American Violet

Posted on October 13, 2009 at 8:00 am

Meet two extraordinary women — Dee Roberts, based on a real-life single mother who took on corrupt and racist law enforcement officials in Texas and Nicole Beharie, the woman who plays her, who makes one of the most thrilling feature film debuts in years.

Dee is a single mother who lives in the projects. She works as a waitress and cares for her four daughters with the help of her mother (Alfre Woodard), a hairdresser. Her community is constantly being caught up in violent law enforcement sweeps that result in widespread arrests of people too poor, uninformed, and desperate to go to court. The county and state get federal funds based on conviction rates so they push hard, often without any real evidence. And the people who have been arrested, all black and all poor, have no resources to defend themselves and settle for plea bargains, not realizing that the admission of guilt will cut off their welfare payments and right to vote.

An ACLU lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) arrives in town willing to challenge the district attorney (Michael O’Keefe), but he needs local counsel and he needs a plaintiff — someone who has been abused by the process to file the lawsuit. Only Dee has the courage and passion for justice to challenge the established power in her city.

Thankfully, the film avoids the too-frequent failure of making the white characters the heroes of a civil rights story. In this case, it is in part due to a skillful screenplay by Bill Haney and to Beharie’s star power in a performance of extraordinary sensitivity and fire. She has a mesmerizing ability to convey the mingled emotions of fear and resolve while maintaining sweetness and dignity. Her interactions with the four real-life sisters who play her young daughters feels completely authentic and as she thinks through her choices we feel we can see her weigh every option. The story is a classic American triumph of the oppressed through the court system but Dee is more than a client and a figurehead; she is an essential strategist, coming up with a crucial change of plans at the case’s turning point, and a constant source of inspiration. “After what they done to me, they made it my business,” she tells her mother.

It hits a little heavily on the implications of the 2000 election but wisely puts the story in context so that it is clear that the problem is systemic and not the result of one official or one town. Even more wisely, it keeps the focus on Dee, who as portrayed by Beharie is truly mesmerizing.

Related Tags:

 

Based on a true story Courtroom Crime

Changeling

Posted on February 17, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Radiantly beatific, Angelina Jolie glows with mother love in bright red lipstick and a series of divine cloche hats as Christine Collins, a devoted single mother, in this fact-based drama directed by Clint Eastwood. In 1928 Los Angeles, while she was at work, her son Walter just disappeared. Months later, the police told her they had found him, but the boy they gave her was not her son. She was pressured by corrupt cops to accept the new boy as hers. When she persisted in pointing out that not only was this boy physically different from Walter but that his dentist and teacher were on her side, she was committed to a mental institution and told she could not leave until she dropped all efforts to prove that her son had not been returned.

Eastwood’s meticulous direction and the sheer outrageousness of the story make for absorbing drama, though the very strangeness of the underlying facts makes the material seem overpacked (the running time is almost two and a half hours) and its discursive unfolding diminishes the dramatic effect.

It is impossible not to bring Jolie’s public role as a devoted mother of six to her performance here. Once Hollywood’s most notorious wild child, Jolie has transformed her public persona into a sort of earth Mother Courage on behalf of her own multi-cultural brood and on behalf of all the world’s poor and neglected children with her work for the United Nations. All of that blends in to the ferocity she brings to this role, diminishing the power of the story. The stand-out performances here are Ryan as the indomitable inmate and Jason Butler Harner as the man who probably knows what happened to Walter.

An additional distraction is the effort to put three separate stories into one long drama. The first act is the boy’s disappearance and the horrifyingly absurd attempt to persuade Collins that another child is her son. The second is a “Snake Pit”/”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” diversion after she is thrown into the state mental hospital, where she is subjected to abuse but meets another inmate (the always-outstanding Amy Ryan) whose honesty and courage helps sustain her hope. And then there is a third act, where Collins all but disappears as the crime drama plays out and we find out what happened to the boy and what happened to those responsible.

Related Tags:

 

Based on a true story Courtroom Drama

Flash of Genius

Posted on February 17, 2009 at 8:00 am

Americans do love our underdog stories and this one has the ingredients. There’s a David — an engineering professor named Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear), who had a “flash of genius” and invented a gadget that all the geniuses in Detroit had been trying to figure out — an intermittent windshield-wiper to provide better clarity of vision when driving in the rain. Jackpot, right? No, there’s also a Goliath, and no giant is bigger and no overdog is overdoggier than the Detroit auto industry, circa 1960’s. And it really happened. Kearns sued Ford Motor Company for stealing his idea and pursued them for decades, representing himself in court. When they offered him millions of dollars but refused to give him credit for the invention, he turned them down. Integrity and pride, those are important elements of the underdog story, too.

Director Mark Abraham gives the film a gritty authenticity, evoking the era without overdoing it. And he gives the story its grittiness, too, showing us the price Kearns and his family pay for his dedication and stubbornness. Lauren Graham is a pleasure as Kearns’ wife. No one on screen today does a better job of portraying an intelligent, warm, sexiness. Kinnear shows us Kearns’ honesty, stubbornness, pride, and vulnerability. The courtroom scenes are exceptionally well done.

If there’s a fine line between genius and insanity, there’s an even finer one between genius and obsession. This film is a thoughtful, sympathetic, but clear-eyed portrayal of what Kearns gained but also what he lost.

Related Tags:

 

Based on a true story Courtroom Drama

Legally Blonde

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

It’s been too long since the last courtroom comedy. This one might not reach the heights of the sublime “My Cousin Vinny`” but it comes pretty close.

Reese Witherspoon plays Elle Woods, an adorable Southern California sorority girl who is about to graduate with a major in fashion marketing. Her life seems as pink and perfect as her nails. Her biggest challenge is what to wear for what she thinks will be a marriage proposal from her beau, Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis). But he has another idea. He has decided to break up with her before he leaves for Harvard Law School, because she is not smart enough to be of help to him in his political career. If he wants to be a Senator by age 30, he needs a wife who will look right in a campaign brochure. He tells her, “I need a Jackie, not a Marilyn.”

She decides that the only way to get him back is to join him at Harvard. So, she studies hard, aces the LSATs, and, with the help of a videotaped application essay, showing her explaining her qualifications as she soaks in a Jacuzzi, she is admitted.

Her new classmates are skeptical (one calls out, “Look! Malibu Barbie lives!”). They can’t see beyond her feather-topped pens and pink, scented resume. Worst of all, Warner is engaged to a girl who looks like an ad for “Town and Country” (the upper crust magazine, not the awful movie). They won’t let her study with them and they play a cruel joke on her. But Elle surprises them all — and even herself — by becoming a first class law student and a first class lawyer while staying true to herself. She ends up defending a murder suspect with whom she has a special rapport and conducting a cross-examination that would impress Perry Mason.

Reese Witherspoon is a treasure. She makes Elle completely believable as a delectable California girl with spirit and brains even she did not realize. Witherspoon and the art direction (even the credits have i’s dotted with hearts) keep things bubbly even when the script falters into predictability or vulgarity. Luke Wilson as a young lawyer and Holland Taylor as an acerbic professor add some nice moments. And it is fun to see Raquel Welch in a cameo as a wealthy divorcée.

Parents should know that the movie is rated PG-13 for about five to ten minutes of crude humor, including jokes about stereotypes of gays. There is brief bad language. Elle may be blonde and bubbly, but she is far from ditsy. She works hard, uses her very fine brain, and conducts herself with integrity and dignity. Elle gives another woman advice about how to show off her body favorably to get a man’s attention, but when her boss makes a pass at her, she makes it very clear that his behavior is unacceptable.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Elle did not have higher aspirations for herself, and the role her parents played in shaping the way she thought about her future. They might also want to talk about Elle’s choice to keep her client’s secret, even when it put her defense at risk, and about the mistakes people make when they judge other people based on appearances. What made Elle succeed when more experienced lawyers did not? What did the way Elle responded to the practical joke show us about her?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “My Cousin Vinny” (rated R for language).

Related Tags:

 

Comedy Courtroom

Erin Brockovich

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

The poster says, “She brought a small town to its feet and a huge company to its knees.” So we know where it’s all going, and just settle back to enjoy the ride. And an enjoyable ride it is, too.

The guy who deserves next year’s best acting Oscar is the actor who has the impossible job of playing a doctor who is interviewing single mother Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) for a job and is not utterly charmed by her. The audience has no such obligation, and we lose our hearts immediately.

Erin leaves that interview, climbs into her crummy car, and gets slammed into by another doctor. When she loses her lawsuit against him, she forces the lawyer who represented her to give her a job (Albert Finney as Ed Masry). No one wants her there, and no one likes her because she has a big mouth and wears trashy clothes. But she is curious and tenacious. She gets interested in a real estate file that includes medical records, and she goes off to investigate.

It turns out that the community of Hinkley has been poisoned by hexavent chromium, leaching into the drinking water from a PG&E plant. Erin is able to gain the trust of the community and help Ed put together a case that would win the largest direct claim settlement in American history.

Julia Roberts keeps getting better and better, more luminous, and at the same time more vulnerable and more in control. She plays Erin as a woman who never stopped believing in herself and yet is deeply touched when others believe in her, too. She understands the way the people in Hinkley feel, mistrustful of lawyers and overwhelmed by the odds. She understands that “people want to tell their stories.” And she has enough confidence in herself to know that, while she might not have been able to keep her beauty queen promise of ending world hunger, this is a promise she can keep.

She understands, too, that there will be costs. A romance with a loving biker/nanny (George, played by Aaron Eckhart, who makes that combination endearingly believable) and her relationships with her children are threatened by her devotion to the case. In a heartbreaking scene, she is driving back home after a hard day and George tells her that her baby spoke her first word. Erin is overjoyed at the news and devastated to have missed it. The look in her eyes as George tells her all about it is complex, rich, perfect.

And there are many “Rocky”/”Norma Rae”-style feel-good moments, like when PG&E’s first lawyer, looking like a high school debate club president, tries to bully Erin and Ed, and when Erin uses everything from her cleavage to her baby to get access to the records she needs.

Parents should know that the movie’s R rating comes from very strong language and some sexual references (Erin jokes that she got the cooperation of the town’s residents by performing sexual favors). And no matter how high the settlement, the fact remains that children and their families were made terribly ill, and no amount of money will make up for that.

Families who watch this movie should talk about why it is that Erin is able to connect with the residents of Hinkley, why she is reluctant to accept help from anyone, and the importance of not judging people based on their appearance. They may also want to talk about the issue of corporate responsibility. No one at PG&E wanted anyone to get hurt. How do problems like lack of accountability arise?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Sally Fields’ Oscar-winning performance in “Norma Rae.”

Related Tags:

 

Based on a true story Courtroom Drama Family Issues Inspired by a true story
THE MOVIE MOM® is a registered trademark of Nell Minow. Use of the mark without express consent from Nell Minow constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition in violation of federal and state laws. All material © Nell Minow 1995-2021, all rights reserved, and no use or republication is permitted without explicit permission. This site hosts Nell Minow’s Movie Mom® archive, with material that originally appeared on Yahoo! Movies, Beliefnet, and other sources. Much of her new material can be found at Rogerebert.com, Huffington Post, and WheretoWatch. Her books include The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments, and she can be heard each week on radio stations across the country.

Website Designed by Max LaZebnik