Sibling love and sacrifice themes of new film

“Conviction” is a new film, based on a true story about a brother and a sister, which opens today nationwide. In 1983 a young, good-natured tough named Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) was arrested and convicted for a crime he did not commit: the murder a woman in Ayers, MA in 1980.

(This review is a spoiler, but readers can surmise how the film will end because otherwise there is no story.)

Kenny and his sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) grew up very close, spending time in foster homes and in the care of their grandfather. Their mother was an alcoholic and busy giving birth to several other children by another father. One state trooper in particular, Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) wanted to convict Kenny at any cost, even without hard evidence. She and the police chief threaten Kenny’s girl friend, the mother of his child and other friends to give false testimony. Kenny is arrested during their grandfather’s funeral, and convicted to life in prison.

Betty Ann, who never finished high school, is now married and a mother of two sons. She is absolutely convinced that her brother is innocent.

There is no money for Kenny’s appeals. Betty Ann makes a decision that turns her life and that of her family upside down. Over the next eighteen years she gets her GED, bachelor’s degree and finally a law degree. She becomes her brother’s attorney.

In collaboration with Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) of The Innocence Project, and Betty Ann’s good friend from law school, Abra (Minnie Driver) they set out on the difficult and frustrating bureaucratic journey to discover lost evidence, appeal to have DNA tested and convince the state’s attorney Martha Coakley, to reopen the case.

Even when the DNA evidence proves Kenny is innocent, Coakley is reluctant to release him because she believes he is guilty of other charges. This suspicion was based on the fact that as children Kenny and Betty Anne used to break into people’s homes and hang out. Kenny seems to have continued this practice and there was evidence he had been in the woman’s home. Betty Anne and her team prevail, however, and Kenny is finally released from prison.

At the end we learn that eight years after his release, Betty Anne wins a multi-million dollar settlement from the state for his wrongful conviction.

What the film doesn’t mention, however, is that Kenny did not live to see this last victory. He died from injuries sustained in a fall only six months after his release.

Tony Goldwyn, grandson of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn of MGM fame, (and the bad guy, Carl Bruner, in the 1990 film “Ghost”) takes a no frills approach to directing this excellent A-list cast that delivers convincing yet restrained performances. In a way I am surprised that “Conviction” made it to the big screen because it could easily have been a made-for-television movie. On the other hand, the saga of the gross injustice meted out to Kenny to pamper the ego of some in law enforcement, deserves the high profile that a national film release can give it. It is interesting that the statute of limitations had run out on Nancy Taylor’s acts of suborning perjury and intimidating witnesses; she was never prosecuted. Kenny instead, and by extension his family, and the citizens of Massachusetts, paid a high price for sheer frivolous malice.

Kenny was no saint, and though a brawler, he was not a bad man. Fortunately, Massachusetts does not have the death penalty or Kenny Waters would not have lived to see his release from prison and his conviction vacated.  If someone had not misplaced the evidence from his trial, it would have been destroyed after ten years.

Since 1989 when DNA testing began there have been 258 post-conviction exonerations in the USA; 17 of these served time on death row.

On September 24 I listened to a conversation on NPR about the death penalty in California and whether or not the means of execution are cruel and unusual because executions had been halted when a death row inmate, Michael Morales, filed a suit. That same day a judge ruled that executions could continue

Hearing such clinical talk about building a new “lethal injection facility” was bone chilling. There are over 700 inmates on death row in California.

The death penalty is cruel, unusual, and unnecessary. It takes away a life, and it harms everyone connected to it. I wonder how many schools the state of California could build with the money spent on the new death house.

“Conviction” never preaches. The title challenges the convictions of each character in this drama as well as the overarching and unjust conviction of Kenny Waters – and who knows how many other people in our jails today. The film relies on the intelligence, heart, and conscience of the audience to do the right thing.

The Kings of Pastry

A delight for the eyes: Kings of Pastry review

Faith on Your iPod: Introduction to Media Literacy, Saturday Nov 6, 2010 at LMU

Media literacy education, or media mindfulness, is about learning skills to navigate popular, media culture through the dual lens of faith and critical thinking. Media literacy leads to media mindfulness: thoughtful media choices for intentional living. Media literacy provides a values-based strategy based on social analysis and theological reflection to build character and contribute to culture and vital citizenship. Media literacy education in the faith community explores Church teaching about media and communication and contributes to understanding culture and a multiplicity of meanings in the world of digital story telling.

Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City. She is the film/TV columnist for St. Anthony Messenger magazine, and a contributor to the National Catholic Reporter, The Tidings, and Rose is also the award-winning co-author of the Lights, Camera, Faith series on film and scripture, and the co-author, with Sr. Gretchen Hailer, RSHM, of Media Mindfulness: Educating Teens about Faith and Media, and most recently, Our Media World; Teaching Kids K-8 about Faith and Media.

Click here To register for one day Intro to Media Literacy Course Saturday, Nov 6

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Loyola Marymount University Campus

University Hall, 1815

9:30am – 3:30om

Tuition: $50.00

Teresa Deevy; Lost Works Return to the Stage

Teresa Deevy 1894-1963

Theater aims to rescue Irish Catholic playwright from unmerited obscurity

By Retta Blaney

National Catholic Reporter

She had six plays produced at Dublin, Ireland’s Abbey Theater in six years in the 1930s. When her seventh met with rejection, she began writing for radio, despite having been deaf since 19, the result of Ménière’s disease. In 1954 she was elected to the prestigious Irish Academy of Letters. The Irish Timescalled her one of the most significant Irish playwrights of the 20th century. Yet few people in Ireland today and even fewer in America know the name of Teresa Deevy.

The Mint Theater Company, an award-winning off-Broadway theater in New York City, plans to tackle that obscurity over the next two years with its Teresa Deevy Project, which will produce two of her plays as well as offer readings, recordings and publications.

“I found her because I asked the question, ‘Who were the woman writing plays in the first 50 years of the Abbey?’ ” said Jonathan Bank, the Mint’s artistic director. “I began with the perception that the history of theater in Ireland was a lot of men and then, oh, yeah, there was Lady Gregory.”

He found that other women’s plays had been produced, but only Deevy’s had been published, and then only a few.

“What gets remembered and produced is a little bit arbitrary,” Bank said, sitting in his midtown office one hot summer afternoon during rehearsals for “Wife to James Whelan,” the play rejected by the Abbey in 1937 and subsequently only produced once, in 1956, when it received a critically acclaimed production at the small but influential Studio Theatre Club in Dublin. It has never been seen anywhere since. This should not be criteria for judging the play, Bank said, but many people think that if they haven’t heard of a work, it must not have been good in the first place.

“That’s not a great measure of talent of the playwright and the worth of the play, but once that idea gets set, it’s hard to overcome …

Continue reading here Lost Works Return to Stage

The Social Network: It’s all about character

The Social Network: It’s all about character

Last week an 18-year old Rutgers University student, Tyler Clementi, took his own life after two students videotaped him having a sexual encounter with another male, then posting it on the Internet.  I was listening to NPR on the way home from the theater today and the talk was about privacy issues in the age of the Internet.  Perhaps we are all guilty of hurtful gossip as children and teenagers, saying things about people, that even if true, we have no right to say. Perhaps we failed to think of the consequences of our actions, or maybe we were curious, jealous, or angry at some infraction.  Most of all, perhaps we didn’t think before we acted.In the last fifteen or so years, since the Internet was opened up to the public for email and commercialized, passing notes or gossiping about others has reached unbelievable proportions, with tragic consequences, enabled by digital technology. Tyler Clementi is the most recent victim of an epidemic of an incredible lack of empathy, according to one NPR caller.

Empathy, that ability to walk in another person’s shoes, to feel their pain, to ask oneself, “How would I feel if someone did this to me?” is usually taught from an early age. It is the basic building block of character education. And the lack of empathy is  one of the strongest driving forces in the saga of “The Social Network”.

Director David Fincher (“Fight Club”; “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) does not disappoint  in his latest film about  Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and the creation of the world’s largest social networking site Facebook. Facebook, according to some, is Google’s strongest competitor as the top web property. World wide, Facebook has over 500,000,000 members and grows by thousands daily.

In 2003 Zuckerberg was a socially inept computer genius at Harvard.  According to the film’s account,  one night after he insulted his date, he went to his room, got drunk and proceeded to denigrate the girl publically on the Internet. He then went on to write code that would capture the photos of female students from the face books of various Harvard residences and let people choose the hottest. It was mean and it was cruel.

Identical twin brothers Cameron (Armie Hammer) and Tyler Winklevoss (Josh Pence) and their friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) soon approached Zuckerman to write the complicated code for a social networking site for Harvard students. Zuckerberg told them he was in. No papers were signed and Zuckerberg said later he never saw their code.

However, Zuckerberg asked his friend, his only friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) for an algorithm he had written that would enable Zuckerberg to develop a site beyond the scope of the twins. They brought in another friend, Justin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello), and incorporated in early 2004. Zuckerberg was the CEO and Saverin the CFO of “The Facebook”. Saverin invested the initial few thousand dollars capital to begin. It was an instant success, with Zuckerberg hacking into universities sites and sending out invitations to students to join.

Soon Sean Parker (Justin Timblerlake), co-founder of Napster, the music-sharing site that changed the music recording industry, discovers “The Facebook” and meets with Zuckerberg and Saverin. Zuckerberg falls under Parker’s spell but Saverin, a business major, wants to sponsor the site through advertising. Parker advises them to drop “The” from Facebook and strongly encourages them to move to Silicon Valley, which Zuckerberg does. The rift between partners has begun.

Aaron Sorkin, the gifted writer of “A Few Good Men” and several seasons of “The West Wing” is at his best here because no one does crisp, direct dialogue like he does. Jesse Eisenstein delivers his lines like a savant, indeed, one wonders if Zuckerberg’s seeming inability to move outside his own mental zone to care about the consequences of his actions on other, is due to some kind of personality or developmental disorder or is a form of  terminal nerdity characterized by naïveté and gross immaturity. While other key characters in the film have families or refer to them, Zuckerberg never does. One friend told me, “It’s like he was dropped in from outer space.”

Aaron Sorkin also seems most at home framing stories within a legal proceeding.  He uses depositions between the Winklevoss twins and Zuckerberg over stealing their idea, and between Saverin and Zuckerberg, essentially for breach of contract, to tell this story that I found riveting.  The performances of Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg and Justin Timberlake as the Napster shyster Sean Parker, are award-worthy. Andrew Garfield as Ernest Saverin, also gives an impressive performance.

The film is based on  the 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal by Ben Mezrich and for which Ernesto Saverin consulted, as he did for the film, it isn’t possible to tell what is true or more or less accurate in the film. After all, it is not a documentary. And it is up to university students and Internet nerds to judge if the film represents their partying, boozed, drugged and oversexed cultures accurately or are just stereotypes.  Despite all these vices, no one smokes a cigarette in the film, the one story’s one virtue.

Zuckerberg did want to belong to elite clubs or fraternities but he was never invited. So he created a universe of his own that was totally cool.

Today, Zuckerberg is the world’s youngest billionaire.

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” won the box office last week, and I think “The Social Network” will this week and beyond unless a new 3-D film comes out to trounce it.  The themes are surprisingly similar: to live together in harmony takes people of character, who make choices that first consider the consequences of their actions on other people. Greed, ambition, and unlimited power are ugly traits.

The ending of the film is small and anticlimactic and probably didn’t happen, but it is poignant in its loneliness and poses the strongest moral challenge of all.

This past week Mark Zuckerberg donated a challenge grant in the amount of $100 million to the city of Newark, NJ, for public education. Some say this was a move to save his reputation. Perhaps it was.  But if this is all it was, a public relations gesture, then Zuckerberg needs to watch this film.