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.

 

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The Great Gatsby (Luhrmann, 2013)

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As subtlety, nuance and ambiguity are battered aside by excess in the initial half hour, you wonder if Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby (2013) can ever recover. Thankfully, to a large extent it does, the skeletal framework of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s still left standing after the multi-faceted cinematic assault of the director and his legion of artistic accessorisers. For devotees of the novel, however, the saddest aspect of this overblown production will be how the margins are filled out with amorphous, far less complicated shapes poking through the evaporative mist of classic storytelling misdirection.

Luhrmann’s ploy to reconstruct a classic is an elaborate one, ornate, expensively staged – and almost swallowed up by the impression of heightened artificiality it takes pains to exaggerate. In the opening stretch, the effect is of recreating a famous work of art as a cartoon cell. Still, on a fundamental level only the glimmer of a great tale is required when it’s the ghost of Fitzgerald who is doing the telling.

Leonardo DiCaprio brings genuine presence and star power to his portrayal of Gatsby, even if the depth of his pining for an irretrievable perfection is flattened out into too generically palatable doses. The hollowness at the core of a life spent lavishly entertaining for pitifully little reward hits home, his yearning for true love Daisy cancelled out by an American Dream going horribly sour. Carey Mulligan is a passable Daisy, stripped of interesting layers, whilst Tobey Maguire is a feeble, slightly bland Nick Carraway, his voiceover narration unavoidably tainted by the actor’s less than steely presence.

Once it finally settles into the narrative, relegating the glitz and glamour to the backdrop, The Great Gatsby works closer to being a more entertaining, even legitimate piece of cinema, though distinctly of a piece with its director’s uneven past work. Simplified and commercialised, certainly, but it becomes a reasonably compelling reflection of its source material even if only a small proportion of what constitute Fitzgerald’s timeless themes can be glimpsed between the lines.

 

Bright Star (Campion, 2009)

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Atoning for a past of artful but turgid films choking on their own bloated sense of importance, director Jane Campion delivered her finest work to date with Bright Star (2009). This intense, impassioned study of the unconsummated, ill-fated love affair of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, works its magic like an ode to the art of poetry and our own love of the English language. Working from only sketchy biographical details, including many of Keats’ letters to Fanny, Campion convincingly transports us back to early 19th century England.

Keats (Ben Whishaw) is an impoverished poet whose publication has yet to translate into financial prosperity. Daily he engages in writing sessions with best friend and fellow poet Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), but a neighbour, the inquisitive Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) soon has him interested in something other than literary pursuits. As a young man mired in poverty, however, he has to fight an instinct within begging him to stay away from Fanny, for his inability to provide for any woman is like a constant lance in his side.

As a kind of love triangle, interesting dynamics emerge from Campion’s gloriously literate screenplay, incorporating a liberal smattering of Keats’ poetry. The gently derisive jabs at Fanny from Brown may be construed as playful, but behind them is real venom. From one angle it may seem that he’s only being protective of Keats and the integrity of the creative process, for it’s a privilege to share ideas with a young man he regards as a gift to the artform. But slowly emerging are deeper feelings that are equally responsible for his barely-veiled petulance as Fanny’s presence begins to inspire a more noticeable and undesirable effect on Keats and his frame of mind.

It’s the underlying complexities of these relationships that enhance the film’s painstakingly-crafted aesthetic beauty and some of its subtle recurrent themes: of creation unhindered by love and its diverse definitions; of a finite existence embraced for the preciousness of every moment.

Despite the exceptional work of Whishaw, so horribly miscast in Perfume (2006), and Cornish who convey a realistic chemical reaction, it’s Schneider who steals the show with an electric performance as the caustic, discontented Brown. Unapologetically condescending, he seems constantly wired, his impregnation of a naïve housemaid coming across as sadly misdirected, a kind of sordid compensation for what he really desires.

Campion has always displayed an innate musical sense at least, her past collaborations producing exceptional work from Wojciech Kilar (1996’s Portrait of a Lady) and Michael Nyman (1993’s The Piano). Her choice of composer here was newcomer Mark Bradshaw whose sparingly used music is saved for maximum impact in perhaps six or seven scenes. It works brilliantly in every one and leaves you wanting more.

I’ve struggled to love this director’s past work, especially the provocative, sleazy In the Cut (2003) and the abomination that is Holy Smoke (1999) – despite, it must be said, an incredibly brave Kate Winslet performance. But her latest film is a real tonic, providing unexpected redemption and wiping away the stain of those past ‘misdemeanors’. Bold, romantic, and genuinely moving as it counts down to its inevitable conclusion, Bright Star glitters with every potent word, every helpless silent gesture, to create something of intoxicating beauty.

Capricorn One (Hyams, 1977)

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Toss an arm-load of rotten eggs into a crowded street and chances are five out of every ten’ll hit a conspiracy theorist convinced we never went to the moon at all. I’m still not convinced about that. What I do know is that O.J. Simpson nearly made it to Mars. Yes, nearly. That is, until powerful men from On High decided to shut an almighty trapdoor on his face with compatriots Sam Waterston and James Brolin buried deep in the hole with him.

Back in 1978 these great actors – well, two great actors and O.J. – were venerated astronauts, but their long-awaited mission to Mars became an expenditure the American government could no longer justify to itself. Of course, that didn’t stop them orchestrating an elaborate pantomime to appease the flag-waving multitudes, and running with it to the bitter end.

They hijacked the three patriots – perplexed but unafraid at first – from the Capricorn One, secreted them in an old military warehouse for months on end and let the American public believe in the ‘reality’ of unexplored outer limits of space being breeched by mankind for the very first time.

A kindly doctor is charged with explaining the situation to our three heroes and he bemoans the quirks of fate in an eloquent manner, levering his argument with that old standby: this is for the Greater Good of the world’s greatest nation.

Quite a production this would be, sealing a trio of men in the tomb of a makeshift set made up of tinfoil crafts and red sand. They denied them access to the outside world naturally – even their blissfully unaware families who would wait, biting their trembling nails, for every minute detail of the flight to be relayed back to them.

Then something horrible happens: many months into this elaborate hoax, this simulation that even NASA officials believe to be real, a heat shield separates aboard the imaginary shuttle. Normally this would mean death for its occupants. Suddenly three astronauts sequestered in the desert are having their corpses described to the rest of the world via news reports.

Yes – it’s time to run! And they do, though not getting very far at first in a plane with mere droplets of fuel in its tank. So into the desert they race on foot, spreading out on different routes to avoid a mass capture. Will they be eliminated one by one? Or can at least one of them reach even a tiny, forlorn pocket of civilisation so that the biggest conspiracy in history can be blown wide open?

Director Peter Hyams either had a very vivid imagination or he knew something the rest of the world could only conceive of in their most outlandish, probably drunken, speculations. But Capricorn One, like his later, equally entertaining films Outland (1981) and The Star Chamber (1983), is slick, superior entertainment with a smart screenplay that defies the illogicality of its set-up to become something entirely plausible.

His casting is crucial to the film’s effectiveness, with Sam Waterston and James Brolin providing real authority. True, it’s hard to hold your own against the method stylings of O.J. and that dazzling array of empty, inscrutable glares he can seemingly conjure at will, but somehow they pull it off.

A fine – and for once, tempered – Elliot Gould plays reporter Robert Caulfield who becomes drawn into the conspiracy when his lowly NASA console-operating friend Elliott Whitter (Robert Walden) gets wind of processes at work on the ‘flight’ that don’t quite compute. When his nosy queries become a little too irksome to Dr. Kelloway (a brilliant Hal Holbrook), he’s made to disappear like smoke as if he never existed. An effective form of elimination unless the apparent illusionist’s most trusted confidante is a nosy journalist. Even Telly Savalas turns up in an inspired and hilarious small role late in the game as an abrasive crop-dusting pilot.

Exceptional widescreen cinematography from Bill Butler, who was fresh off Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) at the time, and a punchy, militaristic score from the greatest film composer in history, the legendary Jerry Goldsmith, complete the package. Though spread over two hours, Capricorn One still feels remarkably tight, assiduously cutting back and forth from the plight of the astronauts to the strained efforts of the elite few attempting to uphold the monstrous façade at whatever the cost. This remains fantastic B-grade fare from a decade that rarely disappoints.

Shame (Bergman, 1968)

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Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 masterpiece is one of his finest achievements, probing the caustic, calcifying shame of war and, as if with a blunt instrument, the forces that irreversibly alter our moral perspective and the wavering identity of our own humanity.

On a small, remote island two former concert violinists, Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva (Liv Ullmann) live in the lengthening shadow of a civil war that rages on across the waters. They exist simply, tending to their small farm, struggling desperately to make ends meet whilst combating tedium. Though they love one another, offhand, antagonistic remarks may be evidence of tiny fissures opening up in their relationship. In Jan, Eva perceives weakness and resistance to fully grasp the enormity of their situation. He would rather retreat and take solace in headaches that seem manufactured to divert attention from his more glaring masculine shortcomings.

The opening half hour is a mundane examination of the couple’s uneventful routine, which includes sojourns to the mainland to sell their modest range of crops. All this is meticulously established, belying the confusion to follow. When trouble arrives it seizes them with fear and uncertainty, upending the secluded domesticity that has cocooned them until now. Fighter planes roar by, explosions sound in the distance, coming ever closer, and Bergman devises a set-piece to rip these people from their stasis, tossing them into an open cauldron where morality becomes blurred and destruction reigns.

There are no cultural or political indicators or side-taking in Bergman’s screenplay; his focus remains universal, intent on exposing the human experience to its instinctive core, throwing ordinary people against an allusive brick wall to see how they cope on a deeper, psychological level.

Shot with typically invasive depths of perception by Bergman’s legendary collaborator and friend, Sven Nykvist, the film burns with the intensity of gripping, realistic sequences that chart the tumultuous first invasion of the island and later, the demoralising turn of events that has far more frightening implications. As with all Bergman films there are a host of indelible images that linger in the mind like banshee howls of agony, and Shame is no exception.

You simply can’t put a value on the contributions Ullmann has brought to Bergman’s body of work. Every performance of hers is textbook perfect and yet informed by a technique that contains little you could ever learn from an acting classroom. Her ethereal beauty is only part of the mystique that surrounds her like an aura. Her haunted, extraordinarily expressive face stunningly encapsulates the horror, fear, joy, and physical surrender of every scenario Bergman sets before her on a page. She may well be the greatest actress of any era, pointed moments of close-up all too often revealing her mesmerising power and the camera’s love for her, whether in silent contemplation or bringing one of Bergman’s brilliant monologues to life.

It must be said that von Sydow is just as sublime, integrating the descent of man into his nuanced portrayal of the traumatised Jan, a man pushed to the point of madness by a mass of complex, seething emotional responses: greed, jealousy, bitterness. Bergman’s vision of disintegrating minds is characteristically dark and uncompromising. The disquieting final section of Shame offers little in the way of hope or relief, enwrapping a few desperate survivors in the muted, wasted shells of their bodies, drifting to nowhere on a sea that is dead in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

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.

Up the Yangtze (Chang, 2007)

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Yung Chang’s brilliant new documentary feature is a very difficult one to watch as it heartbreakingly charts the human cost of China’s relentless stampede towards further progress. With great effect he illustrates the perverse ironic extremes, taking us inside the luxurious cruise ships on their ‘farewell’ tours of the Yangtze – mostly obnoxious American tourists inside – whilst China’s own people live in the most unimaginable poverty on the river’s banks, slowly being swallowed by the rising water as the Three Gorges Dam project reaches its inevitable conclusion.

Yung, a Canadian of Chinese ancestry, concentrates on two young people from different backgrounds who seek work on the cruise ship – Bo Yu Chen (“Jerry”), an arrogant young man from a reasonably well-off family who can sing and charm with his good looks but see only dollar signs in the offering with this new job.

Then there’s Shui Yu (“Cindy”), whose family the film concentrates on the most; her parents are poor beyond any concept of the term we can possibly imagine in Australia, with no education or money to assist their three children, barely able to survive on rice and noodles as they live in a horrible rundown shack on the Yangtze’s banks, already having moved once to avoid the rising tide and soon needing to move again.

We watch Shui and Bo Yu’s journey aboard the ship, learning to fit in with the crew as they try to become the perfect employees, increasing their English skills and winning over the respect and tips of the carefree tourists. And yet despite the overwhelming circumstances destroying their lives, Shui’s father elects to ‘see’ the benefits of the Dam in terms of strengthening China even further. Even more amazing is how this family of five remains a loving family unit, unified by the pain of their lives under these desperate conditions – parents who love, in their primitive way, and dare to hope for a better life for their children.

Chang’s film is a powerful document of this country’s changing face, and a potent illustration of the immense gulf that exists between rich and poor, and between perception and understanding.

How can you not be moved when you see Shui’s father walking his meager, falling-to-pieces wardrobe up a steep hill on his back or see the looks of derision and pity on the faces of wealthier Chinese passersby as they watch these impoverished people wheeling their forlorn possessions up a mountainside to escape the voracious waters that are coming for them with all the force of the hand of God Itself.

There are so many other powerful images too – the tears in Shui’s eyes as her parents, in their dirty clothes, are given a tour of the cruise ship, which must surely seem like a spaceship to them; a series of shots in time lapse showing the extent of the river’s progress, Shui’s family ‘home’ soon absorbed by the mighty river, and then forgotten, whilst the cruise ship powers by, catering to the oblivious and wealthy, not a second wasted on the world being laid to waste around them.

Aided by a haunting score by Olivier Alary, which chimes in like a beautiful but sad lament to these forgotten people, Up the Yangtze lingers in the mind like the memory of a wound that refuses to heal; it’s an important documentary and one which should be seen by all.