Prizzi’s Honor (Huston, 1987)

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This wry black comedy was the penultimate film of legendary director John Huston, made just two years before his death in 1987. A master of the old school, he was also the member of a famous family which has left its mark on three generations of Hollywood filmmaking, beginning with his father Walter as an actor in America’s Golden era.

With landmarks like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951) decades behind him, Huston was still able to bring to the big screen a faithful, sardonic adaptation of Richard Condon’s bestselling novel. Condon himself collaborated with Janet Roach on the screenplay and it proves to a perfectly pitched one, with astute casting a major factor in its success.

It begins with Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson), a dim-witted hitman for Chicago’s dominant crime family the Prizzi’s, falling head-over-heels for a gorgeous blonde he spots at a wedding. She turns out to be the strictly non-Sicilian Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner), and after a whirlwind romance of just two days, Charley impulsively proposes marriage!

Little does he know that she’s already married and his latest assignment involves carrying out a contract on her husband. Charley’s confusion at this turn of events almost overwhelms his limited mental capacities, and he confides to past girlfriend, Maerose (Angelica Huston), and granddaughter of Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey), that he doesn’t know whether to “marry her or ice her!” Irene is full of surprises herself and turns out to be employed in the very same field as her new lover!

There are plenty of neat twists and complications along the way as Irene is secretly hired to carry out a hit, commissioned by a vengeful member of the Prizzi’s, on Charley himself. There’s also some stolen money to account for, a kidnap and extortion that leaves the family disjointed, and rancorous counter-murders from the Prizzi’s competitors to worry about.

Swept along by its clever narrative, witty observations and deadpan humour, Prizzi’s Honor is a pleasure to revisit. Boiling down to a contest between love and family, there’s really no contest at all, it seems, when murder – regardless of the target – can be shrugged off by the Prizzi’s as “business – only business!”

Nicholson is in great form, a tiny padding beneath his upper lip to make it protrude slightly – and combined with that dead look in his eyes – giving Charley the perfect combination of streetwise efficiency and witless malcontent.Turner, following her head-turning star roles in Body Heat (1981) and Romancing the Stone (1984), is absolutely luminous as the wily Irene who has more hidden depths and talents than our first provocative, persuasive impressions of her would suggest.

The staggering quality of the support cast is what aids the film’s enduring appeal as well, with John Randolph hilarious as Charley’s father Angelo, the eccentric William Hickey unforgettable as the corpse-like Don Corrado, and the director’s daughter Angelica – in her Oscar-winning turn – as the bitter and lovelorn Prizzi granddaughter with the classical looks who takes extreme countermeasures to win Charley back and circumvent his union with Irene.

It’s impossible to underestimate John Huston’s contribution to cinema. Even at the tail end of his career he displays the ability to keep pace with the times, and Prizzi’s Honor, made 44 years after his debut behind the camera, is a vintage black comedy/drama which has aged just as well as any other great film from this great director.

 

Only God Forgives (Refn, 2013)

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With the cool quotient amped up to mega-freeze, Ryan Gosling’s performance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s second most recent film establishes a new frontier for minimalist acting. It’s as though the pair have re-imagined ‘Driver’ from their previous collaboration before bleeding every last vestige of emotion from him – emotion he didn’t exactly possess in spades in the first instance. The result is a vacuous, unctuous portrait of violence and revenge, lacking not in cinematic power but in subtext and delicacy.

Only God Forgives is, predictably, stunning to behold: every frame bears the mark of Refn’s extraordinary gift for stylisation for its own sake, fetishistically inflicting striking reds into intricate, painstakingly arrayed set-ups. It’s a shame then that such remarkable care in sculpting scenes with vivid gradations of light and colour is squandered on a transparently empty narrative that barely registers. Gosling’s Julian is a mamma’s boy, held fast in a rigid psychological grasp by the poisonous Crystal, (Kristin Scott Thomas). When she decrees revenge for the killing of her other son, a conscienceless murderer in his last moments as well, Julian becomes her pawn.

But revenge takes a while and Julian’s nemesis-to-be, absurdly corrupt and murderous Thai policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), has a few bodies to sadistically add to the pile as well. This slow motion dance of death will have its inevitable denouement to be sure, and whilst the vacancy that fills out Refn’s lacklustre narrative ultimately sinks it, there’s a trail of memorably staged scenes to admire along the way.

Cliff Martinez, seemingly often channelling Vangelis through a retro synth sound, produces a savage musical beast in accompaniment. His score, more often than not pushed to the foreground by Refn for maximum impact, gives the unfolding drama its contrived sense of horror. It’s one of his finest scores, though its life beyond the film may be limited.

Is Gosling even acting here? If so, he’s establishing new borders for what the term encompasses; his lone, abstract expression, monotonously worn, has revealed suggestive subliminal powers in the past – in Drive (2011) of course, and even recently in The Place Beyond the Pines (2013). Here, it becomes a wearying device employed by Refn to deflect any definable human cognisance of what’s to come. These are not to be taken seriously as humans anyway; Julian and Chang are just near-statues being robotically manoeuvred into place for the inevitable final confrontation.

Only God Forgives (2013) is a disappointing step backward for the prodigiously talented Refn; his screenplay is absolutely the worst of his career. Yet, his garish, deliberately provocative intermingling of violence, colour and aesthetic perfectionism still guarantees a feast for the senses, if not the intellect.

The Paperboy (Daniels, 2012)

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What a wonderfully lurid, sleazy, twisted southern jewel this 2012 film from Lee Daniels is. Replete with off-beat characterisations, pointless diversions, and a swampy, murderous atmosphere, this is certainly a film that defiantly marches to its own beat. Does it have mass appeal? Not on your life. Is it packed with unsavoury elements sure to repel certain audiences? Yes, yes, yes!

In the 1960’s a lawyer, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), returns to his small Southern home town to investigate the case of a man, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), he believes has been wrongfully arrested for murder. Aided by his Miami co-worker, British writer Yardley (David Oyelowo), naïve younger brother Jack (Zack Efron), and the woman, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who, through letter exchanges with men in prison has finally settled upon Hillary as her perfect man, Ward begins to dig deeper into the case. The whole deliriously colourful episode is viewed as a flashback and narrated by the Jansen family’s all-knowing maid Anita (Macy Gray).

Though the narrative clearly plays second fiddle to the characters that heedlessly drive it along, a rough, raw vitality is what energises Daniels’ left-of-centre vision for adapting Pete Dexter’s novel to the screen. This rawness is also reflected in the often unconventional visual approach which sets a dulled, dirty colour scheme against strangely incongruous perspectives. You could argue the whole project has been haphazardly wrought but the approach feels daringly original in its own crazy way.

There are memorable scenes aplenty, including the notorious but hilarious urination scene involving Charlotte and Jack, and another vividly realised sexual encounter of sorts in the jailhouse. But it’s the work of the performers that will linger longest in memories. For McConaughey this the continuation of a hot streak which peaked again around this time with William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012). Efron proves he’s capable of striking out successfully against his wholesome image whilst negotiating some tricky scenes with Kidman. Then there’s the startling Cusack who blows perceptions of his once romantic lead status to smithereens.

But it’s Kidman who shines brightest; her daring, luminescent turn is a wonder to behold. Rarely has she been more magnetic on screen, channelling every white trash vixen from a back-catalogue of Jerry Springer specials. Offensive, demented, lazily plotted and overflowing with extraneous lurid asides, The Paperboy (2012), for all its shortcomings, is at least a memorable, deliriously idiosyncratic concoction.

 

Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, 2012)

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Zero Dark Thirty is a sleek, well-oiled machine. This follow-up to The Hurt Locker (2009) from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal is a lengthy but compelling portrait of obsession that encapsulates terrifyingly modern definitions of terrorism and controversial means to an end. C.I.A agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), over the course of a decade, is portrayed via a resolute, systematic transformation of will. From naïve but flinty rookie operative – whose early exposure to the extraction of information via torture strengthens a weak stomach – she becomes the kind of lead investigator who will take no prisoners in her quest to see Osama Bin Laden’s influence eliminated.

Directed with the invasive, irresistible proficiency we’ve come to expect from Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is a remarkably immersive film though not without flaws. Taking into consideration the length and detailing in the script, the film does possess a sense of grinding relentlessness. This is partially a reflection of the central character, no doubt, but it does mean dramatic impetus is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of broadening the ‘bigger picture’.

Is Chastain’s work all it’s cracked up to be? It’s a steely, gripping performance, certainly, but somewhat devoid of colour or dimension. The relentless pursuit of the shadowy, messianic spectre of Bin Laden reveals a rare fortitude in Maya as her obsession blooms into an inexorable vendetta. We can certainly appreciate her integrity and passion on this level, but the one-track mode of thought tends to both enhance and detract from the film.

A host of quality support performances contribute to what is a flawless ensemble but Australian Jason Clarke deserves special mention for his work as the agent who becomes a valuable mentor to Maya after he first exposes her to the realities of wartime interrogation – scenes which are handled well and without any of the exploitative edge that the adverse publicity which surrounded the film may lead you to believe is present.

The ubiquitous Alexander Desplat turns in another subtly immersive score that – in the same vein of Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’s work on The Hurt Locker – provides a dark undercurrent without ever drawing undue attention to itself. Then there’s the cinematography of another talented Australian, Greig Fraser, which contributes heavily to the increasingly palpable sense of naturalism conveyed, especially in the lengthy, tense final sequence as the compound that may house Bin Laden is finally breached.

 

I Want You (1998)

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Caught in the amorphous web of Elvis Costello’s song of the same name, with its coy intimations of duplicity, comes a previously unearthed gem from the back-catalogue of British director Michael Winterbottom. I Want You (1998) is a tasty treat too, with a slowly inter-cutting narrative describing the lives of a quartet of oddly dissociated characters congealing in the vanquished surrounds of a blank, wind-stripped English seaside town that time has clearly forgotten.

Martin (Alessandro Nivola) has been released from jail, but he has ties to this place, namely to the beautiful Helen (Rachel Weisz), a local hairdresser. Presumably it’s here in Farhaven that his crime was committed, prefacing his eight-year stretch in the slammer. Helen was once his illicit, very young, star-crossed lover, just in her mid-teens at the time.

What motivation is responsible for Martin’s return trek to Farhaven? Is he here to rekindle an old flame? To make amends for the deed that sent him behind bars? Or is he simply a malignancy creeping back under the guise of someone contrite and reformed?

Meanwhile, lurking on the periphery is a mute teenager Honda (Luka Petrusic) and Helen’s secret admirer, bringing her small gifts when not otherwise absorbed in his favourite pastime – using sophisticated listening equipment to eavesdrop on those around him. Having uttered not a word since the death of his mother, he lives in a seaside shack with his sister Smokey (Labina Mitevska), the local nightclub singer whose carefree lifestyle and uninhibited sexuality seems to entrance the bored locals. Before long Martin, biding time until he works up the nerve to confront Helen beyond wordless phone calls, becomes drawn into their little world.

I Want You is the work of writer Eoin McNamee but its bears many of the traits of previous Winterbottom films. Indeed the elusive Brit’s model is betrayed not a whit; firmly in place are the sense of detachment and vague characterisations in which a tapestry of singular, often peculiar moments are woven into a more expressive whole, only taking on firmer shape over time.

Aesthetically the film has much to recommend it, with a strikingly expressive range of lenses used by Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, whose past collaborators include Krzysztof Kieslowski on Three Colours Blue (1993). External scenes are regularly consumed by the pervasive tint of pale greens, electrical blues and sunburnt golds. You can sense not only a Kieslowski influence, but that of Jean-Pierre Jeunet in visual terms as Winterbottom seeks to expel the murky natural palette of this washed-out world and infuse it with a sheen of unreality.

Another interesting stylistic choice manifests itself in the way crucial moments switch to Honda’s perspective where a version of events seems fed through a distorted lens, each an intensely-portrayed, decolourised refraction. Can we trust what he sees? Regardless, his muteness complements a talent for stealth, allowing him to become a silent, but intrinsic component of the unfolding drama.

None of the characters are rounded wholes; they’re sketchy creations at best but clues deliberately omitted or kept vague bob just beneath the surface, intermittently rearing their heads to contribute more pieces to the puzzle. In the film’s opening scene a body is dumped off a pier, but is it a glimpse from the past or future?

I Want You, though difficult to access on an emotional level, is nonetheless fascinating viewing: distant perhaps, but a somewhat compelling depiction of an obsessive, destructive love. The performances of Weisz and Nivola, leaning more heavily on the suffocating atmosphere of implied danger and the sound of skeletons rattling in closets, are superb without much in the way of explicit avowals to guide them. In a sense Honda acts as both a witness and moral compass; Smokey merely subsides to the background, whilst Martin and Helen keep pace for a collision with unknown consequences.

There’s an ironic circularity to the ebb and flow of these lives, with misplaced love and its attendant misery exposed like an open wound. As for the sobering resolution, what does it prove? Perhaps only that vulnerability is the perfect foil for those most in need of a defense – or outlet to a fresh beginning.

 

Bad Day at Black Rock (Sturges, 1955)

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Nobody comes to Black Rock. Not ever. Barren, washed-out, and desolate – that’s what it is. And home to a terrible truth carefully concealed beneath its dusty exterior. Until now, perhaps, for here comes a train, hurtling through the desert in its direction; for the first time in four years it stops at this remote place, ejecting a lone figure into the cauldron of a summer’s day. He’s John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), a one-armed man on a mission, soon to instil fear of the unknown into the stilted and menial lives of the town’s few inhabitants.

John Sturges’s 1955 masterpiece Bad Day at Black Rock rolls across the screen like distant thunder, slowly accumulating existential force. Macreedy’s arrival is such an anomalous occurrence he immediately draws the fascinated attention of the suspicious locals. Figuring intimidation will be the most effective means of uncovering his closely-guarded intentions, they set about testing his mettle, to see if he’s got “any iron in his blood.”

Macreedy is a fascinating, complex character: cagey, cool, but above all, dignified in the face of their torment and scare tactics. Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), a landowner and figurehead of the town, who walks over the presiding sheriff (Dean Jagger) as if he doesn’t exist, is cordial and amenable to Macreedy, whilst using his heavies, Hector (Lee Marvin), and the dimwitted Coley (Ernest Borgnine) to unnerve the stranger and scatter his secret into the light of day.

Black Rock is guarding a nasty secret, openly acknowledged by pensive stares and the whispered query of their inner circle’s weakest link, Pete Wirth (John Ericson), begging “What if he finds out?” More than anyone, Smith is alert to the danger signs and potential ramifications, for it’s beginning to feel as though Macreedy is some insidious and rebellious part of their collective conscience, arriving with the express purpose of opening their wounds and exposing them to their guilt. But what exactly are they guilty of?

Macreedy’s queries revolve around a Japanese farmer who lived some ways out of town but seems to have vanished. Under the nervous scrutiny of Smith and his men, he visits key figures: the pathetic, ailing sheriff, the lone female (Anne Francis), the mortician (Walter Brennan); on each occasion extracting tiny measures of discord from what remains of their weakening defences – a barrier constructed against any conscious acknowledgment of the past. The guilt, he finds, is a pervasive force, clinging to their thoughts like dust to their lapels. At first outnumbered, he finally uncovers the allies who might help him thwart Smith’s plans to bury him deeper than the Japanese farmer.

Bursting with portentous meaning, Sturges’ film, based on a story by Howard Breslin and adapted by Don Maguire and Millard Kaufman, remains a screenwriter’s masterclass. Set in 1945, just months after the end of the war, it’s overflowing with wordy interplay; sharp, caustic dialogue that zings off the page, illuminating the tortured souls of Macreedy and his combatants with bleak insights and jagged poetical allusions.

Tracy’s portrayal of Macreedy is one of his most memorable roles and the film’s heart and soul. He arrives in this godforsaken place broken and disillusioned, regarding himself as no longer a viable member of the human race, and yet, in drawing out the ugly details of a terrible dark allegiance – forged in blood and a deep-seated racism – he rediscovers a resolve to preserve his own mortality.

At an economical 80 minutes, not a word, not a gesture, is wasted or misplaced. This magnificent film, shot in glorious cinemascope by William C. Mellor and featuring an ominous and, at times, propulsive score from Andre Previn, works its timeless magic again and again. With every viewing it’s like revisiting an old friend but with more knowledge and depths discovered anew. A truly must-see cinematic experience.

 

 

I Confess (Hitchcock, 1953)

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Torn between conscience and duty, what is Fr. Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) to do when the shadow of suspicion falls on him rather than the man who confessed to murder in his confessional? In Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), a tortuous internal struggle begins for the young priest, especially considering that the guilty man, Otto (O.E. Hasse) is a friend and worker in the rectory of his Quebec parish.

Only Logan and Otto’s wife, Alma (Dolly Haas) know the truth, but there’s another complication eating away at the young priest – the victim was a sleazy lawyer attempting to blackmail him and former flame, Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter) for a liaison that the lawyer stumbled upon before the war and Logan’s ordination into the priesthood. With the past threatening to fall like the Sword of Damocles upon their heads, Logan and Ruth feel relief at this fateful intervention but before long, lead investigator, the wily Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) has his suspicions raised by the testimony of two young eyewitnesses claiming to have seen a priest in the vicinity of the crime.

Under sufferance, Ruth reluctantly spills their back-story to Larrue, hoping to expunge her own torment whilst exempting Logan from any blame; sadly she only provides the police with an even stronger motive for suspecting Logan’s involvement. For his own part, Logan remains committed to offering as little useful testimony as possible, sworn to preserving the sanctity of revelations unburdened in the confessional.

An increasingly unstable Otto makes life exceedingly difficult all round however; the cowardly act of a marginal man of no consequence, his theft-turned-murder eats away at his own conscience but is overruled by his instinct for self-preservation.

Hitchcock’s film, though a far cry from his later masterpieces, remains a remarkable entertaining film, full of quality in every department. As ever under the master’s tutelage, the performances are first-rate, though detractors of Clift may disagree; his intense gaze, as always, is present, as is that barely-moving visage, renowned as a model of self-containment. But there’s always been something hypnotic about Clift as an actor; perhaps the turmoil endured in his personal life made his portrayals of men like Logan somehow more compelling, those wounded eyes ensuring an empathetic response every time.

Malden pitches his performances perfectly; rather than overplaying him as a wearied soldier or a man capable of excessive insightfulness, he ensures Larrue is a believably efficient, formidable force. Baxter evokes sympathy as Ruth, the woman torn between her long-nourished flame for Logan and her happy loveless marriage to the accommodating Pierre (Roger Dann).

Hasse deserves special mention as the increasingly reprehensible Otto who becomes more so the closer he gets to believing he might get away with his crime, his callous moral neglect – even allowing Logan to take sole responsibility and lying under oath – taking on treacherous, monstrous proportions by the end.

Finally, Hitchcock employs two brilliant artisans to complete his vision: the effortless ingenuity of often-used cinematographer Robert Burks, who provides the visual polish with atmospheric, noirish nightscapes complimented by a host of ominously tilted low shots aimed at the city’s gothic spires; then there’s veteran composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s classy running musical commentary, perhaps over-emphasising emotions at times but igniting the film with a dramatic boldness that becomes a defining force as the suspenseful, strangely moving conclusion nears.