2 items from 1994
An obsessed federal attorney manipulates the law to try to nail a ruthless crime boss. The ruthless crime boss bumps off the main witness against him. A world-weary ex-cop turned heel-for-hire carries out a campaign of intimidation against a vulnerable juror. The vulnerable juror, well, she caves in with fear and then gets madder than hell.
Novelist-screenwriter-director Heywood Gould's slick courtroom thriller ''Trial by Jury'' features a valiant effort by top-billed Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, but she tends to hide behind those big dark eyes and not reveal enough of her normal-gal-in-deep-yogurt character. The Warner Bros. release of a Morgan Creek production boasts potent boxoffice enticements in its trio of male stars -- Armand Assante, William Hurt and Gabriel Byrne -- but the evidence points to an early dismissal at the boxoffice.
The film's chief problem is taking for granted the audience warming up to cool, untalkative Valerie (Whalley-Kilmer), a divorced New York City antique shop owner called in for jury duty. Gould and Jordan Katz's screenplay tries to portray all the major male characters as opportunists with deep-rooted cynicism toward the judicial system. Valerie joins the club, but do we really care?
Valerie's evolution from upstanding citizen to major league femme fatale is the story's thrust, beginning with threats and more threats from lurking Loose Cannon Vesey (Hurt), working for accused mobster Pirone (Assante). She moves her son to dad's rustic digs, but Vesey makes it abundantly clear that even from the grave, the long arm of Pirone will get her if she doesn't push for acquittal in jury deliberations.
The least believable aspect of the film -- the court and jury room scenes -- slow down the pace and add little. Media-savvy prosecutor Graham (Byrne) smells a rat when the jury is dismissed, knowing nothing about Valerie's dilemma, or that she has had to endure the unwanted advances of Pirone.
One thing leads to another and still-not-safe Valerie finally takes the initiative. Through it all there is remarkably little insight into her character beyond a throwaway line pegging her as a potential silent-but-deadly type. Whalley-Kilmer has enough talent and presence to carry the film, but is left tongue-tied through most of the concluding section.
Hurt underplays and stands out as the heavy for a change, even though the writers can't resist making him sympathetic. Byrne brings authority to his role, one of his best to date. Assante adds another suave stinker to his resume. Director David Cronenberg slips in for a cameo that alludes to the element in Hollywood that's attracted to the Pirones of the world.
TRIAL BY JURY
James G. Robinson presents
A Morgan Creek Prod.
A Heywood Gould Film
Director Heywood Gould
Producers James G. Robinson
Chris Meledandri, Mark Gordon
Writers Jordan Katz, Heywood Gould
Executive producer Gary Barber
Production designer David Chapman
Director of photography Frederick Elmes
Editor Joel Goodman
Music Terence Blanchard
Casting Heidi Levitt
Valerie Joanne Whalley-Kilmer
Pirone Armand Assante
Graham Gabriel Byrne
Vesey William Hurt
Wanda Kathleen Quinlan
Jane Lyle Margaret Whitton
John Boyle Ed Lauter
Running time -- 107 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
(c) The Hollywood Reporter
This film was originally reviewed on Sept. 2. It opens wide today.
Sugar Hill was the high point neighborhood of Harlem, the place of dreams and success. In this earnest drama, it is the low point of decline and despair, as two young men struggle to survive its drug streets. Starring Wesley Snipes, ''Sugar Hill'' will likely bring in some sweet initial business for 20th Century Fox, but the film's ponderous and preachy exposition will sour word-of-mouth.
Shrouded in muted golden hues and coarsed by a smudgy trumpet's cry, ''Sugar Hill'' is a melancholy tale of urban desperation. In dramatic terms, it's a Cain-and-Abel story as two Harlem brothers, the cool and thoughtful Roemello (Snipes) and the brash and impetuous Raynathan (Michael Wright) deal with the hard life's hand that drugs have left them. Their mother (Leslie Uggams) overdosed before their eyes, while their jazz musician-dealer father (Clarence Williams III) withers in a heroin haze.
Although once a promising student, Roemello has taken the fork too often traveled on his Harlem streets -- he and his brother have become drug lords. They live the good life, frequenting clubs, sporting the threads and turning on the women.
Despite his kingly status on the streets, Roemello despairs. He wants to get out of the cesspool of drug dealing and even feels a responsibility to the neighborhood, the once-great promise of Harlem. He's the good son, taking his skeletal father chicken soup and sagely smoothing out disputes between the neighborhood gangsters and the crime lords from New Jersey.
He laments that ''everyone wants to be a gangster nowadays.''
Roemello's personal turmoil is, in essence, screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper's thematic focus -- how promising young black men can be easily sucked into the gangster lowlife.
While Cooper's screenplay is eminently insightful, it is unfortunately weighted down with clunky expository scenes, sometimes redundant sociologizing, and a decidedly schmaltzy romantic subplot between Roemello and a soft-spoken, upright actress (Theresa Randle) that, in the film's own jargon, is ''extra.''
Overall, Cooper's screenplay attempts to have it all ways and overdoses on its own ambition: Hard and piercing questions are deadened with soft and swoony answers, including an ending so out-there it seems to have been penned not by someone who knows and loves Harlem, but rather by the North Carolina Tourism Division.
In addition, the fact that Roemello is overridingly presented only from his saintly side smear the film's painful power with, well, too much sugar.
Director Leon Ichaso's plodding pace has further sapped the film's power, although he has nicely fused the superb technical contributions -- cinematographer Bojan Bazelli's muted golden hues and composer Terence Blanchard's tormented tones -- into an eloquent force of dignity.
As the epicurean Roemello, Snipes smartly conveys the torment of a man torn between his lifestyle and his morals. Wright is terrific as his hairtrigger brother, while Williams wins our hearts with his portrayal of their junkie father. Theresa Randle is touchingly vulnerable as Roemello's beacon of goodness.
(c) The Hollywood Reporter
2 items from 1994
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