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: Working Girl (dir by Mike Nichols)


(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 1988 best picture nominee, Working Girl!)

Welcome to the 80s!

Yes, Working Girl is definitely a film of its time.  It’s a film that’s obsessed with big things: big dreams, big offices, big money, and big hair.  It’s a movie where the heroes talk about hostile takeovers and where everyone’s dream is to eventually to be an executive on Wall Street.  You know all of those people who claim that The Big Short is the greatest movie ever made?  I can guarantee that the majority of them would totally hate every character in Working Girl.  Working Girl is such a film of the past that it even features Alec Baldwin doing something other than bellowing at people.  In fact, Baldwin’s actually sexy in Working Girl.  It was strange to see him in this film and realize that he was the same actor who currently spends all of his time picking fights on twitter and defending James Toback.

Of course, Alec Baldwin has a relatively small role in Working Girl.  He plays Mick Dugan, the type of blue-collar guy who gives his girlfriend lingerie for her birthday (“I just wish you would get me something that I could wear outside,” she says as she tries it on) and who then proceeds to cheat on her while she’s off at work.  From the minute we first meet Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith), we know that she deserves better than Mick.

Tess is a professional administrative assistant.  She’s just turned 30 but she’s not ready to give up her dreams and settle for a life of fighting off coke-snorting executives and coming home to some guy like Mick.  (Speaking of early performances from infamous actors, one of the coke-snorting executives is played by Kevin Spacey.)  Tess has got a bachelor’s degree in Business.  As she puts it, she has a “mind for business and a bod for sin.”

She’s also got a new boss, an up-and-coming executive named Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver).  It turns out that Katherine is 29 years old.  (“I’ve never worked for someone younger than me before,” Tess says as Katherine gives her a condescending smile.)  Katharine encourages Tess to think of her as being a mentor.  If Tess has any ideas for investments, she should feel free to bring them to Katharine.  Of course, when Tess does so, Katharine claims that her bosses shot the idea down.  It’s only after Katharine breaks her leg in a skiing accident and is laid up in Europe that Tess discovers that Katharine has actually been stealing her ideas and not giving her any credit for them.

What is Tess to do?  Well, she does what any of us would do.  She passes herself off as an executive and presents her idea to Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) herself.  Jack is impressed with the idea but he’s even more impressed with Tess.  Of course, complicating things is that Jack was once in a relationship with Katharine and Katharine still thinks that she’s going to eventually marry Jack.  And, of course, there’s the fact that Tess is lying about actually being an executive…

Working Girl is a frequently amusing film, elevated by performances of Melanie Griffith and, in the role of Tess’s best friend, Joan Cusack.  Add to that, Harrison Ford is remarkable non-grouchy as Jack Trainer and Sigourney Weaver appears to be having the time of her life playing a villain.  Even as I laughed at some of the lines, here was a part of me that wished that the film had a bit more bite.  At times, Working Girl tries too hard to have it both ways, both satirizing and celebrating Wall Street culture.  In the end, the film works best as a piece of wish-fulfillment.  It’s a film that says that not only can you win success and Harrison Ford but you can get your bitchy boss fired too.

Despite being a rather slight (if likable) film, Working Girl was nominated for Best Picture of 1988.  However, it lost to Rain Man.

A Movie A Day #108: Against The Wall (1994, directed by John Frankenheimer)


The year is 1971 and Malcolm Smith (Kyle MacLachlan) has just started working as a prison guard at Attica Correctional Facility.  Even though his father (Harry Dean Stanton) was a prison guard, Malcolm does not fit in with the other guards at Attica.  Malcolm is younger than them and is disgusted by the inhumane treatment of the prisoners.  If not for his wife (Anne Heche) and the child that they are expecting, Malcolm would just quit but he needs the money.  He fears that he is going to eventually turn into just another sadistic guard.

When a prison riot breaks out, Malcolm is one of the guards taken hostage.  While the psychotic Chaka (Clarence Williams III) wants to kill all of the guards, Jamaal X (Samuel L. Jackson) realizes that killing the hostages will sacrifice what little leverage that prisoners have.  If the guards are killed, Jamaal X reasons, the state police will have no reason not to storm the prison and violently restore order.  Over the course of the four-day riot, Jamaal and Malcolm become unlikely friends and allies but it turns out that, even with the guards being held hostage, the government has no interest in negotiating with the prisoners.

This moving, thought-provoking, and well-acted docudrama originally aired on HBO and it won John Frankenheimer a well-deserved Emmy.  Samuel L. Jackson is powerful as Jamaal X and this is one of the few times that Kyle MacLachlan got to play a thoroughly normal person with no dark secrets or weird quirks.  Malcolm Smith is just a regular everyman who finds himself in the middle of a history-making event.

For fans of Twin Peaks, Against the Wall features three alumni of the show.  Kyle MacLachlan, of course, starred as Dale Cooper while Clarence Williams III appeared in one episode as Roger Hardy.  Finally, Harry Dean Stanton, a longtime favorite of David Lynch, appeared in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #76: Children of a Lesser God (dir by Randa Haines)


Children_of_a_Lesser_God_film_posterSo, we all know that The Hurt Locker was the first best picture winner to have been directed by a woman.  And we also all know that, when Kathryn Bigelow won her Oscar for that film, she was the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director.

But do you know the title of the first film to be both be directed by a woman and to be nominated for best picture?  Well, you probably do now because I’m assuming that you’ve read the title of this post and you’ve seen the picture of the film’s poster above.  But, let’s just pretend that you don’t so I can triumphantly say, “The 1986 film Children of a Lesser God was the first nominee for best picture to be directed by a woman!”

And the name of that director was Randa Haines.  Never heard of her?  You’re probably not alone in that.  After making her feature debut with Children of a Lesser God, Haines only directed three more theatrical films.  Instead, she’s spent most of her career in television and, if not for the nudity and the language, Children of a Lesser God could probably pass for a well-made Lifetime movie.  That’s not necessarily a criticism because I happen to like well-made Lifetime movies.  But still, it’s not surprising that Children of a Lesser God was the only 1986 best picture nominee not to receive a nomination for best director.

(For the record, Platoon won best picture and Oliver Stone won best director.  Nominated in Haines’s place was David Lynch for Blue Velvet.)

As for the film itself, it’s a well-acted and well-made film.  It’s not exactly great in the way that we ideally expect a best picture nominee to be.  It’s directed a bit too much like a television movie and the film ends on a happy note that doesn’t exactly feel earned.  (If any film would have benefitted from a bittersweet conclusion, it would have been Children of a Lesser God.)  Still, at the same time, you can tell why the film was nominated.  It deals with a social issue (in this case, the way that the deaf are marginalized by mainstream society) and it’s a romance between … well, I was going to say mature adults but actually, William Hurt was 15 years older than Marlee Matlin when they played lovers in this film, which adds a perhaps unintentional layer of ambiguity to their relationship.  Children of a Lesser God was also the first film to feature a deaf performer in a lead role and, when Marlee Matlin won the Oscar for Best Actress, she became both the youngest and, to date, the only deaf actress to win.

Ultimately, Children of a Lesser God is more interesting from a historical point of view than a cinematic one.  But the value of history should never be underestimated!  It’s a worthy-enough film and Matlin’s angry performance holds up well.  (As for William Hurt, how you respond to his performance will depend largely on how much tolerance you have for his voice.  Whenever Matlin communicates through sign language, Hurt repeats aloud whatever it is that she’s said.  As a result, the film is basically 2 hours straight of William Hurt talking and, on occasion, it’s a bit too theatrical and distracting.  If the film were made today, the filmmakers would probably just use subtitles.)  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, even if it didn’t lead to bigger things for Randa Haines, Children of a Lesser God did open the door for others to follow.

Embracing the Melodrama #39: True Colors (dir by Herbert Ross)


True Colors

For the past 9 days, I’ve been posting chronological reviews of 54 of the most (and least) memorable melodramas ever filmed.  I started with a film from 1916 and yesterday, I completed the 80s.  Today, we start in on the 90s with the 1991 political drama True Colors.

True Colors tells the story of two ambitious law students.  Tim Gerritty (James Spader) is a wealthy idealist who wants to work at the Justice Department so he can uncover and prosecute political corruption.  His roommate and eventual best friend is Peter Burton (John Cusack).  Although Peter initially lies about his background, it’s eventually revealed that he comes from a poor family and the result of growing up in poverty has left Peter with an obsessive desire for revenge on everyone who has ever looked down on him.  And how is Peter planning on getting that revenge?  By marrying the daughter of Sen. James Stiles (Richard Widmark) and eventually running for a seat in the U.S. House.  Despite the fact that Tim happens to be in love with Sen. Stiles’s daughter as well, he still supports his friend Peter and even agrees to be his best man.  However, as Peter gets closer and closer to achieving his goals, Tim starts to reconsider their friendship….

There’s a scene about halfway through True Colors, in which Peter Burton attempts to blackmail Sen. Stiles into supporting his political career.  Stiles agrees but then angrily adds, “God help you when the people find out.  They always do, you know.”  I was naturally waiting for Peter to come up with a properly sarcastic response but instead, Peter simply looks down at the ground, properly chastened.  It’s a jarringly false note and, unfortunately, everything that comes after this scene feels equally false.  The film, which starts out as such a strong portrait of what happens with friendship comes into conflict with ambition, ends up turning into a painfully predictable political diatribe, the type of thing that makes the portrait of politics in The Adjustment Bureau seem subtle and nuanced by comparison.  When Tim decided to betray Peter, it should be a moment full of moral ambiguity.  Instead, we’re expected to ignore their long friendship and just be happy that Tim is willing to do the right thing and protect the integrity of the American political process.

And, who knows?  Maybe that’s the way people viewed politics back in the early 90s.  But for audiences today, it all feels really naive and simplistic.

But, if you can manage to look past the film’s weak’s script, you can enjoy the acting.  John Cusack is wonderfully intense as Peter, making the character compelling even when the screenplay lets him down.  Watching him in True Colors is like watching the performance that he should have given in The Butler.  James Spader is sympathetic as Tim and, like Cusack, his performance almost allows him to overcome a script that doesn’t seem to realize that Tim is essentially a self-righteous jerk.  And finally, there’s Mandy Patikin who has a lot of fun playing the local crime boss who sponsors Peter’s career and who, in one memorable (if out-of-place ) scene beats up a shark that’s jumped up on the desk of his yacht.

Much like High Stakes, True Colors is one of those obscure films that occasionally pops up on cable, usually late at night and usually serving as filler between showings of better-known films.  Keep an eye out for it, if just for the chance to enjoy the performances.