PRIMAL FEAR

By Marc S. Sanders

If you explore the career of Edward Norton, you may find a common theme of duality in many of his roles.  Certainly, The Incredible Hulk (man vs literal green monster).  There’s also the heist film The Score where he is an aspiring thief with a talent to take on a mentally handicapped persona.  American History X offered a wide transition from downright evil to wholesome redemption from the worst of sin.  Even the remake of The Italian Job shows one kind of jerky guy early on, and later there’s another kind of cad on display.  Yet, Norton’s role as a church choir boy named Aaron Stampler in his first film, Primal Fear, is maybe his most apparent, and it remains an astonishing performance.

I had read William Diehl’s novel long before the movie was even made.  My impression of the film is that it is well cast.  Early on in the story, Aaron is apprehended following the grisly murder of Chicago’s Archbishop.  His clothes are covered in the priest’s blood and he’s captured on the news trying to outrun the police.  This looks like an open and shut case, which is why hot shot attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) wants to take on defending Aaron, pro bono. 

Simply the name of Gere’s role, Martin Vail, could not be more appropriate.  He thrives on vanity and pride, ensuring that when he gives an interview it is none other than a cover story.  Gere is perfectly handsome and his energy is so right for the part.  He wears his suits with natural and self-assured swagger.  When Martin attends a benefit dinner in the first few minutes of the picture, everyone in the room knows who he is, whether they only at least admire the guy, or downright despise the ego he proudly carries.  Only Martin Vail will insist that young Aaron with a boy scout, puppy dog expression could be innocent.  Everyone else has deemed his client as “The Butcher Boy.”

The accused is a simple kid who was brought in off the streets by the Archbishop.  He’s a nobody.  It’s the victim who is prominent, and one of the first strategies that Vail engages in is putting the deceased Archbishop on trial because it could lend to just what he needs for exoneration – reasonable doubt.  That could mean other prominent figures in the city will get caught in the web. 

Like many mysteries and courtroom dramas before and after Primal Fear, red herrings abound.  The side stories dealing with botched real estate investments within minority neighborhoods feel like they sprung from a completely different cloth, like an episode of L.A. Law.  What keeps them above water though are the performances of the supporting cast with John Mahoney and Stuart Bauer, respectively portraying the state district attorney and a Hispanic well-established mobster that Vail represents.  Somehow, Diehl’s murder trial story circles back to these guys and what the Archbishop had to do with them.

A twisted sex scandal within the church also comes into play.  After all, where there’s murder there is motive.  The math is not that simple though.

To lend a little more conflict to the film is the prosecuting attorney Janet Venable.  She is played by Laura Linney, maybe doing a little over acting, who once had a tryst with Martin.  Honestly, it comes off as an unnecessary subplot, perhaps only there to give quick witted resentful dialogue for Janet to serve at Martin, while Gere puts on the teasing smirk to send back over the net.  The opposing counsel try to psych one another out, but we all know that Martin is the smarter attorney of the two. 

Primal Fear hinges on Edward Norton first and Richard Gere second.  Norton’s performance is written, and thereby performed, to come in under the radar for the first half of the film.  Aaron is a quiet, frightened, uncertain kid from the backwoods of Kentucky.  Gere and the supporting cast populate much of the first half of the movie.  Later, Aaron offers up a surprise delivery that turns the film on its heel, and the story takes on a whole new trajectory. 

Gere is superb with the conceit of the character.  Director Gregory Hoblit places Martin Vail front and center during transition shots where he gives statements to the press while entering the courthouse.  It’s a subtly effective way to uphold how proud and cocky the attorney is.  When the surprise from Norton comes around though, even a hot shot, intuitive lawyer like Martin can’t immediately figure out what to do next.  The surprise works even though it comes out of nowhere.

Primal Fear offers a lot of standard stuff from other typical courtroom thrillers.  Some players are introduced that could lend to why the crime occurred.  Some are there to distract you.  Some are there to circle back around in the third act.  There’s a ping pong volley of objections and witness testimony.  There’s the blood splattered crime scene investigation.  We’ve seen it all before.  Nevertheless, I don’t hold any of that against the film.  I still get a thrill out of standard car chases and shootouts the same way I stay alert through another courtroom mystery.  It’s fast paced and until the puzzle is completely assembled, I’m engaged especially if the cast is working on all cylinders. 

The end leaves you thinking though because just when you believe all the pieces have been put back into place there’s one hanging thread that is left unraveled and you may be asking yourself how that got past me.  That’s when you know you are watching an entertaining movie.  If you have to think about it long after it is over, then the movie got one over on you.  Primal Fear accomplishes that feat.

SUSPECT

By Marc S. Sanders

Okay. Fair Warning. I am going to spoil this movie with my review. Why? Well, if you haven’t seen Suspect, directed by Peter Yates, then I’m telling you that you absolutely do not ever need to see Suspect directed by Peter Yates.

What is Suspect worthy of 33 years later? Nothing beyond my personal allowance to spoil the film for you. I know! It goes against my principals as a film critic, but I choose, for YOU, MY READERS, to fall on my sword.

Scripts of any variation whether they be stage plays, television episodes or feature films should always show the unusual. If it’s mundane, it should never be made. You don’t want to watch two hours of someone brushing their teeth. You want to watch epic films like Malcolm X or witness a man that flies in Superman: The Movie or the murderous ways a person will devote his affection for his mother in Psycho. Unusual and special stories make the best stories. Unusual! Not utterly preposterous!

Now, I’m sure in the annals of trial law there had to have been a handful of cases where a defense attorney got involved socially and/or romantically with a member of the jury. Otherwise, we’d never hear of the term “jury tampering.” So, there’s something unusual to sink our teeth into. Preposterous though (AND I WARNED YOU) is that within this very same trial, you know the one where the defense attorney and jury member are getting some from each other on the side, that one, the presiding judge turns out to be the killer. Okay. Now Mr. and Mr. Filmmaker, you’re no longer using your imagination. You’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall, hoping it’ll all stick.

Cher plays a public defense attorney named Kathleen Riley. Dennis Quaid is a handsome DC lobbyist named Eddie Sanger serving on the jury. Liam Neeson is the deaf mute title character who is a vagrant homeless person, and John Mahoney is the presiding judge aka the actual killer revealed at the end. Lawyer and juror meet up outside of court to find clues and eventually make out. The judge is the killer. People please!!!! Washington DC is not this effed up, is it? (Maybe don’t answer that.)

Frankly, Kathleen is not a very good attorney. She’s not aggressive enough with her objections and I don’t think she applies herself well enough to win her case. In fact, without Eddie’s self motivation to dig into the case himself and help her out, then this suspect (Neeson) doesn’t have a chance in hell of being exonerated. The victim, a political staff member, had her throat slashed. Kathleen doesn’t even consider if the killer is right or left handed? Really? Eddie did at least. Still, I’m okay with watching an inept lawyer in a movie. Too often, movies show us lawyers that are too brilliant and quick on their toes. They’re almost too brainy. So, okay yeah, I’ll accept a lawyer whose not the sharpest crayon in the box for a change of pace.

On the other hand, Mahoney, the actual killer, is easy to predict when he voluntarily takes this case and then rules against literally every objection that Kathleen brings up. Every single one! Plus it stands to follow Roger Ebert’s economy of characters. There’s only so many characters in your multiple choice of cast members to consider as the killer. I can’t fathom Quaid, the juror, as the killer, nor Cher the defense attorney. So either Neeson, the suspect on trial, is the killer (not likely because then why have a movie) or it’s the judge. Nah! It couldn’t be the judge. Could it? Hmmmm.

Washington DC makes for a great setting for legal thrillers or courtroom dramas. It’s full of secrets and government and dealings and politics. A million and a half motivations and any one of its residents could find a reason to kill. The script for Suspect, written by Eric Roth, never cares to try that hard though. We are treated to a wasteful side story of Eddie doing some lobbying for milk (I’m sorry. MILK? LIKE DAIRY MILK????) when he’s not in court. He sleeps with a congresswoman to get her vote…and why am I seeing any of this?

There’s no build up in the murder trial either. The few expert witnesses called to the stand are forgettable. Nor do they foreshadow anything. Cher’s character doesn’t seem to work hard enough in questioning a witness. Instead, this dumb lawyer relies on a juror she shouldn’t ever be talking to.

Once again, normally, it’s against my policy to spoil a film. After 40 years, I won’t even spoil The Empire Strikes Back, cuz someone out there still hasn’t seen it. However, this film is ridiculous. This would even be too ridiculous for a Maury Povich episode or a Lifetime TV movie. How absurd must one murder trial be?

Think about it. All in one movie. One murder trial. One case. The defense attorney is involved with a juror AND the judge is the killer????? There are odds….and then there are gazillion to one shots.

MOONSTRUCK

By Marc S. Sanders

Moonstruck has to be one of the most delightful romantic comedies of all time thanks to an outstanding cast, an intuitive director (Norman Jewison) and a script full of brilliant dialogue and set ups from John Patrick Shanley.

Loretta Castorini (Cher in her Oscar winning role) is a 37 year old widow. Her husband of two years got hit by a bus. So, naturally when her father, Cosmo (the hilarious Vincent Gardenia), hears the news that Loretta got engaged to the boring schlub Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello), he knows this is a bad omen and she should not get married again. Sure, her husband got hit by a bus, but that can only mean that marriage is no good for Loretta. When they wake up Rose (Olympia Dukakis in her well-deserved Oscar winning role), Loretta’s mother, to share the news, she just opens her eyes and asks, “Who died?” This is an adorable Italian family living in Brooklyn and somehow an Irishman wrote the script which was then directed by a Jewish mensch, and everyone is working on all Italian cylinders.

Two minutes into the film and I’m laughing. I’m laughing at Johnny’s wimpy proposal in the local Italian restaurant. I’m laughing at Rose and Cosmo who’ve seen enough of life to know that you don’t get married for love anymore. Rose is for Loretta getting married though. Cosmo doesn’t wanna spend the money.

Just after Johnny proposes, he flies off to Sicily to be by his dying mother’s bedside. He requests that Loretta invite his brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage), who he hasn’t spoken to in five years, to the wedding. Ronny is upset with Johnny. Ronny got his hand chopped off in the bread slicer at his bakery when Johnny was talking with him and Ronny looked the other way.

When Loretta approaches Ronny, before you know it, they are sleeping with each other. Ronny then invites Loretta to see La Boheme at the Met that night. Loretta knows it’s wrong and can’t keep this up. It’s a sin. She goes to confession, but then she also goes to buy a new dress and dye the greys out of her hair.

As well, Cosmo is stepping outside of his marriage, only Rose is not so stupid. She knows what’s going on. When Rose is dining alone, a college professor who strikes out with one attractive student after another joins her table. Rose isn’t gonna do anything. Instead, she asks the question on everyone’s mind “Why do men chase women?” Then she answers it. “Because if they don’t, they think they’ll die.” But they’re gonna die anyway. Right?

It sure looks like my column is just summarizing the film but my breakdown of Moonstruck simply celebrates all that’s good about it. Here’s a film that doesn’t stereotype a New York Italian family. Instead, it shows how they regard one another as well as the people within the neighborhood from the eager to please waiter in the restaurant to the mortician that Loretta works for. The mortician spills butter on his tie. Loretta takes the tie off of him and says she’ll get it cleaned.

Life in the home of Castorini family is shown beautifully with natural humor to display its atmosphere. Cosmo’s quiet elderly father with five yappy dogs on leashes is only a part of every passing day. Like I’ve made claim on other films, the best movies offer smart characters. Everyone has a way of carrying themselves in Moonstruck, and they’re not dumb. They might be cheap like Cosmo or wimpy like Johnny or a little dim like Ronny, not dumb, but they’re all wise to how they handle themselves.

This might seem like a relatively easy, untechnical little New York comedy. Norman Jewison, however, uses a great approach that makes each setting feel like you’re watching the most alive stage play you’ve ever encountered. I’m actually surprised this film has yet to be adapted for the stage. Maybe, just maybe, Moonstruck hasn’t made it to live theatre yet because it’d be damned near impossible to recapture the harmony of this magical cast.

I love Moonstruck.

THE IRON GIANT

By Marc S. Sanders

Before he became known as a Mission: Impossible director or the guy who brought The Incredibles to the screen for Disney/Pixar, Brad Bird made the animated film The Iron Giant for Warner Bros. Animation. It’s absolutely brilliant in its visual drawings, storytelling, characterizations and period setting awareness.

The film takes place in a small town off the coast of Maine in the year 1957. The race for space has declared a winner as the Russians’ satellite, Sputnik, is the first to orbit the planet. The threat of the Cold War is no longer a secret. It’s out in the open as classrooms are exposed to danger drill warning films where children must hide under their desks in the event that a nuclear holocaust occurs. The film they watch is an absolutely hilarious sequence about what was a pretty serious subject matter at the time.

One student gleefully takes in the residual flying saucer flicks on TV, that spawned from this quagmire of paranoia occupying America at the time. His name is Hogarth Hughes, voiced by Eli Marienthal. When his TV antenna turns up missing one night, Hogarth goes off into the woods where he discovers a giant robot munching on the metal of a nearby power plant and in danger of electrocution when he gets tangled in the wires. The robot (Vin Diesel) is unfamiliar with earth and recognizably innocent, but quickly trusts Hogarth as a friend.

Young Hogarth is thrilled upon his discovery but knows his mom (Jennifer Aniston) would never approve of him keeping the robot, much less even a small pet. A government bureaucrat named Kent Manley (Christopher McDonald), complete with the fedora hat and trench coat, becomes suspicious of Hogarth. Kent’s Cold War guard drives him to uncover this 50-foot-tall robot with his own eyes. Find the threat and eliminate it at all costs. When he eventually gathers the evidence, he calls in the military to wage war right in the heart of the small Maine town.

There is much humor in The Iron Giant which truly stems from the intelligence gifted to all of the characters. Hogarth, as a kid, is first a teacher as the robot learns to pronounce basic vocabulary. The Iron Giant who has the capability to shape shift his body into a blaster kind of weapon, is not aware at first of the destruction he can leave behind until Hogarth makes him understand. Early on, Hogarth learns that the giant feeds on metal, but he must show his friend the best way to satisfy his hunger. It’s not with railroad tracks, that’s for sure.

Hogarth also matches wits with Kent. A great scene has the G-man and the kid defying each other to stay awake, rather than go off into the night in search of the giant. The clock just ticks away. Their eyes get more and more droopy. The laughs come from the animated characterizations and editing.

Hogarth’s mother, Annie, is never regarded as naive even if she’s unaware of her son’s new secret friend. A great scene has Hogarth doing his best to hide the giant’s metal hand in his bathroom. Hogarth has to do some quick but believable thinking to cover up what’s crawling around the house. Annie is a mom concerned her son might be violently ill, but trusts him when he insists he’s alright. I like that. Mom regards son as an equal. She respects his privacy but regrets it when she steps out of bounds to peek in on him in the bathroom. It’s sweet and smart, but funny too.

The Cold War is likely not a familiar subject matter for most kids, and yet there’s something to learn here. Russia and America were on the dawn of new technology. The nuclear age was upon us. The question was will they or won’t they act upon that technology. As well, will the two countries act in response to simply the threat of having such power at their fingertips? That’s what The Iron Giant of the film represents. When the giant, metal eating man is uncovered what response will it generate?

As the film progresses, kids can see why a resort to violence is truly not the answer. For how we appear might not offer an explanation on the surface. We need to familiarize ourselves with one another before truly declaring an enemy in our midst. So many movies only exist because one character just won’t speak up. Brad Bird’s film, adapted from Ted Hughes’ book The Iron Man, goes against that convention. A beatnik character by the name of Dean (Harry Connick Jr) who helps Hogarth and his new friend actually explains how the robot is not a dangerous figure who wants to destroy our planet. It then becomes a means of debate for the purposes of violence between the Army General (John Mahoney) and Kent Mansley, the government official. Do they believe the giant won’t become destructive?

I like to think a moment like this offers a subtle suggestion for the people in positions of power that are in charge to justify whether to go to war or not. It might be simplistic animation and the suspense is heightened by the time the film reaches this moment, but it’s another opportunity for viewers, especially kid viewers, to decide for themselves of what is right and wrong. Is defense or engaging in offense a more appropriate action?

Too often in family films, the kids are geniuses, maybe a little too smart or inventive, and the adults and parents are nitwits as a means for slapstick gags. Not the case here. Every character has an intelligent perspective. That’s what sets The Iron Giant ahead of other subpar family films.

Credit also has to go to the animation. There’s depth to everything seen from the main street of the town to the ocean side harbor to the woods where the giant hides. The sketches are so well defined, you want to look in the windows or sneak around the next tree. This is masterful direction. While an animated film is never shot in an actual location, Brad Bird makes sure you’ll see every corner of the New England locales that are conceived for his film.

Everything about The Iron Giant is a crowning achievement in animation. One of the best of its medium for sure.