Once again, a small film that DESERVES TO BE SEEN gets tossed into a few theaters for a measly weekend in NYC and LA (just so it can say it’s a “theatrical release”) and then sent on its merry way to obscurity as a seemingly “direct to DVD” title. Sadly, this has little to do with caliber of acting and/or even the box-office draw potential of the cast (though I doubt Brad Pitt still has a few years to wait for this to happen to him): this film stars Kate Beckinsale, who after her Underworld films, not to mention other action films, is a pretty big star. It has, rather, to do with money…which, as usual, is what everything, especially in Hollywood, comes down to. So, this great film with great performances by a strong cast gets lost in the DVD shuffle. But, please…seek this one out! Loosely based on the true tale of a Washington political reporter, the script perfectly captures the right tone…not going too overboard to the weepy or the harpy, which could have easily been done here. And the cast takes that intensity from the page and adds power and subtlety and depth. Inspired by the case of real reporter Judith Miller who went to prison in 2005 to protect the identity of a source, the movie could have become one of those “it’s in the news so Hollywood must capitalize” flicks that are mainly seen as made-for-TV films. But, Nothing But the Truth is much more than that. I would say that this film far surpasses most intense dramas and thrillers you find in your local multiplex. Beckinsale plays the reporter who finds herself caught in this tangle of excitement and confusion after a story she wrote and championed found its way into the inner-workings of the D.C. elite. Every tactic possible is used to get her to reveal her source and the saga finally leads her to jail and away from not only her job, but also her family. Beckinsale, not someone I would call a “deep” actress, is highly emotive and rich here. She is calm and fearless when necessary, but at other times, she is raw and unabashingly open. Vera Farmiga, again not someone I’ve seen give a truly meaningful performance in the past, is tense and controlled…but just the right amount. Alan Alda also shines as a high-powered attorney who takes on Beckinsale’s case, against all odds. The supporting cast, including Angela Bassett, Matt Dillon, and David Schwimmer, is strong as well, making this a stellar effort by all involved and an all-around excellent film.

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If you ever are tempted to commit a crime, watch this. I say this, because this British mini-series is, I would say, the strongest piece of material I’ve ever seen or heard of that covers each aspect of the criminal justice system…from police station to trial. But, the accused here, Ben Coulter, does NOT commit a crime. He, which you know from the beginning so I’m not ruining anything, is an innocent victim. Yes, he had a one-night-stand with a strange lady he had just met. Yes, he drank WAY too much. And yes, passed out in her kitchen after having consensual sex with her. After he wakes up and finds her stabbed to death, he panics and flees the scene, has a car accident, where the police are called and eventually find out Ben was the one in the dead girls’ house. We (the audience) know he did not do this. But, the police, lawyers, judges, fellow inmates, and even his parents are not so sure. The evidence is overwhelming. The coincidences are just too insurmountable. He just HAD to have done it, right? Well, step-by-step, each of the pieces is chipped away as the wheels of Lady Justice roll on. Even though the story is set in England, the same principles apply…justice, for all its merits, moves slowly and is not above imperfection.

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To be honest, I’m not a Dickens fan. His stories are too dark and his characters get weighed down with a lot of murky dialogue and subplots. So, when I heard about all of the attention the 2005 BBC version of Bleak House was getting, I was apprehensive. After it was nominated for a slew of Emmys, I decided to give it a try. And, I sure was surprised…pleasantly so. At over seven hours total (each of the three discs contains five, half-hour (or so) episodes), I started out being daunted by the time commitment alone. But, the episodes flew by as I became more and more entrenched in the world Dickens’ created in 19th Century England. In this case, though, Mr. Dickens probably deserves only a share (a large one) of the credit. The filmmakers of this production do a superlative job of keeping the storylines straight and making sure we know all of the characters, from their dispositions to their importance in the story, right from the start. It’s also shot so we can spot a place where “bad” things are destined to happen…places filled with little light and black, gray backgrounds are filled with evil characters doing evil deeds. For example, the law offices of Mr. Tulkinghorn are shown often during the day but there is a somber, grayish tint, matching the dastardly ways of the man who works there. The story is pretty simple (though that is usual for a Dickens novel)…two “wards” from a family which has been long embroiled in a messy, complicated court battle head to the country house of their guardian, along with a companion. Ok, there is more to it than just this case, but everything in the story…every character, every revelation, every death…stems from the this lawsuit. Trust me, once you start watching, you will be riveted and feel compelled to give Dickens (his novels, that is) another try. Don’t blame me when you do!

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One of Paul Newman’s strongest performances is given here…in his fourth decade of film acting. Some actors start to rest on their laurels toward the end of their careers. Not Mr. Newman. Sidney Lumet’s movie features one of the strongest, fiercest performances ever put on screen, nevertheless one of Newman’s strongest. Starting out at the beginning of the film, Newman’s character is an alcoholic mess…rarely sober and never thinking about the law or his clients. He sees any new case as a way to buy more liquor…and even when the case of the century comes to him, he almost blows it. Crusty and unkempt, Newman is spot-on here as the attorney who has one last chance to save himself and his client. Can he do it? I would tell you, but I am insistent that people see this film that I wouldn’t dare.

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A fabulous legal thriller that owes most of its points to the performance of Edward Norton, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role. A breakout role of Norton, the character he plays here is Aaron, a shy, stuttering young man who has many more layers than anyone gives him credit for. Aaron is accused of a heinous crime, which he is adamant he did not commit. Enter smug, self-obsessed attorney Martin Vail, who takes Aaron’s case because it’s assured a lot of publicity. Vale, in the beginning, couldn’t care less about Aaron, but as time passes and Aaron reveals more of himself to the lawyer, Martin warms to Aaron…some. But, just as he does…WHAM! A curve is thrown that keeps Vale and the audience guessing. But, this is not anywhere near as powerful as the final curve. As I said, this movie is really put over the top with Edward Norton’s portrayal of Aaron. The portrayal comes to fruition at the end. Call it the payoff. And, boy, it is a doozy!

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I saw this film months ago in the theater and just recently watched it again on DVD. I must say, I liked it much better the second time around. It has so much intensity that I found I missed a lot on the first showing. Now that I was able to put some of the pieces together of what I had missed, I see what an excellent film it really is. George Clooney stars as the title character, a “fixer” in a large NYC law firm, and he is in sent in to “fix” one the firm’s partners, Arthur, after he’s had a breakdown and is saying vile things about one of the firm’s largest clients, U-North. Clayton soon realizes that all of the “gibberish” Arthur was spewing might be true and after Clayton starts investigating, he finds himself in mortal danger. A strong thriller that is hard to turn away from! But, make sure you pay attention so won’t have to see it twice like me! But, then again, George Clooney is always worth a second viewing. And a third, and a fourth, and a fifth…..

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One of the best novels of the 20th Century is wonderfully adapted into one of the best films of the century, as well. Talk about a rarity! Many adaptations, especially those of well-received books, fall far from the mark usually. Either they are generally not good, or they are edited so much that the book’s story is hardly recognizable. In this faithful adaptations, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale stays true…mostly because of the vivid performances, especially by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Peck won his only Oscar for his portrayal as the Southern Gentleman who is both a lawyer who defends innocent, yet African American, Tom Robinson and also the father of Scout and Jem Finch. Wonderfully directed and shot as well… the fictional town Lee created of Maycomb, Georgia really comes to life as a conflicted small-town. And the mood of the era…the 1930s…is also captured. Racism was rampant during these years…especially in the South. Southerners were still bitter over the Civil War and still saw Blacks as slaves. An almost-perfect interpretation of one of the more perfect books of American literature.

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This film, kind of a horror-thriller, still makes me jump and wriggle in my seat, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Even though I know the outcome, it still works as an effective thriller that holds suspense throughout and features something many non-Hitchcock thrillers lack…a good plot filled with solid characters. The story is pretty simple…a released convict hunts down the witness whose testimony helped put him in jail. But, instead of killing or attacking the witness right away…once he finds him, this criminal chooses a slow torture process. He starts with stalking and then moves slowly on to more vicious and heinous things, making sure he never implicates himself at any time. Robert Mitchum plays the criminal, Max Cady, and this is a role he was born to play. I always have felt that Mitchum is a highly underrated actor and his subtly evil performance here seals, in my mind, that Mitchum never got his deserved due. Gregory Peck as the witness with the family he so desperately is trying to protect is not necessarily less impressive but this is a role Peck has played on a number of occasions…the trouble family man. He still is at the top of his game here, especially towards the end when Mitchum increases the stakes. But, this is all Mitchum’s movie…as the quintessential and un-stereotypical bad guy.

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Director Otto Preminger really proved he was a filmmaker with clout by being able to make a film like this. Even in 1959, when Hollywood was actually THINKING first and making money second, this film was a risk. First, its dialogue gets pretty graphic (for the day). Secondly, much of the second half of the film is set ONLY in the courtroom, leaving the audience nothing to do than watch lawyers bickering and objecting. Preminger must have known what he was doing when he made this black and white, two-and-a-half-hour courtroom drama…because I dare you to take your eyes off this one for even a second. Yes, I said two-and-a-half-hours…much of it set in court with more dialogue than action. But, somehow, it works. It is a truly captivating film. James Stewart plays a quirky small-town lawyer who takes the case of an Army lieutenant who gets arrested for killing a man who allegedly raped his wife. We find this out right in the beginning and then the rest of the film is how Stewart goes about setting up his case and what steps he takes before and during trial. Sounds dull, right? Well, as I said, Preminger must have had magic up his sleeve for this one because this film is never is dull. It clips along through witness testimony and presented evidence, and all that legal fun stuff. And trust me, there is plenty of tension…I mean all along we’re wondering if Stewart is going to be able to achieve what he set out to achieve…getting Lt. Manion off for the murder…a murder Lt. Manion has NEVER denied he committed. But, it’s more than just a movie about suspense…it’s a movie about the process of the law…about how our justice system works and about how lawyers plug along and make their case. A fascinating film about a subject that could have been un-fascinating, if put in the wrong hands. Thankfully, Preminger’s hands were the right ones.

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Agatha Christie stuck mainly to her continuing characters…Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, etc…when writing. But, occasionally she would go off on a limb and write something original, introducing new characters to the audience. With the stage play Witness for the Prosecution, she created an entirely new world of people and situations, which kept the reader on his/her toes throughout. Made into a film in 1957 by talented and well-rounded film director Billy Wilder, the movie keeps us hanging until the last possible second and delivers the same kind of wallop as the play. Set in London, the story revolves around Leonard Vole’s (played by Tyrone Power) guilt or innocence. He is being tried for the murder of a wealthy, older woman he befriended. Unlike a lot of thrillers that are made, this one does have a very satisfying ending, do mostly to the relationship between Vole and his wife…one of Marlene Dietrich’s finest performances. But, the main character of the film is Sir Wilfrid Robarts, the crotchety, ailing barrister Vole gets to represent him. Not really known for light-ish roles, Charles Laughton dives into the barrister with a droll vigor that makes the audience LOVE Wilfrid even though he’s crass, brash, insubordinate, and very pig-headed. Laughton just seems to be having so much fun playing this character; without him, Wilfrid would have just been another forgettable character.

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