to death. McMillian had already spent a year on death row because Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) was convinced he was guilty even though there was no physical evidence and he had a solid alibi. His conviction was based on false testimony coerced from a career criminal, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson).

Soon after the trial, a recent Harvard Law School graduate, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), moves to Alabama. There he meets with McMillian in prison. He tells the inmate that, thanks to a grant, he is starting the Equal Justice Initiative to provide free legal services to prisoners with questionable convictions. McMillian, however, scoffs at the young lawyer. Others had promised help, too, and never returned. Aided by Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Stevenson finds office space. Ironically, most property owners in Monroeville, Alabama, refuse to rent to an organization that helps incarcerated black people.

Stevenson, despite intimidation by the local police, visits McMillian’s family and meets with the community. Stevenson puts the story together and realizes it was fabricated. He visits Myers in prison and gets him to recant, only to have the judge squash the appeal. But Stevenson refuses to give up and, eventually, McMillian begins to have hope that the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals will exonerate him.

In 1992, when it seems all is lost, Stevenson tells his story on CBS’ 60 Minutes. This has a profound effect on the newly elected district attorney, Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall), and he eventually has to confront the startling lack of evidence and false testimony.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton cowrote the riveting and moving script with Andrew Lanham. Foxx is totally believable as a man barely holding in the suppressed anger of an innocent person on death row. We get to know some of the other men on death row and see how one guard chooses kindness over cruelty to prisoners.

Larson’s role is underdeveloped, but Nelson is excellent as a man who was thrown away by the system as a child. Jordan plays the brilliant and empathetic young attorney with verve and commitment. As a fan of legal dramas, I found the courtroom scenes in the film to be powerful.

Not yet rated, PG-13 • Institutional racism, cruelty, peril.

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable

Audiences may recall the 2011 biographical film Soul Surfer, which dramatized the story of 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton, a young girl who survived an attack from a shark that bit off her left arm while she was surfing in Hawaii.

This new documentary is a further examination of Bethany’s inspiring life. It is filled with home and professional footage of the young and gifted surfer. She fearlessly “steps into liquid, ” surfing from a very young age and entering competitions, coming in first place for her age group at Australia’s Rell Sunn Menehune competition as an 8-year-old.

We meet Bethany’s family and close childhood friends with whom she would compete throughout her career. Hailing from a family of devout Christians, she was homeschooled from sixth grade on. From that fateful day in 2003, when the shark took her arm at the shoulder, Bethany was determined to surf again, and her family was there to support her. One month later, she was back in the water. She doesn’t say much in the film; her passion for surfing speaks for itself. Aaron Lieber cowrote, produced, and directed the documentary very well. He captures the synchronicity of Bethany’s powerful yet graceful athleticism with visual rhythm and style.

Watching Unstoppable is a meditation on determination, faith, hope, and love. It is available for online streaming at Amazon and iTunes.

Not yet rated • Some sports peril.


In the urban decay of Gotham, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) struggles to be a successful clown. When a group of teens beat him and steal his advertising board, he has to pay for damages. A coworker feels sorry for him and gives him a stolen gun so he can protect himself.

Though a grown man, he lives at home with his invalid mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), and cares for her. He watches the comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) on TV and then decides to become a comedian and get on Murray’s show. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), the young Bruce Wayne’s father, runs for mayor, promising to control crime, but scoffs at the poor.

Arthur appears to be mentally ill and has great difficulty interacting with others, especially those who mock him. As we learn from his backstory, he has deep emotional pain that, coupled with mental illness, makes him especially vulnerable. He reacts to cruelty with extreme and shocking violence. The violence in this film is not gratuitous, given the context of the story; it is the expression of his internal pain and inability to cope.

While not pleasant viewing, it has something to say about bullying and how vulnerable people have easy access to guns. Joker begs for understanding and kindness, of which there is hardly any in the film. Phoenix should finally win an Oscar for his performance. He is heartbreaking.

Rated L, R • Graphic violence, bullying, verbal and physical cruelty.


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