Category Archives: Prison Drama

The Anderson Tapes (1971) 4.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.2
Genre: Crime
Duration: 99mins
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam

Sidney Lumet’s second collaboration with Sean Connery was for this inspired & subtly satirical story of surveillance, perception, & a recently paroled thief’s last big job. Connery is that thief and he seems to be genuinely enjoying himself in what must be one of his best roles. His character is proud and tough but generally good-hearted and you can’t help but weight in behind his optimism and certainty that he’s masterminded the perfect heist. The team he assembles are just as interesting with Christopher Walken’s electronics expert & Martin Balsam’s camped up merchandise valuer being the picks of the bunch.

The Anderson Tapes is imbued with that peculiar 1970’s paranoid vibe but there’s a much more light-hearted, satirical, and even comical sentiment insinuated into the narrative and in particular into those surveillance sequences which recurrently punctuate it. It makes for a highly original movie and one that has really been under-appreciated in terms of the subtle undertones Lumet and co. bring to the party.

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The Fighter (2010) 4.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.3
Genre: Drama, Sport
Duration: 116 mins
Director: David O. Russell
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams

David O. Russell’s return to directing after a six year absence is a witty and soulful sporting drama that recounts the true life efforts of two working class boxers to overcome their circumstances and banish respective demons. If it sounds like a tired premise, fret not, because The Fighter is a one of a kind film that shifts seamlessly between touching personal drama, wilful farce, exhilarating sporting action, and hysterical comedy and all the while remaining true to the rich characterisations at its core. Mark Walhberg stars as Micky Ward, the younger brother of a briefly famous Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale in sensational form), whose past exploits against Sugar Ray Robinson have become the stuff of local legend and the defining moment in the now crack addicted and failed pugilist’s career. Now Micky’s trainer, he’s quick to point out that the two brothers were very different in the ring and, as the playfully elegant documentary-like opening sequence demonstrates, they are very different outside it too. Despite their differences, there’s a deep bond that Dicky instinctively exploits along with their overbearing mother (Melissa Leo) as they mismanage Micky into one bad fight after another. That is until the younger brother’s new girlfriend (a typically strong Amy Adams) encourages him to stand up for himself.

There’s so much going on here that it’s a testament to all involved the the movie glides so cohesively forward from one differently toned scene to another. An air of sharp comedy hangs over the film through the various characters’ combustible interactions but because of its perceptive portrayal of ordinary people there is, at its core, an honesty reminiscent of the best and most insightful dramas. Furthermore, much like that most untouchable of TV shows, The Sopranos, the realness of the characters and their dialogue acts as a tangible basis that allows their extraordinary experiences to thrill all the more especially during the boxing sequences. Combined with the assured energy of Russell’s direction, the film takes on a real verve and electricity from the viscerally shot fights to the soft and graceful subjective interactions.

But while Russell gives this film its momentum, it’s the cast who gives it its substance. Being the very definition of an actor who can shine in the right role or bomb in the wrong one, Mark Walhberg is beaming here like never before. It’s not a soul scouring piece of acting like Bale’s but it’s a triumphantly weighted ‘roll with punches… until’ performance that parallels Micky’s outside and inside the ring personas in endearing manner. This is a protagonist who we care about. Bale does his not unusual piece of dramatic weight loss to play the “squirrelly” larger than life junkie but it’s his ability to expose the essence of the human being beneath in all manner of interesting and charming ways that grabs the attention here. He deservedly nabbed the Best Supporting Oscar for the turn but it’s his young De Niro-like energy that impresses most. Leo also scooped the Best Supporting gong for her fiery portrayal of the shrewd yet loving matriarch. It’s her and her motley crew of battle axe daughters that allow Russell to generate a fair bit of farcical relief and while the antics of the Ward/Eklund women can sometimes feel a little forced, they are terrifically funny when they get going. The real Dicky Eklund felt it wasn’t an accurate reflection of his mother and sisters and one suspects Leo and Co. added many more claws for comic as well as dramatic effect. If so, job done!

It all builds up to a rousing finale that like the best sporting dramas seems to add more significantly to the tone of the film rather than the plot. It’s a wonderful moment of movie holism where the sum of the film’s parts come together to give us something we were never really promised while getting there but only too delighted to receive.

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Out of Sight (1998) 4.29/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.9
Genre: Crime
Duration: 123 mins
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Keaton

Terrific adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel by Steven Soderbergh with George Clooney in top form as a serial bank robber who breaks out of a Florida prison so that he can pull a diamond heist with the help of his regular accomplice (Ving Rhames). While doing so, he is forced to kidnap a beautiful but tough federal marshal in the form of Jennifer Lopez and an unlikely relationship between the two develops. As you’d expect from a Leonard-Soderbergh project, Out of Sight is a slickly crafted and worded film with all the style of Soderberg’s Oceans films but with more restraint and a better story. David Holmes chimes in with an equally slick and well weighted score. The highlight of this synthesis between dialogue, look, and score comes during the central romantic moment of the film which is full of playful innovation. Lopez and Clooney are brilliant together displaying palpable chemistry as they woo and zing each other in equal measure.

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Call Northside 777 (1948) 3.07/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 70.7
Genre: Film-Noir, Drama
Duration: 112 mins
Director: Henry Hathaway
Stars: James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb

Another one of those 20th Century Fox thrillers that were rolled out in an attempt to cash in on the success of the great films-noir of the early forties. Rarely fitting snugly into the noir category, these films were strong on plot but nothing more than solid in the screenplay and direction department. This one is much the same although with James Stewart, Lee J. Cobb, and Richard Conte in the starring roles, the standard enough script was made extra effective. Conte is the blue collar mug sentenced to life for the murder of a police officer but proclaims his innocence. Stewart and Cobb are the investigative reporter and editor respectively who attempt to lift the lid on the case eleven years later only to find evidence of corruption and stonewalling.

Stewart brings his usual five star presence and sharpens it with just enough cynicism to carry the film’s tension square on his shoulders. Alongside him, Cobb and Conte bring a level of professionalism to the film that gives it a personality it might have otherwise struggled to achieve given that Henry Hathaway shot this one with a level or greyness that leaned more towards the traditional noir aesthetic but without the intrigue of shadowy contrasts.

Hathaway was one of Fox’s preferred directors for these films perhaps because he knew how to shoot these stories and generally wasn’t drawn off task by an over commitment to aesthetic. He was solid as a rock. And while Call Northside 777 was competently shot, it still looked every bit the mainstream vehicle. For this reason, there’s a lack of edge to the tenser moments and the film’s overall progression but, as usual in these movies, it’s the story that wins out here. With strong arm police officers and shady witnesses at every turn, sniping lawyers, and even a touching romantic angle, this one has some great fundamentals and they tie together seamlessly. You’ll find yourself fully endeared to Stewart’s mission to clear an innocent man’s name and more than satisfied with the conclusion.

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The Jericho Mile (1979) 3.14/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.1
Genre: Drama
Duration: 97mins
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Peter Strauss, Richard Lawson, Brian Dennehy

This made-for-TV movie is an early outing for Michael Mann but it nonetheless has many of the hallmarks of his later features. Gritty realism, a fresh prison-based story, and clever dialogue elevates this film well above the fold. Peter Strauss plays a lifer who spends his days running around the prison yard as fast as he can in an attempt to exorcise his demons. Jeffrey Lewis plays the prison counsellor who after noting that he’s running close to Olympic qualification times on a dirt track and in basketball shoes attempts to help him in his rehabilitation by bringing his running to the attention of the athletics commission. The Jericho Mile isn’t as much about the running as it is about the internal strife that his high-profile running generates. Strauss is fantastic but he is helped ably by Lewis and the always impressive Brian Dennehy. This is an original and fascinating film that is not marred by any of the numerous prison cliches such as nasty wardens and guards. For that reason alone it’s worth watching.

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Kiss of Death (1947) 3/5 (8)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.5
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 98 mins
Director: Henry Hathaway
Stars: Victor Mature, Richard Widmark, Brian Donlevy

A lesser addition to the film noir catalogue that succeeds due to the malicious presence of one of cinema’s nastiest villains. Victor Mature stars as a jewellery thief who goes on one last job to provide for his family and gets nabbed by the police in the process. As they dangle deal after deal in his face, he turns them down in the belief his family are being looked after. When he hears otherwise, he goes to work for the D.A. (Brian Donlevy) in a bid to help bring Richard Widmark’s deranged Tommy Udo to justice. There’s a tidy premise to this wrapped up in a couple of worthy subplots concerning Mature’s private life but it’s let down by a frustratingly weak central performance. Mature struggles flatly to carry the film and worse still, the director Henry Hathaway doesn’t know how to handle it. As such, the film looses cohesion with every passing scene. Hathaway enjoyed filming on location where possible and while it adds to the gritty atmosphere, the lack of contained sets occasional exasperates this lack of cohesion. The story becomes ponderous with the only reprieve coming with the intermittent appearances of Widmark’s insane Tommy Udo. Udo has gone down in cinema history as one of its most disturbing villains and there’s no doubting the shocking nature of his darkest deeds in this film nor the unflinching manner in which Hathaway shot them. The key ingredient of course is Widmark, who used his debut appearance on the silver screen to blistering effect. With a vicious glint in his eye and that degenerate snigger, it’s an altogether creepy turn that captures the more nuanced insecurities that go hand in hand with over the top violence. This naturally makes him more scary because the character becomes all the more real and plausible. Widmark would go on to gift us a host of dangerous characters (good and bad), all of which were built on a similarly rich psychological base but this was the performance that lit the fire. For that reason alone we should all be grateful for Kiss of Death, and it’s that reason primarily why this is still an essential watch for all noir fans.

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Brute Force (1947) 4.36/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.2
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 98 mins
Director: Jules Dassin
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Sam Levene

Burt Lancaster’s brooding performance as a convict determined to escape a brutal prison is one his best. Brute Force is not your typical prison movie as it’s a far darker and grittier examination of the inner turmoil of the hard timer. Jules Dassin captures the oppressive feel of the prison environment wonderfully and there are some sumptuous shots littered throughout. Richard Brook’s screenplay is also a treat for the ears and along with Dassin’s ingenuity, it ties the back stories of the different characters together nicely. It all builds up to a real bang at the end which will have you on the edge of your seat. The cast are great one and all and in addition to Lancaster, Hume Cronyn’s against type turn as the sadistic prison screw deserves special mention. However, Brute Force is really about the big man who yet again manages to effortlessly let every inch of his massive frame fill whatever room he’s in with a sense of explosive danger.

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Alien 3 (1992) 3.07/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.5
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 114 mins
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dance, Lance Henriksen

Picking up where Aliens left off, the concluding part of the original trilogy, sees Ripley crash landing on a maximum security prison planet among murderers and rapists and yet another alien that has stowed away in her shuttle. An initially unsettling presence to the entirely male population “who have found God at the ass end of space”, she inevitably helps to organise the weaponless rabble against the alien.

Though never courting the same level of adoration as Scott’s Alien or Cameron’s Aliens, David Fincher’s film has a lot to recommend. There’s a coherent and focused story set within a context that gives the film a modest philosophical angle. Furthermore, stylistically speaking, it has a very strong sense of itself and no little amount of directorial class. The bridge between Aliens and this film is deftly constructed as credits are interrupted with snippets of the Sulaco’s ill fated return journey and of its face-hugging intruder. That style is stretched out more subtly throughout the remainder of the film reasserting itself fully only twice more. Once when Fincher and co. parallel the burial of Hicks and Newt with the birth of the mature alien (the “chest burster”) and again in the final scene. It’s this style that allows Fincher to crash the two ostensibly duelling themes of Alien 3 together, that of spiritualism and nihilism, while ultimately turning the entire film into a tome for a type of nihilistic spiritualism. It’s a clever conceit and one that is really quite effectively drawn out despite the director’s exit from the project before completion of post production.

Fincher’s withdrawal and his subsequent disowning of the movie was only one of several issues to arise during the production and the conveyor belt of script writers and treatments which ran through the project can be most clearly felt in how peripheral the actual alien becomes to the whole thing. There’s certainly an attempt to have the alien and Ripley define each other but the former pops up in such an understated manner that it inevitably drifts into the background. This leads us to the real problem with Alien 3, namely, that it never quite feels like it belongs to the same universe of the first two instalments. In addition to the alien playing second fiddle to Ripley, the production design, though rich and impressive, is exceptionally dreary and after a while, as the pessimism of the story bleeds through, it all begins to wear heavily. Moreover, whereas the first two films were strongly technological in their visual conception, the story here demands a technologically spare approach. All this makes Alien 3 the least visually interesting of the original trilogy and rather out on its own.

Of course, it could be argued that this distinction gives it a powerfully dark edge over the original films and the sinister manner in which “the company” is depicted in the final twenty minutes does support that. Nonetheless, there is one department where Alien 3 undeniably falls far short of its predecessors. The aforementioned disharmony in the last stages of post production ensured that the creature effects are inconsistent and often excruciatingly bad. Moreover, Alien 3 is a far less exciting movie as the action is restricted to the final act and with the restrictions in the story, it plays out in a comparatively flat manner when placed alongside Aliens and even Alien. That said, in the same way that Alien and Aliens were separable by genre (sci-fi horror vs action sci-fi respectively), Alien 3 can be simply understood to be maintaining that tradition by setting its stall out as a sci-fi drama. It certainly allows for greater exploration of the dramatic subplots and we see a new dimension to the well established character of Ripley as she and Charles Dance’s medical officer develop a brief but intriguing romantic partnership.

Dance is outstanding but this movie more so than any of the other movies in the franchise (four at this point not counting the recent Prometheus) is all about Sigourney Weaver. She hand picked writer David Giler and insisted Walter Hill be brought back on board to properly tease out Ripley’s potential and though the script was ultimately worked on by a troop of other writers, much of their contributions to her story were maintained. Weaver responded with a wonderful turn and one that is strong enough to shoulder the entire film. Ironic as it may appear, given she’s the only female cast member, that strength combined with some overarching themes of motherhood give the film a very feminine vibe. Fans of traditional horror won’t be too disappointed though because this, after all, is a David Fincher film and consequently there’s plenty of squirming scenes.

Overall, Alien 3 is a laudable effort to bring yet another layer to the franchise and indeed overcome the production issues which beset it from early on. It’ll always divide opinion among fans of that franchise and it’s the most independent in style but that just adds to its intrigue.

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The MacKintosh Man (1973) 3.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 71.6
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 103 mins
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Walter Hill
Stars: Paul Newman, Dominique Sanda, James Mason

Cracking good John Huston thriller which has been unfortunately forgotten over the years. Paul Newman stars as a British secret agent who assumes a false identify and sees to it that he gets sent to prison for 15 months where he attempts to infiltrate a gang of professional prison breakers. Things go wrong and it becomes apparent that he is involved in something far bigger and more political. This is an excellently crafted film and while nowhere near Huston’s best work it has touches of his rare genius throughout. The cast is replete with scene stealers with James Mason setting the example as usual. Newman is as watchable as ever in the lead and while some of the physical confrontations come off as quite dated there is some decent action in the form of a foot chase across the Irish countryside (something another Irishman might have borrowed heavily from years later when writing No Country for Old Men) and a car chase along part of the scenic Connemara coast. The plot is above average particularly compared to what we see in modern thrillers and while the story makes some leaps here and there, it generally tracks rather well.

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The Shawshank Redemption (1994) 3.37/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 82.1
Genre: Drama
Duration: 142 mins
Director: Frank Darabont
Stars: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton

The most satisfying film-going experience you can ask for as Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne defies all the odds by crawling through a river of shit and coming out clean on the other side. The Shawshank Redemption is what movies are all about! Okay, so it offers a veritable feast of cliché (the nasty warden, the old prisoner who keeps a bird, etc.) but that really doesn’t matter because it all fits together so perfectly. Robbins is truly excellent as Dufresne, the “tall drink of water” banker sentenced to life for murdering his wife and her lover. His face and expressions are a picture of ambiguity (which is integral to the story) but he always remains eminently likable. Morgan Freeman as the man he strikes up a lifelong friendship with is every bit his match and their chemistry is among the best ever offered up by the medium. Frank Darabont deserves most plaudits however, not only for his brilliant adaptation of Stephen King’s short story but for his sublime pacing and that masterful blending of Roger Deacon’s impressive cinematography and Thomas Newman’s soul-stirring score. The Shawshank Redemption is far from the best film ever made as some of the more populist movie lists imply but it’s eminently enjoyable and that counts for a lot.

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012) 3.15/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Bad – 57.8
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Comic Book
Duration: 165 mins
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Morgan FreemanMichael Cain

Stunning but only in its capacity to underwhelm, The Dark Knight Rises may have had an army of fanboys defending its name on (and even before!!) its release but this supposed movie extravaganza is nothing but a damp squib. Christopher Nolan’s final contribution to the Batman franchise sees Gotham being held for ransom by a formidable foe named Bane (Tom Hardy) who hijacks the city under the threat of nuclear destruction. Set eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, a physically weakened Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) who has hung up his cape these last few years poses little threat to the savage Bane and must rediscover his zest for life in order to defend the city once again. Along for the ride are the usual assortment of characters from Michael Caine’s Alfred to Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon as well as a few newcomers, namely, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a boy wonder type, and Mathew Modine as a bigwig in the police department.

After struggling with the coordination and overall pacing of the multiple subplots in Batman Begins yet seemingly mastering them in the The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises is a return to the hectic, rushed, and just plain muddled film-making of Nolan’s first installment. Side stories are merely introduced and with no time to let them nor the characters they’re built around develop, they’re accelerated, truncated, and fleetingly revisited all with the intention of bringing them together at the end. Unfortunately, given their slipshod construction we could care less about any of those characters by the time they get there. Even Batman elicits little in the way of the audience’s concern as the interminable final act plays itself out.

The character who suffers the most in this is Hathaway’s Catwoman as her early sequences showed some promise as the potentially treacherous nemesis of the Caped Crusader. But like every other character in this movie, the tension she offers peters out and the treachery becomes jarringly ordinary. Yes, it doesn’t help that Hathaway is operating in the shadow of Michelle Pfeiffer’s seminal turn in Batman Returns wherein she came to embody the very essence of feline treachery but in truth she was never even given a chance to compete. Tom Hardy puts in an interesting shift as the bad guy and Nolan sets up his character and introduces him effectively. However, because his brooding menace culminates in nothing more than a bunch of physical beatings he dishes out, the character ends up stagnating and even diminishing in threat.

On the technical front, Wally Phister’s cinematography, Lee Smith’s editing, and the visual effects are undoubtedly spectacular but with such an insubstantial story underlying them, the movie begins to feel like nothing more than a slideshow of striking images. This becomes rather jading and the film feels more and more like a visual marathon. The set pieces are elaborately set up but such is Nolan’s tendency to truncate every aspect of this film that, with the exception of the reasonably impressive opening sequence, they’re never allowed materialise into anything like what we saw in either of the first two installments. In fact, if it wasn’t for Hans Zimmer’s thrilling score we would barely notice the tepid action that this movie repeatedly serves up.

In the end, the abiding memories of The Dark Knight Rises are of the endless yet entirely nondescript hand-to-hand battles (somebody finally teach Nolan how to direct a fight scene, please!) and of Batman flying very slowly away from those fights in his nebulously shaped flying machine (don’t ask!). In fact, one desperately struggles to comprehend why so many have raved about the movie. It’s true that Nolan hires the cream of the industry’s technical talent and so his films have a very shiny gloss indeed but with such confused and unfocused writing and direction it’s all just a bottle of smoke.

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Conviction (2010) 2.43/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Bad – 59.8
Genre: Drama
Duration: 101 mins
Director: Tony Goldwyn
Stars: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo

Conviction tells the true life tale of a woman’s (Hilary Swank) 18 year long quest to prove her brother’s (Sam Rockwell) innocence of a brutal murder, a quest that alienated her from her family as she put everything on hold to go back to school to train as a lawyer. There’s a powerful story to be told here not to mention two actors who can do it justice but unfortunately it falls short thanks to a combination of weak directing and writing. At the expense of an honest and substantial probing of the cast iron motivations of its two very interesting protagonists, we are given what seems like a summary of the key events in this tale because, once it establishes the backstory, the film whisks through the 18 years in the space of about 50 minutes. A plethora of high emotion scenes and lots of melancholic piano scoring end up defining this film while a series of chronologically muddled flashbacks throughout the first act confound it. Why didn’t we see more of Melissa Leo’s sinister cop? How did Rockwell’s character learn to cope with the tedium of an unjust prison sentence? Why wasn’t the wearing effect of Swank’s crusade explored in more methodical fashion? What was at the heart of both their decisions to keep going? In fact, if it wasn’t for the albeit constrained performances of Swank and particularly Rockwell, not to mention the gripping events at its centre the story, this movie would be nearly unwatchable. But thankfully the two actors’ natural presence and skill are just about enough to draw the audience in and while Rockwell has far less screen time than Swank, the glimpses of him that we are given are emphatic testament to what he can do when he chooses to take on a straight-up dramatic role. The film comes to life when he’s on the screen and if his character’s 18 year stint was more in the movie’s focus, it would’ve been considerably more enjoyable. However, Hollywood is often guilty of overcooking its tear-jerking true life stories and despite Rockwell and Swank, Conviction still falls very much into that bracket. As such, it must go down as an opportunity missed.

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