Classic Review: Twelve Angry Men

Summary: An absolutely boiling drama that has stood the test of time, and goes to show that great cinema thrives under limitations.

Review: Great films don’t stand only as examples of what films can or should be; they stand also to condemn every film produced with venal intentions for apathetic audiences.  This is not because a great film would attract audiences if it were released instead, but because far too often lesser material is rewarded while exceptional work is ignored.  What matters, however, is the pictures’ enduring memory.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’, the first film directed by Sidney Lumet, was released in April 1957 to critical acclaim but box office disappointment.  I ask you, what else came out on the thirteenth of that month in that year that is as enduring as this film?  Why would a screenplay this electric with a cast this matchless go without popular response?  I have no clue.  The good news is that popular and critical reaction would soon match up.  The bad news, at least for whatever stood in competition for its box office dollars, is that apparently only ‘Twelve Angry Men’ survived.

Some films demand spectacle, action, sexual chemistry and endless stanzas of visual poetry.  They need these things to exist.  What ‘Twelve Angry Men’ proves is that the most essential dramatic element, stakes that create suspense, can thrive in a visual environment as small as a single room.  The story doesn’t demand more, but it puts other stories that have more but lack legitimate tension to shame.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’ is nothing but dialog, but it has more impact than a dozen car crashes in a brainless, gutless action movie.  With actions as simple as frowns and glances, a war wages in this single room that captivates the viewer, with compelling moral, logical arguments and severe emotional consequences.  Every character is challenged, so that everyone in the audience is challenged.  You will question yourself, your prejudices, and your approach to justice.  The screenplay almost guarantees that.

And perhaps this is why it was not a box office success.  We like to pretend that audiences have grown more or less sophisticated over the years, depending on the arguments we are making at the moment, but in fact people have not changed.  By and large, sophisticated stories are ignored, only for word-of-mouth to redeem them at a later time when it is too late to reward the producers for their financial risk.  While it is true that filmmakers are getting their money back from home video sales, producers still view the box office as the measure of a film’s worth.  This is changing, but the push for 3D and IMAX technologies shows that filmmakers want theatrical vindication of their investment.  So many, arguably most, future classics are small features, like ants carrying many times their own weight.  Truly exceptional movies that also make hundreds of millions in box office are rare.  Most hits are, ironically, forgettable.

But I digress.  The reason for my tangents is that it is difficult to say more about ‘Twelve Angry Men’ than has already been said by much sharper analysts.  What I can say is this: the cast and crew worked with a smaller toolbox than are afforded most projects, and they delivered something truly special.  Its intimacy and emphasis on character gives an immersion that 3D technology can never match.  It is so true to life and so damn engaging that there is nothing left to improve, except perhaps removing the superfluous musical score, which intrudes a couple of times and doesn’t add anything of substance.  This makes for an ironic flaw in contrast to other films and their poor use of musical resources; ‘Twelve Angry Men’ had a limited toolbox, and ended up with just one tool too many!  The harmony between Sidney Lumet’s direction and Reginald Rose’s screenplay makes the real music here.

This movie should be required viewing for up-and-coming filmmakers.  If you’re interested in writing screenplays, I urge you to watch this film and study the most insignificant details.  This is a taut, perfectly calibrated symphony of cinema.  If you can do as well, do so, and don’t compromise.  History will vindicate you.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: Not the best of fantasy, but a traditional, playful, even melancholy adventure still.

Review:  The third entry in Walden Media’s adaptation of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ may, unfortunately, be the last.  This is due to diminishing box office returns, Disney’s abandonment of the franchise, and the sad fact that the movies weren’t great.  That isn’t to say that they are not good.  I like all three films in varying degrees, mostly for the impressive cast, production design, music, and source story by the inimitable C.S. Lewis, but despite being entertaining adventures, they lack that blissful hypnotism associated with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Star Wars’ that demand endless excursions into the fantasy world.

‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, despite tying the titular voyage together with a new, rather rote plot, stays mostly true to the book’s events.  The difficulty in adapting this episodic story into a movie is that, as Stanley Kubrick observed, “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction.”  Considering that several of Kubrick’s films were literary adaptations, it doesn’t mean that a story like ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ should not or cannot be filmed, but rather that the focus should be on the repeating themes and narrative melodies at play.  Thankfully, the filmmakers obviously understood this and plucked the proper notes, retaining the thoughtful, playful, even melancholy tone of the source material in a suitably cinematic way.  I always thought that ‘Dawn Treader’ was rather sad.  It is the last Narnian Chronicle with the Pevensie children in a lead role, as they grow wise from their adventures and the Christlike Aslan informs them that they won’t return.  It’s an end to childhood.  This makes for a rather fitting end for the Walden Media series, if technically premature, as there are two books left to go.  Still, it is satisfying to know that we got to see the Pevensies complete their Narnian tenure.

What ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ lacks, I already mentioned above: Blissful hypnotism.  While the characters express a longing to return in each installment, we don’t necessarily hear the call.  The trouble is, while the stories are good, the setting is simple like a fable or fairy tale and doesn’t have the richness and complexity of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.  Peter Jackson’s adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ perfectly captured Middle-Earth so to as convince us that such a world may exist.  Light revealed earthy wonders, and shadows concealed things unimaginable.  While Lewis’ ‘Chronicles’ are children’s books and don’t burden the reader with details, the filmmakers had the chance to enrich Narnia and generally muffed it.  When the Pevensies became royalty, it was believable in a sort of storybook way, but without a picture of what great things they wrought in their time, it felt awkward instead of wondrous.  When the Dawn Treader sails beyond Narnia, there should be a solidity to the realm that lends contrast to the proceedings and thusly greater adventure.

Complaints aside, ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ is an entertaining, whimsical, accessible journey that plays like a ’40s serial, with debts owed to Michael Curtiz pirate pictures, Ray Harryhausen monster movies, and even a moment or two from ‘Ghostbusters’.  The best sequence is the climax, an excellent battle with a scary, demonic sea serpent summoned from Edmund’s nightmares.  It was fun to watch a sea serpent and an English boy-turned-dragon do battle above a ship populated by minotaurs, dwarfs, fauns, and the occasional child royal.

In total, ‘Dawn Treader’ isn’t at the head of the pack, but it isn’t a waste of time at all, especially if you’ve seen and enjoyed the previous two entries and the novels which inspired them.