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New Year's Eve

There are lots of different aspects of a movie that can make or break it. One of the most important is focus. When a movie meanders too much or introduces too many characters or tries to juggle multiple stories in its short runtime, it almost never works. The exception to that rule is 2003’s Love Actually, a delightful, though still certainly flawed romance that now ranks among many people’s must watch love stories. Last year’s Valentine’s Day attempted to recreate that movie’s charm and scraped by on the skin of its teeth. Now that film’s director is attempting to recreate his own recreation with New Year’s Eve, an unwise decision. The small amount of luck he had with Valentine’s Day is all but gone and most of the joy that comes from watching it is due to how bad it gets as it draws nearer to its conclusion. New Year’s Eve takes cheese to an entirely new level.

The film is told through a number of vignettes featuring characters on December 31st, 2011 as they prepare for what the new year will bring. There’s Claire (Hilary Swank), the person in charge of the New York City ball drop, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), an unhappy record company employee who has just quit her job, Paul (Zac Efron), the young delivery boy Ingrid buys for the day to help her meet a list of goals before midnight, Stan (Robert De Niro), an old man dying in the hospital, Aimee (Halle Berry), his nurse, Tess (Jessica Biel), who is close to giving birth but is trying to hold out with her husband Griffin (Seth Meyers) until midnight because the first family to give birth in the new year gets a large cash prize, and Grace (Sarah Paulson) and James Schwab (Til Schweiger), the competing pregnant couple across the hall.

Believe it or not, I haven’t even come close to naming off all the film’s characters. Not mentioned in the above synopsis are Cary Elwes, Alyssa Milano, Common, Carla Gugino, Katherine Heigl, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michele, James Belushi, Sarah Jessica Parker, Abigail Breslin, Josh Duhamel, Ludacris and more. The film leaves no celebrity unturned, even going so far as to give Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson on The Simpsons, a supporting role. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy playing “spot the celebrity,” but it doesn’t make for the most structured movie. Rather than introducing them organically through the needs of the story, they are introduced just as they are, as celebrities. It becomes distracting.

But in a movie with so little going for it, that hardly matters. As expected with a film that crams so much in a small amount of time, none of the individual stories are given room to breathe. Most are sped through so as not to make the movie five hours long, which gives little time for characterization. The two or three interesting stories are either overshadowed by a dozen other lousy ones or undermined by poor writing, where conflicts are thrown in arbitrarily in a desperate attempt to build emotion by the end, like the scene where Paul stands alone in a room with Ingrid and talks to his pal on the phone about how pathetic she is, as if she can’t hear him while she’s standing a few yards away. Moments like these derail New Year’s Eve from what is already a pretty wobbly track.

But hating the film is not easy. It’s cheery and optimistic, even if that optimism borders on annoyance. It knows its audience and it panders to them. The simplicity of its story is exactly what the people who go to see this will want, so in a strange way, you could almost call it a success. Luckily, however, its simplicity doesn’t carry all the way to its end. There are a few legitimate surprises in store for its viewers, a twist or two that actually manage to create some intrigue as the clock strikes midnight for the characters, even though the film’s window for emotion is long gone by then. Still, getting to those clever twists is a chore. New Year’s Eve is only two hours long, but its gooey amounts of cheese and hilariously awful song numbers will make it feel like you’re watching the whole stupid day unfold.

New Year’s Eve receives 1.5/5



It’s been six years since Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her role in the fantastic Clint Eastwood film, Million Dollar Baby. Since then, she has either starred in weepy romantic tripe (P.S. I Love You) or movies where she tries so hard she’s practically begging for another award. Amelia was her last attempt and she failed. Her latest, Conviction, is much the same. The movie, though decent, won’t garner any Oscar buzz in the coming months and I’d be shocked to see Swank nominated for Best Actress after this over-the-top performance.

The movie is based on the inspiring true story of Betty Anne Waters (Swank), a woman who put herself through years of schooling to eventually earn a law degree and exonerate her brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell), who had been in jail for 18 years for a murder he did not commit.

Betty Anne Waters is an amazing woman and I had the pleasure of meeting her prior to my screening of Conviction. After years of working through the legal system and failing to get her brother out of jail, she took it upon herself to enroll in a community college, earn her bachelors, then her masters, then finally her law degree, only to spend even more time tracking down past evidence in an attempt to take a DNA sample that would prove her brother’s innocence. She devoted her life to this cause, knowing only in her heart that Kenny was innocent. In a sad example of irony, he only went on to live six months after being released, accidentally falling off a wall and fracturing his skull.

However, this tragedy isn’t even in the movie. As Betty Anne said to me, that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about hope and love and a brother/sister bond that can’t be broken. It was about showing the importance of being a free man, not falling prey to the real life twist that followed. It’s this talk with Betty Anne that has my feelings for the movie so confused. Outside of a few small instances, everything in the film happened, but it all feels so contrived, like when they finally get the DNA evidence and prove his innocence, only to have his release refused by the claim that he can be still tried as an accomplice, thus prolonging the movie. While this no doubt occurred, it’s hard not to gawk at it with an exhausted sigh.

But that little voice in the back of my head kept telling me to give it a break. Besides, I was interested in what I was seeing, even if I was rolling my eyes a bit more than I had hoped. I’m fascinated with these types of stories and if you’re aware of Darryl Hunt, Rubin Carter or the West Memphis Three, chances are you are too.

But the movie critic in me finds too many faults with it to give it a break. It may be a remarkable true story, but it holds little dramatic weight. Given the 18 year time period, events are rushed through and the characters are given no time to develop. After her brother is convicted, Betty Anne’s life becomes consumed with the case, which distances her from her family, eventually causing her husband to leave her and her two sons to go live with him. I didn’t care because, frankly, she didn’t seem to. The emotion is all but missing.

I say all but missing because the small amount that does exist is overly dramatic, partially thanks to Swank’s hit-and-miss performance, but mostly due to the heavy handed script. Instead of telling this story meaningfully, it’s Hollywood-ized for modern audiences who can’t handle intelligent, thought provoking material.

Nevertheless, the wit is there and Sam Rockwell once again gives an outstanding performance. It’s not that this film is bad. It’s just so middle of the road. For every one thing it does right, it does two wrong. The story of Betty Anne Waters and her brother is incredible, but there are plenty of interesting ways to hear it. Conviction, unfortunately, isn’t one of them.

Conviction receives 2.5/5