(director: Costas-Gavras; screenwriter: Joe Eszterhas; cinematographer: Patrick Blossier; editor: Joƫle Van Effenterre; music: Philippe Sarde; cast: Jessica Lange (Ann Talbot), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Mike Laszlo), Frederic Forrest (Jack Burke), Donald Moffat (Harry Talbot), Lukas Haas (Mikey Talbot), Michael Rooker (Karchy Laszlo), Mari Torocsik (Magda Zoldan), Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Georgine Wheeler), J.S. Block (Judge Silver), Felix Shuman (James Nathanson); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Irwin Winkler; Carolco Home Video; 1989)
“Failed to be affecting.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An uninspiring courtroom thriller that’s stiffly directed by Costas-Gavras (“Missing”/”Z”/”Betrayed”) and limply written with sanctimonious piety by hack writer Joe Eszterhas. Unglamorous and aggressive Chicago defense attorney Ann Talbot (Jessica Lange) defends her amiable elderly retired mill worker Hungarian father Mike Laszlo (Armin Mueller-Stahl) from charges that he was a member of Hungary’s ruthless Special Section and executed Jewish women and children at the Danube River. Her dad has been living in Chicago for the last 37 years and never showed her signs he could be a Nazi brute. The government threatens to deport him for lying on his application (not saying he was a gendarme) and about the atrocities committed during World War II, where in Hungary he would face almost certain execution. Ann is certain that her father is being framed by a revenge-seeking Hungarian Communist government because he’s a fierce anti-Communist, and skillfully damages gung-ho prosecuting attorney Jack Burke’s (Frederic Forrest) case by claiming all the witnesses are Commies sent by the Hungarian government to discredit her dad even as the war crime prosecutor brings forward reliable witnesses to tell of the horrible events. But through her own research, Ann soon discovers dad has paid a blackmailer for quite some time. It also comes out that Ann’s sinister ex-father-in-law (Donald Moffat) helped find sanctuary for Nazis after the war in an attempt to use them against Communist governments. Ann continues her excellent defense but she has to deal with gnawing doubts over whether her dad is really innocent.

As the film limps home to an unimpressive denouement it never seems convincing or interesting. If anything, it’s overly cautious, shallow and lacks suspense. Though the performers seem willing, they don’t have the script to lift the empty feeling of this polished and technically adequate courtroom melodrama. Armin Mueller-Stahl in a type-cast role excels as the stalwart family patriarch with apparent dark secrets. Lange hits all notes with reasonable skill as she teeters on her search for truth and devotion to her loving father, as she begins to lose conviction as to the truth of her dad’s innocence. But the film, even when bringing up Holocaust atrocities, failed to be affecting (which couldn’t be a worst indictment for a Holocaust film).

Music Box (1989)