Film Review: An Innocent Man (1989, directed by Peter Yates)


Jimmie Rainwood (Tom Selleck) is an aeronautics engineer who, with the exception of once getting arrested for marijuana possession in college, has lived a clean and productive life.  Mike Parnell (David Rasche) is a corrupt narcotics detective with a raging coke habit.  When Parnell and his partner, Scalise (Richard Young), get a tip about a house where drugs are hidden, Parnell is so coked up that he gets the address wrong.  They end up breaking into Jimmie’s house and, when Jimmie steps out of the bathroom holding a hair dryer, Saclise shoots him.

Jimmie survives getting shot but that’s the least of his problems.  In order to cover up their mistake, Parnell and Scalise frame Jimmie.  They replace the hair dryer with a gun.  They plant drugs in Jimmie’s house.  Because of his previous marijuana conviction, no one believes Jimmie when he says he was set up.  Convicted of a crime that he didn’t commit, Jimmie is sentenced to six years in prison.  While his wife (Laila Robins) does everything that she can to get him released, Jimmie is preyed upon by the other prisoners.  His only friend is Virgil (F. Murray Abraham), a veteran prisoner who shows Jimmie that he’s going to have to do some terrible things to survive being in prison.

As he showed when he directed Bullitt, the late Peter Yates was a director who could make even the most conventional genre material feel fresh and that is what he did with An Innocent Man.  Made at a time when American leaders bragged about their devotion to the war on drugs, An Innocent Man is critical of both the police and a legal system that cares more about punishment than rehabilitation.  Even if the plot is predictable, the film is gritty enough to make an impression.  Jimmie is so victimized and Parnell and Scalise are so smug that, by the time Jimmie finally has a chance to orchestrate his revenge, you can’t wait to see the cops get what’s coming to them.

Part of the appeal of An Innocent Man is that it features actors who you normally would not expect to appear in a film like this.  Tom Selleck, best-known for playing upright authority figures, plays a frightened man who is forced to sacrifice his humanity to survive.  When the movie started, I was skeptical that Selleck could pull off the role but, by the end of the film, he had the thousand-yard stare of a man who had been to Hell and back.  Meanwhile, David Rasche, best known for his work in sitcoms, is more than convincing as the most corrupt narc around.  Best of all is F. Murray Abraham, playing the seasoned convict who knows how to get things done in prison.  When he tells Jimmie that he has to “take of care of this,” even if it means committing a real crime, you believe him.  By the end of An Innocent Man, nobody’s innocent anymore.

Catching-Up With Two Courtroom Dramas: Suspect and 12 Angry Men


As a part of my continuing effort to get caught up with reviewing all of the movies that I’ve seen this year, here’s two courtroom dramas that I recently caught on This TV.

  • Suspect
  • Released in 1987
  • Directed by Peter Yates
  • Starring Cher, Dennis Quaid, Liam Neeson, John Mahoney, Joe Mantegna, Philip Bosco, Fred Melamed, Bernie McInerney, Bill Cobbs, Richard Gant, Jim Walton, Michael Beach, Ralph Cosham, Djanet Sears 

Suspect is a hilariously dumb movie.  How dumb is it?  Let me count the ways.

First off, Cher plays a highly successful if rather stressed public defender.  And don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that Cher is a bad actress or anything.  She’s actually pretty good when she’s playing Cher.  But, in this movie, she’s playing someone who managed to graduate from law school and pass the DC bar.

Secondly, Cher is assigned to defend a homeless man when he’s accused of murdering a clerk who works for the Justice Department.  The homeless man is deaf and mute, which isn’t funny.  What is funny is when he gets a shave and a shower and he’s magically revealed to be a rather handsome and fresh-faced Liam Neeson.  Liam doesn’t give a bad performance in the role.  In fact, he probably gives the best performance in the film.  But still, it’s hard to escape the fact that he’s Liam Neeson and he basically looks like he just arrived for a weekend at Cannes.

Third, during the trial, one of the jurors (Dennis Quaid) decides to investigate the case on his own.  Cher even helps him do it, which is the type of thing that would get a real-life attorney disbarred.  However, I guess Cher thinks that it’s worth the risk.  I guess that’s the power of Dennis Quaid’s smile.

Fourth, the prosecuting attorney is played by Joe Mantegna and he gives such a good performance that you find yourself hoping that he wins the case.

Fifth, while it’s true that real-life attorneys are rarely as slick or well-dressed as they are portrayed in the movies, one would think that Cher would at least take off her leather jacket before cross-examining a witness.

Sixth, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the homeless man is innocent.  We know he’s innocent from the minute that we see he’s Liam Neeson.  Liam only kills who people deserve it.  The real murderer is revealed at the end of the film and it turns out to be the last person you would suspect, mostly because we haven’t been given any reason to suspect him.  The ending is less of a twist and more an extended middle finger to any viewer actually trying to solve the damn mystery.

I usually enjoy a good courtroom drama but bad courtroom dramas put me to sleep.  Guess which one Suspect was.

 

  • 12 Angry Men
  • Released 1997
  • Directed by John Frankenheimer
  • Starring Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen, Mary McDonnell, Tyrees Allen, Douglas Spain

The 12 Angry Men are back!

Well, no, not actually.  This is a remake of the classic 1957 film and it was produced for Showtime.  It’s updated in that not all of the jurors are white and bigoted Juror #10 (Mykelti Williamson) is now a member of the Nation of Islam.  Otherwise, it’s the same script, with Juror #8 (Jack Lemmon) trying to convince the other jurors not to send a young man to Death Row while Juror #3 (George C. Scott) deals with his family issues.

I really wanted to like this production, as it had a strong cast and a strong director and it was a remake of one of my favorite films.  Unfortunately, the remake just didn’t work for me.  As good an actor as Jack Lemmon was, he just didn’t project the same moral authority as Henry Fonda did the original.  If Fonda seemed to be the voice of truth and integrity, Lemmon just came across like an old man who had too much time on his hands.  Without Fonda’s moral certitude, 12 Angry Men simply becomes a story about how 12 men acquitted a boy of murder because they assumed that a woman would be too vain to wear her glasses to court.  The brilliance of the original is that it keeps you from dwelling on the fact that the accused was probably guilty.  The remake, however, feels like almost an argument for abandoning the jury system.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Dresser (dir by Peter Yates)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1983 best picture nominee, The Dresser!)

Taking place during World War II, The Dresser is a story of the theater.

Sir (played by Albert Finney) was once a great and famous Shakespearean actor but that was a long time ago.  Now, he is reduced to playing in regional theaters, traveling across Britain with a company made up of a motley collection of forgotten has-beens and never-weres.  He can still draw an audience, one made up of elderly theater goers who remember seeing him in London and people who are merely looking for a distraction from the war.  While bombs echo outside, Sir alternates between playing Othello and King Lear.  Backstage, Sir talks about the memoir he’s going to write and barks out orders to the members of his company.

Though Sir’s overly florid style of acting may seem old-fashioned, there’s no denying that his talent.  We don’t see much of his performance but, when we do see him, we never doubt his claim that he was once declared to the greatest King Lear to have ever appeared on the British stage.  Onstage, Sir is in complete control.  Offstage, he often struggles to remember where he is or what play he’s going to be performing.  At one point, when he’s meant to be getting ready to play Lear, he puts on his Othello makeup.

Fortunately, Sir has a dresser.  Norman (Tom Courtenay) doesn’t appear to have much of a life outside of taking care of Sir’s every whim.  Perpetually high-strung but blessed with a biting wit and an all-important bottle of Brandy that he takes a drink from whenever Sir gets too difficult to deal with, Norman is the one who holds the theatrical company together and who, most importantly, protects Sir.  When Sir can’t remember who he’s playing, Norman reminds him.  When Sir harasses a young actress, Norman is the one who hushes it up.  When Sir insults another actor (Edward Fox), Norman is the one who brokers a peace.  When it’s time for Sir to play King Lear, Norman is the one who helps Sir to transform into Shakespeare’s most tragic monarch.  Neither Sir nor the rest of the acting company seems to have much respect for Norman. The other actors consider Norman to be an ass-kisser and Sir … well, Sir doesn’t have much respect for anyone.  But for Norman, a gay man living at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, Sir’s theatrical company provides him with the only safe place he’ll ever find.

The Dresser is an adaptation of a stage play.  (A few years ago, another version was produced for the BBC with Ian McKellen as Norman and Anthony Hopkins as Sir.)  It’s a good film, though I imagine that it’ll be best appreciated by people who have actually worked in theater.  Finney and Courtenay are both great and I also liked the performance of Edward Fox.  That said, it’s definitely a filmed play the feels more appropriate for PBS than for a movie screen.  As a result, it seems to be a bit of an odd pick for a Best Picture nomination.  I imagine that, much like Birdman, it benefitted from being a movie about actors and performing.

The Dresser lost Best Picture to Terms of Endearment.  It’s still worth seeing, if just for Courtenay’s final monologue.

Back to School Part II #12: Breaking Away (dir by Peter Yates)


Has Indiana changed much since 1979?

I ask because I just watched Breaking Away, a 1979 nominee for best picture.  Breaking Away was shot on location in Bloomington, Indiana and on the campus of Indiana University.  And though the film doesn’t go out of its way to idealize either the state, the town, or the university –in fact, the title refers to the desire of several characters to break away from their life in Bloomington — it still manages to make Indiana look like the nicest place on Earth.  Add to that, Indiana University is home to the Eskenazi Museum of Art, which I will someday visit.

Breaking Away is actually a film about a lot of things: it’s a comedy, it’s a quasi-love story, it’s bittersweet coming-of-age story, it’s a sports film, and it’s a sweet, good-natured film that made me cry.  At the heart of the film is Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), who has just graduated from high school and whose cheerful and eccentric exterior hides the fact that he appears to have no real future.  Dave is obsessed with bicycle racing and idolizes that the Italian cycling team.  In fact, he idolizes them so much that he decides to be Italian.  He rides around Bloomington, greeting people with a merry “Ciao!”  At home, he listens to opera and renames the family cat “Fellini.”  While his mother (Barbara Barrie) is understanding, his father (Paul Dooley) cannot understand what’s happening to his son.  Of course, Dave doesn’t truly believe that he’s Italian.  He just desperately wants to be something other than who he is.

And who is Dave?  He’s a citizen of Bloomington, a town that is divided between the upper class students at Indiana University and the blue-collar townies.  The students call Dave and his friends “cutters,” because the only real industry in town is working in the quarry, cutting stone.  The students look down on the cutters and the cutters resent the students.

Dave has three close friends, all of whom were big in high school and who are now facing an uncertain future of anonymity.  Cyril (Daniel Stern) is the funny and quirky one, the former basketball player who talks about how he would like to be a cartoon character.  Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is usually easy-going but loses his temper whenever anyone mentions that he’s short.  (At one point, Moocher’s boss orders him to, “Punch the time clock, Shortie!”  Moocher literally does just that.)  And finally, there’s Mike (Dennis Quaid).  Mike is their leader, a former high school quarterback who idolizes the Marlboro Man and who knows that he’s destined to spend the rest of his life in Bloomington, going from “20 year-old Mike” to “mean old man Mike.”

When Dave meets a student named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), he pretends to be an Italian exchange student and, soon, he’s serenading her on the lawn of her sorority house.  That doesn’t make Katherine’s boyfriend, Rod (Hart Bochner), happy.  Rod and his friends beat up Cyril, which leads to another fight at a bowling alley.  (Cyril, for his part, gets his finger stuck in a bowling ball.)  Seeking to broker some sort of peace and understanding between the students and the town, the university president (played by John Ryan, who was the real-life President of Indiana University at the time) announces that the cutters will be invited to take part in the annual Little 500 bicycle race at Indiana University.

And you can probably guess how the race turns out.  It’s a feel-good sports film so you already know who is going to win and that he’s going to have to win after initially falling behind and sacrificing a big lead.  You know all that but it doesn’t matter.  Breaking Away is such a sweet and well-acted movie that it still brought tears to my eyes even if the ending didn’t surprise me.

And really, the film does have a few surprises.  For one thing, Rod turns out to be not as bad a guy as you initially think he’s going to be.  Over the course of the film, he gets two small reaction shots, both of which hint that he’s not as much of a jerk as he often appears to be.  It’s a minor detail and it’s easy to miss but what’s important that it’s there and it’s one of the many small details that makes Breaking Away feel alive.  After watching the movie, I feel like I could go to Bloomington and still find all these character hanging out at the quarry.

There’s another scene that I want to mention.  This is the scene that made me cry.  Dave and his father walk around the university and his dad talks about how he and the fathers of all of Dave’s friends helped to cut the stone that was used to build campus.  His dad admits that, even though he helped to build it, he’s never felt comfortable on the campus and then tells his son that he doesn’t have to be a cutter.  And it’s such a heartfelt scene and so beautifully performed by Paul Dooley and Dennis Christopher that I started to cry.  Perfectly acted, perfectly directed, and perfectly written, what a great scene!  Fantastico!, as Dave might say.

I loved Breaking Away and I bet you would to.

Breaking Away

The Elements of Style: Steve McQueen in BULLITT (Warner Brothers 1968)


cracked rear viewer

bullitt1

Steve McQueen was the personification of 60’s screen cool in BULLITT, a stylish action film directed by Peter Yates. It’s the first of producer Philip D’Antoni’s cop trilogy, both of which (THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE SEVEN-UPS) I’ve previously covered. Unlike those two films, the grittiness of New York City is replaced by the California charm of San Francisco, and the City by the Bay almost becomes a character itself, especially in the groundbreaking ten minute car chase between McQueen’s Mustang and the bad guy’s Dodge Charger.

bullitt2

Style permeates the film from the get-go, with the snappy opening credits montage by Pablo Ferro. Then we get right into the story, as San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt is assigned to guard mob witness John Ross, scheduled to testify before a Senate Subcommitte on crime. Hot shot politician Walt Chalmers wants Bullitt because of his reputation and PR value with the papers. Things go awry when Ross…

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