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Old pro Lumet pounds his NYC beat

By Noel Murray and Jim Ridley

With so many good cops and lawyers shows on TV these days, it's difficult for a feature filmmaker to bring a police procedural or courtroom drama to the big screen. The audience is too jaded. The only way to catch their attention is with sensational, exploitative twists (as in last year's hit Primal Fear) or to go with a more subdued, naturalistic approach. In Night Falls on Manhattan, director Sidney Lumet opts for the latter, and it's a wise way to go. His film plays like an especially fine, especially raw episode of Law and Order.

Andy Garcia stars as Sean Casey, an ex-cop-turned-prosecutor who (improbably) gets assigned to a career-making case to put away a notorious Harlem drug dealer. In the wake of the trial, Casey gets swept into the New York district attorney's office, where he takes it upon himself to investigate some of the curious evidence presented in that trial--namely the accusation that three precincts of policemen were on the pusher's payroll. He pursues the corruption wherever it leads, even when it leads dangerously close to his father (Ian Holm), a vice cop in one of the tainted precincts.

Night Falls on Manhattan is ridiculously contrived, awkwardly compact, and hampered by a weak romantic subplot between Casey and a defense attorney, played by Lena Olin. None of that matters. When Garcia and Holm are acting eye-to-eye, or when James Gandolfini (as Holm's slimy partner) or Ron Leibman (as a hilariously hyperactive DA) are chewing the edges of the scenery, the film recalls the simple pleasures that charismatic performers in a weighty story can provide.

Copping it Andy Garcia as District Attorney Sean Casey in Night Falls on Manhattan

Besides, this is Lumet's specialty--the New York morality play. He rushes through the clunkier plot points to get to the meat in Robert Daley's novel (which Lumet adapted for the screen). The director focuses on the most fascinating facet of Casey's predicament--his growing understanding that although there must be zero tolerance for police corruption, an attorney has to rely on political favors that lead him into ethical gray areas.

Lumet tells the story plainly, with a few interesting dissolves and angles to let us know it's art. Mostly, he lets the actors roam around long scenes full of subtle passion and casual vulgarity--two things the television medium cannot provide. Before the summer gets overrun with overwrought, oppressive "event" movies, take a moment to appreciate the qualities of a thought-provoking film with memorable characters. It may be basic, but sometimes the basic styles are the most elegant.--Noel Murray

Sliding down barristers

Jonathan Lynn has had a checkered career as a feature comedy director. In fact, he's scored only twice--with 1991's courtroom comedy My Cousin Vinny and now with the similarly themed Trial and Error. Something about the practice of law gets his farcical juices running. Maybe it's the strict code of behavior and the sobriety of the proceedings. Whatever the case (no pun intended), Lynn manages to squeeze maximum entertainment value out of the story of novices floundering before the bar.

Jeff Daniels and Michael Richards costar in Trial and Error as (respectively) an ambitious lawyer and his unemployed actor buddy. When the lawyer gets hopelessly drunk on the eve of a routine court appearance in Nevada, the actor steps in and botches the procedure so badly that the case goes to trial. Out of this groan-inducingly nutty premise, Lynn and screenwriters Sarah and Gregory Bernstein work a mild kind of magic. Dwelling on the reality of the characters' joint predicaments (and drawing on the majesty of the wild Nevada landscapes) the filmmakers find a warm, funny vein of truth running through the requisite zaniness.

The casting helps. Bright turns by supporting performers Austin Pendleton (as the bemused judge), Rip Torn (as the irrepressible con-man defendant), and Charlize Theron (as the nature-girl who catches Daniels' eye) keep the film bubbling. Unfortunately, the usually reliable Daniels is all over the map; luckily, Michael Richards, nicely underplaying, props him up and makes the film work. When he stands before the jury, every courtroom drama he's ever seen comes spilling out in a confusing, hilarious tumble of words.

The great joke of the movie is that Richards' technique seems to be working, but it really isn't. He's using the right cadences but spouting nonsense, and the only reason the court seems to allow him to continue is that he's helping the time pass pleasantly before the predetermined verdict comes out. Justice works independently of the show put on at trial, no matter how amusing that show may be.--Noel Murray

Something fishy

Danny Glover is Gus, Joe Pesci is Joe, and the screenwriters of Gone Fishin' think those names are such surefire laugh-getters that the stars shout them incessantly at one another. Replace every foul gerund, adjective, and expletive in a David Mamet script with "Gus!" and you get the picture. When that fails, the stars repeat each other's lines for comic emphasis, a technique that suggests nothing so much as improv night at a home for the recently lobotomized. In this manner, the makers of Gone Fishin' manage to extend a 20-minute idea into a 90-minute ordeal.

Not that the idea was any good to begin with. Two hapless simpletons win a weekend fishing trip; the humor comes from them destroying everything they encounter, from a marina full of priceless cruisers to a renovated resort hotel. With Glover playing Scooby to Pesci's Shaggy, this is another of those movies that portrays lower-middle-class working people as pet imbeciles; the two middle-aged stars are reduced to flailing, grimacing, and bugging their eyes like Moe, Larry, and Curly compacted into two overachieving Stooges. To share their humiliation, the movie rounds up such capable screen presences as Rosanna Arquette, Lynn Whitfield, Willie Nelson (as a fishing guru), and Carol Kane, and gives them dialogue and actions that might pass for comedy in some joy-deprived post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Apart from the actors' hyperactive discomfort, the movie is notable mainly for the unholy, crafted-by-numbers precision of Jill Mazursky Cody and Jeffrey Abrams' script. The pair follows every formula for high-concept screenwriting (backstory, exotic villainy, action beats every five minutes), except the one that calls for genuine wit and imagination. "Somethin' stinks in here!" gripes Joe in one of the movie's cleverest moments. Retorts Gus, "It ain't me!" Their sense of smell wasn't working nearly that well when they signed on for this tub of chum.--Jim Ridley

A wild bunch

While the city's multiplexes prepare for a typically frantic onslaught of big-budget summer bombshells, the Sarratt Cinema has shrewdly counterprogrammed its summer schedule with a strong lineup of classic action movies, mysteries, foreign films, and even the odd recent blockbuster. So what if Con Air crash-lands Friday? That same day at Sarratt, you can see a 35mm print of the ultimate outlaw action picture: Sam Peckinpah's glorious The Wild Bunch, the movies' most devastating elegy for the passing of masculine codes of honor. If you've only seen Peckinpah's magnificent widescreen vistas and heart-stopping massacres mangled on commercial television, you've missed one of the great moviegoing experiences of all time--a situation Sarratt can rectify this Friday and Saturday.

The Wild Bunch is followed Monday and Tuesday by another utterly unique work of cinema, a recently restored print of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In this unforgettable 1964 film, every line of dialogue is sung, the streets glow with brilliant blues and yellows, and soulmates Nino Castelnuovo and Catherine Deneuve (at her most impossibly beautiful) literally float down the street in ecstasy as they vow undying love. But Demy uses the conventions of Hollywood musicals for ironic comment on a modern world where war, poverty, and social strictures render the promises of young lovers false. The score by Michel Legrand is regrettably monotonous (with the exception of the stirring main theme, later anglicized into the hit "I Will Wait for You"), but that doesn't keep The Umbrellas of Cherbourg from being one of the most romantic movies ever made and a singularly haunting film.

Final score Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden, and Ernest Borgnine in Sam Peckinpah's classic The Wild Bunch, showing at Sarratt this week.

The following week brings the return of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (June 17-18), the milestone by which all movie epics are measured. The last time this played in Nashville, during its 1989 reissue, it covered every cranny of the Belle Meade Theatre's vast screen. Those who saw it there have never forgotten the splendor of cinematographer Freddie Young's panoramic views of the Arabian desert, or the impact of Lean's striking compositions of blue sky, dark skin, and white sand. Watching it on TV is like viewing the Alps through a keyhole.

Other big-screen treats flesh out the remainder of the schedule. The original 1946 version of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (June 23) launched Lana Turner's career and boosted sales of skintight sweaters, while Sergio Leone's sardonic, masterful spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (June 24) concluded the Man With No Name trilogy that established Clint Eastwood as an international superstar. On June 30 and July 1, Bruce Weber's Let's Get Lost, a spectral 1988 meditation on the downward spiral of trumpeter Chet Baker's life, returns to Sarratt for the first time in several years, followed by the Nashville premiere of Jaco van Dormael's award-winning dramatic fantasy The Eighth Day on July 2-3.

Also mark your calendar for John Frankenheimer's delirious, ahead-of-its-time 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate (July 8); a two-day tribute to Joel and Ethan Coen featuring Blood Simple (July 21) and Miller's Crossing (July 22); John Cassavetes' harrowing 1974 drama A Woman Under the Influence (July 28); and the best American movie I've seen so far this year, Mike Newell's excellent gangster drama Donnie Brasco (July 31-Aug. 2). Congratulations to Sarratt's Michele Douglas and committee chairmen Caroline Roberts and Keith Hayasaka on a fine schedule. Tickets are $3 to the public, and a full calendar can be picked up at the Sarratt Main Desk. --Jim Ridley

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