A Civil Action

Quality galore can be found in A Civil Action, a movie based on Jonathan Harr's nonfiction best seller. Its director is Steven Zaillian, who has a history of thoughtful filmmaking. Its cast is top-notch, with John Travolta as overconfident Boston personal-injury attorney Jan Schlictmann, William H. Macy as his nervous accountant and Robert Duvall as their wily corporate-lawyer opponent. Its production values are first-rate, especially the wintry cinematography that reveals so much about the manufacturing town of Woburn, Mass. Woburn was the home of 12 children who died of leukemia. The youngsters' parents hire Schlictmann to represent them in a case against two multinationals. The parents believe the multinationals contaminated Woburn's groundwater, ultimately causing the children's deaths. Schlictmann and his small law firm throw everything at the corporate legal team, but are outgunned, out-spent and outmaneuvered. A rough justice ultimately emerges, but nobody is happy with the results. It's hard to know how accurate A Civil Action is without prior knowledge, but the film is an engrossing look at a legal and personal imbroglio.

Life Is Beautiful

An Oscar winner, Life Is Beautiful, is a film to love or hate. It opens with the happy-go-lucky Guido (Roberto Benigni) careening through the countryside of 1939 Italy with his brother Ferrucio (Sergio Bini Bustric); they're on their way to jobs as waiters. Then, through a happy misfortune, Guido rescues the beautiful Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) and is immediately smitten. He later discovers that the teacher is unhappily engaged to a pompous Fascist official. After an unusual courtship, Guido finally wins Dora. The movie then flashes forward five years. Dora and Guido have been blessed with a son, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini), but their life is ripped apart when the Jewish Guido and Giosué are sent to a German concentration camp. Guido attempts to protect his son from the horror by telling him that they're competitors in a special contest. Life Is Beautiful is basically two films—the first is a sunny romantic comedy, while the second is a grim tale of paternal sacrifice. For some, the contrast is illuminating; for others, it's merely irritating.

Our Friend, Martin

Although Our Friend, Martin is basically a hagiographic presentation of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., it tells his story in an unusual manner. Instead of offering a straightforward documentary, the film mixes animation and live-action footage, history and fictional plotting, to produce instructive entertainment designed for grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers. The story highlights Miles, a sports-obsessed, African-American sixth-grader. His best buddy is Randy, a white boy with a credulous streak. Their physical nemesis is Kyle, a white fellow student; their intellectual nemesis is Maria, a brilliant Hispanic classmate. One day, the four sixth-graders go on a field trip to King's boyhood home, where Miles and Randy grab a special baseball mitt that lets them time-travel.

They encounter King at critical moments of his life and quickly learn several important lessons about justice and racial equality. Kyle and Maria later receive a similar educational opportunity. Even though Our Friend, Martin is strengthened by riveting documentary footage and the presence of top actors bringing cartoon characters to life, the simplicity of its historical argument mars its effectiveness.

Loretta G. Seyer is editor of Catholic Faith & Family.