Tag Archives: courtroom drama

Amistad – Review

13 May

In 1839, the slave ship La Amistad was taken over in a slave revolt led by Mende captives. This led to a drawn out trial involving many different parties concerning murder charges and property rights, while abolitionists of the time used the trial to prove that these Africans had rights the same as anybody else. While this incident didn’t change the times it did have lasting effects whose ripples could be felt throughout that time in history. It remained a story that seemed overshadowed by other historical events until Steven Spielberg, producer Debbie Allen, and writer David Franzoni resurrected the story for modern audiences. While it isn’t the most historically accurate film in the world, it has a sense of courage and honor that shows there was plenty of good in a time of evil.

After freeing himself from his chains securing him to the slave ship La Amistad, Mende captive Sengbe (Djimon Honsou) leads a revolt against the Spanish slave traders on the ship. Due to their lack of knowing how to properly navigate a ship, Sengbe and the rest of the Africans find themselves landing in an American port and are swiftly arrested by Naval officers. The captives are once again locked in jail where they await trial for murder and cases involving property rights. This attracts the attention of abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) who enlists the help of property lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to represent the captives in a court of law. The proceedings actually keep favoring Baldwin’s arguments, but it doesn’t take long for President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) to intercede and take the matters to the Supreme Court. With their case quickly spiraling out of control, Joadson, Baldwin, and Sengbe recruit the help of former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) to stand up for the Africans’ rights in the highest court of the land.

Amistad is the first film Spielberg made with Dreamworks, and at this point it’s hard to believe there was a time that he wasn’t working with this company. This was the time when Spielberg was really showing what he had to offer. This is epic film making that only got better with Saving Private Ryan. The production design of this movie is top of the line with sets that seem to live and breathe. I am really interested in this time period, so I may be a little bit biased to praise movies that so completely bring this era to life. While the set design and costumes already stand tall, there are other factors that exist to completely draw you into the world of this movie. The first is John Williams’ beautiful and often sweeping score. The other is Janusz Kamiński’s eye catching cinematography that was also put on display with Spielberg’s previous movie, Schindler’s List.

Like I said earlier, Amistad is an epic movie that really takes its time in telling the story and making sure all of the information is clear to the audience. This is both a good and a bad thing. While there is plenty of dramatic momentum moving the story forward, it’s hard to ignore that this can be an overly wordy movie. There are some moments where you have to stop and think of people really talk like the characters in this movie do. The writing is mostly spot on, but there are times when it becomes a little bit too theatrical when a general rule for film making is to show the audience information and not outright tell them. There’s one scene in particular that really stands out. There’s a scene where John Quincy Adams is addressing the Supreme Court, and it’s clear that Spielberg was really into shooting this scene, and for a while it’s incredible. It’s an amazing speech that unfortunately never seems to end. There were at least three different times where I thought that the speech was over, but then the camera would change and Hopkins would continue on. It became almost comical.

While this movie does get a little wordy and bogged down in over the top dramatic soliloquies, the people delivering these lines are all megastars in their own rights. This is a great cast with Freeman, McConaughey, Honsou, and Hopkins all knocking it out of the park. McConaughey and Honsou especially work great together and their getting to learn to understand each other while not speaking the same language is my favorite part of the whole movie. I do feel like Morgan Freeman was underutilized and only has a few memorable scenes where I feel like he was actually given something to do. Finally, Hopkins isn’t in the movie all that much, but when he is it feels like I’m watching the real John Quincy Adams and not an actor playing the part. Few actors can pull that off as well as Hopkins can.

Amistad has all the working of a memorable and epic Steven Spielberg movie. It’s filled with a cast of great actors, excellent music, and fantastic production design. It also is a little bit overdone in some parts, which can either add more of an entertainment quality or come off as something a little less respectable. This isn’t Spielberg’s finest achievement, but it is one that I feel doesn’t get the respect that it deserves. Personally, I thought it was a great movie and it’s one that I’d love to watch again. It tells an excellent story, and while it may not be totally historically accurate, it’s a pretty epic way to spend an afternoon.

Final Grade: A-

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Find Me Guilty – Review

9 Jun

Between the years of 1986 and 1988, the largest mafia indictment and trial occurred with 20 defendants, who were all members of the Lucchese crime family, in the hot seat. One of these defendants was a low level gangster named Frankie DiNorscio, who was already facing 30 years and decided the best thing he could do is defend himself during this enormous trial. Needless to say, it was a circus and this brings us to Find Me Guilty, one of the great Sidney Lumet’s last films. I can honestly say that I’ve never heard anyone talk about this movie… like ever. I find this weird since it is a very entertaining court room film, but also features, far and away, Vin Diesel’s best performance.

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After almost being killed by his cousin and then arrested during a huge drug bust, Jackie DiNorscio (Vin Diesel) is looking down the barrel of 30 long years in prison. As if his luck hasn’t been bad enough recently, DiNorscio is then included in a massive indictment, led by district attorney Sean Kierney (Linus Roache), of over 20 members of the Lucchese crime family, including the boss, Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco). Much to the chagrin of the lead defense attorney Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage), Jackie decides it would be in his best interest to defend himself in the case. As days turn to months, Jackie stands up for himself throughout the trial and causes all sorts of havoc in the courtroom, but he also is forced to use this trial as a reflection on how he’s lived his life up until this point, affected the people he’s surrounded by, and what the family really thinks of him.

I love me a good courtroom drama, and it’s disappointing that there aren’t really a lot of them being made as of recent. I may be just missing them, but I can’t think of one that really stands out in recent years. While I love the drama of a trial, movies like My Cousin Vinny and even A Few Good Men have shown that there can still be plenty of humor in a story like this. This is something that makes Find Me Guilty really stand out for me. Not only was I intrigued by the human drama and criminal element, DiNorscio’s antics and people’s responses made for some really funny scenes. Make no mistake, though. The third of this movie hit me where it hurts. The combination of Jackie sticking up for himself in court and also coming to terms with his place in the crime family and his own family makes for some really deep scenes. I can’t say it reaches the intensity of Lumet’s classic 12 Angry Men, but it certainly is affective.

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The main reason I decided to give this movie a watch is the chance to see Vin Diesel in a dramatic role. Diesel is best known for his action roles in the Fast and the Furious series and XXX. He’s recently stepped into the super hero territory as Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, but repeating the line “I am Groot” doesn’t really constitute as an acting showcase. Find Me Guilty has given me a new level of respect for Mr. Diesel. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Diesel actually completely embodies the role of Jackie DiNorscio to the point where I believe I’m no longer watching an actor, but footage from the actual trials. Of course I realize it’s a movie, but I really buy every line and action Diesel does, and saying I’m impressed is a bit of an understatement. We also have Peter Dinklage in a supporting role as a defense attorney that befriends DiNorscio. Dinklage also does a great job here, but that’s not really a surprise. This really is Vin Diesel’s show.

I want to get back to the point I made before about how part of this movie is about Jackie looking back at the things he’s done and said, and how the trial is the catalyst for all this soul searching he does. This is not the first time Lumet has done this with a court room scenario. Just look at 12 Angry Men. While it is a movie about a group of jurors deciding the fate of a young man, it’s also a movie about racism and bigotry and how they affect judicial proceedings. Find Me Guilty is also deeper than the intriguing scenes in the court room. It’s a movie about coming to terms with who you are and finding ways to better yourself before it’s too late. Movies with depth are certainly a plus, and Find Me Guilty succeeds very well at exploring its deeper thematic material.

I really can’t understand why no one ever seems to talk about this movie. It may not be Lumet’s crowning achievement, but it really is a damn good movie. Vin Diesel absolutely kills it as what may be one of the most sympathetic gangsters to grace the silver screen, and it makes me wish that he would take more jobs like this. It also helps that the dialogue is based off of actual courtroom testimony of the most absurd case the mafia has ever faced, while also exploring some deeper thematic elements. I liked Find Me Guilty quite a bit and can easily recommend it.

The Client – Review

5 May

Even if you’ve never read one of his books, chances are you still know the name John Grisham. Many of his stories have been turned into feature films, with my favorite being the 1996 courtroom drama, A Time to Kill. While that’s my own personal opinion, there are a lot of people who say that the best adaptation of a Grisham novel is the 1994 film, The Client. I remember watching this movie on t.v. when I was really young, and something about it really struck a cord in my brain making me remember it to this day. It’s finally time I revisited it and see if it’s held up after all these years.

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Mark Sway (Brad Renfro) and his little brother Ricky (David Speck) live a simple life in a trailer park by the woods. After sneaking in there to have cigarettes behind their mother’s (Mary-Louise Parker) back, the two boys witness the suicide by a mafia lawyer named Jerome “Romey” Clifford (Walter Olkewicz), but not before spilling the beans about his murderous client, Barry “The Blade” Muldanno (Anthony LaPaglia). This information makes the fame hungry federal attorney Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones) anxious to get his hands on what the kid knows and lock Muldanno up for life, even if it means putting Sway in the sights of numerous mafia hitmen. This prompts him to get a lawyer of his own, the inexperienced Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon), who treats Sway’s case with a special kind of attention and won’t stop until he is protected from both Foltrigg and Muldanno.

This movie really has a recipe for success. Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon are enough of an acting force to push any story forward, but it also helps having a Grisham story and Joel Schumacher backing them up. Before anyone says anything, I realize Schumacher is responsible for Batman and Robin, but he’s also responsible for some great films like Phonebooth and Falling Down. This is a very well constructed and acted movie from everyone involved. Sarandon was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, but Tommy Lee Jones also has a lot of great scenes that showcases how smarmy his character really is. This is also the debut of Brad Renfro who stands up very well to his acting superiors, which makes it more unfortunate his career was cut short when he died at the age of 28.

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With all of these talents mixing together, I’m quite surprised that The Client isn’t as exciting or thrilling as it should have been. I went into this wanting to see a lot more of the legal procedures and the mafia getting involved, but there’s only one court room scene and the mafia villains are completely laughable. For someone nick named “The Blade,” I was surprised to see how much of a cartoon character he was. It got to the point where it was hard to be threatened by these Looney Toon mafiosos. One of the reasons I love A Time to Kill so much is because there are great courtroom scenes. The one in The Client works fine, but there just isn’t enough there to make it really exciting. The film instead seems to want to focus on the relationship between Reggie Love and Mark Sway.

Since the attention is put on Brad Renfro’s and Susan Sarandon’s character, it’s important that they succeed in making their relationship interesting. At times, I feel like that’s the real crux of the movie. Sarandon’s character wants to have a connection with her estranged kids and Brad Renfro’s character wants to have a parent that can actually protect him. That’s where these two characters meet and find a special bond that makes their relationship interesting. There are times where this theme of needing some sort of connection is beat over the head, but it still works well enough and adds an extra layer to the movie.

I had a bit of a hard time writing this review because I don’t really have a whole lot to say about The Client. The opening scene is one of the most intense and memorable intros to a movie I’ve ever seen, but from there it gets a little less than thrilling. What holds the movie up is the unique characters and an especially unique murder mystery that a child has now gotten mixed up in. If more attention was spent to actually making an exciting court drama with a touch of gangsters that weren’t cartoons, The Client would have certainly been a better movie. As it is, it’s a hard movie to talk about because it really is just ok.

The Lincoln Lawyer – Review

22 Jul

In my travels here and there, especially on my adventures with public transportation, I’ve seen many a person reading books by the author Michael Connelly.  A prolific writer, Connelly has created many different characters that are part of long running collections and also has worked on writing for film and television. One of his most famous books was made into a movie just a few years ago, The Lincoln Lawyer, but when it came out I didn’t hear a whole lot about it. I thought it was about time to check it out and it’s fair to say that I got exactly what I was expecting from it.

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Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is a criminal defense lawyer who keeps his office in the back of his Lincoln Town Car that is driven all over Los Angeles. Haller’s willing to help anyone who’s willing to pay because all this job really means to him is a steady, and hefty paycheck, even though this way of thinking causes some minor conflict with his ex-wife and prosecutor, Maggie (Marisa Tomei). He soon stumbles onto a case that is sure to pay well when the son of a real estate tycoon, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), is charged with sexual assault and battery. At first, the case appears to be an open and shut deal, but when Haller’s own private detective Frank Levin (William H. Macy) uncovers some information about a previous case that may involve Roulet, Haller finds his career, his beliefs, and his life in supreme danger.

I had some thoughts about this movie as I was going into it about what it was going to be like and what my reaction to it would be. It’s kind of crazy how on point I was about it, because while my assumptions either come close or are completely wrong, they rarely are this accurate. Going into The Lincoln Lawyer, I was simply expecting a good escape from everything for a few hours, and that’s exactly what I got. There’s nothing really excellent, nor does it ever go above and beyond what is expected. This is just a good movie through and through, especially since there’s nothing too big I really need to complain about.

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Let’s get the not so good stuff out of the way first. The movie as a whole feels like it should definitely be part of a series, almost as if this is the pilot episode to what is going to be an excellent show. There’s a lot of really cool characters introduced and the story is very intriguing, but by the end I felt like I needed to see more in order for the movie to finally feel over. Part of this is probably because this technically is part of a book series that probably later goes on to build the characters more, but part of this definitely has to do with a hasty ending that ends before it even gets started. I swear, the amount of content that is packed into the last fifteen minutes of this movie is unbelievable. It kind of suffers from Return of the King syndrome, that being there are a whole bunch of parts I thought the movie was over, and then it would just cut over to another scene filled with information.

That’s the bad. Not really that much compared to everything else. The story of The Lincoln Lawyer, as I stated already, is really intriguing and the way it played out over a course of two hours was close to perfect. There was a lot of time for McConaughey to play a swaggering lawyer that appears invincible, and there was even more time for that image to peel away to show a distraught, morally torn human being. That being said, McConaughey and the rest of the cast do very well. Phillippe even gives a surprisingly good performance and I’m a little surprised I don’t see him in more movies. Everyone else does a good job, without acting better than is to be expected, but I just wish Bryan Cranston had more screen time!

The bottom line is that The Lincoln Lawyer is a solid movie that won’t disappoint. Don’t get me wrong, though, it probably won’t impress you either. What we have here is pure popcorn escapism that just so happened to land on the good side of the film making spectrum. Everything, besides a rushed ending, fits very well together in this movie, but you have to make sure you suspend your disbelief the moment the movie starts. If you’re in the mood to just turn off and enjoy a few leisurely hours, this might just do the trick.

12 Angry Men – Review

2 Feb

When you’re watching a movie, it’s pretty fair to expect a lot of different things to happen in the course of the running time, and for the events to play out in a number of different places. Well what if I were to tell you that one of the most widely praised films ever made, 12 Angry Men, takes place in one room and you never even know the names of the characters. Sounds like it would be hard to really get sucked into a movie like that, but if it weren’t possible, would this be said to be one of the objectively greatest films ever to be made?

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On the hottest day of the year, 12 New York City jurors are left with the task of deciding the fate of an 18 year old boy who allegedly stabbed his father to death. At first, the case seems pretty open and close and most of the jury, who want to get out of there as soon as possible, seem convinced that he is guilty. All but Juror #8 (Henry Fonda). While he doesn’t know for sure if the boy is guilty or innocent, he doesn’t believe that there shouldn’t be a discussion and that some of the evidence isn’t as concrete as everyone believes. As the afternoon progresses, and the discussions get more personal and heated, it becomes clear that this boy’s life is in the hands of flawed human beings who may let their prejudices take precedence over their judgement.

The relationship between the actor and the screenplay are very tight and important to strengthen. The actors really depend on the screenplay to be well made and structured in order to give a believable performance, and vice versa for the screenplay. In my opinion, never has this relationship been more important to a movie’s success. Like I said before, save for a few brief scenes, this movie takes place all in one room with the main driving force of the story being the dialogue. There is no flashback to the murder or any other action to speak of. What really makes this work is the writing by Reginald Rose and the acting. Henry Fonda, Jack Warden, and Lee J. Cobb give especially good performances in roles that may seem a bit ahead of their time.

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Seeing that there are 12 men in the room, and since they are the only important characters in the film, it is important that nothing is shirked when it comes to sculpting their characters. Luckily, each and every one is molded perfectly and uniquely. Even though we just meet these people in the beginning of the movie where they’ve already lived their lives up until this point, I got the sense that I knew exactly who each man was. Again, there’s no flashbacks or elaborate stories explaining who they are. We learn about them gradually as the film goes on through small side conversations and their opinions on the case, especially concerning the boy’s innocence.

12 Angry Men is a thematic powerhouse, and is one that I could really discuss for hours on end. Everything from the flaws in the judicial system, social class, and prejudice are explored over the course of the movie. What’s also smart is that there isn’t a definite answer the questions and themes that this movie is bringing up. It wants the viewer to watch and analyze it for themselves, and then their opinions can be made. It doesn’t waste time spoon feeding you.

12 Angry Men truly is a remarkable movie. One thing I didn’t mention before is how the movie starts out in wide angle shots with plenty of room, and as it goes on, the shots get closer and more claustrophobic. Even the little details like that are important to the movie. The characters, acting, and writing are the true successes to this film and it has some pretty heavy questions that will make you think about yourself and your own beliefs. This film is a classic, and even if old movies aren’t your style, you should watch and be thrilled by 12 Angry Men.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose – Review

9 May

Believe in it or not, the concept of being possessed and needing some sort of holy man drive whatever all fiction has taken hold of your being is a pretty bizarre and terrifying. When The Exorcist was released in 1973, people were blown through the theatre walls and it was called one of, if not, the scariest films ever made. Now, it’s pretty much a guarantee that we will see an exorcism movie at least once a year. They have become a dime a dozen. In 2005, when The Exorcism of Emily Rose was released, this wasn’t yet the case, making this movie an original and surprisingly dramatic piece of film making about innocence, morality, and personal beliefs.

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Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is charged with criminal negligence in the death of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), a nineteen year old girl believed to have been possessed and put under the care of Father Moore. Defending him is a rising star lawyer, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), who is an agnostic who is only taking the job to get her name on the law firm and establish herself as an accomplished defense lawyer. Through a series of flashbacks and witness recounts, the story of Emily Rose is slowly put together, and Bruner’s beliefs are tested when what she thought was real melts away with this supernatural possibilities taking over her life.

The first thing that really sticks out about The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the depth that this story is willing to go.  The focal point of the story could have easily been the exorcism itself, and filled with really crazy exorcism scenes  which would have helped in selling tickets and surging the audience’s adrenaline. Instead, Scott Derrikson chose to take a more dramatic approach which really forces the audiences to think about their own beliefs and open their minds up to greater possibilities than what they really think is true. The same thing can sort of be said about The Last Exorcism, but that movie got to be so overblown by the end, I wasn’t really doing any introspection.

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Still though, the scenes that did show Emily Rose and her possession were top notch horror. Jennifer Carpenter gives an absolutely outstanding performance both vocally and physically. A lot of the vocals are created in post production with audio layering, but when she contorts her body in all the crazy positions that we see, it’s just her. Even something as simple as a hand gesture is stiffened and gives off this really creepy vibe that is necessary in movies like this. These scenes are also very important in ensuring that the more drama oriented court room scenes have some points of reference and really balance out the movie.

The scenes in the courtroom are also really good, but do suffer from some heavy handed dialogue and some acting that is just a little off from some of the more minor characters. Even some of the main characters like Bruner and Father Moore have some over the top dialogue that wouldn’t have worked if the actors saying them weren’t as serious and into their roles like Linney and Wilkinson. Hearing them sometimes would pull me out of the movie and make me think, “no one would actually say that.” What is cool about these scenes is that they don’t fall into pits of cliches and the proceedings can be pretty unpredictable. The ending is so unpredictable that I still don’t really buy it, and it would have been better for the writers to stick a bit closer to the actual history.

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The Exorcism of Emily Rose wasn’t so much an entertaining movie as it was an intellectually engaging one. That seems sort of odd to say about a movie that is about an exorcism, but again, this was before the time that one was pretty much release every year. It’s more than just a courtroom drama and an exorcism movie. It’s a clever combination of the two that will force the viewer to look inside themselves and see what they actually believe. Any movie that can shake someone up so much has to be good, and that’s what this movie is. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a genuinely good movie.