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Conviction, Stone, Tall Dark Stranger
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The title of the new movie Conviction surely refers more to the actors than to those who toiled on the other side of the camera. Whereas the performers like Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell inhabit their roles with impressive dedication, folks like director Tony Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray merely seem to be going through the motions, expecting Academy Award nominations to come tumbling down simply because their film tackles Oscar-bait material. But this is one fishing expedition that will likely come up empty-handed.

The sort of homogenized, faintly uplifting film that's plugged in the ads with a "Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award" logo (a scarlet letter to seasoned moviegoers), Conviction relates the true-life tale of Betty Anne Waters (Swank), a lower-class Massachusetts wife and mother who spends close to two decades of her life trying to prove the innocence of her brother Kenny (Rockwell). Charged with murder, Kenny's serving a life sentence thanks in no small part to the efforts of a humorless police officer (Melissa Leo) and the testimonies of his wife (Clea DuVall) and girlfriend (Juliette Lewis). But Betty Anne is convinced that he's not guilty, so this woman of limited education concentrates on the single goal of becoming a lawyer so she can work to free her sibling.

The cast members, especially the two leads, do their best to sell what on paper is a worthy story, but their game efforts come up short against the thudding treatment by Goldwyn and Gray. The two filmmakers are so myopic in their focus on their heroine's pitbull approach to judiciary matters that they fail to provide much in the way of context, with important background details either painted in broad strokes or ignored altogether.

Worse, their limitations result in a picture that operates at the same speed throughout, with little variation in tone. Ultimately, the finale will have audiences on their feet, but for the wrong reason -- not as part of a standing ovation but in an effort to beat a hasty retreat to the exit.


* 1/2

Has Robert De Niro been replaced by a pod person straight out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Once a national treasure, the workaholic actor hasn't delivered a truly noteworthy performance since Clinton was in the Oval Office. Instead, aside from the occasional jokey turn (e.g. Machete, Stardust), he's basically relegated himself to somnambular, paycheck-cashing bits that betray the extent of his considerable talents.

There's an obvious difference between elegant underplaying and merely going through the motions, and while, say, Michael Caine still excels at the former, De Niro has sadly become a master of the latter.

In Stone, he plays Jack Mabry, a parole officer whose last case before his retirement is a tough guy nicknamed Stone (Edward Norton). After eight years of prison, Stone wants out, and he involves his sultry wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) in his dealings with Jack. That of course translates into her carrying on an affair with the lawman, who otherwise spends his off-duty hours at home with his neglected, unloved wife (Frances Conroy).

Both Jack and Stone are seeking some form of spiritual salvation, and it's this added layer of complexity that paradoxically elevates the movie even as it's dooming it. Scripter Angus MacLachlan clearly has a lot on his mind -- in addition to the characters' soul-searching, the film also hopes to show how the respectable parole officer is as morally bankrupt as the incarcerated criminal -- but everything about the film remains doggedly murky and unconvincing, from its players' motives to a fizzle of a finale that has already dissipated from memory. A failed attempt at something meaningful, Stone sinks under the weight of its own poorly realized ambitions.



Easily Woody Allen's raunchiest film, 1972's hilarious Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) features such outrageous -- and outrageously original -- gags as a gigantic, Kafka-by-way-of-Roth female breast terrorizing the countryside and a sperm (played by Allen) afraid that his host body's masturbatory ways might result in his ending up on the ceiling.

In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, what passes for Allen's idea of an innovative sex gag? Anthony Hopkins' doddering character Alfie counting down the minutes until the Viagra tablet takes effect.

Alfie isn't the only one who has trouble getting it up. One of Allen's worst films (and this is coming from someone who actually enjoyed the lambasted Anything Else), Stranger is a flaccid piece that offers nothing in the way of stimulating drama or uplifting humor. A dour, ugly movie, it centers on a group of insufferable people making each other miserable in London. Alfie has left his grating wife Helena (Gemma Jones) to marry a young prostitute (Lucy Punch), while their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) contemplates an affair with her boss (Antonio Banderas) at the art gallery even as her novelist hubby (Josh Brolin) eyes the cutie (Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto) living in the neighboring building.

Allen used to display enormous amounts of warmth toward his characters, but here he holds them all in contempt. As a result, the humor tastes like curdled milk, while all notions of romance have been replaced with aggravating heartburn.