Spring Break

February 20, 2012

Yes, another one of these. The Eighties reviews will continue to roll on in two weeks, after a pause for a sea change.

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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.


Babette’s Feast

February 16, 2012

When Babette’s Feast won the Oscar for best foreign language film Monday, it seemed to surprise almost everybody, particularly presenter Faye Dunaway, who announced the winner with some shock. (The heavy favorite had been Louis Malle’s Au Revoir, les enfants.) But it wasn’t much of a surprise to careful watchers of that quirky category.

Because the voters in that category must actually see all the nominees before they vote, the film with the biggest reputation doesn’t always win (unlike, say, the best picture category). And Babette’s Feast, the first winner from Denmark, is such a wonderful movie that the upset win doesn’t seem like such an upset at all.

Babette’s Feast is based on an Isak Dinesen short story. I haven’t read that particular story, but the film beautifully captures Dinesen’s characteristic irony, melancholy, and sense of art-in-life.

The main characters are two lovely elderly sisters (Birgitte Federspiel, Bodil Kjer) living in a small fishing village on the lonely coast of Jutland, toward the end of the 19th century. In the first part of the film, we see flashbacks to their early lives, when each had a male visitor who disturbed the barren existence of the place. Each man departed after an exquisite and platonic friendship, the memory of which lasts vividly for all involved.

Many years later, one of the men is responsible for sending Babette (played by the incomparable French actress Stéphane Audran) to the sisters. Babette has lost everything in the political upheaval in France. Now she requires a place to stay, a haven in which she can pass the rest of her years in peace. In exchange, she will cook.

When, some years later, Babette wins a lottery prize and promises to mount a French feast for the spartan sisters and their church group, it launches the movie into its extraordinary final sequence, in which, to put it mildly, dinner is served.

Babette’s culinary opus turns out to be a dazzling aesthetic creation, a monumental cavalcade of turtle soup, quail, champagne, caviar, sherry, cheeses, fruit, cognac. Just before it unfolds, one of the long-ago suitors returns, now an old lion of a general (Jarl Kulle). He delivers a rapturous appreciation of the meal, which is matched by the satisfied grunts of the rumpled peasant who helps Babette in the kitchen.

No synopsis can convey the glow that emanates from this movie. Director-screenwriter Gabriel Axel gets all the richness out of the romantic memories that these characters have kept with them, and he presents the stupendous feast with all the choreographed care of a fantastically complicated, three-act (ten-course) ballet.

Which is exactly the approach Babette brings to it. When the sisters worry that Babette has spent all her lottery winnings on the feast, Babette insists, “An artist is never poor.” She’s right: If art is that which brings some measure of grace and beauty into the world, then Babette’s feast is a work of art—not just for the diners in the movie, but for the movie audience as well.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

There must be people who don’t like this movie. Give such people a wide berth. It’s a little too easy to describe it as a foodie film, and revival houses love selling the movie along with a similar meal. But it’s not about food, it’s about art, and that’s why it’s a classic.


Children of a Lesser God

February 15, 2012

Children of a Lesser God, the new film adapted from Mark Medoff’s Tony award-winning play, is vulnerable to criticism. There are a few moribund scenes that never spark. Structurally, the film seems lopsided, going on too long, and it appears to grope for a satisfactory ending.

And the solution to a key problem—one of the main characters does not speak, and her lines must be spoken by the other actors—does not quite ring true.

These are some of the movie’s problems. I mention them early, so I can get on with praising the film, because, for all its flaws, it contains scenes that are as stirring as anything I’ve seen on a movie screen this year.

Children of a Lesser God—the title is an evocative quote of Tennyson—begins with a teacher (William Hurt) arriving at a school for the deaf. (He has full hearing.) His unorthodox methods (he gets the kids’ attention by falling off his chair and standing on his head) don’t win him any friends among the faculty, but the children are clearly excited.

His big job is getting the youngsters to talk. These deaf children know they sound strange when they try to speak, and so they rely on their sign language, which Hurt believes will keep them in a social ghetto.

He runs into the same problem with a former student (Marlee Matlin) who now works at the school as a janitor. She’s completely deaf and fiercely anti-social, wanting merely to do her work and get through life, and she will not speak because she does not want to be embarrassed. She views with contempt Hurt’s efforts to get her to speak, assuming he is motivated by pity.

Before long he is motivated by something else entirely. They go on a date and she wants to dance. She can’t hear the music, but when she is on the dance floor, she moves to some sort of internal music, swaying alone, her eyes closed, moving with sensual grace. Hurt stands to one side, watching, dumfounded. He is falling in love.

With good reason; this intensely erotic scene introduces us to the depth of Matlin’s character. And she is the mainspring for the exploration of the developing relationship, which is unshirking and mostly free of cliché. You know how such a film would end if it were a TV movie: the “Miracle Worker” solution, where the principals tug and tussle and then the deaf woman speaks at the end. Embrace; fade to black.

Well, that’s not the way Children of a Lesser God plays it, and much credit to director Randa Haines (who, in fact, comes from television: “Hill Street Blues” and the TV movie Something about Amelia). Haines can also take credit for the exceptional level of acting, which carries the script over its rougher moments.

Most of the principals are hearing-impaired actors, making their first film appearances. Without exception, they are excellent. Much of the film’s dialogue is signed as well as spoken, and by the end of the film signing seems natural.

Hurt is one of our most important actors, and if he sometimes seems to be searching for his character during the film, he nevertheless contributes a powerful presence. Perhaps only Hurt would tackle the scene in which he tries to “show” Matlin a Bach concerto by interpreting it through movement.

But fine as Hurt is, he cannot match the incandescence of Marlee Matlin, a hearing-impaired actress for whom this is the first major role of any kind. The beauty of her performance has only slightly to do with her undeniable prettiness. This is the sort of performance where the actor communicates what can only be called a beauty of soul.

If there is any suspicion that these critical hosannas are unduly inflated by the actress’s triumph over her disability, I can only tell you to see the film. Matlin’s silent performance is one of the eloquent I have seen in years.

First published in the Herald, October 1986

Matlin won the Oscar for best actress, a choice with which I obviously concur. I’ve never seen it again, but obviously it caught me at the right moment. Hurt’s vagueness turned out to be a sign of things to come, even though he can still nail a role. Randa Haines does not have many credits since, although I have a soft spot for Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, a movie with a powerful sense of place (Florida) and two large turns by Robert Duvall and Richard Harris.


Places in the Heart

February 14, 2012

In 1964, Robert Benton left his position as contributing editor with Esquire magazine when he and his fellow editor finished writing a screenplay. It was the true (sort of) story of outlaws who cut a bloody swath across Texas—named Bonnie and Clyde—and when it was produced a couple of years later, it changed the way movies looked.

While not as revolutionary as, say, 2001, Bonnie and Clyde nevertheless brought a new kind of frankness to the American screen. It embraced controversy in its treatment of sex and violence, and its ambivalent attitude toward its criminal heroes. Its hip manner and stylized look (directed by Arthur Penn) carried the nervy techniques of the then-recent French New Wave of filmmaking (Benton and David Newman got the script to Francois Truffaut as director, although he passed) into mainstream commercial cinema.

Two decades have gone by, and Benton is now a director himself (with two Oscars under his belt, for Kramer vs. Kramer). And he’s back in Texas—in his home town of Waxahachie, in fact—with his new film, Places in the Heart.

What a different Texas this is from Bonnie and Clyde. In that film, the amoral heroes were glamorous. In Places in the Heart, set in 1935, there is no glamour. Just work, and fleeting pleasure, and hard times. Benton’s outlook now is gentler and wiser, but he’s not lost his bite. Some moments in Places in the Heart are shocking enough to make you jump.

It surveys the interconnected lives of a group of people struggling through an autumn season. Sally Field plays a recently widowed woman who tries to plant some cotton on her land to make enough money to pay off her bank loan, so she won’t lose her house.

Assisting her are her two children (Yankton Hatten and Gennie James) and a pair of misfits: a black drifter (Danny Glover) who knows cotton, and a surly blind man (John Malkovich) who rents her extra room.

The other main plot line involves Field’s sister (Lindsay Crouse), whose husband (Ed Harris) is having an affair (with Amy Madigan, who married Harris during the film’s shooting).

Some of the material here is well-worn: the threatened bank foreclosure, the widow on her own, the forces of nature bearing down on the characters. I’m not sure Benton overcomes the fact that rural drama of this kind—especially after last year’s Tender Mercies and Cross Creek—has a certain over-familiar feel.

But, finally, he does things his own way, and a fine way it is. The film is full of beautiful and terrible moments that linger on and cast a spell. A boy with a gun by the railroad tracks; a woman hiding from a tornado in a parked car; a car full of musicians, riding back from a dance, still crooning “Cotton-Eyed Joe” as they drive into the dawn.

The final sequence of Places in the Heart is the most remarkable, most moving bit of film I’ve seen this year. It underlines the extraordinary generosity of spirit that is behind this movie.

Earlier, we’ve heard the blind man listen to a talking book (an album of Trent’s Last Case) that begins with the words, “Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?” Certainly, watching the film, you start feeling that every moment matters in some way. Thus the lives of the characters come to seem precious. This makes the final sequence—in which the lives are tied together—powerful indeed.

First published in the Herald, September 1984

It won Oscars for Sally Field (this was the “You like me” acceptance speech) and Benton’s screenplay. It’s a strong movie with many wonderful moments, if maybe not a great movie—but whew, that final shot lifts it all up. I got to interview Benton a few years later (and then three more times, I think), and of course asked him about it. He says the final shot was technically very difficult to get, and he was ready to give up and divide it into separate shots, but went with one last attempt and got it. Which makes all the difference.


The Mission

February 13, 2012

The Mission is a big, serious film that’s very reminiscent of moral epics such  as Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and A Man for All Seasons. In other words, the kind of intellectual, ambitious film that was popular 20 or 30 years ago but has become scarce of late.

The direct connection between The Mission (which won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) and those earlier films is easy to identify: They were all written by Robert Bolt, who loves chasing after big moral dilemmas in exotic settings.

This time he’s in the South America of a bygone era of colonialism; specifically, deep in the jungle at a Jesuit mission that serves a remote tribe of Indians.

The first part of the film tells the story of a notorious slave trader (Robert De Niro) who kills his brother (Aidan Quinn) and feels desolate and suicidal afterward. He tells the Jesuit priest (Jeremy Irons) who visits that “There is no redemption for me.”

Irons disagrees. He believes in the triumph of the spiritual world, and suggests De Niro come to the mission to work and purify himself.

The journey to the mission is compelling: De Niro drags a collection of the relics of his past life—armor, weapons—behind him, as symbolic penance. When they arrive at the mission, the Indians, who might well have killed him on sight, accept him, and he settles into the life of a selfless Jesuit.

This is a strong sequence; but the rest of the film scatters its power. The central issue becomes a decision by the Spanish and Portuguese governments to alter their borders, thus exposing the Indians at the mission to slavery and annihilation. The emissary from the Catholic Church (Ray MacAnally) does nothing to stop this.

So, the Jesuits must decide. Do they disobey their church, takes arms, and fight? Or do they comply and let the Indians be slaughtered?

Bolt’s script is at once very ambitious and too simple. He skirts so many issues—the question of whether the Indians want Christianity in the first place, for instance—that the film pulls in a bunch of different directions, none satisfying.

And his two lead characters are almost embarrassingly symbolic: Irons, the man of obedience and belief; De Niro, the man of revolt and action. Their decisions are entirely expected, and not really illuminating.

Irons is fine, though not apparently challenged. De Niro’s work is curious. Since his dazzling performance in The King of Comedy, De Niro has taken a series of roles in which he seems bent on internalizing everything. The Mission continues this; he’s underplaying so intensely, if that doesn’t sound like a contradiction in terms, that it’s hard to discern what his character is about.

This is the kind of script that, back in Bolt’s salad days, might have been directed by David Lean. Now, it’s Roland Joffe, whose first film, The Killing Fields, suggested that he might be the heir to Lean’s tradition of big, studied, respectable films.

Joffe, like Lean, likes to work on a huge palette. Many of the grand scenes are impressive: the crowds, the intense close-ups of De Niro’s spiritual anguish, and most of all the waterfall that must be conquered each time a journey is made to the mission.

The single most striking image in the film is in the pre-credits sequence, which shows a priest strapped to a cross, thrown into the river by the Indians, then dropping eerily over the falls. That haunting, inexplicable scene is the height of the film’s ambiguity; in most other matters, the answers seem all too simple.

First published in the Herald, November 14, 1986

An Oscar prelude week here at What a Feeling!, with reviews of winners over the next few days. This movie won for Chris Menges’ cinematography—duh—and scored a bunch of nominations besides. It has meant something to people through the years, but cinematically exciting it’s not.


Mike’s Murder

February 10, 2012

Mike’s Murder was the title of a film that writer-director James Bridges (of The China Syndrome and The Paper Chase) shot sometime in 1982, starring the actress he had lifted to national prominence via her performance in Urban Cowboy: Debra Winger.

Mike’s Murder is also the title of a film that is finally being released in a few test markets around the country. It’s written and directed by James Bridges. It stars Debra Winger. But according to Hollywood whispers (and some published fact), this Mike’s Murder is far from the same film that Bridges and Winger conceived a few years ago.

Evidently, Bridges’ first version was a disjointed, stylized tale of a murder and drugs in Los Angeles. Its narrative was nonlinear; events skipped back and forth in time.

This was odd enough in itself, because Bridges has always been a pretty conventional director—sometimes irritatingly so.

There were also rumors that the subject matter of the film made some Hollywood people nervous. The source of this anxiety can be summed up in one word: cocaine. We’re always hearing that coke use is rampant in the movie and TV business, and it’s a subject that the industry would just like everybody to shut up about. Mike’s Murder is about petty cocaine dealers; might Bridges have been pursuing some allegory about drugs and their soul-stealing effect on the movie folk?

Maybe. We can’t know now, because this Mike’s Murder is a jumble of half-ideas, some of which may not have been so good in the first place. Bridges re-edited the film so that it moves in linear fashion, and some reports suggested that he had reshot new scenes. He also replaced Joe Jackson’s music (some songs remain) with a more traditional John Barry score.

The plot is slight: Betty (Winger), who works in a bank, runs into an old lover, Mike (Mark Keyloun), who has fallen onto hard times as a drug dealer. The old attraction is still there, though, and they arrange a date to meet.

He never makes the date—he’s murdered when he and his partner (Darrell Larson—a striking performance) try to double cross their rich clients. Betty then tries to find some kind of reason for Mike’s death.

The film moves in fits and starts—the re-editing process has apparently played havoc with whatever rhythms Brides was trying to achieve. It’s halfway over before it seems to get started, and even then never quite decides what it’s going to be. The final 20 minutes or so are particularly distasteful, as one character—who seemed rather interesting—terrorizes Betty in her house. The bigger fish get away, and the mystery remains unsolved.

Bridges, using lots of video screens and phone conversations, does get a sense of the disjointed, emotionally dead world of Hollywood. His cinematographer, Reynaldo (Risky Business) Villalobos, really captures the smoky texture of the city.

As for Winger, who is, apparently, responsible for the current test engagements, she is still one of the most exciting actresses in film. But her irrepressible emotionalism is almost getting to be stock. She has a wonderfully expressive face and voice, but she’s overusing her gallery of effects—a good director will turn her energy inward a little more (the better to save it for when it really counts). It would also be nice to see her tackle a brassier character—a la her hooker in the immediately forgotten Cannery Row—than the string of passive women she’s played of late.

First published in the Herald, September 25, 1984

Kind of a weird review; speculation about the cocaine angle, me giving questionable advice to Debra Winger. I interviewed Winger onstage once and found her bright and honest and personable, even while sitting around the green room for a rather long time beforehand. I admit I’m curious about what this movie might have been, even if the prospect of a James Bridges masterpiece seems a little far-fetched.