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).

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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.”

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Based on a true story Courtroom Drama Family Issues Inspired by a true story

The Hurricane

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter triumphed over a brutal childhood to become a contender for the middleweight boxing championship, through pure determination. Then, wrongfully sentenced to three life terms for murders he did not commit, he used the same discipline, integrity, and ineradicable sense of dignity that served him as a fighter to survive in prison.

Denzel Washington’s dazzling portrayal as Carter makes us see the man’s courage and heart. And the astounding story of chance, loyalty, and dedication that led to his release gives us a chance to see true heroism and redemption.

Carter emerged from his first trumped up prison sentence (for running away from an abusive reformatory) determined to make his past work for him by making sure he would never return. He becomes a powerful boxer by channeling his rage into his fights: “I didn’t even speak English; I spoke hate, and those words were fists.” When his worst nightmare is realized, after a racist policeman coerces witnesses and suppresses evidence, and he is sent back to prison, he turns to that same focus to keep his core self free. He refuses to wear a prison uniform. And he refuses to accept privileges so that nothing can be taken away from him. He says, “My own freedom consisted of not wanting or needing anything of which they could provide me,” and “it is very important to transcend the places that hold us.” He makes a new goal: to “do the time,” meaning to do it his own way. If that requires cutting himself off from anything that makes him feel vulnerable, including his family and everyone else in the world outside the prison, he will. He says, “This place is not one in which humanity can survive — only steel can. Do not weaken me with your love.”

Meanwhile, a boy named Lasra Martin, living in Canada with people who took him in to provide him with an opportunity to get a better education, buys his first book for twenty-five cents. It is Carter’s book written in prison, The Sixteenth Round. Lasra writes his first letter. Carter answers.

They develop a close relationship, and Lasra introduces Carter to his Canadian friends, who become so committed to him that they move to New Jersey, vowing not to leave until he goes with them. They uncover new evidence, the lawyers develop a new theory, and finally, 20 years later, Carter is freed.

The devotion of the Canadians and the lawyers is truly heroic and very moving — the movie gently contrasts them with the celebrities who stopped by long enough to get their photographs taken, and then moved on to other causes. But, contrary to many “victims of racism saved by rightous white people” movie portrayals, the real hero of this story is Carter himself. In his first days in prison, locked in “the hole” for refusing to wear a prison uniform, we see him forging the steel that will keep his essence free, no matter how many locks are on the door. Then, in scenes that are almost unbearably moving, we see that he can still allow himself to hope and to need others. He has protected himself from dispair and bitterness in refusing to be a victim.

Families should talk about the struggles for racial equality in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and about what has and has not changed. And they should talk about the way that Carter keeps his spirit alive, in part by identifying himself with prisoners of conscience like Nelson Mandela and Emile Zola, and by writing, “a weapon more powerful than my fists can ever be.” Teens might want to read Carter’s book or the book Lazarus and Hurricane, which was the basis for the movie. They will also appreciate another dazzling performance by Washington in another tribute to an extraordinary historical figure, Malcolm X.

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Based on a book Based on a true story Biography Courtroom Documentary Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues
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