Decades Blogathon — 12 Angry Men (1957)

It has been an absolute delight getting to deliver a third round of film reviews for the Decades Blogathon! On behalf of my excellent co-host Mark, of Three Rows Back, I would like to give everyone another round of applause for taking the time to write something for our little event. You guys make it possible. With any luck we’ll be back again for another, so if you found yourself missing out this year, keep those eyes peeled. Without further ado, here is my take on Sidney Lumet’s 1957 courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men


Release: Saturday, April 13, 1957 (limited)

[On Demand]

Written by: Reginald Rose

Directed by: Sidney Lumet

Something I didn’t expect to take away from Sidney Lumet’s astounding feature debut 12 Angry Men was just how much perspiration would be involved in the deliberations. An equally fitting title would have been 12 Sweaty Men. Of course, the drama here is in the details and without the pit-stains, malfunctioning fans and the regular employment of handkerchiefs and cough drops throughout, we’d have a much different movie.

It’s the summer of 1954. While humidity hangs in the air thick as molasses, the fate of an 18-year-old boy hangs in the balance. These 12 men have been summoned by the New York City public court system to determine whether the accused stands guilty of murdering his own father. Because this is a murder trial a unanimous decision must be reached.

Each juror is further reminded they must set aside personal judgment in order to render a fair verdict. Behold, the crux of this particular legal drama. One particular detail worth mentioning is that the boy’s ethnicity is never explicitly stated. It’s less of an accidental omission given the film’s position on the timeline of American history. Set several years prior to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, 12 Angry Men sticks a thermometer into the waters we were treading prior to one of the darkest decades in American history. According to what we witness in the Jurors Room, that water was already boiling.

Lumet, adapting from the 1954 teleplay of the same name created by screenwriter Reginald Rose, cracks open the file with a simple but incredibly effective establishing shot that pans up the building’s exterior, its towering pillars of justice and the cavernous enclave inside. In these rare moments outside the Jurors Room there’s great reverence for the power of the American judicial system. The deliberate framing of the shot(s) a reminder of the weight that is placed upon anyone so lucky to have their number called upon for jury duty.

The brilliance of 12 Angry Men is — well duh, it’s the screenplay — but specifically, the way it crafts drama out of simple debate. Of course, the nature of the discussion itself is far from simple but the premise isn’t much more than finding a way to reach a unanimous decision on whether an 18-year-old non-Caucasian male should receive the death penalty for actions it has been presumed he has taken. In fact that’s the only thing we’re here to discuss: the presumption of guilt.

Or, at least Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 is wanting to talk about it. A lone sheep amongst wolves, he simply asks if there should at least be some discussion about the decision to send a kid to the electric chair. In an early vote, the majority of which assume will be the only one necessary, Juror #8 is the only one to cast a dissenting opinion. The film famously sets about exploring the myriad points of view that have gotten us to this point — where only one man considers otherwise and in so doing becomes the antagonist. What kind of justice is this? That’s a question Fonda would love to have answered.

12 Angry Men uses these jurors to offer a cross-section of the American public of the time. These are individuals from wildly varying walks of life and with different sets of skills, values and personal histories, and while each of them have an important part to play the real stand-outs boil down to a foursome, excluding Fonda’s pivotal Juror #8. Lee J. Cobb plays Juror #3, a loud-mouthed, self-made man who has estranged himself from his own son, perhaps fitting as he is the juror who is also the most resistant to reason and logic; Joseph Sweeney plays the elderly Juror #9, the first to change his vote after hearing #8 out; Jack Klugman as Juror #5 exudes a meek and mild personality but his rough upbringing helps the case immeasurably; and last but not least there’s E.G. Marshall as Juror #4, a man who prefers dispassionate, deductive reasoning over emotional gut-reactions.

As the debate intensifies, certain aspects of each juror’s lives prove influential in ways that are both helpful and distracting. Cobb’s bigoted Juror #3 is the biggest perpetrator of potential wrongdoing as his absolute certainty courses as a venom throughout his body. His views on the matter are both outspoken and dangerous. Other jurors of course have their reasons for holding their vote, but as we come to learn, some opinions are more shakable than others.

The performances, especially from Fonda, are magnetic. This is a film whose heart-pounding action is generated by the spirit of the discussion. Often its ferocity. 12 Angry Men is a movie about arguing, and it swallows your attention whole as it jumps dynamically and effortlessly from one consideration to another, maneuvering the minefield with deft precision you’d think this were actually written by someone with experience in case-building. But fundamentally the film isn’t as interested in the minutiae of legal proceedings as it is in finding the humanity, finding decency. Finding justice.

Recommendation: A scintillating, razor-sharp screenplay and some fine performances from a versatile and impressive ensemble make 12 Angry Men a legal drama for the ages. Hands down one of the best of its genre and one of the better movies from the ’50s in general. How it has taken me until the Decades Blogathon to watch this thing is beyond me, but am I glad that I have finally. An epic saga that unfolds in a single room and over the course of an hour and a half.  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “You don’t really mean you’ll kill me, do you?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Denial

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Release: Friday, September 30, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: David Hare

Directed by: Mick Jackson

There’s no denying the spectrum of emotions Deborah E. Lipstadt experienced during her days in the Royal Court of Justice, recounted in her book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (upon which this film is based), deserves the silver screen treatment. Hers is a story that’s at once infuriating and inspiring, one that addresses the unfathomable but of course very real possibility of people denying that the Holocaust ever happened. Or, at the very least, that the aftermath was ever as devastating as it has been reported.

Denial represents director Mick Jackson (Volcano; L.A. Story)’s first theatrical release in almost 15 years. He has returned to craft a dignified if at times clunky dramatization that takes audiences through the harrowing Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd. court case, a trial that lasted for over a month as it painstakingly poured over details like the existence of Zyklon-B insertion points and the significance of Prussian blue — all things that confirm gas chambers were used to kill. You know, the sort of stuff that can’t possibly be denied but is anyway because it is a fundamental human liberty to express opinions in a free society.

Rachel Weisz digs deep and creates a brash but deeply sympathetic character as the embattled Deborah Lipstadt. The plaintiff in this case is notable historian David Irving (bravely portrayed by Timothy Spall). An English author who had written extensively on the military and political history of World War II with a particular emphasis on Nazi Germany, Irving began marginalizing himself in 1988 with his perpetuation of the notion that the Holocaust was a propagandistic tool designed and used by the Jews to gain financial benefits and public notoriety. In 1996 he sued Lipstadt for remarks she made in her recent publication Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory — remarks he believed to be damaging to both his personal and professional reputation.

As a defendant in the English legal system, where it’s Guilty Until Proven Innocent, Lipstadt carries the burden of proof; that is to say, yes, her legal team (chiefly comprised of litigator Anthony Julius and libel lawyer Richard Rampton QC, here portrayed by Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson respectively) has to prove that Irving’s rhetoric is reliant upon omission of facts and details, and that such omission of facts and details was deliberate. One cannot hope for victory over their opponent simply because he or she happens to be a Nazi sympathizer. Adding to her difficulties, Lipstadt is expressly told not to speak during court, that she cannot appear on the witness stand. Nor can any London-dwelling survivor of those camps. Including their testimonies would only aid the enemy. It would invite the possibility of public humiliation and unwanted complications.

Naturally, cameras linger close to Weisz as her composure informs the tone and attitude of the film. Her face becomes tight and twisted in disgust and frustration as the implications of her challenging Irving rather than choosing to settle out of court begin to overwhelm. Evidence of an emotionally hefty if not ultimately rewarding shoot is written all over the actor’s face especially as she goes out on her nightly runs — Weisz of course being born of Jewish immigrants. Denial is riddled with tension and fraught with emotional crevasses down which we journey. The film is at its most sobering when we visit Auschwitz. Her attorneys must gather evidence that gas chambers were used for mass murder rather than protection from incoming bombs. For some time her character isn’t even trusting of her own defense, who must frequently remind their client that becoming emotional in court will not help anything.

Despite some hiccups the case itself is intelligently and thoughtfully presented, and though a lot of legalese is included even in the few scenes that do not take place in court it’s not alienating. Rather than condescend, the meticulous attention to detail creates the cold and clinical air of detachment lawyers are meant to exude, no matter what cause they are rallying behind. Though in this case, a quiet righteous anger in Scott and Wilkinson simmers just below the surface.

It’s a competently shot and well-acted courtroom procedural even if the story that develops outside the walls of this hallowed institution stumbles over itself, a little too excited to arrive at its logical conclusion; to rightfully bathe in the glory of a just resolution to an ugly legal battle. Ultimately Denial is a straightforward presentation of a complex and seminal case in English law, one that is supposed to have revolved around libel and libel alone but which ends up delving into matters of historical accuracy, a directorial decision that will no doubt become a major point of contention for historians and viewers who fancy themselves history buffs. In a sense we should be thankful these creative liberties ultimately pave the way to predictability. To think that this saga would end any other way would be, in a word, unbearable.

timothy-spall-in-denial

Recommendation: Performances allow the film to rise above its narrative flaws. I’m finding myself more and more drawn to Rachel Weisz these days. She is an intense performer and her Deborah Lipstadt is a great example of her skill set. What a resilient individual this person was (and is). This is a film to watch for great contributions from the supporting cast as well, namely Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott. A heavy film, but surprisingly not as confronting as you might expect.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “This case is happening to you, but it’s not about you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

True Story

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Release: Friday, April 17, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Rupert Goold; David Kajganich

Directed by: Rupert Goold

True story: Rupert Goold’s cinematic adaptation of the memoir penned by disgraced New York Times writer Michael Finkel elicits more yawns than being forced to sit through days’ worth of testimony in an actual courtroom would.

It ought to be a compliment that this would-be crime thriller plays out with the fastidiousness of a trial hearing, but obsession with detail and determination to present evidence in a nonlinear fashion don’t translate into a compelling narrative. Ironically the slow-burn nature of this event is what ends up turning viewers off circa the halfway point. If you are really determined, you might give the last half the courtesy of staying awake long enough to see what the judge’s ruling is.

James Franco is Christian Longo, an Oregon man accused of murdering his wife and three children and who’s apprehended while laying low in Cancún for a time. Jonah Hill portrays Finkel, whose fabrication of certain details regarding his cover story on the African slave trade leads to his dismissal from the paper and a long period of unemployment. The two become entangled when Longo claims to be Finkel upon his arrest. Finkel — and by extension, we — demand an explanation as to why he chose his name. He wants exclusive access to Longo, but he’s limited to the sessions the prison will provide. In exchange for giving the journalist the inside scoop, he wants to learn to write, as he’s been a longtime admirer of Finkel’s work. Longo also wants Finkel’s word that he won’t divulge any information to outsiders.

These discussions constitute the bulk of True Story‘s narrative, and while they offer the pair of leads a chance to bite into their most somber material thus far in their careers, they also offer viewers many an opportunity to tune out and wonder if they’ve left the sprinklers in the yard running. (It’s alright, when I get back I’ll have a nice patch of overly-watered grass to enjoy watching grow.)

When Goold isn’t spending time highlighting Hill and Franco’s remarkably restrained performances — and if there’s any real reason to go and see this film it is for them rather than the shocking case — he’s weaving back and forth between cuts of Longo’s past and shots of a superfluously cast Felicity Jones as Finkel’s wife, Jill. As little as her dramatic prowess is utilized here Goold could have cast anyone. Why he opted for an undoubtedly expensive bit of casting is almost as much of a head-scratcher as how Longo, by all accounts a seemingly normal man, could be capable of such a heinous crime. Not to mention, Hill and Jones don’t particularly make for a convincing on-screen couple. Romance doesn’t necessarily have to be depicted (don’t worry, it’s not) but chemistry never hurt a film.

If I’ve given the impression True Story is a terrible movie, I should probably rephrase my major complaint. The odd relationship between Christian Longo and Michael Finkel attracts, though ultimately this story, this investigation into what is true and what isn’t has the feel of a compelling A&E True Crime segment. That Goold never does anything outrageous, like drastically alter facts in order to derive a denouement more befitting of cinematic spectacle is a strength. But again, the irony is a killer.

We should be impressed by how much True Story disturbs us. We should feel offended by the crime. We shouldn’t feel indifferent.

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2-5Recommendation: The film completely subverts previous conceptions of James Franco and Jonah Hill. The pair give incredible performances (this might be Franco’s best work since becoming Aron Ralston) but they’re unfortunately wasted in a sluggishly paced film that doesn’t add up to much in the end. I’d recommend a rental for the performances but not the drive out to the theater.

Rated: R

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes the truth isn’t believable. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not true.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com  

The Judge

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Release: Friday, October 10, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Nick Schenk; Bill Dubuque 

Directed by: David Dobkin

The honorable David Dobkin, who’s responsible for giving the world Wedding Crashers, presides over his very first drama and makes a relatively strong case for his continued exploration outside his comfort zone.

Despite narrative clutter and a doggedly long runtime (almost two and a half hours), which is perhaps more indicative of Dobkin’s awe over the star talent amassed in his courtroom (who else gets to say they have three epic Bob’s working for them on the same project: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton?) than his ability to trim the fat from his scenes, The Judge is a worthwhile procession featuring performances that do nothing but exceed expectations.

At its core and simultaneously where the film reel shows its most serious signs of wear and tear, this is a tale of tough love — a power struggle between a father and son who have lost touch and any interest in reconnecting. Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.), a successful Chicago lawyer, returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral. He and his father, the powerful and widely-respected Judge Joe Palmer (Duvall), can barely look one another in the eye and after 20 years it’s all the two can muster to force an awkward handshake. Given the actors involved, the personal tension is inherently intriguing and, presumably, complex. They become characters we’re instantly invested in.

We are less invested in the roughly 30-40 minutes used in setting up Hank’s backstory and what kind of life he’s leaving behind in Chicago to deal with his family — one of luxury made less alluring by what certainly appears to be a failing marriage. We’re not asking too much by wanting to skip to the part where Iron Man gets to square off in court with his bull-headed father, now, are we? Does that overlook the point of having Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Vera Farmiga as strong supporting characters who help illustrate what it is that Hank left behind all those years ago?

Maybe a little.

Contributing to the excess is the fact that there are one too many peripheral characters that Dobkin clearly wants to develop so as to not leave them as secondary thoughts. Unfortunately by the time the denouement hits, it itself has become a secondary thought, sidelined by over-explained relationships that truthfully don’t have anything unique about them. It gets to a point we almost forget the real reason we’re here: not just to experience the power of two heavyweight actors within a courtroom — which, by the way, is a very interesting setting in which to try and contain the personality of one Bob Downey Jr. This is, after all, technically a crime drama. There must be plot beyond seeing how well the actors come together as judge, jury and executioner.

For what it’s worth, thanks to the insertion of Billy Bob Thornton as a bloodthirsty lawyer on behalf of the plaintiff, the drama on the floor crackles with intensity and emotion. As Dwight Dickham, Thornton is once again too good at what he does. He stands out from the local crowd as obviously as Downey’s Hank Palmer who, with a minor degree of reluctance, represents his father in the wake of a disconcerting discovery at their residence — one involving bloodstains found on his old garage-bound jalopy that he has been appearing to cover up. Hank (and to a lesser extent his brothers) immediately know what this finding will mean if his dad has to appear in court.

Yes, indeed — that old trick. The unlikely bond forming in the 11th hour, then the series of unexplained circumstances testing the durability of the new bond. I wouldn’t be so irritated by the writing had this involved quite literally any other cast; these actors are too good to be pigeonholed into predictable trajectories. The guy playing Hank Palmer, for one, is a rather unpredictable actor but even he can’t escape the shackles of cliched character development.

It ain’t all bad, though.

The emotions run high and there are several moments in which time seems to come to a stand-still as dialogue flows forth freely, on occasion exploding as if released from a fire hydrant. Legal mumbo-jumbo isn’t even an issue here, which is a compliment that ought to be paid the screenwriters. Nick Shenk and Bill Dubuque understand they needn’t alienate an audience with technical jargon when there’s already enough beating around the bush going on.)

Come the end credits it’s difficult to shake the feeling The Judge could have banged its gavel a little more. . .creatively.

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2-5Recommendation: This guy may seem to be ruling slightly harsh on this film but this is mostly due to those pesky expectation levels again. While what this cast bring to the table is worth the price of admission, I can’t say the same about a rather bloated narrative that almost threatens to undermine a Robert Downey Jr. who may never have worked so hard for a paycheck. He alone is enough to still warrant a recommendation for seeing this in theaters. I just wouldn’t recommend going in expecting a whole lot more than a solid episode of Law & Order with A-list names involved though.

Rated: R

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “My father is a lot of unpleasant things, but murderer is not one of them.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com