Artisan // 1989 // 126 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // June 27th, 2003
As a lawyer, all she wanted was the truth. As a daughter, all she wanted was his innocence.
A lukewarm offering from a well-paid screenwriter and a talented director falls short of the mark, even for a B-film. A solid cast keeps the film rolling along to its inevitable conclusion, with few surprises or thrills. Not a disaster, so much, as a minor inconvenience.
Ann Talbot (Jessica Lange) is a successful lawyer in Chicago, with a loving husband and son, and a caring father, Mike Laszlo (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a hard-working Hungarian immigrant.
When her father suddenly becomes the subject of a war crimes investigation, she comes to the rescue of her father and defends him against the accusation that he was, in fact, a member of the Arrow Cross, a Hungarian secret police squad that went about executing Jews and Gypsies both during and immediately following World War II.
As the court case progresses, more secrets become revealed, more revelations start revealing themselves (as revelations often do in this sort of movie), and Ann starts having personal doubts about the nature of the man she is representing. After the case moves to the streets of Budapest, Ann begins unraveling the web of questions and accusations in order to find the answers she desperately seeks -- not just for her client, but also for herself.
Based on a politically charged script written by Joe Eszterhaz (the man responsible for the infamous run of sexually charged films in the early '90s [Basic Instinct, Nowhere to Run, Sliver, Showgirls]), Music Box is a fairly pedantic piece of cinema, offering no significant contributions to its genre. It re-hashes, never innovates -- but does it well enough that it survives its own execution squads.
Jessica Lange performs with steely resolve as the lawyer who must defend her father against heinous war crime charges, and her performance is all-around solid. The strong performance by Lange and her co-star, Armin Mueller-Stahl, comes across fairly strong and convincing. Mueller-Stahl spends most of the film in silence, staring out with steely blue eyes, and handles his performance fairly well. Lange's performance, in her intensely dramatic moments, comes apart slightly and borders on the unbelievable and corny. Still, the interaction between Lange and Mueller-Stahl is fairly tender and believable. Both actors are stronger on screen together than individually, playing off each other very well.
The camera movements are usually sinister, laced over menacing shadows and heavy-handed close-ups. During conversations of dramatic relevance, the camera sweeps into massive, aggressive close-ups. The techniques of direction feel awfully dated at times, very canned and very faux-dramatic. Every once in a while, though, there are some great little camera tricks, tiny little movements that shows off the skill of the director, Costa-Garvas.
The transfer is average for its age -- moderately clear, mostly free from defects and artifacts, with some noticeable wear, with large white spots and dots marring the transfer from time to time. Colors are gray and washed out, muted with reds being dark and sinister and deep. Outdoor shots are muted and beige, with heavy black dirt marks plaguing the transfer. The occasional tear in the film appears a half dozen times throughout the presentation.
The audio, a 2.0 Dolby Surround mix, is passable, with dialogue coming across clean, though the film suffers from an audio clarity issue. Characters will walk behind plates of glass, or tilt their heads, or otherwise step outside the range of the microphone, dramatically shifting the volume level of their dialogue. This is one of those films that is hard to find a consistent volume level for -- set it too quiet, and you miss key dialogue; turn up the volume, however, somebody slams a door in the film, and you speakers explode and fly across your living room.
The music is deep and heavy in the low frequencies, rumbling ominously, with upbeat Hungarian folksong melodies lacing the upper frequencies. The score is interesting and aggressive and matches the film perfectly, of course.
Moderately acted, fairly well written, the story is laced with heavy political undertones that get washed aside and ignored. While the story is interesting as a dramatic device (genocide in Hungary during WWII) the film offers little in the way of historical relevance or background, merely using the situation to carve up a fairly typical courtroom drama.
The story is solid, the acting, likewise -- ultimately, there is just very little to get excited over. With absolutely no special features, a full screen presentation, and a flawed picture transfer, this film lands in purgatory between "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" -- a hand tilted to the side, palm facing the ground, thumb horizontal.
The pacing is snail-slow, and frankly, not very engaging. The story is still the best feature of the film, but the execution seems lacking somehow. A good idea, but not as interesting of a film as it could have been -- one of those 'it looked better on paper' projects.
There are better movies about war crimes, better courtroom dramas, and even better Joe Eszterhas projects to be found in the video store. Music Box is the epitome of a lukewarm B-movie.
All in all, not a terrible film, but not a great one either -- the action is taut, more or less; the drama is well paced, more or less. In fact, one could say "more or less" to describe this film pretty well down the center. Music Box is an adequate, fairly well written piece of cinema that does execute its moves well -- too bad it only has a few weak moves to begin with.
Rent it. More or less.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13