jon: day six

"i am constantly surprised that women's hats do not provoke more murders." - charles laughton, witness for the prosecution (1957)

day six finds us up to our briefs in legal matters. zing! first on the docket, jonathan lynn's my cousin vinny (1992). i have it on good authority that this is a comedy. if it pleases the court, i would like to respond to that claim via screencap:

ok, so that last one isn't from the movie.

the story: ralph macchio is on his way to a taping of dancing with the stars with his choreographer and, in a wacky case of mistaken identity, they are arrested for the grisly murder of a convenience store clerk. they send for joe pesci and his toupée to defend them in court. he brings the noise, and by that i mean marisa tomei. he's a new york yankee in an alabama court and, hoo boy, the sparks fly when these cultures clash, yuk, yuk. man, this wasn't funny. it was remedial. it moves from just plain insulting to downright depressing when you learn that the american bar association has voted it the third best legal film of all time, ahead of the likes of anatomy of a murder (1959) and inherit the wind (1960). jon, expect a civil suit over this one on the grounds of incompetence, mental cruelty and whatever else i can think of. exhibit a? the end credits music that recaps the movie for you:

actually, we may be looking at a capital case after rob marshall's chicago (2002).

catherine zeta-jones and renée squintweger play a pair of murderesses whose rich inner lives are choreographed by bob fosse. they jockey for position in the prison pecking order and atop the scandal sheets in between lavish production numbers. richard gere brings his thin, reedy voice and questionable tap dancing skills to the proceedings and queen latifah can barely contain herself.

i don't enjoy musicals for a good reason. typically, the music is awful. it's gaudy, overblown and pedestrian. the lyrics are obvious and narrative. i wouldn't listen to it on its own. why would i listen to it just because its being performed in the context of a song and dance? degree of difficulty? are people that easily distracted from the banality of it by writhing around in tights and sequins? the ventriloquist number was cleverly staged and interesting but that was about it. otherwise, it was a shallow, glitzy void. yes, i understood it was a satire. it just wasn't a particularly effective one. and, if you're a regular around here, you are well aware of my fondness for that town. don't mess with my beloved chicago, rob marshall. it's a good way to end up in a cement kimono.

next, we trade our tap shoes for southern accents in robert altman's the gingerbread man (1998).

it's altman's adaptation of a discarded john grisham manuscript. if you're asking yourself why someone like altman would choose a project that even john grisham didn't see the merits in, you're not alone. unfortunately, there aren't a lot of answers here. kenneth branagh plays a philandering attorney in a bad marriage who stumbles out of a party one evening to find a distraught young woman whose car has just been stolen. he offers her a ride home only to find her car in her driveway and her front door open. he accompanies her in to make sure she's safe as she rambles on incoherently, offering unclear half-explanations of what might be going on while she changes out of her work clothes. with her freshly stolen car mysteriously returned and her broken and entered house still possibly fraught with peril, they have sex, like you do. this sets in motion a chain of events featuring branagh as the patsy who can't keep it in his pants, robert downey, jr. as the southern(?) private eye who is a red herring, robert duvall as the shoeless leader of a crack team of homeless hillbilly ninjas and tom berenger as the obvious culprit, as he is the only other name actor featured. almost none of what robert altman does best is on display here. this is such a peculiar choice of material for him. the atmosphere of looming, escalating dread brought on by an approaching hurricane was a nice touch and there was a generally less constricted tone than you see with most legal thrillers, but only enough to make it a slightly above average genre exercise. when you're robert altman, why make a film that anyone could make? i object!

our closing argument comes in the form of karl malden's sole directorial offering, time limit (1957).

jon finally has mercy on me and grants me this 96 minute recess in black and white. the queue is a harsh mistress sometimes, but occasionally it rewards you with a pleasant surprise. this has been on my list to see for a long time, so i was glad when it popped up in the rotation. richard widmark plays a military investigator assigned to a treason case stemming from an incident in a north korean prisoner of war camp. a major is charged with collaborating with the enemy and refuses to defend himself. the witnesses' stories are all just a bit too pat and rehearsed and the accused's refusal to even mount a defense prompt our intrepid colonel to dig a little deeper. he discovers that both betrayal and loyalty inhabit some awfully gray spaces during wartime. the cast here is top notch with widmark, martin balsam, richard basehart and a very young rip torn. the biggest discovery for me, though, was dolores michaels. she was fantastic as the colonel's right hand. you don't see roles in thrillers (or anywhere else) like this for women much these days, much less in 1957. she was competent without being stern, compassionate without slipping into mothering, and every bit the intellectual and emotional equal of the men. without her, the case would have gone unsolved. plus, malden does this clever bait and switch with her introduction.

this is how she first appears to us in the film. immediately you are left to think "oh great, some old fashioned objectification" but balsam and torn's leering doesn't tell you anything about this woman. it is wholly an indictment of them, something that is underlined just a little bit more every time this intelligent, earnest and beautiful woman opens her mouth. she's definitely attractive, at least to me, in that brainy, down to earth way i love so much but she is no mere decoration for the office. and all the characters are treated that way, they're actual human beings. it comes across as a little stagebound occasionally, being adapted from the theatre, but that's a minor quibble. i'll trade some awkward blocking here and there for characters that feel real. overall, an excellent legal thriller with social drama undertones that treats its characters with respect. highly recommended.

home stretch now, kids. one more day and only one last fly in the ointment.

how did you people not know he was nuts all along?

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