Movies For Lawyers

Love & Mercy — Movies for Lawyers — The Act Of Communication Point Of View

11 August 2015

Katherine James:


LOVE & MERCY is a film to which you should run and not walk.

If you have always wondered what was really going on in the life of Brian Wilson as he struggled with art and fame and love as he created the sound of a generation, your questions will be answered here.

If you enjoy amazing performances by wonderful actors, this is the film for you. Paul Dano is just brilliant as Brian Wilson in the “past” and John Cusack equally amazing as Brian Wilson in the “future”. Paul Giamatti is just terrifying as Dr. Eugene Landry, the shrink who manipulated his way into running Brian’s life. The simple and glorious performance of Elizabeth Banks as Melinda, Brian’s true love and rescuer, is the essence of how an actor simply “listens” and “responds”.

The star of the piece, however, is the sound.

I went in expecting the music, of course. But what I didn’t realize was that the sound inside of Brian’s head as he is creating music, responding to mental health issues, the medication to deal with his problems, the conflict of those around him would be a huge element in the show. You know how many times entertainment awards for sound design go to either sci fi thrillers or war movies? Rarely does a sound designer Eugene Gearty get to go inside the human mind, let alone the mind of a genius. Here is an interview with Gearty on the process of creating the extraordinary sound for the film.

What can Lawyers learn from this film? The sounds that are created in the hearts and minds of the jurors are an oft neglected element of demonstrative evidence in a case. See LOVE & MERCY, revel in the sound, and let your mind open to what sounds you want the jurors to be “hearing” in your case. You might not be able to create them like Gearty…but…using words to create the right “wall of sound” for this case is vital.
TIP: What are the sounds that are evoked in your case? How can you use them to implant the sound images you want to last all the way into the deliberation room and beyond?


Saving Mr. Banks — Movies for Lawyers — The Act Of Communication Point Of View

14 January 2014



Every attorney should run, not walk, to see Saving Mr. Banks. It is as fine an example of “choosing which story to tell” I have seen in a long time. All storytellers, especially attorneys, have this issue. There are so many facts in any case, so many “trees.” I spend much of my time helping attorneys figure out what story is most persuasive in the vast expanse of trees (the facts of the case). What parts have to be included and what parts should be left out as we make a specific forest with specific trees?

When I contemplate all the pieces of “story” that writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith had – and what they chose to keep and what to let go of in order to make this brilliant uber-story – I am truly inspired in my work with attorneys. And what a story it is: Clash of Two Geniuses. The creator of the series of Mary Poppins books, PL Travers fights with tooth and nail and ultimately creates an iconic movie with film maker and entrepreneur, Walt Disney. If you go to either of their biographies on (click on their names in the previous sentence) you will have a small idea of the number of trees that needed to be sorted – wheat from chaff – in the life stories of these 20th century greats. Then, see the film and realize that Marcel and Smith made choices, just as attorneys make choices, when telling the story that needs to be told to make the point.

There is so much more that this film has to offer if you are just a lover of the cinema. Glorious performances – Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are stellar and lead a brilliant company of players. If you are the kind of film go-er who leaves a movie before the end credits have played (Really? You saw Cinema Paradiso and didn’t learn your lesson?) you MUST stay so that you can hear the voice of the real PL Travers and marvel Thompson’s performance. Hanks delivers a monologue near the end of the film which is equal to if not better than anything I have ever seen him do. I haven’t liked him this much since Philadelphia. Even if you are a cynic who hated the film Mary Poppins, you may just love this film so much you will change your mind. Our director pal, Nigel Dick is a wonderful Brit who loathed the classic film as a child. The film didn’t live up to the books and he hated it. After seeing Saving Mr. Banks, Nigel bought Mary Poppins and it had a whole new meaning for him.


TIP: What are the facts that are wheat and which are chaff in the case?



20 Feet from Stardom — Movies for Lawyers — The Act Of Communication Point Of View

21 June 2013



Morgan Neville’s brilliant documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom is now at a theater near you – I HOPE – so that you can run right out and see it. I found it absolutely inspiring.

The “20 Feet” refers to the distance between the back up singer – or group of back up singers – and the lead vocalist in a band. David Letterman got a little emotional the other night as he was talking about the film. Imagine him getting a little choked up (I swear he did, if you can imagine Letterman a little choked up!) and saying, “If you love music, go and see it. And if you hate music, go and see it because it will make you love music.” You can only imagine how the film affected me if it made Letterman choke up.

What does it take to be a back up singer? A lack of ego. A lack of a dream. An ability to blend in rather than to stand out. A love of making one voice out of many. Does anyone possess all those qualities? Hmmmm…I think not. The hopeful stories of these amazing women (okay, there are a couple of men but mostly women) will rock your world. There are so many – but I especially found  Darlene Love, whose voice you’ve heard a billion times, has a story to tell of getting ripped off by Phil Spector that will rip your heart right out. How about Merry Clayton who wanted so much more than just to back up others so outrageously? The stories are as varied and breathtaking as any you’ve ever seen. And the heartache is as real as singing The Blues.

I think my favorite line from the film goes something like this, “When you sing along to your favorite song, it is us you are singing with, not the lead singer.” Isn’t that so very, very true – sha-la-la? My favorite moment is the soulful rendition of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me”. Definitely the film’s anthem. Just thinking about it gives me chills.

What can you learn from seeing this film if you are an attorney? You may be the lead singer in your band. You may be rocking out as a big headliner and making all the major decisions and fronting your group. But…make sure…in perfect harmony…your back up singers are seamlessly bringing the jurors the themes, the transitions in your trial story, the full round compliment you need to present your case. Witnesses, Paralegals, Trial Techs, and, dare I say it, Trial Consultants need to be allowed to be a team with you. Listen for the blend behind you more than you listen to the sound of your own voice in front. You will be amazed at a difference it can make.


Tip: Lean on us.


Silver Linings Playbook – Movies for Lawyers – The Act Of Communication Point Of View

8 February 2013



Brilliant film, amazing performances, Silver Linings Playbook is truly not to be missed. It is no mistake that four of the actors – Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are up for Academy Awards. A rare, but well deserved honor! I had no idea who Bradley Cooper was. I whispered to Alan a few moments into the film, “Who IS that?” I said it largely because not only did I not recognize his name, he looks like a lot of guys who appear on the large screen and have great careers right now. Alan whispered back, “He’s the star of all the Hangover movies.” No wonder I didn’t know who he was before this – definitely not my oeuvre, those Hangover movies. Jennifer Lawrence we met, of course in Winter’s Bone and said, “Holy cannoli, this gal is great. Of course, she’s just a kid. Wonder if she can make the transition from child actress to adult?” Apparently she can. Damn is she good. If you are a fan of Australian films and television, how many times have you seen Jacki Weaver? Just look at her IMDb page and say “Oh, yeah!” And then there is De Niro. Of course, he is masterful and amazing and everything we have come to hope and expect and love about spending time with him in a darkened theater.

If you are an attorney, it is De Niro for whom you should see this film. Why? Because this is a funny, sad story about falling in love – and mental illness. And we have spent decades watching De Niro play mentally ill characters.

What struck me is that in the world of film, our growing understanding of mental illness as a society is reflected in the characters and stories we create and enjoy and explore from three quarters of the way, through the 20th century, to now. Think of De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. He was terrifying, wasn’t he? The dark horror that we all fear who needed to be destroyed. And he was. At that time, we still harbored a belief that mentally ill people needed to be destroyed. Or institutionalized. They certainly needed to be kept away from us and were hopeless on some level. Now, fast forward a few decades, and think of the mob boss Paul Vitti in Analyze This who seeks out a therapist. This comedy explored the now very acceptable relationship of mentally ill patient and therapist. At this point, many of us had been to therapy and recognized that talking through issues and problems might be a good thing. I remember reading somewhere De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver might well have benefited from having Billy Crystal as a therapist. And now this wonderful turn as Pat Sr., an obsessive compulsive with a kid who also has problems. Now we are in a time where we recognize that pharmaceuticals can help many people overcome mental health issues and problems. Silver Linings Playbook is very outspoken about this truth of our modern time. Can you imagine if Travis Bickle had both talk therapy and prescription drugs?

Now here’s what I don’t understand. How could we, as a society, have progressed so far in the past several decades in our understanding about mental illness…but so little in terms of what happens when mentally ill people break our laws? Almost every time I work on a criminal case, it is obvious to me that the defendant is suffering from some form or other, or sometimes multiple forms of mental illness. I find it extraordinary that the question “does he know the difference between right and wrong?” continues to be the criteria for mental health in our legal system. It’s like we are stuck with some at-minimum 19th century criteria in a 21st century world. I mean I get it intellectually – we got rid of our mental health programs awhile back and so now our jails and prisons are where our mentally ill citizens are spending their time. But – that the law says that this is legitimate I find truly amazing.


TIP: Was Chico Marx right? Is there “no sanity clause”?

Les Miserables — Movies for Lawyers — The Act Of Communication Point Of View

28 January 2013



When my mother asked me if she had to see Les Miserables on screen since she had already seen it 5 times on stage, I said, “God, no. I’ve seen it for both of us.” Many people who are big fans of the musical, like I am, were and are bitterly disappointed in the film version, which is getting all kinds of kudos and tons of Academy Award nominations. I am in the camp of the review Anthony Lane gave it in The New Yorker, “I screamed a scream as time went by.”

If you saw it and loved it, great. If you saw it and hated it, great. The important question here is, what can lawyers learn from it?

The most controversial performance in the film seems to be that of Russell Crowe who is taking a lot of heat for how much he, well, was less than stellar. Yes, no argument from me, he was ridiculous in the film. However, there is a great video of Crowe and Jackman, impromptu, singing some tunes that is making the rounds of social media amongst those of us who are what I guess you might call “Les Miz-ophiles.” Crowe is fabulous, free, and frankly, verges on brilliant at times. So how did director Tom Hooper squelch and stomp out the Russell Crowe from the bar?

It strikes me that he did it the same way many lawyers squelch the lifeblood and best testimony out of their witnesses and then throw them on the stand. “Do this, don’t do that! Be this, don’t be that! Say it like this, say it like that!” Compare and contrast the Crowe you see in the trailer of Les Miz (keeps you from having to sit through the whole thing) and the Crowe from the bar scene. Then ask yourself, “Do I do that to my witnesses?”

By the way, if you want to watch Les Miz sung and acted brilliantly in front of a camera, watch the 25th Anniversary Concert Performance. Knocks my socks off every time. Just like good lawyers are with their witnesses.


TIP:  Stop squelching your witnesses.

Lincoln — Movies for Lawyers — The Act Of Communication Point Of View

15 January 2013



Once again, the Golden Globes are over and it is Oscar season. Once again, I promise that Alan or I will try to comment on the contenders upon which we haven’t already commented in this blog. Once again, I promise you that there are movies that I have absolutely NO intention of seeing, despite their nominations (you know me and my proclivities regarding films that simply aren’t my kind of catharsis which include the entire cannon of Quentin Tarantino). If Alan decides to see any or all of the movies I simply can’t give up two hours of my limited time on this earth to see, then he can tell you about them. So be it!

Now…here’s one you CAN’T MISS.

Lincoln. Saw it on the big screen when it first came out. LOVED IT. Can’t stop loving it and thinking about it. When I was sitting in the darkened theatre and we were a few moments into it, I thought, “Oh, my GAWD. That’s what we are going to do with Mary Todd? Seriously, Tony?” By that I meant, “Seriously, Tony Kushner?” Tony Kushner is one of the truly brilliant writers alive today. I am completely blown away by everything he has written. He is one of those artists of whom I have said (out loud to my friends and family and written a few times in this blog), “I just feel so damned lucky to be alive at the same time so I can be surprised and thrilled by the new work as it comes along.” Other folks of other less enfranchised groups in these United States (yep, call me “Female”) have told me they had responses like, “Oh, my GAWD. That’s what we are going to do with Frederick Douglas? Seriously, Tony?” (yep, call them “African American”).

Here’s the beauty. Once I stepped back for a moment and stopped MY agenda for what THE story of this part of Lincoln’s presidency SHOULD be about…Kushner’s story came out loud and clear. This story of all these white men – all with power – making, at long last, a clear moral decision that was going to cause them to relinquish some of that power for the greater good.

And then I thought about all the wonderful attorneys who read this blog and who try so hard to find THE story of THE case that is going to win the day. With a bunch of people around them screaming the equivalent of, “GAWD! What about Mary Todd and Frederick Douglas?” Go see Lincoln. Not just because everything about it is simply extraordinary – it is – but to remind yourself that finding your way to the perfect simple story that will change and influence is not easy. But it is vital. And in the hands of a master like Tony Kushner, transcendent.


TIP: Is your trial story too broad, too encompassing or just right?


Liberal Arts — Movies for Lawyers — The Act Of Communication Point Of View

29 November 2012



College. Literature. Departmental Politics. Insight into the hearts and minds of professors and students – both undergrad and eternal. As a child of academics, these are the subject matters of my life. Usually when there is a film about college, I cringe. This one had me laughing, tearing up and saying, “Ain’t that the truth.”

Josh Radnor has made a truly lovely and heartfelt film without straying from the truth of what life in The English Department can be about. My dad was in The English Department. I was raised there. What can I say? I have a special critical eye when it comes to this subject matter. Also, I met Josh Radnor when Alan was performing Awake And Sing with him in The Berkshires a dozen years ago. Even as a young professional, Josh told me of his plans to make films – and over the years he has done just that with his hiatus time from his hit show (How I Met Your Mother). This time, he really comes into his own as a filmmaker in my opinion. He is a lovely actor as well and does beautifully in the role of the college recruiter visiting his old Alma Mater and finding himself falling in love with a student. There are wonderful performances in addition to his own. Richard Jenkins as the retiring professor who wants a “do over” is brilliant. Alison Janney as the tough as nails professor of the English Romantic takes what might become a cliché into ironic delight.

What is it in for lawyers? Other than a sweet ride? I must say, as soon as it was clear that the college recruiter in his mid-thirties was falling for the student in her early twenties, I started getting really uncomfortable. Over the sixty years I have been alive, I have watched the relationship between students and faculty/administrators change for the better. When I was a kid, professors (male) met their spouses when they were teaching them in class. There are many famous examples of this – I keep thinking Walter Kerr and Jean Kerr, although there were tons in my real life. Then, when I was a student, it was widely accepted that professors and students were allowed to sleep together – again, surprisingly, male professors and female students. I consider myself really fortunate for not getting involved in anything like that. Since leaving school and moving on and looking at this whole situation through legal eyes, I have a different perspective on the issue. A person with power over another person in a relationship will always have an unequal relationship. I think Radnor makes his character’s college a different place from the one in which he falls in love with a student for good reason. It certainly dodges this legal bullet. But I still felt uncomfortable. I still found this relationship to be unequal in terms of power. It really got my “is this an ethical situation” antennae up. What do you think?


TIP: If it feels unethical – is it…?


The Master — Movies for Lawyers — The Act Of Communication Point Of View

13 November 2012


Is there anything worse than spending the summer too busy to go to the movies and then finally going to the movies and seeing The Master? I don’t think so.

So, the first part of the film I thought, “How could such a brilliant filmmaker (Paul Thomas Anderson) and such an amazing cast make such a horrible film?” Then I spent the next part thinking, “I’m at The Westside Pavillion. I could leave right now, tell Alan I’ll meet him in a couple of hours and get those shoes.” And then I thought, “Oh, my GAWD. I am having the experience of a juror in a poorly conducted trial.”

Of course, that is when I got interested in learning something over the two hours there were left of the film that might be helpful to those of you who read this blog.

Let’s start with the most extreme issue. I could not follow the plot. Once in a while I thought I could – but then I couldn’t. And it went on and on and on and on senselessly for way over two hours. How many jurors have told me over the years that they were clueless as to what was going on?

I disliked Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character. But I really really really hated the main character, played by Joaquin Phoenix. There was nothing interesting or redeemable about him. He was weird and creepy and I wanted to spend absolutely no time with him at all. How many times does a criminal defense lawyer make the wise decision not to put on the accused? How many times has a civil lawyer said, “The jurors hated our guy. Of course they poured us out.”?

I am crazy about Amy Adams. I felt sorry for her being a part of this mess. But then I thought, “Girlfriend – read the script the next time.” How often do jurors say, “I felt sorry for the witness, but, really – she must have gotten into this mess all by herself. I sure can’t help her out of it. Too bad.”?

Yes, gentle reader – I stayed instead of getting those shoes because I felt the horror that I hope your jurors never ever feel when sitting in a courtroom while you are trying a case.

Just follow the tip. You don’t have to see this one, trust me.


TIP:  Don’t confuse the jurors, make them angry, and otherwise make them hate you.

Darling Companion — Movies for Lawyers — The Act Of Communication Point Of View

24 September 2012


One of the best things about being so busy with performance and travel this summer is catching up on movies in the hotel room and the airplane that I didn’t get to see when they were released. I clearly remember seeing the trailers for Darling Companion and whispering to Alan, “I am SO there!” Of course, then, when it hit the big screen I wasn’t. Funny how I always think I screwed up and missed a film instead of thinking, “Wow, that sucker must have been pulled after being on the big screen for about 26 seconds.”

So…why was this sucker only on the big screen for about 26 seconds and what is the big lesson for lawyers about the short lived release? Why would something created by Lawrence Kasden and starring Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline and Dianne Wiest only be out for 26 seconds and what should you learn from that?

Pretty quickly into this movie you realize that this is sort of The Big Chill revisited 30 years (yikes!) later. A series of disparate stories united by a common thread. And yet…it is amazingly unsuccessful. More disparate than united. It is really three pretty interesting separate movies forced into one film. Whoops.

It reminds me of cases that are tried as rubber stamps of one another. Cases tried by “specialists” in a certain kind of law (pick ANY specialty) as rubber stamps. This is not only a bad idea in the movies (you actually CAN’T recreate The Big Chill today) but really a bad idea when trying cases. I know I have said this in other reviews of other films…but…it is still a point worth embracing.

What is unique about this case? How is it not just like all your other cases? And, what is the main story for crying out loud?


TIP: Are you trying them one at a time – and uniquely?


Hope Springs — Movies for Lawyers — The Act Of Communication Point Of View

5 September 2012


You may ask yourself, “Why did Katherine scream ‘Get out of this relationship!’ to Meryl Streep during the first scene of Hope Springs?”  The answer is “because I work with lawyers”.

In this film supposedly aimed at me (white, female, older, hates-car-crashes-loves-relationships) Streep’s character, Kay, is married to Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) for what seems to be way too long by the time the film begins. He doesn’t appreciate her, sleeps in a separate bedroom, and you know that at his very base is never going to change. Despite seeing the ever reassuring Steve Carrell’s marriage therapist, well – you see it and tell me what you think of the ending of this film and whether or not it gives you hope for Kay’s future.

At any rate – I promised to tell you why I screamed at Streep because of working with lawyers.

Every day of the week with a “y” in it, I meet couples who are together but who have had their physical and emotional relationships severely impacted by injury. In my head right now I can see a man who is married to a woman in chronic pain. He tells me every time he touches her he is afraid he is hurting her – and so he has stopped. Into my head and heart comes a woman whose husband is severely brain damaged. She is now more like his mother than his wife – which makes her feel like having sex with him is just plain creepy. Not everyone who is paralyzed from the waist down feels sexy. I’ve met victims of sexual harassment who just can’t connect emotionally with their spouses – even though their therapists are easily as charming and well intentioned as the one in this film.

You see, Kay can leave Arnold.  The people lawyers introduce me to can’t.


TIP: What will never be made right for your client?



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