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Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003 02:20 pm

Movie Reviews

Runaway Jury

Strong performances overshadow implausible plot of Runaway Jury

The latest cinematic adaptation of a John Grisham novel, Runaway Jury, is a shamelessly entertaining film that asks viewers to set aside common sense and overlook some gaping plot flaws. In large part, it succeeds because of gripping performances by a powerhouse cast that includes Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Bruce Davison, John Cusack and Rachel Weisz.

Published in 1996, Grisham's novel put Big Tobacco on trial. In an update that reflects the settlement of scores of tobacco-related lawsuits, the film adaptation takes on gun makers, the current punching bag of class-action lawyers. For dramatic value, that's a plus: The movie starts with the shocking murder of a family man during an office rampage. Two years later, his widow sues the manufacturer of the gun used in the killing. She retains liberal New Orleans lawyer Wendall Rohr (Hoffman) while the gun manufacturer turns to Durwood Cable (Davison). Cable hires high-powered jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Hackman) to weed out unsympathetic prospective jurors. Despite Fitch's best efforts, a ringer slips through. He is Nick Easter (Cusack), an irreverent charmer with an uncanny influence over other jurors. That's the least of Fitch's troubles: The consultant starts getting persistent calls from Marlee (Weisz), a mysterious young woman who claims she can deliver the verdict for $10 million.

It's clear Easter and Marlee are working in concert, but the reason proves to be a genuine surprise. If you can brush aside the fact that in the real world most judges would have declared a mistrial, the film's labyrinthine plot and fine performances should prove engaging. Hoffman and Hackman, the two old pros, don't disappoint. Cusack and Weisz have great chemistry. And Bruce McGill shines as the trial's fiery judge.

Radio plays on a feel-good frequency

I approached Michael Tollin's Radio with more than a fair share of trepidation. I'm always leery of any film with such obvious intentions, wary of being manipulated to tears. To be sure, the film does have a few manipulative moments and scenes that don't ring true. Yet the sincerity with which this tale is told -- a young, mentally challenged African-American man and the football coach and high school who adopt him -- had me blinking back tears.

The time is 1976 and the place is Anderson, S.C. Coach Harold Jones (Ed Harris) is busy prepping for the upcoming season when a mentally challenged young man, James Robert Kennedy (Cuba Gooding Jr.), catches his eye. The kid's always hanging around the practice field and when he becomes the object of ridicule for some players, the coach makes this lonely young man his unofficial assistant. Nicknamed "Radio" because of the transistor radio always pressed to his ear, the coach's assistant becomes a fixture at the high school.

Tollin does a fine job of creating a believable tone, never overselling the sentiment. Harris imbues the role of Coach Jones with quiet strength and integrity, while Gooding hits a home run with his moving portrayal. Gooding's Radio isn't a caricature but rather a man of flesh and blood, worthy of respect rather than pity.

To be sure, the film has its problems. There are a few moments when the film plays for cheap laughs and the roles of Jones' wife and daughter (Debra Winger and Sarah Drew) are grossly underwritten. Blame screenwriter Mike Rich for these flaws but also credit him for retaining warmth and genuine emotion in telling this remarkable tale.


What other critics are saying...

Beyond Borders [R] A tale of a turbulent romance of two star-crossed lovers (Angelina Jolie, Clive Owen) set against the backdrop of the world's most dangerous hot spots. "This production unwittingly crosses the line between entertainment and exploitation once too often." (Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter). Parkway Pointe, ShowPlace East

Cold Creek Manor [R] A couple buys a house with an evil past. "The only things haunting this movie are cliches." (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone) "Emphasizes character and psychology over plot." (Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times) Chuck's grade: B. Parkway Pointe

Finding Nemo [G] Animated underwater tale. "An upbeat, sentimental fable about a fearful father fish and a rebellious son." (Stephen Holden, New York Times) Chuck's grade: A. White Oaks

Good Boy![PG] An intergalatic dog from the dog star Sirius visits Earth to verify the rumors that dogs have failed to take over the planet "Occasional laughs try hard but can't salvage the tired storyline and pat conclusion." (Jeanne Aufmuth, Palo Alto Weekly). ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East

Intolerable Cruelty [PG-13] A revenge-seeking gold digger (Catherine Zeta-Jones) marries a womanizing Beverly Hills lawyer (George Clooney) with the intention of making a killing in the divorce. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. "A thoroughly entertaining comedy about love, lawyers and fat divorce settlements." (David Rooney, Variety). Parkway Pointe

Kill Bill: Volume 1 [R] A female assassin (Uma Thurman) attacked on her wedding day by her group leader, Bill (David Carradine), wakes up from a coma and seeks revenge. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. "This is the ultimate movie for kung-fu drive-in geeks." (Richard Roeper, Ebert & Roeper).ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East

Lost in Translation [R] Bill Murray is a down-and-out actor who travels to Tokyo to film a whiskey commercial. "It's a wonderful film, all subtlety and grace."(Bill Muller, Arizona Republic) Parkway Pointe

Luther [PG-13] About the conflicted Christian Reformation leader."An entertaining history lesson." (Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer) "Curiously flat." (Wesley Morris, Boston Globe) ShowPlace East

Mystic River [R] Three childhood friends are reunited after one loses a daughter. Clint Eastwood-directed film stars Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne and Marcia Gay Harden. "A haunting, ambitious but ultimately flawed film that treads some of the same somber moral territory director Clint Eastwood explored in Unforgiven." (Jonathan Foreman, New York Post). ShowPlace West

The Rundown [PG-13] L.A. street toughs must travel to Brazil to clean up some underworld business. "The wildly asinine crack-up derby that XXX should have been." (Scott Brown, Entertainment Weekly) Parkway Pointe

School of Rock [PG-13] Jack Black gets kicked out of a band and starts substitute teaching. "Funnyman Jack Black was born for this role." (Jeanne Aufmuth, Palo Alto Weekly) ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East

Scary Movie 3 [PG-13] Cindy must investigate mysterious crop circles and video tapes, and help the President prevent an alien invasion. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East 

Seabiscuit [PG-13] The horse, its jockey, and the men who made them famous. "Standout alternative . . . to an oft-deadly sequel summer." (Mike Clark, USA Today) Chuck's grade: A. White Oaks

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [R] The only known survivor of the killing spree comes forward to tell the complete story."Not only is this useless 'revision' ignorant of history, it panders to its modern audience with look-Ma visual brouhaha." (Ed Gonzalez, Slant magazine). Parkway Pointe, ShowPlace East

Under the Tuscan Sun [PG-13] An American writer battles writer's block by moving to Italy. "It purports to make love all over us, but not without laying down lots of paper towels first." (Stephanie Zacharek, "It may be a fairy tale, but it's one worth believing in." (Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press) ShowPlace West

Veronica Guerin [R] Based on a true story, an Irish journalist (Cate Blanchett) risks her life to expose Dublin's underworld drug dealers. "Well-meaning but by-the-numbers biopic." (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone). ShowPlace West