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Conviction

Directed by Tony Goldwyn
This is basically a big-budget TV movie. With lesser actors, or a less compelling story to draw on, this one probably wouldn’t have been worth it.

Hillary Swank plays Betty Ann Waters, a real-life mother who lacked a high school diploma but worked her way through law school in an effort to save her often-violent brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell), who she believed was wrongly convicted of murder. The film draws much of its dramatic tension by leaving it ambiguous for much of the time whether or not Kenny actually did the crime. The cops involved are definitely crooked, but society may arguably be better off with Kenny behind bars.

It’s an amazing story – so amazing that it’s hard to get wrong. The film hits the right notes, drawing its emotional power on the childhood connection between two siblings growing up in bad circumstances. But it never transcends the source material of the admittedly amazing story.

Haggard is the order of the day. Between Swank, Rockwell, Minnie Driver and Juliette Lewis, we see lots of generally attractive people looking not-so-good in that drinking and smoking yourself to death working class New England way. Now if this film also had the complexity of “Mystic River” of “Gone Daddy Gone” to go with this look, well, then some of that Oscar talk might be a little more in order.

I generally take a contrarian view of the death penalty – that is, that we spend too much time fighting about it, compared to all the other things wrong with our criminal justice system that affect far greater numbers of people – but when Betty Ann tells her niece, “If Massachusetts had the death penalty, your father would be dead right now,” it does make an impact.

Which brings me to a key fact they left out of the film that really, really bothered me in retrospect. I won’t give it away here, but it has nothing to do with Kenny’s guilt or innocence. But it would have added an almost absurd element that I think would perhaps have taken the film to greater heights. Though it wouldn’t have felt so good.

One more side note: Good riddance to Martha Coakley. As the Massachusetts AG at the time of the film’s later court proceedings, we get to see what a politically-driven animal she was – but not one who was very good at it. Coakley, of course, lost Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat with a non-campaign in last year’s special election.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

Directed by Zach Snyder
Now playing at the Esquire IMAX (1211 K St.)

In terms of plot and character, this latest animated adventure flick is little more than an excuse for a 90-minute painting.
Man, what a painting.

I actually left the theater thinking that I wish more movies were shot like this. In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve seen a non-Pixar computer animated film that looks as good, or better, than the work Pixar does (not that the script measures up to anything Pixar has done). It’s like science you can see. The birds look like birds, every feather moving independently, with wings that tilt differently on the upstroke rather than just going up and down.

While too many movies try to lazily trick viewers by speeding everything up – as though “The Matrix” hadn’t come out 11 freakin’ years ago – this one throws down the gauntlet by going to slo-mo at least once in every single key scene. I didn’t know I’d ever use the words “fluid dynamics” in a review, but the scenes of owls flying in heavy rainstorms make it clear the animators had a very deep understanding of that particular science. The flight sequences – and there are a lot of them – range from the merely exciting to the breathtaking.

And owls are, or course, perfect for all this. They’re strong, graceful hunters, but at the same time they have those huge eyes and they’re mostly made of fluff. They’re cute enough that we forgive them for their carnivorous ways – and for the bit of gross-out humor that comes when the skin and bones need to be disposed of.

The story? There’s good owls and bad owls. The hero, Soren, is a young Tito owl who becomes the only thing that can save the former from the later. His brother may go to the other side. His sidekicks include the big tough guy, the small guy who is kind of wacky but has hidden talents, the small plucky cute girl owl who would be his love interest if this was aimed at an older audience and owls could kiss, and the gnarled aging mentor who is unspeakably heroic despite sometimes questionable personal hygiene. The bad guys, well, you get the idea.

On the plus side, a lot of the soundtrack is by Owl City, a synthesizer-driven pop band with clever lyrics that is the current intergenerational favorite in our house. A predictable tie-in, but who cares? (No, that was not an owl joke.)

Coming up at the CREST THEATRE (1013 K St.)

There are several interesting films coming up at the Crest in the next couple of weeks. On Thursday, Oct. 28 at 8 p.m., they’re holding a screening of “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.” This documentary shows one outlaw family is rural West Virginia, a place stuck in another time – one which may not have ever existed in some states.

On Friday, Oct. 29, the Crest hosts three screenings (1, 3:45 and 8 p.m.) of “Cash Crop,” a documentary all about that product on next week’s ballot that dwarfs the state’s wine industry (see next week’s Politics at the Movies for a full review). Finally, from Nov. 5-10, they’ll be showing “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” the final installment of the bestselling “Dragon Tattoo” series. They bring back Daniel Alfredson, who also directed the second installment, which was far superior to the first film in the trilogy.


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