Saturday, November 10, 2007

Best of Fall so far

Here are the best films I've seen so far this fall:

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH painstakingly unfolds the devastating story of a soldier's disappearance after his return from Iraq. Tommy Lee Jones portrays the soldier's father, Hank, himself a former military investigator, who, not trusting either the police or the military to find his son (and with good reason), sets out to find out for himself what happened. This sets up, ostensibly, a whodunit--but the bigger question is why events unfolded as they did. The truth is a long-time coming; writer-director Paul Haggis (who wrote "Million Dollar Baby" and wrote and directed "Crash") tells a difficult story with such patience and restraint and unswerving dedication that he manages to convey something difficult to comprehend about how the Iraq war is affecting many soldiers, without polemics. The truth dawns on you with sickening clarity. The film aims to wake us up, without us ever realizing that we need waking up; as Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer puts it: "With casualty reports on the radio and combat footage on TV in the forlorn diners where Hank eats, the war is like the elevator music no longer heard. Haggis' objective is to turn up the volume, coaxing his characters (and the audience) to more carefully listen to the conflict that they, and we, have tuned out." (In second-run theaters; rated R for violent and disturbing ocntent, language, and some sexuality/nudity.]

The Darjeeling Limited is a pure delight. A funny, quirky film by Wes Anderson (whose best work before this was "The Royal Tenenbaums"), this one improves upon his odd sensibility with a story that is not only amusing but also profound. It follows three brothers, wonderfully played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman, on a train journey across India, a year after their father's death. They (or at least, Wilson, who is the self-appointed leader and lead-thinker of the group) intend it to be a spiritual journey--but they are each so stuck and so fundamentally arrested in their development that they devote simultaneous energy and focus to disembodied ritual and souvenir acquisition and can't see past themselves--that is, until something happens along the way that finally clicks them out of their self-absorption. If you can relax into the movie, its many pleasures will work on you and open you up too. The grin on my face steadily broadened as I watched what felt like a wonderful study of how transformation works. This fantasy version of India--slightly more colorful and off-kilter than the actual place--operates as a kind of Oz, the perfect setting for a magical mystery tour. All three men (and the colorful heirloom luggage that possesses them and weighs them down on their journey) are especially good here--Wilson, all psychoblather and overthinking and battlescars; Brody, with his hangdog looks and loping grace; and Schwartzman, in a career-best performance, managing to be both whiny and apt at the same time. (Still in theaters; rated R for language but fine for most middle-schoolers)

Lars and the Real Girl demands fortitude and a leap of faith, but rewards that investment handsomely. It tells the story of Lars, a broken loner who relentlessly avoids human connection and finds physical touch toxic. He lives in the garage of the family home occupied by his older brother and pregnant sister-in-law, and rebuffs all their efforts to reach out to them. Naturally, they are delighted when he unexpectedly tells them that he has met a girl, Bianca, on the internet and asks to bring her home for dinner. Their hopes are dashed, though, when Bianca turns out to be a life-size doll, who Lars treats as a real girl. The family doctor and psychiatrist, an unflappable healer perfectly played by the great Patricia Clarkson, informs him after observing Lars and his new friend that he has a delusion, and that the best thing they can do is support him in it. The delusion has appeared because he needs it. The brother (a miraculous performance by Paul Schneider, an actor I'd not seen before) is the heart of the story--he refuses at first, and tries to force Lars to face reality. When that fails, he grudgingly succumbs, obviously furious and uncomfortable and afraid--and so, eventually, does the entire small town in which they live, inviting Bianca into the community with a warmth they have been reserving for Lars, despite his inability to reciprocate. I know, it sounds just awful--and I must admit, it's hard to watch at times. But the director, writer, and the wonderful cast fully commit to the premise, and in the course of winning me over, presented a picture of kindness and a gentle ministry of presence that broke my heart. Without being able to explain what was happening to me, I found myself weeping through the last quarter of the film, moved to profound gratitude at the thought that someone as broken as Lars could find a way to need something that would actually help him, and at the picture of how offering that help could transform a community. Ryan Gosling pulls off a small miracle in his portrayal of Lars, and the script is the first by Nancy Oliver, who wrote for the excellent "Six Feet Under" series; she definitely knows what she is doing in this risky terrain. Trust me on this--it's a beautiful vision. (Still in theaters; rated PG-13 for some sex-related content, but really a clean film.)

Things We Lost in the Fire is the first English-language film of the great Danish director Susanne Bier, whose film "After the Wedding" I admired so much earlier this year. It stars Halle Berry as a woman whose lovely life has been shattered by the murder of her husband, a good man played by David Duchovny. As she and their two children (played by two wonderful and natural young actors) reel from the tragedy, she is compelled to invite her husband's best friend, played by Benicio del Toro, into their household--an odd move, since he is a heroin addict who she has resented for years. Despite herself, she somehow needs to be close to someone who had a profound connection to the love she lost--and yet she fights that need and fights him, even as he connects deeply with the fatherless children. Like Bier's other films (including the great "Open Hearts" and "Brothers"), this one is profoundly moving and rich with emotional truth, and well worth traversing the wrenching subject matter. All the central performances are excellent as well, particularly del Toro's; no one plays brokenness so well. This film had an unfairly short theater run, but might crop up in the odd second-run theater. (Rated R for drug content and language.)

Gone Baby Gone is the first directing effort of Ben Affleck, and the guy really has talent, I must say. It is the story of a child abduction, and its effect on a young man, brilliantly played by Affleck's brother Casey, who is engaged as a private investigator because of his deep roots in the Boston neighborhood where the abduction took place. Ben co-wrote the script, based on a Dennis Lehane novel (the author who wrote the source material for "Mystic River"), and though I don't fault the script exactly, the story left me a little cold. Apart from that complaint, however, the film is a marvel of good, observant direction and features wonderful performances (especially by Casey Affleck and the amazing Michelle Monahan, as his girlfriend) and one of the best opening sequences I can remember, featuring my favorite scripture from Matthew 10 (where Jesus tells his disciples, "I send you out as sheep among wolves, so be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves"). What has really stuck with me is the film's depiction of people at the margins, whose means of coping range from the criminal to the brutish. Their faces and their conversations are so perceptively portrayed that I frequently felt both revulsion and heart-brokenness in equal measure, which strikes me as a very appropriate response but one that is hard to evoke. Casey Affleck and Monahan share a believable connection even as they stake out competing perspectives on the film's essential moral dilemmas. Definitely worth a look, despite the limitations of the plot. (Still in theaters; rated R for violence, drug content, and pervasive language.)

1 comment:

dudleysharp said...

Can Rev. Carroll Pickett be trusted "At the Death House Door"?
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below

Rev. Pickett is on a promotional tour for the anti death penalty film "At the Death House Door". It is partially about the Reverend's experience ministering to 95 death row inmates executed in Texas.

Rev. Pickett's inaccuracies are many and important.

Does Rev. Pickett just make facts up as he goes along, hoping that no one fact checks, or is he just confused or ignorant?

Some of his miscues are common anti death penalty deceptions. The reverend is an anti death penalty activist.

Below are comments or paraphrases of Rev. Pickett, taken from interviews, followed by my Reply:.

1) Pickett: I knew (executed inmate) Carlos (De Luna) didn't do it. It was his big brown eyes, the way he talked, he was the same age as my son (transference). I felt so sympathetic towards him. I was so 100% certain that he couldn't have committed this crime. (Carlos) was a super person to minister to. I knew Carlos was not guilty. Fred Allen a guard, said "by the way he talks and acts I don't believe he is guilty, either. (1)

REPLY: Experienced prison personnel are fooled all the time by prisoners, just as parole boards are. This is simply Rev. Pickett's and Fred Allen's blind speculation and nothing more.

More than that, it appears that Rev. Pickett is, now, either lying about his own opinions or he is very confused. Read on.

2) Pickett: believes that, no way, could someone, so afraid of lightning and thunder, such as Carlos De Luna, use a knife (in a crime). (1)

Reply: Rev. Pickett talks about how important his background is in understanding people and behavior and he says something like this, destroying his own credibility on the issue. If the lightning and thunder event occurred, we already know what De Luna was capable of. In 1980, "De Luna was charged with attempted aggravated rape and driving a stolen vehicle, he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 2 to 3 years. Paroled in May 1982, De Luna returned to Corpus Christi. Not long after, he attended a party for a former cellmate and was accused of attacking the cellmate's 53-year-old mother. She told police that De Luna broke three of her ribs with one punch, removed her underwear, pulled down his pants, then suddenly left. He was never prosecuted for the attack, but authorities sent him back to prison on a parole violation. Released again in December of that year, he came back to Corpus Christi and got a job as a concrete worker. Almost immediately, he was arrested for public intoxication. During the arrest, De Luna allegedly laughed about the wounding of a police officer months earlier and said the officer should have been killed. Two weeks after that arrest, Lopez was murdered." (Chicago Tribune) Being a long time criminal, we can presume that there were numerous additional crimes committed by De Luna and which remained unsolved. Was De Luna capable of committing a robbery murder, even though he had big brown eyes and was scared of lightning? Of course. This goes to Rev. Pickett's poor judgement or something else.

There is this major problem.

In 1999, years after Rev. Pickett had left his death row ministry, and 10 years after De Luna's execution, the reverend was asked, in a PBS Frontline interview, "Do you think there have been some you have watched die who were strictly innocent?"

His reply: "I never felt that." (3)

For many years, and since the 1989 execution of Carlos De Luna, the reverend never felt that any of the 95 executed were actually innocent.

This directly conflicts with his current statements on Carlos De Luna. Rev. Pickett is, now, saying that he was 100% sure of De Luna's innocence in 1989!

It appears the reverend has either revised history to support his new anti death penalty activism - he's lying - or he is, again, very confused. Reverend?

3) Introduction: In 1974, prison librarian Judy Standley and teacher Von Beseda were murdered during an 11 day prison siege and escape attempt. Ignacio Cuevas was sentenced to death, as one of three prisoners who were involved. The other two died in the shootout.

Ms. Standley and Ms. Beseda were part of Rev. Pickett's congregation, outside of prison.

Pickett: After Cuevas was executed, Rev. Pickett alleges that he met with Judy Standley's family and they told the reverend that "This (the execution) didn't bring closure." "This didn't help us." According to Rev. Pickett, "They didn't want him (Ignacio Cuevas) executed." (1)

Reply; There might be a big problem. Judy Standley's five children wrote a statement, before the execution, which stated: "We are relieved the ordeal may almost be over, but we are also aware that to some, this case represents only one of many in which, arguably, `justice delayed is justice denied," "We are hopeful the sentence will finally be carried out and that justice will at last be served," said the statement, signed by Ty, Dru, Mark, Pam and Stuart Standley. (4)

Sure seemed like the kids wanted Cuevas to be executed. Doesn't it? Reverend?

4) Pickett: "A great majority of them (the 95 executed inmates he ministered to) were black or Hispanic." (1)

Reply: The reverend's point, here, is to emphasize the alleged racist nature of the death penalty. There is a problem for the reverend - the facts - the "great majority" were 47 white (49%) with 32 black (34%), and 16 Hispanic (17%).

5) Pickett: "Out of the 95 we executed only one that had a college degree. All the rest of them their education was 9th grade and under." (1)

Reply: Not even close. Rev. Pickett's point, here, seems to be that capital murderers are, almost all, idiots who can't be held responsible for their actions. But, there are more fact problems for the reverend. In a review of only 31 of the 95 cases, 5 had some college or post graduate classes and 16 were high school graduates or completed their GED. Partial review (Incomplete Count) , below.

Would Rev. Pickett tell us about the educational achievements of all the true innocent murder victims and those that weren't old enough for school?

6) Pickett: spoke of the Soldier of Fortune murder for hire case, stating the husband got the death penalt, while the hired murderer got 6 years. (1)

Reply: Rev. Pickett's point, here, was the unfairness of the sentence disparity. More fact problems. John Wayne Hearn, the hitman, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Sandra Black.

7) Pickett: speaks of how sincere hostage taker, murderer Ignacio Cuevas was. Rev. Pickett states that "between 11 and midnight (I) believe almost everything" the inmates say, because they are about to be executed. (1)

Reply: Bad judgement. Minutes later, Cuevas lied when on the gurney, stating that he was innocent. This goes to show how Rev. Pickett and many others are easily fooled by these murderers. Pickett concedes the point.

8) Pickett: "In my opinion and in the opinion of the convicts, life in prison, with no hope of parole, is a much worse punishment (than the death penalty)." "Most of these people (death row inmates) fear life in prison more than they do the possibility of execution." (2)

REPLY: More fact problems. We know that isn't the opinion of those facing a possible death sentence of those residing on death row. This gives more support to my suspicion that Rev. Pickett is putting words into the inmates' mouths.

Facts: What percentage of capital murderers seek a plea bargain to a death sentence, rather than seeking a life sentence? Zero or close to it. They prefer long term imprisonment. What percentage of convicted capital murderers argue for execution in the penalty phase of their capital trial? Zero or close to it. They prefer long term imprisonment. What percentage of death row inmates waive their appeals and speed up the execution process? Nearly zero (less than 2%). They prefer long term imprisonment. This is not, even remotely, in dispute. How could Rev. Pickett not be aware of this? How long was he ministering to Texas' death row? 13 years?

9) Pickett: stated that "doctors can't (check the veins of inmates pending execution), it's against the law." (1)

Reply: Ridiculous. Obviously untrue.

10) Pickett: Pavulon (a paralytic) has been banned by vets but we use it on people. (1)

REPLY: This is untrue and is a common anti death penalty deception. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) stetes, "When used alone, these drugs (paralytics) all cause respiratory arrest before loss of consciousness, so the animal may perceive pain and distress after it is immobilized." Obviously, paralytics are never used alone in the human lethal injection process or animal euthanasia. The AVMA does not mention the specific paralytic - Pavulon - used in lethal injection for humans. These absurd claims, falsely attributed to veterinary literature, have been a bald faced lie by anti death penalty activists.

In Belgium and the Netherlands, their euthanasia protocol is as follows: A coma is first induced by intravenous administration of 20 mg/kg sodium thiopental (Nesdonal) (NOTE-the first drug in human lethal injection) in a small volume (10 ml physiological saline). Then a triple intravenous dose of a non-depolarizing neuromuscular muscle relaxant is given, such as 20 mg pancuronium bromide (Pavulon) (NOTE-the second drug, the paralytic, in human lethal injection) or 20 mg vecuronium bromide (Norcuron). The muscle relaxant should preferably be given intravenously, in order to ensure optimal availability (NOTE: as in human lethal injection). Only for pancuronium bromide (Pavulon) are there substantial indications that the agent may also be given intramuscularly in a dosage of 40 mg. (NOTE: That is how effective the second drug in human lethal injection is, that it can be given intramuscularly and still hasten death).

Just like execution/lethal injection in the US, although we give a third drug which speeds up death, even more.

11) Pickett: "Most of the inmates would ask the question, "How can Texas kill people who kill people and tell people that killing people is wrong?" That came out of inmates’ mouths regularly and I think it’s a pretty good question to ask." (2)

REPLY: Most? Would that be more than 47 out of 95? I simply don't believe it. 10 out of 95? Doubtful. I suspect it is no coincidence that "Why do we kill people to show that killing is wrong" has been a common anti death penalty slogan for a very long time. I suspect that Rev. Pickett has just picked it up, used it and placed it in inmate's mouths. Furthermore, we don't execute murderers to show that murder is wrong. Most folks know that murder is wrong even without a sanction.

12) Pickett: said an inmate said "its burning" "its burning", during an execution. (1)

REPLY: This may have occurred for a variety of reasons and does not appear to be an issue. It is the third drug which is noted for a burning sensation, if one were conscious during its injection. However, none of the inmates that Rev. Pickett handled were conscious after the first drug was administered. That would not be the case, here, as the burning complaints came at the very beginning of the injection process, which would involve a reaction where the burning would be quite minor. Has Rev. Pickett reviewed the pain and suffering of the real victims - the innocent murdered ones?

Bottom line. Reverend Pickett's credibility is as high as a snakes belly.

Time to edit the movie?!


Incomplete count
this is a review of 31 out of the 95 death row inmates ministered by Rev. Pickett

21 of the 31 below had some college or post graduate classes (5)
or were high school graduates or completed their GED (16)
1) Brooks 12
3) O'Bryan post graduate degree - dentist
41 james russel 10th
42 G Green sophomore college
45 David Clark 10th and GED
46 Edward Ellis 10th
47 Billy White 10th
48 Justin May 11th
49 Jesus Romero 11th and GED
50 Robert Black, Jr. a pilot (probably beyond 12th)
55. Carlos Santana 11th
57 Darryl Stewart 12th
58 Leonel Herrera 11th and GED
60) Markum Duff Smith Post graduate College
33) Carlos De Luna 9th
95 Ronald Keith Allridge 10th and GED
93 Noble Mays Junior in College
92 Samuel Hawkins 12th
91 Billy Conn Gardner 12th
90 Jeffery Dean Motley 9th
89 Willie Ray Williams 11th
86 Jesse Jacobs 12th
85 Raymond Carl Kinnamon 11th and GED
84 Herman Clark sophomore college
83 Warren Eugene Bridge 11th
82 Walter Key Williams 12th
72 Harold Barnard 12th
73 Freddie Webb 11th and GED
75 Larry Anderson 12th
77 Stephen Nethery 12th
79 Robert Drew 10th

Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail, 713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas

Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS , VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.

A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

Pro death penalty sites


www(dot) (Sweden)

1) "Chaplain Discusses 'Death House' Ministry", Interview, Legal Affairs, FRESH AIR, NPR, May 19, 2007.


3) "The Execution: Interview with Reverend Carroll Pickett", PBS, FRONTLINE, 1999

4) "Appellate court refuses to stay killer's execution", Kathy Fair, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Section A, Page 1, 2 Star edition, 05/23/1991