Five Corners
directed by Tony Bill
(Handmade Films, 1987)

Looking for a cinematic challenge? Try making a movie that includes two murders, one matricide, one manslaughter, a justifiable homicide, an attempted rape and assorted assaults -- yet leaves your viewers with a warm fuzzy feeling.

P.S. All the action must take place in one neighborhood over two days in under 92 minutes. And a penguin must figure prominently in the plot.

Think it can't be done? Think again.

The neighborhood is a Bronx crossroads called Five Corners, the two days occur in the fall of 1964 and the penguin is an unwelcome present from Heinz Sarantino to Linda Kowolsky. The present is unwelcome because a few years back Heinz tried to rape Linda. Now he's out of jail, and he wants to pick up where they left off.

If Heinz (John Turturro) were any normal man, Linda (Jodie Foster) might not be so worried. But he's not. He's a one-man reign of terror, a bully with more loose wires than most people have brain cells. And he'll gladly kill anyone who gets in his way.

Especially Harry.

Harry (Tim Robbins) is a special target because Harry saved Linda from Heinz once before. So Linda turns to him for help again. But Harry's gone over to the other side. He's sworn off violence.

That leaves everyone, all the good people at least, with a dilemma, and dilemmas are what great drama is made of. But Five Corners is also a great comedy, thanks to an integral subplot that involves two glue-sniffing women, two students with a unique approach to education and an elevator joy ride never before captured on film.

Add to that a Saint Bernard named The Buddha; a cop named "Big Foot Sullivan" who's half Robert Mitchum, half Abe Vigoda; and some wonderfully funny throwaway lines, and you have more opportunities for laughs than many so-called comedies.

Balancing the two modes is not easy, but director Tony Bill (My Bodyguard) makes it look easy, in part because he's a master of timing, in part because he has a cast that turns in unbelievably believable performances. Foster is low key and subtle as the subject of Heinz's attention, and Robbins is bluntly perceptive as the no-neck who's coming of age and into consciousness in that fertile shadowland between the Kennedy and King assassinations.

But the acting awards go to Turturro as possibly the scariest screen creation since Lon Chaney's Phantom.

From the first halting shots of him walking home from jail, his overnight bag in hand, to his final rooftop confrontation with Robbins and half the NYPD, Turturro is ceaselessly menacing, oozing urban angst, full of the hatreds that eventually boiled over in the race riots and antiwar protests of the late '60s. His walk, his leer, his body language, his ability to manipulate as well as bully spell trouble every time he appears on the screen. If this guy doesn't give you nightmares, you're immune.

Five Corners is not without problems. Some of the early dialogue, obviously written to bring viewers up to speed quickly, seems contrived, and some of the characters sometimes lapse into caricatures.

Yet it works, and works well, because it makes you feel you're watching real people dealing with real things much larger than themselves.

And because it makes you feel.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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