A good judge of the courtroom

by Marion O'Malley

JOHN TRAVOLTA gets serious

A CIVIL Action is John Travolta's latest film and it is well worth seeing. Based on a true story, Travolta plays Jan Schlichtmann, a personal injuries lawyer who defends a group of families trying to prove that their kids have died due to water contamination caused by two multinational companies. At the start of the film Schlictmann cynically explains that the ideal claim victim is a high earning, white middle aged male. They should, he says, not be too young, not black, not a woman, not poor, and certainly not a kid—they don't win big enough claims.

The film shows the dangers when personal injury lawyers work on a "no win, no fee" basis. They often represent working class people, who won't be able to afford lawyers and the cost of the research and investigations their cases will need to back up their claims. This means the settlement is the key aim and not the justice these people believe they might get by going to trial. The film states that out of 700,000 cases only 12,000 went to trial. This case does go to trial, due to an unlikely but apparently true conversion by Schlictmann who becomes a strong believer in the justice of the case almost regardless of the money involved. But, as Schlictmann's opposing lawyer says, "If you're looking for the truth, don't look in the courtroom."

The film does not present any easy answers. The multinational does not get beaten by the lawyer and its eventual demise is shown by just a few lines at the end. The overall message is that the system is massively stacked against you and you are lucky to get any sort of justice. This is a good film with a freshness and interest that sets it apart from other legal dramas.

Letters from the streets of Brazil

by Mike Gonzalez

A RETIRED teacher sits at a table in Rio de Janeiro's central station writing letters for people. She never posts them, but goes back to her flat by a busy railway line and stashes them in a drawer. Walter Salles' wonderful film Central Station opens with a series of faces—worn, toothless, old, despairing, appearing just for a moment out of the crowd that moves through the station concourse of this huge modern city.

A boy appears with his mother, wanting to write to his father who has disappeared. As they leave the station the mother is killed and the boy suddenly finds himself one of the hundreds of thousands who live in Rio's streets. The letter writer takes pity on him and they take off into the interior to look for the father. This is another Brazil, a universe away from the skyscrapers and modern cars of Rio. The strange couple travel for hundreds of miles across a vast eroded wilderness. They travel through small villages, on lorries full of strange religious cults, to the extraordinary festival in one more nameless village where thousands of people holding candles sing strange hymns to a variety of gods.

The faces on which the camera dwells seem familiar—these are the same people, or the same class, who sat across from the writer's table at central station. The life here is harsh and unforgiving—but it is also a place of kindness and solidarity, especially among those with so very little to lose.


They come alive outside the M25

by Angela Stapleford

CATATONIA ARE one of a growing number of bands who have no time for Blair's vision of Cool Britannia. They have, for example, joined in with New Musical Express's attack on the government's Welfare to Work programme. The band is fronted by a strong woman, Cerys Matthews, whose powerful vocals go the full range from soft and melodic to passionate and penetrating.

Catatonia's new album, the very enjoyable Equally Cursed and Blessed, expresses the frustration of daily life in lyrics like, "I thought we'd escape/I packed a fishing line and counted on it/I thought I'd wake up one morning and find nothing to rearrange/ ...and here I stand/Here in my kitchen where I'm familiar with every brand." There are glimpses of a political answer in "Storm the Palace" as the band sing, "Storm the palace/Turn it into a bar/Let them work in Spar/Turn it into flats/ Make them all ex-pats."

There's much less of the Welsh nationalism which underpinned some earlier albums. But there remains a sort of idyllic view of how society could be better if we all live in the countryside and "Make hay, not war" (though that's much better than Labour's "Make war, make war"). The best of the album is well worth listening to.


THE WHITE HOUSE TAPES: UNCIVIL LIBERTIES (Sat, 8pm, C4). The final episode in the three part series covers the FBI's campaign against Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The programme presents taped conversations between President Johnson and Hoover, head of the FBI, on their dirty tricks strategy to expose, in the FBI's view, "the most dangerous negro of the future of this nation".

COUNTERBLAST (Tues, 7.30pm, BBC2). Black poet Linton Kwesi Johnson talks about 25 years of the struggle against racism. Johnson recognises the need to keeping on fighting for equality, saying, "While we may have a new black middle class, 30 percent of young black men remain unemployed." He argues in the programme that the way forward is to set up an independent black political organisation.

COLD WAR: STAR WARS (Sun, 8pm, BBC2). The series moves to the Gorbachev and Reagan era of the 1980s where the US president stepped up the arms race with the Star Wars defence project.

THE REAL PETER MANDELSON (Sun, 8pm, C4). There's a lot of hype around this programme which could end up being an affectionate presentation of the politician whose career was built on celebrating the market and driving the Labour Party to the right.