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Archive for the ‘COURTROOM DRAMA’ Category

Denial

17 Oct

Denial – directed by Mick Jackson. Courtroom Drama. 110 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★

The Story: A historian/academic has defamed a holocaust-denier, and he takes her to court in England for slander.

~

Oscar-time means biopics. True stories from headlines or history books crowd our attention, as civics lessons and catch-up info, and they are always welcome for the impersonations actors bestow in them.

Here we have Timothy Spall – face once seen never forgotten – as the headline-grabber no-holocaust side. We see him charming the convinced – skinheads, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites – that Hitler had nothing to do with the extermination camps and that the cyanide was merely to delouse the inmates. His rich rhetoric, so confident, so humorous, makes us delight in how convincing wickedness can be when skillfully said.

He is the first of four fine performances. The second is by Andrew Scott as the strategy attorney who has to hold himself in check in order to hold his client in check, a female threatening to run wild.

Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt the American historian baffled by British Court procedure and eager to run her own. show. Watching her, I wished they had cast an American Jewish actor. For Weisz, a good actor, gets lodged behind her Queens accent, such that I can’t bear to hear her utter another word after she utters the first. This stalls the performer behind her technique. I never get beneath my own irritation with her character’ coarseness to care about her as a human. The accent is flawless; that’s the trouble with it. But she does a good job of playing her scenes, which consist of gritting her teeth after she has gnashed them in outrage about how her case is being handled.

That all her ideas are wrong is set right by the performance of Tom Wilkinson as her defense attorney. He is an actor of mystery. If he were wholly mysterious, he would not be mysterious at all. But he is-half mysterious, except you never know which half. I delight to watch him. I am amazed by his discretion and power.

He has wonderful lines by David Hare to speak in the three crucial scenes in a trial that lasted thirty days and cost millions.

The film is sound, informative, honest, suspenseful, and well-told. The story is enclosed in its own drama, but you will not waste your time. Go.

 

 

The Judge

26 Oct

The Judge – directed by David Dobkin. Courtroom Drama/Family Drama. 141 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: A slick lawyer returns to defend his alienated father from a murder charge.

~

“I only defend the guilty because the innocent can’t afford me” is the repost Robert Downey Jr. gives to the untidy lawyer calling him shyster, and it’s all you need to know, because the fact that Robert Downey Jr. is playing the big-city lawyer will tell you all the rest. Downey, with his large, lambent, devil-angel eyes brings his inner mischief to the role. He plays heads on with Robert Duval as his cantankerous dad, the small town judge who is on trial for first degree murder. These are two superb actors, and they make the most of their big fat roles, but nothing they do can rescue the longueurs into which this film falls through over-extension both in length and attempted breadth.

We have rich actors on all sides: the cruelly brilliant Billy Bob Thornton plays the prosecuting attorney and he is given a meaningless scene explaining what he is doing working in that small town. Vera Farmiga plays Downey’s high school sweetheart twenty years later and she is given a meaningless daughter. We are expected to take an interest in matters that have no depth, no dramatic truth, and no place except as extraneous exposition. After all, how fascinating is a herring – even one that is red? Downey is given two brothers, and neither of these, well-played though they are, add to the central situation, which is a father-son situation solely.

It is another example of a film, essentially a courtroom drama, that doesn’t know that things need to pick up in the third act. Instead we have far too many scenes and a courtroom denouement which is disgracefully sentimental, legally impossible, and coated with the sprinkles of a score after enduring which one requires a cold shower. The picture is beautifully shot by the great Janusz Kaminski. The settings and physical properties of the film are first rate. The great talents of Downey and Duvall and Thornton and Farmiga are worth watching for the first two acts, but the picture wearies itself before one’s eyes. You want it to be good, but the screenwriter has betrayed the novel by following it too closely – at least that’s my hunch.

But the real problem is that the film is trying to validate a lie, that lie being that traumatized  relations between family members are resolved by their own efforts. When the unforgivable has occurred, the idea that a two hour and ten minute movie can erase it is claptrap. There is a wonderful scene in a bathroom with Duvall and Downey, true, and to watch Downey and Duvall negotiate this lie without running stark mad is a spectacle worth witnessing. We dishonor the contents of the unforgivable in swallowing such tripe. For shame on the film-makers for asking us to.

 

12 Angry Men [Henry Fonda Version]

26 Aug

12 Angry Men [Henry Fonda Version] – directed by Sidney Lumet. Courtroom Drama. A hung jury unhangs themselves. 96 minutes Black and White 1957.

★★★★

Three years after the Robert Cummings original TV version, Fonda produced this film, and it didn’t do well – except in Europe where it took off. One wonders why it did not do well here. It was a small film put into huge release, and well publicized with a big star. Perhaps the American public had seen it done quite well on TV already in the Robert Cummings version, and, without subtitles, the Europeans hadn’t. It caught on later.

One trouble, might be Henry Fonda in the Robert Cummings role. Fonda is not an ambiguous actor. He is a good guy actor, so the audience would expect him to win out over this bunch of sweaty bigots, and this would undercut the suspense., Or perhaps Lumet’s treatment of the jurors as individuals, rather than as a mass grouped against Fonda worked less well.

At any rate, we do have Jack Warden stealing every scene by his clever and apt use of props. As to the other actors, Lee J. Cobb, as usual, eventually overplays his hand, which Edward Arnold in the same role, for once, did not.  Jack Klugman is a study in actor-attention, Joseph Sweeny is even better than he was in the first TV version, Walter Abel was more rich and active in reserve than E.G. Marshall who sulks.

The sopping heat of New York City in a summer downpour is not followed through, and is, in any case, a superficial outside pressure. None of them play a frantic desire to get out of that sweltering, un-air-conditoined room.

I did see it in 1957, and I was mightily impressed and moved, partly because of its grimy, paint-peeling setting and un-Hollywoody, Method-type actors,  and the theme of common justice. When critics say a picture has not weathered well or stood the test of time, that probably means that the critic has not. Have I lost my ideals? If so, blame it on me that I now see the fault lines in the piece. How did Fonda buy that knife? How could they calculate that elevated train ride? Why would they notice the glasses line on that woman’s nose?

Well, the charm of the piece is that it is actually a detective story, with Robert Cummings and Henry Fonda and Jack Lemon (in a later TV version) all playing Sherlock Holmes to eleven prejudging Dr. Watsons – while never leaving the room. As a detective story it’s a pretty good one. As a young idealist of 24 I rejoiced to see justice done. Now I am more interested in the truth of the casting, so while there is something to be said for each cast, I prefer Cummings in the leading role over Fonda. Fonda has a beautiful face, but the emotional affect of a small town druggist. I find him flat, dull, and slightly self-satisfied. So his is a prescription rather than a performance. We shall see what Jack Lemon brings to the role. Then we shall know all there is to know, shall we not?

Henry Fonda, Lee. J. Cobb, Robert Webber, George Voskovec, Ed Begley, Joseph Sweeny, Edward Binns, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, John Fiedler, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman.

Robert Cummings, George Voskovec, John Beal, Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold, Joseph Sweeny, Paul Hartman, Bart Burns, Lee Philips, Norman Fell, Larkin Ford. 

 

 

12 Angry Men [Robert Cummings TV Version] 1954

06 Aug

12 Angry Men [Jack Lemon Version] – directed by William Friedkin. Courtroom Drama. A jury reconsiders a foregone verdict. 1 hour 57 minutes Color 1997.

★★★★★

Each of the three versions of this screenplay is longer than the one before it, and each is perfectly adequate to the task. None of them is a moment too long or too short. This one is interracial, the most bigoted member of it being Black Muslim. It is beautifully cast, directed, and acted, as are the other two. And in each case the principal actor gets older. Robert Cummings is 44. Henry Fonda is 55. Jack Lemon is 72.

I imagine it is impossible to badly direct this piece. It is not impossible to overact it, for it is occasionally and in certain small ways, in all its versions, over-written, but that is a cavil. It is not overwritten in its addition of material and episodes. None of the actors dally or milk their parts for attention. This version holds us, even though, after three versions, we know its episodes, its moves, and its outcome. In this version color adds a good deal to the drabness of the jury room itself, and in this version the rain convinces. Nothing is more insufferably sweltering than a July downpour in New York City. A minor matter is that Bayside High is said to have a football team. It does not even have an athletic field. I went there and I know.

Jack Lemon, a wonderfully jittery actor and comic master, evinces none of his trademark volatility and plays the part steady-on, as it should be played. He is exemplary, and his evident age adds a bent of physical vulnerability subtly advantageous to our tension.

One of the expanded parts of the play is the final scene which George C. Scott plays coming to terms with the scar of hatred for his own son. I saw George C. Scott starting out on the New York stage in The Andersonville Trial. He was mightily impressive, and has remained so ever since. However, he has not shown us anything new for years. Until now. This is the finest and most extreme demonstration of his gift I have ever seen – an extraordinary performance, which opens him up to a region I never associated him with. Don’t miss it. He won Golden Globe and Emmy for it that year.

I admire great actor-technicians such as Scott and Armin Mueller-Stahl. All the actors are excellent, and James Gandolfini, a different sort of actor entirely, is lovely.

This version was made for television, and I saw it on VHS. All versions are worth seeing. All are riveting.

Jack Lemon, Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen, Tony Danza, Hume Cronyn, and Mary McDonnell as the judge.

 Henry Fonda, Lee. J. Cobb, Robert Webber, George Voskovec, Ed Begley, Jack Warden. Joseph Sweeny, Edward Binns, E.G. Marshall, John Fiedler, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman.

Robert Cummings, George Voskovec, John Beal, Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold, Joseph Sweeny, Paul Hartman, Bart Burns, Lee Philips, Norman Fell, Larkin Ford. 

 
Comments Off on 12 Angry Men [Robert Cummings TV Version] 1954

Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, COURTROOM DRAMA, Edward Arnold, Franchot Tone, George Voskovec, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Robert Cummings

 

A Place In The Sun

13 Sep

A Place In The Sun – produced and directed by George Stevens. Romantic Tragedy. A young man aspires to love and success and is waylaid. 122 minutes Black and White 1951.

★★★★★

Seeing Elizabeth Taylor aged 17, as Angela Vickers sail into a mansion, you know she belongs there and you want to belong there with her. For Angela Vickers takes it all for granted. Like Daisy in The Great Gatsby, she has money in her voice. She has the silver chinks. She has everything and she gives everything, so the film naturally and inevitably slants towards her. Shelly Winters as the working class trull is given the opposite: neither sex appeal nor charm nor sympathy. She is brought into performance from beginning to end like the melted ice cream she serves and seems to be enduring morning sickness from the start. A self-pitying, sulky, nauseous look distorts her visage, a quart bottle of platitudes ready to pour. Washed around by his mother, Anne Revere and the two young women with whom he becomes involved, Montgomery Clift as George Eastman is a piece of driftwood shoved by every eddy. His body is flaccid and stooped. His face stares at us and reveals nothing but the hurt he might feel for a passing dog. His beauty registers as great but uneventful. One can read anything into his beautiful eyes, or nothing. For he cannot seem to summon any temperament. But the story is his, and so one reads, not George, but what happens to him. He stands there while it happens, not a character but a circumstance. His entire story, that is, points to Angela Vickers, as the only visible point of life, and the picture aims at what she promises to us all by her very existence on earth. Eastman is a character fostered by a magnate uncle who recognizes his resourcefulness; nepotism aside, George clearly could have succeeded in business on his own merits. And finding work he can do well and rise by is enhanced by his relations to Angela Vickers who has the sureness of her effect on men to go out for what she wants, as she does from their first big scene. We see her willfulness and her will,. We would call her spoiled, but she isn’t because she’s so kind, so happy to be alive, so generous, so gravely honest, so bright, and above all so loving. All the fun in life is lodged with her, all the beauty, all the romance. And never before or since on the screen have these qualities been so resplendently visible. Our hearts go out not to Clift or Winters, but to this wonderful girl, and to her baffled sadness and the life-long love that like a melody sings through it right to the end and beyond. Taylor’s performance throughout is gloriously right, natural, spontaneous, and her final scene is one of the greatest pieces of acting ever filmed, the finest piece of acting she ever did, and the most lyrical. Indeed, the whole film plays like something sung. It brings into being a beauty wider than either of the two beautiful faces of its leads or their romance. Did he kill her? Is he guilty. The priests says yes, of course. But the film says that the question is irrelevant. For it says that his love was a life experience so great that death is not in competition with it at all. Guilt, death, they are not even the same frame. Life has an inherent celebration in it, despite everything. Revealing this to us makes A Place In The Sun the most deeply life-loving film ever made. And the most beautiful.

 

12

09 Aug

12 – Directed by Nikita Mikhailkov. Courtroom Drama. A bored Russian jury is sequestered to find a culprit guilty who is obviously guilty. Color

* * * * *

Reginald Rose wrote the 1957 TV and screenplay, and the renowned director Nikita Mikhailkov has rewritten it cogently for modern Russia; he also acts the foreman’s part. It is brilliantly performed in the great Russian comic manner of each actor assuming a defining quirk. In that style, you don’t get better acting than this; although it appears to have nothing to do with Method acting, it is, in fact, Stanislavsky system incarnate; you can find it or have already seen it in Michael Chekhov’s performance in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Instead of a jury room, the story is spread out in an old polluted school gymnasium, and there we have the difficulty which the film poses of confining its points to local Russian matters, just as the acting also does. The war in Chechnya is laced in, as is a series of backstories which sound like they were improvised by the actors themselves, for they do not always serve the purpose they are intended for, which is as emotionally logical turning points in the verdict of each jury member. So it is hard to translate the Russianness of it into universal terms. However the film remains just as exciting as the original, because excitement is built into it. We know the young man will get off, because that is the only direction for the story to go when it opens. And the various directions the story now takes as it reaches that conclusion are thrilling and daring and dangerous. The question isn’t the conclusion; the question is the tension generated in achieving it. The film was nominated for an Oscar, and did not win. One of the greatest films ever made, Burnt By The Sun, also by this director, did win the best foreign film Oscar, however, and that film is the best place to begin to explore this director’s rich and varied work. But this one will not disappoint your pleasure either. It possesses what American films now seem to lack, great imagination in the creating of dialogue to create characters, great imagination in the actor’s execution of roles, and great breadth of imagination in the direction of actors in the telling of a story.

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