Tag Archives: based on a true story

Just Mercy

As much as we may want to pretend otherwise, the justice system has two distinct tiers.  Those with money get an easier path than those without.  That disparity is never acceptable but is especially offensive in the criminal context, where poor people who find themselves in the system are likely to stay there whether or not they are guilty of the offences charged, because they lack the ability to pay for legal representation or to post bail.  Those disadvantages result in innocent poor people being locked up for extended periods of time, many of whom are on death row. justmercy

These effects are arguably a feature of the system rather than a bug, since these circumstances disproportionately affect black people in the southern United States (see Ava Duvernay’s 13th for more on that terrifying but logical conclusion).   Incidentally, the reason my criticisms are focused on the American justice system is simply because the U.S. is basically the only western civilization that still applies the death penalty.  

Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) was one of those innocent poor black people waiting on death row in Alabama. Convicted of the murder of a woman he had never met, by a jury from which black people were excluded, based entirely on the false testimony of a convicted felon, Johnny D seems resigned to his fate. Which is understandable, as there is no point in hoping for merciful treatment from a justice system stacked against you. That changes when Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young Harvard law school graduate arrives in Alabama to provide legal aid to the disadvantaged, takes up Johnny D’s case, and challenges the conviction despite constant opposition from the district attorney, the sheriff, and the legal system. Brie Larson is also in this movie, as Stevenson’s operations director, but it’s a bit role. Foxx and Jordan get most of the screen time and all the best scenes. The two of them are excellent and are worth the price of admission on their own.

Their performances helped me get through the depressing fact that this is a true story, and worse, a true story we have heard many times before. Just Mercy does a great job of shining a light on injustice but is also an entertaining courtroom battle in its own right, that more than holds its own against any fictional legal drama. I was particularly impressed that the drama was allowed to play out with a minimal amount of Hollywood glitz, so that the courtroom scenes were close to how they would have played out in real life. Clearly, the filmmakers believed the real story was compelling enough to stand on its own, and they were absolutely right.

Lost Girls

When Shannan runs screaming from a home in a gated community on Long Island and places a frantic call to 911, it takes police an hour to respond. They find nothing amiss but Shannan is never seen again. The cops’ lackluster investigation accomplishes very little but coincidentally they stumble upon a dozen bodies in this very same community, all of them sex workers fitting Shannan’s general description, but none of them her. And the police do truly treat it like a coincidence; they announce that her disappearance is unrelated and are largely unconcerned.

Shannan’s mother, Mari (Amy Ryan) doesn’t fit the profile of a grieving mother. Her family isn’t made for television. There’s precious little sympathy extended to victims like Shannan. They live a “high risk” lifestyle so when bad things happen, the victims are blamed, the police are unimpressed, the culprits allowed to disappear, or worse, to re-offend. Certainly in this case, the Long Island serial killer appears to have more than a dozen victims, and those are just the skeletons police have accidentally stumbled upon. Imagine if they were actually looking.

Shannan Gilbert was a daughter, a friend, a big sister. She was a real person. This is a true story. Her short life was filled with pain and because there were no easy choices for her, her death was not a tragedy worth investigating. This movie doesn’t have a real ending because Shannan’s murder remains unsolved. Director Liz Garbus allows us to sit with this reality, a small and meager tribute to a life cut short. The film flirts with different suspects only to highlight that the police do not. This entire investigation (or lack thereof) is either gross incompetence or a complicit coverup. The truths here are ugly, the endings aren’t happy. But the film is suffused with a roiling anger that is perhaps the important take away of Lost Girls – a sense of injustice for young, vulnerable women, whom society has judged not worthy of its concern.

Thank You For Your Service

A trio of buddies and U.S. soldiers return home from the war in Iraq. Their group used to be bigger but one guy went home early with a couple of inches missing from his brain, and another didn’t return at all. His wife (Amy Schumer) accosts Adam (Miles Teller) as soon as his feet hit the tarmac, begging to know how her husband died. Adam’s wife Saskia is upset that his welcome home is ruined, but she doesn’t know yet that nothing about his return home will go as she planned.

Adam, Tausolo (Beulah Koale), and Billy (Joe Cole) are all having trouble adjusting. Haunted by the things they’ve seen and the things they did to survive, they are shamed for seeking help from the army and their brave persistence only means their names are on a 6-9 month waiting list. Twenty two veterans a day are killing themselves and Billy is soon one of them. His mother knew he needed help beyond what the army was providing and had arranged a treatment facility out of pocket. Since he’s no longer around to take it, there’s one spot open, and two remaining friends. In a game of “who needs it the most” there truly is no winner.

Adam and Tausolo are both putting their families at risk reliving the war in real time; their dead comrades not just visiting their dreams but their waking life as well. This is hallmark PTSD but veteran’s affairs are backlogged and useless. Of course there is no cure. The only way forward is to talk through all of the things they’d rather forget, and learn to manage the pain. Even people with ‘Support our troops’ magnets on their cars forget them as soon as they return to American soul, but in truth that’s when their own personal war begins.

Based on Adam Schumann’s memoirs, Thank You For Your Service is an incomplete picture since thankfully Schumann was still alive to tell it. But it paints a very sobering portrait of a complete lack of support for warriors turned civilians. The film retreads some familiar ground and if anything, director Jason Hall deprives the movie of some well-deserved righteous anger.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

There’s flooding in Mozambique, and when the rains finally come in Malawi, they come heavy. The farmers have been struggling for years, unable to cope after the big tobacco farms went elsewhere. The wealthy estates take advantage, offering a lump sum in exchange for the lumber on their lands. Cash-strapped, many are tempted, but the village chief warns that these trees are they only resource they have to protect from serious flooding.

William (Maxwell Simba) must drop out of school when his family’s money runs out. The harvest is poorer than anyone predicted; his father Trywell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) manages less than 70 ears of corn, and that’s all the family will have for the entire dry season. The government denies a food shortage but hunger makes people do bad things. Whole villages are starving.

William thinks he can generate power by building a windmill that would operate a water pump, extending the growing season, but to do so he’d need to sacrifice the family’s only possession, a bicycle. Trywell refuses. You might guess from the title that William will prevail. And if a movie is willing to spoil itself right in the title, then you know it’s about the journey, not the destination.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is about hunger. Not just an empty belly, but a need for something, a strong desire. And that kind of hunger can be very motivating. But a child surpassing his parent is hard on both.

Chiwetel Ejiofor directs himself in the film; he bought the rights to the book after reading it and set to learning Chichewa, the Malawi dialect spoken in the film. He shot it on location in Malawi, helping to bring authenticity and context to a true story. Farming is getting harder for everyone, everywhere. Global warming makes weather unpredictable, too wet, too dry. In Africa, where so many have so little, there is little margin of error. A thirteen year old boy saved his village from famine by cobbling together a wind generator built out of garbage. He was self-taught from books he wasn’t technically allowed to read, not having paid his school fees. He makes it look easy, but for him, it was simply and urgently necessary. This impressing directorial debut from Ejiofor communicates both the hope and the despair, but above all, ingenuity.

 

Miss Virginia

Virginia (Uzo Aduba) is a single mother who is watching her son James slips away. School is a place where trying only flags the attention of bullies, so flying under the radar is necessary for survival. The streets and their easy money call to James (Niles Fitch) while his school turns its back on him, unwilling and unable to teach. Virginia knows the only way to keep him safe is to get him an education, and despite his failing grades, James is quite bright, but tuition at a private school is out of reach.

Virginia takes a second job scrubbing toilets for her local representative but still has to pull James out of private school when two low-paying jobs still don’t pay the bills. She’s disillusioned to find that her representative (Aunjanue Ellis) only pays lip service to education, but it spurs her to find someone who will actually help, and after some prodding and some golf-shaming, she finds it in congressman Cliff Williams (Matthew Modine) who takes up her cause and helps her get a bill before congress.

Based on a true story, Miss Virginia is superficially a testament to iron will and persistence, but it’s also a reminder of just how dismally many people in so-called democracies are actually represented by elected and appointed officials. You shouldn’t have to fight this hard to get your government to do what’s right. It shouldn’t take children riddled with bullets to understand that something’s not right. And the moment schools stop teaching should obviously be a huge red flag. And yet there are still lots of students who are underserved and left behind, and it’s all but impossible for anyone to escape the clutches of poverty without a solid education.

As a movie, Miss Virginia is a little pat, a little paint by numbers. It tells its story in a straight-forward, unexciting manner. The beats, by now, are familiar. Since the actual elected officials don’t give a flying fuck, and are very much content to cash generous paycheques in exchange for sitting on their asses and letting lobbyists pay for lunches or luxury vacations to buy their votes, it takes a concerned and devoted citizen to dedicate their lives to a cause. And even then it’s an uphill battle: government isn’t exactly friendly to outsiders. We’ve seen it countless times because that’s the only way things ever change. Politicians do jack shit and single mothers with two minimum wage jobs have to carve out spare time they don’t have to be congressional super heroes.

Movies love women who take on the man: Erin Brockovich, Loving, The Long Walk Home, The Whistleblower, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Best of Enemies, North Country, Silkwood, Norma Rae. I get it. They’re inspiring. And since we owe these women (and certainly many men: see Philadelphia, Michael Clayton, Selma) a debt of gratitude, their stories are worth remembering and recounting. But it’s also depressing to know that it takes a citizen turned super hero – someone not only willing to stick their neck out, but to literally risk it at times – to get issues noticed let alone fixed. That ordinary people have to do a politician’s job for them – and fight the politician who’s against anyone doing anything! Maybe we need to be making more movies about how democracy works so voters know what they SHOULD be able to expect from their representatives, and then hold our officials to these standards. If we keep voting for the status quo, that’s exactly what we’re going to get. We shouldn’t need the Virginias of the world to sacrifice their lives to have the government take care of its people when we pay politicians to do that very thing.

Hampstead

Emily (Diane Keaton) is a widow living a life she cannot afford. She’s angry with her dead husband, as after he died she discovered he had been cheating in her. She’s alone in an apartment she’s going to have to give up, having regular meetings/lunch dates with an accountant who’s helping sort out her tax problems. Then, one day while hiding from her problems in her apartment building’s attic, she lays eyes on Donald (Brendan Gleeson), the hermit of her dreams who lives just acrMV5BMjdmM2RjMjItZGZmZC00YTAxLTg3MmItMjdlOGVkZWY0MWFmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTc5MDI5NjE@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_oss the way on the grounds of a derilict hospital. Before you can say “squatter’s rights”, Emily and Donald are spending romantic nights together in the attic, but what will happen when the accountant and Emily’s neighbours find out?

Part romantic comedy, part self-discovery tale, and part real-life legal drama, Hampstead is kind of a mess. It claims to be based on the real life of Harry Hallowes, who became a landowner because of an arcane legal concept called adverse possession, but clearly many liberties have been taken with Hallowes’ story in this retelling. In fact, one might ask why this claims to be based on his life at all, other than as a cheap way to cash in on the press his lawsuit attracted.  For his part, Hallowes made clear that he wanted nothing to do with the film, so it seems unlikely there is any truth to this romantic tale other than what was publicly reported about his case (with no mention whatsoever in the papers of Hallowes striking up a romantic relationship with a neighbouring widow who happened to be leading on her sleazy accountant, and you know the British tabloids would have been ALL OVER those sordid details if even rumoured).

Incidentally, I knew none of this “real-life” stuff until after having watched the film, and I still didn’t care for the movie. I found it tedious, chichéd, and nonsensical, and now I have even less goodwill toward it.

The Sky Is Pink

When Aditi (Priyanka Chopra) and Niren (Farhan Akhtar) Chaudhary find themselves pregnant for the third time, it’s not exactly a happy occasion for everyone. They have a son, Ishaan, but lost a daughter and are afraid of it happening again. Niren doesn’t want to risk it but Aditi, once a Muslim now a Christian, won’t abort. But Aditi and Niren both carry a tricky gene that runs a 25% chance of passing SCID (Severe Combined Immunodeficiency) on to their child, which means the baby would have such a compromised immune system that he or she would be prone to severe infections with no ability to fight them off. Such babies rarely live to see their first birthday. Their baby, a daughter, is born, and they name her Aisha, which means life. But a trip to London confirms that Aisha does in fact have SCID and without very expensive bone marrow and stem cell transplants, she will die.

Despite all this drama, Aisha (Zaira Wasim, who is narrating this from some point in the future) insists this is a romantic film, about her parents. Married 8 years at this point, they are suddenly in a long distance relationship, with Aditi in London with Aisha, and Niren back home in India with Ishaan. They had married out of caste, a true love marriage. But having a sick kid and being away from everyone you love is a real test on any relationship. But a worse test is coming: Aisha the narrator has already told us she is dead. What will losing a(nother) child do to Aditi and Niren?

Priyanka Chopra is stunning, even in late 90s mom jeans. More than that, she’s really good in this, even as she shifts between mother caring for her daughter’s health to caring more for her happiness. And as one half of a complicated couple, She’s got great chemistry with Akhtar, who brings his best to the film as well. This film is based on a true story, and it feels very much like the actors respect their real-life counterparts while also making the characters very much their own.

At the end of Aisha’s life, Aditi and Niren are faced with impossible choices and they don’t agree. The strain is of course further complicated by the loss of their first baby, who Niren has tried to forget. The death of a child is…unfathomable. Many couples separate in their grief. What will become of Aisha’s mom and dad, who never stop being exactly that? Writer-director Shonali Bose makes great use of flash backs and flash forwards to lighten the mood or break up the bleakness. The movie is overlong but keep going, it’s worth it. It’s emotional and trying but ultimately rewarding.