Gardens of Stone

February 13, 2013

gardensofstoneFrancis Coppola has looked at the Vietnam War before. A decade ago, hot off the success of the Godfather films, he poured everything he had into Apocalypse Now, a broad, out-of-control movie that played up the insanity of Vietnam through a plot borrowed from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

It was all darkness: The war was a rudderless ship, and the military people in charge were psychopaths. (Remember “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”?)

Now Coppola has made another Vietnam movie, based on a novel by Nicholas Profitt, and the contrast is fascinating. Gardens of Stone, produced with the enthusiastic cooperation of the U.S. military, shows the home front in 1968, among some soldiers and friends at Arlington National Cemetery. This time the conflict isn’t the simple war-is-madness of Apocalypse Now. This is a much more mature, and much more ambivalent movie.

The central figure is Clell Hazard (James Caan, in a terrific comeback performance), a combat veteran who’s been put out to pasture as a member of the Old Guard. His main responsibility at Arlington is teaching soldiers how to bury other soldiers, but he burns to be doing something more useful.

A young gung-ho soldier (D.B. Sweeney) becomes Hazard’s surrogate son at Arlington. He wants to be an officer and go where the fighting is. Hazard’s response is basically the film’s standpoint: This war is different, probably a mistake; but a soldier must serve, and should be where he can do the most good. The movie tracks the year of the boy’s tutelage under Hazard and another Old Guard sergeant (James Earl Jones, in a scene-stealing role), until the kid is shipped off.

Some of the ambivalence of the time is reflected in Hazard’s relationship with a Washington Post reporter (Anjelica Huston) who thinks the war is “genocide” but who falls in love with the Army man anyway.

I’m not sure Coppola feels completely comfortable with the old-fashioned straightforwardness of this story, especially toward the end, but he bravely faces it head on. It’s a very entertaining film, with lots of inside military stuff. There’s an emphasis on the military as a family, and Hazard refers to the war as a “family business”—which reverberates intriguingly with the family business of Coppola’s Godfather.

And it’s a good-looking film, both in terms of the people onscreen and the physical production. Jordan Cronenweth’s photography is excellent as usual, and production designer Dean Tavoularis, who has worked with Coppola many times, gets a late-’60s look that is discreet but evocative. Hazard’s slightly dumpy apartment, for example, is an uncannily authentic space.

These details are memorable, and that’s proper. The big issues of the war won’t get settled here, and the film is at its best when it stays away from them (one of the only cheap-shot moments comes at the expense of a caricature peacenik, played by counterculture promoter Bill Graham). The movie succeeds because of its attention to the frailties of people, caught in a terrible situation.

First published in the Herald, May 1987

History has not remembered this movie, and to be honest, neither really have I. But it did, at least, feel rooted in something. Coppola’s son had died just before filming, and the film has a gravity that distinguishes it in the director’s work.


Crimes and Misdemeanors

August 22, 2012

Just what kind of contract does Woody Allen have, anyway? The Woodman, one of our most talented and thoughtful directors, seems to be able to do exactly as he pleases–without regard to box-office viability–even though he hasn’t had a big commercial hit in years.

And Allen’s films seem to get smaller, more intimate, as he goes on. September and Another Woman were chamber dramas, while his hilarious segment in New York Stories was, of course, just a short. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen shows no sign of raising his sights. The issues are large in terms of ethics and philosophy, small in terms of story.

The film follows two stories, linked only intermittently. The larger of the two is about an ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) whose lover (Anjelica Huston) is threatening to expose their affair to his wife (Claire Bloom). The lover becomes crazy enough that the doctor considers having her done away with.

The other story is about a documentary filmmaker (Allen) who gets hired to shoot a self-serving portrait of his big shot brother-in-law (Alan Alda), an unctuous TV mogul. The film doesn’t turn out so well—Allen cuts in shots of Mussolini during Alda’s speeches—but Allen does meet an attractive producer (Mia Farrow) during filming.

This side of Crimes and Misdemeanors contains the film’s laughs, which are prime Allen (he remembers to the day when his wife stopped having sex with him; it was April 20, Hitler’s birthday). As they weave together, the two different stories examine the various moral choices people make, from the major to the minor.

It is all interesting enough, and many of the funny moments are superb. I can’t quite shake the feeling that Allen is repeating himself in many of the movie’s situations; the courtship of the Mia Farrow character is familiar enough to be stock. And there are conversations that continue the overdone tendencies of his last few films, in which characters spell things out in labored theoretical terms. Does Allen know people who talk like this, or do these discussions take place in his head?

Still, there is Allen’s scrupulous visual sense (with help from cinematographer Sven Nykvist), and a lovely unforced performance by Martin Landau, fresh from his supporting Oscar nomination for Tucker. Landau nicely captures the turmoil of a man living in two worlds, trying to figure out the difference between a crime and a sin.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1989

Always meant to watch this movie again, but haven’t had a chance in the last 23 years. 23 years? Jesus. In any case, it’s highly regarded by many Allen fans, and it’s one of the films to bring his streak of misogyny to the surface.


Prizzi’s Honor

February 17, 2012

Prizzi’s Honor is just about as black as black comedy gets. That’s to be expected, considering the creative team behind the movie. It’s based on a novel by Richard Condon (who also co-wrote the script), the author of such appallingly funny books as Winter Kills and The Manchurian Candidate.

The director is John Huston, whose directorial personality, since The Maltese Falcon, often finds voice in the driest of dry chuckles. Huston has made the occasional out-and-out black comedy (Beat the Devil), but is more known for the understated drollness of even his serious films. At the age of 78, Huston is droller than ever, and with Prizzi’s Honor he’s found a good vehicle for his bitingly sarcastic observations.

Condon and Huston are aided by Jack Nicholson, whose comic talents have always had a black side—especially seen in his wildly funny, very scary performance in The Shining (directed by Stanley Kubrick, who knows a thing or two about nightmare comedy), which was ostensibly a horror movie.

In Prizzi’s Honor, Nicholson plays the favorite son of a Mafia family. He does odd jobs for the clan, jobs that sometimes include zotzing (killing in Nicholson’s parlance) people who have displeased the family.

That’s all part of the job, and Nicholson has few moral qualms about it. The family comes first, after all, and since they provide for him, he always comes through for them.

His lifestyle is altered when he meets a beautiful Los Angeles tax consultant (Kathleen Turner) and carries on an affair with her. This affair, which culminates in their marriage, is at the emotional expense of Nicholson’s former paramour (Anjelica Huston, the director’s daughter and Nicholson’s longtime real-life companion). She’s the daughter of the patriarch of the Prizzi family, and her rejection leads her to hatch a nasty double-cross against Nicholson and his bride.

But, this being Richard Condon country, that’s just the first of the double-crosses. Most disturbing of all to the befuddled Nicholson is the revelation that Turner is not what she seems. It would ruin a few surprises to reveal her true vocation, but it’s about as far from tax consultation as you can imagine.

Prizzi’s Honor is deliberate and sly, never tipping its hand toward out-and-out comedy. In fact, so dry is it that some viewers may be put off by the ending—but it’s meant to be just as sneakily humorous as the rest of the film. It’s all a smoky, deadpan poker game in which the players maintain their bluffs with their very lives at stake.

Turner, having proved herself game (and gifted enough) for just about anything with Romancing the Stone and Crimes of Passion, seems unperturbed that her role here is relatively secondary (at least in terms of onscreen time). She conveys a lot in that short time. Nicholson is splendid, sporting a Brooklyn drawl and a perpetually puzzled look—he’s usually just a half-step behind everyone else.

The real prize performance comes from Anjelica Huston, who has heretofore led a peripheral existence as an actress—most notably in her father’s A Walk with Love and Death, and a brief but memorable bit as a lion tamer in Nicholson’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. She’s just superb here, as she elegantly leads the Mafia bosses (led by William Hickey and John Randolph) around by their noses, and quietly plays a game of tightrope with Nicholson. Like the rest of the movie, she’s coolly delicious.

First published in the Herald, June 15, 1985

Nice experience, this movie; people may not recall now how thoroughly this movie rebooted Anjelica Huston’s career, and what a forceful tear she went on for years thereafter. (She won an Oscar, which you do recall.) It also re-started things, to some extent, for William Hickey, the strangle-voiced, Hawkingesque acting teacher who was rediscovered here.


The Dead

November 28, 2010

When the late John Huston was filming The Dead, he almost certainly knew that is would be his last film. How else to explain the elegiac majesty of this very small movie, the wry feeling of finality?

Actually, death has played a major role in Huston’s films since the beginning—for the most part, as just another absurd event in the accident of existence. (In The Man Who Would Be King, Sean Connery and Michael Caine find themselves snowbound and freezing in the Himalayas; as certain death approaches, they laugh wildly, which causes an avalanche, forming a snow bridge that carries them to their next adventure.)

Living was the dicey part, though Huston’s crew of adventurers managed to pull themselves together well enough for that. For them, facing death was one more way of making their journey more interesting.

In The Dead, the James Joyce story that Huston wanted to film for years, there is no great physical undertaking, as in The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or Moby Dick. Rather the movie is the account of a festive family dinner on a cold Dublin night in 1904, and the brief aftermath of the dinner, when a husband (Donal McCann) and wife (Anjelica Huston) wrestle with a painful memory—revived for her, heard for the first time by him.

The opening shot of the movie shows the street and the family house; snow falls outside, but through the windows we can see the glow of warmth inside, see the shadows of bodies moving past in dance, and hear the lilt of the music. This beautiful shot suggests the difference between outward and inner reality, and Huston guides the film from the soothing warmth of the dinner to the cool blue light of the final scene, when the husband and wife, so charming and responsible during the gathering, go on a spiritual search of themselves.

It is a quiet, subtle film; very little that is conventionally dramatic happens in its 83 minutes. The dinner sequences, in the soft rosiness of Fred Murphy’s cinematography, are full of minor incident: songs, recitations, the carving of a goose and the declaiming of a toast.

The dinner is not the only family affair going on in the film. Tony Huston, the director’s son, wrote the screenplay; Anjelica Huston previously worked for her father in Prizzi’s Honor.

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann are superb, as is every member of the Irish ensemble. Particular praise, though, to Donal Donnelly, as the nephew whose drunkenness cannot hide a good heart; Helena Carroll and Cathleen Delaney, as the sweet aunts who host the party; and Dan O’Herlihy, the veteran actor who plays the grand old man of “the other persuasion” (he’s a Protestant).

This film is one of those delicate works of art in which every little moment seems to carry an old master’s touch. Some images are unforgettable, such as Anjelica Huston standing on a stairway, listening to a song as her husband observes, apart and alone; or McCann watching snowflakes swirling around a lamppost like a gathering of memories. John Huston knew just how to tell his last story, and The Dead is an exquisite winter’s tale.

First published in the Herald, 1987.

The film is an example of a significant director who had the chance to go out on a just-exactly-right note. It is a challenge to write a newspaper review and try to convey in 530 words or so an outline of a career and an appreciation of the new movie, but every once in a while you have to hunker down and get it done. I feel pretty good about this one. The Dead is my #1 film for 1987, as arranged in my list here.


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