In Theaters Today: “Conviction” / “Paranormal Activity 2”

by Jason LeRoy on October 22, 2010

Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell in CONVICTION

After the jump, check out reviews of two very different mysteries opening in Bay Area theaters today.

Conviction

starring Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Juliette Lewis, Clea DuVall, Peter Gallagher, Ari Graynor, Melissa Leo, Loren Dean, Talia Balsam

directed by Tony Goldwyn

rated R

The true story that inspired Conviction is undeniably inspiring, or at the very least impressive: after her brother Kenny was convicted of a murder she believed him to be innocent of, a high school dropout named Betty Anne Waters promised that she’d somehow prove his innocence and get him released. And to do that, she caught up on her education, put herself through law school while working as a bartender, became a lawyer, and (not really a spoiler, since this is a true and well-documented story) eventually succeeded in setting Kenny free — all while raising two children in working-class Massachusetts.

So, the story itself is pretty much beyond reproach. And yes, it practically begged to be turned into a movie. That much is clear. The question about Conviction is this: what kind of movie is it? Is it an Erin Brockovich-style Oscar-bait prestige movie, as its marketing intends it to be? Or is it just a Lifetime movie inflated for the silver screen?

The answer is somewhere in the middle. First and foremost, it bares almost no resemblance to Erin Brockovich, and the repeated comparisons are beyond lazy; it’s as if there are only two working-class women who’ve ever displayed an interest in the law. Where Brockovich was embodied by the unflaggingly sassy and sharp-tongued lead performance of Julia Roberts, Conviction is a much more somber affair. As portrayed by Hilary Swank, Ms. Waters doesn’t exactly strut around charming people with the wits-and-tits approach to criminal investigation.

Conviction isn’t quite an Oscar film. It’s perhaps a bit too overtly inspirational, not quite smart or sophisticated enough to transcend its Lifetime formula roots. But with that said, it’s certainly leagues above a made-for-cable movie. Some of the credit here goes to actor-turned-director Tony Goldwyn, who valiantly attempts to give the film enough grit (and an occasionally nonlinear narrative) to make it stand out. But mostly, the credit goes to the actors.

Swank has quite a challenge here: playing a character who, on the page, is pretty much a saint, but still making her interesting and flawed. Because ain’t nobody wanna watch a saint and her saintly struggles for two hours. Furthermore, there’s something about Swank and her massive toothy grin that is just inherently good-natured and uplifting, which could have made this nearly unwatchable. But to Swank’s credit, the two-time Oscar winner gives Betty Anne enough rough edges and overwhelmed intimidation to keep her engaging. I don’t think this will be Oscar #3 for her (as she is neither beaten nor raped in the film), but it’s definitely in the upper echelon of her performances.

Like Swank, Sam Rockwell is perfectly cast as Kenny Waters. The role isn’t exactly a stretch for him — the guy can play charmingly sociopathic loose cannons in his sleep — but he convincingly takes us on Kenny’s journey from being a carefree young fuck-up to a middle aged man (bearing an uncanny resemblance to disgraced forehead-tattoo enthusiast Jesse James) who’s been wrongly imprisoned for nearly two decades. And while Conviction also features a fine supporting turn by Peter Gallagher as Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck, this movie is really all about the ladies. This is genuinely the most impressive female ensemble cast I’ve seen in ages.

Perhaps most awesomely, it gives good and meaty roles to superb character actresses that Hollywood generally doesn’t know what to do with. The ever-reliable Minnie Driver provides welcome comic relief as Abra, the other “old lady” in Betty Anne’s classes who becomes her only friend and constant companion. Oscar-nominee Melissa Leo takes the paper-thin role of a police sergeant and improves it considerably. Perennial outcast Clea DuVall and up-and-comer Ari Graynor each excel as Kenny’s ex-girlfriend and estranged daughter, respectively.

But the real news here is Juliette Lewis. Holy shit, Juliette Lewis. While she’s only in the film for two scenes, this is one of those five-minute performances that steal the entire movie and rightly lead to Best Supporting Actress Oscar buzz (for the record, two actresses have won Supporting Oscars for single scenes: Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love and Beatrice Straight in Network).

After spending the majority of the last decade in smaller roles while focusing on her music career, Lewis has been making an electrifying return over the last year, starting with her bad-ass role in Whip It, and crystallized here. As Roseanna, one of Kenny’s ex-girlfriends, she makes an amazingly vivid impression while showing the audience (and the stunned actors sitting across from her, who seem to completely disappear when she’s speaking) a whirlwind of ugliness, selfishness, desperation, remorse, and greed. It’s powerhouse stuff.

Despite its shortcomings, Conviction is still commendable for its tour de force performances and the stunning perseverance of its central character. Recommended.

RIYL: inspirational true stories; working-class legal dramas.

Paranormal Activity 2

starring Sprague Grayden, Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat

directed by Tod Williams

rated R

If you liked the first one, you’ll probably like this. I could probably end the review there. But I have a few more thoughts on the subject.

I was pleasantly surprised by this film. When word first spread that a sequel to the massively popular viral sensation was being rushed into production, I certainly numbered among those who rolled my eyes. The first film was one of those intangible lightning-in-a-bottle success stories, and any attempt to repeat or extend it would clearly come across as a crass failure. We were all doomed to a second viewing of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Or, worse yet: season two of Jersey Shore.

But I am happy to report that PA2 (which is actually a prequel) doesn’t fall into any of the predictable traps I thought would destroy it. Specifically: big effects. As we all know, the first film was seriously tainted by an ill-advised bit of CGI in its final shot (which, unfortunately, was identical to a bit of CGI being shown in every single Jennifer’s Body spot at the exact same time). In that respect, the sequel is actually an improvement over the original: no embarrassing CGI this time around. The remaining effects are seamless and spookily effective.

The setup, if you want to know, involves PA1 protagonist Katie’s sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden), her husband Daniel (Brian Boland), Daniel’s teenage daughter from a previous relationship, Ali (Molly Ephraim), Kristi and Daniel’s toddler son, Hunter, and the family dog. Also, we have Martine, a housekeeper in the grand tradition of terrified Hispanic maids (The Comeback, Clueless, Cape Fear, etc). Katie and Micah are also in the film, since it takes place a month or two before Micah’s demise.

One day, the family returns home to discover that all the rooms in their home (except Hunter’s) have been trashed. So, pragmatic dad Daniel installs security cameras in all the rooms so that…well, so we can see everything that happens without the intrusion of a camera crew. Then, stuff starts happening. Kristi and Daniel take on pretty much the same roles as Katie and Micah in the original: Kristi is sensitive and scarred from an unnamed childhood experience with a demonic haunting, while Daniel is a no-nonsense realist. And, just like last time, a lack of reverence for the spiritual world is one of the deadliest sins.

But this less claustrophobic time around, we have more than two people to watch. We’re also treated to the experiences of teenage Ali (a clever marketing move, since a teen protagonist definitely amps up the movie’s box office potential), who thinks ghosts are cool, and housekeeper Martine, who, as Roger Ebert humorously notes, “…is ethnic, and we know what that means: She has an instinctive knowledge of ghosts, breaks out the magic incense at a moment’s notice, and can’t get anyone to listen to her.” And, not content with those two, the film also throws both a baby AND a dog at us, then puts them both in peril.

Some have accused the film of overkill, but to them I say: what kind of film do you think they’re trying to make here? A scary one! It’s not like the original was some kind of elegant masterpiece. In my estimation, everything that made people connect with the first one is very much evident in part two. First and foremost, there’s the excellent cast of unknown actors. The performances are all naturalistic enough to convincingly create the illusion of home-video authenticity, which was one of the pivotal strengths of the original. There are also plenty of refreshing moments of unforced humor.

But most importantly, Paranormal Activity 2 is about the audience’s experience of watching it. And in that respect, it is an absolutely success. It is very, very scary; once again, you will find yourself jumping and gasping (which I actually did aloud at one point) and doing that weird thing where you press your knuckles to your mouth in suspenseful anticipation of something scary.

Seeing it in a crowded theater is the ideal way to go, because at times it genuinely feels like you’re on an 80-minute roller coaster ride. This becomes evident the very first time we see the return of those iconic night-vision shots. As soon the audience saw it, we broke out into one collective, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh shit!” And, as with the first film, the suspense builds and builds with each ill-advised investigation of a strange noise.

If you haven’t seen the first film, you’d probably still be entertained, but I’d recommend seeing the original first. And for fans of the first, this is an absolute must-see: a prequel that completely re-frames the original, builds upon it, and (yes) leaves the door open for a third.

RIYL: a good scare.

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