Category Archives: Legal Drama

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) 3.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 68.8
Genre: Horror
Duration: 119 mins
Director: Scott Derrickson
Stars: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Shohreh Aghdashloo

Laura Linney stars as a successful defence attorney who agrees to defend a Catholic priest (Tom Wilkinson) when a young woman who he performed an exorcism on died shortly thereafter. As she delves into the case, she not only begins to believe the priest’s story but she comes to suspect that the same dark forces are now working against her. Scott Derrickson’s film strikes an original chord within the genre by attempting to examine the case from a legal perspective and he sets a wonderfully sinister atmosphere that peaks in some truly chilling moments. Linney’s skill in the lead lends even more credibility to the film’s serious aspirations as does the wider casting from Wilkinson’s beleaguered clergyman to Campbell Scott’s determined prosecutor. However, things go wrong with the screenplay just as it should be ratcheting up towards an intriguing conclusion. The relevance of the exorcism to the law is only barely glanced at as evidenced by Wilkinson’s marginalisation as a character and the main plot gets a little silly towards the close. Most disappointing of all, however, the creepy subplot concerning Linney’s inexplicable experiences never really amounts to anything. Instead, the movie satisfies itself in the main by offering multiple retrospective accounts of the events leading up to and including the exorcism which themselves bear an awfully familiar bent. At the very least, a Rashoman-like contrast between the various firsthand accounts would’ve added an interesting layer of ambiguity to the proceedings but given that they’re all in accordance with each other, we’re left with a clear but less intriguing delineation between truth and mistruth. Thus, it can be argued that The Exorcism of Emily Rose turns its back on its most promising story angles to serve its most ordinary:- a real shame give the calibre of talent  on hand.

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A Few Good Men (1992) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76
Genre: Drama
Duration: 138 mins
Director: Rob Reiner
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore

One of the most quoted movies in recent decades, Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin’s legal drama pits Tom Cruise’s talented young JAG Corps officer against Jack Nicholson’s tyrannical Marine Corps division commander. Cruise excels as the plucky lawyer faced with the task of defending two marines on trial for murder. However, this one will always be remembered for his co-star’s scenery-chewing turn as the defendants’ base commander and the man behind their illicit orders to “train” the soon-to-be victim. A host of top names fill out the rest of the bill with both Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak (as Cruiser’s legal team) playing more grounded roles than was typical of their careers at that point. Kevin Bacon is his usual safe pair of hands as the prosecutor while a nasty Kiefer Sutherland and the late great J.T. Walsh offer strong support as Nicholson’s underlings. Sorkin’s sharp script is best remembered for its relentless courtroom dialogue but it’s laced with subtleties that augment the drama from all angles. From its nods to the various character’s backgrounds to the unspoken enmity between the Marines and the Navy, they provide a rich subtext to the plot. From the director’s chair, Reiner generates a palpable tension and swift pace from the screenplay with much help from composer Marc Shaiman’s exciting score and, of course, his two leads. Though “Colonel Nathan Jessup” has probably gone down as Nicholson’s most famous role and though he certainly provides the lion’s share of the movie’s dramatic thump, it’s not the most nuanced piece of acting we’ve seen from the screen legend. Playing up to a caricature of his own celebrity, he never attempts to escape his “Big Jack” persona and is content to let his famous sneering delivery and scathing smile do most of the work. Not that it hurts the movie in the slightest but it seems a relevant footnote when discussing one of modern cinema’s most memorable characters.

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The Letter (1940) 4.71/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 80.6
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 95 mins
Director: William Wyler
Stars: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson

From its exquisite opening scene in which a sleepy plantation is sharply awoken by an impeccably dressed Bette Davis gunning down a late night visitor, William Wyler’s The Letter lures us into it a wispy world of pretense and fettered emotion. Playing the well-to-do wife of a Singapore plantation owner who must defend herself for the killing of a man she claimed made unwelcomed advances, Davis was at the peak of an unparalleled run of successful screen turns and she harnesses all that confidence to shoulder the movie. A tantalising balance of threat and vulnerability, she commands the camera when it’s on her. As her legal council in her inevitable prosecution, James Stephenson goes a long way to match her as a source of conflict while providing a moral lens through which we can examine Davis’ actions. Gordon Kahn’s flawless screenplay centres around the initial murder that, in the absence of any Rashoman-like reconstructions, verbally retells it several times as new evidence comes to light. It’s a deft piece of writing that gives tangibility to the story during such transitory moments. Wyler crafts it all to exacting standards, lighting and shooting critical scenes in a noir aesthetic that rivals the best while affording the remainder of the film a lush profile highly complementary of the narrative. A genuine classic!

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The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) 2.76/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 72.6
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 118 mins
Director: Brad Furman
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe

A slick legal thriller that gets the most out of Mathew McConaughey’s self-assured charm while simultaneously feeding a central murder plot and a whole lot of subplots. McConaughey stars as Michael Connelly’s successful defence attorney Mick Haller who works out of his chauffeur driven car for anyone and everyone who can pay his exorbitant fees. When a brash rich kid Ryan Phillippe is charged with the attempted murder of a prostitute, Haller discovers disturbing parallels between that case and another involving a former client (Michael Pena) who Haller convinced to take a plea in order to avoid death row. Armed with John Romano’s purposeful script and clear dialogue, director Brad Furman manages to bring the streets of LA into the middle-upper class world of lawyers and their clients through a healthy balance of stylish editing and a top cast. The plot is considered and drives the film forward despite the potential distraction of Haller’s wider presence. On that note, McConaughey is more than comfortable in the lead and exudes all the easy charisma to set the overall tone but shows much discipline in allowing both plot and subplot to take first billing. Marisa Tomei is a refreshing presence as his age appropriate ex-wife while Phillippe, Pena, William H. Macy, and Bryan Cranston bring a level of depth not to mention fun to the story. The whole thing makes for a nice hybrid of the 21st and 20th century thrillers given its brash visual and character profile and grounded plot. For the latter reason alone, The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t the type of movie that blows the doors off the movie theatres but it’s that degree of modesty in its ambition that makes it so easy to bounce along to.

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Witness for the Prosecution (1957) 4.64/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.7
Genre: Mystery
Duration: 116 mins
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich

Billy Wilder & Agatha Christie open their respective boxes of tricks and the result is a spotless court room drama with lashings of wit. When Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is charged with the murder of a wealthy widow, he convinces the highly respected and larger than life barrister, Sir Wilfrid Robarts, (played with blustery gusto by Charles Laughton) to take his case even though the famous attorney is himself convalescing. The only problem seems to concern his alibi as its provider, the defendant’s wife (Marlene Dietrich), seems to have her own motives for testifying.

There’s lots to admire here from Wilder’s clever yet charming screenplay to his less intrusive use of the camera. Laughton is fabulous as the obstinate but decent Sir Wilfrid while Dietrich gives a stone cold performance as the only mysterious piece to Robart’s puzzle. Power is capable in his role, though some of his acting is dialed a tad high. Of course, Christie’s story deserves special mention as Witness for the Prosecution is of that vintage of straight forward story-telling populated with one fascinating character after another.

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Primal Fear (1996) 3.57/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73.4
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 129 mins
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Stars: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Edward Norton

An urbane legal thriller starring Richard Gere as a big shot attorney defending a naive and seemingly gentle young man who is on trial for the murder of an archbishop. As the plot is slowly excavated, he and his team begin to suspect their client may be suffering from multiple personality disorder and the real murderer is buried in his psyche.

Its irrelevant and generic shelf-title aside, Primal Fear is a layered and nimble thriller with just enough sprinkles of political, social, and romantic drama to enrich the tapestry of the central murder trial. Gregory Hoblit’s usual sophistication makes the thing very watchable as his eye for composition combined with his overall discipline and sense of balance, ensures the visual tones never intrude on the plot. Instead they perfectly complement it by sitting in the background and allowing the engrossing characters and story to at all times occupy centre stage.

The shining cast adds an additional touch of elegance as Gere, Edward Norton, Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, and John Mahoney give us one well rounded character after another. Norton in particular created one of cinema’s more memorable defendants and he’s liable to blow your socks off if you’ve managed to remain oblivious to this movie and the direction it takes. Of course, as always, Gere is a proper lead and he owns the movie even if Norton is responsible for the more agile acting.

Beneath the movie’s sheen, the movie looks less sure footed. There’s some loose construction of the story especially early on as Hoblit and his editors place one or two of scenes out of sequence. And while the weaving of the different subplots starts out promising and proceeds in accomplished fashion, their connections become less focal as the story moves past them. Inevitably, a degree of tension is spilt when this occurs. Linney is, as always, a tremendous addition to the proceedings but an unfortunate regression of her character from strong female attorney to helpless victim of her clever male opponents, (one using charm, the other force) negates much of what made the script so promising to begin with. If Gere’s brash yet somewhat conflicted legal maestro has the tables turned on him late on, it feels less like an attempt to parallel it with her degradation and more like a rather unadventurous examination of ego. In the end, it matters little for the film aims primarily to be just a cracking good thriller with strong shades of class throughout. And that some are lighter than others doesn’t do too much damage.

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The Firm (1993)

 

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Rating: The Good – 67.5
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 154 mins
Director: Sydney Pollack
Stars: Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ed Harris

Star studded legal thriller with a still fresh faced Tom Cruise as the brash young attorney whose dream job at a Memphis law firm turns into a nightmare when he discovers they’re a front for the Mafia. Throw in a meddling FBI and a largely unseen Chicago mobster and the scene is set for some old school thrills and a nice spot of running for the always eager Cruiser. As usual for a John Grisham adaptation, an array of cracking characters lie at the base to this movie played by no one but the cream. Hal Holbrook, Holly Hunter, Wildord Brimely, David Strathairn, Ed Harris, Gary Busey, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Paul Sorvino are all in top form while Cruise puts in a strong shift as he was, at the time, just emerging from the shadow of his late 80’s “pretty face” status. However, it’s Gene Hackman as Cruise’s incorrigible yet charming mentor who steals the show. The movie comes alive the moment he shows up and he adds much needed droll to the otherwise stiff suited side to the movie. As as you’d expect from the man behind some of the great 70’s thrillers, Sydney Pollack ratchets up the tension and strikes a relatively even balance with the personal drama even if he could do nothing for the Cruise-Tripplehorn mismatch as husband and wife! He does however manage to keep his audience distracted from the story’s sometimes ludicrous plot developments – a useful skill for a Grisham thriller! John Seale’s photography gives Memphis an intriguingly inviting yet obscure quality which actually complements the conspiratorial tone of the movie while not alienating the mainstream audience. Ditto Robert Towne, David Raybe, and David Rayfiel’s screenplay. It’s just a shame that Dave Grusin’s score couldn’t do the same as it bounces buoyantly among the octaves, too often oblivious to the cadences of the script. The whole thing runs about 35 minutes too long but it’s worth hanging in there if only to see Tom use his briefcase to beat seven shades of crap out of Brimely’s slightly ridiculous but eminently enjoyably bag man.

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The Verdict (1982) 4.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.6
Genre: Drama
Duration: 129 mins
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Paul Newman, Jack Warden, James Mason

Sidney Lumet must have felt that having made what is generally regarded as one of the best “court-room” dramas in history without shooting more than one scene inside the courtroom (12 Angry Men) that he was obliged to, at some point, make a great courtroom drama where much of the dramatic punch was actually delivered in a courtroom. Mission accomplished. Paul Newman stars as the washed up alcoholic ambulance chaser Frank Galvin who sees an opportunity for redemption in a malpractice case which nobody thinks he can win. Lumet sets a remarkably slow but immensely arresting pace throughout this film and in doing so, he imbues the drama with all shades of theme, tone, and meaning to fully convey the sense and weight of Galvin’s desperate life. Newman was quite simply never better and he gives one of the purest acting performances the medium has offered in its long history. With every word, look, and movement we see a depth of decay and self-loathing constantly threatening to consume him but staved off by the one thing that is bolstering them: his innate decency. Jack Warden is, as always, pitch perfect in support as Galvin’s old mentor and James Mason and Milo O’Sea do their utmost in helping to sound out some of the film’s more menacing tones. The Verdict is as satisfying a film as you’ll see which is a feat in itself given it tells an ostensibly depressing story. But it’s to Newman and Lumet’s credit that they not only root out the humanity in this dark tale but also shine such an honest light on it.

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Fracture (2007) 4/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good -69.5
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 113 mins
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling, David Strathairn

An unconventional thriller starring Ryan Gosling as a brash young prosecutor whose last case before he changes sides becomes more than he bargained for when the defendant, a highly intelligent engineer (Anthony Hopkins) accused of attempting to kill his wife, begins dismantling Gosling’s case. Gosling’s fresh approach to his role makes for an interesting film in its own right but it’s the unpredictability of the story’s progression that raises it above more orthodox thrillers. Hopkins is only fine as the clever bad guy but like David Strathairn he’s not given much to do. There is a seriously unconvincing romantic relationship crow-barred into the story between Gosling’s character and his new boss (no doubt to appease the inane box-ticking movie executives) but thanks to the aforementioned qualities and Hoblit’s typically polished touch, Fracture is certainly worth the watch.

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The Insider (1999) 4.86/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.1
Genre: Drama
Duration: 157 mins
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer

Corporate whistle-blower dramas are generally done quite well in Hollywood but this powerful adaptation of the Vanity Fair article is top of the heap. Russell Crowe is excellent as the former tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand who breaks his confidentiality agreement by doing an interview with 60 minutes. Al Pacino is just as good as the news show’s producer Lowell Bergman who initially recruits Wigand but inevitably becomes his devoted protector. Mann’s dialogue has always had the ability to strip away any superfluous emotion from his central characters to reveal their underlying obsession (usually with their profession). Though the characters in The Insider are just as driven, Mann’s screenplay and particularly his ability as a director to catch the actors’ more idiosyncratic glances or twitches (as if by accident) gives the characters in this film a real depth of emotion that combined with the superb acting (from all parties) imbues the proceedings with a pervasive sense of authenticity. What more could you want from a true story?

Pelican-Brief

The Pelican Brief (1993) 3.09/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 66.7
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 141 mins
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Stars: Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Sam Shepard

Alan J. Pakula’s adaptation of John Grisham’s novel is a somewhat ponderous tale of political intrigue concerning the assassination of two Supreme Court judges and the law student and journalist who uncover the plot. Julia Roberts plays the determined law student and Denzel Washington the hot shot journalist who compile and investigate the dangerously accurate theory of why the judges were killed while dodging bullets, car bombs, and anything else the assassins who are pursuing them can come up with.

The plot to the film has a classical edge to it in that it’s simple in essence but revolves around a number of parties. It unfolds in a way that adds colour to the story and keeps the audience guessing which is exactly what you want from a thriller. Pakula’s direction of the tenser moments is fine if a little underwhelming but his ability to build tension through pacing and framing works its usual magic in the earlier sequences. A scene introducing Stanley Tucci’s hit-man recalls some of the cloak and dagger intrigue of All the Presidents’ Men and the patient buildup of the assassinations echoes similar sequences in The Parallax View.

Moreover, what some might consider a weakness – the lack of a romantic relationship between the two central characters – is actually one of the movie’s strengths, adding, as it does, more interest and unspoken depth to their interchanges. A central platonic dynamic wasn’t decided upon for that reason, however, but  rather because Hollywood still had (had?) a problem with interracial romances back in the 90’s. Thankfully, that’s all changed…!

The problem with the movie emerges as it progresses. Roberts’ star was at its zenith around the time that this film was made and it leads to a peculiar problem. The movie seems to be caught between being a substantial thriller where plot comes first and a vehicle for its headline act. Thus, when the story needs to be pushed forward it often stands still for an unnecessarily long emotional scene in which Julia shows off her acting chops. This places a drag on the film’s momentum and affects the relevance of other characters, many of whom, are relegated to obscure cameos. Sam Shepard is more than capable in one of the more extended roles (Roberts’ law professor and secret lover) as is John Lithgow (Washington’s editor) but Tony Goldwyn (the president’s nefarious chief counsel) and particularly William Atherton (the Head of CIA) are wasted.

Though neither as popular nor respected as Roberts was at time time, Washington was himself arguably climbing rapidly towards the peak of his powers in the early-mid 90’s. Yet, he almost gets lost here. Not for a lack of talent of course but because the story seems to realign itself with Robert’s character at times when his character should be coming to the fore. Roberts, for her part, was never a bad actress and she had and continues to have huge presence. She’s quite good in the role of the frightened yet wilful young go-getter but her character’s whispering grief at key moments in the film can be a little irritating – like listening to someone in need of a good cough!

For hardened fans of intrigue and shadowy plot, The Pelican Brief will fall far short of those classics that gave its sub-genre and the film’s director its standing. Nonetheless, it remains a worthy stab at a Grisham legal thriller and there’s enough there to satisfy anyone looking for a couple of hours of engaging conspiracy drama.

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) 4.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85.3
Genre: Western
Duration: 123 mins
Director: John Ford
Stars: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin

John Ford didn’t do one dimensional westerns and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is certainly no exception. James Stewart plays a senator who returns to the town where he made his reputation by killing a local villain years earlier. The film then jumps back to that time as he beings to recount the tale of how he made his name and of his complicated relationship with the one man who the outlaws were afraid of (John Wayne of course!).

The early scenes are beautifully crafted and set up the sentiments of the back-story in a touching and patient manner. There’s a wonderful sense of familiarity as we’re brought back to the time when the now booming town of Shinbone was ruled by gun law. Stewart is terrific in the lead and Lee Marvin made a mean outlaw but John Wayne is the most memorable as the fearless gunfighter forced to make a sacrifice.

As most of the action takes place in the town, we don’t have the wide sweeping shots that defined Stagecoach and The Searchers. However, this is still a great looking film as Ford gives Shinbone a character of its own through his trademark staging and use of light. All told, this is a more pensive and slow burning Western than we typically see but no less rewarding.

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