DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Deliberate Intent, Panic, The Basketball Diaries, O, Criminal Justice, Presumed Innocent , Identity Theft: The Michelle Brown Story (2004)  , The Net (1995), Hackers (1995), Return to Sender (2004)


Title:  Deliberate Intent

Release Date: 

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 100 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  n/a (suggest PG-13)

Distributor and Production Company: 20th Century Fox and FX Cable

Director; Writer: Wolk, Andy, based on book by Rod Smolla


Cast:  Timothy Hutton, Clark Johnson, Penny Johnson, James MacDaniel 


Relevance to doaskdotell site:

Review: Movie Review of Deliberate Intent

20th Century Fox, first shown on FX Cable August 6, 2000

Timothy Hutton, Clark Johnson, Penny Johnson, James MacDaniel

Directed by Andy Wolk

Based on the book Deliberate Intent by Rodney A. Smolla (Rod Smolla), Crown, 2000, ISBN 0609604139


I can remember in grade school, when a teacher punished a student for “doing it deliberately,” or “on purpose.”  And in the notorious litigation against Paladin Press (the company with a chess Knight as a trademark symbol) concerning the “assassination manual” Hit Man, by fictitious author Rex Farrel, the contention that Paladin apparently or allegedly deliberately intended some readers to follow the “instructions” in the book, became the basis for the 4th Circuit’s allowing the case to go to trial in 1997, and for Paladin’ settling out of court (on the request of its liability insurance company) and taking the book out of circulation. The case was Rice v Paladin Enterprises.


In author Smolla’s words, regarding the First Amendment defense:


“A publisher who provides detailed information on techniques of violent crime with the deliberate intent that some readers will use the information to murder and maim will not find refuge in the First Amendment."


Now, I do not have a copy of Hit Man and can apparently no longer obtain it.  I understand one critical point from the film: that the publisher apparently turned the book into a “Dummies”  “how to” manual by its own design.  One point that is very striking to me is that the author insisted that Paladin protect her identity and assume all the liability for publication; most trade and even cooperative publishing contracts require the author to sign an indemnification clause protecting the publisher. So this contract provision was extremely unusual for the industry. The author supposedly assembled the materials for the Hit Man book from detective stories and mundane sources.  


However, one can still speculate that the book, based on its contents even taken at face value, could be read toungue-in-cheek, as “satire.”   I can even imagine that a book like this could be desired by a consumer who wants to protect himself/herself from a possible “hit man.” So, as a matter of law, it should be protected by the First Amendment as legitimate expression, unless the publisher actually intended that it be used to commit a crime.  According to the film’s end credits, this is the first case where a publisher accepted liability for a crime committed by a reader of a book.  The legal precedent, as explained in the film, is Bandenburg v. Ohio, and involves the incitement of “imminent lawless action.” Nevertheless, many public policy makers (liberal and conservative alike) consider “copycat” violence, especially by minors or the mentally ill, as serious issue for which authors and media should take responsibility.  One of Stephen King’s novels may have inspired a crime, and the novels of Tom Clancy and John Grisham are mentioned in the trial debates. But the (new) legal standard preventing this slippery slope (reminding me of my own litigation against the Child Online Protection Act) is apparently “deliberate intent.” Of course, an out of court settlement does not present a precedent; the case never was tried.


The film-making itself is masterful.  The flashbacks, many apparently filmed on location in Detroit ad the DC suburbs (the murder took place just before the March Superstorm Blizzard of 1993) seem real and make the film seamless, despite the movements within the time dimension.  The setting, acting, and background music and even the plotting have a pulpy character, sometimes reminding one of Tarentino, or even of the Coen brothers’ masterpiece Blood Simple.


Timothy Hutton gives an earnest performance as the pro First Amendment lawyer (Rod Smolla, who wrote the Deliberate Intent book mentioned above) whose stomach is turned by what he comes to see as a misuse of free speech for destructive purposes.  The best line is “The book is lethal … When you pick it up it comes alive.”


20th Century Fox should provide a general theater release of this important film.  If it does, it will surely be on the Oscar list, even for Best Picture.  It seems that more and more, “issue” films are being relegated to cable and network television; the studios do not seem to have confidence that a film with this kind of intellectual depth can attract a large box office.  I think that the studios can build an audience for this kind of film, including a theater audience.  Perhaps I can help them do this.


A reader made the following comment to me.


“Not a bad flick, definitely educational -- although I thought the make-up was awful.  The guy who argues opposite Smolla looks like a ghoul, as does Judge Luttig (who actually looks like a cross between Andy Rooney and Bill Maher). “


Another reader informs me that the book text is available at this address (http)




If you key this into the browser with the http it does seem to work


The online publisher, makes this comment:


“The book was initially published in 1983. 13,000 copies of the book are now in existence. There has only ever been one case where the book was associated with a crime, in that case the criminal had recently finished a lengthy prison sentence and had a history of prior violent crime. It is our opinion this book has never incited a murder, that the settlement of the Paladin Press case was wrong and forced by the insurance company, and that this book, and no book, should be banned. We invite the public to judge for themselves.”

Again, I personally buy the free speech idea. Normally speech can be prosecuted or incur liability when it causes the imminent threat of lawless action.

Take note also of the film Panic (2000, Summit Entertainment), starring William H. Macey as a “hit man” seeking therapy for his “guilt” over this lifetime career with his creepy father played by Donald Sutherland.  The plot is a bit predictable but the hit scenes are positively chilling. But this film is no recipe for “doing it.”  We could go back to 1995 for the Gramercy/USA film Coldblooded, with Jason Priestley as a young bookkeeper who gets a “real career” as a hit man.


The Basketball Diaries, from USA Films/Gramercy/Island in 1995 (director, Scott Kalvert) puts a then nineteen-year-old Leonardo Di Caprio in a brilliantly acted role of a young man, alienated by the hypocrisy of his Catholic school surroundings, going down into despair, drugs, and street life, at one point prostituting himself in a the men’s room in a subway station. The scene where he tries to get his mother to take him back as the “prodigal son” is anguishing. Di Caprio took this role, ironically, after River Phoenix, intended for it, died of a drug overdose. The movie is based on the autobiographical book from the 1960s by Jim Carroll, and presents the paradox of a boy living a gang street life showing his gifts for writing and words. The movie is famous for the scene in which the protagonist shoots up a classroom with a huge automatic weapon, but in the context of the movie, it occurs in a dream. Claims that this scene inspired Jonesboro and then Columbine sound overblown to me, but a movie like this does present the problem of whether movies and books inspire imitation in sociopathic people.


The film also stars Marky Mark Wahlberg, James Modio, Ernie Hudson, Marilyn Sokol, Loarraine Braco, Bruno Kirby.  There is an episode early in the film where a friend of Carrol’s dies of leukemia, and wastes away to a skeleton, an event that unsettles Carroll as he proceeds with his distanced autobiographical narration. Yet, “boys will be boys,” as in a scene where they, shirtless and generally (except for one) “hairless,” jump into the Hudson off the Palisades. Pathetic indeed is the scene were Di Caprio tries to move back home and screams, “I’ll be a good boy!”


O (1991; 2001, Lions Gate, R, 96 min, dir. Tim Blake Nelson, with Mekhi Philer and Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles) is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello in the private boarding school world (South Carolina) and basketball world like “One Tree Hill.” Here, it seems a bit like soap opera, like “Days of our Lives,” a web of jealousy but here the men can be villains. Though living in Josh Harnett’s own Minneapolis (I’ve met him a couple times hanging around the Twin Cities active film community), I missed this when it came to the arthouses just before 9/11, because the film, originally belonging to Miramax, had been held back two years in the wake of Columbine. Lions Gate would release it (at another unfortunate time), and we now know about a similar controversy over “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Here the (in 1999) 21-year-old Josh Hartnett shows he can play psychopathic evil, although he still acts the part wholesomely. His motive for tempting Odin James (“O.J.”) into a spider’s web of jealousy and murder is nothing more than a desire to be in the limelight, to have his own 15 minutes of fame, to soar like an eagle just once. The blowout at the end is tragic, as almost everyone is going to die.


Criminal Justice (1990, Miramax/HBO Films, dir. Andy Wolk, with Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Grey, Rosie Perez, Anthony LaPaglia, 92 min, suggest PG-13) provides a didactic lesson in the criminal justice system and how it handles minority defendants, as with the plea bargain process. Does the evidence of a lineup or other circumstantial evidence along with police assertiveness convince some innocent defendants to bargain for a lower sentence? Do trial lawyers play Faust and give up all intellectual honesty in order to argue for their clients, regardless of what they personally believe to be the truth (a luxury reserved for unpaid writers like me, perhaps.) Is plea bargaining fair to the victims? The questions for discussion only go on from there. When is a feature film better teaching material than entertainment? Here is the purchase information:


An important aspect of the criminal justice process is that a falsely accused person (or even “person of interest”) may have his reputation permanently tainted, especially in these days of the Internet and search engines.


A paradox of the criminal justice system is provided by Scott Turow’s novel and film adaptation Presumed Innocent (1990, Warner Brothers, dir. Alan Paluka) where a prosecutor is apparently framed for the murder of his putative mistress—but this is only the beginning of plot twists involving corruption in the D.A.’s office, the circuit courts, and DA Rusty Sabich’s (Harrison Ford)’s own family. The film is a detailed courtroom drama, and bears careful attention to all the procedures. Paul Winfield performs winsomely as the powerful judge Larren Lyttle, with the Achilles heel. The charging of Rusty happens about 40% into the film, about the right beat for a screenplay. The ending let’s the guilty go free to protect the system—yet the final plot twist could come out of daytime soap opera. Harrison finds the murder weapon in his basement, and the jealous wife walks in.


The DVD looks like a direct television transfer (full screen, unfortunately). The intimate scenes with Harrison Ford show his “physical maturation” when compared to the Star Wars films. The plot is that of typical corruption. The prosecutor Horgan (Brian Denehy) has a great transparent elevator line “you have to run out all ground balls” while Horgan’s successor Guardia (Tom Mardirosian) stages the prosecution of Sabich on the theory that he wanted to coverup a former sexual relationship with Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi). There is a sideline in the plot where a kid is asked to testify about the abuse of his mother (Carolyn), and the issue of whether a child’s testimony can be coerced and then believed (common in pedophilia charges against parents) is at least touched.


In a monologue at the end, in front of an empty courtroom, Sabich mentions that it is very difficult to try two people for the same crime; and then he says: “I am a prosecutor. I have spent my life in the assignment of blame.”



A modern, sophisticated dramatic treatment of the perils of the criminal justice system is the CBS film (May 23, 24 2004) Reversible Errors, based on Scott Turow’s novel, with William H. Macey and Tom Selleck (“Magnum P.I.” and the Detroit Tigers!), also Felicity Huffman and Shermar Moore. Would a prisoner with terminal cancer “admit” that he had framed someone on death row? Why?


Identity Theft: The Michelle Brown Story (Lions Gate/Lifetime/Granda, 2004, dir. Robert Dornhelm) presents the true story of Denver elementary school teacher Michelle Brown (Kimberly Williams) who, when she goes to make a mortgage application with her husband (Jason London), finds all of her data stolen by loan office employee Connie (Annabelle Sciorra), who, knowing she will get caught eventually (she is also running drugs), sees it as an exercise in left-wing “social justice” to confiscate the wealth of the “white decadent upper middle class” that she can never aspire to have.  She can never afford one of the homes whose paperwork she processes.  She goes out and buys an SUV, an imitation of Michelle’s, and rents a similar house. This, as well as jewelry and botox treatments, all winds up on Michelle’s credit report. She easily fools the DMV to get a fake driver’s license (a big issue in Arlington VA as four of the 9-11 hijackers got fake id’s from a DMV office here!) Gradually, she is obsessed with becoming Michelle as a way to make her statement. Michelle does everything right but is still harassed, once arrested at an airport. The judge, in the final sentencing scene, almost goes along with her, until Michelle explains that what she lost is her good name. It seems that Connie never gets beyond her private view of being born behind in line as something she should address by force and confiscation.


Artisan Entertainment provides a 91-minute DVD of episodes from the 1991 cable show Trial Watch, which summarizes a number of controversial cases, such as the trial of film director John Landis for manslaughter for the deaths of two child actors on the set of Twilight Zone. Child actors normally must have their own private teachers, a point which explains why many of them seem to be so sharp despite little time in school. There are other controversial trials, such as Lyle and Eric Menendez (1989), and the son of Marlon Brando, who was actually treated with more suspicion since he was the son of a celebrity. The O.J. trial is not included because it occurred later.


Wellspring Media, Fireworks Pictures and Moxie present Liz Garbus’s documentary Girlhood (82 min, sugg. PG-13, 2003) which traces two teenage girls Shanae and Megan through the juvenile justice system in Baltimore, with a gradual release from regimentation through halfway houses back to some freedom. They have committed terrible crimes and didn’t “get it,” yet gradually become rehabilitated. Shanae will eventually become an honor student and go to college. The poor values of the parents, competing poorly in an individualistic society, has something to do with all of this.


The Familiar Stranger (Lions Gate/Lifetime, dir. Alan Metzger, Margaret Colin and Jay O. Sanders, 96 min, 2001), presents a father who, after indictment for embezzlement, feigns suicide and deserts his family, taking on a fake identity as a flim-flam man. He winds up facing his family and pleading nolo contendre for non-support, and winding up in the slammer after the deserted super-mom pays private detective. (Yup, she finds him by Google-hacking; search engines keep people in the public eye.) He never gets it. Still, it is criminal justice, and it is the people as well as the immediate family (especially the boys) who are harmed,


Cinemax and Wellspring Media present the documentary Fashion Victim: The Killing of Gianni Versace (2002, dir. James Kent), an account of the door-front murder of the fashion designer by “stalker” Andrew Cunanan, who had prepared his crime with a step-by-step serial killing spree across the country, quite different in character from that of Aileen in “Monster.” It does seem that Cunanan’s psychopathology was an awry case of vicarious upward affiliation, a narcissism gone awry. He couldn’t take losing it. This murder happened right after I published my first book, in 1997.


The Net (1995, Columbia, dir. Irwin Winkler, PG-13, 114 min) constructs an identity theft scenario involving the public Internet, which then was only three years old. At that time, AOL and Prodigy offered proprietary content with their own applications and had not yet adopted http. AOL did not yet have personal publisher. Still, Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock) plays an effective introverted female geek who is supposed to debug a mystery program given to her by Dale (Ray McKinnon). He is killed in a plane crash, and when Angela goes on vacation she finds her identity has been deleted and replaced by that of a person with a criminal record. The Net here has a lot more to do with the websites that typical home users see; here it is the credit companies, law enforcement, everything. At one point there is an interesting AIDS demonstration.


Hackers (1995, United Artists, dir. Iain Softley, 107 min, PG-13) takes stereotyped computer hacking scenarios and makes a whizbang special effects ride of it. At 11, Dade Murphy is convicted of writing a computer virus (all the way back in 1988) and kept off computers until he is 18. As a college freshman, Dade “Zero Cool” (spectacular British actor Jonny Lee Miller at 23) and friends is conscripted by the government to track down real hackers. The problem is that the script is more interested in just entertaining than in exploring any real problems. The special effects are way out of kilter with reality, and the web was just coming into common use when this movie was made. To me, what’s interesting, is that there are so many bizarre problems and scenarios with Internet activity that Hollywood hasn’t even touched yet. That is for me to explore. A “real life” looking scenario could become even more captivating. The movie features Angelina Jolie and pre-Swimfan Jesse Bradford.


Some sidebars here. The new virus is called “the Da Vinci” virus (there was a Michealangelo virus in 1992). There is a great line, “we’re hackers. For us, there is no such thing as family and friends.” You need them when the economy tanks and you do grunt work.


Return to Sender (aka “Convicted”, 2004, Lions Gate/DEJ/Audley, dir. Bille August, 101 min, R). The original title refers to that rude graphic that appears on an unwanted letter (like a blocked email these days), and here a woman on death row Charlotte Cory (Connie Nielsen) in Oklahoma has a letter rejected by her blind sister. She has been convicted for a plot in which a child died. A friend Frank Nitzche (Aidan Quinn) falls in love with her – a plot device that reminds us of Capote. Frank gumshoes to save her from death by injection. Kelly Preston is the attorney. Charlotte does give some speeches about blood loyalty and seems to be willing to die for what she believes is her sister’s crime. Frank digs deeper.  Bille August, a Danish director, is known for tackling mysteries at different epochs in smaller films. 


Related reviews:  Student Seduction   Runaway Jury (and Inherit the Wind); Book: Verton: Hacker Diaries  Capote     Witness for the Prosecution.  Amber Frey


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