Wednesday, July 28, 2010

12 Angry Men

Year: 1957
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 87
Writer: Reginald Rose
Director: Sidney Lumet
Star: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman

“12 Angry Men” exists in that minute gray area between logic and emotion—the place where men (and women) develop their personal set of morals and emotions. Learning the answers to the questions raised within the confines of that claustrophobic jury room would be anticlimactic, and writer Reginald Rose wisely chose to steer clear of them.

The 12 men in the title are jurors assigned to a murder case. The person on trial is a young (I think) Latino man accused of stabbing his father to death after being hit in the face one too many times. The judge seems bored as he instructs the jury of the weight of their situation, almost as if he is late for a lunch date. The men walk into a cramped, hot jury room without a working fan and windows that all but refuse to open. They seem to have collectively come to a logical conclusion already.

The first vote is 11-1 in favor of guilt, with Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) as the only hold-out. But at first Fonda doesn’t even seem so sure of himself, only asking that the other men at least spend a little time looking at the case before making such a weighty decision too quickly. Fair enough, some suppose, though others are in a rush to get out of the heat on the hottest day of the year.

It is important to note that Rose goes out of his way to ensure that all of the jurors are smart, free-thinking individuals. No one in the room asks stupid questions for the sake of the audience, and those who speak loudest and most eloquently are not always those who should be listened to. In fact, for the first act of the film Rose and director Sidney Lumet seem to go out of their way to be as unbiased as possible. But as the second act begins, Rose makes the creative choice to follow Fonda’s character into the bathroom instead of staying with the majority of characters. It’s a small moment, sure, but by doing this they show their support of Fonda’s character and his point-of-view in the surroundings. “Here is your hero,” they tell the audience, as if we didn’t already know. The movie would have been much stronger without this scene and this idea of how and what to think.
Fonda soon becomes a crusader for the accused, insisting that there is reasonable doubt in the case. At first he seems completely insane, but uses both logic and emotion to win over the other jury members. There is no precise moment where Lumet shows us that the tides have turned in favor of Fonda, and because of that there is an added layer of tension in the room. Up until the final reel, Fonda’s case seems lost because the viewer feels that two jury members will never change their vote, causing a hung jury and the boy’s subsequent conviction upon retrial.

Slowly but surely, the jurors go through every single piece of evidence in the case, from the testimony of the two eye-witnesses to the knife to the L-train, and amazingly there seem to be slight holes in each bit of evidence. One by one the jury is won over and soon Fonda seems more like the voice of reason as opposed to the lone, crazed crusader.

The movie was released in 1957 and, while its handling of race relations would seem overly clumsy or heavy-handed today, it’s fascinating to view the film as a portrait of a past time’s view of other races. I mentioned earlier that the accused is Latino, but he could just as easily be any other minority in America. The jurors never say exactly what race the boy is, instead referring to him as “one of them.” And it’s surprising to see how much racism several of the jurors get away with by saying it in passing.

For most of the movie Lumet is wonderfully understated in his visual style. Watching the film again, I was struck by how long several of the takes are. These are not showy, Hitchcockian long takes, but simply shots that focus on one or two characters as they try (and often fail) to communicate with one another. Lumet does go out of his way to show off once, though, and it’s a great moment. As one of the jurors begins a horrendous, racist rant against the accused and all of “his kind”, the camera slowly pulls back from the table to the corner of the room, supporting the viewer’s desire to remove himself from the scene. Then, one by one, the other jury members stand and turn away from the racist juror, mimicking the move of the camera.

The acting is wholly superb. Next to Fonda, many of the faces are familiar from episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits” and other B-films from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most of the cast underplays their parts, and as a result their work is much more impactful than if they would have shot for the rafters. Look in particular at the work of Jack Klugman as the juror with a past in the slums and E.G. Marshall, who quietly continues to insist that logic must be supported in all aspects of the case and eventually becomes the most even-minded person in the room.

Despite all this, the movie does not convince me that the jurors came to the right decision. The climax of the film shows the lone hold-out babbling against the kid, listing desperately all of the evidence that seemed so damning earlier in the day. He finally stops and admits that he will change his vote…but his speech oddly convinced me that he might have been right. Sure, the jurors managed to poke minute holes into every major piece of evidence against the accused, but the chances of every single bit of that happening is impossible.

I’d buy that the boy lost the knife he bought and that he forgot the films he was watching because he was too emotional over the death of his father. I’d buy that the woman lying in bed across the street didn’t get her glasses on in time. I’d buy that the man didn’t get to the door in time to see the boy running down the stairs. I’d buy that he didn’t quite hear the boy’s voice threatening his father. I’d buy that you can find multiple examples of a knife in any given neighborhood. But all of those things together? I don’t think so.

Ah well, it’s nicer to imagine that the men came to the right decision. That their walk down the court steps and into the wet but cool evening was more triumph than tragedy.

And maybe I’m just cynical.

My Score (out of 5): ****

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Year: 1976
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 57
Writer: Sylvester Stallone
Director: John G. Avildsen
Star: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith

Like its title character, the film “Rocky” is a huge underdog. Bluntly cut from the fabric of a thousand other sports films, the film layers cliché upon cliché on top of a (admittedly) preposterous premise…and yet it works. Works wonderfully, as a matter of fact. There are a hundred small reasons for this, but the one big one is Sylvester Stallone, who anchors the film with one of those “lightning in a bottle” performances that come along once in a generation.

Stallone (who also penned the screenplay) slowly lets us get to know the character through the opening sequences, first at a fight, then on his long journey home through the slums of Philadelphia and finally in his apartment. We see him talking to his turtles (Cuff and Link) and fish (Moby Dick), lamenting to them that if they could only sing and dance then he wouldn’t have to go out and fight. It’s crucial that we follow the Rocky character through these scenes, because without them we might be quick to judge or mock him and his persona. But thanks to these scenes, we like the schlub, and by the time he walks into a pet-shop to buy some turtle food and try once more to catch the eye of the pretty-yet-painfully-shy clerk Adrian (Talia Shire), we are rooting for him to get a smile from her.

On the other end of the city sits Apollo Creed. When his rival for the World Heavyweight Championship is injured, he picks out Rocky as his rival on a whim. He likes Rocky’s figter name: The Italian Stallion. Everyone thinks it must be a joke, but soon Rocky is in training with a piss-and-vinegar ex-fighter (Burgess Meredith), punching a lot of raw meat and praying for nothing more than to finish the match. When the match comes, he summons up everything inside him and surprises Creed with his resilience.

As I alluded to earlier, everything in this movie is riddled with clichés of hundreds of sports films. But then again, what’s wrong with taking a simple story and telling it exceedingly well, which is just what Stallone has done with his screenplay. It doesn’t matter anyway, the movie isn’t about boxing at all, is it?

It’s really about the love between Rocky and Adrian. The love story is one of the best told in all of film, because Stallone and director John G. Avildsen aren’t afraid to spend time with the characters. Romances in these types of films are often an afterthought or completely ignored, but here the love story is given all the space it needs to blossom.

I’m not sure how long Rocky and Adrian’s first date lasts onscreen (a half hour? More? Less?) but I adored having the opportunity to watch the two people feel each other out slowly through the course of the evening. Rocky asks Adrian’s brother what she likes to do and, when told that she likes ice skating, ensures that she gets to do just that…even though the place is closed. Even though he has to pay off the janitor. Even though it’s only for ten minutes. And even though he doesn’t skate.

Adrian asks him why he fights. His answer just about sums up his character as perfectly as any other could: “Because I can’t sing or dance.” By the end of the night, when Rocky asks Adrian to take off her glasses and tells her how beautiful she is, we not only believe them as a couple, but we care more about them than the Championship match. When he is asked about their relationship, Rocky says “She fills gaps. She’s got gaps. I got gaps. Together we fill gaps.” There’s so much brilliance in simple turns of phrase like that, moments that remind you what a fantastic writer Stallone can be when given the right material and characters.

In both his writing and performance, Stallone keeps Rocky vulnerable by making him more honest than he probably should be, both about his feelings and how much of a longshot he is. Avildsen puts Rocky alone in the frame as much as possible (except when he is with Adrian) and often putting him in shots with things much bigger than he is, reminding us that while Rocky might be big in stature he is small in comparison to so many other things. The streets he walks along are mostly empty and loom large over him. We see Rocky dwarfed by large boats, huge buildings and, near the end of the second act, his own poster.

If there is a major fault to the film, it’s in the supporting performances. Meredith and Burt Young are both excellent actors, and yet their characters here grate and creak from the stereotype. Perhaps in 1976 they were doing great work that was pioneering, but we’ve seen so many variations on these same bullheaded characters so many times that it’s difficult to see the performances as anything but cliché.

I realize I’ve gone the entire article without talking about the big fight, and perhaps it’s because most of it is anticlimactic. We inherently know Rocky is going to hang in there until the end and know that he won’t win—he tells Adrian as much the night before. The entire affair is about seeing just how far Rocky is willing to go to make it to the end, and seeing him be brutalized--and give it as good as he’s getting it—is both cheer and cringe-worthy. By the time he is asking to have his swelling eye cut back open, it’s almost too much.

You go into “Rocky” thinking you’ll see a film as blunt as an uppercut to the jaw. But its magic lies within its subtleties, and because it builds its story slowly and takes time to build to its big moments they have all the more impact.

My Score (out of 5):

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Year: 1975
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 56
Writer: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Director: Steven Spielberg
Star: Roy Schneider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw

For a movie about a great white shark that attacks a New England town then stalks a boat and ultimately jumps onboard to catch its prey, “Jaws” feels pretty damn plausible. This is because everyone in the film, from the leads down to the day-players, reacts to the situation the way real people would react.

Newer action and films seem to have forgotten this, instead trying to stun the audience with a moment shock and awe moment with little set-up or afterthought. We rarely get more than a reaction shot of John Cusack driving his vehicle through the disintegrating Los Angeles in “2012,” and therefore our only emotional reaction to the situation is to think we are looking at some really expensive special effects.

The most famous moment in “Jaws” happens when Chief Brody (Roy Schneider) and the viewer get the first full view of the Great White. He jumps in shock, backs into the hold of the boat and tells Quint (Robert Shaw) that “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Great moment. But even better when taken in the context of Brody’s character. He loathes the ocean and hates the ship, and after this moment will repeatedly ask Quint to return to shore to get a bigger boat, not just for the shark’s carcass, but also for his sanity. This is a “real person” reacting to a crazy situation in the exact way we would expect him to react.

Of course there is a good hour-and-a-half of film before the first time we really get a good look at that shark. We see traces (the fin, of course, but also one or two brief glimpses of its body when it attacks a boy on a raft), and Spielberg is brilliant to play it that way. After the opening scene, where a woman pulled back and forth like a Barbie doll on the surface of the ocean by an unseen entity just below, our minds form a specific idea of what the shark is like. Then a shark is caught, and it’s pretty damn big and impressive to anyone who hadn’t seen the film’s poster. But no, Richard Dreyfuss’ Oceanologist Hooper tells us, the shark that has killed two people so far would be bigger. While investigating the shark’s feeding territory, they find an abandoned boat with a tooth the size of a shot-glass embedded in the hull. Our expectations have become exceedingly high…and then it appears, and it still manages to surpass all of them.

From that point onward, we see the shark often, though Spielberg still teases us with its presence by attaching three floating barrels to its body to signal its arrival before we actually see it. The most affecting shots of the shark are the ones showing its gigantic twenty-five foot body swimming past the ship it is stalking because it looks more massive than the barely-together deathtrap. That ship is nothing to the shark, and we sense that. There’s some real-life footage of a great white thrown in during the final act, and these shots seem out of place. We don’t need to see a real shark swimming in its entirety when the short glimpses are so much more effective.

While “Jaws” walks and talks like an action flick, at its heart it’s a horror movie. It’s a well-made horror movie, to be sure, but there are a few moments where Spielberg along with writers Peter Benchley (author of the novel the film is based upon) and Carl Gottlieb are too fast to exploit the more annoying clichés we are so apt to groan at. Take the scene on the Fourth of July, where there are at least a dozen boats filled with officers, rifles and ammunition lining the beaches of Amity just waiting for a shark. A shark fin appears and every swimmer runs for shore, and we learn that the fin was a prank pulled by two young boys. Not only are we supposed to believe that they could stay underwater for long enough to convincingly make that fin seem like a shark (huge lungs. Huge!), but also that all those officers would not shoot the fin to try and kill the shark. Oh, and then there’s the thought that the shark would avoid all this noise and swim through the narrow channel into the pond area because it is smart enough to know people will be there with guns. There’s also a moment late in the film after the shark bites one of the main characters in half where it seems to teleport to the other side of the ship in order to scare Brody (and, by extension, us) by exploding through the submerged glass window behind him. Uh huh.

But again, the fact that the wholly excellent cast reacts to these situations so honestly makes up for some of these leaps in logic. Schneider, Dreyfuss and Shaw, the three men who anchor (no pun intended…well…maybe a little) the film give superb performances. All have one or two moments in the spotlight to really let loose and show what great acting is (the most memorable being Shaw’s five minute monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis and aftermath), but the film is at its best when the three men are interacting with one another. All could easily become clichés if in the hands of lesser actors or a lesser writer, but here the things that would define two-dimensional characters in other movies are small parts of the characters’ personalities. Look at Hooper. We learn he’s a rich kid, and though that makes us better understand some of his later actions, he’s so much more than that. Just because he’s rich doesn’t make him a whiny brat or a know-it-all. The supporting cast is also filled with rich performances, most notably Lorraine Gary as Brody’s wife and Murray Hamilton as the town’s oily mayor.

Thanks to the great cinematography and oceanic locations, the film still feels very visceral and real. As enjoyable as Renny Harlin’s shark movie “Deep Blue Sea” was, there wasn’t a moment of real tension or terror anywhere to be found. We know that those actors are on studio sets reacting to CGI sharks, whereas here they are on an actual ocean with a huge mechanical shark with very sharp teeth inches away from them.

If I didn’t already loathe the idea of going into the ocean for any reason, “Jaws” would still convince me to keep the hell out of the water. And any film that wields that kind of power over its audience deserves the screams it gets.

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2