12 Angry Men

*Sunday Classics*

The quiet brilliance of Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” is found both in its simplicity yet also in its intricacy. There is nothing ostentatious about the film; the appeal lies in a tight script, compelling performances and some seriously clever cinematic techniques.

The film is, in its most basic form, a gripping courtroom drama as twelve jurors discuss whether a young defendant in a criminal trial is guilty of brutally murdering his father. Only one juror, Juror No.8 (Henry Fonda) thinks there is any question of his guilt, and insists that they talk out the facts before they send him to the electric chair. One by one, the men change their verdict from guilty to not guilty, convinced that there is a reasonable doubt as to whether he committed the crime. Gradually, the tension in the film escalates and amplifies to the point of explosion over its relatively short run time; alliances are forged and broken, individual prejudices and personal vendettas are exposed. The courtroom elements of the story are fun and suspenseful as Juror No. 8 reenacts scenes from witness testimony or produces an knife identical to the supposedly unique weapon used by the murderer, and it’s deeply satisfying when the more bombastic of the jurors are put in their place by reason.

Beyond this though, the film is a showcase in different personality types, exemplified in each of the different jurors and the conflicts that arise in situations of pressure and high stress when they’re forced to work together. There is palpable tension in the room; the actors all seem on edge and exhausted, apparently the director made them run their lines for hours on end on set without filming to generate a real sense of bitter frustration. Juror No. 3 and Juror No. 7 are loud and confident, happy to dominate the other jurors, like Juror No. 2 and Juror No. 5 who are somewhat meeker and not used to confrontation.

There are a number of moments where the quieter jurors are emboldened to speak up against the other bullying figures, particularly when Juror No. 9, an elderly gentleman, firmly and calmly explains why he changed his vote and that he wouldn’t be swayed by who could yell the loudest. One of the more powerful scenes is one in which Juror 10, who up to that point had been aggressive and patronising in his interactions, finally erupts in a racist tirade about the defendant, “I’ve lived among them all my life… You can’t believe a word they say… I mean, they’re born liars…” As he flounders and gets more and more desperate to get the jurors back on his side, one by one the men stand up from their chairs and turn their backs on him. The effect is incredible; in less than twenty seconds the man has gone from one of the more dominant and influential people in the room to being reduced to a state of complete emasculation. And it’s delicious.

One of the incredible things about “12 Angry Men” is that the film takes a single setting (with a couple of momentary exceptions) and through clever staging and sophisticated camerawork, the claustrophobia and increasing intensity of the situation is amplified to match the performances. The director himself described how he “shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie.” He then used a wide-angle lens for the final shot “to let us finally breathe.” It’s this attention to detail and finesse that sets this film apart. One little moment which I thought was clever was where Juror No. 4, a measured and rational figure in the ongoing discussion, asserts earlier in the film that he never sweats (despite the story being set on the most sweltering day of the year), yet when he realises that one of the key witnesses couldn’t possibly have seen who had committed the murder because she wasn’t wearing her eye-glasses, a solitary bead of sweat rolls down his forehead. It’s the sort of thing where if you blink you’d miss it, and perhaps it’s not indispensable to the story, but it’s a nice touch.

12 Angry Men” is a sensational piece of film; so multi-faceted and insightful but rounded by an organic simplicity which makes for some very slick entertainment. Beyond anything else however, the film highlights that the presumption of innocence is not something to be taken lightly, nor is the power of the lone voice in a crowded room.

By Jock Lehman


Misery - My First Time Film Review

Oooh baby is this a goodie.

Rob Reiner’s “Misery” is one of those movies that I’m more than happy to revisit by myself, but have also watched a number of times with people who haven’t seen it before just to see their reactions (and not just for THAT sledgehammer scene). As far as thrillers go, this is definitely up there as one of my favourites, and probably one of the best examples of how a simple idea, well executed, can be just as effective, powerful and terrifying as something like “Se7en” with all its twists and turns.

“Misery” is based off the Stephen King novel of the same name and he’s gone on record saying that Rob Reiner’s interpretation is one of his favourite renditions of his work from page to screen. I still get chills watching this, and the story goes that this is based off fan mail that King received himself as a successful writer. Popular pulp writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has grown tired of pumping out sappy eighteenth century romance novels starring his heroine “Misery” and heads up to the snowy wilderness of Colorado to finish his new book. On his way home, his car skids off the icy roads and crashes, leaving him for dead, but luckily for him he’s rescued by local nurse Annie Wilks (Kathy Bates) and wakes up in her house with his legs in casts, the phone lines down and the roads blocked. Annie Wilks is Sheldon’s Number One Fan, and is exceedingly resourceful, doting and sweet albeit a little strange and old fashioned in her speech and garb.

Once Annie reads the latest Misery novel and discovers that her beloved heroine has been killed off, her honeyed humdrum manner dissolves into psychotic and murderous obsession. Once Annie’s true colours have been exposed, Sheldon is kept as her captive to write another novel, one where Misery lives on while the rest of the world, which in this film comprises largely of the local sheriff (Richard Farnsworth), his wife (Frances Sternhagen) and his agent (Lauren Becall), think that Sheldon is dead.

The film understandably turns on Kathy Bates’ performance, and she’s undeniably sensational and completely deserving of her Best Actress Oscar. As intense and terrifying the character of Annie Wilks is, Bates’ interpretation is still somehow believable. An important element of this is the character’s genuine belief that she is righteous and just in her madness and that she’s doing it all for Sheldon’s own good. Annie doesn’t see anything strange or wrong in keeping Sheldon captive, she’s the only one who truly understands his genius and while it may seem harsh, its really for the benefit of mankind and she is thereby justified in doing so. Bates does extraordinarily well in transitioning from sweet and doe eyed to monstrous and then back again within mere seconds and it’s fun watching because there’s no indication of when she may turn and this keeps the tension constant and permeating throughout their scenes together.

James Caan’s performance is interesting here, because although his role is arguably as the central protagonist, he has adopted a very subdued manner – reacting with stunned restraint to Annie’s outbursts. This makes sense to me; Kathy Bates has the more interesting and memorable character and had Caan tried to match that then the tone of the film would have felt inconsistent and disingenuous.

What is unique about “Misery” is that it has taken Stephen King’s capacity to find the horror in the ordinary and mundane, and delivered a film which so supremely terrifying because it is so steeply rooted in the rules and confines of the real world that we as an audience could actually imagine this kind of monster existing and this kind of thing happening.

By Jock Lehman

The Invisible Man

This was good fun!

It’s easy enough to make a mediocre horror flick which will keep audiences relatively happy; keep plot points simple, build suspense with a few well timed jump scares and slide in a decent enough twist at the climax. If that’s done, then the film will probably make back it’s production costs fairly easily without needing to invest in high calibre actors, a strong screenplay or high production values. But when a horror manages to do both, then it becomes quite a unique and exhilarating cinematic experience. Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man”, based loosely on H.G. Wells’ book of the same name, is certainly better than your average piecemeal horror and is executed nicely. The concept is a cool one and Elisabeth Moss does well in the lead role but it falls short of such classics as “The Shining”, “Misery” or “Silence of the Lambs”.

What the film does do well is play into the most basic and universal fears; sometimes an empty doorway or creaky floorboard can illicit as much terror in an audience as a creepy looking monster or faceless serial killer. The film opens with Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) executing a well coordinated escape from her possessive and abusive scientist boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and seeking refuge with her friend James (Aldis Hodge). To Cecilia’s surprise, she is told that Adrian is found dead in an apparent suicide, but when strange things start happening to her, she questions whether Adrian is really dead at all and has found a way to become invisible through his knowledge of fibre-optics and is now tormenting her for leaving him. Of course nobody believes her, and Cecilia must prove that she’s telling the truth and that Adrian really is behind all of the terrifying things happening around her.

It’s a clever premise for a horror, because people do tend to fear what they can’t see and what they can’t understand and the second act of the film while Cecilia is starting to notice something isn’t quite right is genuinely terrifying. I do think though that Cecilia catches on far too quickly to the fact that Adrian has become invisible and is the cause of all her recent torments, and once the logical reasoning behind something scary or the identity of the masked villain is revealed in a horror, any sense of mystery is promptly extinguished. I would have preferred a little more suspense to have been built up before Cecilia starts getting strangled and thrown around in mid air, because once that illusion is broken, the film struggles to regain that same atmosphere. The fight scenes and special effects are actually pretty good fun, especially when Adrian runs around beating up an entire staff of guards and policemen while none of them can see him. Just on that though, there are countless times throughout the film where other people absolutely would have seen the same bizarre occurrences that Cecilia does, which annoyed me because if Adrian is supposed to be this all powerful, domineering and ruthless psychopath, then he’s actually pretty sloppy at it.

Elisabeth Ross throws herself head first into this film, and plays the frustration and delirium of her character with brutal earnestness. Cecilia’s transition from the timid subject of a controlling and abusive monster to the empowered heroine of the story is an exciting one to watch in itself. The climax of the film is a clever enough twist I suppose, but there was something missing in the final moments. So many people throughout the story hadn’t believed Cecilia and called her insane, and I would have loved for even just a shot of their faces when they realise that they were wrong and that she had been telling the truth the whole time (something similar to when the passengers all look sheepish when Jodi Foster walks off the plane with her daughter in her arms in 2005’s “Flightplan”).

This was definitely a notch above most horrors, and was executed with style and with a strong lead performance. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it deserves a lot of the accolades that it’s been receiving and I doubt very much that it will be considered as a classic of the genre. This is a fun Saturday night P.J. sort of flick where it wouldn’t matter if you fell asleep half way through and woke up towards the end with a pizza crust on your belly, and there’s certainly a place for movies just like that.

By Jock Lehman